The May/June issue of Theatre Bay Area magazine includes a feature by Sara Felder titled “Juggling the Truth: True and Semi-Factual Confessions in Solo Performance.” We’re pleased to present a number of Felder’s interviews with her fellow Bay Area solo performers that went into the article.
Nina Wise is known for her provocative and original performance works. Her pieces have garnered seven Bay Area Critics' Circle Awards, and she has received, among other prestigious honors, three National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. She lives in San Rafael.
“Tell the Truth as Best One Can”
Nina Wise, interviewed by Sara Felder through email, March 2, 2012.
How do you pick the themes for your shows?
I create scripted solo work, and I also improvise an autobiographical and physical performance form called Motion Theater, which I created over many years of investigating the integration of spontaneous movement, sound and language (or what I call “writing on your feet”). Motion Theater also has duet, trio and ensemble forms. And my scripted work isn’t always for solo performance. But for the sake of this interview, I’ll focus on solo work.
For both my scripted and improvisational performance works, I choose themes that are “up for me” right now; issues that are of vital importance to my own well-being and that also relate to what I consider to be of vital importance to the well-being of others. Over the past two years or so, I’ve been performing a solo improvised work called “What Just Happened,” in which the content of the work is based solely on what has occurred in the previous 24 hours of my life. Chekhov evidently said that any good novelist should be able to create a novel based on a day in his/her life. Because the present contains the past in myriad ways, each incident of a day reveals a series of incidents from the past.
What I enjoy about these performances is that what happens to me in a day is also in part what has happened to others who are in the audience. For instance, if the bridge is closed and I have to detour into the city or slog my way through interminable traffic, in telling the story of my experience, I am also telling the story of an experience others have shared or heard about. And this experience can open up into issues about my carbon footprint and global climate change, my having recently purchased a car that gets 40 miles to the gallon, my relationship with Irving, the car salesman, the stories he told me about his wife, etc. I find it thrilling to work with material that is not only a part of my own life but is also a part of the lives of so many of my audience members.
Is it important for you that your shows are based on actual events? Do you think it’s important to your audience that your show is based on actual events?
I tend to work with actual events because most of my work is either autobiographical, built from stories others have told me, or in the case of my most recent scripted piece, “The Kepler Project,” about an historical character. I don’t think it is at all important that solo work be based on actual events. David Cale, for one, creates brilliant solo work that is fictional, as does Lily Tomlin and a host of others. But if one is to work primarily from the imagination, the work must be as compelling as the true stories of a person’s life. I often find with my students that their true stories are much more interesting than the ones they make up. When creating either fictional or nonfictional work, the challenge is to tell the truth as best one can, and sometimes fiction allows the author/performer to tell the truth more accurately than nonfiction, sometimes not.
Who is your audience? What have been their reactions to the show?
Because I create custom designed work, I have a variety of audiences. Last week, I did a performance for the Threshold Foundation, a group of wealthy individuals who share progressive ideals and come together to pool their resources to create a more just, joyful and sustainable world. The audience consisted entirely of members of the foundation. At the Marsh, my performances are generally attended by individuals interested in original theatre. In June, I performed at TEDx San Francisco, and the audience was composed of people in the tech world and those interested in cutting-edge intellectual thought. I’ve performed for the Rainforest Action Network, the International Rivers Network, Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Zen Center, the Shivas Iron Society (golfers), the International Transpersonal Association and Kaiser Permanente, among a host of other presenters. The audiences vary greatly. “The Kepler Project” was performed at Morrison Planetarium and was attended by those interested in avant-garde theatre as well as people interested in astronomy and the history of science. In fact, 20 astronomers from NASA attended. The reaction to my work has been very positive because in part because the work tends to be funny, moving and relevant to the lives of those in the audience.
Can you talk about the role of humor in your work?
I adore being funny. It’s as if a secret comedienne comes to life when I hit the stage. The humor emerges from both the content of my narrative (I rely on irony a good deal, casting an ironic eye on the experiences of my day) and the physicality of the narrative (I move in odd ways). Movement adds a layer of meaning to the narrative that language can never achieve. Nonverbal expression can speak directly to the heart rather and bypass the intellectual mind, surprising people into a response and a resonance. Sound is also an element I use to express meaning, and the combination of movement and sound is particularly strange and funny. However, while I utilize humor a great deal in my work, I don’t rely on humor as the main style of narrative delivery. I turn on a dime from funny to poignant, from comedy to drama. Often audience members remark that they were moved from laughter to tears without knowing how I achieved that transformation. Audiences love to laugh and I often begin my performances with humor. It is a way to soften the crowd, build trust with the audience and create a felt relationship with them. But once I have them “on my side,” I tend to launch into narratives that are more unsettling and moving. It is this combination of humor and pathos that is the signature of my work and keeps me (for better or worse) from being pegged as a standup comic even though much of my performance is quite comedic.
Is there something important about sharing this story in front of an audience? Is it cathartic for you?
Performing for me is highly cathartic. Casting an authorial perspective on the stories of my life and then giving them expression through language and physicality can transform what irritates into what amuses. That said, I don’t cathart on stage. I follow strict writing guidelines: grounding my work in detail, delivering “hot” material with a “cool” style, avoiding theory and opinion, allowing the way I report detail to reveal emotion and using sound and movement to express emotion, taking the liberty to exaggerate for the purposes of humor, but being incredibly precise when telling stories that contain traumatic or emotionally disturbing content. It is by following these guidelines that I experience the most catharsis because by exaggerating minor irritations, I am able to free myself from the irritation and amuse myself with my own pettiness or limitations. By reporting with precision the difficult events that have occurred to me or others, I am able to see the reality of the experience with a pristine clarity, translate the experience to an audience so that we are feeling and experiencing the story together, and in this process alleviate the suffering of isolation that often accompanies trauma, grief, sadness and despair. In the communal experience, the suffering is softened and often transformed into something uplifting.
Because healing from trauma requires being witnessed and feeling part of a community, and because in we share collective traumas (the degradation of our environment, the suffering of war and violence, the threat of global climate change, the fear of economic collapse, the experience of losing those that we love, the experience of illness, for example), then telling these stories in front of an audience can be a methodology for collective healing. It is not only the performer who experiences catharsis or healing, but also the audience, the witnesses. When this equation arises in a moment of communion between a performer and an audience, one can sense it in the room as a felt experience. It is then that I feel I am truly succeeding in my mission as an artist.
Sara Felder is a local solo performer who recently workshopped a new play, “A Queer Divine,” at the Marsh on June 6. Visit sarafelder.com.
Nina Wise in “What Just Happened.”
Photo: Kevin Berne