Louisiana Theatre Artists’ Canary Vision and Praise for the Concentrated Theatre Conference
by Anne-Liese Juge Fox
“New Orleans is simply where the future arrived first. These are not local plays. These plays are about what happens if you don’t pay attention to the environment.”—John Biguenet
On Saturday March 29, 2014 an international group of colleagues and strangers spent twelve hours together at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge for the NoPassport Theatre Conference exploring the theme of the “Diasporic Imagination” at the incredibly accessible price of $5 for students and $10 for the general public. Following the same group of people from all over the world, alternating presentations and performances on this topic, created a vivid community that gained momentum throughout the day. In praise of the concentrated theatre conference, it was a privilege to journey with the same group in such diverse explorations and positions and it was distinct from the experience of larger conferences.
I moderated the panel discussion entitled, The Katrina Effect: Performance Response to Gulf Coast Manmade Disasters. Panelists were playwright Leigh Fondakowski and Kelly Simpkins of the Tectonic Theatre Project with portrait artist Riva Wartel to discuss their work in Fondakowski’s new play Spill. Spill premiered at LSU’s Swine Palace for the fifth anniversary of the Macondo well explosion and ensuing oil spill and was also part of NoPassport’s conference activity. Panelist playwright John Biguenet of Loyola University spoke of his response to the Katrina levee breaks disaster in New Orleans with his Rising Water Trilogy. New Orleanian theatre artists Kathy Randels of ArtSpot Productions and Nick Slie of Mondo Bizarro spoke of their three performance collaborations over the past eight years addressing Louisiana coastal loss and culture loss. As part of my research interest, I saw all seven performances discussed in this panel and I consider them to be representative of some of the finest and most responsible work in performance response to disaster in Louisiana. It was deeply gratifying to share a Louisiana perspective to this international group gathered in our state capitol.
Real Stories Real Stakes in Artistic Representation
A unifying thread of all seven performances was the varied use of personal story and survivor experience of disaster. The seven performances discussed in this panel broach a spectrum of “real” and “fictional” characters expressing lived experience of catastrophe, its aftermath, and our complicated relationship with our landscape. On the extreme end of fiction, the collaboration of Mondo Bizarro and ArtSpot Productions uses the Cajun werewolf folk character, the Loup Garou. Performed by Slie under the direction of Randels, the Loup Garou first appears in the ensemble of Beneath the Strata: Disappearing (2006) set at a wetlands preserve just outside New Orleans and later in 2010 in a solo performance written by Raymond “Moose” Jackson at an abandoned city golf course. Jackson’s Loup Garou howls the story of a man who lost generations of family members to the oil industry and the madness of the disappearance of his home. Randels emphasizes in her work how land loss is tied to culture loss and stated in the panel that culture “survives in our bodies—it survives in our songs.” ArtSpot and Mondo Bizarro’s strategy to build awareness to the startling truth happening everyday to Louisiana’s coastal communities celebrates and dramaturgically incorporates at-risk myths, stories, songs, and dances of Louisiana’s founding peoples. In Beneath the Strata for example, the West African dance of the Calinda is revived and becomes a speaking character in the form of three African American women performers.
The characters of John Biguenet’s Rising Water Trilogy are entirely fictional; however, Biguenet asserted in the panel that the issues they face, the events they live through, are based on true stories of New Orleanians. Biguenet compared his work to co-panelist Leigh Fondakowski’s The Laramie Project in that “he made up almost nothing… all three stories are almost entirely documentary.” When Rising Water (2006) set the record for the most successful play in terms of audience attendance at New Orleans’ Southern Repertory Theatre’s twenty-year history, New Orleans only had a third of the population it had had before the flood. Adding to the explanation for the success of the Rising Water, Biguenet spoke about the connection between theatre and cities. In New Orleans his characters speak not just the accent, but also the language of New Orleanians and asks questions that New Orleanians need to address. For Biguenet those issues are clear: race and the loss of thirty percent of New Orleans’ population from the disaster. Biguenet recalled the racial tension in New Orleans after the former mayor Ray Nagin’s infamous “Chocolate City” speech on Martin Luther King Day in 2006. Biguenet stated that the only equivalent in his living memory of racial tension in New Orleans was the integration of schools in the 1960s. In terms of the diaspora, Biguenet made the appeal that we need to address that to this day, one hundred fifty thousand people have not returned to New Orleans.
