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Irma Mayorga talks 3030

Irma Mayorga for 30/30

[Irma Mayorga’s play Cascarones is part of the 30/30 US Latin@/NoPassport reading scheme. The same interview questions have been sent to each playwright taking part in the scheme by Caridad Svich.] 

CARIDAD SVICH: A false (i think) divide has been erected in some art-making circles between what is called "devised" work and "text-based or text-driven" work. this divide or, shall we call it a "gap?," has served to alienate makers of text-driven work for live performance in the field and in academia. in effect, certain battle grounds have formed that encourage oppositional thinking about this, so that we have now, in many ways, the devisers on one side of the field and the text-makers on the other. how do you deal with the positioning of your work, if at all?

IRMA MAYORGA: I started writing plays and directing after first earning my living as a theater designer. So, I’ve always been prone to techniques more common to devising:  the non-verbal, improvisation, a sharp consciousness of space’s import, color’s import, the power of non-verbal gesture, and how visual significations work on the stage because it’s my designer brain who first tackles a play – totally implicit on my part. When I started writing plays with Chicana playwright Cherríe Moraga, who teaches playwriting through the extremely sensory and visual techniques of Fornes, it fortified the designer who sat down to write words and “devise” scenarios, which led to text, characters, more visual ideas, and needs spoken aloud. The way I see it, sooner or later most who consider themselves solely devisers have to come to words as well, create text, even if it’s minimal. So for me it’s about what approach serves you best to create theater and performance work. Even as someone who goes by the nomenclature “playwright,” I devise. Even those who are devisers end up writing text, if only to somehow archive their work or offer an outline to work from. I also dramaturg works, which I think of as a sort of deviser in the room as well, be it with a playwright or an ensemble of actors seeking to stage an idea. I think this positioning of oppositions, redeployment of labels, is perhaps just the zeitgeist of an era, a new keyword. I wonder does using the word “devise” gain you more access to resources ($$) for your work (grants)? Is it a sexier label that draws attention and reaps benefits? Does calling yourself a playwright shut down possibilities? As you put it, does it read as “old fashioned” in this particular moment? Thinking ahead, what will the next moment fancy? I think here of a pendulum swinging – as it does with fashions in, say, the debates regarding education. At the end of the day, I just want both approaches to produce theater that provokes my aliveness.

 

CS: How do you negotiate the very real dividing lines that get drawn, quite arbitrarily, and quite often, in our field in regard to art-making and its role in culture?

 

IM: First, I arm myself – literally – with the good facts and figures from the studies that have been conducted about the impact of the arts in people’s lives and communities. I find that people who I might fence with about the role of the arts (sometimes communities, sometimes students, sometimes administrations/ers) often respond to numbers as opposed to less concrete arguments – again, a consequence of our era and its penchant for “feedback, feedback, feedback,” be it in education (testing), the service sector (rating employees’ service for doling out “performance based” earnings), or comment sections online (cringe).

 

Recently, I agreed to be on the Board of Directors for a newly established children’s theater company. Their shows employ the “Story Theater” techniques of Paul Sills and Viola Spolin (who I’d consider devisers exemplar!) to create original plays for children and youth, 1-15 years old. What I have found most interesting is the work the company has to do to inform parents about the importance of the arts in early childhood education and development (and, of course, throughout one’s life). Disseminating data has served to sway and point up the finer cognitive and personhood benefits their children gain in participating in theater, in either theater-based classes or as audience members. Once, it’s pointed out, of course, parents want to impart these benefits to their children. It points up that, in many senses, we live in an age increasingly shaped and determined by data. However, without this knowledge, parents might believe only team sports, or sports in general, impart things like team-building, collaboration, self-confidence, decision-making skills, leadership skills, or cooperation. They especially don’t know the deep ways in which the arts develop the intellect and, equally as important, our emotional intelligence and social skills.

 

These children and their young parents are our future audiences – so why wouldn’t we seek to inform them, sway them, pursue them, grab hold of them, with any and all tools possible? Of course, I think theater artists know about the theater’s ability to promote public discussion, help us witness our lives and create a space for reflection, provoke questions, and wonder. But we do a poor job in educating future and more established audiences about what theater does/can do: we are often scrambling to rehearse and refine, get out the press releases, organize ticket sales, and finally waiting by the door with baited breath to see if our audience will come. But why should they when they know neither to what end or, equally important, if they perceive that what lies inside has no relationship to them? This, I believe, is often the case with potential people of color audiences in particular. Here rises the need to rethink who’s making theater and how it’s made.

 

As a theater artist who faces the tide of possibilities that audiences can choose, I find it imperative to be as articulate and knowledgeable as possible to meet theater’s detractors; I’ve made theater my life’s pursuit, how could I be anything less than astute and articulate in defending its import?

 

CS: As a playwright, how do you devise your own process? Dramatic project (life goals as artist)?

 

IM: I am visually orientated – so I often receive images of a stage picture before words/narrative arrive. I’ve heard others say they “hear” characters talking and then start from there – so it’s a character driven process. I tend to “see” people in action in my mind’s eye...image: someone stealing copper wire from atop a telephone pole to sell it for cash; image: school children facing corporal punishment in 1920s Texas for speaking Spanish; image: a diabetic injecting insulin into her abdomen. These types of images tend to linger with me and eventually develop into scenarios, then characters, then words come, then I let the images find their story, the story eventually develops a path of some sort. I’m not a fast writer in terms of writing plays; I ruminate, gestate thoughts. I’m always conscious of a stage picture as I develop work.

 

Life goals as an artist: gather the temerity to know that what I have to say to the world is important, that what I think about or have observed matters. This is really hard as a Mexican American woman from Texas, you know? You’re working against cultural constraints, upbringing that doesn’t foreground this in how you think of yourself in the world. Keep trying to write, even when some days everything conspires against that desire. I’m not the best advocate of my own work (I’m not a natural salesperson, in fact, I’m terrible at it on my own behalf) – I’ve been lucky to intersect with marvelous others who’ve advocated on the work’s behalf for me.

CS: And how do you wish to live as artist in and with engagement in local and global dialogue with citizens and artists?

 

IM: I tend to write about problems that concern me – I tend to collect nuggets of stories that yield characters or thoughts. These tend to have deep roots in historical circumstances of some sort – usually connected to injustices. I remain voraciously curious, socially conscientious, and keenly aware of my local community and its shifting currents. When I used to live in Latina/o populated places, my awareness was finer in its detail. Now, with a move to New England, I have to reach out very consciously, which requires vigilance and a more absorbing energy. With the Internet, a global observation point is increasingly part of my attention as opposed to trying to connect with the minutiae of places I consider my local, namely Texas. Persistence on my part is required.

 

CS: And are there lessons you’ve learned you wish to impart to fellows in the field and elsewhere? Or lessons you are still learning that impact the kind of work you make or think about making?

 

IM: I recently published a book with a long-time collaborator, Virginia Grise: The Panza Monologues, Second Edition. For the second edition, after writing, producing, filming, and touring our play of the same title for six years, we had a whole lotta advice to pass forward, including thoughts about Latinas and women of color making theater. And, we penned a manifesto – a sort of hope list of things, as we see it, that need attention in terms of women of color and U.S. American theater. Dare I say, you gotta get the book...it’s all in there. See the book’s page on the University of Texas Press website here.

 

A take away nugget for this forum would be:  women need more involvement, representation, responsibilities, and room in U.S. American theater. We especially need women of color: their administrative skills, their artistic skills (beyond acting), their dramaturgical skills, their connections to communities, and the stories about their experiences as told, directed, and designed by them for the stage.  

 

CS: When you see/hear/read the phrase “US Latin@,” what does it make you think of? What is your relationship to being of or part of (or not) a US Latin@ context in your art-making or thinking about art?

 

IM: For me “US Latin@” tries to describe the heterogeneity of Latina/os with one very unwieldy label. And, I’m one who very much likes the frisky font play of the @ symbol to wrestle with the gender dynamics of the straight up “o” ending. I don’t often use it, but I appreciate it nonetheless – if you have to trick out the word to get across the inclusion, then so be it. “Latina/o” tries to describe a multiplicity of national origins, racial identities, historical legacies, and cultural specificities. Spanish can or cannot function as a common denominator for Latina/os depending on immigration generation and class. Therefore, for me, the term tries to gesture towards variances even as it attempts to coalesce similarity by collecting together once native peoples connected by, at the end of the day, a shared autochthony to the Americás and/or a shared history of Spanish conquest, which includes those who identify as Afro-Latina/os. So, this one word is attempting to do a lot of work. It’s problematic, but in my book, it’s infinitely better than terms such as Hispanic (thanks U.S. government) or Latin (do you live in Rome, speak Latin?).

 

When I teach Latina/o theater as a genre, I am very sure to teach a wide variety of Latina/o ethnic identities in my curriculum. It’s not all Valdez or Mexican American centered for example, despite the fact that Mexican Americans make up 66% of the “Latina/o” population in the U.S. I try to portray the vast heterogeneity as one of the leading components of Latina/o identity in the U.S., upend entrenched stereotypes.

 

In terms of my artistic work, I am Mexican American and not so much Latina. I always say I never realized how very Mexican American I was until I moved to the East Coast. I try to be as specific as I can to my Mexican American origin and history and then to my Chicana feminist politic.

 

If I am specific and you are specific, maybe we can get the stories that need to be told to be clear, unique, and illuminating. I cannot speak for other experiences of Latina/o identity with the level of intricacy that I can concerning the people and regions of Mexican heritage.

 

Yes, my racial/ethnic identity impacts my ability to work, especially if my work comes in contact with mainstream producers. Often my cultural symbols, theatrical images, and my languages of Spanish and English will deter producers from “seeing” the work—they have to labor to understand a new iconography, language, spirituality, emotional indexes, or cultural signifiers. I don’t believe in many universals. I’ve had to learn all the Anglo, Euroamerican symbols (thanks Greeks, Shakespeare, other leading white playwrights). I’ve been fed them since I was a child in theater. But, when others have to do some work to see mine (gasp!)...it definitely impacts my opportunities of production. And, here I’m not even addressing the particulars of being a female playwright inside of racial/ethnic particulars; that’s another layer.

 

And, if we (Latina/o theater makers) refuse to “translate” the work’s intricacies (language or aesthetics) for others? Then, you can really count your work out of the mix.  

 

CS: As a maker of text for live performance, in what ways are you challenging or calling into question the nature of embodied speech and action when you write a given play or collaborate with fellow artists?

 

IM: As I said above, I think and write beginning with images. When I direct, I begin with images as well. The set designer “me” and the wordsmith “me” are always in conversation as I work. This manifests in my care for the power of theatricality, of creating striking visual images or aural soundscapes that work in tandem with or against the reliance on embodied speech for the stage. What can I say? I’m a fan of Brecht and Robert Wilson, the audacious imaginations of Paula Vogel, Naomi Wallace.

 

CS: Casting is a tough and thorny aspect of our art and business. I think we all know plenty of terrific actors who wait and wait for that one or two gigs every year that ask for their “type” to be cast. I am personally of the mind that the more expansive casting can be, especially in theatre, which is, after all, not a photographically representational art form but an abstract one in its essence, the richer an audience’s understanding of the form can be. But I know that this may not be everyone’s pov. Understandably. What do you do when someone says to you “we don’t have culturally specific actors in my town, so we can’t even look at your play, even if we were to deeply admire or want to put this story on stage?’

 

IM: I think that first I have to address levels of “the business.” I’ve done quite a lot of work “in community” as a theater artist, as community activists tend to say. I usually have worked successfully with any and all that stand up, come forward, and say they will be in a show, participate in some aspect of putting up a production, or those whose arms I’ve (gently) bent for their aid. In those circumstances, you work with all comers:  the work is with the community, their involvement is an aspect of production/the purpose. So, casting issues always already mark a place of privilege for any theater artist who wrestles with that beastly process. Wow! Congratulations on those achievements playwrights! Cherish it.

