Jessica Fudim is known to be eccentric. Improvisation is typical of her work as artistic director of the Dance Animals. In every performance, she leaves room for the unexpected. Fudim and the Dance Animals blossomed as part of the legendary Queer community at Mama Carizo’s Voice Factory, whose influence remains alive and vital, as will be seen at SFIAF when they present Fudim’s much-admired solo performance as Little Bo Peep, “Sheepish,” as well as the world premiere of “Frank,” a related tale in which, according to their press, “a sheep treks through unfamiliar forests to find comfort in the arms of a weary fairy godmother.” The Dance Animals are queer theatre, children’s theatre, magical realism, just plain weirdness and highly original.
Here is the transcript of TheatreStorm’s recent interview with Jessica Fudim.
How would you describe your work?
I feel very at home in the realm of magical realism. My work is multimedia and interdisciplinary. I combine contemporary events, theatre, video, and music. Truthfully, it’s hard to describe. There’s so much to talk about. With the present piece, I’d say it’s all about inclusivity. That pertains to who is performing—it is so important to cast performers who reflect the world around us. Different body types, different backgrounds, and skin colors. Different ages, too. And not just on stage but in the audience. I want to build a world of diversity both on the stage and in the house. Variety! And friendly to everybody.
Which is not to say we don’t go to some dark places, because we are influenced by fairytales, and those are really dark. So, for example, in the piece “Sheepish,” we deal with death and reconciliation with loss.
Our work is not really a linear narrative; it is somewhat abstracted.
Also, I like to leave room for the unknown, for an element of surprise. There are sections where I don’t know what’s going to happen. For example, before the performance, I’ll interview audience members and make a collage of their answers. Then I hand that to the tech person and, later, I dance to it. Who knows what it’ll be? I don’t! But it all belongs.
What are some of your influences?
My children, of course! They are six and eight. One of the ways I have shifted in my process since becoming a Mom is approaching the work with more curiosity. One of the phrases I use with my children—since they were in preschool—is “what would happen if we <blank>”?” What would it look like if we <blank>?
I’ve been applying that investigative non-judgemental process to my work with Dance Animals. That’s how I work with my performers. It is quite collaborative and I find that growing the piece like this works really well. So my performers and cohorts in this kind of curious exploration are a big influence.
My children have taught me to make room for curiosity! And that carries over.
Otherwise, I was really influenced by Dwayne Carizo—Mama Carizo’s voice Factory—where we used to do punk shows and drag shows together. He was a huge influence on many, including me. Not just artistically, but also in his commitment to social change and inclusivity. He had a way of welcoming everybody. He looked for ways to be more inclusive with non-binary people, with people of color, with gay and lesbian people, and people who were differently abled. He helped me to use my eyes and my mind to broaden how we see who gets to be on stage! And in the audience too. He taught me about the intersection between creating social change and creating art. And wearing fabulous wigs.
The fairy godmother, in “Frank,” is somewhat based on him. People called him Mama.
Also, Joe Good and Erica Shuck, with whom I have worked many times over the years, are a huge influence. I love both of them. Especially how they incorporate spoken text in their work.
How would you describe your daily artistic practice?
When I’m alone, I work a lot making drawings and maps. And writing, too. And I’m always asking “What if….”
Because I’m working with younger performers, I want to include in every rehearsal, a brief warmup to help them develop their personal practice. I want to share that knowledge with them, what I wish I had learned when I was a younger dancer. So we do a lot of warmups.
Because its collaborative, I generally start by saying: here’s the challenge or the problem, let’s do it a few times and see what we come up with. We look for the gems, and then highlight or shape them.
We discover our movement. We don’t do it ahead of time. No way.
How does the upcoming performance planned for SFIAF relate to the theme of “The Path to Democracy?” Or, what are you specifically seeking to address in the upcoming performance for SFIAF?
When I heard of this theme, I thought about how, like so many in our country today, I’m really upset about how our government is behaving. I go to marches, I write letters and posters, I take my kids with me when I vote—I try to do things as an activist and I’d like to do more. The plight of refugees and so-called “illegals” inspires me to reflect on my own family’s heritage; my father’s family emigrated from Eastern Europe to escape Stalin’s pogroms. They would have likely perished if they’d stayed in the Ukraine. I think of their journey on a ship to New York and Ellis Island and how they started a life here. So my work reflects that—the many stories of people who seek better lives. So a story about a sheep leaving its home to find help from a tired fairy godmother in a new land—does that help the world? I don’t know. But it is a way to explore these stories, and I’m making a vision of what I want the world to be. That is the power of storytelling; we can dress it in so many different ways. And maybe that helps us absorb the hard stories. I don’t know, but the short answer is: “The Path to Democracy” is a story, right? Like everything else. We need to tell and celebrate all the stories. There are so many!
What would you say to someone who wants to do what you do?
Oh my goodness! Ha ha ha ha ha! When you ask me that, do you mean someone who makes dance theatre work? Oh my gosh, what a really tough question.
I don’t know—there are so many ways to work!
I would encourage that person to care of their body, to make time and space for their thinking body and physical body to communicate with each other. I’d say it is so important to find balance. Sometimes young artists try to do everything, work themselves to the bone, go to everything and make the scene: but you have to take care of yourself and be healthy in the process.
Another thing I’d say is, don’t be shy about asking for help, to lean on the community. Nobody makes art alone; you can’t do it all. There’s not enough time. Collaborate! Then the work becomes richer.
Jessica Fudim & The Dance Animals will perform “Sheepish,” and “Frank” at the San Francisco International Arts Festival on Saturday, June 1st and Sunday, June 2nd. For further information, CLICK HERE.
Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture (FMCAC) hosts these performances as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, which runs from May 23, 2019 to June 2, 2019. The Festival features performances by more than 50 different artists, ensembles, and companies including dance, theatre, music, and comedy, plus various educational activities and public receptions. Get discounts on tickets to see multiple shows by buying a Festival pass. More details CLICK HERE.