On the spectrum of “real” to the point of being labeled a docu-dramatist, playwright Leigh Fondakowski’s Spill was developed with live interviews and trial testimonies: a process she and dramaturge and performer Kelly Simpkins used for the Tectonic Theatre Project’s well-known The Laramie Project and Fondakowski’s play The People’s Temple. Fondakowski stated that foundational to all her work are “ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.” In Spill an ensemble of performers play over thirty characters to relay the traumatic events of the Deep Horizon explosion and ensuing oil spill where actors “loosely wear the clothes” of various characters and “the community becomes the protagonist.” Collaborator and performer Simpkins states: “There is a certain kind of responsibility in playing a human being who is going to potentially come and witness you performing them.” Simpkins continued by expressing that the “beauty” of doing this kind of work is “giving a representation or being a representative of somebody who didn’t get a voice.” Impetus for creating this work, Fondakowski avers, is the question of “what to do with all the grief” of traumatic events. Fondakowski states that for her vision of American theatre, there is the sense of “giving the story back to the community” in the closest regional theatre where the event had the most impact. Fondakowski added, theatre then “become(s) a place to bring all that grief and bring all that trauma.” Fondakowski clarified that the objective is not to provide a resolution to the events; but rather, through the act of making art of the tragedy, the “suffering is addressed” not as “healing” but as an honest expression that “touches upon the unresolved places within that community and within the individuals.”
Fondakowski spoke of her resistance to the label of “docudrama” or “verbatim theatre” that is often attached to her work. She stated that although they are rigorous that their information is factual, they are presenting an artistic representation: “They are the words of the people who survived the event but they are not word perfect. They are heavily edited.” And on the other side of this coin, Fondakowski spoke of the difficulty in meeting dramaturgical expectations for a play with complex events such as the BP Oil Spill. The explosion of the oilrig provides great drama, yet the creative team found as they spoke to people in Louisiana communities that an overriding and persisting concern was the less dramatically contained issue of land loss and the complex dependence our culture has on oil.
War of Narratives
All the panelists expressed the need for their work to help bring the stories of Louisiana outside of the Gulf Coast and re-ignite concern for Louisiana’s enduring issues. Biguenet stated that in over forty productions of the Rising Water plays from coast to coast, he found that audiences had no idea of what had happened in New Orleans and thought, “it was just a hurricane.” Biguenet continued that the easily accessible, three-part “hurricane story” that reporters gravitated toward as they reported events in New Orleans in 2005 did not apply to what happened in New Orleans where people were still waiting on rooftops on the third day “and the US was still two days away.” Biguenet continued that another issue was that the United States had never lost a city before and “there was no existing narrative structure” for reporters and audiences to make sense of “all the disparate information.” Simpkins similarly spoke of this inability or downright refusal to address the complexity of ongoing catastrophe with the BP oil spill event. Simpkins referred to the reporters’ descent into Louisiana communities already armed with “an angle” and the desire to extract “a snapshot…a sound bite…something that can be said in a headline.” The choice Simpkins described for their creative process in Spill was to do the opposite: “to come down without any agenda” or vision, but to come with an “open heart and open mind”, “to question”, “to learn” and to be present.
In response to an even more aggressive campaign against misinformation and over-simplification, Biguenet described a crucial war of narratives between conflicting stories of what happened in New Orleans. Biguenet stated that one of the biggest single expenditures of the Corps of Engineers after the disaster in New Orleans was to hire a PR firm in Manhattan. Biguenet adds, “It was money well-spent because their narrative prevailed-that it was our own damn fault for living in a city below sea level.” Fondakowski added that with the Deep Horizon oil spill, BP similarly has spent “millions and millions and millions of dollars to teach the rest of the country that it’s all over here and that nobody is suffering.” Fondakowski referred to BP’s full-page ads in the NY Times to present themselves as the victim of false claims. Fondakowski asserted that BP basically gave small payouts of 5-25K to fishermen to make it look like they were paying claims when actually residents were signing away their rights to legitimate claims and real financial compensation for their past, current and future losses. Fondakowski spoke how this event brings up the “propaganda machine” and the question of how history gets told, who owns that history and how that narrative is constructed over time. In light of what seems to be overwhelming forces constructing master narratives, Fondakowski expressed “I feel that our work is in part a document-- it’s the words of the people. It’s the actual words of the people and it’s at least on the record. It’s a least part of the dialogue of how history gets told and how history gets written.”
Building on that question of theatre’s ability to carry counternarratives, I asked the panelists about audience receptiveness in other states to hear stories of Louisiana and learn more of the truth of the oil industry and its impact on our environment. In response, Randels spoke of the national tour of Loup Garou the summer of 2010 while BP oil was gushing in the Gulf Coast. Randels described that everywhere they went “we were a little piece of what was happening in Louisiana” and stated that people were eager to speak with them. Randels found their work particularly resonated in extraction communities, such as the border of New York and Pennsylvania states where fracking was just beginning. Slie added that he found the story of Louisiana resonated with New Yorkers who had experienced two major hurricanes in the past four years. Similarly, Biguenet spoke of performances of his trilogy in New Jersey where audiences consisted of survivors of Hurricane Sandy. Biguenet described how these audiences had similar reactions to those in New Orleans where for some it was difficult to return to their seats for the second act. Slie stated that their national dialogue of communities at risk in Louisiana is robust because “in New Orleans, we’re the canary in the coalmine” and “the people of Southeast Louisiana have experience to offer” the rest of the nation. Biguenet concurred: “New Orleans is simply where the future arrived first. These are not local plays. These plays are about what happens if you don’t pay attention to the environment.”
