Magnetic North Keynote Speech/Industry Series
Presented on June 8th, 2009 in Ottawa Canada.
by Nadia Ross
This is a shortened version of the original speech. The text was edited by George Acheson, STO Union’s associate artist.
Welcome. This is a room filled with people who work in one form or another, in the theatre. We may work in many different ways and understand the theatre to be many different things. But no matter what ‘kind’ of theatre we work with, my feeling is that we need this space and time together to remind ourselves that we are not alone in our commitment to the Creative in these precarious economic/cultural times.
To start off with I will show a short video that gives an overview of the work I’ve been engaged with in the last years, since many of you have no idea who I am and what STO Union has been producing. After the video, I will speak a bit and then open it up to everyone, giving us more time than what is traditionally allotted.
STO Union’s working process has been an ‘open system’, where all the elements of a play grow concurrently, starting from nothing. The vision is not about the final result but rather the vision lies in the process. My quest was to find a way to be open enough to the chaos of a work in progress in order to hear what IT was saying, as opposed to saying what I wanted to say. It is a system that requires a letting go of the outcome until it naturally evolves. It’s about listening and being receptive to external promptings. It’s having faith that it will evolve and will be more sublime than translating a personal fantasy into reality.
Working in this way is a response to a deep desire that I have to be ‘free’: I don’t like structures imposed onto me and yet, I want to be free of the feeling of not-knowing or of being out of control. So I create or adopt structures to reassure myself. But then, I want to be free from subservience, from the constraints of daily life, from anything that might hold me back or limit me- I want to be free from the very structures that were meant to reassure me. This building up of structures and tearing down or modification of structures is a kind of drama in itself.
A German theatre critic told me the story of one of the highlights of her career. She went to see a play in Afghanistan. At the end of the performance, the audience erupted in so much joy at the fact that a play was actually occurring that they all ran onstage, dancing. An old system that was meant to provide order and safety was pierced through. Something that was previously forbidden in the name of stability was allowed to see the light of day. The old order was being challenged, and it that moment, had been transgressed.
In my work, my concern has been about this impetus towards freedom and its consequences: the building of structures and rules meant to improve our lives and the subsequent dismantling of these structures and rules because, at some level, they don’t work. My interest has been in what motivates this human drama, or you can call it a comedy, depending on your perspective on things.
As an artist, I was naturally interested in the history of art as it relates to transgressing boundaries in the name of more freedom, and, on the other hand, its function of affirming of boundaries in the name of societal stability.
The 20th century Break with Tradition
The banal becomes Art: Art becomes banal
The 20th century saw many boundaries being breached. In the West, the 20th century saw us break with many of the ties that linked us to the past, to tradition. On my mother’s side, my ancestors arrived in Nouvelle France in 1754 and settled in Kamouraska. There are generations of people in that line who understood the land in Quebec, the climate, who knew how to build houses and grow things. My great grandfather was an expert in grafting fruit and created a new apple, the Wolf apple, in honor of his farm in Riviere du Loup. At some point in my Mother’s generation in the 20th century, all of this knowledge was lost to me.
My husband Rob tells the story of his family, five generations of farmers from north of Toronto in the Caledon hills, and of his father’s decision to join the army just so that he could get off the farm. One day, as his grandfather stood in the fields working, his father, now a pilot, flew his plane so close to the field, his grandfather felt he could touch it.
In art, a significant break with tradition happened as well, exemplified by Marcel Duchamp in his 1917 art piece called ‘the fountain’, a urinal he displayed at an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists.
His ‘Fountain’, shocked the art world in 1917. Almost a century later, Fountain was selected in 2004 as “the most influential artwork of the 20th century” by 500 renowned artists and historians”
This ‘readymade’ art piece had the effect of bringing art down from its high realm, from its position of being a bridge between the human mundane world and the divine world. From this moment on, there was no difference between art and the rest of the world.
There was no more sacred order or hierarchy – it was all perspective. If a urinal could be art, than so could anything else. This was and still is outrageous to many people. There is a still ongoing cry that the world is degenerating since transgressing this higher order; that the world is leaning towards the barbaric, where people throw paint at walls and grunt out loud, also known as modern art and rock & roll.
