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No joke! US expat makes Swiss living from laughs

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No joke! US expat makes Swiss living from laughs
The poster for Sylvia Day's upcoming show 50 Shades of (Christmas) DAY! (left) and Day as 'Lady Dada', a spoof of Lady Gaga.
13:57 CET+01:00
American comedienne Sylvia Day, 45, gave up her communications job to move to Switzerland in 1995. Here, she tells The Local how she’s carved out an unlikely career in comedy — and how she uses improv to fight stress in the Swiss workplace.

What brought you to Switzerland?

I’m originally from the States but my father is Swiss, so I had a Swiss passport. I’d lived in Brussels as a child and dreamed of returning to Europe as an adult. So I just gave up everything, leaving a stable job in corporate communications, to follow my dream and move over here.

Eventually, I found a job in the same sector but I also started doing some acting and improvisation on the side.

What’s it been like integrating?

It took about three years for me to feel as if I was really at home here. The main thing is finding at least one good friend, because —  as an adult — it’s much harder to make friends. But once I’d made one really good friend, it just grew from there.

My mother, who’s from Brazil, didn’t speak German so we only spoke Portuguese and English in the home. This meant I had to learn German the hard way. And, given my background in communications and theatre – both of which are almost entirely language-based – that was the biggest challenge I faced.

How did you develop your acting career in Switzerland?

I’d already studied acting and improvisation in the States, and I soon became involved in an English-speaking theatre group here called the Zurich Comedy Club, doing straight plays. But I’d always wanted to do more improvisation, so I introduced that method to the group.

From there, I started to do my own performances and eventually set up my own company – Sylvia Day Productions.

Was it difficult to set up your own company?

It takes a lot of courage and self-confidence because you have to sell yourself all the time — it’s like constantly being in a job interview. Self-motivation is the hardest part.

I teach improvisation to everyone: non-actors, business people, children and those who simply want to use improvisation to improve their personal or professional lives.

In my opinion improv can improve someone’s life by teaching them basic and important communication skills in a fun, playful way. Often weaknesses that appear in an improv performance are the same ones people have in real life. It can be very eye-opening.

I’ve also started something called SMILE - Stress Management Improv Lunches for Everyone — where I go to a place of work and offer an hour workshop where people can laugh and let off their stress. It’s all in English, which is the corporate language in many international companies here.

Is improvisation common in Switzerland?

There’s some improvisation going on in the local languages, but I offer classes and performances in English.

What kind of comedy do you perform?

I do a lot of character comedy and different accents. Although I speak five languages now, I always perform in English because I feel that humour comes from within – and instinctive humour is best expressed in your mother tongue.

Some of my impressions include Julie Andrews, Sarah Palin, Cher and Lady Gaga (who I call Lady Dada). Often, I’ll ask the audience to give me a person to impersonate, and I’ll just improvise them right there and then.

When I perform, I want people to relate to things in my scenes. So I often do scenes about families, people in the workplace and especially in the corporate world. But even in my comedy sketches, there’s always a deeper meaning. My aim is to take the truth and find humour in it. I want to make people think through laughing: while they’re rolling in the aisles, they’re actually laughing because it’s true.

Who comes to your shows?

All kinds of people. Not just native English speakers. I’ve had Swiss, Italian, German, Danish, Swedish and Spanish people in the audience.

And you’ve got a Christmas show coming up? What does that involve?

50 Shades of (Christmas) DAY! is a sketch comedy/variety show that I wrote about the holiday season. Regardless of your religion or beliefs, we’re all affected by this season and the stress of it all. This is a fun way of coping with it.

How would you describe the Swiss sense of humour?

Swiss comedy is much more physical and slapstick.

In fact, one of the things I miss the most here is the English sense of humour. In English, we play much more with words — whereas German is such a literal language, which means there aren’t so many double meanings.

Sylvia Day will be performing on December 4th, 5th and 7th at the Boulevard Theater in Zurich. For more information click here. For tickets click here.

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