Interview with Jānis Balodis
In May, I went to the Baltics with dramaturg and literary manager Anne Morgan. For two weeks we ran workshops at the Latvian Academy of Culture in Riga, and the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre in Vilnius. In between teaching dramaturgy (Anne) and playwriting (me), we got to know Jānis Balodis—a playwright whose work is playful, wry, but unflinchingly political.
I first saw his play The Last of the Pioneers performed in Latvian, but even across a language barrier, I could tell that I was witnessing something ambitious and unusual. I followed him down the street the next day interrogating him about it. (He would later refer to this kindly as the nice walk we took together.) Shortly thereafter, I saw his other play 3 Musketeers—East of Vienna, performed in English.
A multi-media piece, 3 Musketeers opens at the moment in which Athos, Porthos, and Aramis have woken up in modern-day Europe. Confused and far from home, they embark on a road trip that is partially captured in film footage—three actors dressed as musketeers stay in character as they encounter bemused strangers, right-wing political rallies, or Syrian refugees. It’s the quintessential enter-the-stranger paradigm: what is this strange world? How does it work? What are the rules? Et voilà, the familiar is made unfamiliar, and we are invited to see ourselves with stunning clarity—to laugh, until suddenly we can’t. Given that the Europe across which the Musketeers go ranging is a Europe contending with border issues, refugees, and the fear-fueled xenophobia that follows, this comedy contains the seeds of tragedy.
My first reactions to Jānis’s work were huge, oversize, deep-seated. His kind of theatre accomplishes so much of what I seek to do. His plays are irreverent, disarmingly playful—but they unfold for us a raw wound, something that demands our attention. I reached out to Jānis when I was back home, to continue the conversation. Below is some of what we talked about.
Jen: Who have some of your formative influences been? How have their aesthetics influenced your own?
Jānis: Martin McDonagh. At the time I was studying, his works reached Latvia a lot. There were, I think, all his main works running in theatres here, sometimes the same play even in two different theatres at the same time, which doesn’t happen often. Theatres are cautious about that because audiences are not big, here—I would speculate approximately 40, 000 in Riga, which is a city of 700, 000 people.
McDonagh’s influence on me has been the ability to mix tragedy together with really dark humor. And, I don’t know—a poetic feeling comes out naturally from this kind of mix. I like these slaps of tragedy and fun in some sick way. This is for me very human. I can also admire Marquez, although some of his books I found hard to finish. Maybe some of my desire to play with elements of magic realism comes from him. Probably as a way to survive a world of Martin McDonagh. I believe in sad but magic moments of escape.
Jen: Both of your plays that I saw are deeply engaged with Latvian and European politics. Can you talk a little bit about The Last of the Pioneers?
Jānis: I have a strong interest in history. I enjoy having a look at the mainstream idea or version of events, and then trying to find side-stories, broadening the information we already have. The Last of Pioneers was an attempt in this direction. We have 2 million people here in Latvia, and 35 percent of them are non-Latvians—I guess you could call them “Russian-speaking.” They are not all Russians ethnically, but they use Russian as their main language to communicate. After fifty years of Soviet occupation, our legacy is a big Russian-speaking community.
The sad part of this history is that Latvia broke a promise to this community, when we broke away from the USSR (we call it the Third Uprising). It wasn’t only Latvians who took part in this Uprising—there were also a lot of people from the Russian-speaking community who were for independence, and who voted to have a democratic republic. And they were promised that they would gain citizenship. But when the Soviet Union was no more and Latvia had nothing to be afraid of, there was no need to support the Russian-speaking community as promised. So the majority in the parliament decided to grant citizenship only to people who were living here before the occupation, and their descendants.
In this play, I and my director wanted to have a look at the generation who were growing up in Russian-speaking families and learning in Russian-speaking schools during the Uprising. At that time, they would have been fifteen, sixteen years old. We wanted to show how it was for them, for the last of the “Pioneers.”
Jen: Can you talk a little bit about 3 Musketeers—East of Vienna?
Jānis: The idea comes from Finnish actor Carl Alm and Latvian director Valters Sīlis. I don’t know which of them first came up with the idea, but I think they developed it together. And even when the idea was clear—send three actors on a road trip across Europe dressed as the infamous Musketeers—there were a lot of questions to answer before we decided to do it.
At first, it was meant to be pure fantasy to set this trip right before the borders of Europe are going to be once again shut. We were going to create this fantasy, and then play with it: the Musketeers must run from Spain back to Finland before the borders close. We also had the idea that one of the Musketeers will die, so then the other two have a dead friend in the car that they have to take back home.
But then Maidan in the Ukraine happened. Crimea happened. And we felt that our science fiction was starting to become true…and we have to come up with something else. So we took Eastern Europe as our focus. Send the Musketeers to the front line and try to deal with all the ethical and moral questions that would provoke. But then right before we embarked—the refugee crisis started. So we realized that we should go to the EU border between Serbia and Hungary, and skip Donbass and stick only with Crimea.
Initially, I was not to take part in the trip, in order to receive all the footage after those ten days and be able to look at it with fresh eyes. My initial job was to propose how to combine video with onstage action—curate the relationship between technology and actors, and write a script for them.
Jen: But you did end up going on some of the road trip, right? Can you tell me what that experience was like for you?
Jānis: I joined the actors and camera man in Odessa, Ukraine. We had one more day to go—a trip from Odessa to Kiev. But actually Kiev wasn’t the place we spent the most of the time that day. The Musketeers found the best place they’d seen on their trip—Honka, the residency of the former president Viktor Yanukovych. There they found a real taste of style—John Lennon piano, $88,000 chandeliers, snakeskin flowerpots. We liked it a lot. So much that we had the actor playing Athos write a poem about the place.
