Lissa Tyler Renaud*
Deliberate work of the mind, imagination, and hand…
in the long run remakes the world. – Edmund Wilson
Agitating for both arts and protest literacy, there is something essentially theatrical about everything Zarina Zabrisky does. Even standing in one place to read from her cliché-defying novels, or delivering a searing poem on injustice to music (“Music excites me; mumbling doesn’t”), she is likely to be vamping in some outlandish get-up that grabs your attention and makes you listen closely to her on her main theme: how theatre, art and literature serve political activism and the fight for human rights. Her long hair streaming or piled impossibly high, her familiar form-hugging dresses and six-inch heels, she tears into you in a high-pitched, punk roar: Everyone should be able to speak freely! Expel Putin! Free Pussy Riot! The KGB is trying to brain-fuck the Russian people into idiocy! Literature is dead; long live literature! Artists, rise!
Zabrisky came to San Francisco in 1998 from St. Petersburg, Russia, “a collapsing communist empire.” From an exceptionally culturally committed family, she started writing young, and then publishing in English, in 2011. In the Bay Area’s heightened artistic environment, her performances emerged reluctantly but organically out of her sensibility from the start, under such names as “literary theatre” and “word performance fusion.” Following excited reception, and with writer-performer Simon Rogghe, she has now taken her dance-poetry-music throughout the U.S. as well as to, for example, Paris and Lisbon.
This activity evolved into the directing-producing arm of her work, The Arts Resistance, a collective that enlists artists across disciplines for performances in the cause of political justice. What sets this apart from “political theatre” is Zabrisky’s erudition, her fierce intellect, her commitments to the primacy of the word and to ideas, to the power of uncompromising and active thought. Her conversation is interwoven with the names of artists who found their way to the theatre: Diaghilev, Saroyan, Artaud, Stravinsky, Turgenev, Kandinsky; as well as with history, philosophy and current matters pertaining to human rights in the broadest sense.
Zabrisky’s performances and productions are always a highlight of the famed Bay Area “readings” scene, where she sets the bar high with her daring and thoughtful engagement with activism. Her dynamic writings have appeared in over thirty literary publications as far afield as Hong Kong and Nepal. Although she “doesn’t believe in awards,” Zabrisky has already been nominated three times for the prestigious Pushcart Prize, and won the 2013 Acker Award for Achievement in the Avant Garde.
Again and again, Zabrisky uses the visual to promote the word. Here, she is appearing in a shiny red bodysuit and frilly face mask; here, in a voluminous wedding dress, or naked, in a cemetery; there, butterflies attached to her face; there, pinned into a micro-dress fashioned from comic strip fabric; now, reading a poem on censorship holding a platter with a large beef tongue on it. Paradoxically, we come away with the conviction imbedded in her work: Everyone should know how to use words to protest injustice.
You say of your group: “The Arts Resistance opposes totalitarian systems and dictatorship through the means of the arts.” Tell me about some of your successes.
The arts can produce practical, positive and immediate action. In the case of the Arts Resistance, we managed to bring together Ukrainians and Russians at the peak of the war, in 2015, on the grounds of poetry. We helped a Russian artist escape imprisonment and assassination by federal security forces, by organizing an exhibit of his blood paintings in America: on arrival, he applied for political asylum. Through our theatre and music performances, we collected funds for repairs to the roof of a care facility for the handicapped in Nepal. At our poetry translation recitals and stand-up comedy radio show, we collected funds for daily supplies for Syrian refugees in Europe. Our rock-music concert and literary reading raised awareness of the violation of human and LGBT rights in Russia. We deliver palpable, tangible results while reshaping the mentality through the works of classical and contemporary artists.
Beyond these positive actions, how do you re-shape mentalities?
The arts expose, ridicule and therefore desanctify power and give voice to the silenced. I think, this role goes back to the origin of the arts, to its ritualistic and magic nature. The shaman’s chanting by the sacred fire split and developed into two cultural phenomena: religion at the service of the social order and, inevitably, the oppression mechanism, on the one hand, and the high arts that provide the individual an alternative to the collective mentality, on the other. True Art threatens the order by its fierce individuation, dangerous questioning-thinking and refusal to surrender to clichés and commonplaces. It creates an alternative thinking space, a new way of being.
Writing is a big part of what you do. How does literature change thinking?
