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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 expressedI 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....

 

Bio:

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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 Randalls spoke about the importance of a process that could heal New Orleanian artists after the 2005 levee break disaster. In 2006, Randall’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

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.  The continued interest in SDCI, was the attraction to their method of Deaf “world-making,” despite the fact that ASL signing audiences did not fully understand the BSL of the Signdance Collective in a performance earlier in the week. Their movement style of fused dance and sign forged a utopic space for Deaf audiences and performers, while the “making” of the world-making centered around Deaf cultural sensibilities.

             The much-anticipated performance of Carthage/Cartagena, written by Caridad Svich and developed with the Signdance Collective International played to a packed audience. 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 text of Carthage/Cartagena draws 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. 

Eric Mayer-García

Louisiana State University

 

 

 

Eric Mayer-García

PhD Student

LSU Department of Theatre

105 Music and Dramatic Arts Building

Baton Rouge, LA 70803

 

NoPassport is my favorite conference because it's not corporate in any way. We come together out of love and camaraderie, out of curiosity and loyalty, out of friendship and respect. The presentations run far afield (another good thing) and incorporate everyone -- researchers and performance artists, playwrights and dancers. This year Baton Rouge and LSU served as the perfect host (thanks Eric Mayer-Garcia). I send out abrazos to my fellow panelists -- Joann Yarrow, Christopher Oscar Pena, Giovanni Ortega and Lynn Manning -- who really rocked the house and (to use Lynn's definition of the word) were jazzed to be there. In the end, we all know that Caridad is the heart and soul of it all, our den mother, Mama Bear, and champion of the artist and her/his unadulterated voice. Viva NoPassport! Can't wait to see y'all next year.

Oliver Mayer
playwright
 
 

Quiara Alegria Hudes' Opening Remarks for 30/30/1

Welcome remarks by Quiara Alegría Hudes
for 30/30/1 in Philadelphia, March 22, 2014
 
[In collaboration with NoPassport and Dominic D'Andrea, 30/30/1 was presented in Philadelphia, PA on March 22, 2014 by Plays and Players, Directors Gathering, Power Street Theatre, Philadelphia New Play Initiative and Tamanya Garza. 30/30 US Latin@/NoPassport is a national reading festival celebrating new American plays. The remarks were delivered at the 30/30/1 event on Ms. Hudes' behalf by Gabriela Sanchez.]
 
A day celebrating Latino playwrights? Yeah, right. Ha ha. Very funny. Though today
does not appear to be April 1... Hm. And these flyers are pretty slick and well designed.
If someone wanted to prank me they really went out of their way to do so. Hm.
Do we get the entire twenty four hours? Or do they just give us like from noon to four
and then kick us out? Oh, hold on. “They” donʼt give “us” anything? We made the day
ourselves? And invited whoever was game to join in the fun? And people who werenʼt
Latino actually came? Holy shit, thatʼs amazing! Oops. I probably shouldnʼt curse on
Latino playwrights day. If I act too crazy theyʼll make sure this shit never happens again.
Theyʼll be like, “You give ʻem a day and see what happens?”
 
Iʼm just kidding. Obviously Iʼm giddy by the whole notion of this, this raucously exciting
gathering of true believers, of rabble rousers, of artistic mischief makers, of all of us.
So what exactly is a Latino playwright? Can you spot her in a crowded room? Is she a
new phenomenon or an endangered species? Does she write with an accent? Is she a
Latina by choice? A playwright by necessity? Does she require nontraditional casting or
is she casting a new mold? If a Latina writes a play in an empty forest and no one is
there to listen does she make a sound? Is she allowed to be ordinary not just
extraordinary? Is she Mr. Miyagi or the Karate Kid? Is she a grateful guest at someone
elseʼs table? Or is she a carpenter building a new damn table from scratch? And will you
come to her table when she invites you? Are Latino playwrights a “they” or a “we”?
 
Sometimes I brew my coffee, sit at my writing desk, and every fiber in my body quivers
for delight: hot damn, Iʼm a Latina playwright! Other mornings I sit at my writing desk
and the thought of any sort of label being put on me--by myself or anyone else--feels
like duct tape slapped over my lips. At times being a Latina playwright has felt
exhilarating, alive, pulsing, gritty, mischievous, furious, ferocious, unapologetic, and
limitless. Other times being a Latina playwright has felt humiliating, alienating, hopeless,
lonely, burdensome.
 
But today, oh 30/30 sisters and brothers, today, here, before you, using the wondrous
word “us,” it feels alive.
 
In the words of playwright Nilo Cruz, from Anna in the Tropics, “Everything in life
dreams. A bicycle dreams of becoming a boy, an umbrella dreams of becoming the rain,
a pearl dreams of becoming a woman, and a chair dreams of becoming a gazelle and
running back into the forest.”
 
My fellow Latino playwrights, we are the dreamers and the agitated nightmares. The
insomnia and the spa. Irrational bewitchers. Deserts who brew tropical storms. We use
words like cop cars use sirens. We use our pencil strokes to steer great ships through
agitated seas. We eat trash and shit gold. We are the word stupid misspelled s-t-o-o-p-id.
We stand in our ancestral kitchen, stirring the magma. We are hackers of the status
quo. Saturation bursters. We show up to the water balloon toss but our latex is filled
with honey and mud. Syncopators. Sixty niners. Smut mouthed cala lilies. Unhappy
prisoners, jilted strivers, we fall off the edge of the cliff and as we plummet we happen to
crack open a Neruda poem or hit play on a Lila Downs song and our landing is
cushioned. We repair our broken ankles and climb the cliff again. Every day in the
rehearsal room, at the writing desk--cliff climbers, we, with no ropes or rigging to shield
us from gravity. We are glass paneled walls facing the sea. Glass bottomed boats that
reveal cumulus clouds. We are the ninety nine percent of the forty seven percent of the
whole damn caramel flan. We are the edible desert, a mouthful of sand. We are the rot
that bears the ripest fruit. We are the canaries in the cage in our tiaʼs dark living room.
The sun-faded flags dangling from papiʼs rearview mirror. We are machos weeping for
wont of love. Cancer patients who are belly laughing for joy. We are montunos
possessed by Baptist gospel chords. Chopin nocturnes that are thunderstruck by
Chango. We are the hump-backed abuela who lifts the car with one finger. We are
lickable lightning.
 
We pledge allegiance. We pledge civil disobedience. Today, we pledge dramatic action.

Martin Zimmerman: On Intimacy and Liveness for NoPassport’s 30/30

[Martin Zimmerman’s play Stranger is part of the 30/30 US Latin@/NoPassport reading scheme. The same interview questions have been sent to each playwright taking part in the scheme by Caridad Svich.]

