Interview with Elaine Avila for 30/30 US Latin@/NoPassport reading scheme salon
[Elaine Avila’s play At Water’s Edge 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. devisers are seen as being on trend, text-makers are seen as behind the times. it is exactly this kind of oppositional thinking that can be so damaging not only to those of us making art but those on the "outside" perceiving what is happening in art. (more on that later).
ELAINE AVILA: I wish the term “devising” was more inclusive of all people who make theatre. I love actor-creators, and have worked as one. To some in Canada, devising has become a dated term—new companies here want to use the best of creation techniques and tell a great story—they don’t reject writing or writers.
Sometimes devising is about disdain for playwrights. This is too bad, because I use and dig devising techniques, even if I don’t always label them as such.
Let’s bridge this gap. I wrote an article for Canadian Theatre Review (issue 135, “Theatrical Devising”) about how I “devised” my play Quality. My director, Kate Weiss, also framed directing the play as “devising.” This play went on to productions in London, England (Nordic Nomad at Tracey Neuls Shoes); Albuquerque, New Mexico (Tricklock at Terra Firma); Edmonton, Alberta (Vault at Gravity Pope); and was performed throughout Panamá. I agree with Oliver Mayer, playwrights are the first devisers, we work in our rooms with all the elements before anyone else arrives.
CARIDAD SVICH: how do deal with the positioning of your work, if at all? 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? 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?
ELAINE AVILA: If I have to choose between marketing an older piece and making a new one, I will make a new one.
I love connecting and engaging with artists around the globe—my play Burn Gloom was a favorite project. I am currently working on projects involving China, Portugal, and the Azores.
I recently made a huge life change—it involved focusing less on the politics of my immediate situation and more on international politics, our food supply, and the environment. It is amazing the people I have been able to connect to since I made this change. Through Caridad Svich, I have become involved in many Gun Control Theatre Actions throughout North America and Australia. Erik Ehn invited me to write a piece for the victims of the Station Fire in Rhode Island. Daniel Banks invited me to be part of Theatre Without Borders. I’ve written a short play about immigration that has been performed in New York City, by three different companies. I am about to interview Roberta Levitow, for the New York League of Professional Women’s Women in Theatre Magazine’s International Issue. Roberta is the Senior Program Associate-International of Sundance East Africa, and one of the founders, long time director and co-director of Theatre Without Borders. At fifty, she found her career as a director in the American theatre dissatisfying, and completely re-invented herself.
I am learning to believe that my impulses of what to write next have value even if it is not immediately apparent. I thought this might get easier the more experience I have, but taking risks can get harder. One renown playwright I know said it is because she thinks the longer we practice this art, the more it is like climbing high mountains or deep sea diving—the air gets thinner. We need to keep breathing, keep having faith. For example, my next play is about fado, a Portuguese form of the blues. A friend recently pointed out that if we faced our sadness, as fadistas do (a word meaning fado singers and passionate listeners), the world might be a better place. I had not made the connection. I never would have if I hadn’t embarked on the voyage of writing this play.
CARIDAD SVICH: 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?
ELAINE AVILA: I think of my theatrical, artistic family who constantly inspire and challenge me to excellence. I am a writer of Portuguese descent who is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada.
Recently, I have decided to “de-assimilate,” to go backwards in order to go forwards in my writing, by exploring my Portuguese, Azorean roots. The journey is already astonishing. For example, I recently learned that men from my grandparents’ island of Pico married and/or had children with the Inuit in Rankin Inlet and the Coast Salish who lived in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. This means that I share a common ancestry with some Aboriginal groups of Canada, which has already led to some amazing theatrical collaborations. I love that James Baldwin says “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”
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?
ELAINE AVILA: Making a text for live performance is a tremendous leap of faith. Each play I have written finds homes that greatly exceed my expectations—for example, one play was performed in a beautiful old theatre space in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panamá City and in an incredible shoe boutique on an ancient lane in London, England; another production opened on the Pacific Ocean, with actors singing in Spanish, about the New World/Mundo Nuevo. Yet I seem to forget how my plays find beautiful homes. As I write each new play, I need to learn (or remember) optimism.
CARIDAD SVICH: casting is a tough and thorny aspect of our art and business. i think we all know plenty of terrific actors who wait and wait for that one or two gigs every year that ask for their "type" to be cast. i am personally of the mind that the more expansive casting can be, especially in theatre, which is, after all, not a photographically representational art form but an abstract one in its essence, the richer an audience's understanding of the form can be. but i know that this may not be everyone's pov. understandably. what do you do when someone says to you "we don't have culturally specific actors in my town, so we can't even look at your play, even if we were to deeply admire or want to put this story on stage?' 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?
