Alejandro Morales talks art-making for 30/30: US Latin@/NoPassport reading scheme blog
[Alejandro Morales’ play On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday 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).a) how do deal with the positioning of your work, if at all?
ALEJANDRO MORALES: I really haven’t. All of my work began with me and I sought out development and production opportunities for it. I did have a long relationship with director Scott Ebersold, however, and we shared many aesthetic values so in many ways I would craft plays that I knew he would want to direct. We also co-produced these plays so I was very much involved in the complete presentation of my work from page to stage.
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?
ALEJANDRO MORALES: I jumped around these lines a lot out of necessity. No major theater with money was producing me despite being a favorite with many of the literary managers. I had to hustle to get my plays done. I was very lucky to have been trained as an actor, director, writer, dramaturg and designer during my undergraduate work at NYU, so I pretty much did everything I could possibly do in addition to writing the play.
I will say something in terms of the culture of theatermaking and criticism regarding the way I put on my work. Very often there were these assumptions from critics about what Scott did and what I did. Not to take away from Scott’s incredible work on my plays, but often I would read critics giving Scott credit for elements of the play that were written in the script (one example was a dance number I had written into a play). My plays have always been written with the intent that there would be some sort of production concept around it. I always work with writing in performance conventions, style, suggestion for design or production elements, etc. I envision an entire three-dimensional experience in addition to the characters, plot, theme, etc. and I try to make it all a cohesive whole. With each play I’ve learned more and more how to structure my scripts to give readers as many clues as to what my vision is (and really I am not all that avant-garde) but I am not sure if there are people making decisions at agencies or theaters who know how to read plays this way.
CARIDAD SVICH: 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?
ALEJANDRO MORALES: I have tried very hard (along with Scott) to create my own process. I have always wanted to work in the way Caryl Churchill and Max Stafford Clark did with Joint Stock. Scott and I have always had this as an ideal, but the reality of paying for rehearsal space and actors always collapses the process. Not to mention, I am not sure if the actors we had access to were always willing to work this way. I felt the realities of producing work off-off Broadway on an Equity Showcase contract really defined our process.
Not to mention, there was the reality of Scott and I having day jobs and other responsibilities, so by the time we had planned to meet and discuss a project, I am well underway with the script and we’d be back to the traditional mode of working.
One thing we really wanted to do was begin working with actors and designers right away and get them committed to projects in their infancy so we could get talent in on the ground floor and they would have some sort of ownership of their role and process (in exchange for the pittance we could pay them with our budget). Again, the reality of scheduling, people needing to make a living, etc. would jettison this and many times we’d have to end up recasting projects due to conflicts.
Lastly, I would also say that the traditional play model is so prevalent that it is easy for it to become a default. Scott and I were always experimenting and trying to reinvent the wheel and without mentors or folks who could show us how to do it at the off-off-Broadway level, while working day jobs, etc. we just ended up falling back on what we knew. It was a vicious circle.
I’m struggling with my role as an artist in the local and global dialogue, to be honest. I felt that I could never quite do this at the level I wanted to as a playwright and I have burned out lighting the proverbial candle at both ends. I’m working with prose at the moment as a way to refresh the muse (and because I just think my canvas kept wanting to grow and grow and I wasn’t seeing opportunities for me to do that on a production level in theater). I feel my aesthetic concerns around cultural and sexual identity are important. My play On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday feels incredibly timely with the anti-gay policing going on in Russia at the moment and I would so want this play to be out in the world speaking to people about the effects and repercussions of sexual repression by the government and society. I am saddened I have no idea how to make it part of the conversation, but I hope that perhaps prose with the ease of print on demand and e-books might help me to bring these issues to a wider audience. I think there are stories about the breadth of the Hispanic/Latino community in the US and the LGBT/Queer community around the world that need to be heard not just by those respective communities, but everyone. These stories are human stories and they need a very very very wide audience.
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?
ALEJANDRO MORALES: I have never seen Latino spelled with an ampersand. I Googled the term and saw it is a gender neutral term which I really like.
I personally refer to myself as US-born Cuban or Hispanic even though I know I am also Latino. I think that the Latino umbrella is very large (something many non-Latinos don’t understand) and there are elements of the Latino experience that may be true for me which may not be true for others and vice-versa. I’ve been claiming Hispanic (even though it may not be the most PC thing to do) because my family does have strong Spanish ties and artistically I am definitely a son of Lorca so it’s something I want to honor.
I do also feel that being a South Floridian and a New Yorker is a very big part of who I am. Both places are places of incredible cultures clashing, improvising and collaborating. I grew up feeling weird that I wasn’t like the people on TV. I spoke two languages and they spoke only one. I grew up navigating my way from one culture to another (and boy that has led to some interesting formative experiences), so I am incredibly comfortable with living in a multi-language, multi-cultural environment. So much of my work incorporates multiple languages, translation, and/or appropriation. Growing up in the US in a Cuban immigrant family really helped me see from the get-go that US culture is not homogenous. People approach the American experience from different points of view, which is something someone should inform Fox News about.
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?
ALEJANDRO MORALES: Honestly this changes from play to play. Like I said before every one of my plays carries with it a seed for how the text exists in performance. My last play was pretty straightforward textually, but the characters spoke Russian and Spanish and we needed to hear all of it in English, so I had to devise a convention for the use of accents to denote when a character was not speaking their native tongue. This is written into the play.
