Holding space: An interview with Adam Lazarus

A man arrives on a mostly-bare stage in jeans and a hoodie, with a pair of children’s fairy wings strapped to his back. He is a father, and he’s there to share his impressions of his daughter with us –how she dances, the questions she asks, the games they both play together.

He’s also there to tell us how hard it can be to have a daughter, especially today. He wants to know whether some of his thoughts are problematic, a bit taboo. As the show unfolds, these thoughts and questions gain intensity, and become viciously honest. Father’s good-natured mask begins to slip, revealing a hideous shadow self. But it’s a self that’s been hiding in plain sight, forged from the ubiquity of patriarchy, at once surprising and all too familiar to us.

An energetic, funny and often shocking tight-rope act of a show, Daughter has generated a range of critical reaction overseas, from high praise to condemnation. Performed by award-winning Canadian theatre-maker (and of course Gaulier-trained clown) Adam Lazarus, the show makes its Australian debut in January 2019 as part of the annual Sydney Festival.

Homer talked to Adam about his motivation in making Daughter, the process of mining uncomfortable parts of masculinity, and what it means to present this work in the #MeToo era.

Daughter was created three years ago now. What was your initial impetus for the work?

The show was co-created with Anne-Marie, Jivesh and Melissa –who are the best team ever. It came out of an initial question in 2015, which was: How do we talk to our daughters in a world that’s not built to protect to them? The show’s created from about four-hundred to five-hundred hours of improvisation, riffing on that question.

In one of the earlier improvs, Jiv asked me a question: Do you think you own your daughter? And it made me realise, yes, I actually think I do. I own my son too, of course, in that he’s my son, and I care for him, but there’s something different about it. It was a huge thing to be called on, or as Jiv said, how very patriarchal. It got me thinking there are these systems that are ingrained in me that need undoing and re-examining.

Through going down that road then, and through development and play, the lens shifted, the question became: How do we raise our sons? How are we all accountable for this madness in which we’re living currently? We’re doing really bad things all the time – whether they’re overt sexual assaults, to micro-aggressions, like not even being aware of the thought, ‘my daughter is mine.’

That sounds like an incredibly topical question, but the show was conceived pre-#MeToo. Has it changed much over the seasons?

It has definitely changed quite a bit, but most of that change was pre-the #MeToo era. So in December of 2015 we wrote the very first draft, which was before Trump was elected, even. In that version the show ends with the Father dressing up as Daughter, putting on a wig, putting on lipstick. The last thing was a vision of her in freedom. It was terrible and didn’t work; people watched it and thought he transitions at the end, which wasn’t the point at all.

So we realised we had to, and wanted to, dig deeper into what the actual problem is that’s happening right now. And it became: that this man is on the rise, this sort of man, who even if he is not as bad as Trump, is this fragile white dude who is really scared. He’s losing his power, and in that threat of loss, defends himself at all costs. And I think it’s subconscious.

Since then, Trump’s been elected, Brexit’s happened, the night that we opened in Toronto the Louis CK article came out, Albert Schultz from Soulpepper happened –which is our version of Weinstein – and then there was Kavanaugh, and basically it went on and on.

It feels very important now to identify these behaviours, so what we want from the show really is for the men in the audience to really identify with the Father character, and to also see how what’s happening is bad. And also women who might be supporting that behaviour or excusing and being oblivious to it. Of course not everybody is like that, but that’s where the show finally landed.

How does your training in bouffon – an art form that can play with implicating an audience in seeing their worst selves – come into your work in general, and now in Daughter?

Yes, I have a background in clown, and bouffon specifically. I studied with a teacher in France, Philippe Gaulier. Bouffon is a kind of dark satire, it’s about holding up a mirror to society, reflecting people’s nature back to them so when they leave the room they go, oh my god, what were we laughing at? We should change. …

I have a trajectory of three bigger shows that landed me at Daughter. In the first, right out of theatre school, I played a monster, so more traditional bouffon, making fun of the audience’s views on beauty, aesthetics or love. I stopped doing that because I felt the distance from the audience in interpreting the monster as just a monster – which I didn’t want. The core of bouffon is that the audience’s reaction is right, so I had to move on.

My next show Bunker was about race. What Daughter is to gender, Bunker was to race. The character in Bunker is a guy named Elvis who’s forced into sensitivity training and ventriloquises all the people in that room.

In this show, I wanted to make that mask of bouffon so thin that people feel like they’re on the hook. That people are wondering: Am I looking at a real person in front of me? Daughter feels like you’re watching a stand-up comedian, a person who just comes into the theatre. So you can’t even have the distance of saying, people aren’t like that.