 

That said, for those achieving this level of privilege in U.S. American theater as a playwright AND as an artist of color, there are issues to sort out.

 

Like it or not, bodies are racially marked. And, in colorblind casting, the default mode for the spectrum on the stage always defaults to white modes of the body, deportment. “Color” is more often than not treated as a surface, not a way of being. That’s a problem for me.

 

I am adamant in casting Latina/o actors in my plays, which are usually all filled with Latina/o characters. I don’t want white actors to portray Latina/o characters – there is more to a racial identity – and portraying a racial identity - than skin color or “a look.” Affect plays a role in how the character is embodied – in what comes across at the end of the day in the production. Without talented Latina/o actors, my plays aren’t fully realized. If white actors portray my Latina/o characters, my plays aren’t fully realized. So this leads me to wonder, are we to put up the play at any cost? Is it just about the play being produced? I’d rather put pressure on institutions – why aren’t there more Latina/o actors in your casting pool? What structural circumstances are preventing this? What work needs to be done?

 

But there’s another side to this issue that is connected to the heterogeneity of Latinidad. I think the best story to describe this is the one concerning casting for my play Cascarones at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference in 2003.

 

First, I want to be very clear: I am grateful for the opportunity to develop work at the O’Neill. It was an honor, a dream.

 

So, to cast my show, the O’Neill used a NYC casting agent, as it did for all the shows by the playwrights in my cohort. But, unlike the other shows (by both white and one African American playwright), the casting agent couldn’t find a plethora of Latina/o actors in NYC...it was a terribly disappointing process for me as the agent suggested Latina/o actors that one could clearly see from headshots, did not meet the needs of a character (age, type). To the agent, it seemed that they were all “Latina/os,” so why couldn’t they do? I strongly believe this would never have occurred if we were casting Anglo characters, moreover, of course, the pool of possibilities in the agent’s database would have been infinite. I had to call across the country to seek references and feed the casting director suggestions. I functioned as the casting agent alongside the agent. I don’t believe others in my cohort had this dilemma.

 

I suggested they needed to pull viable actors from L.A. – but that was beyond the scope of the agent. They didn’t have connections in L.A., only New York. Basically, out goes an entire acting pool of Mexican American actors for my Mexican American character populated play.

 

But there’s one more twist, Cascarones is set in Texas, and that cadence of English has a very particular patois. It’s just entirely different than what you hear on the East Coast. And often, if you haven’t been to Mexican Texas, you’ve probably never heard it, Latina/o or not. In the end, we cast fine Latina/o actors – but I didn’t really “hear” my play. The wide variety of Latina/o actors eventually contracted, it seemed, had every sort of ethnic specific accent that might be found in NYC, but none sounded like Tejana/os. The cadence I had written the play in depended upon a certain way of speaking English distinctive to how Tejana/os speak English in Texas. Like other dialects, it’s a product of a very specific history – there’s nothing universal about it. 

 

The result was brown bodies on stage in a play authored by a Mexican American woman, but it wasn’t the play I had written, that I heard in my mind, or with others reading the roles when I was writing it.

 

I believe Cherríe Moraga has spoken or written about this phenomenon, where Latina/o actors can gain very advanced acting training...for Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov...but for Latina/o authored plays about Latina/o communities? They founder; they wrestle with their identity, their whole careers in some cases. They’ve been encouraged to suppress or toss aside mannerisms, ways of speaking, or affectations that make them read or be heard as racialized bodies. So, as a playwright, you’re not only trying to get a play up on its feet, refine it, but you also end up negotiating an actor’s very personal identity crisis that the play might trigger. That’s a lot.

 

As Latina/os, we have a very complicated relationship to whiteness, which at the end of the day, I see manifest in the material reality of trying to find professional Latina/o actors, which we all want to work with to see the fullest incarnation of our work.

 

I’ve had the best casting experiences or reading experiences in Los Angeles, which has an extremely talented pool of Latina/o actors, and LOADS of talented, transplanted Tejana/os!

 

CS:  It goes without saying that we live in a multi-lingual world. Do you think our US stages (to keep the dialogue national for the moment) need reflect this? If so, how?

 

IM: I think we need as many good plays as possible from as many identities (ethnic, racial, gendered, sexual, differently abled, or class-based) as possible for the U.S. American stage. 2040, the marker year for race in the U.S. But truth be told, right now is 2040 in so many places in the U.S.  Theater remains to me a forum to wonder together, to serve as witnesses for the lives of others, to develop our emotional intelligence, to push at our complicated problems, to ask tough questions about ourselves as individuals, as communities, as a national body.

 

If you are a theater company, outreach is absolutely necessary – outreach to find an audience AND to develop new theater makers. It’s hard, unglamorous work, but you cannot wait at the door to your theater and expect audiences to find you no matter how wonderful or sophisticated or important your productions are. I don’t believe outreach works that way anymore. I would even question subscriber bases. If you want new audiences, you have to think in new ways, and it most likely entails a new approach for each production you offer. We need smart, talented people on stage as well as off stage making sure the production is promoted in local communities.

 

If theaters only do one show a year by a producer of color – don’t expect to grow a following. And, please don’t congratulate yourself.   

 

CS: And in your work, how do you address multi-linguality and hybrid aesthetics, if at all?

 

IM: Most of my works reflect the manipulations and patois of English that I hear in South Texas. The characters speak in cadences and registers that are prevalent in the region. Some speak without mixing English and Spanish. Other characters often mix English and Spanish. I try to be true to the characters’ choices and their social-historical conditions, which often yield those choices. In the end, most of my plays are about 95% English. But it’s still odd to see people’s responses to that 5% of Spanish included. That mere 5% can be problematic.

 

In terms of aesthetics, I’m using hybrid aesthetics all time. I’m borrowing, stealing, and manipulating from the vast archive of theater history for my storytelling. From things that move me, from images that are of many cultures, many peoples, from my own cultural stimuli to that of the African American diaspora or European and Euroamerican traditions in theater, visual art, song, and movement. As a theater artist I’m syncretizing; it’s always a matter of creativity, imagination, and influence. It’s always a matter of what serves the story – a story told through a live medium. Why wouldn’t I; this is my lived condition. I’ve been taught Euroamerican stories since my childhood – through public education and mainstream culture, I’ve had to ingest and become familiar with them, “the canon,” to participate, to survive. I also carry with me as resource my Mexican cultural traditions – learned from my family. I’m always thinking about my indigenous heritage, that which has been lost in the deracination of colonialism or imperialism. This is my history, my legacy. How could I not pull from everything that has been bequeathed to me in this immense historical legacy? It’s now all part of my intellectual, imaginative, and creative inheritance.

 

CS: As a writer/maker for/of live performance, what is thrilling to you still about the form – this old weird creaky thing we call theatre – and why?

 

IM: Finally, a question that feels a bit less thorny! Liveness, plain and simple. People gathered in a space together watching another human being(s) create a story or experience for them to witness and respond to. I love sitting in the back of a house and watching the audience, feeling their engagement, observing the minutia of their responses. I still find it thrilling to be surprised and enchanted by the way in which a story is told through the devices of live theater. I love theatricality, so anything that elucidates, unfolds itself with unanticipated audacity – even though that may hinge on blatant illusions of the cleverest sort -  still thrills me.

 

CS: Much is made at theatre conferences (esp) about where and how will we find the new audiences for the work. I think I have been hearing this for about 20 years now. And every year new marketing approaches are discussed and studies are done and surveys get passed around and so forth. Lots of data gets crunched. But there is a bottom line, I think, and you may disagree, but what I see as the bottom line is: if you change the programming, lower ticket prices, do work for free even (see Mixed Blood’s radical hospitality model), move out of the building(s), maybe just maybe that elusive “new” audience may be nurtured. But it ain’t gonna happen sitting inside the building thinking about it or tweeting about it either. Okay. Wee rant over. But seriously, what ideas have you when you make work or are in the process of putting it out there about how to and ways you can create connection with your audience(S) beyond the work itself, for example?

 

IM: See! data, yet again!

 

I agree with most ideas you state above: you have to move out of the building, you have to lower prices, change the programming most especially, rethink the model that served a 19th century audience and 19th century technologies. In this, you then have to rethink the institutional models we currently have. It’s funny, people usually begin theater companies to make their work, right? But the models that I like best stem from thinking about the audience first – who is your potential audience? How do you connect with them? And, then finally, what kind of work will speak to this audience? And, it’s not “what do they want...,” I think that’s pandering. You have to care about the lives of the people who will be your potential audience – hold that as a tenet in what you want to create at the end of the day. You have to spend years nurturing an audience. It’s bottom up, not top down work .  

 

So, over the course of my career, I’ve worked with many types of theater companies or closely observed many in action. I would say that the ones with the best audiences have been those that are deeply connected to their communities, that have employed innovative thinkers in marketing who are also connected to the community (i.e., not professional marketers). They use person-to-person marketing + social media (my communities often don’t have access to what many would consider ubiquitous forms of technology). The play isn’t often the event, but the excuse for an event, the kernel inside a larger coming together that has free food, music, more a festival type setting around the performance. In the best cases, there’s dancing afterwards. It’s outside a formal theater building. Backyards, bars, or community centers. The event’s shape (and success) borrows from the protocols of youth culture, not regional theaters. The event’s shape borrows from the protocols of the community’s culture. If the overall goal is for theater to be ubiquitous in people’s lives, then I would argue it has to be ubiquitous in their communities. And that means we might have to let go of certain things theater has become right now in many communities – a building, over there, outside the community, on the other side of town, across the river, not near a bus or train line, in the hipper part of town, in a new “hot” neighborhood.

 

In East L.A., when my collaborator Virginia Grise and I set about filming our play The Panza Monologues, we had the good help of someone dedicated solely to getting the word out by going bar to bar, door to door, store to store, meeting to meeting to spread the word about the taping/performance. She saturated the community around the community center we taped in with handbills and posters. She cajoled others in the community to help her, and they did because the show, I like to think, was pertinent to the community. These community marketers talked to people person-by-person, god bless them for their help because we were busy putting together the show. Of course, we used usual outlets like radio and newspapers to advertise the show – but altogether it was a multi-directional, micro to macro, approach. And frankly, a persistent daily effort in the three months leading up to the night of the performance. At 7:30PM on the day of the taping, a line snaked around the building. At 8:00PM, we were still trying to stuff people in (but couldn’t, fire codes). Instead, so we hear, people were trying to sneak in the building because it was a one night only type of deal for taping, and we had to close the doors on our full house.

 

CS: What’s inspiring you these days? And/or what’s troubling you these days?

 

IM: I’m taking this question from a theatrical point of view, considering the context of this conversation. I am truly excited by the emerging body of work currently being generated by a new generation of Latina playwrights. Here, I mean both those who are younger (in terms of age) and those who are emerging but not young adults (in terms of age). Many Latinas are experiencing the worthy fruits of long careers (finally, public notice in both Latina/o and Euroamerican communities). And, when the work speaks to the heterogeneity of Latinidad, I am even more excited to see these voices emerge. Here, work that explores complex notions of identity such as class, national origin, region, sexuality, language, and diaspora is most welcome as it broadens the purview of social political issues that suffuse Latina/os’ lives across the U.S. even as it broadens what the term “Latina/o” enfolds: geographically, in terms of national origin, and in terms of racial composition. I am also always excited to witness new kinds of theatrical aesthetics that challenge realism or melodramatic models of theatrical form. Therefore, site-specific work and movement work is also truly exciting to me at this moment because it pushes at realism.

