The Land and Country Plays: FUGITIVE PIECES, THRUSH, RIFT
a trilogy by Caridad Svich
By Henry Godinez, Resident Artistic Associate, Goodman Theatre, Chicago
[This introduction is published in the subscription-based, industry-aimed new play e-book platform StageReads LLC founded by Meredith Lynsey Schade and Jody Christopherson. StageReads launches the last week of July 2012 with publication of Caridad Svich’s The Way of Water. This introduction is reprinted with Henry Godinez’s permission. For more information about StageReads pls visit http://www.stagereads.com]
In the United States, in this age of 24 hour news networks, the shelf life of even a major disaster is somewhere between that of fresh fish and a gallon of milk. Unless of course that fish comes from the Gulf of Mexico, in which case it could last much longer, like say, a good sex scandal. Without the luxury of being able to count on the scrupulous nature of mainstream American journalism alone to keep pivotal events alive in our collective memory, the only sure way to chronicle our mistakes of the past in order to prevent their return in the future is to enshrine them in art. Fortunately such is the case with the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, which is now lovingly and movingly enshrined Caridad Svich’s searing new play The Way of Water.
The BP oil spill remains the worst marine drilling disaster in our nation’s history, gushing nearly five million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico and devastating thousands of miles of fragile wetlands, beaches and commercial fishing areas. After two years, too many questions remain unanswered, though it is evident that negligence due to cost cutting efforts on the part of BP was certainly at the heart of the accident, which also incidentally, killed eleven men when their Deepwater Horizon platform exploded. Two years later scientists are beginning to see the lasting effects of the spill in an alarming number of mutated fish, crabs and shrimp, while dolphin and whales continue to be found dead at almost double the normal rate.
Within that all too brief network news worthy shelf life of the BP oil disaster, there was time to speculate about the economic ramifications; the cost of lost revenue to the fishing and vacation industries, property values, and even the cost of gas at the pump. There was the occasional tugging at the heart strings story about the after effects of the spill on the coastal areas and the wildlife, the now all too common televised scenes of volunteers scrubbing water fowl covered in thick crude oil. But rarely is a disaster like the BP oil spill sexy enough to have a shelf life that allows for the consideration of its long term effects on human beings. Then again it could simply be that my more cynical self contemplates the possibility that some nefarious and hugely powerful unseen group of select individuals simply maneuver it that way, after all, that would be bad for business. The disaster may have vanished from the headlines and the airwaves but the after effects are ominously still in the water and slowly rising to the surface.
Skepticism and paranoia aside, it nonetheless remains the task of the artist to, as Hamlet says, “hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time, his form and pressure.” In The Way of Water, Caridad Svich holds a powerful human mirror up to reflect the less glamorous edges of society. Not one that reflects the images of wealthy landowners along the coast whose stretches of pristine sand beaches and multimillion dollar vacation homes have been degraded by tar balls, but the average working class people whose livelihoods and very lives are compromised by their dependence on water contaminated by dispersants which linger long after the crude oil is no longer visible. It is a play about four friends who are as much a part of their particular environment and the nature that has sustained it, as those wildfowl that wash up encased in crude oil.
The play delicately evokes the image of common man Jimmy Robichaux, a fishing man from way back, and his struggle to simply carve out an honorable living around the waters that have nurtured his family for generations. He is a beautifully drawn, profoundly human character, wrestling with old ways and new demons. Jimmy’s personal struggles are manifested so honestly within the larger context of the BP oil spill that the play never feels like an indictment, at least not in the moment. This is a play about a group of friends just trying to get by in a world whose promises and dreams have all passed them by. It is also a play about taking action, about realizing that sometimes just speaking out can make a difference. But the play’s great strength lies in its humanity.
