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Playwright/Director Glyn O’Malley, Measuring the Heartbeat of the American Theater

June 2, 2011 8 comments

For all you theater wonks and aficionados out there, here’s another piece of mine from a years back, this one based on an interview I did with playwright/director Glyn O”Malley. Not many months after I spoke with him he passed awat, lending a poignancy to his comments about the future of the American theater, for which he held out great hope. He came to Omaha, as so many leading theater figures do, for the Great Plains Theatre Conference.  The 2011 event runs through June 4.  I am posting stories I’ve written about the event, some its many luminaries, and other aspects of Omaha theater.  O’Malley is not the only Great Plains guest artist whose loss has been felt.  Actress Patricia Neal was a regular and much-beloved fixture at the festival, and she’s gone now. Founder Jo Ann McDowell was also close to other giants of the American theater, namely Arthur Miller and August Wilson, and they too are gone.  The point is though their work lives on, as does the theater.

 

 

 

 

Playwright/Director Glyn O’Malley, Measuring the Heartbeat of the American Theater

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Playwright/director Glyn O’Malley of New York epitomized the distinguished guest artists here for the Great Plains Theatre Conference that closed last Saturday. Over the course of the eight-day gathering O’Malley, a Fellow at the Cherry Lane Theatre and a faculty member at Lehman College/SUNY, joined other major figures of the American theater in considering various aspects of stagecraft. They addressed everything from the work of new and established playwrights to the role of playwrighting in society to the richness of Omaha’s theater community, whose artists presented plays in lab readings and staged performances.

For O’Malley, just as for Edward Albee, the esteemed playwright whose imprimatur is on every aspect of the conference, it is neither a lark nor a vacation, but a working event that puts them through their paces. “There’s an awful lot to do,” said O’Malley. “I came in earlier to do a preconference workshop with 39 playwrights and then there are morning and afternoon panels and evening programs. So, there’s always something. It’s very intense, very packed.”

Artists use the occasion to measure the health of the American theater, whose state Edward Albee lamented at a Great Plains salute to the late Arthur Miller and August Wilson when he said, “our losses seem to keep outweighing our gains.” But O’Malley said the promise of a vital theater could also be seen in the conference.

“I have hope. There are new young voices emerging that, while they perhaps don’t have the gravitas yet to handle some of the larger questions, they’re touching and pulling up small pieces of the turf and handling it in ways that certainly exhibit an ability to grow into that. There’s work all along the fringes of Broadway that’s hopeful and inspiring. It’s simply a matter of time here in terms of maturation. Everyone who keeps doing this long enough and well enough carves out a place for themselves, a specific niche, and one can stay in it or move on,” O’Malley said.

Events such as the Great Plains, he said, showcase “an abundance of all sorts of plays and playwrights at different stages of maturation.” He added playwrights “all have things we’re attracted to and lean to — plays that are basically captivating enough to pull us into their orbit because of how they approach their subjects.”

What he’s seen of the Omaha theater scene gives him more reason for optimism.

“Well, I think it’s phenomenal. I’m thrilled you’ve got so many good people here — so many good theaters. I can’t believe how much theater there is,” he said. “I guess I’m surprised there isn’t a dominating professional regional theater here, but that may in fact be one of the reasons Omaha has such an abundance of different sorts of theaters that address specific missions and specific visions. I’m extremely impressed by that. There’s a lot going on here and I’ve wondered why it’s stayed relatively off the radar, because I would never have known about it had this conference not moved here.”

As home to the conference, reconstituted here from Valdez, Alaska, Omaha’s now at the center of the American theater’s process for new play development, which at its “core,” O’Malley said, “creates an environment where young playwrights just finding their way on the page can have discourse with people who have done it, done more of it and taken some of the risks they want to take. I think the only person who can really speak to a playwright in terms of really helpful sorts of response is another playwright, a director or an actor. It’s a very specific craft.”

He said if theater is “to gain, we’re going to have to do this right and keep it going” via events and programs that nurture new artists and new works. “These are all really important because otherwise the opportunities for new plays in the commercial market are very, very slight and they get slimmer each year. I think persistence is something we need to encourage. Not everyone’s going to have the trajectory in their careers that Edward Albee’s had. He’s a phenomenon. There is hope as long we encourage and promote responsible thinking and courageous, daring, bold, innovative plays…as opposed to merely good entertainment writing. There’s an abundance of that. There’s a lot of people who can do that. But there aren’t a lot of who can move an audience and cause them to turn over a thought in their mind, to walk out of the theater with it and discuss it over dinner, and let it haunt them for days after until they’ve made up their own mind about it.”

