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Martin Zimmerman: On Intimacy & Liveness for 30/30

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.