The End of The End

Chantal Rousseau

Chantal Rousseau in Conversation with Judy Radul

Chantal Rousseau: For this project you set up loose parameters on creating a "death scene" and set up the camera placement as a short, medium and long shot, but left the rest of the decisions and process to the actress and 5 directors. As I was involved in the set up, and missed the actual shoot, I am curious to hear how the day played out.

Judy Radul: Before the shoot I met with people that I had been in touch with through my contacts in the theatre community. I tried to work with some of the most accomplished people in the Toronto theatre scene. I talked to them about the project - a lot of this discussion was to try and express to them my idea, which was a lot harder than it sounds, as I realized that right off the top there's a conflict, which is probably good and even on purpose on my part, between what I wanted and what they normally would do in terms of a scene. I had only asked that the actress was to die from internal causes, because I was trying to keep narrative specificity at bay. I wanted to them to invent the death scene - I didn't want it to be about a "death from poison" or a "death from cancer", and I never could think my way around that except to not specify a particular scene for them to do, because as soon as I specified, it would be about those things. Then it's asking quite a bit, you're asking somebody to come in and not just direct a scene but to improvise it. A lot of times what a director does is interpret, and improvising is different than interpreting. Also I'm asking the directors to concentrate on the acting, I'm almost asking them to act a bit more like acting coaches.

On the day of the shoot everybody came with their own scenario, some entirely different then I thought they would be (laughs), some different ways of working than I thought (laughs), but that was alright.

Chris Abraham, the first director, came with some reading from Shakespeare. We didn't use that but it was one of the ways in, and he talked to Nancy (Palk) about her own experience with her mother's death, which she is reenacting in some ways in the scene they do together. That sounds macabre but I think it also a normal thing that actors do, which is to draw on personal experience.

Louise Nolan had the idea that the character had had this full life and had experienced everything she wanted to experience, and hers was the most symbolist.

John Greyson brought some memorial tapes that he had made. He had Nancy watching these memorial tapes of various friends that had died, and had her just sobbing her eyes out. She was committing suicide, and the last thing she was doing was watching a tape of her brother; that was the narrative.

The fourth director was Jennifer Tarver, and hers was more melodramatic. We'd talked a bit about melodrama, which I really like, and in her scene, the actress was paranoid that everything in the room might kill her. All of her actions, sitting on the sofa or looking out the window, are done to resolve her paranoia, and then finally she opens a book and whatever she reads kills her of shock. This was quite funny because the night before I'd been thinking that I'd better be ready to direct a scene in case someone doesn't show up and I'd been looking in this book of plays by August Strindberg and reading about him. It turns out that he became paranoid later in life, and the scenario described was that he was afraid that the sound of a dog barking in the distance, or lying down on his bed etc. would kill him. So it was really weird that she came in and then did the same thing that was in my mind.

The fifth director, Richard Rose, is friends with the actress Nancy Palk, and took the most task-like approach. He had less narrative. He wasn't working on a scene, he was almost working on a very small part of a scene, like an intentionality, or dying from a certain thing. She was always smoking (he's quitting smoking), and she was always smoking or dying wanting to smoke. The first way she died was just a breath thing, it was quite gruesome, it was about breath ceasing. The second one was a heart attack, which was a big flailing around number, and he'd seen a heart attack and it was quite different than we'd seen it represented, so it's almost very comical. And then the third one was what he called the secret death, where you'd almost pass away with no one noticing. The fourth death, he was really the only person who did multiple scenarios, was dying while smoking but it was about pleasure; it was the last pleasure. He didn't have a narrative but little sets of intention describing what the moment was like.

Chantal: Because it's such a collaborative process - though you've set up the terms, you're also standing back watching it unfold, and how do you deal with a situation where it's going in a way that you may not want it to go. Is the nature of the project that you just let that play out, or do you take some control over it?

Judy: This time I didn't take control. This is my third or fourth project of this nature, and I think of them a bit like documentaries although I've created the situation we're documenting. But they're also task like in a way in that the players have a task, and it seems to work the best if they get quite absorbed in it. For that reason I keep all the technology in the background, I never change the lights or the sound or anything once we're rolling and we don't move the cameras. It's about as low level as possible in terms of intrusiveness. We could almost just leave, and they do it. It's almost like we've created a kind of surveillance situation.