O’Malley, a one-time assistant to Albee and a leading interpreter of his work, agreed with remarks his mentor made at a May 29 Miller-Wilson salute, when Albee said: “Both Arthur and August understood playwrighting is a deeply profound social, philosophical, psychological and moral act. A playwright may not lie because a playwright at his very, very best is believed and must tell whatever truths he knows as clearly and in as tough a fashion as he possibly can. They understood what playwrighting is all about. They understood a play has no excuse for being merely escapism…merely frivolous. They understood the act of creating the play is holding a mirror up to people in the audience and saying, ‘Look, this is who you are, this is how you behave. If you don’t like what you see, don’t turn your back — change.’”

 

 

 

 

O’Malley embraces the weight Albee attaches to playwrighting, saying, “Plays need to open up worlds that other areas of society have concluded about, so that we can go in and personally experience them and begin to ask questions for ourselves. Most of the time we relegate somebody else to answer these things for us. But it’s always about the next question. I think that’s what one has to do. I’m led by that. That informs my choices of subject matter and how I write about it. I’m not interested in what’s known and concluded. I’m interested in finding my own way into things and then I find how I feel about them as well.”

He said Albee’s work “has always been” about probing, challenging the status quo, “and my own view is very much in agreement with that. I have very little patience with the merely frivolous. Obviously we have a great deal invested right now in our society into the pulling away from reality. If you come to New York and go to the theater you won’t be asked to think very often. You’ll be certainly entertained.”

Echoing something Albee declared in 1988, when he was last in Omaha and said, “If we prefer ignorance to dangerous thought, we will not be a society that matters,” O’Malley’s own play Paradise “was stopped from reaching production in Cincinnati. People were afraid of its power and what it would do. It examines how a 17-year-old Palestinian girl was coerced into becoming the third female suicide bomber. It is a very dangerous play because it is right on top of both…an Israeli and a Palestinian position. People want this very much to be an answer play, and it’s impossible. I don’t have the answers. It’s a question box play. It’s a play full of them and they’re all questions we need to be asking ourselves.”

Theater’s capacity to “be dangerous” and “an impetus for change,” O’Malley said, stems from its “immediacy. Theater is very much the vehicle by which we still gather together and view in the first-person with real live people. There isn’t the detachment one has with film. where you can sit back because it happened before and was put together before.” Or, as Albee likes to say, “film is then, theater is now.”

O’Malley, Albee and the rest are expected back next year for Great Plains II.

A Q & A with Theater Director Marshall Mason, Who Discusses the Process of Creating Life on Stage

June 2, 2011 5 comments

Here’s another of my past Great Plains Theater Conference pieces, this time a Q & A with noted director Marshall Mason. In keeping with the theme and subject of several recent posts, I am repurposing theater stories and interviews I’ve done about that event and some of its guest artists as well as about other aspects of Omaha theater, all in celebration of the 2011 Great Plains Theatre Conference (through June 4) in Omaha.

 

 

A Q & A with Theater Director Marshall Mason, Who Discusses the Process of Creating Life on Stage

Based on an interview Leo Adam Biga did with Marshall Mason for The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Though not a household name outside theater circles, director Marshall Mason owns the kind of credits that befit a luminary. He’s a five-time Tony nominee, a five-time Obie winner and a co-founder of the famed Circle Repertory Company in New York. He’s also been recognized with several lifetime achievement awards for his directing. The veteran artist brings his expertise to Omaha for the May 26-June 4 Great Plains Theatre Conference, where he’ll conduct directing workshops.

In the early 1960s the Texas native was a directing prodigy at Northwestern University. Soon after graduating he left for New York to work off-off-Broadway. He soon established himself a consummate director at the experimental theaters Cafe Cino and Cafe LaMama. Those venues introduced him to playwright Lanford Wilson (The Hot L BaltimoreFifth of JulyTalley’s Folly), whose work Mason would become the primary interpreter of. In ‘69 Wilson and Mason, then only 29, formed the Circle Rep, where they made their legends the next two decades.

Mason has directed extensively for Broadway, regional theater and theaters around the world, including a 1985 revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the National Theatre of Japan in Tokyo. He’s also directed television adaptations of some of his greatest stage successes. He’s also a noted teacher. Now semi-retired, he divides his time between Mazatlan, Mexico and New York, only taking an occasional directing gig. These days, he said, “I’ve now put all my energies really into writing.” His book Creating Life on Stage: A Director’s Approach to Working with Actors was recently published. He’s writing two new books, one on the Circle Rep’s founding and another on the many icons with whom he’s worked.

