Interview with: Raina von Waldenburg
By: Amanda Williamson
When I first pulled up to the south granville home on West 15th, I glanced up at the house to see a woman wearing a knitted toque and casual hip clothing. She was out on the porch and seemed to be moving some things around. I grabbed my laptop bag from my car, locked the doors and when I turned back toward the house she was gone. I walked up the front steps to find the front door just ajar which was inviting and mysterious – just like Raina. I decided to go for the knock and enter approach and as I did she popped out and greeted me with smiles. We made our way to the kitchen and I couldn’t help but notice the old world charm of her home with rich dark woods throughout and plenty of character. We caught up briefly, she poured an espresso milk stout that I brought for us into two mason jar mugs, lit up a cigarette and so it began.
AW: Can you speak about what it was like growing up for you and when you knew you wanted to be a performer?
RvW: That’s a hard one (laughs)… sorry…
AW: That’s okay. Where did you grow up?
RvW: I grew up mostly in Bay bulls Newfoundland. It’s a little fishing village south of St. Johns and we lived in a haunted house. The whole town didn’t want to go near it. In fact all the little friends didn’t want to come visit us because it was the haunted house. It was on the precipice of a cliff right off the bay. There was no electricity, no running water, and no heat. We did everything by scratch by choice because my parents were…hippies and rebels from their aristocratic past so they wanted to get down to the basics. I was the oldest of my siblings and cousins and I had a very active imagination. I loved making up games to play, and making up plays for them to play in. I loved to create atmospheres and entertain the kids themselves through the games but also entertain the parents through our plays – which were never normal plays.
RvW: Very site specific. (laughs)
AW: Really? Nice. (laughs)
RvW: So that was a way of dealing with I guess not having much external stimulation, so right away I knew I loved whatever that world was. My parents would send us to France in the summers to our French family and to our German grandparents who were highly cultured and brought us to all kinds of plays, ballet and opera. So there was a lot of food for thought coming from both sets of grandparents. We spoke both languages when we were with them. At home we spoke French with our mother, German with our father and learned English in school so there was a lot of culture coming from grandparents and living in isolated environment.
AW: I understand that you have an MFA in Creative writing from Goddard College and a BFA in acting from NYU. I’m interested in how you began your journey in acting and then finished a MFA in writing. It seems you were always working on both simultaneously. Can you talk a bit about that?
RvW: The BFA comes from Tisch school of the arts, specifically the experimental theatre wing where the focus was primarily devising. We didn’t call it that there though, it was called self scripting – meaning developing one’s own work and creating original material. I found that to be extremely satisfying, that whole world of collaboration with actors, lighting designers, creating a piece together based on a lighting design, or a sound scape, etc. I always felt that I wasn’t interested in just acting in other people’s plays but interested in creating material and not necessarily being a playwright, but a collaborative theatre artist. I felt that if I got a masters in creative writing, I could then combine the two to create my own work. My thesis was poetry for the page and poetry for the stage. I had a double thesis where I wrote a play. At the time I was doing a bunch of performance poetry and competing at slams.
AW: And so the first play you wrote was Das Kaspar. Can you talk about how it came to be?
RvW: Ok so what happened was I hadn’t done my MFA yet, I had finished my BFA and just started a theatre company. At that time I was going through marriage counselling. Right away the therapist said “This isn’t a marriage issue. This is a sexual abuse issue from your past.”
RvW: And the minute she said that all these frickin’ voices spontaneously came flying out of me – not that I was verbalizing them – but I was seeing them. It was like characters coming out and speaking up for me when the therapist said ‘sex abuse from your past’. It was as if I had put such a tight lid on it that the minute she said that to me these characters that had been living inside of me for all that time jumped out and they were really distinct characters who were fighting against each other with that piece of knowledge.
AW: Wow. Interesting…
RvW: So for example there was this Hispanic waitress and she’s like “No, he’s a gentleman, he taught me the piano. He’s an artist. He would never disrespect me or anyone. It’s so convenient for the therapist to pull the repressed memory card.”