CARIDAD SVICH: a false (i think) divide has been erected in some art-making circles between what is called "devised" work and "text-based or text-driven" work. how do deal with the positioning of your work, if at all?

MARTIN ZIMMERMAN: I don't know that I do anything consciously. I work in different ways, so that might be one small way I combat this false divide. There is obviously the "solo" writing I do (which is often heavily informed by research--no one just comes up with all this stuff, every writer is really a skilled re-arranger). But I also co-write certain projects with Rebecca Stevens. So I think by showing that someone can both be a "solo" writer as well as someone who writes collaboratively, I can help in small ways to tear down the false divide that his been erected between devising and text-making.

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

MZ: Hmmm. I'm not sure that I consciously negotiate these dividing lines. I think I just try to take on a wide variety of characters, worlds, and topics in my writing. I also love to write very physical, muscular work. So I think the fact that a lot of my work incorporates dance and very demanding physicality is a way of bridging divides between genres. That might be one way in which I try to consciously bridge divides with my work.

CS: as a playwright, how do you devise your own process? dramatic project (life goals as artist)? and how do you wish to live as artist in and with engagement in local and global dialogue with citizens and artists? and are there lessons you've learned you wish to impart to fellows in the field and elsewhere? or lessons you are still learning that impact the kind of work you make or think about making?

MZ: I am constantly thinking about my process. During the latter half of my Jerome Fellowship year at The Playwrights' Center, I took a lot of time to think about how I work, and how I could tweak my process to work more effectively. I think one of the biggest shifts in my process is in terms of how I've chosen to feel about how a certain project is progressing. Previously I used to race to a deadline, and worry about my progress until I'd met that deadline. Now, I'm much more focused on writing as a daily and weekly practice. I put in my required number of hours and I trust that doing so will make me as productive as I need to be. And that approach has actually made me more productive.

In terms of how I wish to live as an artist with engagement in local and global dialogue, I feel like how I engage locally and globally has as much to do with the subject matter I choose to write about as it does anything else. I've noticed in myself a tendency to take on subject matter, worlds, and characters that are far outside of my own experience. It's pretty a terrifying thing to do, but I try to embrace that terror, and let it fuel a rigorous research process. I feel like I use the process of my art-making in order to investigate the world around me, and grow more compassionate as a human being.

CS: when you see/hear/read the phrase "US Latin@," what does it make you think of? what is your relationship to being of or part of (or not) a US Latin@ context in your art-making or thinking about art?

MZ: I think of so many things. I guess I think of people who have some cultural or ethnic link to Latin America through their families. I also think of some relationship to the Spanish language as being something that unifies many US Latin@s (though certainly not all). But I feel like my definition of Latin@ is something I'm forced to reconsider on a regular basis. We are such a large and increasingly diverse community.

In terms of how I reckon with my Latinidad in my art-making, I think a lot about telling Latin@ stories and also about telling multi-ethnic stories. I think doing both of these things is important not only in terms of representation but also as far as providing employment for Latin@ theater artists and other theater artists of color. I also grew up in a multi-ethnic home (my father is German-American) and grew up in a very ethnically diverse area, yet I feel like I don't see a lot of theater that reflects that reality--a reality that is increasingly common in the 21st Century US. 

One other thing that I do in my writing to reckon with my own identity is to create larger than life, epic roles that can be played by actors from diverse ethnic backgrounds. I do this because I think it's important for actors of color to be able to play roles where a character's identity is not defined primarily by her or his ethnicity. I know many actors of color tire of playing roles where the only thing about that character that seems to matter to the larger story is that she or he is Cuban, Argentine, Mexican-American, Asian-American, the ethnic "other" in some way. However, I know there's a danger that, when I create these kinds of epic roles, the actors that will be cast in these roles will be exclusively White. So I've drawn up (with the help of my wonderful partner, Kelly Howe) language that makes it clear I want the cast to be ethnically diverse. I've found casting directors and directors are very responsive to this language in my character breakdowns.

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

MZ: Hmm. I don't know that I'm per se calling into question the nature of these things. But I think a lot about the relationship between speech and movement. I'm also obsessed with ritual, and the physicality of it. I also think a lot about the long-term consequences our environments have on our bodies. 

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

MZ: I don't know that I have a good answer to this question. I feel like I typically hear this response after it's too late to even say anything because they've already selected their season months ago and the artistic director is apologizing for not choosing my play when I wasn't even aware it was under consideration.

CS: what do you say to potential collaborators and casting directors about the nature of how to cast your show and how casting can carry its own political power?

MZ: There is that language I mentioned that I use in my character breakdowns of my plays in which characters' ethnicities aren't specified. It's language that gets them thinking about the importance of a diverse cast, and about the fact that there is no such thing as "blind" casting--that casting actors of certain ethnicities in certain roles will profoundly effect how the audience receives the story. We need to be aware of how our casting decisions can shape our audience's perceptions for either good or ill.

 CS: it goes without saying that we live in a multi-lingual world. do you think our US stages (to keep the dialogue national for the moment) need reflect this? if so, how?

MZ: Absolutely. I think one way is that we need to destabilize audience's expectation that English is the norm. Something that Luis Alfaro does at his plays that I find wonderful is that all the pre-show announcements are primarily in Spanish. There is enough English in them and the rhythm is familiar enough that non-Spanish speakers can understand them. But it sets the tone early on that people shouldn't just automatically expect they are in an English-only or even English-first environment. 

CS: and in your work, how do you address multi-linguality and hybrid aesthetics, if at all? 

MZ: Certainly much of my work is multi-lingual, but even more than that I try to draw on a lot of visual and physical metaphor, and create work that is highly physical in a way that is more common in work outside the US. 

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

MZ: The most thrilling thing about it is how little resources we have to make it relative to so many other forms. I'm a huge believer in brushing up against constraints as a way of sparking creativity. The metaphorical ways theater forces us to render certain worlds and moments tend to be far more arresting and memorable than the realistic ways in which we see those world and moments rendered on film. 

CS:   what ideas have you when you make work or are in the process of putting it out there about how to and ways you can create connection with your audience(S) beyond the work itself, for example?

MZ: I guess I go back to two things: 1) Intimacy and 2) Liveness. The theater work that seems to cultivate new audiences is the work in which performers seem to make an intimate and personal connection with the audience. It seems to me that people will spend money they don't have to see that kind of work (much like they spend money they don't have to go to sporting events). But also, we are in a world where more and more content is digitized. Theater is one of the few things that by definition must be live. The work that most successfully capitalizes on that liveness has no trouble drawing audiences, as liveness is increasingly rare in the 21st Century US.

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

MZ: What inspires me: That humanity has been making theater for so long and yet we're still finding ways to make it surprising and arresting. That we have a chance to be an oasis of liveness in a digital desert.

