Rudakoff’s far-reaching roots

Rhizome: a thick underground horizontal stem that produces roots and has shoots that develop into new plants.

Contemporary theatre historian, playwright, dramaturg and now horticulturalist, Judith Rudakoff has many accomplishments to her name, and now perhaps her latest is as sower and nurturer of an ambitious undertaking called Common Plants: Cross Pollinations in Hybrid Reality.

Left: Judith Rudakoff

A professor of theatre in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, Rudakoff is in the midst of her Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council-funded project, Common Plants, research that spans two hemispheres and a diversity of communities and cultures.

The work thus far has seen Rudakoff bundled up, sitting on rifles and travelling in a traditional wooden sled pulled by snowmobile across the frozen water of Frobisher Bay at 40 below zero. “The guns are there in case of polar bears,” she adds nonchalantly.

“A core question I am asking of Common Plants is: Is home where you are or is home where you come from?” To explore that question, the project uses a variety of methodologies, including challenging the artist participants in Nunavut and South Africa, to create and perform a cycle of short, site-specific plays. Artists perform in their language of choice: Inuktitut, English, French, Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana or Afrikaans, incorporating music, dance and vocal work.

“The plays share several commonalities, including a collaboratively delineated character called Ashley and a set of given circumstances,” says Rudakoff.

Right: Rudakoff prepares photographic documentation for the Common Plants project with a Lomo Camera

“Each version of the cycle of plays is performed at a site relevant to the material — in the artist’s home, as was the case in South Africa, where the cycle moved from Cape Town neighbourhoods to Gugulethu Township, to Khayelitsha and then Nyanga East.”

Rudakoff says the work is videotaped and then each “Ashley cycle” is viewable by both general public and the artist participants on the Common Plants interactive Web site. “Through the sharing of experience, the commonalities of theme and expression the geographical distance and diversity of cultural filters are both clear.”

“When I conceived the project, I realized that we were creating a rhizome: a root system that spread yet stayed connected to each individual plant despite distance and difference. I considered the issues raised by the artists and youth in Iqaluit and Cape Town, and saw that, somehow, they shared common concerns.”

“We found many commonalities in the areas and the people, where you would think there were none,” says Rudakoff. “Per capita, Iqaluit has the highest suicide rate in Canada. And the region also boasts the most artists per capita in the country. Khayelitsha Township — where our youth participants come from — was recently named the murder capital of South Africa in the local press. Dealing with substance abuse, violent crime and other serious problems run rampant in both locations.

“One of our goals was to show the groups we’re working with — whether professional artists or youth — that they are not alone in what they’re experiencing. Some participants are communicating with each other through the Web site’s Common Ground forum.”

Left: A lomographic image by Judith Rudakoff 

South African project collaborator Mark Fleishman, artistic director of Magnet Theatre and professor of drama at University of Cape Town, chose participants from among professional artists and 13-to-18-year-olds in Magnet Theatre’s youth-at-risk program in Khayelitsha. In Iqaluit, high-school teacher Renata Solski chose the youth participants. Qaggiq Theatre, mandated to create and produce work by Canada’s First People, is the artist project liaison in Nunavut.

“The artists and the youth we’re working with are sharing their lives, their fears and their hopes, says Rudakoff. “I am constantly moved and encouraged as they make art inspired by their own stories.

“One youth in Cape Town said, ‘I never thought my own story would interest anybody. This is the first time I have ever talked about myself. I feel different now.’ Another said, ‘You sent me home to ask my parents about ancestral home and clan names. I had never had a conversation that long with my parents before’.”

Rudakoff anticipates collaboratively creating another Ashley Cycle at both geographical sites in 2007, which will be transcultural, international in scope and will be streamed on the Web site.

The Common Plants Web site was developed by York University student Daria Smirnova based on Rudakoff’s concept. Andrew Cheng, a York senior theatre student, facilitated the youth workshops in Iqaluit in Oct. 2006.

For more information about Judith Rudakoff, click here. To learn more about her project visit the Common Plants Web site.

This article was written by former YFile editor Cathy Carlyle, now a freelance writer and contributor to YFile.