How have people reacted to this lack of distance? Have you been happy with the response to the show?

Absolutely – the response has been incredible. I’d say about eighty per cent of people really love it. The kind of live discussions we’ve been having in the foyer, or just weeks afterward, are amazing. It’s amazing for art to provoke a reaction as this piece has done. We didn’t set out to do that – or maybe we did. But it makes people examine their own lives, and you know, think back to when like, I did that thing when I was six years old and nobody said anything, nobody said it was wrong, and how we are all complicit in that silence.

After that I’d say about ten per cent don’t know what to make of it, and about ten per cent really dislike it or find it not for them. And I think it’s just not for some people. Some people watch the show and feel like, ‘Why did I need to see that? I’ve already experienced that trauma,’ even as others will say, ‘Thank you, that was the most cathartic thing.’ But I think if you’re at the point where it does feel like it’s ripping a scab or re-opening a wound, then it’s okay, it’s not time. I really respect that; it doesn’t have to be for everyone. It’s a very fine line in satire, and some people will always believe you make the problem worse.

And in this show, what’s scary as a performer is that I have to hold space for all of those reactions to be revealed. If you agree or disagree or if you say you hate it, that’s all correct and I respond and away we go. It’s an intense show, you’re being actively manipulated for an hour, but also the show makes room for all your reactions – it’s something that can only happen in the theatre. It’s a very challenging thing.

There is a current question here about whether we in the arts give a platform to a show like Daughter that embodies a toxic male voice – even though its intended as critique – at a time when were trying to amplify womens voices.

Completely. Anytime there’s another Kavanaugh or another incident, I just think, ‘Oh my god, I really wonder if we should do it again, like should we be contributing to this?’ And then it’s usually women in my team who come up to me and say no, do it more than ever, like you have to keep doing this show because it is happening right now.

Also it’s using what you’ve got – which is being this white Jewish dude, visibly white, audibly Jewish – to cheat the system. And to speak directly to people who you know think they’re just good guys, especially in the arts. That kind of guy who says no, it couldn’t be me really; I’m left-wing, I’m liberal. And importantly also there’s no redemption at the end of the show, for the father or for the audience, it’s just presented as is.

Also me and my three best friends – the co-creators – if I didn’t have them, there’s no way I could have made this show. I struggle to honour them in the way they deserve. They’re two women and a person of colour and that was crucial, it was so important. We knew we didn’t want to risk making an MRA show, and that we needed a lot of perspectives to pull it off. We knew it had to go deep enough, so that we were taking care of our audiences.

Im interested in what going deep enough’ looks like. It seems like this show required a creative process that excavated the worst bits of yourself.

Yes, totally. It was through those many hours of improvisation but also in having the voices of Melissa, Jiv and Anne-Marie in the room. In bouffon, as you know, it’s the idea of saying bad things in front of a room of people and making people laugh at those things. It’s scary, weird territory. You need to have people be that everyday mirror. So it was a process of finding out what people would laugh at, what they wouldn’t, and what was just not useful. I would come in with offers and some of them were were rightly vetoed as alienating or offensive, but on others they would push me to not side-step things. Any time it seemed like I was choosing a way out, it would be about standing behind the discomfort. Nobody tried to make it easy, just to be clear what we were doing and what we were dealing with. We’re trying to be activists here, we’re into social change, so we have to go darker and deeper.

On that note, do you think art, like Daughter, is capable of achieving material social change? Has it changed you as a person?

In terms of art, I think what it can do is rip open an idea and get people thinking. I’m not a politician or a therapist, but I think art can do that. I also think this show is the closest I’ve gotten in terms of wanting to be an activist, because of the civic engagement we’ve created around the show.

The conversations that are happening after the show are really interesting: men speaking about their emotions, realising they’re angry about certain things, or often not realising. We make sure to have a post-show discussion after every show. We also surround ourselves with organisations who are doing the work, like White Ribbon, Planned Parenthood, Transition House, and make people aware of them and also donate money from every run to charities.

For myself, oh my gosh, going through the process of making the show has definitely changed me. I’m more aware of my unconscious biases. My family has become more important to me than ever, wherever I go I take them with me. We’ve been able to see some amazing places together. What’s been the greatest thing, also, is really understanding the importance of listening and holding space for everyone. Just the need to listen more.

I suppose I’m taking up a bit of space so I can hold more space for others.

Daughter plays from 10–13 January 2019 at the Sydney Festival at Carriageworks. More information and ticketing can be found here.

Header image by Alejandro Santiago.

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