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Eric Mayer-Garcia field report from the 2014 NoPassport theatre conference

Eric Mayer-Garcia was co-curator of the conference.

The 8th annual NoPassport Theatre Conference took place last Saturday, March 29, 2014 at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. NoPassport theatre alliance and press (www.nopassport.org) has held 8 consecutive conferences, each exploring a specific theme. The last two years of NoPassport Conferences are archived on Howlround TV. This year’s conference will be archived there as well for future viewing. At this year’s conference performances and panels explored “The Diasporic Imagination,” as it is reflected in theatre and performance. It was the first meeting of NoPassport in the Southeastern U.S. Louisiana made for an ideal space from which to query the diasporic imagination, with all of its rich, transcultural traditions that interweave West African, Caribbean, Isleño, Vietnamese, Native American, Acadian, Latin American, and European diasporic cultures. Panel discussions included topics on “Caribbean Diasporas: Tracing Interconnections Through the Archive, Theatre, Performance, and Ritual;” “Jazz in Plays;” and “The Katrina Effect: Performance Response to Gulf Coast Manmade Disasters.”  José Torres-Tama, Teatro Luna, the Signdance Collective International performed excerpts from their latest work. Perhaps not so coincidentally, all three performances were connected by a similar approach of grounding their provocative acts of imagining and reimagining diaspora in ritualized structures of movement and incantation.

Dedication to Muñoz

Caridad Svich dedicated this year’s conference to the memory of José Esteban Muñoz, invoking his work to frame the conference theme with her inspiring opening remarks. “Cruising utopia, as if we were cruising the transgressions of our youth, the split selves that make us bi and multicultural, multilingual, immigrant and exiled, and the children of inheritors of diasporas that raged through and across earth and oceans—these selves find themselves in our books, stories, poems, plays, films, and hybrid tomes, indebted to the exploration of aesthetic, cultural, faith, gender, economic, and class differences, as well as those along and across constructed lines of race “determined by neoliberal policies, first world to so-called third world.” In these utopic lenses that almost always reflect its opposite—dystopia—we construct new selves that practice decolonial love in the hope that by so doing, equitable co-existence will be possible with our fellow humans on this planet… For now, the utopias sit on the landscapes of our dreams, acted on the stages yet to be written, ghosted by the past in the palaces of our expansive and gorgeous imaginations.”

“Caribbean Diasporas: Tracing Interconnections Through the Archive, Theatre, Performance, and Ritual” 

This panel was moderated by Lillian Manzor and began with presentations by Solimar Otero and Carolina Caballero, who, drawing from Muñoz’s writings, showed how diasporas are interconnected and connect themselves to new worlds through performance. Otero’s presentation on espiritismo masses in Mantilla, Havana traced diasporas through the interorality of practitioners who invoke the dead in séance. Otero drew from Muñoz’s concept of queer world-making in performance to theorize the arrival of a gitana spirit in the mass that was co-constructed by practitioners as a nun, the Yoruba goddess Oya, the Congo goddess Centella Ndoki, and la Virgen de la Candelaria, demonstrating both the interconnectedness of diasporas in this religious practice, as well as the tensions of race, ethnicity, class, religious difference, and sexuality that create fractures in the misa espiritual as a utopic performative. Carolina Caballero analyzed the plays Blind Mouth Singing and Bird in Hand by Cuban-American playwright Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas, arguing that the characters universalize their diasporic experience through emotion. Drawing from Muñoz’s observations of latinidad in Cortiñas’ theatre as “una forma de sentir en el mundo” (a way of feeling in the world), Caballero argued that the emphasis of “el sentimiento de existir, el sentir en el ser” (the emotion of existing) in Cortiñas’ theatre transformed the diasporic condition and up-rootedness of exile into “a globalized experience… easily recognizable by anyone anywhere.”

            The Caribbean Diasporas panel included two 10 min performances. The first, by Margaret Kemp, was an excerpt from her autobiographical solo-performance Confluence, formerly entitled A Negro Speaks of Rivers that tells the story of her Bahamian father and Panamanian mother and the systematized destruction of a pan-Caribbean neighborhood in Boston. The power of Confluence… regarding the diasporic imagination is in the way it tells the story of multiple diasporas intersecting with one another in cosmopolitan spaces. Of particular interest in Kemp’s performance is her use of Flamenco singing, specifically Seguiriya, as a transplanted diasporic tradition to flesh out the distant memories of her mother’s folk songs, bridging the rift created by the traumatic splitting of her family and the absence of her mother at a very young age.

