What we talk about when we talk about crisis

“As a theatre artist, it just makes sense to explore the thing that scares you,” says Elsewhere playwright and performer Joy Ross-Jones.

Photo by Ronaldo Schemidt. 

“A crisis isn’t a crisis when it is Elsewhere.”

So reads the line on Imago Theatre’s website about Elsewhere, playwright and performer Joy Ross-Jones’ original work about Venezuela, a country that is often in the news but about which North Americans understand very little — not that it’s a simple thing by any estimation.

Case in point: Yesterday, Jan. 23, Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido swore himself in as interim president, and various members of the international community, including the United States and Canada, have recognized the legitimacy of Guaido’s government. Some see this is as a consequence of the various crises Ross-Jones created Elsewhere to discuss and explore; others see it as nothing less than interference in a country’s sovereign independence; and others still are much more cynical about the development, suggesting that Venezuela’s situation will no doubt be worsened by American oil and gas interests and Canadian mining interests.

Last week, I spoke to Ross-Jones and director Cristina Cugliandro about the show, which is probably best described as something between a labour of love and a labour of responsibility.

Dave Jaffer: Joy, this is a very personal show and has to do with a lot of specific aspects of your personhood. Maybe we can start from there. What is this show?

Joy Ross-Jones: This show, it definitely is personal. It’s that thing where the personal is the political. I’m a Venezuelan-Canadian born and raised in Venezuela, and as I was growing up, the political situation began really declining. In 2013 it exploded, or imploded, with an economic crisis that has shifted the way people live really drastically. So this play is exploring how six people — five of whom are living the crisis, one of whom is outside, here in Canada — how they are living through this and what tactics they are using to survive the day-to-day world.

DJ: Usually when we say things like “survive the day-to-day” we’re using it in an everyday, quotidian sense, like “How do you survive your day-to-day?” “Oh, I use my Headspace meditation app and I drink a lot of water.” Here, we’re talking literally about how people are surviving a situation. As a Venezuelan-Canadian who’s from there and who lives here, you have a perspective about this that others don’t, or can’t. Can you talk about how this perspective works in Elsewhere?

JRJ: The character who’s living here who’s most like me is surviving [the crisis] in an emotional sense. She carries the weight of the political and social situation in her, and for her, she’s processing it with various things. She’s angry about it, she needs to talk about it, she’s getting it off her chest. In a way she’s confessing things. And when you get to the characters who are living in the country, there’s one whose survival is much more precarious than others. I don’t want to give too much of the character’s story away, but the characters who are living in the country are a former beauty queen, a cop, a homeless man, a grandmother and a protester. So those archetypes really drive what they do and how they do it.

DJ: Where did this come from? How long has this taken to put together? I think there’s a habit to think of intensely personal shows as this lifelong process — “I’ve been working on this show for ten years!” — but it’s not always the case.

JRJ: Three years ago, a friend was like, “You should do a show about what’s happening in Venezuela.” And I didn’t want to at all. I found it to be the scariest topic that I could potentially delve into. But when things started getting so bad, it was hard to turn my attention away from it, and as a theatre artist, it just makes sense to explore the thing that scares you. So I asked Cristina, right from the get-go, to collaborate on this project with me. We had no idea what it was going to be at that point. It was just, “we need to do a show about what’s happening in Venezuela.” We officially made the decision to embark in September 2016. We spent a few months researching and playing with different ideas of theatrical forms that we could use before deciding it would be a mask show. In June of 2017 we did a Fringe production, which was a workshop production to test out the content and see what needed to shift. And then we did another phase of creation, workshopping — Odd Stumble, the production company, won the Most Promising Company award that the Segal [Centre] gives at the Fringe — so we used the time that they give us as part of the award in their space, to test out new design concepts and rework the script based on all the new things that have happened in Venezuela up to that point.

DJ: Joy has a direct and personal connection to this material; Cristina, you have a very personal and direct connection to the show. What is your relationship with this material?

Cristina Cugliandro: I’m also a sociopolitical theatre artist, so anything that is [a story] talking about anything happening in the world is what most of us do do. In terms of Venezuela, this is about a country that had everything you could possibly desire and fell from grace. What’s interesting to me, to explore, and to talk about with people, and to present and share with people, is that this can happen anywhere. We often feel very safe and we never think it’s going to happen and then we’ve seen country after country that have been very rich countries, very prosperous countries, have a government come in that tears everything apart, pretty much. Or changes the makeup of the country, and the political systems. And it can happen quite quickly. From my perspective, it was a lot of things: it was the subject matter, it was the fact that Joy asked me to work on this with her, it was devising and creating from an idea but pretty much from scratch.

DJ: How is this work representative of something new and bold and something very necessary both in the Montreal theatre scene but also the Canadian theatre scene?

CC: I think the more we give place to artists who are constantly engaged but also interested in practicing all kinds of different forms —for Elsewhere it is a mask show — and how those artists use a form, play with it, and experiment with it. I think that’s where art grows. Anything can be great if it’s done well. But it’s really in the exploration of what different forms can do and the will to play and just experiment with that, and think through it.

DJ: How do you create a work like this that isn’t didactic, that doesn’t bore the audience by trying to teach them about a subject rather than presenting it as a piece of art? How do you talk about something that’s happening in the world without talking about it?

JRJ: In a way, the characters each embrace the fact. They’re drawn to talk to the audience. It’s audience direct address with no fourth wall the whole time. So in a way it kind of embraces the fact that these characters feel compelled to tell their stories. Like, I’m looking people in the eye and telling them directly. So there’s that side of things. But I believe we’re doing a very good job of making it [not like] you’re reading an essay. This isn’t an article. This isn’t a political exposition on the country. Because each [character] is speaking from a place of vulnerability and speaking from [a place of] “what is my lived experience?” Not “what is happening” but more “how is this affecting me?” ■

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Elsewhere runs January 24–27 at Centaur Theatre (453 St. François-Xavier). For more information or to purchase tickets, go here.