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Jonah Interrupted

Ella Joseph in Church of the Ascension, the site of her new production. (photo by Irene Haupt)

Performance artist Ella Joseph examines the biblical character at Church of the Ascension

Buffalo is a good town for performance art, but it can be difficult for individual artists to find an audience here. Romanian-born visual and theater performance artist Ella Joseph is hoping to turn that around when she presents Jonah Interrupted, a theater performance at Church of the Ascension (6 Linwood Avenue) on May 18 and 19 at 8pm.

A relatively recent arrival in Buffalo, Joseph left Romania in 1995 to pursue her dream of being a working artist. She studied for the MFA in theater design with the late Peter Loeffler, celebrated theater professor at the University of British Colombia; she studied theater, performance, video, photography, public art, and painting for a master of arts in scenography from Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design in London, England; and she studied for a master/bachelor of science in textile design form the Gh. Asachi Technical University of Iasi, Romania. Her work has been well received in Europe and in Canada.

Jonah will be a minimalist work, relative to some of Joseph’s other projects, which have made generous use of videography. She is a great admirer of Jerzy Grotowski’s (1933-1999) theory of a “poor theater,” dependent only upon an actor and an audience, as well as of the insights of French director Jacques Copeau (1879-1949) and the simplified theater of his Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier.

The piece is constructed from Jonah (1968), a masterwork of the Romanian writer Marin Sorescu (1936-1996). The Sorescu play, described as a “poem monologue,” has been translated into many languages and staged all over the world. The Jonah of Sorescu’s play differs from the character of the biblical tale.

“Jonah spends his lifetime traversing from the belly of one whale into another in a metaphysical loneliness,” explains Joseph. “Critic and literary historian Vladimir Streinu (1902-1970) described it as the conflict between idealism and the idea of freedom on one hand and the damnation of the human condition on the other.”

Joseph previously staged Jonah in 1998 at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts in Vancouver, Canada where audiences responded enthusiastically.

“Last year was the 75th anniversary of Marin Sorescu’s birth,” she explains. “I see this as an opportunity to revisit Jonah. I also believe that staging the same work at a later time is a good opportunity to observe my own artistic development. I am fascinated with the process of creation, the ‘when,’ ‘how,’ and ‘why’ a new work is born.

“When I first staged Jonah,” she continues, “I adapted the text, but the structure and storyline remained true to the original play. In Jonah Interrupted I took certain words and sentences of Sorescu’s text, literally cut them out, altered and rearranged them to create a new structure and tell my own story. The new text runs in short sentences mostly meant to represent Jonah’s emotions—his inner world. To describe the way thoughts are crossing his mind, I imagined the text spoken by different voices and timbres, overlapping one another, coherent and incoherent, loud and soft, fast and slow, laughing and crying, sighing…I envisioned a large men’s chorus, but after my first discussion of the text and score with the composer, I [elected instead to use] a trio.”

Joseph uses her own life as the driving force behind her creative process. She works independently on each performance, sometimes for years, pushing into territory where theater, performance, installation, and art exhibitions influence each other, and experimenting with ways to heighten the awareness and participation her audiences.

“I am excited every single time about the process of creation and look forward to the outcome of Jonah Interrupted,” says Joseph.

Jonah Interrupted will be performed by Patrick Posey and Diane McNamara, with choral singing by Daniel Bassin, Nathan Heidelberger, John Iremar Clayton, and Chris Culp, percussion by Jason Bauers, and choral composition by Esin Gündüz. General admission is $15, and $5 for students and seniors. For more information, visit