Interview: Elison Zasko, The Sputniks

by Ottawa Fringe

June 23, 2010

by Andrew Alexander

Elison Zasko

I’ve met Elison Zasko before, and to my surprise, she remembers. Last year, I took a road trip to Montreal to interview some of the artists there who would be performing in Ottawa. Despite the fact that Elison wasn’t going to be performing in Ottawa, she somehow managed to get me to take her photo. She remembers our meeting: that photo comes up whenever you google her name.

We sit down at Club SAW, moments after her first show of The Sputniks – a packed house at 9:30 on a Monday night – has let out. Her smile is infectious, her gaze is thoughtful, and there’s no mistaking the trace of a Russian accent. “This show is two and a half years old now,” she says, as I ask her about the history of her show. “Jonno Katz, who’s my director, and I got together in early 2008 and we worked on it, I toured the show that following summer. I didn’t get into Ottawa that year, so it had to wait until now.”

Elison Zaskso
Elison Zasko, in 2009.

Elison may not have made it into the Ottawa Fringe last year, but she’s more than making up for it by going on a multi-city fringe tour this year, with Ottawa in that lineup. Other cities in her path are the recently completed Montreal fringe, and then after Ottawa, Toronto, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Vancouver, Victoria and finally Seattle. She won’t be doing The Sputniks in all of those cities – she’s done the show already in some of them – in some cities she’ll be performing in another show with Andrew Connor, called Poison The Well.

Her show relates the history of a fictional family, Boris and Tatiana Sputnik, their daughter Katya, and their flight from a Russia heavily disposed against them as Jews. The show is both funny and tragic, and with just her actions, Elison has a mesmerizing ability to convince you that the stage is filled with a whole cast of characters and a collection of props. The host of four and five-star reviews she’s received from her tour of the show comes as no surprise.

“I grew up in Moscow, Russia,” says Elison, after I ask her about the roots of the show. “I had always been interested in the theme of anti-Semitism in Russia; it is still a very big and serious issue. I had moved to Canada by myself at the age of seventeen, my family is still in Moscow. I came here as a student. Ever since I have been very interested in the theme of displacement and immigration. I do believe that many people in Canada can relate to that experience because it is a country of immigrants.” While the story in The Sputniks is completely fictional, it is based on a collection of stories from Elison’s friends, and various historical materials that she has gathered over the years. “The most amazing thing has been, doing the show, to hear the response from the audiences when they tell me, you just told me the story of my family. I often get into long discussions about the story, and people do like to tell me exactly what happened in their situation. It’s overwhelming to know that it is so relatable.”

I ask her how she enjoys the one-person format, about its advantages and drawbacks. “I absolutely love that it’s just my name everywhere, when it’s a one-person show. It’s a very calculated move to do a one-person show at the fringe, simply because the profit is so much better. It’s never really though a one-person work: there is a big team involved behind this, and I have learned a lot doing this show, from technical directors, and stage managers and dramaturges, different producers, it was a big collective that now has one face.”

Part of that team was legendary solo performer Jonno Katz, who directed the show during its initial development in 2008. “I absolutely enjoyed working with Jonno and I learned a crazy amount of stuff from him and will be forever grateful. He has done the fringe circuit for quite a number of years, and I saw the original version [of Cactus] a few years ago, it still remains one of my three top shows of all time. I followed his work after that. At one point I just approached him and surprisingly he agreed to direct my show. We talked about it at the Victoria fringe.” What followed was a month-long development process in Montreal.

While she’s clearly made a name for herself as a powerful solo performer, she’s not going to rest on her laurels. “I enjoy this format – definitely – however I recently got extremely interested in the clown genre. I’m developing a show with a partner, another girl clown, which will probably be ready next year. That has been a lot of fun to improvise with somebody else, and it’s very physical, a lot of fun. I feel that maybe my career in the next little bit will be taking that direction.”

At one point I remark that one of her characters is fixing something, but I can’t figure out what it is. She describes it for me. “I need to be much more specific with that one, I think I slacked on that,” she says, laughing. She’s funny about it, but you do sense that she’s making a mental note. Does she see new things after every performance, things to fix? “Every single time. People who are close to me probably notice that the most. All you want to think about is how your show went, how your friend’s show went.” I ask her if she thinks she’s ever been completely satisfied with a performance. “Sometimes I do, sometimes I’m dead wrong, sometimes I come out and I think that was the worst show ever, I wasn’t there, my speed was not right, and then everybody tells me it was really good. It’s hard to trust yourself, and it’s often hard to trust your friends, because – well – they are your friends.”

The Sputniks can be seen at Club SAW, with performances on Tuesday the 22nd (9:30pm), Wednesday the 23rd (6:30pm), Thursday the 24th (11:00pm), Friday the 25th (8:00pm), and Sunday the 27th (6:30pm).