This will be his first visit to Nebraska, home to two figures from his New York heyday. Playwright Megan Terry is a longtime Omaha resident who was playwright-in-residence at the Omaha Magic Theatre. Her Hot House was produced at the Circle Rep. Actress Swoosie Kurtz is an Omaha native. She won a Tony in Mason’s production ofFifth of July.

Mason, speaking by phone from his New York apartment, exuded a youthful voice and gracious manner.

LAB: Theater is a living, breathing experience that communicates the human condition with an audience. Is a director’s ultimate task to bring the text to life?

MM: “That couldn’t have been a more perfect question because Heinemann (Press) has just published my first book…in which I make that exact point. That a director’s main job is to bring the text of a play to spontaneous life on stage so that the audience experiences the play.”

LAB: Did the process of writing the book help you coalesce your own ideas/theories on directing and, in a sense, reinvigorate your approach to your craft?

MM: “Absolutely, yes. It was a long process. I started writing the book around 1990 or so when I was living in Los Angeles. Then in 1994 I moved to Tempe, Arz., where I became a professor of theater at Arizona State University…I taught both acting and directing and as a result had to find a way to communicate my ideas about these subjects to the students. It was tremendously instructive to me in terms of clarifying my thoughts and giving me the ability to systemize in away what I was talking about. The big breakthrough for me, however, came when I wrote theater criticism for a weekly newspaper there called the Phoenix New Times.

“I had an editor who was very exacting about the use of words…and I learned so much in terms of being simple and direct and clear. That was a step that was so tremendously important in terms of my being able to take what is a difficult thing to describe — the creative process — and find a way to make it clear and simple enough to understand.

“My mentor Harold Clurman, who was a great director and teacher, was of course a critic. When I was first in New York…I became a participant at the Actors Studio directing unit. Lanford Wilson also was participating — in the playwriting unit. We both studied there with Clurman and (Lee) Strasberg…Clurman was our regular playwrighting teacher and I attended all his sessions.

“Then of course later after I started the Circle Repertory Company Clurman became one of our really, really good friends. He was a critic who loved our work and wrote about it in glowing terms and was the person to whom we could turn and actually ask advice. He had been with the Group Theatre and we were coming along sort of in the footsteps of the Group and trying to create our own living theater in New York.”

 

Circle Rep production of Julie Bovasso play, Angelo’s Wedding

 

LAB: Do you have a sense for why you felt pulled to be a director?

MM: “When I directed my first play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, at Northwestern when I was 19, I discovered I had been a director all my life. I’d just not really known it. Back in the 3rd grade I wrote a Halloween play that I ‘put on,’ The Night the Witches Rode. That’s what you call it in 3rd grade — putting on a play. Later you understand putting on a play is what a director does.”

LAB: How old were you when you first went to New York?

MM: “I was 21. I was the youngest member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers when I joined the SSDC in 1963 when I was 23 and became essentially a professional director. And then many years later I became the president of that union.”

LAB: You really were a prodigy breaking new ground.

MM “As a matter of fact when I started directing in New York young people didn’t direct. It was something only middle-aged people did. I was the only director of my age and when I would have auditions actors twice my age would come in the room, look around and say, ‘Where’s the director?’ And I’d say, ‘It’s me!’ It was strange.

“Of course since then there’s been a profusion of (young) directors, in film particularly. People now go to school and get an MFA in directing and come out and try to start a career. When I was in school people became directors from some other position. Usually they were stage managers first…and then they would eventually take over directing. It was not common practice when I was at Northwestern to study directing as a profession. Now it’s very common.”

LAB: Did your real education in theater commence once you got to New York?

MM: “I would say both yes and no. Certainly I continued to learn a great deal in New York, but the basis of my work really had been laid in firmly by the great teacher Alvina Krause at Northwestern. So I had a firm grip of my techniques when I came to New York; what I learned is how to apply them in professional situations.”

NOTE: Krause was a legendary figure in Northwestern’s fine theater department. Besides Mason, other Krause-trained notables include Oscar-winning actors Charlton Heston, Jennifer Jones and Patricia Neal. Neal will join Mason in Omaha.

MM: “I was trained in the classics. I would call Ms. Krause from New York and say, “I really want to do the classics. When do you think I’ll be ready?’ And she said, ‘You’re ready now.’ But when I got to New York, especially at the Cafe Cino, I began to meet young American writers.”

