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Director Daniella Topol interviews playwright Caridad Svich on her play The Way of Water for the Lark


Daniella Topo: How soon after the Deepwater Horizon BP Oil Spill did you know you wanted to write a play that responded to this event?

Caridad Svich: As a citizen, I was, of course, deeply affected by Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill. I have great affection for the U.S. Gulf region, especially since part of my life growing up was spent in Florida. Watching the news footage of the devastation to the ocean, the wildlife, the birds, and the human beings was and continues to be heartbreaking (because the devastation is far from over). I was outraged and heartbroken. And still am. However, I didn't know I would write a play set in its aftermath. Not immediately. At the time I simply, as a concerned citizen and eco-activist, followed the news stories in mainstream media, social media and online. I traveled and wrote and listened and took notes. Early in 2011 I started to write a series of poems related to the many health and environmental issues the disaster effected. Again, not thinking the poems would transform into a theatre piece. I was just writing because I needed to do so. I wanted to engage my art somehow with the complexity and enormity of the issues, and give back spiritually and emotionally in solidarity with the people most devastated by the disaster.

Then in the late spring of 2011 I wrote a play called GUAPA, which is set in Texas and although it is not about the oil spill, it is chiefly about characters living through poverty, engaged with activism, and dreaming big dreams about how they can affect their communities and environment. As I was writing GUAPA, I realized that it was the first in a quartet of plays set in the U.S. south and southwest, and that actually the poems I'd written and initial research I'd conducted about the oil spill was the next play to be written. In a sense, one play flowed directly from the other, although in the case of both, I'd been thinking about the issues and region, in and out of disaster, for a long time. The necessity to write The Way of Water stirred up. The characters started speaking to me and wouldn't let me go.

DT: You have done a considerable amount of research about the Spill and its impact on the residents of the area. In what ways is the play based on research and in what ways is it inspired by artistic license?

CS: The play is not theater of testimony. It is not docu-drama. It is a poetic transformation based on real events. In this I would say, it is not unlike, for example, how colleague Lynn Nottage re-interpreted research to create Ruined, or how colleague JT Rogers crafted The Overwhelming, based on research on the Rwandan genocide.Two notable examples of many in a field where there is extensive precedent for this kind of storytelling. That said, the play merges layers and levels of research with my own take on the situation in the Gulf region, and the impact the disaster has had on men and women who have been tenders of the waterways their whole lives, whose very livelihoods indeed depend on the ways of water, and whose environment, even before the 2010 spill, was already being affected by ground water contamination, air toxins and more. In the play, real events are woven into the fabric of events I've dreamt up as a writer. Poetry, politics and a human story are at the play's core. Here is a love story between people and their environment, between men and women, between friends, and between children and the legacies into which they have been born. The complexities and contradictions of being poor in America is also a strong thematic and concrete thread in the piece. You can't talk about class and race (and post-race) without talking about money in this country. They go hand in hand.

DT: How is the play still evolving/developing?

CS:Until a play gets into rehearsal, it is always in evolution. And it is only when it gets into rehearsal, unless for some reason you're writing a drawer play, that it continues its life as a breathing, moving work of theatre. Even after a first production, a play evolves. Right now The Way of Water is where it needs to be to walk into a room and play with actors in space and time. The Studio Retreat process will allow us to begin to unpack its layers, explore its humor, its sensuality, its pain, and I hope, also, its unsentimental, beating heart.

DT: The Way of Water is receiving more than 20 readings this month. How did this come about? What are some of the unique approaches various artists/communities have taken to presenting this piece?

CS:When I put together the draft of the play, after months of note-taking and journal-ing and research and dreaming, in the Lark's Winter Writers Retreat, I was simultaneously exhilarated by the writing process, and suddenly weary by what I felt would be the usual next steps for a writer working on a new play: the mailing, the reading, the workshop maybe, another reading, etc. All to the good. Yet I felt such a sense of outrage about the continued score of illnesses (human and wildlife) in the U.S. Gulf, that I thought "How can art engage civically, directly in the moment? How can the conversation go beyond the often rarefied world of new writing and into the much wider dialogue between the humanities and the sciences, between activism and art-making, between the ecology of theatre-making itself and the ecologies in which we live on a daily basis, whether we live land-locked, near water, or somewhere in between? And do so, without waiting. In the moment. Go speak directly with the people."

I spoke to some of my colleagues within the NoPassport theatre alliance (chiefly dramaturges Heather Helinsky and R. Alex Davis) and suggested "What if we knocked on a few doors and asked theatre folks in and out of the academy, far and wide, to give the play a read and thus mark the two-year anniversary of the oil spill and actually get a conversation either going or expanding deeper and wider in their local communities?" At first, we thought maybe five venues would give us a listen. But remarkably, over twenty have responded (and we're still adding venues as the consortium extends into May 2012), within the US and as far as Tasmania (Australia), Wales, London, Berlin, Sao Paolo, Rio de Janeiro (the play has been already translated into Portuguese), and Pretoria, South Africa. Each venue, whether it be Occupy Ashland in Oregon, American Stage in St. Petersburg, Main Street Theatre in Houston, University of Alabama in Birmingham or University of Waterloo in Ontario (Canada), has brought and is bringing their own local stories to the table as they connect with the play and the issues it raises, and the human story at its center. In Waterloo, for example, ground water contamination is a significant issue. The director Andy Houston has decided to stage the play, weather permitting, site-specifically outdoors on or near (as backdrop) a contaminated building site, with which his local community has a very specific and long-standing historical relationship. In Los Angeles, theatre ensemble Opera del Espacio has created a meditation/extraction of the play with their own physical theatre vocabulary - and has ritualized the audience's experience by asking them to bathe their actors in black liquid - despoiling them as the wildlife was despoiled and damaged - to enhance the visceral impact of the presentation. In Australia, the director Angela Miller will keep the play's Louisiana locale but present the piece with Australian accents and connect it emotionally to the people of the many poor coastal towns down under that are living lives not dissimilar than the ones of the characters in my play.

DT: Is this multi-reading scheme model that you would use for other plays of yours? Why or why not?

CS:The last time I endeavored the multi-reading scheme model was with the collaboratively written piece I curated Return to the Upright Position, which was written six months after September 11, 2001. Our goal then was to present the piece simultaneously on the anniversary of the disaster on the same day around the country as a creative act of spiritual healing through theatre. I don't know that every play is suited to or should be suited to such a scheme. The political outrage and compassion that stirred The Way of Water into being is very specific, and while many of my plays have been born out of both outrage and compassion, I think that in the end, each play speaks to how it needs to make itself manifest. When I wrote Iphigenia Crash Land Falls... (a rave fable), I never knew that it would take me to London and Greece for its first workshop in it development phase, but that's where it first found its legs. The Way of Water, like water itself, I suppose, wanted to rise up and connect and flow. I'm grateful to the many, many practitioners and educators who have put it on a raft from one city to another across many miles and continents, and are finding their own ways through and inside it. I'm just following where it goes.