Literature has this immediate access to the irrational, emotional—especially poetry. In the long term, philosophers and writers spark movements and ideologies that have later moved and formed history. Thinkers and artists challenge the existing order of things and those in power by posing questions and, in the long run, forming and re-forming public opinions and mentality. Hence all the persecution. Socrates condemned to death for corrupting the minds of the youth. Pushkin, the major Russian poet, censored by the Tsar himself. The “Degenerate Art Exhibit” and book burnings by the Nazis, open trials of writers and artists in Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China.
When did you begin to perform, and to produce performances?
Simon Rogghe and I launched our collaborative book, Green Lions, with a theatre show at the Great Star Theatre. We had about twenty actors, dancers, live guitar and violin, backdrops, lights, costumes. We co-produced the show with the fantastic Cybele Zufolo-Siegel and Todd Siegel of The Word Performances series. I was always in love with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, so I was inspired by his productions. Once I co-founded The Arts Resistance collective, we started to stage more shows. Over two years, we produced Black Magic Theatre, staging texts by Gogol, Babel and Bulgakov; a street performance of Gogol’s “Viy” in front of the Russian Embassy (for that we got some acknowledgment from the FBI); a political satire puppet act at the Warflield Theatre in San Francisco; and an Americana theatre show based on short stories by Simon Rogghe and myself.
As a producer and director, what are the challenges of collaborating?
Logistics. Getting everyone in place. Artists often get lost in cities or confused about schedules. We live in a parallel universe… Smart phones become useful!
But to get the right people on the show is the most difficult part. I am a firm believer in getting together a group of really talented people and exciting them about the idea. They then create the magic. You can say it is a mix of Diaghilev’s philosophy with Kutuzov’s (of War and Peace) strategy. Diaghilev commissioned for the Ballet Russes the best talent of his time: composers, artists, dancers, choreographers and more. Kutuzov is the Russian general who defeats Napoleon in 1812 by sitting back and watching and just letting things unroll—at least according to Tolstoy!
Each artist brings his or her vision and together the energy creates polyphonic art. Right at the start. If performers love the idea, they are in.
Are there social issues contemporary performance fails to address?
If anything, I feel that artists overdo activism. Art does not benefit from directly addressing social issues. I am too familiar with the “art” of social realism and propagandist posters. High Art cures through catharsis, through its shamanic power to cure the soul.
Has censorship ever been a factor for you?
I only once encountered censorship. The PR agency in charge of the Pussy Riot show [Zabrisky, interviewer, ed.] removed my article on the Pussy Riot and the role of scandal in their art from their social media outlets due to… its being too scandalous.
You were in Europe this last summer.
I witnessed some historic moments. I arrived in London two days after the Brexit vote. I went to the protest, March for Europe, where I photographed and interviewed people. Most Londoners felt shocked by the results. There were about 40,000 people at the protest, carrying posters: RACISTS OUT and REFUGEES IN. During the following week, however, I heard many sad stories of negative feelings towards refugees: hate violence on public transportation, open confrontation in the streets and even at official establishments like postal offices.
The benefits for, and crimes of, immigrants are constantly, openly and with hostility, discussed in rural Germany and Budapest.
The complete absence of Muslims is palpable in the streets of Budapest, and so is the loud silencing of the Holocaust and World War II in Vienna. Both Hungary and Austria have rightist governments.
How was all of this expressed in the arts and in performance?
I was part of a poetry reading. The most powerful performance was a Shakespeare recital. The sheer force of Shakespeare’s language–it just hits you, right in the gut. I read a political satire piece: an American who grew up daydreaming of killing Hitler faces the current rebirth of fascism. For a recording of it, I performed the ending in the midst of the protest, by Westminster Abbey.
Among the Charing Cross used bookstores, I found the text of Ingmar Bergman’s film, “The Serpent’s Egg.” Bergman nails the suffocating feeling of man’s helplessness in the face of totalitarian terror.
As I traveled through Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, I reflected on two Bergman quotes, from a monologue by a circus owner in Berlin, 1923: “Everyone’s afraid now, afraid to the point of madness… and soon their fear will turn to fury… We’ll make out all right, you’ll see. A circus always gets by” and “Through the thin membranes you can clearly discern the already perfect reptile…”
You can’t travel in Europe these days unaware of refugees’ issues—and fear. Armed to the teeth, cyborg-looking security men with German shepherd dogs in airports. Military trucks at the music festival in Brussels.
The famous Ghent Festival was attended poorly this year. People are afraid to go to public places. But… the circus was there, a brilliant street circus with clowns, acrobats and a rock band. In a way, it is a perfect act of arts resistance. We dare to perform, celebrate, and laugh in the face of death.