When things are not going how I want them to go I don't do anything, and I sit there and think, well, I guess we'll edit that out (laughs), or I try and send mental messages. I figure that it's like I've pushed the boulder over the edge and I'm watching it roll down the hill and I just have to watch it roll. I've committed to that in the beginning, because I always think there's a good chance that I'll actually screw it up once I start intervening with people, because once you do, it's hard to keep the mood right.Ê Sometimes I think that I even want it to go wrong. I want it to be contra to my own intentions or else I may as well have scripted the whole thing anyways.

Chantal: The original footage was streamed on the web as one piece. For the gallery set up it is projected on three screens so you've edited it down. What did you focus on in terms of choices for footage in order to edit the piece down?

Judy: We tried to retain the feeling of process. The process and decision making that went into each scene. We tried to edit it according to what had happened. I had no idea of how long it would be until we'd shot it, I knew how long the original day would be, but I didn't know how long the edited piece would be. Obviously for a gallery it would be great if it all had condensed down into about five minutes, (laughs), but I knew right away that that would never happen so, it's 106 minutes long, which is overly long in terms of one viewer seeing the entire piece. I compressed the time and tried to keep what was most interesting while not altering the feel of what had transpired.

Chantal: So it ended up being about the actual process of making the scene versus the actual narrative moment.

Judy: Yes, it really depended on the way in which the director was working and how much talking there was. What happened during the scenes, if you want to call them that, was that by and large they transpired much more slowly than they ever would on stage or in film because no one was standing there with a timer and saying OK you've got to hit this mark at 20 seconds. Usually things are done so quickly, or in cinema anyways, stories are made from cutting a few seconds, a few seconds.Ê People conventionally think that film is a compression of time, but theatre is also compressing time. This slow process was the interesting thing that I was not entirely able to keep. For instance when John Greyson was working with Nancy and they were doing the scene, at one point it was taking her 15 minutes to die. Which is fine, of course, it was based on her seeing someone die, whose breath is just coming shallower and shallower and shallower maybe over a day or two days.

Chantal: But we're not used to seeing representations of that, which is what's interesting.

Judy: You wouldn't see a real time representation of that, and even this isn't a real time mimetic representation of that kind of slow death, but that was one of the things that was different in the process. It was commented upon by the players, who enjoyed not having those constraints. I think as an actor it was rewarding, as all those things about following impulse and waiting for an impulse, she could actually do in this more experiential time.

Chantal: You described in an earlier interview for Charles Street, traditional cinematic and theatrical conventions dealing with the death scene. You talked about cutting away - such as in film - and we just talked about the 3 second death - or in theatre, the lights go out so you don't have to deal with it. I think you described it very eloquently; the body as an object. Can you talk about why you are creating an alternative model to these particular concepts that we're used to seeing in terms of representation of the death scene?

Judy: In one way I'm trying to do the same thing, I'm trying to create this typical death scene, except I'm not cutting away and so it is somewhere in between theatre and cinema. I'm not sure I'd call it an alternative model because it still very conventional, except that I'm playing with the conventions. One of the conventions that I kept was this close up, medium, long shot, the thing I didn't do was intercut between them. By not cutting away before she comes back to life, you get to see things that you normally wouldn't see. For instance, the more violent your death when you're not really dying, the more your chest is heaving because you're out of breath. You've got this big pulsing neck vein (laughs) and your chest is heaving because you need air. I guess we're watching what goes into the making of that representation, so it's a self reflexive process.

Chantal: Which reminds of the essay in the YYZine, which talks about the impossibility of acting a death scene.

Judy: Right, the death scene is a limit between theatre and cinema. It's an obsession. It's one of the things that I think we try and understand through mimetic representation; by copying. And this is a big one - it doesn't work out. It's a total absurdity. We've all played dead one way or another to see if you can imagine not having consciousness, but it's the thing we can't imagine at all. It's a limit for the actor, it's a limit for the medium. Andre Loiselle talks about that in his essay for YYZ. For instance, in cinema you've got documentary where you do get to see a real dead body, but other than that you're involved in the territory of snuff film, or some kind of snuff theatre, so mostly you're dealing with the living corpse. I'm interested in these kinds of limit conditions of representation and performance, and so I just think of them as very basic. When I make an artwork it's kind of a philosophical object or some object of contemplation. Then it's just like creating something that I can keep puzzling with in my mind. That's what I'm doing now, thinking about how the piece functions.

CSV 25 September 2003

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