Жизнь – игра, or, all the world’s a stage in ethnographic theater

I was touched this week to reread an article published online by a local news source in Petrozavodsk, Russia where I conduct my fieldwork. My dear friend and collaborator, Vladimir Rudak, a musician, filmmaker, writer, and disability activist from Petrozavodsk shared his impressions of the United States with reporter Asya Kosheleva. I was fortunate to have been able to invite Rudak to the US as part of an ethnographic theater project, a play development workshop and staging of I WAS NEVER ALONE at the Shank Theatre at UC San Diego.

In the article, in Russian, Rudak describes his impressions of the campus at UC San Diego, of accessible infrastructure in the US versus in Russia, about differences in how disability is approached as a subject for study and issue of inclusion in both countries. And, he reflects on his impressions of the play project and the experience of watching Jason Dorwart play a role based on interviews with Rudak himself.

Read the article, in Russian, here.

The article, riffing on the complexity of Rudak’s experience of watching an actor play a role based on himself, titled the article with the phrase, Life is a Play, recalling the Shakespearean soliloquy that begins “all the world’s a stage” (the Russian is usually translated a bit differently, because the word the journalist used – igra – can mean either “stage play” or “game”). The title is an apt one for an ethnographic theater project, where the boundaries between research, life, art, and presentation of research blur together. As an ethnographer inviting Rudak to UC San Diego to participate in the play workshop, in many ways, I flipped the script – suddenly my interlocutor was in my cultural homeland, observing, recording, assessing, and commenting. Watching the actors and director and dramaturg interpret the stories that I had recorded in Russia – mostly with people that Rudak knows himself – and suss out how to represent a Russian sensibility on a sparsely decorated American stage – became an opportunity for us to theorize together. Now, in reading Rudak’s comments to reporters, I discover Rudak translating those experiences for a general audience back home. In this, the roles shift, and get destabilized: who is ethnographer, and who is subject? Reading Rudak’s narrative of his trip to the US, I discover some element the strangeness that he must have felt in seeing his life and lifeworld recorded and adapted for an audience. And, in this, I feel flush with awe at the kind of mutual trust needed to build such a reciprocal project. The staging in La Jolla was over a year ago, and the play script has gone unperformed since them – but still, we are all continually transformed by the theater of the project itself.

Meanwhile, Jason Dorwart has published reflections on the La Jolla process in journal TheatreForum. In his commentary, Dorwart centers the ways that the ethnographic approach centers the life experiences of people with disabilities contra many theatre scripts, which, he argues, persist in using disability as a plot device to serve an ableist narrative or erasing it altogether. He reflects on the ways that nondisabled actors had to shift their perceptions of disability and interdependency in order to play the roles convincingly.

In this way, the “two Rudaks'” separate and very different publications reflecting on the La Jolla performance might be taken as a case study for the complexity of collective theatrical meaning-making. On the one hand, each contributor’s experience was deeply shaped by interaction with the others. On the other hand, their conclusions are quite separate, perhaps reflecting their respective advocacy aims (Rudak’s toward greater inclusion and access in general in Petrozavodsk, Dorwart’s toward a shift in thinking about how disability appears on stage, particularly in the US). In turn, this aspect of the ethnographic process – the process and performance of the script – fold back in to my own work as an ethnographer. As I work through manuscripts about life in Petrozavodsk, I draw on memories and experiences from the play process.

Jason is a young white man with a grey beard. He is wearing a blue short sleeve buttondown shirt, smiling, and sitting in a power wheelchair. Behind him is Laura Dorwart, who has medium length blond hair and glasses and is wearing a dark blue tshirt and smiling. Vladimir Rudak is a white man in middle age. He is wearing a dark green hoodie, and sitting in a manual wheelchair next to Jason. Rudak is smiling and leaning toward Jason and has is elbow on Jason's chair's arm rest. Standing behind Rudak is Larisa, a tall woman with blond hair wearing a light blue jean jacket with a white shirt and necklace, and smiling at the camera.

Jason Dorwart, Laura Dorwart, Vladimir Rudak, and Larisa Kukshieva at a cast party in La Jolla, California. Jason played the role of “Rudak” – based on interviews with Rudak himself, in the La Jolla staged reading of the documentary play I WAS NEVER ALONE, October 2016.

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