RvW: And then contrary to that there’s this big, plump frickin mafia wannabe called Cigar Chomper – who’s like (she speaks in a Brooklyn accent) “We’re gonna fuckin kill this motherfucker” so there’s thoughts of violence which was a part of me that totally knew what had happened. “We’re gonna do it gentleman style. We’re not going to hurt the old lady. We’re just going to take care of him, we’re going to fuckin yah know, feed him rat poison, stick him in the trunk of a car, and we’re going to bring him down to the river and dispose of him.”
…And then his sidekick Skinny Dougin whose a younger sort of ADD, skiddish, suspender wearing, pool shark. He’s like “Dude man, Fuck that, fuck that, she’s going too. She knew the whole time. We’re going to kill both of them. We’re going to fucking split their fucking nazi skulls in half and let their blue eyes frickin’ leak out. Everyone’s protecting the old lady. If she knew about it she needs to go too.”
AW: Oh I see, ok, right, right right…
RvW: So it’s this whole kill the Grandfather plot. Very Carnival style…there’s a lot of humour in there because as I’m going to therapy each week and there are all these reactions as I listen to myself speak to the therapist. There is a lot of humour between the characters who joke with each other. There’s a lot of vulgarity, honesty and everything’s on the table. Let’s talk about this taboo called incest and sexual abuse and repressed memories and what it feels like to have repressed memories because you (as someone who has been abused and has repressed memories) don’t know what’s real and what’s not real. There’s not anything to point your finger at. It’s kind of like a nightmare. It would be better if there were a clear memory, bruise or stitch on my body. The terror of not knowing is – Am I crazy? Am I making this up? These are all the questions I was trying to sort out and piece together.
AW: And was the piece performed with an ensemble from NYU?
RvW: I had a cast of extraordinarily amazing students who were willing to play and go all out. Their bravery and surrender to clown work and what clown work entails – putting yourself on the line – which is what created the piece.
AW: Can you speak about the work after this show which eventually led to Oysters, Orgasms, Obituaries?
RvW: Quite a bit of solo performing happening for me at that time and mini performance pieces and then performing in burlesque and going beyond burlesque the way that one normally experiences it into a more theatrical, darker burlesque with a kind of social, political hue to it. The idea is actually – goddess burlesque – to celebrate my body even in its most vulgar contortions or in its pain, to celebrate the beauty of the pain and transcend it. I would like to say this is the main core of the work I do, it has to do with taking shameful or taboo subject matter especially related to female sexuality and bringing it out in the open and talking about it. Usually what I like to do is to not have a point of view about it, just ask questions about it and put it out there for people to sit with. The most important thing is having a fucking irreverence about it because if I can’t be irreverent about this dark subject matter than I am taking it too seriously and I’m not really able to detach myself enough to ask questions. Having a sense of humour and open candidness in performing in it and letting the audience know that I am putting on a mask but I’m still right here and I am completely aware that what I’m talking about is a little bit creepy. It’s like “I am one who” there are two parallel lines I was working on and each fed the other. I am one who has a lot to do with not just how I performed my work, how I wrote my work and how I conceptualized my work. It was so important to me and still is to be “with” the audience. To imagine that once something is said on stage there is going to be a certain reaction and I want to be there with them to say “I know! I know, that we know, that that just happened. I want to be with you guys. Let’s be together in this.”
AW: As a past student of yours I am familiar with your exercise “I am one who”, “River work” and that you trained under Ryszard Cieslak, Grotowski’s principal actor and protégée, and Stephen Wangh, Master Teacher and author of An Acrobat of the Heart, can you speak about your experiences working with them and how they’ve changed over time? I am interested in knowing the history of these exercises, how it came to be a part of the repertoire that you teach and what you gain most from experiencing it from being in it or watching another actor in it.