What troubles me: The continued dearth of roles for Latin@ actors. If theaters aren't producing plays with roles for Latin@ actors how will those actors not become discouraged and drop out of the acting pool by the time they are in their early 30s? It only feeds the vicious cycle of theaters claiming they can't cast plays with Latin@ roles. We have to find a way to stop that cycle. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Irma Mayorga talks 3030

Irma Mayorga for 30/30

[Irma Mayorga’s play Cascarones 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. how do you deal with the positioning of your work, if at all?

IRMA MAYORGA: I started writing plays and directing after first earning my living as a theater designer. So, I’ve always been prone to techniques more common to devising:  the non-verbal, improvisation, a sharp consciousness of space’s import, color’s import, the power of non-verbal gesture, and how visual significations work on the stage because it’s my designer brain who first tackles a play – totally implicit on my part. When I started writing plays with Chicana playwright Cherríe Moraga, who teaches playwriting through the extremely sensory and visual techniques of Fornes, it fortified the designer who sat down to write words and “devise” scenarios, which led to text, characters, more visual ideas, and needs spoken aloud. The way I see it, sooner or later most who consider themselves solely devisers have to come to words as well, create text, even if it’s minimal. So for me it’s about what approach serves you best to create theater and performance work. Even as someone who goes by the nomenclature “playwright,” I devise. Even those who are devisers end up writing text, if only to somehow archive their work or offer an outline to work from. I also dramaturg works, which I think of as a sort of deviser in the room as well, be it with a playwright or an ensemble of actors seeking to stage an idea. I think this positioning of oppositions, redeployment of labels, is perhaps just the zeitgeist of an era, a new keyword. I wonder does using the word “devise” gain you more access to resources ($$) for your work (grants)? Is it a sexier label that draws attention and reaps benefits? Does calling yourself a playwright shut down possibilities? As you put it, does it read as “old fashioned” in this particular moment? Thinking ahead, what will the next moment fancy? I think here of a pendulum swinging – as it does with fashions in, say, the debates regarding education. At the end of the day, I just want both approaches to produce theater that provokes my aliveness.

 

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

 

IM: First, I arm myself – literally – with the good facts and figures from the studies that have been conducted about the impact of the arts in people’s lives and communities. I find that people who I might fence with about the role of the arts (sometimes communities, sometimes students, sometimes administrations/ers) often respond to numbers as opposed to less concrete arguments – again, a consequence of our era and its penchant for “feedback, feedback, feedback,” be it in education (testing), the service sector (rating employees’ service for doling out “performance based” earnings), or comment sections online (cringe).

 

Recently, I agreed to be on the Board of Directors for a newly established children’s theater company. Their shows employ the “Story Theater” techniques of Paul Sills and Viola Spolin (who I’d consider devisers exemplar!) to create original plays for children and youth, 1-15 years old. What I have found most interesting is the work the company has to do to inform parents about the importance of the arts in early childhood education and development (and, of course, throughout one’s life). Disseminating data has served to sway and point up the finer cognitive and personhood benefits their children gain in participating in theater, in either theater-based classes or as audience members. Once, it’s pointed out, of course, parents want to impart these benefits to their children. It points up that, in many senses, we live in an age increasingly shaped and determined by data. However, without this knowledge, parents might believe only team sports, or sports in general, impart things like team-building, collaboration, self-confidence, decision-making skills, leadership skills, or cooperation. They especially don’t know the deep ways in which the arts develop the intellect and, equally as important, our emotional intelligence and social skills.

 

These children and their young parents are our future audiences – so why wouldn’t we seek to inform them, sway them, pursue them, grab hold of them, with any and all tools possible? Of course, I think theater artists know about the theater’s ability to promote public discussion, help us witness our lives and create a space for reflection, provoke questions, and wonder. But we do a poor job in educating future and more established audiences about what theater does/can do: we are often scrambling to rehearse and refine, get out the press releases, organize ticket sales, and finally waiting by the door with baited breath to see if our audience will come. But why should they when they know neither to what end or, equally important, if they perceive that what lies inside has no relationship to them? This, I believe, is often the case with potential people of color audiences in particular. Here rises the need to rethink who’s making theater and how it’s made.

 

As a theater artist who faces the tide of possibilities that audiences can choose, I find it imperative to be as articulate and knowledgeable as possible to meet theater’s detractors; I’ve made theater my life’s pursuit, how could I be anything less than astute and articulate in defending its import?

 

CS: As a playwright, how do you devise your own process? Dramatic project (life goals as artist)?

 

IM: I am visually orientated – so I often receive images of a stage picture before words/narrative arrive. I’ve heard others say they “hear” characters talking and then start from there – so it’s a character driven process. I tend to “see” people in action in my mind’s eye...image: someone stealing copper wire from atop a telephone pole to sell it for cash; image: school children facing corporal punishment in 1920s Texas for speaking Spanish; image: a diabetic injecting insulin into her abdomen. These types of images tend to linger with me and eventually develop into scenarios, then characters, then words come, then I let the images find their story, the story eventually develops a path of some sort. I’m not a fast writer in terms of writing plays; I ruminate, gestate thoughts. I’m always conscious of a stage picture as I develop work.

 

Life goals as an artist: gather the temerity to know that what I have to say to the world is important, that what I think about or have observed matters. This is really hard as a Mexican American woman from Texas, you know? You’re working against cultural constraints, upbringing that doesn’t foreground this in how you think of yourself in the world. Keep trying to write, even when some days everything conspires against that desire. I’m not the best advocate of my own work (I’m not a natural salesperson, in fact, I’m terrible at it on my own behalf) – I’ve been lucky to intersect with marvelous others who’ve advocated on the work’s behalf for me.

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

 

IM: I tend to write about problems that concern me – I tend to collect nuggets of stories that yield characters or thoughts. These tend to have deep roots in historical circumstances of some sort – usually connected to injustices. I remain voraciously curious, socially conscientious, and keenly aware of my local community and its shifting currents. When I used to live in Latina/o populated places, my awareness was finer in its detail. Now, with a move to New England, I have to reach out very consciously, which requires vigilance and a more absorbing energy. With the Internet, a global observation point is increasingly part of my attention as opposed to trying to connect with the minutiae of places I consider my local, namely Texas. Persistence on my part is required.

 

CS: 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?

 

IM: I recently published a book with a long-time collaborator, Virginia Grise: The Panza Monologues, Second Edition. For the second edition, after writing, producing, filming, and touring our play of the same title for six years, we had a whole lotta advice to pass forward, including thoughts about Latinas and women of color making theater. And, we penned a manifesto – a sort of hope list of things, as we see it, that need attention in terms of women of color and U.S. American theater. Dare I say, you gotta get the book...it’s all in there. See the book’s page on the University of Texas Press website here.

