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JULIAN MESRI for NoPassport's 30/30 blog

JULIAN MESRI for 30/30: US Latin@/NoPassport scheme blog salon

[Julian Mesri’s play Progress 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. 

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

JULIAN MESRI: I look at all theatre works as essentially a combination of aesthetic and political problems crystallized within an artistic form that can only be realized in performance. I have struggled with this in terms of how to define myself, since in this country you are either a director, a writer or a writer/director and oftentimes the latter results in more than a few skeptical raised eyebrows – I have limited myself to saying I am an Argentinean-American theater-maker. I like the term that is used often in Latinamerica: “teatrista”, a theater-ist, if you will. I don’t care if I’m taking a piece by Shakespeare or Lope, or if I’m rewriting something using an instruction manual, or someone’s life stories, or some new text that I or a playwright has written – text is an essential, but incidental part of the larger picture which is theatre, any debate over where text is originating from sort of misses the point.

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

JULIAN MESRI: The problem with a theatre world that is funded primarily upon institutional models is that more and more artistic work behaves and reflects the form of those institutions. We are all victims in many ways to what I would call the theater-industrial complex – which installs a strict division of labor and makes a commodity out of the most easily singularized part of theatre, which is the play-text. This leads to a series of mechanical moves in development that make the play most ‘like’ what it needs to be, which is essentially a different mold and color of what we usually see at most large theaters and tends to be a variant on some form of the well-made play. Most ‘development’ processes (which is to say beginning with the pedagogy down to the final production), seem to be essentially fetishized branding processes. Corporatively it works as it allows institutions the ability to procure and nurture the usual audiences, but it neuters the most dangerous parts of the art, the destructive instinct within its mimetic response. 

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

JULIAN MESRI: My own process is in a process of reinventing itself. I always begin with an image – this could be a situation, a name, a visual or musical suggestion, and then from within that locating its essential problem. At the end of the day if it’s going to be a work of writing this needs to manifest itself in language. What I am describing sounds methodical but in reality it is a very messy process of locating this drive and then following it in near-blindness until it approximates a form. I essentially hope for it to create its own language and logic and then try to figure out how best to communicate it.

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

JULIAN MESRI: As artists we must be global citizens, which means we must consume and participate in culture outside of ourselves. Artists perform a useful and selfish role within society. It is important to never forget, or at least try to, the problematic relationship of art to power, to the State, and that we are not always the agents of change that we claim to be. Dialogue is important, as is a political awareness, but it is equally important to let work be work, and not focus on making your art ‘globally or culturally aware’, in any intentional kind of way, but be an engaged human being and to let that work itself into whatever you are doing as an organic reflection of what one is experiencing. Do not worry about infecting your work with responsibility or awareness, but rather be an aware person, read the paper, go to museums, engage with your communities and most importantly do not neglect the faculty of thought.

CARIDAD SVICH: 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?

JULIAN MESRI: The only lesson is to never forget the absolute power that an art form has when it is deemed irrelevant, to not be afraid of working outside of channels of support and to always realize that art that is engineered in some part by a corporate or institutional interest will inevitably take on the shape of that interest. The best way to make work is to throw oneself fully in the detritus that is both our art form and our culture and from there find a joy and play that would hopefully be infectious and create its own kind of indefinite community.

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

JULIAN MESRI: Oy. Unfortunately it makes me think of what people think of when they think of Latino culture, which is the idea of Latino culture that has been perpetuated in television and media, which is to say ‘spicy food’, ‘outsized personalities’, ‘passionate lovemakers’, ‘maids and drug dealers’, and ‘spanglish’. When I think deeper I think of the amazing diversity of Latino voices, which are essentially a minority in this country that reflects more our years of disastrous foreign policy in Latinamerica than any singular ‘American Dream’ that cheapens any immigration story. I feel wary of the term Latino/a since I could not, except by some linguistic reasons, unite Latinos in this country. We are united by our political situation, by the blindspot of mainstream American culture, and we are our best resources to elaborate the multiple sides to our diaspora.

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

JULIAN MESRI: I never think of my Latinicity or Latino-ness when I make work. If I begin with identity then I begin with a version of myself that has been passed through so much culture that it is hardly my own. My own identity is a product of my history – which is Argentine, which is American and my latino-ness lives in the middle of that, but when I make work the predominant worry is expression, the predominant worry is the problem that a contradiction between languages and cultures creates, but never the desire to create something ‘Latino/a’, since I don’t really know what that means.

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

JULIAN MESRI: There will always be a chasm between what we say and how it is written. This has been a challenge since before Derrida threw down the gauntlet and extoled writing over speech for its difference. Since what we do is repeated speech, there is a way in which I want writing to remain ‘writing’ when I stage something. If the writing disappears into speech suddenly we lose the one of many elements that come together to form an artistic work. What makes great theater, in my opinion, is a simultaneous encounter of all these disparate elements subsumed only under the work itself, with no other element privileged above any other. As a director I am drawn to work that is a challenge to stage, work that resists its existence as speech – my interest in classic theatre is that it commands a heightened language that is still foreign to our tongues, and that struggle in performance is where I can ‘see’ the writing.