After all that opulence, we went to Kiev—to Maidan Square—which is a place where more than a hundred people were killed during the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution. Many things from that time are still preserved there—homemade metal shields with sniper bullet holes, flags, photographs of the fallen, candles. People still come there to hold vigils in the evenings.
After revolutions, barricades are taken away at some point. But I felt that in Maidan Square, they do not want to take away everything. They want to keep it as a constant reminder to everyone—that the values people were willing to risk their lives and die for are not accomplished yet. The struggle for accountability and justice is not yet over. It’s palpable there.
As for you, I took a workshop with you in Riga. Do you find teaching relevant and interesting, or is it a necessity in order to make a living?
I have a strong interest in history. I enjoy having a look at the mainstream idea or version of events, and then trying to find side-stories, broadening the information we already have.— Jānis Balodis
Jen: I actually do find teaching interesting and relevant. When I’m teaching, I have to keep interrogating what I find valuable—aesthetically, structurally, politically. There’s this image of the “pure” writer who is off the grid in a cabin, churning out work, and while of course that’s a delicious fantasy of mine, it feels important to stay engaged.
Jānis: Do you think a playwright has some kind of obligation to society?
Jen: I’m not sure about a blanket statement for all playwrights. But I think it’s my obligation to make work that responds in some way to what is happening in my country. Even if that response is oblique, or darkly comedic, or absurdist. I can’t bury my head in the sand, and write nice, friendly plays that could come out of any time period. The “here and now” of it all feels crucial for me.
And I think it’s my obligation (but to be fair, also my inclination) to write complicated, meaty roles for women, queer characters, actors of color—in TV or film as much as in theatre. Our media really does shape our collective consciousness—and our collective conscience. If we aren’t seeing a particular kind of person portrayed with humanity, or portrayed at all, then it’s easier for the majority to underestimate or even erase the humanity of that person.
Jānis: I read your play Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops, and I started to like it at the moment I saw its title. Can you talk about this play?
Jen: So, the play is about five women all named Betty Boop. They come from wildly varying backgrounds—different classes, different races, different sexual identities. The play is a provocative comedy that is essentially about these women beginning to notice, for the first time in their lives, how they have been “cast” by society—and to a degree, by each other. They start wanting more, and demanding more, and they end up taking a giant pickax to their lives. And of course they also fall in love, since love is a big part of revolution.
Jānis: Where did it come from? Were there events in your life that struck you so hard that you had to write something about them? Or was it more like a long time of inner processing which lead to this play?
Jen: I recently read an article by Parul Sehgal about the French writer Virginie Despentes. In it, Sehgal says: “[Despentes] has a sustained commitment to rage, which she believes is leached out of women too early and too easily. They’re schooled in docility.” And then Sehgal quotes Despentes as saying: “Anger is not depression. Anger is working with desire and humor. Anger is destructive, but very active.” I hadn’t read this when I was writing Collective Rage, but when I stumbled across it, I felt like: Oh, this is it!
The play came out of a moment in which I started really noticing all the ways in which women are asked to be docile and quiet and polite. I was living in a neighborhood where, whenever I left my apartment, guys would yell shit at me on the street. I didn’t feel scared, I just felt angry—that I was supposed to let them perform these displays of masculinity for each other, without pushing back. (And we’re always told not to push back, because then we’re “courting” violence—notice where the blame is placed.) So that was one thing—and then I’d be in these spaces where everyone was performing civilized intellect—and I was still encountering this sense of like, “Let the men do the talking, they have all these big weighty ideas to share.” It was a weird convergence of experiences that told me: whether you’re on the street, or at a capital E Event, the space that you are permitted to take up is very circumscribed.
I was talking to my partner, Dane Laffrey, about all of this—he’s a scenic designer, so I was fantasizing out loud about the theatrical visuals of my rage. I was joking, like: “And then there’s a blood cannon, and then the audience rushes the stage, and then we burn the theatre down.” I wish I could remember exactly how it happened, but I remember he said, “What if there were all these Betty Boops?” I think he was like, “What if there were twelve Betty Boops?” It was like a light switch turning on. There’s something so playful and seditious in the idea of somebody’s inner Boop-ness…their inner pre-programmed role. (Producers everywhere, you are welcome for the reduction to five. The blood cannon and conflagration didn’t make it either.)
Jānis: What’s behind your decision to call the characters Betty Boops?
Jen: Betty Boop is this ultra-feminine icon of Americana. She represents disempowered female sexuality—she’s childlike, she’s always wearing these tiny short skirts, but she doesn’t seem to know that men respond to her body. She spends so much of those old cartoons running away from guys who want to rape her, basically. She is an amazing symbol of how a woman looks when seen through a very particular type of male gaze. And of course that portrayal of women is inherently political—as is the subversion of it.
The political theatre I appreciate most is never didactic or sentimental. I’m drawn to the plays that ask uncomfortable questions or let us laugh at our assumptions. Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy or Basil Kreimendahl’s Sidewinders are for me the quintessence of provocative political plays. And I responded so strongly to that same thing in your own work. For you, when you took that road trip in Europe with the Musketeers, how did it make you think about politics in your work?
Jānis: It makes me think of that palpable feeling I mentioned, in the Maidan Square. The constant reminder that the struggle for honesty and justice is not over. Of course this feeling was generated by the people who are directly connected with the massacre. But then it finds a way into me, so then I ask: “How do I pass it on?” This is the one of the biggest questions I need to answer when doing any kind of play, especially a political one—how to pass genuine feeling to an audience? Because I think a political work is also very emotional.