LAB: Like Megan Terry…

MM: “Like Megan Terry and many others. But it was Lanford Wilson who basically said to me, ‘You should really concentrate on new plays because these old dead guys like Shakespeare don’t need you. We need you — to put our reflection of our contemporary world on stage.’”

 

Marshall Mason and Lanford Wilson

 

LAB: What accounts for you and Wilson enjoying this long, simpatico relationship?

MM: “It’s because of trust Lanford has had in me as a director. We first worked together on his Balm in Giliad. He felt I understood his play. I told him the fact his play is set among drug addicts and prostitutes is incidental because what his play is really about is the commerce between people, and it could happen just as well on Wall Street as it could on the streets. He was tremendously impressed by that because that’s exactly what he had in mind.

“The first thing I did in my first rehearsal was to break the play down into beats of action for the actors to mark in their scripts. Lanford was sort of fascinated by this because he’d never seen a director do this before.

“That first production was enormously successful and after that, sort of as a self-preservation thing, he said, ‘If you’ve got something that really works, why would you take a risk and try some other director?’ He’s worked with many directors of course over time, but the two of us found a compatibility with the way we thought about theater. He valued acting that didn’t look like acting and I was able to deliver performances that didn’t seem like acting.”

LAB: Is it true you and Wilson got off to a rocky start?

MM: “Yes. It was our very first meeting. Joe Cino introduced us. Lanford had already done four productions at the Cino. I had seen all four. The current one was Home Free. I’d seen an earlier production of it, too. The play is about an incestuous relationship between a brother and a sister. In the original production you didn’t discover they were brother and sister until the last moment of the play, which was tremendously powerful. But Lanford changed the play and the brother-sister thing came in right in the first line of the play.

“When we met he said, ‘Haven’t I done a really wonderful job of revising it?” and I said, ‘No, I think you’ve ruined it’  — starting our relationship off with a disagreement right up front. I think the good thing about that was he recognized right away I was going to deal honestly and tell him what I thought, no matter what.

“I’ve now come around to feeling he was probably right to do it that way (reveal the bombshell at the start).”

LAB: You two developed this phenomenon known as the Circle Rep.

MM: “Balm in Giliad was such a remarkable ensemble of a living play that Lanford said, ‘My God, we’ve got to keep these people together…’ He was a very important influence in terms of insisting we at some point form a company. It was actually four years later that I bit the bullet and said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’” At first I thought, I’m too young to do this. But by the time I was 29 I didn’t feel so young anymore. The first production I did at the Circle Rep was Chekhov’s Three Sisters in two contrasting productions that played in rotating rep. One was a traditional approach like Stanislavsky (the Russian actor/director/theoretician who developed an influential system of dramatic training) and everybody had always used with Chekhov. The other was a truly experimental Chekhov.”

 

 

LAB: The Circle Rep became known for its lyric realism style.

MM: “In a way I regret the phrase because the critics picked up on it and it sort of became our tag, The thing is the Circle Rep did many, many plays of all different kinds of styles. But we got tagged with this thing of lyric realism, probably because it’s what we did best.”

LAB: How do you define lyric realism?

“What is it? It has a surface of realism. As the New York Times put it, ‘Real plays about real people’ with a rather linear plot you can follow. However unlike let’s say (William) Inge, who wrote realism but was never able to lift the experience above the mundane, lyric realism elevates the realistic experience to a poetic experience  through things like eloquent language.

“Lanford was recognized…as being the next voice of lyrical writing in America since Tennessee Williams. Their writing is in the same vein, only Lanford’s is less florid. Tennessee’s first play, Battle of Angels, had its first New York production under my direction. It was 30 years from the time he wrote it until if came to New York. Tennessee and I were just planning to begin work on a new production of Night of the Iguana with William Hurt when he died.”

LAB: What kind of shape was Williams in when you worked with him?

MM: “He was in great shape. It was after his druggie days. I was terribly afraid of meeting Tennessee. I admired his work so much and I heard such terrible things about his personal life that I didn’t want my idol to have feet of clay…The New York Times did a big spread on the Circle Rep and me and I mentioned Tennessee had been my inspiration from high school on up, so he called up and asked me to come to dinner. If he actually invites you to dinner you can’t say, ‘No’…So I went to dinner and it was an amazing experience.”

LAB: Do you attend many gatherings like the Great Plains Theatre Conference?