What fueled these transgressions, in my opinion, was the proliferation of new technologies and the awesome discoveries made by science. Technology during this time brought to the world completely new mediums: photography and film. These new mediums had a serious impact on all of the arts, one that we are still grappling with.
The end of Social consensus: the symbolic order in crisis.
The 20th century threw our collective symbolic order into crisis. The known, the long-standing rules went out the window. Symbols were, at their essence, empty. The medium of the Theatre, a medium whose function had been to reaffirm the symbolic order, began to change.
The theatre had to grapple with this loss of order. For many of us, it affected everything we did in the medium: how we write, how we perform, how we create in this medium.
Many people saw this loss of the symbolic order as a horrible thing. For much of the 20th century, the ‘avant-garde’ was blamed for this loss. But, in my opinion, it was not the avant-garde’s ‘fault’. They just picked up on a shift that was already underway and brought to light the fractures in the social fabric that were already there. Then they considered the new possibilities that such a crisis might open up.
What began as an attempt for more freedom, to tear the veil off the mysterious, to bring down the sacred order in order to be free of its hierarchy, to name and depict God and bring God to earth, had many consequences. Once God was brought down to earth, the heavens came with him. No longer was there a place after death that would be better than here. There was no escape from this world, no other place, no better place. But so desperate are we for freedom, our need for Heaven, now no longer pointing towards another world, that the vacuum had to be filled by something.
The satisfaction of needs, the lynchpin in modern capitalism, held the promise of more freedom for all, through a kind of promised paradise on earth. If God could no longer provide us with the freedom we desired, then maybe the markets could. “Man is ever more powerfully the producer of every detail of his world”, the translator of his personal fantasies into reality, as long as he can afford it. But the closer his life comes to being his own creation, the less receptive he becomes to the world around him, to reality itself.
In the past, there were things and roles that were either too sacred or too essential to the public good for survival to be considered business opportunities. They were protected by tradition or public regulation. These places that were sacred were slowly being eroded from public life, due to pressure from market forces.
This process of relinquishing things that were previously too sacred or too essential to be considered business opportunities, is ongoing. I was able to witness first-hand some of the effects of this process, particularly in the mid-nineties in Toronto.
There was so much fear in the air in Toronto 1995: the conservatives had taken power in Ontario; they called it “The Common Sense Revolution”. Social and arts funding were cut, and, at the same time, pillars of a number of different artist communities in Toronto were dying from AIDS. It went from a vital community that was exploring different mediums and putting out a lot of creative force, to a wounded community, emptied out and afraid.
In response to this fear, art councils began a shift in funding priorities towards creating ‘sustainable’ institutions. There was no saving these institutions solely through public will anymore. The tone was shifting in all areas that were previously separated from the market, such as art, religion and government, going from ideas around Governance and Vision and moving towards a model of Management and Marketing. The sacred places that were once protected were now being dismantled, in my opinion, from the inside, from the very people whose intention was to save it. It was done out of good intention, I’m sure. But there was a kind of resignation to the market, a capitulation to it. There was a kind of sense that artists should no longer be exempt from market forces: everybody else had to contend with them, so why should the artist be special, be kept apart from these forces? If the work was ‘good enough’, then the market would agree and then the work would be supported. It was an amazing thing to see how easily the idea of private/public partnerships was embraced, how easily the idea of branding was embraced, how quickly the last vestiges of art as somehow sacred fell. The boundary between the sacred and the profane had been breached decades before – it was an exciting moment – and decades later we could witness the continued deterioration of this order.
I’ve had the privilege of touring the world with STO Union shows and I can report that very profound questions are being asked in all different parts of the world. We are asking ourselves: how can we live in this world and sustain it? Can we live in this world and tolerate different points of view in a peaceful way? Is there enough food and water for all of us? Have we done irrevocable damage to the planet? How do we feel about the fact that our Western way of life has been possible only because we’ve used people in other parts of the world for their cheap labor? Have we overstepped some kind of final boundary in our quest for more freedom?
Here we are, simple human beings, thrown into a complex world that we feel we can’t control. For centuries, we’ve created systems and forms that would soothe us, societal rules that would govern us, taboos that drew lines in the sand, warnings of where not to go. The structures we humans create are, in some way, doomed to fail. There are always so many forces at play – too many to control – for us to be able to point the finger at one thing and blame it for our ills, or to believe that our actions can make the world a better place.