RvW: Steve Wangh studied with Grotowski and so a lot of the principles in Steve Wangh’s work come from Grotowski’s pedagogy. The just stand exercise where one stands alone in a neutral body, seeing the audience and allowing the self to be seen. It’s part of the I am one who exercise, peeling away layers so you can be more available, that’s based on the whole principle via negativa that came from Grotowski. Something that Steve Wangh did as an instructor that I found kind of earth shattering was that he would watch how the students were talking about their work. So it wasn’t so much that he was zoning in on what they were doing in the work, but he was zoning in on what they were doing “outside the work”. Outside he found that Sally feels that she can’t express herself with her body and is suddenly expressing herself with her body fully and emotionally connected when she was talking about her work, so that she was actually innately able to do that. Therefore if one included those things outside the work –if one opens oneself up to include all those things inside the work – they were actually doing the work outside the work. They were actually connecting more to the work outside the work. There are huge expectations that one puts on oneself when doing “the work” that can be incredibly debilitating. The body shuts down and it becomes difficult to access that part of you that totally knows what the work is.
Steve had a judge’s exercise where he would let those judges have their say. There is an enormous amount of energy and release in that. I took it a step further and developed the exercise I am one who where I realized that if an actor can actually allow themselves to listen to those judges while in the work, either of oneself or the other or the fat guy snoring in the audience, judges, observations, thoughts, opinions, sensations, impulses that happen to us. There is so much happening in the human experience moment to moment. Mostly what is happening to an actor is a tremendous amount of fear and adrenalin. And what character is not going through some kind of fear, some kind of discomfort, inner conflict, judgement? What character does not want to be in that damn situation – whatever the situation is – not wanting to be broken up with, having a loved one die, etc. So, to tap into where you are and what you are feeling right now, allows you to tap into your humanity which every character has and every play is speaking about as opposed to fabricating and pulling that from the outside – meaning an idea of what it looks like to be in pain.
AW: You served as a research assistant Steve Wangh’s book Acrobat of the heart. Can you speak about your relationship with Steve Wangh and how that evolved?
RvW: I am developing this whole physical approach to acting on my own after I graduate. I am in constant communication with Steve Wangh – he was my primary teacher there. We kept in touch through email because I was developing my own pedagogy and so inspired by his teaching. We had long pedagogical discussions via email, letters, in person. Five years after graduating, he asked if I would come and train to replace him because he would be taking a sabbatical and eventually leaving NYU. He wanted to find a protégée I suppose who could continue the work and he felt like I understood the work really well. I was getting my masters at the time and I went to train with Steve just observing him teach for a semester and then after every class we would have long discussions. I began as a sessional instructor at NYU and then eventually became full time.
AW: I am curious about the workshops that you taught for prisoners on parole? Can you talk about what compelled you to do that and what your experience and response was like from the prisoners and yourself?
RvW: I’ve always been interested in making theatre with non theatre people. The first play I wrote was called See no evil, hear no evil. It was about homeless people in New York. I find it fascinating to see real people within a theatrical context. I’m fascinated with non- acting. Take a theatrical structure which is really precise and put real life inside of that. If they are going to be actors, actors have to be present with what’s really going on in not just the fictional world but also the non- fictional world. They must be able to exist in both worlds at the same time.
AW: Beautifully said. Are there anything specific memories or interesting encounters that you have of the work you did with the prisoners or homeless people?
RvW: Mostly that … where people have an opportunity to make fun of themselves, there is an enormous amount of safety and release for these people.
This goes for actors, prisoners, homeless people, anyone I’m working with. I watch the person. What is this person feeling shameful about and pushing away? For example, one of the prisoners had a bad attitude one would say. He was the one in the corner that wouldn’t even look up at me or anyone else. I would imagine what the world would normally project onto him, something like “Hey John, come and join the group, its fun!”
So my interest is…when I see John, I think what would it be like for John if what he’s doing is actually fucking what we all want. What if John were to realize that his bad mood is fucking awesome and playable? So instead of trying to change him or make him feel bad about his bad mood, I use what he is and lift it up and make it into an attribute that he feels good about. He’s feeling it anyway but now he’s got the permission to be ok with it, feel good about it and then play with it.
So John got to be the bad ass mother fucker in the scene and when he looked up at his scene partner in the scene and I’d say to him “Why are you even looking at the partner? You’re a badass, you don’t give a shit, like really don’t give a shit.” When you turn the whole thing around, a bunch of deep stuff starts to come out.
