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Salty Surrealism: In Conversation with creative Ruxy Cantir

As Moldovan-born, Glasgow-based visual performer Ruxy Cantir is set to bring her new tragicomic solo show, Pickled Republic, to St Andrews this autumn, I sat down with her to discuss the absurdist piece and her experience as an artist in today’s industry.

The surreal cabaret welcomes its audience to the jar — in which tragedy floats in the salty atmosphere, and where pickled vegetables on the edge of decay are forced to ask existential questions that mirror the inherently human search for meaning. The production promises that ‘you’ll leave all stirred up, but none the wiser’.

Bobbing through the briny synopsis, I swam up to loosen the lid on Cantir’s creative mind, and performance past.

David: Being both born and raised in Moldova, how has Eastern European culture shaped your sense of comedy and performance?

Ruxy: I often say that being born and raised in Moldova provided me with a keen eye for the absurd, because we just lived alongside it for so long. I was born right at the cusp of the fall of the Soviet Union and I remember the paradoxes we lived with in that era - transitioning from a system that forced us to read and write our Latin-based language in the Cyrillic alphabet, all of a sudden trying to be a state with working currency, forging a national identity out of a discarded heap of broken bits left as a result of an oppressive system. All set against a backdrop of national poverty, it just meant that we found joy and play wherever we could, and oftentimes it was against the backdrop of literal garbage.

One of the more celebrated theatres and styles in Moldova continues to be the work of Eugene Ionesco. The ‘Golden Age’ of Moldovan theatre in the 90s was mostly based on Ionesco’s work. People still talk about legendary performances of his plays from that time. I think it shaped our sense of humour to a degree, and certainly mine, too.

David: How do you find this has complemented or contrasted with Scottish/Glaswegian humour?

Ruxy: I think it’s both complemented and contrasted with Glaswegian humour. For one, Glasgow has a very rich history of vaudeville (Stan Laurel!) and variety acts. My type of humour and theatre making has jived with that, having done short form clown cabaret scratches in Glasgow and Edinburgh when I first arrived in Scotland. But I also had lots to learn and marvel at Scottish and Glaswegian humour - mainly the verbal repartee and gift of the gab - which has never been my forte, in any language.

David: You mentioned there that you had lots to learn; over your career, what has been the most valuable lesson you have learned?

Ruxy: To surround oneself with the right people. Everything good that I’ve done has been surrounded or supported by people who inspired me, made me laugh, believed in me and were tickled by my own brand of kookiness. It’s kind of amazing to see things take leaps when the timing is right and when the right people are in the room. It’s hard to find those people, and it takes time, but it’s so worthwhile.

The other thing that was hard to learn, is that things take time. Often much longer than you’d think. I struggled with this a lot, wanting immediacy and speed. But the reality of it all is that things take time to grow and mature. There’s a great quote by Ira Glass somewhere, I’ll butcher it - sometimes your ideas are ahead of your current skill and capability, so it just means you have to give yourself time to get to the same level as your dreams and ideas.

David: Being a woman in theatre today is not without its hurdles, what has your experience been as a female theatre performer? Moreover, what is your advice to women in St Andrews who want to pursue a career within the arts?

Ruxy: The usual really hehe. In my experience in the past, I’ve found I needed to go the extra mile(s) in my performance, my organisation/admin, and patience to be taken seriously as a theatre maker and performer. It doesn’t happen as much, luckily, or not as overtly. And the truth is that because of how my career is set up - where I make and perform my own work - I have control over most aspects of my career. This is a huge privilege and really empowering.

I suppose my advice to women in St Andrews who want to pursue a career in the arts is to explore various aspects of their creativity - as in, if you’re a performer, try your hand at writing your own material, or making your own costumes, or producing your own work. It just means that you have more say over aspects of your career and you learn lots along the way. Having a bit of a holistic way to look at your career is great. The other piece of advice I have is to create and lean on your community of fellow artists. I’ve found great solace and support, and hopefully I’ve provided the same, to the community of friends and artists I’ve created, especially female artists. Sometimes the industry will pit women (and artists in general) against each other. Resist that as much as possible. There’s space for everyone and supporting and learning from each other actually goes a much longer way than perceived competition.

David: You are of course a physical theatre performer, described as having a ‘wordless physicality’, therefore how do your creative ideas/visions manifest into performance, and what is this process like?

Ruxy: In terms of process, just getting up on my feet and trying things out physically is the thing that teaches me the most. Often I’ll have an idea, or an image, a character posture, or a movement I’d like to try and it’s the doing of it physically that will inform me more of what it is, what it can be, or sometimes lead me to something else altogether! It can also tell me that it’s absolute garbage, which is great to know too. But I think I always have a departure point, some crazy thing that my imagination came up with, an itch.