 

Even as I’m excited by the new and exciting work of Latina playwrights, I still believe we need to nurture and help train more Latina administrators, directors, and dramaturgs in theater (mainstream and community-based) who are interested in making theater by, for, and about issues and stories that speak to Latina/os. Latina/os’ participation as theater artists or administrators is a tricky topic, but I am distressed that Latinas are drastically underrepresented as creative leaders (artistic directors, directors, designers, dramaturgs, playwrights, administrators in the arts) as compared to the number of male participants: Latino, white, or from other racial origins. I want to see Latina leadership emerge in key areas of theatrical production; it will change the texture of our theater (aesthetics) as well as its content (themes and topics). Of course, national numbers and surveys have proven that theater production by women across the board(s) is sorely lacking. But for Latinas, the situation is even more alarming. Therefore, if I could change one thing, it would be care about nurturing future Latina leaders who are interested in Latina/o Theater by, for, and about Latina/os. (Numbers alone do not equal the creation of theatrical stories pertinent to future Latina/o audiences.) Here, I am looking at themes and stories, not just racial demographics (the number of) Latinas working in/making theater.

 

 

 

Tatiana Suarez-Pico talks 3030 with NoPassport

Tatiana Suarez-Pico talks 3030 with NoPassport

[Tatiana Suarez-Pico’s play Profit is part of the 30/30 US Latin@/NoPassport reading scheme. The same interview questions have been sent to each playwright taking part in the scheme by Caridad Svich.]

Caridad Svich: a false (i think) divide has been erected in some art-making circles between what is called "devised" work and "text-based or text-driven" work. this divide or, shall we call it a "gap?," has served to alienate makers of text-driven work for live performance in the field and in academia. in effect, certain battle grounds have formed that encourage oppositional thinking about this, so that we have now, in many ways, the devisers on one side of the field and the text-makers on the other.

 

  1. how do deal with the positioning of your work, if at all?

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: As humans we are always attempting to find a way to categorize ourselves, our experiences, etc. It helps us process what’s going on around us, but these categorizations are sometimes very narrow and only appropriate under certain circumstances. Devised vs. Text-driven, Latino writer vs. Writer, Woman writer vs. Writer—shouldn’t serve as a definition of the work itself; they barely define what we’re really doing when we make theater, when we write. How I deal with it depends on the context. I will push to be called a writer over a “female writer” most of the time, but context as well as intention is something I care about and always take into consideration. In short, I pick my battles.

 

CS: how do you negotiate the very real diving lines that get drawn, quite arbitrarily, and quite often, in our field in regard to art-making and its role in culture?

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: It’s hard to negotiate divides you didn’t create; in other words, it’s hard to play by someone else’s rules. How I negotiate with those divides is by staying true to what I want to say and subsequently being really deliberate about the way I want to communicate it. I go back to picking and choosing my battles— which divides are really having a creative/tangible impact on the work, and which are so arbitrary and ridiculous that there is no need to focus on them.

 

CS: as a playwright, how do you devise your own process? dramatic project (life goals as artist)?

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: I could write about process forever, but it all just comes down to where I am, what my priorities are, in my personal life at the moment. I do spend a great deal of time thinking about my next piece of work before I delve into it, sometimes years.

 

CS: and how do you wish to live as artist in and with engagement in local and global dialogue with citizens and artists?

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: It’s easy to be engaged in dialogue with my local community; it’s in my face, I can’t ignore it. The global community is the one that takes a bit more effort. I actually wish there were more avenues for artistic exchange across continents- we’d be better off as people, and far more understanding. I am constantly engaged with the world around me, but do a great deal of reading and watching to create cultural bridges with the rest of the world.

 

CS: and are there lessons you've learned you wish to impart to fellows in the field and elsewhere?

or lessons you are still learning that impact the kind of work you make or think about making?

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: Remain open.

 

CS: when you see/hear/read the phrase "US Latin@," what does it make you think of?

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: community, and a word that can often seem like a mountain you have climb to get over to some, very elusive, other side.

 

CS: what is your relationship to being of or part of (or not) a US Latin@ context in your art-making or thinking about art?

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: It’s good to go to a play labeled as a “Latino work” and be able to get the nuances of the work, to get all of the secrets—It’s wonderful to be a part of that community. However, when I write I don’t write with a “US Latin@” hat on; I write with my very human experiences in tow which are not always in relation to the place where I was born or where the census places me ethnically. That’s an incredibly and terribly narrow way of viewing any artistic endeavor, by any artist, of any ethnicity. And this is where the labels start to feel like walls closing in. We exist in a larger context.

 

CS: as a maker of text for live performance, in what ways are you challenging or calling into question the nature of embodied speech and action when you write a given play or collaborate with fellow artists?

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: I think of all my work as a way of challenging or calling into question a series of actions. Most of the time this entails challenging myself to investigate communication as a whole.

 

CS: what do you do when someone says to you "we don't have culturally specific actors in my town, so we can't even look at your play, even if we were to deeply admire or want to put this story on stage?'

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: If someone “deeply admires” the work, and they mean that, they’ll put the work on stage. I write plays with a multicultural cast in mind because that’s the world I live in. Some roles I write with a specific ethnicity in mind, and I do so deliberately. As someone who has worked as an actor for many years, putting on stage a multicultural representation of the world, is a very important and personal goal of mine. I’ve gone to the auditions, I’ve acted the plays, I’ve seen the other side and know that if a  writer does not specify  that a certain role can be of “X” ethnicity, many theaters just won’t consider that ethnicity at all for that role. And that’s the world we live in right now.

 

Some work doesn’t require culturally specific actors, and if I’ve noted that in my play, and yet a theater or producing organization tells me that they need “cultural specific actors” for those roles, it’s their own bias speaking not my play.

 

CS: what do you say to potential collaborators and casting directors about the nature of how to cast your show and how casting can carry its own political power?

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: Cast the play the way our world is: multicultural, accented, different. And, please read my “Character Description” page.

 

CS: it goes without saying that we live in a multi-lingual world. do you think our US stages (to keep the dialogue national for the moment) need reflect this? if so, how?

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: Yes, of course, theater should reflect this. Whether it is via the inclusion of other languages in the text or allowing a variety of accents to come to play on stage, it’s up to the writer. But should theater reflect our environment, local and global? Yes, of course!

 

CS: and in your work, how do you address multi-linguality and hybrid aesthetics, if at all? 

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: I write about it. I write about characters who are multilingual, bilingual, with a variety of accents, and whose self-identification may be in transition. That may not be what the play is about, but it certainly comes into play when I create a character as those subtleties are what inspire me and inform me (as someone who is writing/creating a world).

 

CS: as a writer/maker for/of live performance, what is thrilling to you still about the form - this old weird creaky thing we call theatre - and why?

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: As an audience member: when something I see on stage takes my heart from my chest, unraveling deep-seated fears, and forcing me to reflect about something, in me or outside of me. I don’t even know what it is about theater; perhaps it isn’t that we are just self-involved and are quickly drawn to self-identification, but that we are thrilled by the truth, we are addicted to seeing something real that makes us incredibly uncomfortable… Maybe that just what thrills me about theater.

 

As an actor— acting has always made me a better person, less judgmental, more understanding. I always feel alive when I’m acting.

 

As a writer—the thrill of it for me, is when I can get someone to give a shit about someone else or something else. When I see people edging to their seats, dazzled by a story, and for those minutes forgetting all the really stupid divides we have created for ourselves; for a moment we are just humans trying to make it to the next day.

 

CS: what ideas have you when you make work or are in the process of putting it out there about how to and ways you can create connection with your audience(S) beyond the work itself, for example?

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: It depends on the audience I am trying to reach. If it’s a younger audience, then I think about what’s really making waves with that particular group of people, videos? Instagram? Blogging? A daily picture with a funny message? Everything seems cyclical and everything seems to have a tipping point, at least to me, social media included. A lot of the “how-tos” of communicating with an audience come from what the play/theater piece is about, and from the characters I’ve put in the piece. What I’ve said, how I’ve said, is directly related to how I “market” or present the invitation to an audience. Of course, the economy of it all also plays a huge role in how an audience is reached.

 

CS: what's inspiring you these days? and/or what's troubling you these days?

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: Inspiring: Honesty. Travel. Multiculturalism. Playfulness. Especially playfulness. Troubling: Those biases that block our ways into bigger theater houses, TV shows, and movies. Those terrible biases that so many people before us have fought against, that still play in the background, making a quiet raucous behind the scenes—and really, still closing doors for many of us. The truth is that we are still fighting a quiet and not-so-quiet battle against the over-simplification of human identity, and humans in general… You know, how easy it is to stick a label on someone and say “not them, we don’t want them.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Possible
a poem for Randy Gener
on January 25, 2014
 
by Caridad Svich
 
make sexy, he said
in the birthday hallo
 
make love, he said
about theatre dreamt of
 
on the subway train we rode
some years ago
back from BAM
we got lost
stopped at the wrong stop
worried
but kept going
 
we laughed
and started to really talk
about art and life
after years of being fans
across the aisle
 
often separated: critic and writer
but no need for the separation
 
as we spoke of
people we loved
teachers we admired
the importance of mentors
and poetry
 
I write too, he said
not just essays and things
wink.
 
many nights later
on a night of hibernating rattlesnakes
daring the dare
at the nuyorican poets cafe
haunted by the ghosts of losaida
 
there was writing, yes
and talk of Genet
and such words
divine incandescence
blush/smile
crackling intelligence
 
ha, you are a poet, i said
but no, no, the reply,
just writing some things when i have the time
when i am not wearing other hats
 
impassioned hats
for Belarus Free Theatre, Maria Irene Fornes,
artists on and under the radar
in New York City and other cities and countries
everywhere, everywhere
 
the world is ours. we must write it.
 
at the Players Club
the kind words that flowed
unexpected
because the passion was real
and the depth of it felt
and never knew, never
he'd been reading/watching/caring
all this time
like this
wink
 
yes, there was that drink,
that long drink
when we first met
at a conference
a crash of heys and hallos and sudden long conversation
a real conversation midst the floating cups
and shallow talk
 
finally, kindred spirit
smile blush
 
at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center and New Dramatists
the raising of glasses
for words in print
daring the dare again
for an endeavor
not meant to last
 
just a dare, you know
to see if a wee dent could be made in the field
because so much work
too much work
still unread/unknown
shame
it cannot be
and he said, yes,
let's dream the yes
 
and through it all -
 
bitter tears,
rage, hurt
and joy
crazy ecstatic
 
webster hall
loud clapping hands 
there in the front row
up high the hands
let them take the photo, he said
and i, what?
blink
 
and after, after
the place down the way
where everyone else would be,
over drinks and too much calamari
a long night of raising glasses
and wondering
what a beautiful yes could be
 
 
here's to the bristling mind
open, curious
 
the playfulness
and show and tell of self
 
but always, there
the possible
 
 
i sing a song of the possible
a song of yeses
for the one who
winks the dream
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Carmen Pelaez talks art and life for NoPassport’s 3030 scheme

 

[Carmen Pelaez’s play Fake is part of the 30/30 US Latin@/NoPassport reading scheme. The same interview questions have been sent to each playwright taking part in the scheme by Caridad Svich.]

 

Caridad Svich: a false (i think) divide has been erected in some art-making circles between what is called "devised" work and "text-based or text-driven" work. this divide or, shall we call it a "gap?," has served to alienate makers of text-driven work for live performance in the field and in academia. in effect, certain battle grounds have formed that encourage oppositional thinking about this, so that we have now, in many ways, the devisers on one side of the field and the text-makers on the other. how do deal with the positioning of your work, if at all?

