York theatre alumna Nina Arsenault (BFA Spec. Hons. ’96, MFA ’00) is arguably Canada’s most celebrated transsexual. The founding artistic director of VenusMACHINE, actor on stage (Ladylike and I Was Barbie) and television (“Train 48”, “Locker Room”, “The Vent”), former contributor to the National Post, columnist for fab Magazine, and frequent guest lecturer, Arsenault has built a career around building herself a “perfect” body.
Arsenault brings The Silicone Diaries, a solo show about her transition from male to female, to the stage of Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre Nov. 14 to 21. The production, directed by Brendan Healy, is dramaturged by Arsenault’s mentor from her student days at York, theatre Professor Judith Rudakoff.
Arsenault’s play traces her personal journey through 60 cosmetic surgeries (including her castration in Mexico), unexpected spiritual relationships with plastic surgeons and their staff, and a “Crying Game-style” encounter with rocker Tommy Lee.
She performed an early version of The Silicone Diaries to sold-out crowds and standing ovations at the Theatre on the Edge Festival in Saint John, NB, in 2008. After its Toronto run, Arsenault will be taking her production to the Nakai Theatre in Whitehorse, YT.
On a rehearsal break, Arsenault discussed some of the ideas fuelling her show, starting with the title.
“While the context is silicone and talking about my surgeries, it really has more to do with the diary aspect,” she said. “A diary is where you write down your most personal feelings, scary thoughts, and emotional and psychological stuff around what is happening in your life. That is really what this show is for me.”
Thematically, the production “explores the concepts of real and fake, and inner and outer beauty,” Arsenault said. “This concept of ‘real’ is everywhere. People talk about ‘being real’ or demand why other people can’t just ‘be real’. It’s hugely important to our culture, but it goes largely unexamined. We all think we mean the same thing.
“Identity is so complicated – what we like, what we strive to achieve. Some of these things are constructed by media images, family values, trauma in our lives,” she said. “No one can escape those sorts of influences. Still, we have this idea that we maintain an innate sense of ‘realness’ since birth. But how can we?”
Arsenault said watching Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Real” music video illustrated the idea for her. “Here’s J. Lo, who has had a team of stylists – hair, makeup, fashion and lighting – singing ‘I’m Real’. She has personal trainers, dieticians, estheticians and image consultants. How is that real?
“When you examine ‘real’ in this context and you see how the definition of real seems to change every decade, the concept falls apart. It’s a hall of mirrors.”
Arsenault has spent the last nine months rewriting the script of The Silicone Diaries with Rudakoff, whom she describes as an inspiration and a role model.
“Judith has been with me through the entire rewriting process,” she said. “She supported me when I was afraid to express what I really wanted to say, or when the truth seemed too terrifying to reveal. She helped me make sense of the whole structure of the piece.”
Arsenault sees working with Rudakoff in a professional context as a natural progression from their earlier student-professor relationship. “Judith has been present at so many key points in my life and knows me really well,” Arsenault said. “She was my mentor when I did my graduate degree in playwriting. I was at the beginning of my transition at the time, and she helped facilitate that with the other staff members.”
A playwright, critic and award-winning dramaturge, Rudakoff teaches playwriting, developmental dramaturgy and contemporary Canadian theatre, and coordinates York’s MFA program in playwriting. She welcomed the opportunity to work with Arsenault to develop and evolve her play.
“When I first taught Nina (pre-transition, when she was still Rodney), I asked my students what their artistic obsession would be,” said Rudakoff. “Most students hesitated and were uncertain, but Rodney/Nina knew immediately, declaring: ‘Beauty, I am consumed by beauty.’”
“And when Nina asked me ‘Would you collaborate on this project with me?’ I had no hesitation,” Rudakoff said. “I told her: ‘I’ve been waiting for you to come to this moment since you were 19. The play is ready to come out.’”
But The Silicone Diaries represents much more than a personal milestone for the playwright. Rudakoff hails the production as an important contribution to Canada’s theatrical landscape. “I hope audience members will experience this play as a ritual: it’s a stage of Nina’s journey. Never accepting other people’s boundaries is part of that ritual.
“The Silicone Diaries is fierce, funny and poignant,” she said. “It’s an inward and outward journey to the heart of beauty.”
Ticket information is available at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre Web site or by calling 416-975-8555.
The Silicone Diaries is slated for publication in an anthology of queer plays by Borealis Press.