A friend of mine went to Costa Rica where he met a woman who had decided to build a butterfly sanctuary, as a way of ‘helping’ the world. She had huge windows at the sanctuary so that she could see the butterflies. The problem was that the parrots would fly into the windows and fall to the ground, at which point her dogs would tear them to pieces. There were simply too many forces at play to be able to control and to hammer into a human’s vision of paradise.
So, maybe now, we’ve reached a kind of limit. But what is fascinating about this limit and particularly exciting for artists, is that this limit is not man-made. It is not a structure that we’ve created. As I see it, this ‘limit’ is something that has always united us.
What actually may bond us, the one thing we all share is the vastness of what we don’t know. I don’t know what the next moment holds and I don’t know how I will react to the next moment. We all experience not-knowing and uncertainty, and theatre people experience it a lot – we can repeat the same words every night, repeat actions and movements, but we can’t predict what will happen: we can’t predict if we’ll feel nervous, if a lighting cue will or won’t work, if the audience will react warmly or indifferently. And every night is different. In this sense, we, as theatre people, by necessity find our own relationship to not knowing.
Part of the job of the artist is to make form out of chaos. In order to do that, artists spend time with chaos, acknowledge it, and become receptive to it. The job of getting out of the way so that the Muse can visit us and speak is humbling. And it is not so much what we bring back from the unknown that is important, or what the Muse says, it is the fact that we have enough inherent trust to let go, to get out of the way, to experience our own personal will disintegrating and being replaced by a larger force.
It is the uncertainty of our times that is the gold of the artist. Uncertainty is a fissure, a crack in the wall – it is the entry point to the whole. This is what the artist was designed to do: to go through the fissure, to go towards the uncertainty and to do this in full trust that we’ve got nothing to lose. Duchamp went through a fissure at the beginning of the last century – the uncertainty of that time, the crumbling structures of that time. Our time has its own openings; structures are crumbling all around us.
By honoring theatre with a festival we are honoring the Muses and we are allowing the public to come and gather and to collectively get their minds out of the way so that they too may have the chance to open up to the unknown. Our job here at this gathering is to create for the public the kind of creative space where they can enter the chaotic unknown and be replenished by it, where they can feel enough trust to let go of the relentless need to be ‘in charge’. It is a privilege to be part of the creation of such a space.
If there is anything I can impart to you, from my experience, is that all of the great things that have happened to STO Union and to myself, all of the international touring, the fact that we were able to survive with minimal funding, the great collaborative relationships that grew out of the vision of the company – all of these things I did not make happen. I could tell you story after story about how luck or fate or whatever you want to call made the thing happen. If I have learned anything from the last two decades of working in this medium it is really this: there has always been something else in charge of how things happened and it wasn’t another person or an institution or a government agency. So my lesson has been to let go of my illusion that I made this happen and to, over time, trust how things unfold and to let things move the way they naturally are moving.
In closing, I want to thank you and thank whatever forces at play that gave me this privilege, that has given all of us this privilege, to spend our lives in this ancient and powerful art form.
An Interview between Chris Dupuis and Nadia Ross, May 2008.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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 are 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.
4. 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.
5. 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).
6. 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, then 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.
7. 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.
Short Note on Process:
The challenges that we bring to the stage are universal: from dealing with loss to the numerous struggles with identity; from the yearning for love to the desire to control one’s environment. We use the public forum to explore these struggles. As we see it, the theatre is a place where the public comes together to witness life. By applying our collective awareness on performers as they navigate through our stories, the public is witness to the process of transforming ignorance into awareness (“you can’t un-see what you’ve seen”). When the witnessing public is engaged in the process, then they too may experience a change in consciousness along with the performers onstage.
Our lives appear to us as stories. These stories are mysterious and complex. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are what hold us in place and separate us from each other and the world, and they are what bring us together. As entertaining and exciting as a story may be, it still remains that story is the source of suffering and joy. STO Union brings our stories to the point of disintegration, revealing what lies behind narratives: space void of content*. In a sense, STO Union’s work is both a new beginning for the theatre and also its demise, as we see the theatre as a place which says it all.
Our plays are best approached moment by moment, they are live, and that is a nice place to be.*(suggested reading on this topic: *The Empty Space” by Peter Brook)