 

A take away nugget for this forum would be:  women need more involvement, representation, responsibilities, and room in U.S. American theater. We especially need women of color: their administrative skills, their artistic skills (beyond acting), their dramaturgical skills, their connections to communities, and the stories about their experiences as told, directed, and designed by them for the stage.  

 

CS: When you see/hear/read the phrase “US Latin@,” what does it make you think of? What is your relationship to being of or part of (or not) a US Latin@ context in your art-making or thinking about art?

 

IM: For me “US Latin@” tries to describe the heterogeneity of Latina/os with one very unwieldy label. And, I’m one who very much likes the frisky font play of the @ symbol to wrestle with the gender dynamics of the straight up “o” ending. I don’t often use it, but I appreciate it nonetheless – if you have to trick out the word to get across the inclusion, then so be it. “Latina/o” tries to describe a multiplicity of national origins, racial identities, historical legacies, and cultural specificities. Spanish can or cannot function as a common denominator for Latina/os depending on immigration generation and class. Therefore, for me, the term tries to gesture towards variances even as it attempts to coalesce similarity by collecting together once native peoples connected by, at the end of the day, a shared autochthony to the Americás and/or a shared history of Spanish conquest, which includes those who identify as Afro-Latina/os. So, this one word is attempting to do a lot of work. It’s problematic, but in my book, it’s infinitely better than terms such as Hispanic (thanks U.S. government) or Latin (do you live in Rome, speak Latin?).

 

When I teach Latina/o theater as a genre, I am very sure to teach a wide variety of Latina/o ethnic identities in my curriculum. It’s not all Valdez or Mexican American centered for example, despite the fact that Mexican Americans make up 66% of the “Latina/o” population in the U.S. I try to portray the vast heterogeneity as one of the leading components of Latina/o identity in the U.S., upend entrenched stereotypes.

 

In terms of my artistic work, I am Mexican American and not so much Latina. I always say I never realized how very Mexican American I was until I moved to the East Coast. I try to be as specific as I can to my Mexican American origin and history and then to my Chicana feminist politic.

 

If I am specific and you are specific, maybe we can get the stories that need to be told to be clear, unique, and illuminating. I cannot speak for other experiences of Latina/o identity with the level of intricacy that I can concerning the people and regions of Mexican heritage.

 

Yes, my racial/ethnic identity impacts my ability to work, especially if my work comes in contact with mainstream producers. Often my cultural symbols, theatrical images, and my languages of Spanish and English will deter producers from “seeing” the work—they have to labor to understand a new iconography, language, spirituality, emotional indexes, or cultural signifiers. I don’t believe in many universals. I’ve had to learn all the Anglo, Euroamerican symbols (thanks Greeks, Shakespeare, other leading white playwrights). I’ve been fed them since I was a child in theater. But, when others have to do some work to see mine (gasp!)...it definitely impacts my opportunities of production. And, here I’m not even addressing the particulars of being a female playwright inside of racial/ethnic particulars; that’s another layer.

 

And, if we (Latina/o theater makers) refuse to “translate” the work’s intricacies (language or aesthetics) for others? Then, you can really count your work out of the mix.  

 

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

 

IM: As I said above, I think and write beginning with images. When I direct, I begin with images as well. The set designer “me” and the wordsmith “me” are always in conversation as I work. This manifests in my care for the power of theatricality, of creating striking visual images or aural soundscapes that work in tandem with or against the reliance on embodied speech for the stage. What can I say? I’m a fan of Brecht and Robert Wilson, the audacious imaginations of Paula Vogel, Naomi Wallace.

 

CS: 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?’

 

IM: I think that first I have to address levels of “the business.” I’ve done quite a lot of work “in community” as a theater artist, as community activists tend to say. I usually have worked successfully with any and all that stand up, come forward, and say they will be in a show, participate in some aspect of putting up a production, or those whose arms I’ve (gently) bent for their aid. In those circumstances, you work with all comers:  the work is with the community, their involvement is an aspect of production/the purpose. So, casting issues always already mark a place of privilege for any theater artist who wrestles with that beastly process. Wow! Congratulations on those achievements playwrights! Cherish it.

 

That said, for those achieving this level of privilege in U.S. American theater as a playwright AND as an artist of color, there are issues to sort out.

 

Like it or not, bodies are racially marked. And, in colorblind casting, the default mode for the spectrum on the stage always defaults to white modes of the body, deportment. “Color” is more often than not treated as a surface, not a way of being. That’s a problem for me.

 

I am adamant in casting Latina/o actors in my plays, which are usually all filled with Latina/o characters. I don’t want white actors to portray Latina/o characters – there is more to a racial identity – and portraying a racial identity - than skin color or “a look.” Affect plays a role in how the character is embodied – in what comes across at the end of the day in the production. Without talented Latina/o actors, my plays aren’t fully realized. If white actors portray my Latina/o characters, my plays aren’t fully realized. So this leads me to wonder, are we to put up the play at any cost? Is it just about the play being produced? I’d rather put pressure on institutions – why aren’t there more Latina/o actors in your casting pool? What structural circumstances are preventing this? What work needs to be done?

 

But there’s another side to this issue that is connected to the heterogeneity of Latinidad. I think the best story to describe this is the one concerning casting for my play Cascarones at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference in 2003.

 

First, I want to be very clear: I am grateful for the opportunity to develop work at the O’Neill. It was an honor, a dream.

 

So, to cast my show, the O’Neill used a NYC casting agent, as it did for all the shows by the playwrights in my cohort. But, unlike the other shows (by both white and one African American playwright), the casting agent couldn’t find a plethora of Latina/o actors in NYC...it was a terribly disappointing process for me as the agent suggested Latina/o actors that one could clearly see from headshots, did not meet the needs of a character (age, type). To the agent, it seemed that they were all “Latina/os,” so why couldn’t they do? I strongly believe this would never have occurred if we were casting Anglo characters, moreover, of course, the pool of possibilities in the agent’s database would have been infinite. I had to call across the country to seek references and feed the casting director suggestions. I functioned as the casting agent alongside the agent. I don’t believe others in my cohort had this dilemma.

 

I suggested they needed to pull viable actors from L.A. – but that was beyond the scope of the agent. They didn’t have connections in L.A., only New York. Basically, out goes an entire acting pool of Mexican American actors for my Mexican American character populated play.

 

But there’s one more twist, Cascarones is set in Texas, and that cadence of English has a very particular patois. It’s just entirely different than what you hear on the East Coast. And often, if you haven’t been to Mexican Texas, you’ve probably never heard it, Latina/o or not. In the end, we cast fine Latina/o actors – but I didn’t really “hear” my play. The wide variety of Latina/o actors eventually contracted, it seemed, had every sort of ethnic specific accent that might be found in NYC, but none sounded like Tejana/os. The cadence I had written the play in depended upon a certain way of speaking English distinctive to how Tejana/os speak English in Texas. Like other dialects, it’s a product of a very specific history – there’s nothing universal about it. 