 

Carmen Pelaez: I don't.  I just write. Trends are completely uninteresting to me.  I don't want my work to be the fluorescent paint splattered sweatshirt of American theater.  I want it to be the classic and timeless crisp white button down. I will say that I write what I would want to act and thankfully my writer and actor instincts let me procedurally have my cake and eat it too.  But as far as and strategy is concerned, I write what compels me to take time out of my life to sit down and write. I know it will find an audience because thankfully, it always does.  But trends are disposable and if I were to write to a trend, my work would be disposable too.

 

CS: how do you negotiate the very real diving lines that get drawn, quite arbitrarily, and quite often, in our field in regard to art-making and its role in culture?

 

Carmen Pelaez: You want to know a people look at its art.  We've got the Biebs and reality TV.  Modern day American culture does not value art.  It values hustlers and rewards mediocrity.  Its why it's so easy to fail upwards as a writer.  Of course there are some exceptions but en masse- it's flash and money making trash. If you get stuck looking at those lines-you may get work-but you probably won't make art.  HOWEVER my Cuban culture has taught me that you can get everything taken away from you except the art you experience.  That in the end-art is all we have it's the only thing that really transcends.  So I look at those lines the same way I do as if I was driving. When you're driving-you're not supposed to look at the center line in the road cause you will steer the car into the wrong lane.  You've got to look at the line that's on your side alternating with taking a glances at the horizon.  That's how you get there.  And that's the 'there' I want to get to.

 

CS: as a playwright, how do you devise your own process? dramatic project (life goals as artist)?

 

Carmen Pelaez: I only put out work that I would want to see or act in.  I'm not prolific.  I let things write themselves in my head sometimes for years and then when I'm forced by deadline or compulsion, I sit down and write.  I throw away more pages than I put out.  But I'm really proud of what I've put out.  I learned early on that you must be able to live with your work.  And fortunately, I happily can.

 

My life goals as an artists is for people to see their own humanity in my work.  That would be the greatest thing I could hope for.

 

CS: how do you wish to live as artist in and with engagement in local and global dialogue with citizens and artists?

 

Carmen Pelaez: For me it's about the purity of your intention. The authenticity of the voice is the only thing that will really moves people.  When I was younger, I had several opportunities to cash in, in a major way, if I were willing to write apologetically.  To write the Cuban girl that 'they' wanted to see. But it was never a viable option. And believe me-it hurt to turn down some of these career launching opportunities but I was never even tempted.  My family, my history, our experiences, our truth--that wasn't and isn't for sale. Plus they were just asking me to make bad art and who wants to do that?  Bad art leads to idiot circles.  It's through my true blue Cuban lens that I've had the opportunity to interact with a quality of global artists and citizens that has enriched my life exponentially and I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world.

 

CS: are there lessons you've learned you wish to impart to fellows in the field and elsewhere? or lessons you are still learning that impact the kind of work you make or think about making?

 

Carmen Pelaez: I think the greatest lesson I've learned is to make a LIFE for myself.  My art is the starting point, but not the end.  To think BIG.  To think bigger than that commission or that submission.  I would say cultivate the ability to compartmentalize.  We all know the business side of what we do is a ridiculous lottery.  So don't let that dictate the art you make or the person you are.  Be BIGGER. Be GENEROUS. Remember we're all in it together and that life is long and hard.  Be KIND.  Let your curiosities and your empathy be your guide--not only ambition.  Of course, look for opportunities-but treat them as the salt at the table not the dish. 

 

CS: when you see/hear/read the phrase "US Latin@," what does it make you think of?

 

Carmen Pelaez: I have a love hate relationship with that term. I'm from Miami.  The 'other'  were and are 'los Americanos'.  I heard 'el pobre-dejalo-es Americano' so much growing up that I had NO idea how maligned Latin@s were in the US. It wasn't until I got to New York that I began to understand how racist and ugly ese 'pobre Americano' can be. I realized how important it is politically to stand together. Many Latin@ groups of which I am a member do phenomenal work to not only promote art, but human rights and civil liberties.  BUT standing together should not mean to let ourselves lose our individuality.  I think sometimes we can get so desperate for opportunities that we allow ourselves to be lumped into the same corral in hopes of getting seen. In turn it makes us feel that we can only break out of that pen one at a time and its just not true.  So the few of us that get hand picked start to think they must be different right-cause they were hand picked and it leads to a mental servitude that I'm not comfortable with. 

 

CS: What is your relationship to being of or part of (or not) a US Latin@ context in your art-making or thinking about art?

 

Carmen Pelaez: I don't think of Fornes as a Latin@ wrier.  I don't thing of Picasso as a Spanish artist.  I think WRITER and ARTIST.  We don't hear the term US European.  Or European-American theater.  US Latin@ denotes that 'other' which specializes and at once sterilizes us.  It creates a tokenism that is very dangerous to us as a community. We're giving our individual power over to a few that have no understanding of who we are. We're allowing ourselves to be chosen, it's passive and it's not working.  We need to start deciding who we want to gift our perspective to and go for it.  Our being Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Brazilian, Dominican makes us fresh!  Its fertile ground.  Productions at INTAR last year got far better reviews in the New York Times than many productions at other non for profits.  In Miami you rarely if ever see a writer pointed out as a Latin@ writer. They're just artists.  We just need to be artists first and trust that our cultural heitages will give us a fresh perspective to explore.  I really believe if we individually stop expecting and settling for the slot we're allocated--collectively we will jump leaps and bounds.  I don't want to be a big fish in a small pond. I don't want to be the diversity hire. I want to be a whale in an ocean.  The writer that earned the job cause I lit their minds on fire not because I'm a Cuban (insert name of famous playwright).

 

CS: as a maker of text for live performance, in what ways are you challenging or calling into question the nature of embodied speech and action when you write a given play or collaborate with fellow artists?

 

Carmen Pelaez: I'm kind of a traditionalist.  My strength isn't pushing the form.  For me its about using everything at my disposal to push the perception.

 

 

CS: what do you do when someone says to you "we don't have culturally specific actors in my town, so we can't even look at your play, even if we were to deeply admire or want to put this story on stage?'

 

Carmen Pelaez: I tell them that color blind casting is the easiest way to show the author and the audience that you respect them.  Challenge your actors and your casting office and we will all be the better for it.

 

CS: what do you say to potential collaborators and casting directors about the nature of how to cast your show and how casting can carry its own political power?

 

Carmen Pelaez: I want the best actor for the job. Period.

 

CS: it goes without saying that we live in a multi-lingual world. do you think our US stages (to keep the dialogue national for the moment) need reflect this? if so, how?

 

Carmen Pelaez: I just spent a month in Miami and if I spoke English three times-it's a lot.  Down there-if you tell somebody you don't speak Spanish you might as well say that monkeys fly out of your ears at night. Our reality is multilingual-if our theater wants to stay vital-of course it should reflect our reality.  All of my plays which have Hispanic characters have Spanish in them.  Language is such a huge part of our essence.  Denying it is denying part of ourselves, denying our intimacy. We've got to ignore the fear of language and lead by example.  Heighten the stakes.

 

CS: in your work, how do you address multi-linguality and hybrid aesthetics, if at all? 

 

Carmen Pelaez: I only use Spanish when the word or phrase in English doesn't communicate what I need it to emotionally.  I'm also particularly adept at translating the musicality of Spanish for my characters that would only speak Spanish but are part of telling the story in English without sounding hokey.  I bled to become good at this-so I'm proud of my ability and consider it another tool in my virtual shed.

 

CS: as a writer/maker for/of live performance, what is thrilling to you still about the form - this old weird creaky thing we call theatre - and why?

 

Carmen Pelaez; The immediacy of live theater is fantastic.  I act in all of my work-so hearing people laugh, sob, sigh, seeing them move forward in their seats...its wonderful and like nothing else.

 

CS: much is made at theatre conferences (esp) about where and how will we find the new audiences for the work. i think i have been hearing this for about 20 years now. and every year new marketing approaches are discussed and studies are done and surveys get passed around and so forth. lots of data gets crunched. but there is a bottom line, I think, and you may disagree, but what I see as the bottom line is: if you change the programming, lower ticket prices, do work for free even (see Mixed Blood's radical hospitality model), move out of the building(s), maybe just maybe that elusive "new" audience may be nurtured. but it ain't gonna happen sitting inside the building thinking about it or tweeting about it either. okay. wee rant over.

 

Carmen Pelaez: Want a new audience--make better theater.  Our business model gives us the audience we deserve. We gotta drown our grant babies and theater darlings and make it a meritocracy. If I had a dollar for every time somebody at the top said to me 'oh yeah-their work is terrible-but you know-they're known quantity so we have to produce them/give them the grant' I could self produce.  I say blind submissions across the board!  I'm up for it.  Audiences are bored with the same 4 voices telling the same stories.  And why shouldn't they be? Also artists, we need to raise our own bar.  Stop being coy if the system is working for you personally and consider how much great work we're losing because of our industry's m.o. Enough with the low hanging fruit.  If we want to save this art form-we need to hold our work to a higher standard and not support bad work because somebody is connected. We need to start telling ourselves and each other the truth. Might hurt at first but my God--can you imagine the work that would come out of it!

 

CS: what ideas have you when you make work or are in the process of putting it out there about how to and ways you can create connection with your audience(S) beyond the work itself, for example?

 

Carmen Pelaez: On social media and blogs I like to talk about what inspired the story.  What painting or moment moved me. What piece of music I had in my head.  

 

CS: what's inspiring you these days? and/or what's troubling you these days?

 

Carmen Pelaez: Lately I've been looking at a lot of Chinese contemporary art. INK ART at the Met and 28 CHINESE ARTISTS at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami were particularly stunning exhibits.  They working on all cylinders.  Also a new exhibit of my great aunt's work AMELIA PELAEZ THE CRAFT OF MODERNITY at PAMM in Miami was amazing--its always great to discover new pieces in her oeuvre and her life and tradition is a constant source of inspirtation. Performance wise the incredible MARIE ANTOINETTE by David Adjmi--is just on another plane and Rosie Herrera's dance piece DINNER PARTY was fantastic. I'm moved by work that has a huge and specific point of view without losing the ability to surprise you.  One that challenges the expectations of an audience or viewer.  All of this work found a place in my body when I saw it.  I love when art grabs you by the throat like that.

 

What's troubling me these days is the complete lack of self awareness among artists.  They put so much effort into the game that they substitute their own hype for the work which leads to bad, or worse, boring theater limiting all of our possibilities.  It's a privilege to be an artist-honor it above all else and we will all be the better for it.

=

 

Marco Antonio Rodriguez talks playwriting for the NoPassport #3030NP salon

[Marco Antonio Rodriguez’ play Ashes of Light is part of the 30/30 US Latin@/NoPassport reading scheme. The same interview questions have been sent to each playwright taking part in the scheme by Caridad Svich.]

Caridad Svich: a false (i think) divide has been erected in some art-making circles between what is called "devised" work and "text-based or text-driven" work. This divide or, shall we call it a "gap?," has served to alienate makers of text-driven work for live performance in the field and in academia. in effect, certain battle grounds have formed that encourage oppositional thinking about this, so that we have now, in many ways, the devisers on one side of the field and the text-makers on the other.

 

Marco Antonio Rodriguez: The term “devised work” is defined as a form of theatre where the script originates not from a writer or writers, but from collaborative, usually improvisatory, work by a group of people (usually, but not necessarily, the performers).

No single thing should be chosen over another. Division or “gaps” in any capacity carries the potential for creative hazards. Disposing of art forms for the purposes of gimmick or temporary convenience opens a gateway for anything (viable or otherwise) to be terminated. With modern technology on the rise, who says in a few years a new form won’t arise to render devised work obsolete? Art has little to do with trend and most to do with inspiration, creation and sharing. If we are to get on board with divisive thought patterns we might as well form political theatre parties and establish constitutions to complement them… DIOS NOS LIBRE! There is beauty in devised theatre just as there is in text-based material. The question to ask is: What is the story we are desiring to tell and what is the best way to tell it?