MM: “I haven’t for a long time. Edward Albee and I went to Valdez, Alaska to help Jody (Metro Community College President Jo Ann McDowell) found her Last Frontier conference up there. She first met me, and Edward too, at the Inge Festival (in Independence, Kan.). Edward’s been a tremendous supporter of hers. This year I was persuaded it would be a good thing to go again. I’m really looking forward to it. I feel especially with the book I’ve got a lot of new ideas to share…”

LAB: Are forums like this vital for theater artists who live outside of New York?

MM: “It is really great because it decentralizes the theater and makes it available in the far reaches of the country. People can come to Omaha that would find it really difficult to come all the way to New York or, on the other hand, Alaska. So I think the Great Plains is a wonderful place to have a theater conference.”


Playwright John Guare Talks Shop on Omaha Visit Celebrating His Acclaimed ‘Six Degrees of Separation’


Back when the Great Plains Theatre Conference and its founder Jo Ann McDowell brought in a veritable who’s-who of American theater, playwright John Guare was one of those luminary figures who came and dazzled locals. The following story I wrote for the City Weekly was based on a phone interview I did with the artist. The Omaha appearance referenced in the story was not for the festival itself, but for a production of his play Six Degrees of Separation by the Blue Barn Theatre. Guare made himself available to the cast and crew and was reportedly quite impressed with the production. I saw the show directed by Susan Clement Toberer and I must say it was well done.

 

 

 

 

Playwright John Guare Talks Shop on Omaha Visit Celebrating His Acclaimed ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the City Weekly

Metropolitan Community College president Jo Ann McDowell’s world class theater ties made possible this weekend’s Omaha appearance by celebrated New York playwright John Guare. Guare is a Tony, Obie and New York Drama Critics Circle Award winner. He’s coming here at McDowell’s express invitation to discuss his best known work, Six Degrees of Separation (1990).

He’ll be in residence at MCC’s Fort Omaha campus, host of the May 26-June 4 Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC) that McDowell co-directs with Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Albee. Guare can’t make that event, but his April visit is a nod to the theater colony McDowell’s forging at Metro and a preview of the GPTC, which is all about craft.

In Omaha Guare will introduce the Blue Barn Theatre’s April 21 production of Six Degrees and participate in a talkback session. On April 22 at Metro he’ll present a noon screening of the same-titled 1993 film he adapted from his own play and attend a 1:30 p.m. reception.

By phone, Guare discussed his work, the state of American theater and why theater angels like McDowell are important.

Six Degrees is inspired by a real-life incident in which a young black man posing as actor Sidney Poitier’s son insinuated himself into the lives of rich, white Fifth Avenuers. The piece unfolds as a breathless tell-all that’s meant to, as Guare says, “go like the wind. It’s a story these people couldn’t wait to tell us. So urgent, we had to grab the audience by the lapels and tell it to them.” Thus, characters directly address the audience at times.

“This is really life or death that they tell this most extraordinary thing that’s come into their lives,” Guare said.

To accentuate this naked need to bare all, the staging calls for a minimalist set that exposes people in stark relief. “I just wanted to concentrate on the story and not get tied down in all naturalistic trappings,” he explained.

For the film version, which he “loved,” he never considered having characters talk to the camera. “You can’t do that. See, movies are essentially…a documentary medium. The color camera is recording documentary reality. The theater is a place of poetry, where the text creating the scenery, the lighting, the costumes creates the life of the play in our engaged, enrapt minds.”

He uses farce to express the greed, ego, white guilt and fear behind these WASPish “victims” compulsive retelling of events. “We see how the story helps them rise up the social scale as more and more people want to hear this story,” he said. “Their main fear is losing their life(style). That they’re just one step ahead of the sheriff.”

Laid bear is the human conceit of ever knowing someone different than ourselves.

 

 

 

 

Even when he focuses on lower class denizens, as in his play The House of Blue Leaves or his screenplay Atlantic City, his work is about lost dreams and disconnected lives. Or, as he puts it, “what people tell themselves in order to get through the day and what happens when that gets challenged, and that’s the same thing whether it’s people in the trailer park or on Fifth Avenue.”

Desperation drives his characters. He’s written that “avoiding humiliation is the core of tragedy and comedy and probably of our lives.” Otherwise, he leaves the idea of his themes “for critics.”

He enjoys farce. “Well, I just love to laugh. I mean, I love the freedom. You come to the theater to let down your guard and there’s no better way to let down your guard than through laughter,” he said. That liberation allows him to express our modern hysteria. “That’s exactly it,” he said. “I think we live in farcical times.”

