A Q & A with Playwright Caridad Svich, a Featured Artist at the Great Plains Theatre Conference
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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- A Q & A with Edward Albee: His Thoughts on the Great Plains Theatre Conference, Jo Ann McDowell, Omaha and Preparing a New Generation of Playwrights (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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