               A presentation by Lillian Manzor on the recent Havana production of Anna en el Trópico and the performance excerpt of Makina Total Free by Cuban performance group Omni Zona Franca presented two different looks at representations of the Cuban Diaspora by Cuba artists on the island.  Lillian Manzor argued that Cuban cultural production has always been made from a diasporic space and found that the recent production of Anna… enacted diasporic consciousness in two senses.  First, the staging underscored parallels between the Cuban diaspora of 1920’s Tampa with the Cuban diaspora of today. Second, director Carlos Díaz cast actors from the Cuban diasporas of Venezuela and Miami. Through these casting choices, Díaz staged a reunion between Cubans on the island and Cubans returning from the diaspora. Manzor concluded, “The diasporic imagination continues to draw a map of grater Cuba that goes beyond the national and is poetically anchored in the theatrical.” Luis Eligio and Kizzy Macías of Omni Zona Franca presented a multidisciplinary spoken word performance piece, which explored the shifting and merging of new boundaries in political, cultural, and national identities within human subjectivity, focusing on the experience of Cuban and Latin American immigrants in the U.S.

Jazz in Plays and NoPassport Press Reading Salon

The Jazz in Plays panel led by Oliver Mayer, with performances by Lynn Manning and Giovanni Ortega, brought the house down and had the audience caught in call and response bliss. Panelists Lynn Manning, Joann Yarrow, Christopher Oscar Peña, and Giovanni Ortega fielded questions from Mayer on the relationship between Jazz and Theatre with both descriptive and performative responses.  The conversation moved from defining the word “Jazz” to grasping a deeper understanding of its intrinsic connection with theatre, and especially concerning the theatre of “contact zones” and localities of “cultural collision.” For Lynn Manning, jazz lends itself to playwriting through artistry of sound, rhythm, and vital improvisation that creates spontaneity and liveness in storytelling. Chris Peña echoed Manning’s observations, but also located drama in jazz and jazz in drama through the principle of dissonance. Giovanni Ortega defined jazz through a sense of cariño and heat that makes theatre alive for him, and for Yarrow, jazz is “the sin that feels good.” Placing its origins in early Jazz Houses of Sydney Bechet, Mayer led of the panel with proposition that jazz means sex, the word being sonically similar to “jiz,” the emission, or descarga. New Orleanian, José Torres-Tama added that jazz was innovated by Jelly Roll Morton and played from the brothels of New Orleans.

            Joann Yarrow, Giovanni Ortega, and Oliver Mayer likened the role of Jazz in American culture to gumbo. Like the “ajiaco,” of Fernando Ortiz, the metaphor of gumbo is a rejection of the homogeneous “melting pot” narrative, asserting that the distinct flavor of unique diasporic cultures from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe merging in New Orleans in the nineteenth century are all preserved as distinct elements within the living form.  Whether regarding the history of jazz or its sonic appeal, a running theme in the discussion was the notion of sin—a trespassing, or transgression of social norms or boundaries that “feels good”— pointing to a sense of morality which values cultural purity; a morality whose irresistible taboos are undermined by diasporic cultures implanting themselves in the “collision of cultures,” like bodies rubbing up against each other in the Jazz Houses and Brothels of early twentieth century New Orleans.

            The “Jazz in Pays” discussants looked at jazz as a cultural conjoining. Jazz in this sense can be seen as a specific creativity at the cultural crossroads where diasporas meet, making a refuge for oppressed people, a transgression of the hegemony of cultural purity and colonial hierarchies, creating a utopic impulse within the present moment. As José Esteban Muñoz would describe it, jazz provokes an astonishment that “helps one surpass the limitations of an alienating presentness and allows one to see a different time and place” (Cruising Utopia).