CS: how do you deal with the positioning of your work, if at all?

Marco Antonio Rodriguez: It shifts from project to project. The demands of the story being told and the process of its creation usually determines positioning.

CS: how do you negotiate the very real dividing lines that get drawn, quite arbitrarily, and quite often, in our field in regard to art-making and its role in culture?

Marco Antonio Rodriguez: I take caution, particularly at the beginning stages of the writing process, to not impose on the material by focusing on the role I may think it could potentially play in culture. I prefer to leave that decision to those experiencing the work. I strive to tell universal and accessible stories with clarity, passion and truth. If it happens that a culture or cultures makes it their own then blessed be. In the last few years, my stories have focused mostly on Dominican and Dominican-American characters simply because that is how my stories are best served at the moment. Prior to this I was exploring Mexican and before that, Middle-Eastern. Perhaps later I will be moved to explore stories and characters from another planet! It is simply a matter of how I intuitively feel the story is best served.  

CS: as a playwright, how do you devise your own process? dramatic project (life goals as artist)? and how do you wish to live as artist in and with engagement in local and global dialogue with citizens and artists? and are there lessons you've learned you wish to impart to fellows in the field and elsewhere?

or lessons you are still learning that impact the kind of work you make or think about making?

Marco Antonio Rodriguez: It varies. I may begin a piece as an American drama then realize the story is best told in Spanish and set in Chile because that particular change will be the very thing that makes it universal and accessible (YES, even though it is in Spanish). I apply the same approach to life goals as an artist and to my engagement in local and global dialogue. 

I’ve learned to assimilate rules… then question everything. Knowledge paired with an open mind and heart has been essential to my intuitive creative process.

It is also important to understand you are your best agent. I don’t wait for opportunity. Being a multidisciplinary artist has been to my benefit. Learning editorial, screenwriting, translation (if applicable), commentary skills… A well-versed, multi-disciplinary artist is an artist that will be blessed with a healthy level of creative abundance.

CS: when you see/hear/read the phrase "US Latin@," what does it make you think of?

Marco Antonio Rodriguez: A reference to culture. I am a U.S. Latino. Interesting… Take away the grammar and it becomes: US.

CS: what is your relationship to being of or part of (or not) a US Latin@ context in your art-making or thinking about art?

Marco Antonio Rodriguez: I am born and raised in New York City, of Dominican descent. One does not topple over the other. There’s beauty and poetry in both. Depending on the story I am sharing, I celebrate the poetry of each or of neither. 

CS: as a maker of text for live performance, in what ways are you challenging or calling into question the nature of embodied speech and action when you write a given play or collaborate with fellow artists?

Marco Antonio Rodriguez: Language is rhythm. It is music. It is imperfect which makes it exciting and creates the potential for good conflict. In my most recent works such as La Luz De Un Cigarrillo (Ashes Of Light) and Barceló Con Hielo (Barceló On The Rocks) I’ve explored a cacophony of Spanish dialects: the urban versus the proper. The country Dominican Spanish versus the one in Santo Domingo versus the Dominican-York Spanish (which has its own lexicon). I write these dialects exactly as they would be spoken: broken words, truncated spelling… I challenge myself and the artistic team to embody the language at a physical and soul level. Let the rhythms of the language inform the story just as much as the spine and conflicts within the play. 

CS: what do you do when someone says to you "we don't have culturally specific actors in my town, so we can't even look at your play, even if we were to deeply admire or want to put this story on stage?'what do you say to potential collaborators and casting directors about the nature of how to cast your show and how casting can carry its own political power

Marco Antonio Rodriguez: I will explore this question from a different angle. The work I have recently been inspired to write has been in Spanish and Spanglish. Specifically Dominican. It is simply what my heart has been calling me to do at the moment. I wouldn’t expect an English only speaking actor to be cast however… I would expect ANY Latino (even non-Dominicans) to be considered in the casting process. There is this stigma that if the work is from a certain cultural place it should only be written and/or acted by members of that culture. No one can take away the direct, personal experience an artist (be it actor, writer, etc.) from a specific country can bring however, in reference to casting, it is important to remain open. Case in point: when casting the original production of La Luz De Un Cigarrillo (Ashes Of Light), we saw guys from all over the world: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, Argentina… Many could not dominate the Dominican dialect but it was of no consequence because I knew we were going to hire a dialect coach. We were primarily searching for the person who could bring honesty and vulnerability to a character that could potentially be interpreted as bratty and spoiled. One Puerto Rican actor walked in. His Spanish had a heavy Puerto Rican accent but he blew us away by taking good direction and bringing exactly what the character required. His approach to the humanity and truth of the character trumped everything we had preconceived in our minds or heard in his speech patterns. This only transpired because we, as a production team, made a conscious effort to see Latino guys of varying backgrounds for the role.

CS: it goes without saying that we live in a multi-lingual world. do you think our US stages (to keep the dialogue national for the moment) need reflect this? if so, how? and in your work, how do you address multi-linguality and hybrid aesthetics, if at all? 

Marco Antonio Rodriguez: Multi-linguality and hybrid aesthetics are very prominent in my current work. For example, I will write passages in Spanish then switch over to English or Spanglish then back again: proper to urban; poetic to vernacular.  “A mirror up to nature” said some guy named Shakespeare... That current mirror is a melting pot of cultures and identities. As long as it is truthfully serving the story, indeed it should reflect this.

CS: as a writer/maker for/of live performance, what is thrilling to you still about the form - this old weird creaky thing we call theatre - and why?

Marco Antonio Rodriguez: The palpable energy of a live audience, no matter how big or small, is exhilarating and can never be replaced. Also, because of its nature, theater lends itself to impermanence, which leaves room for change in form and/or execution.

CS: what ideas have you when you make work or are in the process of putting it out there about how to and ways you can create connection with your audience(S) beyond the work itself, for example?

Marco Antonio Rodriguez: There is, of course, the usual answer: Make the work accessible. If folks see themselves on stage (not necessarily their culture but perhaps a universal, human experience) it will bring them in and they will spread the word, which is the most powerful form of marketing. Targeting audiences through affordable community outreach programs (such as talkbacks) is also essential.

And then there’s another side to this: Understanding the business side of show business. The work I create is the product. Persistence, follow through, organization, networking and proper marketing for each product can lead to the building and sustaining of loyal audiences and greater impact of one’s work.     

CS: what's inspiring you these days? and/or what's troubling you these days?

Marco Antonio Rodriguez: What inspires me today has never really changed from yesterday: Human behavior: Its familiar yet ever mutating intricacies and complexities. Language is also a source of inspiration. How we put it to use. Its rhythms. Its musicality.

Ultimately, I see trouble as conflict. Conflict inspires me to take action and write!

 

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Cecilia Copeland on Duende for 3030

 

[Cecilia Copeland’s play Tiene Duende (It has Soul) is part of the 30/30 US Latin@/NoPassport reading scheme. The same interview questions have been sent to each playwright taking part in the scheme by Caridad Svich.]

 

CARIDAD SVICH: a false (i think) divide has been erected in some art-making circles between what is called "devised" work and "text-based or text-driven" work. this divide or, shall we call it a "gap?," has served to alienate makers of text-driven work for live performance in the field and in academia. in effect, certain battle grounds have formed that encourage oppositional thinking about this, so that we have now, in many ways, the devisers on one side of the field and the text-makers on the other.

  1.  

CECILIA COPELAND: I don’t think it’s a false divide, but the divide sets up a false hierarchy.  One thing that is relatively new, which is why it’s seen as on trend, is the flexibility of the text in film and how much more input actresses and actors can have on a film or TV shoot.  Having now directed my first series of short films with my theater company NYMadness I’ve learned the value of being loose with the script, trusting the camera and the actor or actress on the spot, but that doesn’t really translate to theatre.  In a live performance you’re not able to do five takes and then pick from those in the editing room.  In theatre the editing has to happen on the page before performance and in that it is a seemingly less creative acting contribution for actresses and actors than it is for film, but that’s not actually the case.  So much more of the medium of storytelling in film happens with the camera that the words are a much smaller part of the whole, (dare I say it) picture.  Also, there are a lot of new forms of interactive, multimedia, and transmedia theatre that require more improvisation so crafting those there is going to be more devising going on because the stories are being created based on the engagement with the media forms and audience interactions.  Those things are new, but that doesn’t make them the right medium for every play.  Some stories aren’t suited to complex media or group authorship.  I tend to work best by getting feedback from a director and by being present in rehearsal, and then being left alone to do the writing.  When working on something I know is going to be a screenplay, multimedia, or transmedia piece I know that it’s going to have to be more flexible because of the nature of the medium.

 

CARIDAD SVICH: how do you deal with the positioning of your work, if at all?

 

CECILIA COPELAND: My work is often positioned in a “Latin” context because I don’t always write straight realism and my language use is unapologetically poetic.  I challenge what realism is by showing a deeper layer of reality in that I feel is part of life, but not always verbally acknowledged.  In my play, The Wicked Son we see a Jewish family going through crises in Florida and simultaneously the poetic reality of a Palestinian woman unfolding in the Middle East.  By putting them together in the same time and space I’m purposely illustrating they are not just connected theoretically but that they are deeply intertwined in the present tense regardless of either of them acknowledging it.  Brecht theorized about deeper realities and how to convey them.  From my perspective there are many ways of going about this and typically because of my heightened language and subject matter I’m classified in the realm of Latin Theater.  Of course I am a Latina and some of my subject matter does deal with Latina/o issues and identity, but I’m also Jewish.  All of my plays address what I consider to be modern American mixed identity.  Some “Latin” stylistic classification is helpful and honest, but some of it is just a way for other people to get out of having to deal with the structure and functionality of the play on its own.  To rely on saying its “Latin” is a shorthand instead of deconstructing it from scratch.  The problem is the label’s limitations, shoving a one size fits all band, around anything written by a Latina/o or addressing with Latino/a issues when that label misses the point of the specific conventions of the play.  Not all Latin Plays function within the confines of, “Magic Realism” and it’s not fair to the playwright, José Rivera to take his term for his work and slap it on everyone else’s work.  I write Poetic Realism and it obeys its own rules that make sense to me.  Others do their own thing too.  That said, I find it very flattering to be compared to José and Migdalia Cruz or other Latina/o writers of that level of excellence, but it always comes off a little bit like a surface level compliment.  It’s like saying, “You have pretty hair and a pretty smile.” rather than saying, “You’re a kind and thoughtful person.”  They’re both meant as a compliment, but one statement is a little shallower than the other. 

 

CARIDAD SVICH: how do you negotiate the very real diving lines that get drawn, quite arbitrarily, and quite often, in our field in regard to art-making and its role in culture?
 

CECILIA COPELAND: It’s always challenging to be told something that is meant as a compliment and then feel like I want to argue with it, so I waffle sometimes back and forth depending on the circumstance.  I try to listen to my inner self and determine if this moment or place is the right place to express my deeper thoughts or if perhaps I should just nod at the compliment and say thank you.  I’m not a brain surgeon or a heart surgeon, but if I’m lucky I can ignite some kind of brain and heart activity that can be healing.  If society is accepting of that and wants to honor me in that capacity in any way, then great!  Mostly though I think our current values are highly influenced by the media, which is deeply in bed with a capitalist for profit value system so there’s a lot of sex noise and money noise out there that isn’t saying much other than reinforcing the status quo and it’s hard to compete with that as an artist.  A good friend once told me he felt like a canary in a cage and no one would listen to him.  He was singing his heart out, but nobody heard.  Whether an artist or not, sometimes we just have to be that canary because it’s what is in our soul.  That’s probably more of a philosophical answer, but when staring at my tax returns considering the value of what I contribute as a writer, questioning if society recognizes that in monetary terms, I have to find some kind of balance in terms of my work and the inherent obstacles in getting it to an audience, which include how I’m going to earn a living to sustain myself in the in between years while I’m not able to be a full time artist.  I wrote an entire play about this question, Between Here and There and it’s getting produced in January at Open Hydrant Theatre Co in the Bronx. 

