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.