Nadia Ross is Talking to Chris Dupuis!

After the craziness of the FTA settled down, I had the chance to dialogue the Nadia Ross, Artistic Director of STO Union. I caught their new show 7 Important Things, the third section of the 'How Can We Live' trilogy, and decided to pose 7 Important Questions to Nadia about her work, why some people hate what she does, and interviewing piles of Kleenex.

Check it out!

For someone who has never seen it before, describe the aesthetic of your work.

Stark, primitive and restrained with a practical design. We try not to present work that has an iconic feel to it – something that must be submitted to. We try to create something more porous, which can be entered into. I am interested in the authentic, which appears imperfect and flawed from the perspective of ‘the Grand Performance/Well-made Play’, but, to me is much more beautiful.

What artists working in performance today are you inspired by? Can you speak a bit about what they do and how they have influenced you?

What happened to me was that I was hugely inspired for a couple of years when I was just starting out in the theatre, but then, just like an infatuation, the feeling faded. That being said, I love to see the work of Rimini Protokoll (Berlin). They use people from the general public and they really know how to frame each person so that they ‘come out’ beautifully. They also have a really nice sense for design. I just saw Raimund Hoghe at the FTA. He is the hunchback dancer/choreographer. There was something extremely vulnerable in his work, and, again, very restrained. He is a hunchback who threw himself into the dance. Just that was beautiful for me. But it was his restraint that was truly masterful. There are more companies, like Lone Twin in England… When I started out, it was Robert Wilson, Heiner Mueller, the Wooster Group. In Canada, I’ve always liked Daniel Brooks’ work for its elegance and intelligence. I like Darren O’Donnell (provocateur) and Jacob Wren (intelligent and eccentric), to name a few.

The first STO Union show I ever saw, I didn't like. The improvisatory nature of the performance left me feeling like the artists on stage hadn't put that much thought into what they were doing. It was only after seeing more of the company's work that I began to understand the careful choreography that goes into creating a work which gives off the energy of being improvisatory. How do you respond to audience members who, being unfamiliar with the way in which the company works, respond to your work like this?

In my experience, I’ve met some audiences that like to be taken away by a strong narrative and the perfect/repeatable performance. They like the feeling of having their minds and imaginations taken for a ride through a well-made illusion. That’s just their cup of tea and when it is well done, it is a great experience. Often, this is a cultural difference: audiences in Germany, for example, are more at ease with different kinds of work than audiences in other parts of the world.

For those who don’t know how to approach our work but our willing to try, I say to them that one of the best ways to connect with the work is to stay in the moment. I think that the struggle people may be having is that their minds are trying to connect the dots and make a traditional story out of what they are seeing. They want to make sense of things right away and to feel secure in the thought that the performer is not going to make any mistakes – is not going to be humiliated. They came to see something solid, perfect; they don’t want to be reminded of our humanness, and they don’t want to be brought into the present moment. They want to be taken over and not participate at some level. Some people hate the feeling of ‘not knowing’ – it feels a little bit like a kind of death. If one can relax enough into this kind of open system, they often find that they’ve ended up somewhere they didn’t expect. This happens because they’ve allowed themselves to become more vulnerable, because usually that is what comes with ‘not knowing’. The audience’s vulnerability touches us onstage, and we also become more vulnerable. A kind of intimacy can ensue: it is a tangible feeling in the room and it is really nourishing for humans to experience this kind of intimacy in a public setting.

One of the things I've seen in several of your works is a section in which the performers dance. At those moments, there was a certain feeling of relief that I experienced as an audience member, as if that was my opportunity to process the experience I'd just had during a dance-break. Why is it important to you to include that element in your work and what do you feel it brings to the audience?

Dance is just another kind of energy, one that has a ‘release’ feeling to it. Release is always good at some point in an evening, in my opinion. It’s healthy. It’s fun and, in our case, we like our dance to be entertaining. I like a bit of entertainment with my art.

In this specific show, I saw the melding of your lecture-style aesthetic with sections that functioned more like conventional play scenes. As an artist currently working on a project that involves this blend of different styles, I'm especially interested to know more about your process of combining the two, the impetus behind it, and any pitfalls or wrong turns you may have taken during the process.

I look for different types of performance acts. A lecture is a performance, a eulogy is a performance, a dramatic scene is a performance, a stand-up comedy act is a performance, etc. They all have their own rules and each has a certain flavor. I have no problem at all butting up two very different things against each other. That, to me, is when things get most interesting. The play becomes more like a score, than a story. So I approach it a bit more like music. The music of 7 Important Things is jaded, has sharp edges – a kind of broken melody. So the sections that I use are meant to create this kind of discord: a beautiful song that has been somehow broken; it is similar to how the main character has experienced life.