 

Teatro Luna: excerpts from GENERATION SEX

If panelists on Jazz in Plays conceived of the creativity of jazz through a masculine symbolic lexicon of “jiz” and “descarga” in the brothel house, than Teatro Luna’s excerpt performance of Generation Sex contested the lexicon of patriarchy by staging a forum on sex, sexuality, and the body that moved the center, reorienting paradigms of sex and creativity for Latinas and women of color. In the day’s first presentation, Solimar Otero quoted Ramon Rivera-Servera on his theorization of “communities of affect,” who writes that performance can create “moments where the aesthetic event becomes temporarily a felt reality and instantiates the imaginable into the possible.”  Teatro Luna’s Generation Sex was crafted to create such transformative temporalities for Latina spectators.  

               Generation Sex is a devised piece combining theatre, spoken word, dance, song, projections, and short film, which was currently on tour in Texas.  Generation Sex addresses how new media has changed sex, love, and relationships, exploring the emotional attachment and affect of wall posts, text messages, photo tags, and instagrams, the role new media plays in seduction, and what new media means for femininity in the twenty-first century. The “sin that feels good” was again evoked as a metaphor for cultural interaction as transgression, but here understood as sexting, DMing, and posting provocative selfies. 

                The opening number of Dusty Springfield’s 1950’s hit “Wishin’ and Hopin,’” set the piece in conversation with outdated notions of femininity. Luna’s Generation Sex underscored the inadequacy of such models of femininity that still hold ideological weight over women, creating self-destructive behavior, exemplified by one vignette, thick with irony, where the characters gushingly discuss the date rape of a co-worker by an executive as a “fun game.” The women characters excuse the rapist saying their fellow co-worker, “was practically begging for it in that skirt,” calling the perpetrator “considerate” for dragging his victim’s body into his office, and, “such an amazing guy,” for “knowing what we [women] want, more then we do.” At moments, mainstream images of femininity were disidentified, like the 1950s doo-wop singers, or the synchronized swimmers that advocated for the use of the diva cup, calling for their fellow sisters to be liberated from the use of pads and tampons. Muñoz’s disidentifications strikes me as one of the most succinct ways to discuss Teatro Luna’s performance of these majoritarian and mainstream images of femininity, sexuality, and romance, which were reclaimed and repurposed to express the experience of the creators of Generation Sex, to critique patriarchal gender norms, to create new possibilities, and to make a space for Luna’s audience, twenty-first-century women of color.

José Torres-Tama ALIENS, IMMIGRANTS & OTHER EVILDOERS Unplugged Excerpt

When Caridad Svich and I began planning for the NoPassport Theatre Conference on the Diasporic Imagination, I could not imagine the conference happening without José Torres-Tama, whose work aims to create visibility for Latinos in New Orleans and the U.S. South. Torres-Tama’s latest performance piece ALIENS, IMMIGRANTS & OTHER EVILDOERS, as José Torres-Tama describes it, “is a sci-fi Latino noir performance solo exploring the current persecution of Latino immigrants across the land of the free. Satirizing the status of immigrants as ‘extraterrestrials’ through a sci-fi prism informed by short films that spoof The Matrix and Star Wars, the artist shape-shifts into numerous ‘aliens’ who bilingually challenge the hypocrisy of a country built by immigrants that vilifies the same people whose labor it readily exploits. Politically provocative, profoundly moving, visually engaging, and strategically comic, ALIENS puts a heart and face on the vilified ‘alien other.’”

            Watching José’s performance from the light booth I could not help but notice the mark of his past experience as a street performer on his acting approach and costume design. Through his aesthetics, José carries the French Quarter with him wherever he performs Minneapolis, Fayetteville, Phoenix, or Baton Rouge. In this unplugged excerpt, Torres-Tama presented three “alien” figures from his larger performance: a masked alien that bares a cross with dollar bills in a movement montage set to operatic vocals, the monstrous image of the demonized immigrant as “evildoer,” and the SWAMP BRUJO, a hybrid character that is imagined through multiple diasporas bringing together figures of African-American and U.S. Latino imaginaries. Specifically, Torres-Tama was inspired by Louis Armstrong’s voice on the recording of St. James Infirmary, and Torres-Tama interpreted that voice through his unique way of imagining all things Latino.  With green alien face paint, a collar of dollar bills, and green alien gloves, the Swamp Brujo disidentified with the criminalized status of Latinoamericano immigrants, but not through an established stereotype. Rather the Swamp Brujo embodied a satirical amalgamation of the formal symbols, markers, and rhetoric surrounding the label of “illegal aliens.” For example, the Swamp Brujo freely associated between the green color of his alien skin, the green of Torres-Tama’s resident alien green card, and the green of cash flows moving freely across borders devastating economies across the Americas. The Swamp Brujo’s meditation on the color green combined disparate aspects of the demonization of Latinoamericanos and Latinos that were reclaimed and creatively deployed towards Torres-Tama’s political critique.  