For example - there’s a tomato character in Pickled Republic. It originated with me finding this hilarious stretchy mu-mu dress in Moldova many years ago. I started wearing it in weird ways, and finally found what I thought was a hilarious way to wear it - legs through arm holes. The more I played around in that, the more juicy it felt, and then all of a sudden I found that it was a pickled tomato in a jar. And that piece alone put the basis down for the entire show. But it all started with an item of clothing and physical experimentation with it. Sometimes those sparks feel like revelations, and other times like a string of quiet, small discoveries that form a character or a scene.

It doesn’t mean I don’t use words at all, or that I don’t write words. In fact, Pickled Republic has a lot of words, but all would have come out of something physical first - whether it was a character physicality I explored/improvised, a movement to music/sounds or an idea I “took for a walk”.

I suppose the process reflects my own philosophy that first there’s an impulse in our imaginations and bodies, and words follow that. I do believe physical gesture is the epitome of human expression. Someone said that words approximate truth and I think in the context of my work and life, probably, I believe that. I suppose I just trust the physical body more than words. Words can lie, and so can the physical body, I suppose, but I find that it’s much more truthful.

David: Absurdism has been a central trope within modern theatre, and indeed your own work, therefore what do you feel is the importance behind telling absurdist narratives in theatre?

Ruxy: First of all, great question.

Second of all, hard question. But I love that we’re talking about it.

In some capacity, I think absurdism is tied to how our brain dreams and makes sense of the world. It’s about making connections that “normally” wouldn’t happen. A pickled tomato in a jar that laments about her unfulfilled purpose? Yes please. And how odd that I feel connected to that, not because I myself am a pickled tomato, but because I recognise that struggle and I see my experience mirrored in that.

I’ve always felt more drawn to absurdist narratives because they oddly feel more connected to our human experience. Indirectly, poetically, I feel seen, amused and horrified by the reflection of my reality.

In addition and most importantly perhaps, oftentimes absurd things also mean that they’re so outlandish or otherworldly that they provoke laughter and massage the brain in a way that nothing else will. And that’s the way in, through laughter, to some deep truths that we are afraid to look at, or didn’t think to look at. Magical realism and surrealism have always done that - Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mircea Cartarescu, and the surrealist movement exemplified by Leonora Carrington, among many others, of course.

David: Regarding Pickled Republic, what was the inspiration behind it?

Ruxy: A story that my uncle in Moldova told me once. The short of it is that in Moldova, we still have keeners (funeral criers) at funerals. And a family friend who was a keener, was invited to a funeral and decided to get in the coffin herself and snap a picture of herself in it “because she wanted to see what she’d look like when she died”. And I found that story so inappropriate, so outlandish, so funny - so paradoxical and absurd - that it inspired me to create something along those themes included in that story. Mind you, Pickled Republic has no coffins and really, makes no reference to this story. I view that story more as a jumping off point, a spark that provoked my imagination and came at the right time for me to start bubbling on something.

David: The show asks some existential questions, what is the importance behind asking these?

Ruxy: Reflections around purpose are important and again better done through absurdist tools. The pandemic/post pandemic has made us all feel somewhat adrift, purpose-less at least a little, and at least at one point in the last 3 years.

Adults don’t get a lot of chances to experience some playful nonsense, have a brain massage. So I think it’s important to provide a fun space to reflect and consider these types of existential questions, to watch some absurd characters wrestle with those questions. In some venues, we’ll have pickle parties after the show, and those will provide a chance to sit in that existential brine a bit more, actively reflect or simply have fun, be joyous in that briny soup, and have a picture taken as a gherkin.

David: Bringing the show to St Andrews must be an exciting venture given our thriving student theatre scene, so why should a St Andrews student come to the show and what will they gain from it?

Ruxy: I’m excited about the prospect of connecting with St. Andrews students, because of how vibrant the community there is. “Make the work you want to see” right? When I was at university, I think I would have loved to see a show like this. But more importantly, students are at a point where they’re figuring out what they want to do in their lives, what brings them joy, what gives them purpose.

I think the show is a great platform to see some of those questions wrestled with - by ridiculous pickled veg characters. And if anything, it’s a chance to see an entirely visual, atmospheric, rambunctious high octane show that might tickle students’ fancy, that does not rely on naturalistic narrative or dialogue and instead massages your brain the way a loopy dream might. I’d like to think that it’s a layered reflection on purpose, meaning, and endings wrapped up in an atmospheric, mad visual completely ridiculous wrapper, with Lynch-like dread sprinkled on top, on a German cabaret serving dish.

David: Lastly, describe Pickled Republic in three words.

Ruxy: Unnerving, beguiling, entrancing.

Pickled Republic comes to the Byre Theatre on the 23rd of September. Tickets are available from the Byre website.

Image 1: Ruxy Cantir

Image 2: Andy Caitlin

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