In Prague, we heard “Don Giovanni” at the Estate Theatre, the same opera house where it premiered in 1787, conducted by Mozart himself. It is the only remaining European opera house where Mozart conducted. The blue-and-golden jewelry box theatre, the original seventeenth-century staging and lights and “Viva la Libertà.” Don Giovanni, doomed, fearless, in love with life. A metaphor for Europe? A burlesque production, with feverish energy, freak show elements, German expressionist silent film and late 1920s costumes and decor added to the sense of the world on the edge. Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret” and “The Serpent’s Egg” come alive.
Artists have intuition. The choice of music alone says more than an article. Mortal, we live like immortals.
In the same spirit of “Don Giovanni,” in Prague we stumbled on a prostitution ring: less fortunate “cabarets” and “massage spas” that are brothels staffed with illegal immigrants, mostly underage Russian and Ukrainian women. Prostitution and human trafficking is a serious human rights issue; the Eastern European women are particularly afflicted. Knowing it is one thing; walking into a room full of teenagers is another. . . .
As per the theme of this journal: have you ever received a particularly insightful piece of criticism?
Yes, from Spencer Dew, about the theatrical in my work. In his review of my novel, We, Monsters, he quoted Artaud: “I want to awaken them. They do not realize they are dead. Their death is total, like deafness, blindness. This is the agony I portrayed. Mine, yes, and everyone who is alive…”
I also loved Nadezhda Banschik’s analysis of our “Black Magic Theater: Gogol, Bulgakov, Babel” in East-West [Vostok-Zapad], San Francisco’s Russian newspaper. Nadezhda dug deep to undo our literary and political puzzles. She found common threads in the Gogol, Bulgakov and Babel pieces we staged: only philosophy and art can resist the supernatural evil that becomes reality and is personified by totalitarian power. This is the main idea of The Arts Resistance.
In closing, anything more to say about the arts and resistance to “totalitarian systems and dictatorship”?
History offers the facts. To name a few examples that just pop into my mind: In Belgium, in 1830, the crowds took to the streets after the duet, “Sacred Love of the Fatherland” from the opera, “La Muette de Portici,” by Daniel Auber. The riots led to three months of street fighting and the independence of Belgium. Boom. In Prague, Smetana composed his first operas in the Czech language and they fueled the struggle for independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Russia, the philharmonic orchestra performed Shostakovich’s “Leningrad Symphony”—composed under siege—in the still besieged city of Leningrad in 1942. Starving musicians played to the dying audience. Loudspeakers blasted the music over the ruins. The Nazi soldiers could hear the music. It terrified them. This was a pivotal moment. I grew up in Leningrad; I remember the stories about the classical music played in the ice-clad streets, over the frozen corpses.
I’m thinking again about Bergman’s “The Serpent’s Egg.”
It is especially poignant in those fragile moments when the world goes from seemingly normal to irrationally evil, absurd. This last split second when you feel the change is still possible—but the horror takes over, humanity cracks like eggshell and the unspeakable turns real. Like now.
That sounds very pessimistic. Maybe we can end on a little more upbeat note? While I am not exactly an optimist—“Russian optimist” is an oxymoron—I don’t want to be gloomy. . . .
Yes! Future plans?
Currently, we are busy working on a political circus street show for Litquake 2016, the world’s biggest literary festival: this will include a puppet show, stand-up comedy, burlesque, ballet and live music. I have plans to stage an anti-utopian theatre show featuring “We” by Zamyatin, “1984” by Orwell, “R.U.R” by Čapek, and a contemporary playwrights’ showcase, including Arturo Desimone’s “Tattoo Moon.” The energy produced by a group of writers, musicians and artists on stage drives the literary power to the next level. After all, catharsis is what we all are looking for.
Recent documentary on Zarina Zabrisky
Zabrisky’s “Manifesto” performance at the Acker Awards
*Lissa Tyler Renaud (M.A. Directing; Ph.D. Theatre History/Criticism) is director of InterArts Training (1985-). She has been visiting professor, master teacher, speaker and recitalist throughout the U.S. and Asia, and in England, Russia, Mexico and Sweden. See her invited chapter in The Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky, 2013. Renaud was co-editor of The Politics of American Actor Training (Routledge 2009/2011); under Yun-Cheol Kim, she was founding editor of Critical Stages, 2007-2014. Renaud is senior editor for the Wuzhen Theatre Festival, China, and a longtime Senior Writer for Scene4 international magazine of cultural arts.