 

The result was brown bodies on stage in a play authored by a Mexican American woman, but it wasn’t the play I had written, that I heard in my mind, or with others reading the roles when I was writing it.

 

I believe Cherríe Moraga has spoken or written about this phenomenon, where Latina/o actors can gain very advanced acting training...for Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov...but for Latina/o authored plays about Latina/o communities? They founder; they wrestle with their identity, their whole careers in some cases. They’ve been encouraged to suppress or toss aside mannerisms, ways of speaking, or affectations that make them read or be heard as racialized bodies. So, as a playwright, you’re not only trying to get a play up on its feet, refine it, but you also end up negotiating an actor’s very personal identity crisis that the play might trigger. That’s a lot.

 

As Latina/os, we have a very complicated relationship to whiteness, which at the end of the day, I see manifest in the material reality of trying to find professional Latina/o actors, which we all want to work with to see the fullest incarnation of our work.

 

I’ve had the best casting experiences or reading experiences in Los Angeles, which has an extremely talented pool of Latina/o actors, and LOADS of talented, transplanted Tejana/os!

 

CS:  It goes without saying that we live in a multi-lingual world. Do you think our US stages (to keep the dialogue national for the moment) need reflect this? If so, how?

 

IM: I think we need as many good plays as possible from as many identities (ethnic, racial, gendered, sexual, differently abled, or class-based) as possible for the U.S. American stage. 2040, the marker year for race in the U.S. But truth be told, right now is 2040 in so many places in the U.S.  Theater remains to me a forum to wonder together, to serve as witnesses for the lives of others, to develop our emotional intelligence, to push at our complicated problems, to ask tough questions about ourselves as individuals, as communities, as a national body.

 

If you are a theater company, outreach is absolutely necessary – outreach to find an audience AND to develop new theater makers. It’s hard, unglamorous work, but you cannot wait at the door to your theater and expect audiences to find you no matter how wonderful or sophisticated or important your productions are. I don’t believe outreach works that way anymore. I would even question subscriber bases. If you want new audiences, you have to think in new ways, and it most likely entails a new approach for each production you offer. We need smart, talented people on stage as well as off stage making sure the production is promoted in local communities.

 

If theaters only do one show a year by a producer of color – don’t expect to grow a following. And, please don’t congratulate yourself.   

 

CS: And in your work, how do you address multi-linguality and hybrid aesthetics, if at all?

 

IM: Most of my works reflect the manipulations and patois of English that I hear in South Texas. The characters speak in cadences and registers that are prevalent in the region. Some speak without mixing English and Spanish. Other characters often mix English and Spanish. I try to be true to the characters’ choices and their social-historical conditions, which often yield those choices. In the end, most of my plays are about 95% English. But it’s still odd to see people’s responses to that 5% of Spanish included. That mere 5% can be problematic.

 

In terms of aesthetics, I’m using hybrid aesthetics all time. I’m borrowing, stealing, and manipulating from the vast archive of theater history for my storytelling. From things that move me, from images that are of many cultures, many peoples, from my own cultural stimuli to that of the African American diaspora or European and Euroamerican traditions in theater, visual art, song, and movement. As a theater artist I’m syncretizing; it’s always a matter of creativity, imagination, and influence. It’s always a matter of what serves the story – a story told through a live medium. Why wouldn’t I; this is my lived condition. I’ve been taught Euroamerican stories since my childhood – through public education and mainstream culture, I’ve had to ingest and become familiar with them, “the canon,” to participate, to survive. I also carry with me as resource my Mexican cultural traditions – learned from my family. I’m always thinking about my indigenous heritage, that which has been lost in the deracination of colonialism or imperialism. This is my history, my legacy. How could I not pull from everything that has been bequeathed to me in this immense historical legacy? It’s now all part of my intellectual, imaginative, and creative inheritance.

 

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

 

IM: Finally, a question that feels a bit less thorny! Liveness, plain and simple. People gathered in a space together watching another human being(s) create a story or experience for them to witness and respond to. I love sitting in the back of a house and watching the audience, feeling their engagement, observing the minutia of their responses. I still find it thrilling to be surprised and enchanted by the way in which a story is told through the devices of live theater. I love theatricality, so anything that elucidates, unfolds itself with unanticipated audacity – even though that may hinge on blatant illusions of the cleverest sort -  still thrills me.

 

CS: 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?

 

IM: See! data, yet again!

 

I agree with most ideas you state above: you have to move out of the building, you have to lower prices, change the programming most especially, rethink the model that served a 19th century audience and 19th century technologies. In this, you then have to rethink the institutional models we currently have. It’s funny, people usually begin theater companies to make their work, right? But the models that I like best stem from thinking about the audience first – who is your potential audience? How do you connect with them? And, then finally, what kind of work will speak to this audience? And, it’s not “what do they want...,” I think that’s pandering. You have to care about the lives of the people who will be your potential audience – hold that as a tenet in what you want to create at the end of the day. You have to spend years nurturing an audience. It’s bottom up, not top down work .  

 

So, over the course of my career, I’ve worked with many types of theater companies or closely observed many in action. I would say that the ones with the best audiences have been those that are deeply connected to their communities, that have employed innovative thinkers in marketing who are also connected to the community (i.e., not professional marketers). They use person-to-person marketing + social media (my communities often don’t have access to what many would consider ubiquitous forms of technology). The play isn’t often the event, but the excuse for an event, the kernel inside a larger coming together that has free food, music, more a festival type setting around the performance. In the best cases, there’s dancing afterwards. It’s outside a formal theater building. Backyards, bars, or community centers. The event’s shape (and success) borrows from the protocols of youth culture, not regional theaters. The event’s shape borrows from the protocols of the community’s culture. If the overall goal is for theater to be ubiquitous in people’s lives, then I would argue it has to be ubiquitous in their communities. And that means we might have to let go of certain things theater has become right now in many communities – a building, over there, outside the community, on the other side of town, across the river, not near a bus or train line, in the hipper part of town, in a new “hot” neighborhood.

 

In East L.A., when my collaborator Virginia Grise and I set about filming our play The Panza Monologues, we had the good help of someone dedicated solely to getting the word out by going bar to bar, door to door, store to store, meeting to meeting to spread the word about the taping/performance. She saturated the community around the community center we taped in with handbills and posters. She cajoled others in the community to help her, and they did because the show, I like to think, was pertinent to the community. These community marketers talked to people person-by-person, god bless them for their help because we were busy putting together the show. Of course, we used usual outlets like radio and newspapers to advertise the show – but altogether it was a multi-directional, micro to macro, approach. And frankly, a persistent daily effort in the three months leading up to the night of the performance. At 7:30PM on the day of the taping, a line snaked around the building. At 8:00PM, we were still trying to stuff people in (but couldn’t, fire codes). Instead, so we hear, people were trying to sneak in the building because it was a one night only type of deal for taping, and we had to close the doors on our full house.