THE KATRINA EFFECT: Performance Response to Gulf Coast Manmade Disasters

This panel led by Anne-Liese Fox (LSU) and included panelists Nick Slie of Mondo Bizarro, Kathy Randels of ArtSpot Production, playwright John Biguenet of Loyola University, Leigh Fondakowski, Reeva Wortel, and Kelli Simpkins of the Tectonic Theater Project. The panel discussed the work of these artists whose plays and performances were made in the Gulf Coast and NOLA region in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil Spill. The discussion grounded cultural intersections, creativity, and art making as necessary responses to disaster, trauma, exile, and recovery. How does culture survive catastrophe and displacement? How does the culture of New Orleans and South Louisiana survive after so many inhabitants have been “diaspora-ed” in the wake of these tremendous preventable manmade disasters? How does art respond to disaster of this magnitude? How can it challenge mainstream representations and alternatively document history? The panel began by introducing the work of John Biguenet whose Rising Water trilogy are some of the best known and most widely produced plays regarding the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the levee break disaster. Biguenet talked about Samuel Beckett’s influence on Rising Water, explaining that Beckett’s work created a vocabulary for depicting catastrophe. Rising Water was the largest grossing production in the history of Southern Repertory Theatre. Biguenet argued that the production was so successful because it had a strong connection with the City, and audiences recognized themselves and their experience in the work.

            The panelists focused on their process, including a discussion of insider/outsider dynamics in interviews with those closely impacted by these disasters, a method that was a part of all of their work. Fondakowski, Wortell, and Simpkins shared about their process and goals for Spill a co-production between the Tectonic Theatre Project and Swine Palace that depicts the BP oil spill and its aftermath.  Fondakowski expressed that she was never interested in creating a docudrama as a representation of the facts, but rather thinks of theatre as a way to address human suffering through art-making. Fondakowski sees her work as an artistic document of the event, taking productions first to those most closely affected by the tragedy. Reeva Wortell talked about how part of the creative process of Spill was asking interviewees if she could paint their portrait. Here Wortell’s portrait work changed her relationship with interviewees and the kinds of stories shared with her and other Tectonic Theatre Project collaborators.

            Kathy Randels spoke about the importance of a process that could heal New Orleanian artists after the 2005 levee break disaster. In 2006, Randel’s organization Artspot productions produced Beneath the Strata a site-specific piece located outside of New Orleans in the Studio in the Woods, an artist retreat and nature preserve. The performance created by the majority women cast featured Calinda dance, a West African dance that survived the middle passage and still practiced in New Orleans. Their production of Loup Garou (2009) expanded on one of the figures originally a part of Beneath the Strata. Loup Garou, a Cajun werewolf represented the insanity that comes to people who have lost everything.

            Finally, Nick Slie discussed Mondo Bizaro and Artspot’s collaboration on the performance Cry You One which is a performance addressing the erosion of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. The production was an ensemble generated and devised piece staged on the levee in St. Bernard parish, taking the audience on a 1.7 mile walk across the levee to view installation performances staged in the adjacent wetlands and witnessing the landscape of the “last land before the sea” before it erodes away into the Gulf.

            This panel clearly defined performance response to disaster as a response that must emphasize process, creating increased connections between performance and audience, between theatre and city/community. The work of artists included here spoke to the power of performance in working through the trauma of disaster, whether by documenting alternative histories, embodying and transferring culture, or giving cities and citizens a space to recreate and reflect on the tremendous loss of their worlds now gone or now threatened in the shadow of inevitable destruction.

