There's been some new writing on the walls at On the Boards. The hand responsible for the gorgeous if oblique scrawling in and around the building is Claudia La Rocco, OtB's new/first writer in residence. Once you know a few things about La Rocco, it becomes clear why a venue known for producing performance art, dance, and experimental theater would give her the keys for a year.
On the Boards does a lot of good-luck-with-your-label-maker-type performances, and, as a writer, La Rocco fits that ethos precisely. After 10 years of writing professionally, including as a dance critic for the New York Times and Artforum and—somehow, miraculously—also writing creatively as a poet, La Rocco told me she's interested in thinking of criticism as an art form. She often examines gender and racial disparity and the clichés that attend those phenomena, pushing back on performances that seem to perpetuate easy stereotypes.
She also likes to use art to think about other art, seeing connections between poetry and dance in particular. "I learned a lot as a poet from watching dance and trying to write about it as a critic, specifically when I think about rhythm and texture and pacing and time and space as essential materials." Both art forms track things in time and space, she says, and the poetry she's interested in writing and reading tries to get at the passage of time the way dance does.
As she describes this to me, I have to admit, confusion overcomes me. I've always found it difficult to relate dance to poetry, as the gestures of dance rely so heavily on physical movement while the gestures of poetry rely on mental movement, but if you read "Intermission," a piece La Rocco wrote for OtB's 2015–16 season brochure, you can kind of see what she's getting at.
The essay includes many kinds of writings, such as notes she's taken while watching a performance, descriptions of natural images, excerpts from her own reviews that reveal (in true Anne Carson–like fashion) the way personal obsession directs critical attention—all of which she lassos with structural elements like a lyric refrain of "listening" and the theme of the passage of time.
The piece reads the way a person thinks, which is another fascination of La Rocco's: "I'm interested in how poetry can use language to get at what language isn't good at getting at," she says. "We have this strange soup of experience in our heads, and then it comes out in the sentence 'Oh, I'm really sad today.'" When I ask if her goal is to reproduce accurately the life of the mind on the page, she says, "I think that's an impossible goal. So I think it's interesting to play with the gaps."
Her role as writer in residence hasn't quite solidified yet. Erin Jorgensen, communications/design administrator at On the Boards, describes the position as an "experiment" and seems interested to see where it'll go. So far, La Rocco has been writing what she calls "text interventions" all around the building. Last month, during the run of the Findlay//Sandsmark performance—a duo that combines video and dance—the words "There's another forest high up in the trees. If you need space, take it" were embossed into a copper plate and tacked outside the theater's entrance. These interventions, for me, provide a kind of optional context for the performances, or else serve as little lyric notes that may resonate with the work under consideration.
At On the Boards, she'll also be performing a version of her novel, petit cadeau. The Chocolate Factory Theater in NYC will print the novel as an edition of one, but a four-day performance of public and private readings will yield online and audio editions. She'll tap local artists for the Seattle performance.
In addition to performances and textual interventions, this upcoming March she'll be teaching a writing workshop. You would want to take a class with her. She speaks warmly, thinks carefully, loves asking questions, and refuses to rest in certainty.