That’s not to say all his works are farces. “My Lydie Breeze play are certainly not farces,” he said, “although they have farcical elements in them. You don’t write out of the same mode every time. It’s what the material demands. And that’s what makes it hard for critics because you keep changing your hats all the time. You have to keep changing your hats so you don’t become bored or become stale.”

He adores Omaha native Swoosie Kurtz. She won a Tony for Blue Leaves “and was brilliant,” he said, filling in for Stockard Channing in Six Degrees. He knew this was Kurtz’s hometown, but was surprised it’s the adopted home of playwright Megan Terry (Viet Rock), a Yale Fellow with he and Sam Shepard in 1966. Terry, a veteran of New York’s Open Theatre, was playwright-in-residence at the Omaha Magic Theatre. “I have very fond memories of Megan,” he said. His only previous stop in Nebraska came on a ‘64 cross-country road trip. When he couldn’t pay a speeding fine, he holed up at a Lincoln Y until friends sent him the money.

 

 

Swoosie Kurtz

 

 

Guare’s also well aware Omaha’s a theater haven thanks in part to Metro’s Jo Ann McDowell, whom he credits for nurturing American theater.

“I’ll tell you something,” he said. “Jody is an absolute fountainhead of inspiration. You should know how lucky Omaha is to have Jody, who is this force of nature about ensuring there’ll be a future and bringing the generations together and getting the best out of everybody.”

He said figures like McDowell are vital given the “perilous state” of theater in America, where “things are difficult because the arts get meager support from the government compared to every other nation in the Western civilized world.”

 

 

Jo Ann McDowell

 

 

Events like the Great Plains allow established artists such as himself to pass the torch. “You’re passing it on,” he said. “You have to let young people know there’s a theater out there waiting for them. I love teaching. I love working with other playwrights.” The Queens native has taught at Yale and previously at Harvard and New York University. He began the playwrighting program at Juilliard.

Despite challenges, he’s encouraged by what lies ahead for theater. “There’s work today that’s absolutely thrilling,” he said. “A student of mine at Yale named Terrell McCraney is just the future. He’s just a magnificent young writer.”

Guare and his wife Adele Chatfield-Taylor live in New York and, for three months each year, in Rome, Italy, where she’s president of the American Academy, a center for artists and scholars doing independent study. Located on 11 acres on the highest part of Rome, he’ll be at work there while the GPTC unfolds here. He has a new play opening at New York’s Public Theater next season.


A Q & A with Playwright Caridad Svich, a Featured Artist at the Great Plains Theatre Conference

June 2, 2011 4 comments

With the 2011 Great Plains Theatre Conference upon us, I am continuing to post material from my archives that relates to the event or to other aspects of Omaha theater. The following is not a story, rather a fairly literal transcript of the phone interview I did with Caridad Svich, one of the featured playwrights at the Great Plains festival, whose host is Metropolitan Community College.  I say fairly literal because I didn’t transcribe my questions, and therefore they’re reconstructed here, but her comments are pretty much verbatim. I will try to post more theater stories in the coming days, and well after the conference concludes June 4, as my own personal homage to the art form. A short story about Svich I wrote for El Perico can be found on this blog.

 

 

A Q & A with Playwright Caridad Svich, a Featured Artist at the Great Plains Theatre Conference

Journalist Leo Adam Biga interviewing Cardiad Svich

LAB: You’re a playwright, a songwriter a, translator, and an editor. So, is one or more of these skill sets or roles more paramount for you than the others?

CS: “Well, for me eventually it all comes out of the primary impulse to write, but I lead with playwright first because that’s where I feel everything flows from. My interest in forms and time and space and language and new forms for the stage and then out of that…I think that also comes to how I started writing.

“My life in translation, sort of the other parallel career I have, one of many, came out of a desire to translate plays into English from Spanish and then the other way around as well. So, back and forth, and wanting to explore different theatrical universes and collaborate in different ways with artists, both living and dead, and also just to advocate for new writing in the field.

“The songwriter part has always been part of me. I started writing songs before I ever wrote plays. A lot of my songs end up in my plays. The possibility of a song- filled landscape is something I’ve always been interested in theatrically, and I have an affection for music theater and new opera.

“The editor side of me is the one that’s come up the last in the trajectory. It started with two books I edited almost simultaneously. One was, Out of the Fringe, an anthology of contemporary Latina theater and performance. It had been 10 years since the first sort of major book devoted to Latino playwriting in the United States, and it had been a very influential book to me as a student in college. There was all this amazing work happening and still is happening, it still is waiting to be documented, archived in some way as dramatic literature.