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

JULIAN MESRI: As a director your goal should be to recreate and reflect your world as you see it. If you are living in New York and all you see are white, educated, middle-class rich people – then you are living a mythical New York and are doing a disservice to yourself and your community.

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

JULIAN MESRI: If you speak more than one language, and you hear more than one language in your communities then of course you should find ways of bringing it to life. I work in both English and Spanish language theatre in NYC and they reflect for me not just the varieties of ‘Latino’ or ‘Latinamerican’ experience but New York in general. I have been working on a play that is in both English and Spanish, with large portions only in Spanish – this play ‘Immersion’, is definitely going to create a sense of alienation and confusion for those who only speak one language, but if anything it is a reflection of the kind of alienation both English and Spanish speakers can encounter in the communities of New York today (and of course in a city like NYC there is no reason this should be limited to these two languages)

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

JULIAN MESRI: Theatre can always be, and should always be, dangerous. It is a risky enterprise, because at its heart it asks us to think and confront ourselves by putting one person in front of another and asking them to get something from them. It is not a place of ‘love’ or ‘family’ as much as a place of anarchy and history, and in every single theatrical performance there is a challenge, a hidden monstrosity that brings us back to what is so essentially traumatic about existence. It’s precisely for this reason that it’s also such a funny place – where else can we be safe enough to essentially bring down everything we hold near and dear, and do so with our own bodies surrounded by people who until five minutes ago were strangers and are now co-conspirators? What threatens theatre most is its complacency and its self-love. We should stop cuddling ourselves into non-existence, look outside our walls, not take ourselves, but our work seriously, and get everyone to participate in these anarchic, despotic and excitingly poetic actions.

CARIDAD SVICH: 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.

JULIAN MESRI: I think you just answered your question. The more you crunch numbers, or look for Google-ized corporate solutions to your work the more you’re going to make a product out of your work that turns theatre into a vapid innovation-driven ‘device’. Theatre is never going to be able to compete with media 2.0. Nobody cares about us, and that’s OK, I wouldn’t want to care about us if I weren’t us either.

I guess small steps will help, but first is just a desire to make work dangerous again, to invite people in your community and obviously to charge no more than fifteen dollars. Heck if you can charge 10 dollars that’s even better. We have to give up with this idea of financial solvency in theatre. Get back to the basics, make a living in this damn city any way you can, get together with some people, make some work, find a space (the hardest fucking part in NYC), bring people together and collect some cash, get a bit of money to afford drinks after. That way you remain a political, non-sheltered being. Finding places to do this is the hardest part. Work in spite, not in reliance of institutions. Work in spite of lack of money not in a search of money. The worst thing a new company could do is start raising money without even a project. Non-profit models seek grants in ‘projects’ that barely have formation, but with such strict regulations you have company after company that develops their work so they fit the grant, and again,. This works for products. Theatre is not a product per se. It is a weird, and kind of fucked up commodity. It does not obscure its labor, or rather, it has the capacity not to obscure its labor. As long as we are willing to make it ugly, as we are willing to give up on professional sheen – we can keep everything else, our rigor, our absolute dedication, our love, heck even our friendship, but we can no longer expect it to be as pretty or as pristine as it is now without some day seeing it the way one may look at one more renovated hotel on the east Brooklyn waterfront or the once grungy Lower East Side.

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

JULIAN MESRI: Inspiring me: everything that has been happening dramaturgically in Buenos Aires and Latinamerica, so many to list, – some amazing young voices in Latinamerica though like Eduardo Calla in Bolivia,  Bolivia, Luciana Lagisquet and Alejandro Gayvoronsky in Uruguay, David Gaitán in Mexico, but the thing that’s really sad is that there is such a dearth of translations from Latinamerica here in the states. The Lark does honorable work with Mexico and a few scholars like Jean Graham-Jones who has done an amazing job bringing the work of Argentine playwrights but still authors like Javier Daulte, Veronese, Spregelburd, Kartún, Bartís, Lola Arias, LEGOM, or newer artists like Romina Paula or Maruja Bustamante, people who are world-renowned have barely any work available here. The problem isn’t with translators it’s with the lack of a proper editorial or publishing house to support (and pay translators).

Troubling me is the timidity of art. The complacency of the new left. I’m not asking for pure ridiculous avant-gardeness, I’m just asking for people to realize that the work they make matters and slow, subtle explorations of the human spirit when the actual condition of humanity is not subtle or slow but extremely messy, is only interested to those with the time, leisure and pleasure time to parse through it. The rest of us want something instant, fucked up, and funny, and if we can think in the process without being told what to think, that would be the ideal.