 

CARIDAD SVICH: as a playwright, how do you devise your own process? dramatic project (life goals as artist)?

 

CECILIA COPELAND: I tend to ask a lot of questions.  I often feel like there’s something amiss.  I stare at things really hard and they seem peculiar to me or somehow incorrect.  Those things that feel unanswered or disturbing lead me to projects so I can grapple with understanding them or at least create a context to reach some kind of way to accept them as part of the world.  I go down a rabbit hole with ideas and my theatre company NYMadness keeps me constantly grounded writing new work so I’m testing out theatrical conventions and subject matter in the short form as I go deeper in the long form.  Also, at this point I am drawn to certain collaborators who know my work and ask me to do a project, which is exciting because it feels like a kind of adventure that we’re on together.  My life goals as an artist evolve as I evolve as a person.  I know I want to keep writing for the rest of my life, that I want to write for different mediums, that I’m interested in directing, and that I want to be able to earn my living as an artist. 

 

 

CARIDAD SVICH: how do you wish to live as artist in and with engagement in local and global dialogue with citizens and artists?

 

CECILIA COPELAND: It’s harder for me to be as engaged as I want to be creating work overseas, because I don’t have as many connections as I would like in other countries and I’m not fluent in Spanish or Hebrew even though I understand quite a lot of both.  There are challenges to be contended with in terms of bringing the work outside of the US that I just don’t have the time to overleap and frankly it’s hard enough just getting work up here as an emerging artist.  However, I lived overseas for extended periods, have family in the Middle East and Central America, and I traveled a lot so a global perspective is deeply imbedded in my daily awareness and certainly all the things I write about have tendrils that reach outward addressing how the US is placed within a broader context.

 

CARIDAD SVICH: are there lessons you've learned you wish to impart to fellows in the field and elsewhere?

 

CECILIA COPELAND: Please, don’t shut one another out, question your seasons, include women in the conversation and on stage in your plays.  I feel like the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that the less women’s voices are represented, the fewer female characters are on stage and in films, the easier it is to dismiss us as whole and devalue us in society.  It’s a malignancy in our culture that women are so invisible.  That is true to for all disadvantaged groups and our lack in the social space is having painful consequences for young women and young men.  So to my fellow Latinos I’m talking to you as a Latina.  Please don’t tramp on us when you rise.  Take us with you and listen to us as much as you listen to one another. 

 

CARIDADSVICH: lessons you are still learning that impact the kind of work you make or think about making?

 

CECILIA COPELAND: In other times there were other issues to contend with in regards to censorship so a lot of work had to be covert, and in some ways it created really brilliant stuff.  In this time in the US we don’t face that kind of censorship, but we do have other limitations.  I am learning a lot of the nature of how to navigate the constraints of the modern economy and how to write plays that can actually get produced within constrained budgets, no sets, and short rehearsal times.  Every age has its limitation and just because I’m working to change those in the long run doesn’t mean I can write with my head in the sand and then complain about not getting productions… So I’m learning to write with the hand that holds the money tied behind my back.  There are other constraints to about gender and female vs male protagonist and decisions I have to think about that get weighed play to play… We all have to face the limitations of our current society so those are what I’m grappling with right now as I seek to earn a living with my work. 

 

CARIDAD SVICH: when you see/hear/read the phrase "US Latin@," what does it make you think of?

 

CECILIA COPELAND: It makes me feel conflicted.  When I hear “Panamanian” or “Ludino” I feel like that’s calling my name, but hearing “US Latina” makes me think of stereotypes that I would rather not repeat and that feel like something I have to fight or correct.

 

CARIDAD SVICH: as a maker of text for live performance, in what ways are you challenging or calling into question the nature of embodied speech and action when you write a given play or collaborate with fellow artists?

 

CECILIA COPELAND: I think you’re asking how I’m reinventing playwriting, and if that’s what you’re asking then I would have to say that I’m not necessarily interested in bypassing language or speech.  I’m invested in those tools, I like them, but I am interested in engaging with a morality over what I see as the use of bodies and commodification of sexualized violence especially as it pertains to female bodies.  That’s not specifically text based so much as action based.  In that questioning of the morality over the dramatization of sexual violence it’s my tendency to feel that less is more, because otherwise we’re engaging in pornographic observation to enjoy the physical rush of erotic response seated conveniently in violence for supposed exploration of depth and whitewashed by the intellectual elitist trappings of ‘Art’.  If the same exact realistic depictions were played out in front of a camera and sold on the Internet they wouldn’t be so whitewashed and for me, being a highly sensitive audience member and someone who lives with PTSD, I think it’s well past time to be more careful with trafficking in and exploiting sexual violence on stage.  There seems to be very little discussion or concern about if this is causing trauma, because it’s more interesting to discuss if it’s pushing buttons.  Considering that One in Three Women has been sexually assaulted, that women in Theatre are a statistically marginalized group, it seems pretty callus and thoughtless to depict graphic sexual violence onstage without any real investigation of the impact of showing such images without any means for the audience to engage with them.  Forcing an audience to watch realistic graphic depictions of sexual violence within the confines of what is appropriate audience behavior, being passivity, coaches the audience into moral impotence in the face of violence trains us into a state of disengagement rather than encourages us into being more engaged and act on what we’re seeing in the moment. Link: http://www.oneinthreewomen.com/

 

CARIDAD SVICH: what do you do when someone says to you "we don't have culturally specific actors in my town, so we can't even look at your play, even if we were to deeply admire or want to put this story on stage?'

 

CECILIA COPELAND: To this I say, okay, I’m open to casting others who look like or can pass or are suggestive of these characters.  I come from Des Moines Iowa so I know that there are real places with real theaters who will have a big challenge finding 8 Latino/as to play roles in my flamenco play, and on top of that I need some who can dance, sing, and play guitar.  I would hard pressed to cast that play in New York because of the various specialized skills needed.  Acting is a specialized skill and just because someone can sing or dance and is the right ethnicity it doesn’t mean they can act.  I will also go for the better actor who sort of looks right rather than one who looks exactly right and can’t act the part very well. 

 

CARIDAD SVICH: what do you say to potential collaborators and casting directors about the nature of how to cast your show and how casting can carry its own political power?

 

CECILIA COPELAND:  I write plays that expand the view of Latina/os. If they have white people playing those parts it’s a statement that says a lot of things, but I would rather they have it cast with good people and give the story a chance and it will shift, we’ll make it shift.  I’m pretty sure that Othello wasn’t played by a truly dark skinned actor for a long time after it was written.  That doesn’t mean that the part and the play didn’t open the road for that to happen.  Yes I want ethnically appropriate casting, but New York is different to other cities. There are places where minorities are scarce.  That’s a reality that is just reflective of being a minority.  They play shouldn’t not get done because there aren’t enough minorities in that community to fill those shoes.  The play shouldn’t wait for the world to change to be able to do it perfectly the play helps the world change so I can be done better in the next generation.  That’s my hope as we live through centuries of imperfect casting.

 

CARIDAD SVICH: it goes without saying that we live in a multi-lingual world. do you think our US stages (to keep the dialogue national for the moment) need reflect this? if so, how?

 

CECILIA COPELAND: I think if there is an extensive amount of another language other than English in a play that the audience should have the benefit of sub or supertitles. 

 

CARIDAD SVICH: in your work, how do you address multi-linguality and hybrid aesthetics, if at all?

 

CECILIA COPELAND: Being a member of the Latin community and not being fluent in Spanish I always feel a sense of being closed out when people speak too much in Spanish so I don’t do it to my audience.

 

CARIDAD SVICH: as a writer/maker for/of live performance, what is thrilling to you still about the form - this old weird creaky thing we call theatre - and why?

 

CECILIA COPELAND: Your question supposes a lot of prejudice against things that are old and I don’t really carry that.  I do carry a distaste for ideas that don’t allow for people to rise or expand themselves.  Theatre allows for change in a lot of ways and that’s exciting.  I also think that because we’re dealing with smaller budgets and smaller audiences we can take bigger risks that can grow into a bigger audience.

 

CARIDAD SVICH: what ideas have you when you make work or are in the process of putting it out there about how to and ways you can create connection with your audience(S) beyond the work itself, for example?

 

CECILIA COPELAND: I believe in social media to engage younger audiences. I believe in having more funding for arts programs in schools and the research shows that having arts programming in school improves the overall achievements of the students.  It also improves their lives and deepens their humanity.  I believe in making theater free for young audiences and for including things like free wine and or beer for young twenties.  We live in a seriously economically disadvantaged time for artists and audiences.  The less tickets cost the more people will see a show. This makes it harder to earn a living as an artist because then the funding for production has to come from private or government sources.  Using free methods on social media to find the right audience is totally possible, because there are all kinds of communities that exist online and tapping into them in a modern age is very possible.  However, we need artists with the ability to do this or to speak more truthfully artists who can afford the time to invest in doing it and we need marketing people who are great at it, but again that comes down to funding.  More funding is needed all around.  We need to prioritize Art as a means to itself instead of just as a profit-making venture, but we live in a capitalist system.  Right now the Arts are caught in a political war, like anything that needs funding, but I don’t think theater is going away.     

Link: http://www.education.com/magazine/article/What_Drama_Education_Can_Teach/

 

 

CARIDAD SVICH: what's inspiring you these days? and/or what's troubling you these days?

 

CECILIA COPELAND: A lot of things trouble me.  I could write entire plays about all the things that trouble me… and I do… so I just can’t even start to answer that without coming off as glib. 

 

What’s inspiring is seeing how many other people feel frustrated with some of the same things and who are speaking out as well.  What moves me is seeing that people will stand up for the issues they are concerned about and the stories they need to tell no matter how big or small, that they raise a flag with honesty and bravery to say, “This is wrong/right/beautiful/scary…” or my personal favorite, “You are not alone.”

 

 

 

ART, ACTION, RESISTANCE, AND A BIT OF PLAY

 

(Caridad Svich’s new play ARCHIPELAGO is part of the 30/30 US Latin@/NoPassport reading scheme. Fellow 30/30 schemer playwright Elaine Avila interviewed Svich for this blog at #3030NP)

 

ELAINE AVILA: What is 30/30 and why did you develop it?

 

CS: 30/30 is a national reading scheme initiated by NoPassport theatre alliance and press in partnership with producer Dominic D’Andrea (of One Minute Play Festival) to showcase the breadth and depth of some of the terrific US Latina/o writing for live performance that exists in American theatre. Really only the tip of the iceberg of voices that need to be heard and seen on our stages.  It is a scheme that offers 30 plus plays to venues nation-wide between October 2013 and May 2014 to host script in hand readings at venues, be they theatre, colleges, living rooms, etc – and allow venues and artists to collaborate with other venues and practitioners in their city and region, as well as across the US. So, it is in principle a scheme centered in artist advocacy, getting some new works out there in the world, and perhaps stirring up a dialogue about what is and what can be US Latina/o theatre – if we think horizontally instead of vertically about programming, showcasing new work, and thinking too cross-generationally about the depth of our writing voices.

 

ELAINE AVILA: 30/30 has already begun, starting with Teatro Paraguas/Daniel Banks in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Can you describe how theatre artists, theatre companies, institutions can get involved?