CARTHAGE/CARTAGENA is written by Caridad Svich, performed by the Signdance Collective International and directed by Beatriz Cabur

Before the final performance began, Isolte Avila, David Bower, Francesca Osimani, Hearns Sebuado, and assistant director Pedro de Senna of the Signdance Collective International (SDCI) awaited their audience in the cavernous LSU dance studio. NoPassport Theatre Conference participants gathered among LSU dance students, and members from the Baton Rouge Deaf community that had been interacting with the Signdance Collective members all week in performances and workshops. Clearly, Signdance's appeal to students and locals was about much more than sign language and access to verbal content alone. Something demonstrated by the fact that local ASL signing spectators came to NoPassport to see Carthage, even though many of them did not fully understand the BSL of the Signdance Collective in a performance of their piece Bad Elvis earlier in the week (a disconnect, by the way, that the company worked to solve before their performance of Carthage). The continued interest in SDCI was the attraction to their method of Deaf “world-making.” Their movement style of fused dance and sign forged a utopic space for Deaf audiences and performers, while the “making” of this world centered around the cultural sensibilities and experiences of Deaf communities.

             The much-anticipated performance of Carthage/Cartagena, written by Caridad Svich and developed with the Signdance Collective International under the direction of Beatriz Cabur played to an enthusiastic audience overcrowding the large dance studio. The text of Carthage/Cartagena is a series of multi-lingual letter-song-poems connected by themes of displacement, exile, and human trafficking. This verse play dramatizes moments of “desterrar,” or being ripped away from homeland and finding oneself in a foreign land. The piece stages the violent origins of diaspora, a recurrent topic raised throughout the conference. For instance, the “Jazz in Plays” panel discussed song as the only thing that diasporic populations carry with them when they have lost everything. The Katrina Effect panel discussants returned time and again to the shock of total loss in their discussion of disaster response performance. Performances by José Torres-Tama and Margaret Kemp both addressed the struggle of diasporas to survive in places, like the United States, where immigrants face hostility and violent exploitation.  The verse of Carthage/Cartagena enacts its diasporic imagination in its rendering of voices of individuals displaced by wars, human trafficking, and acts of violence.  As a previous reviewer had pointed out, the play on words within Carta-ajena, could mean letter from afar, as well as a letter written in a foreign language.  These “letters from afar” are not only written from spaces of dislocation, but also speak from the borderlands of the real, a space beyond representation and language, encircling the edges of trauma. The performed text of Carthage/Cartagena drew on multiple languages, English, Spanish, Italian, BSL, and ASL as a strategy to approach this “unspeakable” space of trauma through the disconnected space between languages, and the gap between meanings lost in translation.

            The SDCI was the perfect company to interpret the piece because they move between so many registers of language: spoken, sung, and embodied in their specific fusion of dance and sign. Images of homeland, like a lemon tree, a cake, or a spinning top, were invoked as the final vestiges of subjectivity from the edges of the traumatic experience. The SDCI’s approach was to interpret the loss of homeland as the structural loss of innocence. Coming of age in the blown-out wasteland of Carthage/Cartagena means grappling with the shock of total loss, a retracing of the missing pieces of self, and transformation in a state of absolute exile.   The ritual structure of the choreography, a spiraling transcendental meditation, made room for the co-presence of these lost voices—the casualties of violent acts of displacement—as they were re-imagined in performance. Carthage/Cartagena made for an intense and riveting end to this 8th annual meeting of the NoPassport Theatre Alliance. The successful one-day engagement forever altered the threshold of possibilities and opened new roads for LSU theatre and participating artists from Baton Rouge and NOLA.

Eric Mayer-García

Louisiana State University

 

New title from NoPassport Press - April 2014

~~New title from NoPassport Press - April 2014

 

THE WOMEN OF LOCKERBIE and THE COMFORT TEAM

Two Plays by Deborah Brevoort

with introductions by Roberta Levitow and Chris Hanna

purchase link: http://www.lulu.com/shop/deborah-brevoort/the-women-of-lockerbie-the-comfort-team/paperback/product-21564339.html

Retail price: $15.00

print on demand 6 X 9 paperback.

ISBN: 978-1-312-07104-9

260 pages.

NoPassport is my favorite conference because it's not corporate in any way. We come together out of love and camaraderie, out of curiosity and loyalty, out of friendship and respect. The presentations run far afield (another good thing) and incorporate everyone -- researchers and performance artists, playwrights and dancers. This year Baton Rouge and LSU served as the perfect host (thanks Eric Mayer-Garcia). I send out abrazos to my fellow panelists -- Joann Yarrow, Christopher Oscar Pena, Giovanni Ortega and Lynn Manning -- who really rocked the house and (to use Lynn's definition of the word) were jazzed to be there. In the end, we all know that Caridad is the heart and soul of it all, our den mother, Mama Bear, and champion of the artist and her/his unadulterated voice. Viva NoPassport! Can't wait to see y'all next year.