This canary message, however relevant globally, is uncomfortable, and even at times unwelcome. Wartel, the portrait artist for Spill, stated that the play asks us to look at our own relationship to oil and recognize our ignorance of the oil industry and the very real human sacrifice behind it. Fondakowski cited Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” as still inconvenient and stated that artists she deeply respects have told her that her narrative in Spill meanders because of its insistence to tell the story of land loss in Louisiana. She was advised to drop it in order to serve the dramaturgical drive of the explosion of the oilrig. Fondakowski continued to explain that the fact that Louisiana has the highest sea level rise in the world and 50-80-% of the erosion of Louisiana’s coast is directly due to the cutting of canals for the oil industry, is something people resist and “don’t want to take in.”
One way ArtSpot and Mondo Bizarro have addressed even New Orleanians’ reluctance to see how quickly our neighbors a few miles south are sinking into the Gulf of Mexico, was to set their final installation, Cry You One, at the very edge of the coast in Violet, LA in St. Bernard Parish. When I brought my eight-year-old son to the performance, it was an opportunity to address his questions of why “all the trees were dead” and what “salt-water intrusion” was. The task of bringing this message outside the Gulf Coast is formidable, but urgent. In order to address this challenge, Mondo Bizarro and ArtSpot Productions have created a touring version of the site-specific performance (ongoing) and have an online video format that accompanies the project (http://www.cryyouone.com/). Biguenet provided a “measure” of urgency of the rapid rate of land loss in Louisiana with his statement that in the last sixty years, as much square mileage as the entire state of Delaware has already been lost. Biguenet continued: “When I was a child I was taught the coast was 100 miles away (from New Orleans), my kids were taught it was 50. Now it’s 12 miles to the east.” Biguenet concluded this reality check with the fact that during the time we were talking in the panel, “three football fields have fallen in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s how quickly this has been happening.”
As we closed our hour with audience questions a participant commended the artist panel for their courage to make the choice to bring the “details” of the stories to life and to ask people to “pay attention.” Slie, in his bright yellow shirt and feathered fedora hat responded: “This is all gloom and doom but in Southeast Louisiana we live amongst the most joyous people in the history of the planet. We’ve been assimilating, changing, transitioning story, ways of fiddling, playing the horn, making food for 250 years…the situation is dire. If anyone is trained, the people of Southeast Louisiana have the skills to do it.” Slie’s optimism adds another dimension to the urgency of getting the stories of Louisiana’s manmade disasters outside of the Gulf Coast. The people of Louisiana do need out-of-state support, but also in times of disaster to come, the people and artists of Louisiana have unique knowledge to offer the rest of the nation and the world. NoPassport Theatre Conference afforded a rare opportunity for Louisiana, national, and international artists to speak together of performance response to manmade disasters that impact us all. This panel and other events of the NoPassport Conference 2014 were live-streamed and are archived on HowlRound at: http://www.howlround.com/livestreaming-2014-nopassport-theatre-conferenc....
Anne-Liese Juge Fox, Ph.D., a native New Orleanian, studied theatre at Tisch School of the Arts, NYU and the International School of Theatre Jacques Le Coq in Paris. In San Francisco she was a company member of Theatre of Yugen, a founding member of Pacific Playback Theatre, and an award-winning solo artist. She returned to New Orleans and received a M.Ed. in Human Performance and Health Promotion. In New Orleans, Fox collaborated with playwright Lisa D’Amour and ArtSpot Productions in the Obie-winning, Nita & Zita and was a writer and performer of Swimming Upstream with Eve Ensler. Swimming Upstream, an original performance about the levee breaks disaster premiered in the Superdome before its national tour. Fox’s article on that process was published in TDR in 2013. Within a few months following the Hurricane Katrina levee breaks, Fox founded NOLA Playback Theatre and worked in community settings. She currently serves on the board for the International Centre for Playback Theatre. Fox was a Board of Regents and Graduate School Dissertation fellow at L.S.U. where she received her doctorate in Theatre History, Literature and Criticism with a minor in Performance Studies. At Tulane and Loyola Universities in New Orleans, Fox taught acting, movement, speech, and mask improvisation.
New from NoPassport Press:
PRIVATE BATTLE AND OTHER PLAYS
by Lynn Manning
Three fiery plays from the heart of Los Angeles by acclaimed poet and playwright Lynn Manning. PRIVATE BATTLE, UP FROM THE DOWNS and THE LAST OUTPOST paint a searing, powerful portrait of people trying to get by at all costs. With an introduction by Robert Egan.
SO THE ARROW FLIES
by Esther K. Chae
SO THE ARROW FLIES is a compelling play by Esther K. Chae that is a suspenseful thriller and a political drama that criticizes divisive ideologies and hatred, and explores the power of a woman's right to be heard. With an introduction by David Henry Hwang.
This volume contains the English language script and its Korean language translation.
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.
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.
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.
Louisiana State University