 

CS: What’s inspiring you these days? And/or what’s troubling you these days?

 

IM: I’m taking this question from a theatrical point of view, considering the context of this conversation. I am truly excited by the emerging body of work currently being generated by a new generation of Latina playwrights. Here, I mean both those who are younger (in terms of age) and those who are emerging but not young adults (in terms of age). Many Latinas are experiencing the worthy fruits of long careers (finally, public notice in both Latina/o and Euroamerican communities). And, when the work speaks to the heterogeneity of Latinidad, I am even more excited to see these voices emerge. Here, work that explores complex notions of identity such as class, national origin, region, sexuality, language, and diaspora is most welcome as it broadens the purview of social political issues that suffuse Latina/os’ lives across the U.S. even as it broadens what the term “Latina/o” enfolds: geographically, in terms of national origin, and in terms of racial composition. I am also always excited to witness new kinds of theatrical aesthetics that challenge realism or melodramatic models of theatrical form. Therefore, site-specific work and movement work is also truly exciting to me at this moment because it pushes at realism.

 

Even as I’m excited by the new and exciting work of Latina playwrights, I still believe we need to nurture and help train more Latina administrators, directors, and dramaturgs in theater (mainstream and community-based) who are interested in making theater by, for, and about issues and stories that speak to Latina/os. Latina/os’ participation as theater artists or administrators is a tricky topic, but I am distressed that Latinas are drastically underrepresented as creative leaders (artistic directors, directors, designers, dramaturgs, playwrights, administrators in the arts) as compared to the number of male participants: Latino, white, or from other racial origins. I want to see Latina leadership emerge in key areas of theatrical production; it will change the texture of our theater (aesthetics) as well as its content (themes and topics). Of course, national numbers and surveys have proven that theater production by women across the board(s) is sorely lacking. But for Latinas, the situation is even more alarming. Therefore, if I could change one thing, it would be care about nurturing future Latina leaders who are interested in Latina/o Theater by, for, and about Latina/os. (Numbers alone do not equal the creation of theatrical stories pertinent to future Latina/o audiences.) Here, I am looking at themes and stories, not just racial demographics (the number of) Latinas working in/making theater.

 

 

 

Tatiana Suarez-Pico talks 3030 with NoPassport

Tatiana Suarez-Pico talks 3030 with NoPassport

[Tatiana Suarez-Pico’s play Profit 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.

 

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

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: As humans we are always attempting to find a way to categorize ourselves, our experiences, etc. It helps us process what’s going on around us, but these categorizations are sometimes very narrow and only appropriate under certain circumstances. Devised vs. Text-driven, Latino writer vs. Writer, Woman writer vs. Writer—shouldn’t serve as a definition of the work itself; they barely define what we’re really doing when we make theater, when we write. How I deal with it depends on the context. I will push to be called a writer over a “female writer” most of the time, but context as well as intention is something I care about and always take into consideration. In short, I pick my battles.

 

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

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: It’s hard to negotiate divides you didn’t create; in other words, it’s hard to play by someone else’s rules. How I negotiate with those divides is by staying true to what I want to say and subsequently being really deliberate about the way I want to communicate it. I go back to picking and choosing my battles— which divides are really having a creative/tangible impact on the work, and which are so arbitrary and ridiculous that there is no need to focus on them.

 

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

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: I could write about process forever, but it all just comes down to where I am, what my priorities are, in my personal life at the moment. I do spend a great deal of time thinking about my next piece of work before I delve into it, sometimes years.

 

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

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: It’s easy to be engaged in dialogue with my local community; it’s in my face, I can’t ignore it. The global community is the one that takes a bit more effort. I actually wish there were more avenues for artistic exchange across continents- we’d be better off as people, and far more understanding. I am constantly engaged with the world around me, but do a great deal of reading and watching to create cultural bridges with the rest of the world.

 

CS: 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?

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: Remain open.

 

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

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: community, and a word that can often seem like a mountain you have climb to get over to some, very elusive, other side.

 

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

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: It’s good to go to a play labeled as a “Latino work” and be able to get the nuances of the work, to get all of the secrets—It’s wonderful to be a part of that community. However, when I write I don’t write with a “US Latin@” hat on; I write with my very human experiences in tow which are not always in relation to the place where I was born or where the census places me ethnically. That’s an incredibly and terribly narrow way of viewing any artistic endeavor, by any artist, of any ethnicity. And this is where the labels start to feel like walls closing in. We exist in a larger context.

 

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

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: I think of all my work as a way of challenging or calling into question a series of actions. Most of the time this entails challenging myself to investigate communication as a whole.

 

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

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: If someone “deeply admires” the work, and they mean that, they’ll put the work on stage. I write plays with a multicultural cast in mind because that’s the world I live in. Some roles I write with a specific ethnicity in mind, and I do so deliberately. As someone who has worked as an actor for many years, putting on stage a multicultural representation of the world, is a very important and personal goal of mine. I’ve gone to the auditions, I’ve acted the plays, I’ve seen the other side and know that if a  writer does not specify  that a certain role can be of “X” ethnicity, many theaters just won’t consider that ethnicity at all for that role. And that’s the world we live in right now.

 

Some work doesn’t require culturally specific actors, and if I’ve noted that in my play, and yet a theater or producing organization tells me that they need “cultural specific actors” for those roles, it’s their own bias speaking not my play.

 

CS: what do you say to potential collaborators and casting directors about the nature of how to cast your show and how casting can carry its own political power?

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: Cast the play the way our world is: multicultural, accented, different. And, please read my “Character Description” page.

 

CS: it goes without saying that we live in a multi-lingual world. do you think our US stages (to keep the dialogue national for the moment) need reflect this? if so, how?

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: Yes, of course, theater should reflect this. Whether it is via the inclusion of other languages in the text or allowing a variety of accents to come to play on stage, it’s up to the writer. But should theater reflect our environment, local and global? Yes, of course!

 

CS: and in your work, how do you address multi-linguality and hybrid aesthetics, if at all? 

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: I write about it. I write about characters who are multilingual, bilingual, with a variety of accents, and whose self-identification may be in transition. That may not be what the play is about, but it certainly comes into play when I create a character as those subtleties are what inspire me and inform me (as someone who is writing/creating a world).