Oliver Mayer
playwright
 
 

Quiara Alegria Hudes' Opening Remarks for 30/30/1

Welcome remarks by Quiara Alegría Hudes
for 30/30/1 in Philadelphia, March 22, 2014
 
[In collaboration with NoPassport and Dominic D'Andrea, 30/30/1 was presented in Philadelphia, PA on March 22, 2014 by Plays and Players, Directors Gathering, Power Street Theatre, Philadelphia New Play Initiative and Tamanya Garza. 30/30 US Latin@/NoPassport is a national reading festival celebrating new American plays. The remarks were delivered at the 30/30/1 event on Ms. Hudes' behalf by Gabriela Sanchez.]
 
A day celebrating Latino playwrights? Yeah, right. Ha ha. Very funny. Though today
does not appear to be April 1... Hm. And these flyers are pretty slick and well designed.
If someone wanted to prank me they really went out of their way to do so. Hm.
Do we get the entire twenty four hours? Or do they just give us like from noon to four
and then kick us out? Oh, hold on. “They” donʼt give “us” anything? We made the day
ourselves? And invited whoever was game to join in the fun? And people who werenʼt
Latino actually came? Holy shit, thatʼs amazing! Oops. I probably shouldnʼt curse on
Latino playwrights day. If I act too crazy theyʼll make sure this shit never happens again.
Theyʼll be like, “You give ʻem a day and see what happens?”
 
Iʼm just kidding. Obviously Iʼm giddy by the whole notion of this, this raucously exciting
gathering of true believers, of rabble rousers, of artistic mischief makers, of all of us.
So what exactly is a Latino playwright? Can you spot her in a crowded room? Is she a
new phenomenon or an endangered species? Does she write with an accent? Is she a
Latina by choice? A playwright by necessity? Does she require nontraditional casting or
is she casting a new mold? If a Latina writes a play in an empty forest and no one is
there to listen does she make a sound? Is she allowed to be ordinary not just
extraordinary? Is she Mr. Miyagi or the Karate Kid? Is she a grateful guest at someone
elseʼs table? Or is she a carpenter building a new damn table from scratch? And will you
come to her table when she invites you? Are Latino playwrights a “they” or a “we”?
 
Sometimes I brew my coffee, sit at my writing desk, and every fiber in my body quivers
for delight: hot damn, Iʼm a Latina playwright! Other mornings I sit at my writing desk
and the thought of any sort of label being put on me--by myself or anyone else--feels
like duct tape slapped over my lips. At times being a Latina playwright has felt
exhilarating, alive, pulsing, gritty, mischievous, furious, ferocious, unapologetic, and
limitless. Other times being a Latina playwright has felt humiliating, alienating, hopeless,
lonely, burdensome.
 
But today, oh 30/30 sisters and brothers, today, here, before you, using the wondrous
word “us,” it feels alive.
 
In the words of playwright Nilo Cruz, from Anna in the Tropics, “Everything in life
dreams. A bicycle dreams of becoming a boy, an umbrella dreams of becoming the rain,
a pearl dreams of becoming a woman, and a chair dreams of becoming a gazelle and
running back into the forest.”
 
My fellow Latino playwrights, we are the dreamers and the agitated nightmares. The
insomnia and the spa. Irrational bewitchers. Deserts who brew tropical storms. We use
words like cop cars use sirens. We use our pencil strokes to steer great ships through
agitated seas. We eat trash and shit gold. We are the word stupid misspelled s-t-o-o-p-id.
We stand in our ancestral kitchen, stirring the magma. We are hackers of the status
quo. Saturation bursters. We show up to the water balloon toss but our latex is filled
with honey and mud. Syncopators. Sixty niners. Smut mouthed cala lilies. Unhappy
prisoners, jilted strivers, we fall off the edge of the cliff and as we plummet we happen to
crack open a Neruda poem or hit play on a Lila Downs song and our landing is
cushioned. We repair our broken ankles and climb the cliff again. Every day in the
rehearsal room, at the writing desk--cliff climbers, we, with no ropes or rigging to shield
us from gravity. We are glass paneled walls facing the sea. Glass bottomed boats that
reveal cumulus clouds. We are the ninety nine percent of the forty seven percent of the
whole damn caramel flan. We are the edible desert, a mouthful of sand. We are the rot
that bears the ripest fruit. We are the canaries in the cage in our tiaʼs dark living room.
The sun-faded flags dangling from papiʼs rearview mirror. We are machos weeping for
wont of love. Cancer patients who are belly laughing for joy. We are montunos
possessed by Baptist gospel chords. Chopin nocturnes that are thunderstruck by
Chango. We are the hump-backed abuela who lifts the car with one finger. We are
lickable lightning.
 
