May 29, 2009
Know the anxious, wearing feeling you get when you really want to do something outside your usual comfort zone, but this little gnawing voice inside you keeps whispering, in that tiny, tinny, maliciously-snickery way, "you can't... you can't... " ? You know that going through with whatever task it is will, in some way, be an important step in terms of development, but there’s that constant voice - mocking, questioning, criticizing –making you question your judgment and motivation, making you weight the outcomes, blowing the putrid stench of fear all over your best intentions. It doesn’t matter whether the task is big or small; usually those tasks, for everyone, involve a display of vulnerability.
Vulnerability is scary. It implies openness. And within that openness, a willingness to go forwards, into the unknown. The best kind of creativity –and certainly, my favourite sort of live performance –involves artists confronting their own vulnerability. With performance, the fact this quest is done within a public sphere makes the journey all the more thrilling, involving, and yes, important. We need to see that bravery, so we can embrace it in ourselves and go forwards.
The Book of Judith is Michael Rubenfeld's attempt to wrap his head around his relationship with disabled advocate Judith Snow. As he told me when I interviewed him about the work on Take 5 recently, he met Snow through a friend who was working as her personal assistant. Snow has no qualms about displaying her vulnerability for all the world to see; then again, she doesn’t have much of a choice. She is a quadriplegic. She depends on others for her survival. She has had to make peace with her vulnerability being a fact –publicly and privately –for all of her fifty-plus years.
Rubenfeld was inspired to write a work around her when he was asked if he knew anyone who might want to be her lover. The Book Of Judith is his personal odyssey to create a work around Snow related to this most distinct of inquiries - but in so doing, he finds something much greater, something I suspect he hadn’t thought he’d find when he first started out. He finds the lines between "able" and "unable" dissolving; he finds definitions of “normal” and “abnormal” fading, and perhaps most importantly, he find a whole new way to embrace his own vulnerability –thus allowing us to embrace ours. Several times through the play, we’re asked to make eye contact with our fellow audience members, share food, sing, clap, cheer, and relate not just to what’s unfolding before us, but to what is being revealed within us.
I’ve always had mixed feelings around personal memoir-style theatre; much of it tends to fall into the gutter of self-indulgent preaching, and here, Rubenfeld walks a fine line; while he claims knowing Snow made him “a less arrogant prick,” he displays a stunning male bravado, full of ferocious cheerleading and sloganeering. That all falls away, however, when he realizes Snow had, in fact, wanted him as a lover. The fervent gospel-style preaching he’d indulged in earlier morphs into guilt, angst-ridden justifying, fervent bargaining, self-loathing, and finally, the kind of vulnerability that might make more staid audiences shift uncomfortably. Yup, he gets his kit off. The fact he so willingly uses his own body as a palette on which the audience may paint their own prejudices, sketch their own fears, and project their own vulnerabilities, is remarkable –it’s a brave choice, but it’s also the right one.
The Book Of Judith is a good reminder of the healing effects of connection, one of those being the community created through art. Judith Snow has written that “living in this way challenges and extends our courage, our love, our empathy for others and our creativity. We see and hear what others miss entirely.” That’s a good metaphor for artists. And Snow is her own kind of artist –the kind who accepts and in fact, loves her vulnerability. The voice we hear saying “you can’t” is one she’s turned into “I have… and I am.” Hallelujah. Praise be.