 

 

“I called on my friend, Maria Teresa Marrero, a scholar at the University of Houston, and we said, ‘We should make a book’ – it came out of a purely advocating notion.

“Simultaneously I embarked on editing a book and tribute to the writer Maria Fornes, who also is having a retrospective season at Signature Theatre in New York. The Fornes book is a reflection on her career over 40 years in the American theater. She had been my primary mentor, and so it was partly a homage but also a way to report points of view from actors, producers, critics, scholars – an interesting collage about her work.

“I worked on both books while in residence at the Mark Taper Forum. Then I had so much fun working on them that the desire to work on another and another became paramount. I discovered it’s something I really love to do I think because it brings out my curatorial instincts and again my desire to advocate for other artists and to help impact the field in some way. Also just to have a different kind of dialogue. What happens often is the editorial work leads me back to writing plays.”

LAB: So, the process of tackling a book, the interviews you do with playwrights and other artists, serve as inspiration then?

CS: “I was like, I want to write a play that touches on some of those ideas. It stirred creative impulses for me. It all kind of circles back to me facing the page or the screen and going, What am I going to write next?”

LAB: Why for you is playwriting as opposed to journalism or novels or poetry, for example, the right fit for you?

CS: “I think this may be a kind of madness I suppose. I think playwriting is one of the hardest things to do because you are thinking three dimensionally. It is unlike the novel, which is an experience between the reader and the page and somewhere in there is the author, and it’s different from poetry, which also has life as oral voicing. But I find the public forum of theater really fascinating and always have. And the fragility of it is really fascinating – the ephemeral nature of it is something I’m very attracted to.

“That it’s an event that can only happen with the audience there. Ultimately it’s an event that exists for a period of time and then it’s over. The event is remade anew every time depending on who the collaborators are. I find the collaborative aspect exciting (In some cases the collaborators may not even be present together and they may be separated by language, et cetera.).

“It’s like a new invitation to play every time you walk into a rehearsal hall. I find that delightfully fun. I love working with actors — they teach me so much about the work.

“That back and forth is something I really relish. As an actor you’re empowered to be the messenger of the story. But as an actor I always felt like I wanted to create all the parts and direct it myself, and as the writer you sort of do that — you’re sort of in the world, you’re playing all the parts, you’re constructing this theatrical world and then you’re handing it over in collaboration with other people to sort of remake it from that initial impulse.

“Also, the form to me is endlessly challenging. You know, there’s so many different kinds of plays one can write. The models out there historically are so vast, from the Greeks to Shakespeare to Marlowe to (Tennessee) Williams…I find that tremendously exciting.”

LAB: When do you first recall being captured by the theater as a child and what was it that enchanted you?

CS: “It had more to do with spectacle and performance. I saw a production of the    Nutcracker some Christmas when I was maybe 7 and I was enchanted by that world that was created on stage. I think the first idea was to be on stage. I mean, I just loved that notion and I loved entering that other world.

LAB: I believe you also studied dance, voice, and took music lessons?

 

 

CS: “At the same time I was writing little stories and poems, furiously writing, excited by the idea of language.”

(Shakespeare became a particular fascination.)

“I loved the way language worked and worked on me.”

(In addition to the usual encouragement from parents and teachers, a particular teacher steered Svich to study playwriting.)

“In school I was writing short stories with much dialogue and an English teacher said, ‘Have you thought about writing plays? You might have a knack for it.”

(Living in Hialeda Fla. at the time, she immersed herself in the local public library’s dramatic literature collection. Before long, she tired her own hand at writing a play.)

“I was really emboldened and I wrote a play that’s hidden in a vault somewhere. My next thought was, Well, maybe I’ll make plays to perform in with my friends. That was the beginning of the aha (moment). The end of high school I had the urge again.”

(She wrote a full-length play this time.)

“And it got performed in my school as kind of my senior project. In college, in graduate school actually, I wrote my first official full length and I won a national contest. The play was performed. I saw the play on stage in Baltimore. I thought, This is so much fun. That was the real aha.

(This is when she decided she wanted to be a playwright

“That’s something I’d never said to myself before. It became sort of a mission of mine.”

(She says she often wonders had that English teacher not steered her in the direction of playwrting if she would have gravitated there herself.)

“I think I needed a little push.”