 

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

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: As an audience member: when something I see on stage takes my heart from my chest, unraveling deep-seated fears, and forcing me to reflect about something, in me or outside of me. I don’t even know what it is about theater; perhaps it isn’t that we are just self-involved and are quickly drawn to self-identification, but that we are thrilled by the truth, we are addicted to seeing something real that makes us incredibly uncomfortable… Maybe that just what thrills me about theater.

 

As an actor— acting has always made me a better person, less judgmental, more understanding. I always feel alive when I’m acting.

 

As a writer—the thrill of it for me, is when I can get someone to give a shit about someone else or something else. When I see people edging to their seats, dazzled by a story, and for those minutes forgetting all the really stupid divides we have created for ourselves; for a moment we are just humans trying to make it to the next day.

 

CS: what ideas have you when you make work or are in the process of putting it out there about how to and ways you can create connection with your audience(S) beyond the work itself, for example?

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: It depends on the audience I am trying to reach. If it’s a younger audience, then I think about what’s really making waves with that particular group of people, videos? Instagram? Blogging? A daily picture with a funny message? Everything seems cyclical and everything seems to have a tipping point, at least to me, social media included. A lot of the “how-tos” of communicating with an audience come from what the play/theater piece is about, and from the characters I’ve put in the piece. What I’ve said, how I’ve said, is directly related to how I “market” or present the invitation to an audience. Of course, the economy of it all also plays a huge role in how an audience is reached.

 

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

 

TATIANA SUAREZ-PICO: Inspiring: Honesty. Travel. Multiculturalism. Playfulness. Especially playfulness. Troubling: Those biases that block our ways into bigger theater houses, TV shows, and movies. Those terrible biases that so many people before us have fought against, that still play in the background, making a quiet raucous behind the scenes—and really, still closing doors for many of us. The truth is that we are still fighting a quiet and not-so-quiet battle against the over-simplification of human identity, and humans in general… You know, how easy it is to stick a label on someone and say “not them, we don’t want them.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Possible
a poem for Randy Gener
on January 25, 2014
 
by Caridad Svich
 
make sexy, he said
in the birthday hallo
 
make love, he said
about theatre dreamt of
 
on the subway train we rode
some years ago
back from BAM
we got lost
stopped at the wrong stop
worried
but kept going
 
we laughed
and started to really talk
about art and life
after years of being fans
across the aisle
 
often separated: critic and writer
but no need for the separation
 
as we spoke of
people we loved
teachers we admired
the importance of mentors
and poetry
 
I write too, he said
not just essays and things
wink.
 
many nights later
on a night of hibernating rattlesnakes
daring the dare
at the nuyorican poets cafe
haunted by the ghosts of losaida
 
there was writing, yes
and talk of Genet
and such words
divine incandescence
blush/smile
crackling intelligence
 
ha, you are a poet, i said
but no, no, the reply,
just writing some things when i have the time
when i am not wearing other hats
 
impassioned hats
for Belarus Free Theatre, Maria Irene Fornes,
artists on and under the radar
in New York City and other cities and countries
everywhere, everywhere
 
the world is ours. we must write it.
 
at the Players Club
the kind words that flowed
unexpected
because the passion was real
and the depth of it felt
and never knew, never
he'd been reading/watching/caring
all this time
like this
wink
 
yes, there was that drink,
that long drink
when we first met
at a conference
a crash of heys and hallos and sudden long conversation
a real conversation midst the floating cups
and shallow talk
 
finally, kindred spirit
smile blush
 
at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center and New Dramatists
the raising of glasses
for words in print
daring the dare again
for an endeavor
not meant to last
 
just a dare, you know
to see if a wee dent could be made in the field
because so much work
too much work
still unread/unknown
shame
it cannot be
and he said, yes,
let's dream the yes
 
and through it all -
 
bitter tears,
rage, hurt
and joy
crazy ecstatic
 
webster hall
loud clapping hands 
there in the front row
up high the hands
let them take the photo, he said
and i, what?
blink
 
and after, after
the place down the way
where everyone else would be,
over drinks and too much calamari
a long night of raising glasses
and wondering
what a beautiful yes could be
 
 
here's to the bristling mind
open, curious
 
the playfulness
and show and tell of self
 
but always, there
the possible
 
 
i sing a song of the possible
a song of yeses
for the one who
winks the dream
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Carmen Pelaez talks art and life for NoPassport’s 3030 scheme

 

[Carmen Pelaez’s play Fake 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. how do deal with the positioning of your work, if at all?

 

Carmen Pelaez: I don't.  I just write. Trends are completely uninteresting to me.  I don't want my work to be the fluorescent paint splattered sweatshirt of American theater.  I want it to be the classic and timeless crisp white button down. I will say that I write what I would want to act and thankfully my writer and actor instincts let me procedurally have my cake and eat it too.  But as far as and strategy is concerned, I write what compels me to take time out of my life to sit down and write. I know it will find an audience because thankfully, it always does.  But trends are disposable and if I were to write to a trend, my work would be disposable too.

 

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

 

Carmen Pelaez: You want to know a people look at its art.  We've got the Biebs and reality TV.  Modern day American culture does not value art.  It values hustlers and rewards mediocrity.  Its why it's so easy to fail upwards as a writer.  Of course there are some exceptions but en masse- it's flash and money making trash. If you get stuck looking at those lines-you may get work-but you probably won't make art.  HOWEVER my Cuban culture has taught me that you can get everything taken away from you except the art you experience.  That in the end-art is all we have it's the only thing that really transcends.  So I look at those lines the same way I do as if I was driving. When you're driving-you're not supposed to look at the center line in the road cause you will steer the car into the wrong lane.  You've got to look at the line that's on your side alternating with taking a glances at the horizon.  That's how you get there.  And that's the 'there' I want to get to.

 

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

 

Carmen Pelaez: I only put out work that I would want to see or act in.  I'm not prolific.  I let things write themselves in my head sometimes for years and then when I'm forced by deadline or compulsion, I sit down and write.  I throw away more pages than I put out.  But I'm really proud of what I've put out.  I learned early on that you must be able to live with your work.  And fortunately, I happily can.

 

My life goals as an artists is for people to see their own humanity in my work.  That would be the greatest thing I could hope for.

 

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

 

Carmen Pelaez: For me it's about the purity of your intention. The authenticity of the voice is the only thing that will really moves people.  When I was younger, I had several opportunities to cash in, in a major way, if I were willing to write apologetically.  To write the Cuban girl that 'they' wanted to see. But it was never a viable option. And believe me-it hurt to turn down some of these career launching opportunities but I was never even tempted.  My family, my history, our experiences, our truth--that wasn't and isn't for sale. Plus they were just asking me to make bad art and who wants to do that?  Bad art leads to idiot circles.  It's through my true blue Cuban lens that I've had the opportunity to interact with a quality of global artists and citizens that has enriched my life exponentially and I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world.