Having grown up in the south, in Texas, Alabama and Louisiana, I know the ring of authenticity in a true southerner when I hear it. I know the sounds, the idiosyncratic choice of words, the tempos. More importantly, I know the sound of humility and honor in a southern voice and in all these case, Caridad has clearly done her homework and created characters that ring true. Certainly honor is not an exclusively southern trait but in my experience, in the south it is a trait that is not exclusive to class or wealth either. This inherent, passionate, stubborn adherence to honor is one of the most compelling and integral motivating factors in The Way of Water. It is the rope at the center of the characters’ personal tug-a-wars, it is at the center of the conflict of the play, the very thing in each of the characters, but especially in Jimmy, that drives them to act. It is an essence that Caridad has made painfully real.
Many a great play has been written about corporate negligence and devastating catastrophes but what makes The Way of Water so compelling is the way it exposes the after effects of such sensational events in the most real of human terms. Given the way our society seems content to turn a blind eye to the huge power of corporate financial influence, as made evident for instance in the Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, it must remain the task of the artist to sound the alarm bell when long term profits take precedence over the seemingly short life of a man. Yet at its best, theatre must be more than a political or social protest. For Hamlet’s intention I’m sure was not just to show “the age and body of the time, his form and pressure”, but to actually instigate change. The Way of Waterdoes that very effectively as all good art does, by representing humanity so truthfully and universally that we cannot help but see ourselves at the center of the story.
New from NoPassport Press Preview Editions
ETCHED IN SKIN ON A SUNLIT NIGHT
by Kara Lee Corthron
Published print on demand to coincide to premiere and run of the play only at Interact Theatre in Philadelphia, PA.
Originally commissioned by InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia in 2009, this intense and theatrical drama about lust, culture clash, and betrayal marks the arrival of one of the most exciting new voices in American theatre. The compelling story follows Jules, an African-American painter who has fled the U.S. under ambiguous circumstances and embraced a whole new life and family in Iceland. As Barack Obama’s meteoric presidential campaign makes Jules more homesick than ever, her husband presents their biracial daughter with a shocking present, and a mysterious visitor shows up at Jules’ studio. This whirlwind of events brings the demons of Jules’ past crashing down on her new family and challenges her sense of racial and personal identity.
“I was immediately excited about the promise of ETCHED IN SKIN ON A SUNLIT NIGHT when we first read the commission proposal back in 2009. Here is a bold, visceral, theatrically imaginative and thematically rich play that delves into the psyche of an African American woman in the age of Obama. Kara’s unique theatrical voice and vision are on full display in this incredibly dynamic story for our time.” -- Seth Rozin, Artistic Director, Interact Theatre Company
NoPassport Press, www.nopassport.org
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.
Jefferson Exchange Public Radio:The Way of Water
The play's the thing, and while in this case it may not catch the conscience of the king, organizers hope it will raise awareness of poverty, health and environment in the U.S. "The Way of Water" dramatizes life after the Gulf Oil Spill, and nationwide readings on April 9 commemorate the 2nd anniversary of the spill. Playwright Caridad Svich joins us to talk about the play and the readings.
A recent panel discussion and performance at the Martin E. Segal Center was titled “Publishing Performance in the 21st Century: Ugly Duckling Presse.” The theme of the evening centered around ways of archiving performances that may defy the usual methods of preservation. “How do you notate a dance?” one of the panelists, dance critic Claudia Larocco who founded the Performance Club, asked. Another panelist, playwright Sylvan Oswald who, along with playwright Jordan Harrison, publishes Play A Journal of Plays on a poly-annual basis, proclaimed he felt oppressed by the traditional ways in which plays appeared on the page, which led him to publish a journal of his own. Literary agent Antje Oegel, who co-edits 53rd State Press, argued for the importance of engaging the audience with the text. The panelists continued a convivial debate led by Matvei Yankelevich who publishes both Ugly Duckling Presse and Emergency Index, a nascent annual artist-driven publication of performance documents (the deadline to submit tid bits of your own is Jan. 3 2012). Later in the evening three artists, Jim Findlay, Julia Jarcho and Aki Sasamoto, responded via performance to reviews they had received about earlier performances they had created.