LAB: You’re a person of different ethnicities and locales, and you’re writing is full of references to the notion of being nomadic, of feeling an exile. Your plays deals with a sense of wanderlust, biculturalism, dislocation. So, is your playwriting a kind of working out of your own identity?

CS: “I think so. I think we’re endlessly trying to figure ourselves out as people anyway. We’re always remaking ourselves. That inevitably comes to bear on the work.

LAB: Your immigrant parents moved a lot when you were growing up and not surprisingly then themes of dislocation reappear in your work.

CS: “I was one of those kids that was always the new kid in school and having to constantly adapt.”

(Moving gave her a feeling she could run away from certain things – leave it all behind and become somebody else.)

 

 

LAB: When did your sense of your own Latino identity assert itself?

CS: “Being a first generation American, trying to sort that out, and living bilingually, it took me a long time to come to terms with any sense of Latinidad. I think that’s      something that came rather late for me, especially as an artist. I really didn’t write my first play that had anything remotely to do with Latino or Latina characters until my last year of graduate school. It was never present in my poetry or short stories.”

(It was only until she tackled her thesis project she made a conscious decision, she says that “I need to start figuring this out for myself. Where before she saw it as a private thing she wrestled with, she realized it was permissible, even necessary to explore this on the page and the stage. She says she was nudged in this direction by reading plays by Hispanics. That’s when she says she acknowledged, “This is a world I’m attracted to and that is a part of me…and I feel a kinship with.”)

(This is when she applied to the Fornes Latino playwriting workshop.)

“I wanted to be part of a community of writing that could help me sort that out (to be around bilingual writers who had their own hybrid identities.) Ultimately I’m a writer and when I look at the page I don’t prescribe what’s going to happen. I feel like a landscape, a story, a voice, a character will come to me and I’ll follow it wherever it leads, and whether the characters are Latino or not I sort of just take the story where it goes.

“But I feel the fact I am Latino. I have grown up in many states. I am a first generation American that lives with the memories my parents brought with them from their home countries.”

(Her Argentine father was a much-traveled professional soccer player. Her mother is from Cuba.”

“A life of wandering – that’s all stuff I inherited.”

LAB: Your work is often cast in terms of a critique of the American Dream.

CS: “Part of the position of being an artist is to stand outside. It’s your duty to be able to reflect back. That’s part of the job. Because I am a child of immigrants I’ve always had this double point of view. I see what my parents went through not being from here, subtle levels of discrimination. Even though I was born in the States I was treated sometimes as an immigrant myself.

“What is the American Dream? I feel like there’s always embedded in the work what is the promise that America as a concept holds and what is the reality?I have a couple plays that deal specifically with immigrant characters, but I also have plays that deal with  characters who are elsewhere, in unnamed countries outside the U.S. who are thinking about what their America is (the image of America exported to them.)”

LAB: What is the state of the Latino theater in America?

(She says the landscape includes major commercial successes like the Tony Award-winning musical The Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Pulitzer Prize- winning play Anna in the Tropics by Nil Cruz.)

CS: “In terms of Latino playwriting I could name more than a hundred extraordinary, terrific people who are making work all over the country. In terms of vitality, range, breath and scope it’s quite large and extraordinary.”

LAB: Can you talk a bit about your two plays being performed at the University of  Nebraska at Omaha this year – Alchemy of Desire/Dead-Man’s Blues at the Great Plains Theatre Conference and Twelve Ophelias.

CS: “The plays are related to each other. Alchemy is an early play of mine. It’s a play I’m extremely proud of, still a touchstone play. For me a seminal play in terms of my trajectory as a writer. It’s a play about the South, about a southern state of mind. It’s about grief, it’s about a woman who’s lost her husband in the first Iraq war. The war is unnamed in the play. It’s Bayou and Creole in its language and sensibility. It’s about this woman going through grief and being supported by this community of women trying to help her through this passage in life.

“She is haunted by the ghost of her husband who is a character in the play. It’s a love story and it also has songs. It’s influenced a lot by the blues form (with a cappella and call and response reverberations).

(She describes Twelve Ophelias as her distaff Hamlet. It’s an elemental piece rooted in earth, fire, water, air and set in a very primal landscape. It’s also inspired by bluegrass music.)

“Ophelia is resurrected…she visits the ghosts of her past and reckons with them and she has a reckoning herself. I wanted to free her from her destiny in the original Shakespeare and give her new life, as she’s eating over a really bad love affair and moving on. It’s structured a little bit like an oratorio. It’s very jagged and fragmented.”

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