Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Nina Arsenault goes from Dungeons and Dragons to playing Barbie

'I am on a pilgrimage into the pink plastic temple of patriarchy'

Nina Arsenault stars in I W@s B*rbie at SummerWorks from Aug 5-15. Credit: courtesy of SummerWorks

Though it’s unlikely you’ll ever find yourself in a game of Dungeons and Dragons with Nina Arsenault, if you do, make sure you don’t break character. 

“I’ve always taken performance very seriously,” laughs Arsenault. “Even during my brief flirtation with DnD in high school, I always insisted people stay in character for the whole game.”

Arsenault always played high-priestess characters.

“The evil priestess was my favourite,” she says. “She was shockingly beautiful, dressed always in black robes and had very powerful spells. But she also had a healing quality and was worthy of redemption in the end.”
Our discussion of the ultimate nerd pastime has come up in talking about Arsenault’s SummerWorks show I W@s B*rbie, which is based on the transsexual writer/performer’s real-life experience of being asked to play Barbie at the Mattel Corporation’s 50th birthday party for the much loved (and hated) doll.

When she talks in the script about arriving at Fashion Week, Arsenault delivers the poignant line, “I am on a pilgrimage into the pink plastic temple of patriarchy, and like it or not, I am its highest priestess,” which has led us to a discussion of her previous roles as “Priestess,” as well as the subject of patriarchy.

Not surprisingly, Arsenault has even more to say about the latter subject. 

“I don’t think patriarchy is evil. I just think it’s very complicated,” she says. “From my own marginalized place in culture, I have seen how all systems of political thought exclude, discriminate, and dehumanize.”
“As a transsexual who has altered my body to be happy, I have faced discrimination from conservatives for being sexually deviant,” she adds. “But I have also faced an enormous amount of discrimination from left wingers who look at my augmented body and immediately judge me as superficial and a symbol of body fascism, as emblematic of the oppression of women.”
In earlier versions of the show, Arsenault referenced her experiences of playing with Barbie as a child but ended up cutting that part of the script.

“I didn’t want to give people the impression that my choice to play Barbie was some altruistic act of saving my inner child,” she says. “The decision was much more complicated than that. I was looking at it as an interesting performance project in and of itself, as well as a way to explore how my desires and dreams, like everyone else’s, were constructed for me at a young age by companies like Mattel and the institution of Hollywood.”
Perhaps more than anything else, I W@s B*rbie is a play about real versus fake.

“People use the term ‘real’ as a way to put people down, as in ‘Oh honey, she ain’t real,’” Arsenault says. “It’s often used as a way to attack anyone who is creative or different. But seriously, if you look and act just like everyone else, chances are you’re the one who’s not real.”
The topic of real and fake invariably brings up the much-discussed surgical procedures Arsenault underwent as part of her transition. 

“Anytime I make a statement about anything, people always want to relate it back to the surgeries,” she says. “I don’t think it’s fair to frame me as an artist that way. There are other things I want to explore in my work now.”
If people want to catch a glimpse of the real Arsenault, the best way is to see her perform.

“I am the most real when I am on stage,” she says. “Because I am a storyteller more than an actor, my job is to reveal myself to the audience. The more authentic nuances I can reveal in my performance, the more chance there is of someone in the audience saying, ‘How did she know that about me?’”

I w@s B*rbie plays at SummerWorks from Aug 5-15.