Interview: Nadia Ross

Nadia Ross is a founder and artistic director of the Canadian theatre company STO Union. We had an enormous pleasure to meet her during the "The Power of Powerlessness" festival, to experience her multidisciplinary artwork “What Happened to the Seeker?”, and to have an inspirational and refreshing conversation with her at the Hebbel am Ufer Theater

Nadia, how did it all begin? How did you get into theatre? 

I can’t say that I was that much interested in theatre. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was studying at the University of Toronto and decided that I should take drama for fun. So I applied. I didn’t get in. But one of the teachers who had been on the audition panel got me into his class. I started that way. At the time the head of the drama program was a woman from Germany and she was very intent on getting women directors. This was in the 80s and there were not very many women directors. So she decided that I would be one of the students she would focus on and bring through as a director. So I kind of fell into it, as opposed to consciously deciding to go and do this. She then decided to send me to East Berlin, to apprentice with the Berlin Ensemble at the time. So I was really thrown into this big theatre world. I had to learn German in a month, cross the border to get in there. It was the time when Heiner Müller was working. So for me it was an incredible luck that I landed in this theatre when some of the best artists of that time were working and I got to sit in rehearsals every day and watch some great artists work. 

Are there any particular memories from that time?

What moved me the most was that the wall was up, of course, the politics were really strong - the fear of capitalism coming in, the dislike of many aspects of communism, the way that artists had to talk to the public covertly, because if the government would come in they would cancel a show if it was too political. I really saw what political theatre under difficult circumstances looked like, and how you had to use your imagination in very intense ways. I was deeply moved by that and deeply inspired. I didn’t realize at that time how important it was to learn how to speak covertly on stage, because especially now in North America with so much pressure coming from above not to speak honestly, not to speak truthfully, to hide, not to let people know the activities you do. I certainly realize now that those tools are coming in very usefully today. 

What moves you to do the work you are doing? 

It’s been a long time that I’ve been doing it. The reasons for doing it now are very much about keeping a thin thread alive in the artform. Someone told me this when I was 20 years old, a German director said: “Your job is to hold the thread for next generation because the thread is so thin, it feels like it could break anytime. We are teaching you this, you were brought into these rehearsals, into these creative processes, so that you can learn and you can pass it along.” So now that is the only thing that keeps me going - holding the thread for the next generation and then bringing in the next generation as I hold it. It is a very difficult lifestyle. Especially in North America, there’s no money, very little support, very little interest in the artform. People are more interested in entertainment and relaxing, they work all the time, so there is not much space for culture or art. The motivation can’t be personal, because the personal reward isn’t that great. It’s great on the one level, of just pure creativity, of a relationship with creative energy. But the motivation is really to stand strong for that thin thread and hold it for the next generation under difficult times that we are in now. 

And what is this thread?

My tradition is alternative, it’s experimental, it’s to go against what everyone else is doing. That’s the thread I hold. It’s the space so that the next generation can also do work that is unique, that is different, that isn’t popular in that big way. Thinking in a unique and different way - to make sure that there is space for that. Because nowadays, especially in North America, as an artist, or a theatre company, or a performance company, you are supposed to go to some oil company or a big bank and say “fund my work”, that’s the norm now. And if you refuse to do it people ask you if you are crazy, as if it’s the only way to do it. We refuse to do that. And yet we still survive, we still manage to tour, we still manage to do work. So we are holding that space so that the next generation can know - you don’t have to sell out, you don’t have to go to the banks, you can still do the work that breaks the rules, that’s how the art grows. That’s the position that I’m holding as a kind of space, a kind of psychic space to say that it’s possible and I’m hoping that the next generation will look at that and will go “I’ll try too”. 

It’s also a thread to be an individual? 

Being an individual, or being the artist that you are. Whatever that is. When the company gets handed down I don’t expect the artists that are taking it over to do anything that I do. I expect them to do what they do. What I do expect is them to be 100% honest with themselves and their work. That it really is something they believe in, that they are not doing it out of under pressure of the box office, or government, or appealing to larger groups. That they are doing something that is really connected to themselves. And it makes the work unique, when it’s really coming from a deep place. That’s what I expect the next generation that is taking over the company to do. 

Why do you think people come to the theatre? What do they seek?

I think people long for so many different things. For a better job, a new lover, a different lover, whatever you can imagine. But underneath the things that we long for is a feeling of separation from... from everything. It’s as if there is some part of us that is sort of split from everything. And there is a desire to feel connected to everything. Because there is a real safety when you feel like you are in a way one with everything, there is a kind of safety ground to work from. I think people are actually longing for that. For a deeper knowledge of themselves and how they fit into the world. 

