A short history of Baņuta Rubess, the writer

WRITING FOR THE STAGE

 

Theatre, Musicals, Opera

Baņuta Rubess has written over a dozen works for the stage, all of which have been produced, many published. She has written about strong and dashing women, good and bad sex, cooking and childbirth, politics and divine grace. Much of her work draws on real events and history. Often she is the director of her own work. Several of her plays are popular with amateur and professional theatre companies, and studied in school and university drama courses.

 

Early work

Baņuta made a splashing debut as a playwright with a musical she penned and directed in 1978, with a cast of 18, and a major orchestra, all performed by amateurs flying in from across the globe.  Written in Latvian, gleefully toying with sacred cows, her re-visioned national heroes were urged to question authority. Varoņdarbi (Heroica) premiered at a youth arts festival on the huge stage of Place des Arts, Montreal. The resulting scandal in the Latvian diaspora pitted one generation against the other, and as a result, subsequent productions in New York and Toronto were sold out.

 

Varoņdarbi

 

While in Oxford, Baņuta joined up with Neil Bartlett, who launched A Company (1978-79), an avant-garde  ensemble  exploring the nature of theatre and its relationship to the audience.  All productions were created collectively and performed in non-theatrical  sites, including on a billiard table during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.This experience influenced many other works to come.

 

Feminist themes

Between 1983 and 1990, Baņuta created a string of works in association with, or commissioned by, Nightwood Theatre in Toronto.

Her first fringe production in Toronto gained immediate attention - a collective creation which she initiated, called This is for you, Anna. A study of women and violence,  this imagistic piece became a classic of Canadian theatre. Anna has been repeatedly published by Canadian Theatre Review.

 

Review

 

Baņuta went on to write two more plays for Nightwood, including Smoke Damage and the hilarious Pope Joan, a comedy, produced in Toronto in 1984 and  nominated for a Chalmers Canadian Play Award.  Both of these plays were published, by Exile Editions and Borealis Press respectively.

 

Teenage audiences

When a friend working at a rape crisis centre suggested that drama might prevent sexual violence, Rubess got involved with Theatre Direct, a company interested in relevant theatre for young people.  Together with writer Beverley Cooper, she co-wrote Thin Ice, a powerful drama for teenagers. The play won the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Theatre for Young Audiences and the Chalmers Children's Play Award,1987. This play has been produced by numerous theatres across Canada, as well as by a Latvian theatre company. It was published by Playwrights' Canada.

 

For Theatre Direct, Baņuta subesquently wrote and directed Horror High,, a story about suicide, in 1989.  This was the story of a young boy's slide into depression after the death of a friend, and involved live percussion and interaction with filmed material.The production was Nominated for a Dora Award, Outstanding Production in Children's Theatre.

 

Music Theatre and Opera

In 1988, Baņuta began to explore the shifting terrain between theatre and music, an adventure which continues to this day.

The first milestone was Boom, Baby, Boom!, a beatnik-meets-ethnic story. The fractured narrative juxtaposed the beginnings of jazz in Toronto,in 1959, with the experience of Latvian  refugees.This was the first of many collaborations with composer Nic Gotham. Boom, Baby, Boom! was published in The CTR Anthology (1993) and by Exile Editions (1996).

 

Boom

 

As perestroika ushered in tremendous changes in Latvia, Rubess wrote a second Latvian musical, Tango Lugāno, again with composer Dace Aperāns. This piece, a haunted satire about the collision between the Soviet and the Western world, was received with great acclaim, and honoured by an award from the World Free Latvian Association. Tango Lugāno was produced in Toronto (1989) and shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, toured to Latvia (1990), where it was published in the Latvian literary journal Avots. The play is considered an integral part of Latvia's move towards independence.

 

During this same period, Rubess was involved with the world of new opera. After directing several versions of Nic Gotham's opera Nigredo Hotel, Rubess was ready to write her own libretto. Developed by Tapestry New Opera, her chamber opera Oh Pilot is the story of a heartsick Pilot and a lovelorn Tourist. Composed by Nic Gotham, the bittersweet love story had its first full production in 2007, at the Latvian National Opera's New Hall.

Most recently, Rubess has begun working with ‚found' texts, transforming them and weaving them into a dramatic whole.

Fruits of the Earth, written for choir and saxophone quartet, is one such collage, a diptych.  In part one, a tyrannical chef harangues his sous-chefs;  in part two, an obstetrician lectures student gynecologists.  In both cases, Rubess chose texts published between 1770 and 1825 in a variety of languages, creating the dramatic structure via collage.  For more information regarding the production, click here.

 

Zemes augļi

 

In 2004, Rubess was invited to create a production for SEAS, a European theatre festival. The result was Escape from Troy (written in Latvian), Rubess combined texts written by Euripides and Seneca, with the oral history of Latvian refugees fleeing from their burning cities in World War II. The gripping story of the search for escape from war mixed actors with a choir and a solo singer. A military naval band performed the role of the conquering Greeks.  For both Fruits and Escape, the composer was Nic Gotham. For more information regarding the production, click here.

 

Helen of Troy arrives

Troja

 

Political drama

Rubess was passionately involved with the political transformations which shattered the Soviet Union, and traveled across the Wild East of Europe as a wall and an empire crumbled. The resulting play, Head in a Bag, juxtaposed the story of Igor Gouzenko - a Soviet spy who defected - with satirical visions of the post-Wall world.  The play was published by Exile Editions (1996).

 

The undead-dead Ceaucescus (Donald Adams and Diana Fajrajsl)

Head_in_a_Bag

 

Most recently, she wrote and directed the script for Mrs.Benjamin.Tips for Modern Living exploring the adventures of a powerful Latvian publisher, who perished in Siberia.  The piece was created from documentary material and interviews with surviving deportees. Predominantly biographical, the piece studies the nature of Mrs. Benjamin's nationalism and her relationship to power.

 

WRITING FOR RADIO AND SCREEN

In 1992, Baņuta devised a brash new series for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Entitled Adventure Stories for (Big) Girls, she commissioned, dramaturged and produced eight half hour dramas by leading Canadian writers, such as Linda Griffiths, Carol Bolt, Beverley Cooper, Monique Mojica and herself. Every adventure story was based on a genuine feminine heroine.  Baņuta's scripts brought an opium addled adventurer and a German terrorist to life in Oblivion: The Story of Isabelle Eberhardt and No: Here Comes Ulrike Meinhof.The scripts were published by Blizzard Press in an anthology edited by Ann Jansen.

There are a few unproduced screenplays languishing in Banuta's drawer, such as the madcap story of the young Wagner in Latvia and Big Fat Lies, an animated short for children, is still in development.

 

WRITING FOR THE PAGE

Baņuta first won a prize for her writing when she wrote a sonnet in high school. Then her career as a poet had a very long hiatus until asked to create a piece about 'her' city by CBC Radio. Out spilled the epic poem Riga for Poets.

Baņuta has written and published many essays and translations from the Latvian language. She is an expert in the works of Rainis and Aspazija, the Latvian revolutionaries and writers. Most recently, she explored the painful relationship of the creative couple in the essay Fooled by Love, for the book Robežas/Borders, published by Neputns in 2006.  She has translated the poetry and prose of many Latvian writers, classic and contemporary.

 

Robežas

 

Between 1999 and 2006, Rubess wrote more than a hundred columns for Latvia's national newspaper Diena. Her column was an open platform for her opinions about the arts, education, fashion, anti-Semitism, the government and gay rights.

In the early noughts, she wrote a book about robots for teenagers, which was published in Latvia in 2011.

She recently completed a memoir about living on the edge of life with her partner, the late Nicholas Gotham.