AW: That’s incredible. How you would even begin to facilitate that is fascinating to me! I’m still interested in hearing about Oysters, Orgasms, Obituaries. Can you speak about your process for creating it and why was it important for you ?
RvW: I’m obsessed with shameful taboo subjects and exploring those issues so that other women don’t feel they are alone. There are three taboo subjects in Oysters, Orgasms, Obituaries.1) Infanticide 2) Pedophilia and 3) Orgasmic birth. We discussed pedophilia in Das Kaspar. Infanticide was relating to Andrea Yates, Texan housewife who drowned her five children in the bathtub in 2003. When I first saw the footage on TV, my son was a baby at the time and I was horrified. How can someone do that? Her husband, Rusty Yates was on TV and the incredible understanding he had for her blew my mind. He said she was a good mother, she loved those kids. I’m in total heart break and shock thinking how dare she fucking do this? What a monster I thought. I saw the husband’s statement and I thought how can that man feel this way? He just lost all his kids. I looked into the whole story and discovered that there were a handful of deep reasons why she ended up doing that. I realized that motherhood, as I was experiencing it as well is something that’s not really talked about. The difficulty of motherhood is not talked about that much even amongst mothers. It’s really hard to admit that there are times that you lose your fucking cool. It ain’t pretty all the time. The orgasmic birth part is “Hey, does anyone know that there is a fun way to give birth?”
AW: I am terrified of pregnancy. TERRIFIED. Terrified.
RvW: That’s the thing! Society terrifies us. We think it’s supposed to be terrifying. We think it’s supposed to be LABOUR and this horrible, painful thing. It’s not necessarily. It’s actually quite a fucking natural thing. It can be quite pleasurable. Contractions when you give birth are the same ones that occur when you orgasm. Nipple and clitoris stimulation actually induce the contractions. Sex can be as tremendous as giving birth and I think women may be afraid of that possibility. I wanted a natural birth with midwives. I told them about the orgasmic birth book I found and they told me to bring it in. In turn that changed my sex life. I realized the possibilities are way beyond what we are taught as women.
AW: If you were to start working on another original piece, what content, themes, form or style interest you most?
RvW: It might be more about accepting the different parts of oneself. A piece about I am one who. What is it like to accept all the different parts of who you are? Expression and self acceptance.
AW: What advice do you have for someone who wants to teach, act, direct, and create. Can you talk about how you managed to multi-task and juggle all of your interests, goals and still make a living?
RvW: When I left the experimental wing at NYU I thought “this work is so fascinating, healing, and so real.” This work is irreverent and reverent at the same time. This work makes fun of itself. I wanted to spread the word when I left which for me was teaching. I wanted to develop the work more through my theatre company and I wanted to write pieces that would allow for that to happen. I refused to get a 9-5 job. It was very clear to me that I’d rather do a whole bunch of patchwork. I did nude modeling, singing telegrams, had a paper route, worked at a sewing factory, a ginseng farm, and was a coat check at a fancy five star restaurant in New York. All those jobs enabled me to make money while I was in school. I was teaching at the metropolitan school of the arts but I was also teaching my own workshops without necessarily having been trained as a teacher. I kind of just kept managing to make ends meet while pursuing this intense curiosity of what is this work? What is performance? What is healing? What is community? How can people have authentic experiences and feel good about who they are and bring their faults to the forefront and use them creatively? Advice would be that if one is curious about something, to keep asking questions about it. Manage your life so that your curiosity is cultured. Surround yourself with people who are also curious and make stuff together. You can always find places to do stuff and you can always pull resources together to make something happen.
When the interview ended, Raina offered up a disclaimer for my interview. She snickered and I sensed something ridiculous. “What?” I said. Raina continued, “She has no idea how to explain any of this, she has no idea what this whole thing is, and that’s why she’s doing this.” I exploded into laughter. “Yeah?! Is that what you want me to write?!” I exclaimed. “Yes”. “Ok! I’ll keep it in mind.”