Sometimes we think about certain people as “the masses”, those people who are not interested in anything honestly, who just want to consume, who don’t care about culture and so on. Do you think it is really so, or does everyone experience this longing for reconnection, for that deeper knowledge of themselves, and it’s our circumstances, our education, our environment that impede this longing in people? 

Often people who go on a “search” are made fun of, as if it’s a waste of time or something like that. We are talking about “the masses”, but my god! - the circumstances that human beings are living in right now, there is a profound level of exhaustion. So when they go and watch movies or whatever it’s just a way to relax, because the first step is exhaustion. When I go to meditations the first few days is just dealing with my exhaustion. I can’t even meditate until I sleep a little bit, rest a little bit, get balanced a little bit. Often it’s just sheer exhaustion. And when you are at that point, all you want is a bit of relief, you don’t really want to go deep and face what is in us. Because what is in most of us is a lot of grief, a lot of sadness, a lot of anger. Some unpleasant things when you first look in. It’s like “oh I don’t want to look”, cause it’s hard to feel that level of sorrow, or that level of anger, or even a general agitaion that is always there, in the body. To face those things is not easy. I work closely with my friend George and he says “I don’t want to look. Who wants to look?!” When you look it does take courage, perseverance, and a level of humility. Because we are ultimately not in control, and if we think we are in control, it’s just an illusion. So there’s humility in realizing I’m not in control. There’s perseverance to get up again, and go again, and sit again, and meditate again, to face it again. And there is courage to do it in the first place, to decide “I will look”. Because, yes, what we see is really difficult to take. 

When I realized that I’m not in charge, for three years I lost all ambition (because what’s the point if I’m not in control anyway). I had no idea how was I going to survive without the ambition. And it was a very interesting process of it slowly starting to shift on its own and then this other kind of momentum taking over. So now when I create it’s a very odd situation because it doesn’t feel like it’s me creating. I’m just sort of doing whatever this energy is telling me to do. It doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with me. That’s a new thing, and that’s why I feel so relaxed on stage, because it’s not me. I don’t know what it is but it’s beautiful. It’s a force. It almost has a personality, which I guess is what they call a Muse. It feels female in my case and it just does what it does, on its own time. And I can’t make it happen. I can’t say “Ok, we gotta work now”. All I can do is be prepared to work when it comes. And often it will push me to the darkest place, when a project is due in three hours and it has not arrived. It would push me right to the edge. There is a deeper level of giving that happens, in a way I give up the pride level, to the real bottom. I’d stay there for a few moments, and then it comes. It brings me to the edge of despair, where I lose the sense of myself being the one who is doing it. It kind of needs me to abandon myself. I have to let that go in order for that other momentum to take over. It feels very natural part of life. It follows natural rhythms. It’s part of the forces. It’s totally natural. 

Our lifestyle obsessed with functionality doesn’t always allow us to follow these natural rhythms though… 

This 9 to 5 lifestyle that we have is insanity. It’s completely disconnected from any reality. It’s a fabrication. One that we’ve created because we think we are so powerful, we think we know better. So we create these systems that we think will function better. And we have no trust that if we just let go, calm down, get still, slow down, be peaceful, loose ambition, go through that loss of the machine that pushes forward, wait, have faith, trust, wait, keep waiting. Even if it brings you into despair of “oh my God I won’t survive this”, but be still, wait, at one point, most likely, something else takes over and it has its own intelligence. Much more intelligent than I am. It has its own timing. It leads not by saying “you come here”. It leads by just gently touching you and you go with it. When I look at my life I’m blown away by the places it has brought me to. I could not have dreamt this up. I could not have made this happen. I did not make it happen. Something else made it happen. But you know, that same thing will also bring me to my death. That same thing will also bring me to heartache. That same thing will bring me to things I do not want to see. And that’s where it gets difficult. It all sounds so great “oh, that creative force have brought you to Berlin”. But this creative force will also bring me to things I don’t want to experience, that I have no interest in experiencing. And that is also why we want to control it. So that we can avoid pain. So that we can avoid things we don’t want to see. Again, that’s another level of trust. That those things I might see that I don’t want to see are necessary. 

Why is pain such a necessary part of life? 

Well, that’s life! Cannot avoid it. We will experience pain. Even if it’s in death. Death is extraordinarily painful. By the end we lose everything. We can’t get around it. It’s a world of suffering and joy, where we live. They don’t exist without each other. You want the joy you gonna have to look at the suffering. You see it in nature too. Those are deep forces, deep energies. They’ve been here forever, they run the world, they run us. Art to me teaches us about the mystery of that. It deepens the mystery of it so we can become more comfortable with mystery. We can become more comfortable with not knowing, and we can become more comfortable with the forces that are running us and running life. 