The greatest pitfall, which applies to all kinds of processes, is the one where the director is only seeing what he/she wants to see and not what is really there. Because we don’t work from an already written play, there is more chance for this kind of delusion to enter the process. For example, Jacob Wren, Tracy Wright and I spent an afternoon working on an interview section where we interviewed different piles of Kleenex – anthropomorphizing piles of tissue paper. We were having a lot of fun so it was tempting to think that the work was good. But, we came to our senses. A German director I was training under years ago used to repeat: ‘don’t be stupid, you are stupid enough’. Another German who I study meditation with says: “when the animal is ready, slaughter it’. A third German I worked with used to say: “You can only do good work when you know where you come from”. The same director would also repeat to me: ‘don’t be afraid of not-knowing what to do” And, a final quote from another German director I studied with at school: “avoid doubling” (i.e. indicating).

This show is based on the life of a real person, as I believe some of your previous works have been. Can you talk about the process of creating a work that is based on a living human being who is part of the process? Are there certain challenges associated with that that are different from, for example, creating a show about someone who is dead or that you've never met before?

7 Important Things is the last of the 'How Can We Live' trilogy. For these three plays, I was interested in a process that I’ve seen over and over again in meditation groups, and which I find riveting. This is a process where someone who is blocked, who doesn’t know how to proceed, goes in front of a group and just reports what is happening in their body, their mind and their emotions. They catch a kind of thread that they begin to follow, simply by reporting what is actually happening now. The thread is by no means a traditional narrative, but it is most definitely engaging as a story, one that is made up of bits and pieces that eventually form a whole. By observing this thread, things start to shift. The thread leads the person to some truth about themselves or their lives that they are resisting or a delusion that is making them sick. The moment they can finally see it, than the entire story takes a different turn: things open up, the sun comes out, space occurs. Their awareness is finally able to see what they’ve been avoiding because they’ve been present, moment to moment, following and reporting their inner states as they shift, as opposed to leading or controlling what is happening to them. In the vast majority of cases, the trajectory goes from suffering because of a delusion, meeting up with the resistance to seeing the delusion, experiencing the resistance openly, things shifting naturally because they’ve been seen, and the letting go into unknown territory: the empty space that the illusion was defending against.

With the trilogy, I was experimenting with this basic process and its potential applications for the theatre. George Acheson, the central figure in 7 Important Things, was willing to bring his own life to the process. The main challenge I faced is that George doesn’t really agree with the process that I’ve outlined above. So, he wasn’t willing to really ‘go there’. That created a similar discord that I had with Jacob Wren when we created ‘Revolutions in Therapy’. Jacob doesn’t really see much value in the meditation stuff that I am so interested in. So, this kind of opposition was integrated in the work, which makes the work more complex. It polarizes it, which I like. I like that because it then offers audiences a choice: they can become polarized (like/dislike) or they can see if they can ‘hold both sides’ and not ‘choose’. That, for me, was the answer to the Trilogy’s question.

What is the space that you see performance occupying within our contemporary TV watching, Internet-surfing, DVD-renting culture? More specifically, if an artist wants to create in performance, what do you think they need to do that differentiates their work from the world of increasingly accessible digital entertainment?


I have heard it said that Theatre is version 1.0, TV is version 2.0, film is version 3.0 and video games are version 4.0 of the ‘observer/observed’ fictionalized experience. In some ways I feel a kinship with people who do traditional crafts, like quilting or looming. I think that it’s important to keep the traditions of the theatre alive during times when it is not very popular. I also think it’s important to continue to experiment with it. It has the potential of revealing the shared human experience in a tangible way, because it involves the body and real time and actual space. I believe that to be reminded of our shared experience is really important for the health of our communities. So, to me, the aspect of sharing is key, as is actual spaciousness. The other mediums you mention above don’t involve much actual, real space. They also have elements of sharing, but to a different, and often lesser degree. They tend to re-enforce a kind of me-ness. The benefit of the shared experience is that it offers the chance to not feel that me-ness for a brief moment. It is actually a relief. In my experience, the release from me-ness reveals a space of incredible potential.

1 comment:

Gina Readman said...

Hi there. I am trying to track down a copy of Nadia Ross' "The Alistair Trilogy". I found "Breeding Drum Majors" in "Rhubarb-O-Rama!", but can't find the full trilogy. Alternately, could you please pass along my contact info to Nadia with a request that she email me? I am a BFA student at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC and I'm currently looking for a one-act to direct at school. Thank you! Gina Readman ginareadman@gmail.com