 

CS: Companies, artists, students and more can get involved simply by checking out our webpage at http://www.nopassport.org/3030-us-latinao-theatrenopassport-reading-scheme and reaching out to either Dominic or myself at twitter hashtag #3030NP or at the email 30playsin30days@gmail.com

 

ELAINE AVILA: It was recently suggested on Facebook that 30/30 be sent to theatres that continue to program seasons without any Latin@ writers.  Is this how you originally imagined 30/30 might work? Has there been any surprises in how people implement this dream?

 

CS: Actually I did not imagine that this is how it might work. Honestly, for me it’s about advocacy and awareness of new writing, especially from US Latina/o artists. I still think, despite the fact that some work does get produced, it is few and far between compared to the wealth of work that is being created and how remarkably diverse it is in terms of aesthetics, form, and content. I still think there is a very narrow definition of how the industry perceives US Latina/o work, let alone ‘Latinidad.’ Anything we can do, by making, producing, generating theatre actions – I think helps change/upend, even a little bit, limited definition(s).

 

ELAINE AVILA: I love the diversity in subject matter and style in 30/30. This does a great job of expanding the definition of a Latin@ play. What are your thoughts on expanding definitions and arbitrary distinctions?

 

CS: Well, I think the question always is: what is a play? Period. Who gets to define that and why? I think a play is an event in space. Irregardless of whether it is linear, nonlinear, realistic, abstract, surrealist, etc. There is the human figure – or a hologram or a puppet or a robot (depending on the kind of piece you are making and sharing with the world) and space and time, and an event occurs, and we call it performance or theatre. Definitions of what is a US Latin@ play have accrued over time and there are categories of work historically that are aligned sometimes with socio-political and/or aesthetic movements: la Raza movement, the spoken word scene, Off-off-Broadway movement and its birth, and more. Expectations have emerged about what is a US Latin@ play and usually they have to do from a very narrow perspective, I think, with either “urban” themes and vernacular, border (US Mexico particularly) plays and “magic realism.”  But of course, there is such a wide range of work being made and artists of Latina/o background (or born in Latin America but residing in the US) approach the page and stage in multiple ways. I think distinctions placed arbitrarily on works of art can be damaging to understanding what the art is and can be. The more definitions can be expanded and in effect, I would argue, stripped away – define the work on its own terms, meet it for what it is – the healthier an arts ecology we will have in this country.

 

ELAINE AVILA: You discussed how you see your dual role as playwright and leader when I interviewed you for this article: http://www.howlround.com/invitation-erik-ehn-caridad-svich-and-their-collaborators. Part of your dual role involves operating NoPassport press and developing what you call  “schemes.”   I’ve noticed that your schemes began with you as the sole playwright (The Way of Water, Spark) and now include many writers (24 Gun Control Plays, 30/30).  Can you talk about this shift? Why have you made the models so inclusive? How has this affected you?

 

CS: Actually, the first schemes I initiated before NoPassport theatre alliance and press was even a concept were multi-writer schemes. In 1999-2000 I initiated, edited and curated and co-authored a collaboration called SAINTS, SINNERS AND IN BETWEEN which involved the creation of a performance text with 15-plus playwrights from across the country, which we wrote via email together and then reading of the piece were held in various cities and at the Los Angeles RAT conference. After that project there was one called RETURN TO THE UPRIGHT POSITION, which was also written via email six months after 9/11 with 12plus playwrights from across the US. This performance piece was then read at various venues on the first anniversary of 9/11 and has had other stagings since then at colleges. In between there were multi-author projects on the Iraq War and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina conducted with student playwrights and professional dramatists. I do think of these projects as very much part of what re-stirred me to initiate schemes with NoPassport. I started with THE WAY OF WATER because I wanted to make myself the guinea pig, as it were, for this new incarnation of multi-platform, horizontal theatre action, because I felt that if for some reason it did not take off, then it’d be only my butt on the line and not those of multiple colleagues. The fact that THE WAY OF WATER scheme went international and generated such momentum in the 2nd anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill disaster with fifty readings around the world and features on local NPR stations, and articles in the Huff Post, American Theatre and more was staggering to me. I thought: okay, was this just some fluke? Some case of serendipity? So, I put myself on the line again with SPARK in November of 2012. Almost as a dare to myself as an artist, and also because I very much wanted to be part of a larger conversation about the fate of women coming back home from serving in war and how families cope with aftermath on the homefront. Thirty plus readings occurred across the US and abroad in about a month’s time, much to my astonishment, after placing the initial open call. I was emboldened by these two experiences to then “test out” collective theatre action/consortium ideas with more writers, which is how Gun Control Theatre Action and 24 Gun Control Plays began in January 2013. In a sense, GCTA brings me back to the first projects in 2000 and 2001 in the spirit of collective creation, community building and perhaps trying to generate new ways of changing what has become, in many cases, “business as usual” for certain kinds of theatremaking in this country.  

 

ELAINE AVILA: You recently participated in the largest gathering of Latina/o theatre artists since 1986 at Emerson College in Boston. How did being at this gathering affect you?  As an instigator of the NoPassport Convenings, you recognize the power of this kind of coming together.  Was this gathering different somehow?

 

CS: It was fascinating to be part of the Latino Theatre Commons Convening in Boston and I was honored to be invited to be part of it.  It was, as always, great to be in the same physical space with terrific artists and get to jam on ideas. The focus of the convening was very much about US Latin@ theatre within the wider US theatre landscape. I have always considered NoPassport’s mission to be, well, less identity-driven. One of our conferences focused on US Latin@ theatre and there is a strong and vital component of NoPassport that is devoted to the advocacy, publication and production of US Latin@ theatre/performance, but I do not see it as our only focus. So, for me, that was an essential difference between the convening in Boston – beautiful and focused as it was – and NOPE’s mission overall.

 

 

ELAINE AVILA: In your article, http://nopassport.org/blog/csvich/11/13/how-about-now-us-latin-theatre-caridad-svich, you mention that two questions loomed large at this National Convening: “Where will US Latina/o theatre-makers be in 30 years? What will 2046 look like?”

 

You call for us to create vision for the immediate.  I began to recognize the limitations of these two questions, how they strike me as “corporate,” and something individuals who run theatres, various institutions and universities might also be facing. In your TCG National Conference address on Artistic Innovation last year, http://www.tcgcircle.org/2013/10/caridad-svichs-opening-remarks-on-artistic-innovation/ you also call for an immediate and achievable response, like allowing for a single slot in a season that can be responsive and open.  I love this idea of the immediate response, no matter how big or small. Can you discuss this a bit for the 30/30 participants?  How can they make the next step?

 

CS: I definitely think none of us know where we will be in 30 years, let alone what the field will look like. I do think replicating “business as usual” is a dead end. Art making has always been about challenging the status quo. It is easy to forget especially in a late capitalist, consumerist, surveillance-driven culture, but I think we have to do everything we can to challenge the ease of slipping into language and practices that pretend the machines we have created and with which we are complicit are functioning in perfect order and that, you know, for example, it’s okay if every new play gets three weeks or less of rehearsal for a premiere production and that actors jobbed into a process can become a company overnight.  That’s b.s. And we all know it. Deep down. And yes, miracles sometimes happen but really…. Really… what is the deep practice of this cultural work that we do? That is the crucial question.  Another response I think is immediate actions – fast n dirty theatremaking – that is about bucking systems on place. The system that has allowed cultural gatekeepers to generate dividing lines between the work, the artist and the communities the work could engage with and in, and also has affected best practices.

 

ELAINE AVILA: I feel a great affinity with you because your work as a playwright is so diverse—inspired by classics, contemporary issues, music, and the personal.  We, as playwrights, are sometimes asked to make ourselves a ‘brand’ in order to make our work legible to theatres. How do you negotiate this?

 

CS: I don’t think of myself as a brand. But I know that in a market driven culture, we are asked to negotiate this all the time. Writing is freedom. The imagination can go anywhere. As soon as you place limits on it and what art you can make or not censorship sets in. Some people only know my work as someone who reconfigures and/or responds to classic playtexts or novels. Some only know me as a translator. Others perhaps as writer of plays that operate within the realm of hybridity and syncretic aesthetic. Some only know me as editor or essayist. I always feel as if I am renegotiating my creative identities depending on who my audience, perceived or not, may be.

 

ELAINE AVILA: Sometimes theatres, in the process of either building a relationship with us and/or clarifying a rejection (hard to tell the difference sometimes), will make comments. These comments can be frustrating and hurtful—sometimes revealing limiting beliefs about race, gender, and theatre.  Do you think we can we turn these conversations into creative opportunities? Or do you think it is a matter of learning, ‘this is not the home for my work?” Do you have any stories of turning this around?

 

CS: Well, there was one theatre that shall remain nameless that had sent me a rejection letter for a play and then six months called me up saying they had found my play and wanted to produce it on the spot. So, the letter that was sent from one desk in that theatre’s office didn’t make it to somebody else’s desk, and that other somebody somehow still had the play in their hands, and fell in love with it. I always think about that, because it was a real lesson – a strange one- about how weird this business is. You just never know. Some theatres will work with you and you feel at home and then you realize that the home was merely temporary. Other theatres actually say “this is your home.” Others just want a “product.” I think irregardless you have to find the will and fire within yourself to keep making the work somehow. Sometimes that means finding your own tribe, which may be a nomadic one.

 

ELAINE AVILA: Advice for anyone starting their own schemes?

 

CS: Make lists, keep your files in order, follow up on everyone and everything and never give up!

 

ELAINE AVILA: What is next for you as a writer? What are you working on, dreaming of working on next?

 

CS: I am working on seven different projects. One of which is a series of plays that explores modernity and language and the self. Another is inspired by the work of Derek Jarman (producing collaborator is force/collision in D.C.) and another is focused on gaming, time travel, and holodeck narratives. And another is just a naughty play. J

 

Alejandro Morales talks art-making for 30/30: US Latin@/NoPassport reading scheme blog

[Alejandro Morales’ play On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday is part of the 30/30 US Latin@/NoPassport reading scheme. The same interview questions have been sent to each playwright taking part in the scheme by Caridad Svich.]

CARIDAD SVICH: a false (i think) divide has been erected in some art-making circles between what is called "devised" work and "text-based or text-driven" work. this divide or, shall we call it a "gap?," has served to alienate makers of text-driven work for live performance in the field and in academia. in effect, certain battle grounds have formed that encourage oppositional thinking about this, so that we have now, in many ways, the devisers on one side of the field and the text-makers on the other. devisers are seen as being on trend, text-makers are seen as behind the times. it is exactly this kind of oppositional thinking that can be so damaging not only to those of us making art but those on the "outside" perceiving what is happening in art. (more on that later).a) how do deal with the positioning of your work, if at all?

ALEJANDRO MORALES: I really haven’t.  All of my work began with me and I sought out development and production opportunities for it.  I did have a long relationship with director Scott Ebersold, however, and we shared many aesthetic values so in many ways I would craft plays that I knew he would want to direct.  We also co-produced these plays so I was very much involved in the complete presentation of my work from page to stage.

CARIDAD SVICH: how do you negotiate the very real diving lines that get drawn, quite arbitrarily, and quite often, in our field in regard to art-making and its role in culture?

ALEJANDRO MORALES: I jumped around these lines a lot out of necessity.  No major theater with money was producing me despite being a favorite with many of the literary managers.  I had to hustle to get my plays done.   I was very lucky to have been trained as an actor, director, writer, dramaturg and designer during my undergraduate work at NYU, so I pretty much did everything I could possibly do in addition to writing the play. 

