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Marco Antonio Rodriguez talks theatre for NoPassport's 30/30 scheme


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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