February 11, 2013

Judith Rudakoff: Dramaturging Performance Outside the Box

Judith Rudakoff Judith Rudakoff
Photo: Christopher Gentile

When people ask me what I do, I often have to take a moment and reflect. What am I doing today is an easier question to answer. In my professional artistic work (I am a produced playwright, but focus primarily on the developmental dramaturgy of other artists’ work), I work on projects with a variety of theatre-makers from different traditions, sometimes in Canada and other times in geographical locations as distant as Cuba or South Africa. One of my projects, Common Plants, linked work created by people on four continents across five time zones through a website “venue” (www.yorku.ca/gardens).

Trans(per)forming Nina Arsenault

In July and August 2012, I worked with Canadian transgender artist Nina Arsenault to develop and present her installation titled 40 Days and 40 Nights: Working Towards a Spiritual Experience for Toronto’s Summerworks Festival. The dramaturgy for this work was specific to the way Nina and I work together, a process we’ve evolved over twenty years of collaboration. Nina, first as Rodney Arsenault, was a student in my series of undergraduate playwriting courses. Then after graduating with a BFA, and beginning her transition, Nina became one of my MFA students in the Playwriting programme (a programme which is, unfortunately, now under review and on long term hiatus).

Since then, Nina and I have worked professionally as a playwright-dramaturg team on such critically and popularly acclaimed productions as The Silicone Diaries, and I Was B@rbie. I also conceived, edited and contributed a chapter to a book about Nina’s life as a work of art called TRANS(per)FORMING Nina Arsenault: An Unreasonable Body of Work (Intellect Books, Bristol UK 2012).

What, you may ask, is a dramaturg? On their website (www.lmda.org) the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas delineates the fluidity of this important job thusly:

Over the past three decades, the role of the dramaturg and literary manager has expanded in the United States and Canada alongside the increasing importance of contemporary playwriting. Working in theatres and playwrights’ organizations, in colleges and universities, and on a project-by-project basis, dramaturgs contextualize the world of a play; establish connections among the text, actors, and audience; offer opportunities for playwrights; generate projects and programs; and create conversations about plays in their communities.

In the ecology of theatre-making, dramaturgs and literary managers forge a critical link between artists and institutions, and institutions and their communities. They work with their other artistic collaborators to hone their vision, focus their goals and find outlets for their creative work on new and classical plays and dance pieces.

Dramaturgs and literary managers serve the field as experts on our dramatic past and as advocates for writers of today and the important work of the future.

Nina Arsenault performs Forty Days and Forty Nights Nina Arsenault Performs “Forty Days and Forty Nights
Photo by Danilo Ursini

For 40D and 40N, Nina and I discussed research on a wide variety of topics including ritual from different cultures and eras, magic, transformation, all of which, filtered through her artist’s gaze, entered into the creative mix that made up this show. I also interviewed her about her most recent cosmetic procedure (to transition from male to female and to alter some of her features to beautify and feminize, Nina has had over 60 surgeries at a cost of approximately $250,000), a facelift which her doctor in Guadalajara, Mexico permitted her to experience in a state of waking anaesthesia, wearing make-up. This interview was then transcribed by one of my fourth year dramaturgs, Amy Bowman, and became, with some dramaturgical editing, part of the performance element of the installation as a theatricalized telling of the story.

Nina Arsenault performs
Photo by Danilo Ursini

40D and 40N was open to the general public for a ten day period during the Summerworks Festival. After the prior thirty days of periods of meditation, fasting, sleep and light deprivation, Nina inhabited a pop-up space on Queen Street West near Dovercourt, in a storefront location emblazoned with a neon sign declaring “The Whore of Babalon”. Over the ten performance sessions, she began public interaction at dusk, at around 9 pm, and continued until dawn, when she retired to sleep or rest or exercise. During the ten days of public interaction, Nina created and enacted rituals, performed the story of her waking facelift, granted consultations, re-created her own version of American performance artist Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present” engagement with spectators, drew on the walls of the space, and shared meditations with audience members individually and in groups.

During the run of the show, Nina asked me to email her my description of the piece. I wrote in response “In 40D and 40N, the exploration of the body as home was part of an ongoing ritual investigation: if the constructed vessel, the body, is home, how does the inner, authentic Nina house herself in it? How does the living home nurture, challenge, cradle, even reject the being living within it?” Nina then inscribed these words on the wall of the space, incorporating my process work in to her creative outcome as audience members were able to read and react to my thoughts. In this way, my usually invisible, behind-the-scenes discussions with the playwright became integrated into the actual performance!

Performing the body created the need for a specific type of dramaturgical development process and support for the artist. As with all my dramaturgy projects, I am happy to have had the opportunity to stretch the boundaries of my practice even further.

From LMDA’s website: What Does a Dramaturg Do? (www.lmda.org)

Help develop the mission
Help plan the season
Help look for scripts

Solicit scripts from writers and agents
Read and evaluate new scripts
Track and file those scripts
Write kindly letters to writers whose script we won’t be producing
Negotiate with agents
Prepare adaptations and translations
Commission new work
Organize the in-house play reading program
Organize the new play reading program for subscribers
Help bring new plays into full production
Support those writers whose vision captures our minds and hearts

Locate drafts and versions
Collate, cut, track, edit, rewrite, construct, and arrange
Secure permissions to use copyrighted material
Find songs, pictures, stories, videos
Help the designer do the research
Help the director do casting
Help the marketeers and developers
Seek and present pathways into the world of the play
Gather and arrange images, sounds, and ideas for rehearsal
Explore and present: the world of the play
the author of the play,
the script’s production history,
the relevant criticism
Conceive the forms of the script as a script
Conceive the forms of the play as it grows
Stay on course when all goes well
Maintain the calm when all goes ill
(as it will)
Create the lobby display
Love the work

Establish relationships with local educators
Help them use theatre to support their curricula
Prepare study guides
Develop production web sites
Write and edit program materials
Organize and lead pre- and post-show discussions
Plan and lead seminars and symposia

Affirm the function,
Explore the practice, and
Promote the profession of
dramaturgy and literary management.
Nourish the arts wherever we find them:
in schools,
in communities,
and around the world.