I will say something in terms of the culture of theatermaking and criticism regarding the way I put on my work.  Very often there were these assumptions from critics about what Scott did and what I did.  Not to take away from Scott’s incredible work on my plays, but often I would read critics giving Scott credit for elements of the play that were written in the script (one example was a dance number I had written into a play).  My plays have always been written with the intent that there would be some sort of production concept around it.  I always work with writing in performance conventions, style, suggestion for design or production elements, etc.  I envision an entire three-dimensional experience in addition to the characters, plot, theme, etc. and I try to make it all a cohesive whole.  With each play I’ve learned more and more how to structure my scripts to give readers as many clues as to what my vision is (and really I am not all that avant-garde) but I am not sure if there are people making decisions at agencies or theaters who know how to read plays this way.

 

CARIDAD SVICH: as a playwright, how do you devise your own process? dramatic project (life goals as artist)? and how do you wish to live as artist in and with engagement in local and global dialogue with citizens and artists? and are there lessons you've learned you wish to impart to fellows in the field and elsewhere? or lessons you are still learning that impact the kind of work you make or think about making?

ALEJANDRO MORALES: I have tried very hard (along with Scott) to create my own process.  I have always wanted to work in the way Caryl Churchill and Max Stafford Clark did with Joint Stock.  Scott and I have always had this as an ideal, but the reality of paying for rehearsal space and actors always collapses the process.  Not to mention, I am not sure if the actors we had access to were always willing to work this way.  I felt the realities of producing work off-off Broadway on an Equity Showcase contract really defined our process. 

Not to mention, there was the reality of Scott and I having day jobs and other responsibilities, so by the time we had planned to meet and discuss a project, I am well underway with the script and we’d be back to the traditional mode of working.

One thing we really wanted to do was begin working with actors and designers right away and get them committed to projects in their infancy so we could get talent in on the ground floor and they would have some sort of ownership of their role and process (in exchange for the pittance we could pay them with our budget).  Again, the reality of scheduling, people needing to make a living, etc. would jettison this and many times we’d have to end up recasting projects due to conflicts. 

Lastly, I would also say that the traditional play model is so prevalent that it is easy for it to become a default.  Scott and I were always experimenting and trying to reinvent the wheel and without mentors or folks who could show us how to do it at the off-off-Broadway level, while working day jobs, etc. we just ended up falling back on what we knew.  It was a vicious circle.

I’m struggling with my role as an artist in the local and global dialogue, to be honest.  I felt that I could never quite do this at the level I wanted to as a playwright and I have burned out lighting the proverbial candle at both ends.  I’m working with prose at the moment as a way to refresh the muse (and because I just think my canvas kept wanting to grow and grow and I wasn’t seeing opportunities for me to do that on a production level in theater).  I feel my aesthetic concerns around cultural and sexual identity are important.  My play On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday feels incredibly timely with the anti-gay policing going on in Russia at the moment and I would so want this play to be out in the world speaking to people about the effects and repercussions of sexual repression by the government and society.   I am saddened I have no idea how to make it part of the conversation, but I hope that perhaps prose with the ease of print on demand and e-books might help me to bring these issues to a wider audience.  I think there are stories about the breadth of the Hispanic/Latino community in the US and the LGBT/Queer community around the world that need to be heard not just by those respective communities, but everyone.  These stories are human stories and they need a very very very wide audience.

CARIDAD SVICH: when you see/hear/read the phrase "US Latin@," what does it make you think of? what is your relationship to being of or part of (or not) a US Latin@ context in your art-making or thinking about art?

ALEJANDRO MORALES: I have never seen Latino spelled with an ampersand. I Googled the term and saw it is a gender neutral term which I really like.

I personally refer to myself as US-born Cuban or Hispanic even though I know I am also Latino.  I think that the Latino umbrella is very large (something many non-Latinos don’t understand) and there are elements of the Latino experience that may be true for me which may not be true for others and vice-versa.  I’ve been claiming Hispanic (even though it may not be the most PC thing to do) because my family does have strong Spanish ties and artistically I am definitely a son of Lorca so it’s something I want to honor. 

I do also feel that being a South Floridian and a New Yorker is a very big part of who I am.  Both places are places of incredible cultures clashing, improvising and collaborating.  I grew up feeling weird that I wasn’t like the people on TV.  I spoke two languages and they spoke only one.  I grew up navigating my way from one culture to another (and boy that has led to some interesting formative experiences), so I am incredibly comfortable with living in a multi-language, multi-cultural environment.  So much of my work incorporates multiple languages, translation, and/or appropriation.  Growing up in the US in a Cuban immigrant family really helped me see from the get-go that US culture is not homogenous.  People approach the American experience from different points of view, which is something someone should inform Fox News about.

CARIDAD SVICH: as a maker of text for live performance, in what ways are you challenging or calling into question the nature of embodied speech and action when you write a given play or collaborate with fellow artists?

ALEJANDRO MORALES: Honestly this changes from play to play.  Like I said before every one of my plays carries with it a seed for how the text exists in performance.  My last play was pretty straightforward textually, but the characters spoke Russian and Spanish and we needed to hear all of it in English, so I had to devise a convention for the use of accents to denote when a character was not speaking their native tongue.  This is written into the play. 

Having my plays carry a consistency in the language is key.  Again, I am an artistic son of Lorca’s, so looking at the plays as poems laced with motifs is something I always strive for—maybe the audience isn’t conscious of this in the language, but I think this gives a play a texture that a director or actor or designer can latch on to.   I also say that I work musically.  The work of Stephen Sondheim was an early influence (and lately I am listening to a lot of opera).  Studying the way he laces structure into his scores taught me a great deal about the use of details to tell story or reveal character.  I always tried to give the actors dictation by using line breaks, verse, or pauses that are written into the dialogue to incorporate a dramatic musicality to the text.

I think when I go back to writing for the stage, I would like to work more with music.   There is something about the idea of characters getting arias that I would love to explore.  I worked more with monologue in my earlier work and I have moved away from that.   I would love to figure out ways to open up pure emotional expression using text and music, in the way an aria de capo by Handel or a coloratura mad scene by Donizetti might. 

CARIDAD SVICH: casting is a tough and thorny aspect of our art and business. i think we all know plenty of terrific actors who wait and wait for that one or two gigs every year that ask for their "type" to be cast. i am personally of the mind that the more expansive casting can be, especially in theatre, which is, after all, not a photographically representational art form but an abstract one in its essence, the richer an audience's understanding of the form can be. but i know that this may not be everyone's pov. understandably. what do you do when someone says to you "we don't have culturally specific actors in my town, so we can't even look at your play, even if we were to deeply admire or want to put this story on stage?' what do you say to potential collaborators and casting directors about the nature of how to cast your show and how casting can carry its own political power?

ALEJANDRO MORALES: This is tough.  I write gay characters and Latino characters a lot.  I also like to write for women who are not ingenues.  These are the people who live in my head and I feel obligated to make sure they get to live on stage (as we all should).  I do everything I can to make sure this happens.  Again, in the world of off-off-Broadway Equity Showcase, this can get really tough.  I even wanted to just start writing culturally non-specific characters because it was hard to get appropriate actors who could do my work.  That became very hard for me because … well, cultural identity is something I write about . . . so how do I write these culturally non-specific characters?

I have often felt limited as well from writing about certain subject matter—particularly the body and the way culture defines gender, power and beauty around certain physical attributes and that starts to winnow down my casting pool big time. 

It’s tricky because as a producer beginning a draft I will think “can I cast this?” and writing based on what I can realistically do as a producer just doesn’t work for me (sadly).   I need to write from a place free of these practical consideration and make productions that result from solving the challenges plays free of practical considerations pose.  Please see what I said about burnout earlier.

 

CARIDAD SVICH: it goes without saying that we live in a multi-lingual world. do you think our US stages (to keep the dialogue national for the moment) need reflect this? if so, how? and in your work, how do you address multi-linguality and hybrid aesthetics, if at all? 

ALEJANDRO MORALES: As I’ve mentioned before I do this all the time.  My reality has never been multi-lingual.  I have always juggled not just verbal language but unspoken cultural languages as well.  I have always been translating ever since I was a kid (when my kindergarten teacher couldn’t pronounce Alejandro, I became Alex until my 30s).   My father was an opera fan and I grew up looking through his records and seeing these libretti that contained the text in Italian, French, English and German.  I now go to the opera and part of my experience at the Met is navigating the Met Titles in front of me as I follow a performance.  In Japan, I went to a kabuki performance and watched two plays with a headphone commentary going on in my ear.  My brain can function with these two different language tracks going on at the same time.

There is no way my plays will not reflect this. 

I think about Junot Diaz writing about the copious amounts of Spanish in his novels and the criticism he has received for this and he said, “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.”  Reading this helped me deal with a lot of the narrow minded criticism of my work including multi-language text. 

This multi-language idea isn’t limited to national languages.  I try to have the language of music or movement or visuals live in my work.  As a writer, I take umbrage at the fact that dialogue is the only language I should concern myself with in the script.   There are many languages I can use to tell my story and I try to employ as many of them as I can

CARIDAD SVICH: as a writer/maker for/of live performance, what is thrilling to you still about the form - this old weird creaky thing we call theatre - and why?

ALEJANDRO MORALES: I’m a little down on theater at the moment and most of the live performance I am seeing these days is opera, which music snobs be damned, I consider to also be theater.   In opera, I have experienced time stopping during an aria in Giulio Cesare or the experience of falling in love in La Traviata or what it is like to touch the divine in Wagner’s Parsifal.  I just don’t see this too much in contemporary theater, despite theater being more than capable of giving us these experiences.  I don’t know how to describe the quality of these experiences and why they are different from much of what I have seen produced on and off-Broadway in New York City . . . but it’s what I want to put in my plays.  It’s what I want to give to my audiences.

CARIDAD SVICH: what ideas have you when you make work or are in the process of putting it out there about how to and ways you can create connection with your audience(S) beyond the work itself, for example?

ALEJANDRO MORALES: I honestly don’t know.  I feel alienated from the theater these days.  When I used to have these conversations on Twitter or on panels I got exhausted from all this need to be relevant.  I feel like arts education at early ages for children, cheaper ticket prices and a focus on creating an authentic emotional experience and more arts funding would be a start. 

I don’t think we need to allow texting or tweeting or twerking in the audience.   I don’t think talkbacks are the way either.  I think these conversations are about trying to squeeze blood out of a stone. 

I feel that it could be text-based play theater might be a thing of the past in this era of online life.  Why would someone go pay all this money and sit in a room for 2-3 hours to get a dramatic narrative when they can get it on Netflix?  Maybe this goes back to this devised work question above—is what is going to get people into the theater more of an immersive experience like Sleep No More, The Lily’s Revenge or some site-specific thing that challenges the way we commune in public to experience a story?  Perhaps it needs to go back to the beginning and function like the Greek plays did, as a means for creating some mass catharsis through ritual? 

CARIDAD SVICH: what's inspiring you these days? and/or what's troubling you these days?

ALEJANDRO MORALES: I am inspired by opera.  I am inspired by the advances in LGBT rights.  I am inspired by fiction.  I am inspired by Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name which I would give my left something or other to get close to the brilliance of that writing.  I am inspired by American Horror Story: Coven and the fact that camp is alive and well in American culture.  I am inspired by feminists.  I am still inspired by Lorca, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, and Sondheim.  I am inspired by amount of love I see amongst my peers as we try to keep ourselves writing. 

I am troubled by what is happening in Russia and India and Africa with LGBT rights.  I am troubled by the religious right in this country and the mockery they make of spirituality.  I am troubled by how much more we have to go to be liberated of the patriarchy.  I am troubled by the lack of poetry in our theater and cinema lately.  I am troubled by the death of the great American artform of musical theater and the jukebox shows that have replaced it.  I am troubled by the economy and how capitalism has lost the plot.    I am troubled that we are more connected to Facebook than to nature. 

 

 

 

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