I was amazed by the way you expose yourself on stage, by your agreeing to be vulnerable. How do you deal with judgment? I imagine people are not always opening their hearts in return.

I don’t think I care about judgments. Things that happened to me in my life, I don’t really relate to these things as me. It’s just things that happen. There is a kind of awareness of them, of what they were and what they taught me. In the play a very traumatic event happened when I was 6 years old. It separated me from my family, society around me, from all the levels of connection that one is brought through in life. At that point they were broken. That’s something where you get in a way through meditation. In meditation you call it “fierce grace”. So when this happened also some obstacles were removed from me, such as attachment to family, as your unit, your group. Like Buddha under the Bodhi tree, the last thing he had to give up is that family connection. So for me those things were taken away when I was very young. In a way it was also a huge gift. A massive gift. At that time it was despair and destruction. But as most of the difficult things in life it has the other side of the coin, the gift is there too. The gold is in the shit. That’s been my experience. All the difficult times also had a lot of knowledge, growth and gold in them. I’m a strong person now. I can pretty much be with a lot. Those were the gifts I got through the life I lead. 

The dark cut-out puppets in your story reminded me of a dream I used to have as a small child - it was a dream of a dark man running after me. I’ve heard this dream story with variations from many women. Is it something archetypal? 

It is, sometimes it’s the black mother, sometimes it’s a man. In dreams, when you have a dark figure that comes in, it is the opportunity for real revelation. It’s like your truth is running after you. It’s running after you in a kind of shadowed form but it is gold. So whenever I dream of the black mother I know that I’m on a verge of learning something profound that I need to learn. So these figures that run after you in dreams it’s something trying to talk to you, to reach you.  

It’s this whole empty space, of nothingness, of emptiness. And when you go through the fear, which some people call “the ring of terror”. You need the ability to stay awake while you are going through the ring of terror. There is a deep feeling of deficiency, like “I’m not good enough, I cannot do anything, I’m a loser, a waste...” Deep feeling of deficiency. Underneath that is a hole. When you feel it, it feels like you are floating, which can be terrifying because it feels like there is nothing to hang on to. But if you relax, when you relax into the fear, breath into the fear, just feel the fear and then feel the hole, it’s... it’s the universe. It’s so beautiful, there are no words to describe it. That has been the promise from thousands of years that this exists and it’s up to the individual to go and look for themselves. It really is up to the individual to go and find out for themselves and see for themselves. 

What is nourishing you in your life and work?

Nature is a huge part of my world. Nature just blows my mind. I cannot call myself an artist when I look around nature. That’s art! On a practical level, a lot of reading, a lot of dramaturgy, a lot of studying history, a lot of philosophy, visual art, going to art galleries. Those are the things that inspire me the most. It used to be going to see live performances. Now it’s less. But again, it’s not up to me really. It’s sort of “it” tells me what I need to do. Right now it’s telling me “you need to sit in nature and do nothing for a while”. And that’s what I’m going to go back and do - sit in nature and do nothing for a while. And then it will eventually tell me what to do next. The way it tells me it’s a deep prompt. And it’s surprising. It’s a very subtle movement. Over the years I’ve learnt to recognize it. Before it was very confusing, like “what is that? Do I do that or not?”, so I was in my head, trying to debate pros and cons of that impulse. And now when I don’t follow it I feel bad. I don’t like not feeling good, so I follow it as much as I can. As much as I’m able to be conscious enough to hear it. It’s totally intuitive. It’s not coming from my mind. My mind supplies information. My mind researches and provides worlds that the intuition can use as it wants. 

Your first associations... 

Fairy-tale: I love so many. To me the fairy-tales come into play in different times in my life. Recently it’s  been “Cinderella” again. Where she sits by the fire and she has to sort the peas before the prince can come. So it’s sorting the peas right now in my life. So that fairy-tales comes to me often these days. 
Animal: Dogs
Saying or proverb: Make lemonade out of lemons
Season: I like them all
Flower:  I love them all (actually same with animals!)
Movie: David Lynch’s movies
Smell: A rose
Book: So many... The early work of Marion Woodman (a Toronto analyst), meditation books by Adyashanti
Song: “Here comes the sun....”
Sensation: Release
Poem: Any poem by Jacob Wren
Painting: Francis Bacon
Person: Tracy Wright
Color: blue
Object: Shovel
Food: Chocolate
Human quality: Brilliance, shine coming from the heightened mind, that kind of brilliance can bring insight. The person who is able to do that I want to hang out with them!
Place for travel: my home
Secret: Everything is perfectly fine.