We pledge allegiance. We pledge civil disobedience. Today, we pledge dramatic action.

JARMAN (ALL THIS MADDENING BEAUTY) Now on Sale!

JARMAN (ALL THIS MADDENING BEAUTY) Now on Sale! 

jarmanpostcard (2)

April 17-27, 2014

“This young company will be a force in our theatre community for years to come” – DC Metro Theatre Arts
“force/collision strikingly fulfills its mission to create new performance works” – The Washington Blade
“The sheer visual theatricality of the young company is impressive” – DC Theatre Scene

From the company that created the world premieres “Shape” and “The Nautical Yards” comes a brave, new performance inspired by the life and work of filmmaker Derek Jarman (“Caravaggio”, “The Tempest”). Jarman (all this maddening beauty) will feature an invigorating mash-up of video projections and live performance with a text from OBIE Lifetime Achievement Award-winning playwright Caridad Svich. These performances will kick off its US and UK tour.

More information on force/collision can be found at force-collision.org

Tickets:
General: $20
Student with ID: $10

Performances:
PWYC Preview: April 17 at 8:00 pm
Opening Night: April 18 at 8:00 pm
PWYC Industry Night: April 21 at 7:30 pm

April 19 at 8:00 pm
April 20 at 4:00 pm
April 23 at 8:00 pm
April 24 at 8:00 pm
April 25 at 8:00 pm
April 26 at 8:00 pm
April 27 at 4:00 pm

Get Tickets to Jarman (all this maddening beauty).

Martin Zimmerman: On Intimacy and Liveness for NoPassport’s 30/30

[Martin Zimmerman’s play Stranger 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. how do deal with the positioning of your work, if at all?

MARTIN ZIMMERMAN: I don't know that I do anything consciously. I work in different ways, so that might be one small way I combat this false divide. There is obviously the "solo" writing I do (which is often heavily informed by research--no one just comes up with all this stuff, every writer is really a skilled re-arranger). But I also co-write certain projects with Rebecca Stevens. So I think by showing that someone can both be a "solo" writer as well as someone who writes collaboratively, I can help in small ways to tear down the false divide that his been erected between devising and text-making.

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?

MZ: Hmmm. I'm not sure that I consciously negotiate these dividing lines. I think I just try to take on a wide variety of characters, worlds, and topics in my writing. I also love to write very physical, muscular work. So I think the fact that a lot of my work incorporates dance and very demanding physicality is a way of bridging divides between genres. That might be one way in which I try to consciously bridge divides with my work.

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?

MZ: I am constantly thinking about my process. During the latter half of my Jerome Fellowship year at The Playwrights' Center, I took a lot of time to think about how I work, and how I could tweak my process to work more effectively. I think one of the biggest shifts in my process is in terms of how I've chosen to feel about how a certain project is progressing. Previously I used to race to a deadline, and worry about my progress until I'd met that deadline. Now, I'm much more focused on writing as a daily and weekly practice. I put in my required number of hours and I trust that doing so will make me as productive as I need to be. And that approach has actually made me more productive.

In terms of how I wish to live as an artist with engagement in local and global dialogue, I feel like how I engage locally and globally has as much to do with the subject matter I choose to write about as it does anything else. I've noticed in myself a tendency to take on subject matter, worlds, and characters that are far outside of my own experience. It's pretty a terrifying thing to do, but I try to embrace that terror, and let it fuel a rigorous research process. I feel like I use the process of my art-making in order to investigate the world around me, and grow more compassionate as a human being.

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?