 

CS: 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?

 

Carmen Pelaez: I think the greatest lesson I've learned is to make a LIFE for myself.  My art is the starting point, but not the end.  To think BIG.  To think bigger than that commission or that submission.  I would say cultivate the ability to compartmentalize.  We all know the business side of what we do is a ridiculous lottery.  So don't let that dictate the art you make or the person you are.  Be BIGGER. Be GENEROUS. Remember we're all in it together and that life is long and hard.  Be KIND.  Let your curiosities and your empathy be your guide--not only ambition.  Of course, look for opportunities-but treat them as the salt at the table not the dish. 

 

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

 

Carmen Pelaez: I have a love hate relationship with that term. I'm from Miami.  The 'other'  were and are 'los Americanos'.  I heard 'el pobre-dejalo-es Americano' so much growing up that I had NO idea how maligned Latin@s were in the US. It wasn't until I got to New York that I began to understand how racist and ugly ese 'pobre Americano' can be. I realized how important it is politically to stand together. Many Latin@ groups of which I am a member do phenomenal work to not only promote art, but human rights and civil liberties.  BUT standing together should not mean to let ourselves lose our individuality.  I think sometimes we can get so desperate for opportunities that we allow ourselves to be lumped into the same corral in hopes of getting seen. In turn it makes us feel that we can only break out of that pen one at a time and its just not true.  So the few of us that get hand picked start to think they must be different right-cause they were hand picked and it leads to a mental servitude that I'm not comfortable with. 

 

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

 

Carmen Pelaez: I don't think of Fornes as a Latin@ wrier.  I don't thing of Picasso as a Spanish artist.  I think WRITER and ARTIST.  We don't hear the term US European.  Or European-American theater.  US Latin@ denotes that 'other' which specializes and at once sterilizes us.  It creates a tokenism that is very dangerous to us as a community. We're giving our individual power over to a few that have no understanding of who we are. We're allowing ourselves to be chosen, it's passive and it's not working.  We need to start deciding who we want to gift our perspective to and go for it.  Our being Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Brazilian, Dominican makes us fresh!  Its fertile ground.  Productions at INTAR last year got far better reviews in the New York Times than many productions at other non for profits.  In Miami you rarely if ever see a writer pointed out as a Latin@ writer. They're just artists.  We just need to be artists first and trust that our cultural heitages will give us a fresh perspective to explore.  I really believe if we individually stop expecting and settling for the slot we're allocated--collectively we will jump leaps and bounds.  I don't want to be a big fish in a small pond. I don't want to be the diversity hire. I want to be a whale in an ocean.  The writer that earned the job cause I lit their minds on fire not because I'm a Cuban (insert name of famous playwright).

 

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

 

Carmen Pelaez: I'm kind of a traditionalist.  My strength isn't pushing the form.  For me its about using everything at my disposal to push the perception.

 

 

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

 

Carmen Pelaez: I tell them that color blind casting is the easiest way to show the author and the audience that you respect them.  Challenge your actors and your casting office and we will all be the better for it.

 

CS: what do you say to potential collaborators and casting directors about the nature of how to cast your show and how casting can carry its own political power?

 

Carmen Pelaez: I want the best actor for the job. Period.

 

CS: it goes without saying that we live in a multi-lingual world. do you think our US stages (to keep the dialogue national for the moment) need reflect this? if so, how?

 

Carmen Pelaez: I just spent a month in Miami and if I spoke English three times-it's a lot.  Down there-if you tell somebody you don't speak Spanish you might as well say that monkeys fly out of your ears at night. Our reality is multilingual-if our theater wants to stay vital-of course it should reflect our reality.  All of my plays which have Hispanic characters have Spanish in them.  Language is such a huge part of our essence.  Denying it is denying part of ourselves, denying our intimacy. We've got to ignore the fear of language and lead by example.  Heighten the stakes.

 

CS: in your work, how do you address multi-linguality and hybrid aesthetics, if at all? 

 

Carmen Pelaez: I only use Spanish when the word or phrase in English doesn't communicate what I need it to emotionally.  I'm also particularly adept at translating the musicality of Spanish for my characters that would only speak Spanish but are part of telling the story in English without sounding hokey.  I bled to become good at this-so I'm proud of my ability and consider it another tool in my virtual shed.

 

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

 

Carmen Pelaez; The immediacy of live theater is fantastic.  I act in all of my work-so hearing people laugh, sob, sigh, seeing them move forward in their seats...its wonderful and like nothing else.

 

CS: 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.

 

Carmen Pelaez: Want a new audience--make better theater.  Our business model gives us the audience we deserve. We gotta drown our grant babies and theater darlings and make it a meritocracy. If I had a dollar for every time somebody at the top said to me 'oh yeah-their work is terrible-but you know-they're known quantity so we have to produce them/give them the grant' I could self produce.  I say blind submissions across the board!  I'm up for it.  Audiences are bored with the same 4 voices telling the same stories.  And why shouldn't they be? Also artists, we need to raise our own bar.  Stop being coy if the system is working for you personally and consider how much great work we're losing because of our industry's m.o. Enough with the low hanging fruit.  If we want to save this art form-we need to hold our work to a higher standard and not support bad work because somebody is connected. We need to start telling ourselves and each other the truth. Might hurt at first but my God--can you imagine the work that would come out of it!

 

CS: what ideas have you when you make work or are in the process of putting it out there about how to and ways you can create connection with your audience(S) beyond the work itself, for example?

 

Carmen Pelaez: On social media and blogs I like to talk about what inspired the story.  What painting or moment moved me. What piece of music I had in my head.  

 

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

 

Carmen Pelaez: Lately I've been looking at a lot of Chinese contemporary art. INK ART at the Met and 28 CHINESE ARTISTS at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami were particularly stunning exhibits.  They working on all cylinders.  Also a new exhibit of my great aunt's work AMELIA PELAEZ THE CRAFT OF MODERNITY at PAMM in Miami was amazing--its always great to discover new pieces in her oeuvre and her life and tradition is a constant source of inspirtation. Performance wise the incredible MARIE ANTOINETTE by David Adjmi--is just on another plane and Rosie Herrera's dance piece DINNER PARTY was fantastic. I'm moved by work that has a huge and specific point of view without losing the ability to surprise you.  One that challenges the expectations of an audience or viewer.  All of this work found a place in my body when I saw it.  I love when art grabs you by the throat like that.

 

What's troubling me these days is the complete lack of self awareness among artists.  They put so much effort into the game that they substitute their own hype for the work which leads to bad, or worse, boring theater limiting all of our possibilities.  It's a privilege to be an artist-honor it above all else and we will all be the better for it.

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