Having my plays carry a consistency in the language is key. Again, I am an artistic son of Lorca’s, so looking at the plays as poems laced with motifs is something I always strive for—maybe the audience isn’t conscious of this in the language, but I think this gives a play a texture that a director or actor or designer can latch on to. I also say that I work musically. The work of Stephen Sondheim was an early influence (and lately I am listening to a lot of opera). Studying the way he laces structure into his scores taught me a great deal about the use of details to tell story or reveal character. I always tried to give the actors dictation by using line breaks, verse, or pauses that are written into the dialogue to incorporate a dramatic musicality to the text.
I think when I go back to writing for the stage, I would like to work more with music. There is something about the idea of characters getting arias that I would love to explore. I worked more with monologue in my earlier work and I have moved away from that. I would love to figure out ways to open up pure emotional expression using text and music, in the way an aria de capo by Handel or a coloratura mad scene by Donizetti might.
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?
ALEJANDRO MORALES: This is tough. I write gay characters and Latino characters a lot. I also like to write for women who are not ingenues. These are the people who live in my head and I feel obligated to make sure they get to live on stage (as we all should). I do everything I can to make sure this happens. Again, in the world of off-off-Broadway Equity Showcase, this can get really tough. I even wanted to just start writing culturally non-specific characters because it was hard to get appropriate actors who could do my work. That became very hard for me because … well, cultural identity is something I write about . . . so how do I write these culturally non-specific characters?
I have often felt limited as well from writing about certain subject matter—particularly the body and the way culture defines gender, power and beauty around certain physical attributes and that starts to winnow down my casting pool big time.
It’s tricky because as a producer beginning a draft I will think “can I cast this?” and writing based on what I can realistically do as a producer just doesn’t work for me (sadly). I need to write from a place free of these practical consideration and make productions that result from solving the challenges plays free of practical considerations pose. Please see what I said about burnout earlier.
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?
ALEJANDRO MORALES: As I’ve mentioned before I do this all the time. My reality has never been multi-lingual. I have always juggled not just verbal language but unspoken cultural languages as well. I have always been translating ever since I was a kid (when my kindergarten teacher couldn’t pronounce Alejandro, I became Alex until my 30s). My father was an opera fan and I grew up looking through his records and seeing these libretti that contained the text in Italian, French, English and German. I now go to the opera and part of my experience at the Met is navigating the Met Titles in front of me as I follow a performance. In Japan, I went to a kabuki performance and watched two plays with a headphone commentary going on in my ear. My brain can function with these two different language tracks going on at the same time.
There is no way my plays will not reflect this.
I think about Junot Diaz writing about the copious amounts of Spanish in his novels and the criticism he has received for this and he said, “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.” Reading this helped me deal with a lot of the narrow minded criticism of my work including multi-language text.
This multi-language idea isn’t limited to national languages. I try to have the language of music or movement or visuals live in my work. As a writer, I take umbrage at the fact that dialogue is the only language I should concern myself with in the script. There are many languages I can use to tell my story and I try to employ as many of them as I can
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?
ALEJANDRO MORALES: I’m a little down on theater at the moment and most of the live performance I am seeing these days is opera, which music snobs be damned, I consider to also be theater. In opera, I have experienced time stopping during an aria in Giulio Cesare or the experience of falling in love in La Traviata or what it is like to touch the divine in Wagner’s Parsifal. I just don’t see this too much in contemporary theater, despite theater being more than capable of giving us these experiences. I don’t know how to describe the quality of these experiences and why they are different from much of what I have seen produced on and off-Broadway in New York City . . . but it’s what I want to put in my plays. It’s what I want to give to my audiences.
CARIDAD SVICH: 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?
ALEJANDRO MORALES: I honestly don’t know. I feel alienated from the theater these days. When I used to have these conversations on Twitter or on panels I got exhausted from all this need to be relevant. I feel like arts education at early ages for children, cheaper ticket prices and a focus on creating an authentic emotional experience and more arts funding would be a start.
I don’t think we need to allow texting or tweeting or twerking in the audience. I don’t think talkbacks are the way either. I think these conversations are about trying to squeeze blood out of a stone.
I feel that it could be text-based play theater might be a thing of the past in this era of online life. Why would someone go pay all this money and sit in a room for 2-3 hours to get a dramatic narrative when they can get it on Netflix? Maybe this goes back to this devised work question above—is what is going to get people into the theater more of an immersive experience like Sleep No More, The Lily’s Revenge or some site-specific thing that challenges the way we commune in public to experience a story? Perhaps it needs to go back to the beginning and function like the Greek plays did, as a means for creating some mass catharsis through ritual?
CARIDAD SVICH: what's inspiring you these days? and/or what's troubling you these days?
ALEJANDRO MORALES: I am inspired by opera. I am inspired by the advances in LGBT rights. I am inspired by fiction. I am inspired by Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name which I would give my left something or other to get close to the brilliance of that writing. I am inspired by American Horror Story: Coven and the fact that camp is alive and well in American culture. I am inspired by feminists. I am still inspired by Lorca, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, and Sondheim. I am inspired by amount of love I see amongst my peers as we try to keep ourselves writing.
I am troubled by what is happening in Russia and India and Africa with LGBT rights. I am troubled by the religious right in this country and the mockery they make of spirituality. I am troubled by how much more we have to go to be liberated of the patriarchy. I am troubled by the lack of poetry in our theater and cinema lately. I am troubled by the death of the great American artform of musical theater and the jukebox shows that have replaced it. I am troubled by the economy and how capitalism has lost the plot. I am troubled that we are more connected to Facebook than to nature.