MZ: I think of so many things. I guess I think of people who have some cultural or ethnic link to Latin America through their families. I also think of some relationship to the Spanish language as being something that unifies many US Latin@s (though certainly not all). But I feel like my definition of Latin@ is something I'm forced to reconsider on a regular basis. We are such a large and increasingly diverse community.

In terms of how I reckon with my Latinidad in my art-making, I think a lot about telling Latin@ stories and also about telling multi-ethnic stories. I think doing both of these things is important not only in terms of representation but also as far as providing employment for Latin@ theater artists and other theater artists of color. I also grew up in a multi-ethnic home (my father is German-American) and grew up in a very ethnically diverse area, yet I feel like I don't see a lot of theater that reflects that reality--a reality that is increasingly common in the 21st Century US. 

One other thing that I do in my writing to reckon with my own identity is to create larger than life, epic roles that can be played by actors from diverse ethnic backgrounds. I do this because I think it's important for actors of color to be able to play roles where a character's identity is not defined primarily by her or his ethnicity. I know many actors of color tire of playing roles where the only thing about that character that seems to matter to the larger story is that she or he is Cuban, Argentine, Mexican-American, Asian-American, the ethnic "other" in some way. However, I know there's a danger that, when I create these kinds of epic roles, the actors that will be cast in these roles will be exclusively White. So I've drawn up (with the help of my wonderful partner, Kelly Howe) language that makes it clear I want the cast to be ethnically diverse. I've found casting directors and directors are very responsive to this language in my character breakdowns.

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?

MZ: Hmm. I don't know that I'm per se calling into question the nature of these things. But I think a lot about the relationship between speech and movement. I'm also obsessed with ritual, and the physicality of it. I also think a lot about the long-term consequences our environments have on our bodies. 

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?'

MZ: I don't know that I have a good answer to this question. I feel like I typically hear this response after it's too late to even say anything because they've already selected their season months ago and the artistic director is apologizing for not choosing my play when I wasn't even aware it was under consideration.

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?

MZ: There is that language I mentioned that I use in my character breakdowns of my plays in which characters' ethnicities aren't specified. It's language that gets them thinking about the importance of a diverse cast, and about the fact that there is no such thing as "blind" casting--that casting actors of certain ethnicities in certain roles will profoundly effect how the audience receives the story. We need to be aware of how our casting decisions can shape our audience's perceptions for either good or ill.

 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?

MZ: Absolutely. I think one way is that we need to destabilize audience's expectation that English is the norm. Something that Luis Alfaro does at his plays that I find wonderful is that all the pre-show announcements are primarily in Spanish. There is enough English in them and the rhythm is familiar enough that non-Spanish speakers can understand them. But it sets the tone early on that people shouldn't just automatically expect they are in an English-only or even English-first environment. 

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

MZ: Certainly much of my work is multi-lingual, but even more than that I try to draw on a lot of visual and physical metaphor, and create work that is highly physical in a way that is more common in work outside the US. 

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?

MZ: The most thrilling thing about it is how little resources we have to make it relative to so many other forms. I'm a huge believer in brushing up against constraints as a way of sparking creativity. The metaphorical ways theater forces us to render certain worlds and moments tend to be far more arresting and memorable than the realistic ways in which we see those world and moments rendered on film. 

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?

MZ: I guess I go back to two things: 1) Intimacy and 2) Liveness. The theater work that seems to cultivate new audiences is the work in which performers seem to make an intimate and personal connection with the audience. It seems to me that people will spend money they don't have to see that kind of work (much like they spend money they don't have to go to sporting events). But also, we are in a world where more and more content is digitized. Theater is one of the few things that by definition must be live. The work that most successfully capitalizes on that liveness has no trouble drawing audiences, as liveness is increasingly rare in the 21st Century US.

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

MZ: What inspires me: That humanity has been making theater for so long and yet we're still finding ways to make it surprising and arresting. That we have a chance to be an oasis of liveness in a digital desert.

What troubles me: The continued dearth of roles for Latin@ actors. If theaters aren't producing plays with roles for Latin@ actors how will those actors not become discouraged and drop out of the acting pool by the time they are in their early 30s? It only feeds the vicious cycle of theaters claiming they can't cast plays with Latin@ roles. We have to find a way to stop that cycle. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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