ELAINE AVILA: My favorite experiences have come from expansive casting. African American and Latin@ actors have played “English” roles in my plays inspired by Shakespeare’s clown and Jane Austen; actors of Chinese, European, African-American, Latin@ descent have played roles which I describe as “open to any ethnicity.” In my play, At Water’s Edge, both an Inuit and a Japanese actress have been cast as the Japanese character (a fascinating reversal, as often Japanese actors play Inuit in movies). The role of Paulo has only been performed by a Portuguese actor once, a rare treat. Often he is cast as Greek, Caucasian or Latino.
In many ways, casting issues are only beginning to be explored and point to fascinating potential. I love David Henry Hwang’s play Yellow Face, one of the first plays ever produced for you tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Krlv9cyn9Hc and Dr. Daniel Banks’ article “The Welcome Table: Casting for an Integrated Society” (Theatre Topics Journal, published 2013) which shows how many casting notions based on families and history are wrong. Dr. Brian Herrera of Princeton, a former colleague, is doing incredible work on the history of casting.
If you live in a context where you “don't have culturally specific actors” in your town, do the play you love and want to explore anyway. Start somewhere.
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?
ELAINE AVILA: I’ve written plays that include Chichewa, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Navajo..but I’ve learned the most about multi-linguality from my students. When I headed the MFA program in Dramatic Writing in New Mexico, my former graduate student, a terrific writer and educator, Leonard Madrid, organized a forum on multi-linguality. Most of my students wrote and thought in multiple languages (Spanish, Urdu, Farsi, Navajo, Comanche). We all got awfully tired of what I called the “Dora the Explora” effect, where you write a line in Spanish, and then immediately translate it. I began collecting examples of how multiple languages can work more artfully in plays (Migdalia Cruz’s Fur Carmen Aguirre’s The Refugee Hotel, and Jose Rivera’s Cloud Tectonics, for example).
The student forum on multi-linguality unearthed some powerful revelations. 1. No-one has a problem with multi-linguality in opera, or in Europe, where multiple languages happen in plays all the time. 2. People particularly object to Spanish in plays, one student said “it is the language of the laborer.” Some people can easily tolerate multiple languages and various levels of comprehension, others cannot. This question has much more to do with class, tolerance, assimilation and willing curiosity about other people than it may appear.
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?
ELAINE AVILA: My husband is a musician, so I have learned about sympathetic vibration. When a string is plucked in one corner of a room, it can cause another string to vibrate, across the room. My body resonates in a live experience—dance, theatre, music. There is nothing like it.
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. but seriously, what ideas have you when you make work or are in the process of putting it out there about how to and ways you can create connection with your audience(S) beyond the work itself, for example?
ELAINE AVILA: If you want new audiences, include new people. The brilliant and marvelous playwright Luis Alfaro does some great things to include people—he has lunch with critics to have heart to hearts about theatre, he talks to everyone in the theatre organization about what is going on—like the box office staff, and at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, he asked for a taco truck to be outside the theatre, which was very welcoming to Latin@ audiences.
CARIDAD SVICH: what's inspiring you these days? and/or what's troubling you these days?
ELAINE AVILA: Inspiring—The Wayfinders by Wade Davis, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative by Thomas King, which are about story telling in indigeneous/first nations traditions. Reading these two CBC Massey Lectures (available in book form from House of Anasazi Press and for listening online) led me to work with Inuit storyteller Michael Kusugak and Pangaea Arts on their latest play, Arvaarluk: an Inuit Tale.
Troubling: we are due to lose 50% of the languages on earth in the next 100 years. Imagine all of geographic, plant, and historical knowledge we will lose. Imagine if you were the last speaker of your language—what would you want to save from your words, stories and traditions?
As Wade Davis writes, “Language isn't just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules; it's a flash of the human spirit, the vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. When you and I were born there were 6,000 languages spoken on Earth. Now, fully half are not being taught to schoolchildren. Effectively, they're already dead unless something changes. What this means is that we are living through a period of time in which, within a single generation or two, by definition half of humanity's cultural legacy is being lost in a single generation….. Some people say: "What does it matter if these cultures fade away." The answer is simple. When asked the meaning of being human, all the diverse cultures of the world respond with 10,000 different voices. Distinct cultures represent unique visions of life itself, morally inspired and inherently right. And those different voices become part of the overall repertoire of humanity for coping with challenges confronting us in the future. As we drift toward a blandly amorphous, generic world, as cultures disappear and life becomes more uniform, we as a people and a species, and Earth itself, will be deeply impoverished.”