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.