Making Invisible Stories Seen, Heard and Felt
Interview with Caridad Svich
Interviewed by Randy Gener
Svich’s play Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That was Once Her Heart (a rave fable) premiered at 7 Stages in Atlanta. Her Twelve Ophelias (a play with broken songs) was presented at Baruch Performing Arts Center in New York in 2004 and received its professional premiere courtesy of Woodshed Collective at McCarren Park Pool in 2008, and her multimedia collaboration (with Nick Philippou and Todd Cerveris) The Booth Variations was presented at 59 East 59th Street Theatre in August 2004. Svich’s play The House of the Spirits (based on the novel by Isabel Allende) receives its regional premiere in her English-language version at Denver Theatre Center Company this fall (17 September to 22nd October) under Jose Zayas’s direction. It also receives a separate production in Svich’s bilingual version at Mixed Blood Theatre (23 October to 14 November) in Minneapolis. In February 2011, her play In the Time of the Butterflies (based on the novel by Julia Alvarez) premieres at Repertorio Español in New York City in her Spanish-language version. Also, her dark comedy of manners, Magnificent Waste, premieres at Factory 449 theatre collective (performing at Flashpoint downtown arts center) in Washington, D.C. Magnificent Waste was the recipient of the 2003 National Latino Playwriting Award and was selected for the 2004 Tribeca Film Institute All Access Open Stage program.
Svich’s works have been staged across the U.S. and abroad at venues as diverse as Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, INTAR, The Women’s Project, Cleveland Public Theatre, Salvage Vanguard Theatre, Dad’s Garage and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Her plays have been workshopped by Actors Touring Company in London, Mark Taper Forum, The Public Theatre, A Contemporary Theatre/Hedgebrook, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Hangar Theatre, Last Frontier Theatre Conference, Royal Court Theatre, and Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, among many others.
Svich’s awards include the 2009 Lee Reynolds Award from the League of Professional Theatre Women, 2002-2003 Bunting Fellowship from Harvard University/Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, a TCG/Pew National Theatre Artist Residency, an NEA/TCG Playwriting Residency, Whitfield Cook Award for New Writing, and Rosenthal New Play Prize.
She is editor of Trans-Global Readings: Crossing Theatrical Boundaries (Manchester University Press) and Divine Fire: Eight Contemporary Plays Inspired by the Greeks (BackStage Books). She is co-editor of Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornes (Smith & Kraus), Theatre in Crisis? (Manchester University Press), and Out of the Fringe: Contemporary Latina/o Theatre and Performance (Theatre Communications Group).
She is founder of the pan-American theatre collective NoPassport, is contributing editor of TheatreForum, and is associate editor of Contemporary Theatre Review (Routledge/UK). In the spring 2011, the 5th annual NoPassport theatre conference will be held at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York City.
Her website is located at www.caridadsvich.com.
1. In your country or city, is there any major issue (for example, a contemporary social problem) that artists have failed or neglected to address on stage? Why? Is it because of censorship, or a blind spot in the community's collective perception of the world? A community’s consciously or unconsciously turning a blind eye?
What kind of theatre ecology reflects and comments on our world if the stories told focus more and more on the rich, the super-rich, and an illusory middle-class? What kind of serious-minded escapism are we selling back to ourselves imagistically and linguistically through the complicit denial shared when we witness and applaud such stories without a trace of moral judgment?
I ask these questions not as condemnation of colleagues in the field but rather simply as a greater call to duty—for all of us and myself included. What stories do we not tell when we face the page and stage—and why? What stops us? There’s a saying that goes: “Talk of money is cheap.” There's another saying that goes: “Talk of money is vulgar.”
When Lucy Prebble's Enron played its limited run on Broadway, the greed, corruption and swindle of the Enron scandal was played for cynical laughs: a cautionary tale for the post–Ponzi scheme age about lives lived in a vacuum of moral chaos. The counter "under" story to Enron is the one about the lives ruined by the swindlers and schemers, the lives of those that lost their pensions, retirement funds, and life savings. How rare it is to see those lives portrayed on our stages, and moreover, the panoramic intersection of high and "low" classes.
As a follow-up to this question, in what way does your current work either as a playwright or NoPassport founder tackles some those very issues which the U.S. stage have failed or neglected to address?
I've spent about 15 years of my writing life as a dramatist telling stories of those marginalized by society (either by poverty, sexual difference and discrimination, prejudice, violence, class wars, and lack of property ownership). The more I write the more I'm interested in looking at myriad intersections of class, authority and power and those challenging authority and/or resisting, especially, tyrannical power. I'm an arts activist and a political artist, but I consciously don't write "issue" plays. I'm interested in human behavior, for good or ill, and in looking at what people do, why they do what they do, and whether change is possible. I don't pretend that art-making can effect immediate change in a legislative sense, unless it is designed explicitly to incite it. However I do think seeds of spiritual or emotive change can occur through viewing and/or experiencing art—seeds which may not flower until much later in a person's life.
In the last four years, I've written the plays The House of the Spirits (based on the novel by Isabel Allende), Instructions for Breathing, Rift, Kill to Eat, A Patriot Song, Lucinda Caval, A Little Story, and reworked my piece about celebrity culture and visual art Magnificent Waste, and have translated from Spanish to English Angels Aymar’s Solavaya, Hugo Alfredo Hinojosa's Deserts, Julio Cortazar's The Kings, Lope de Vega's The Labyrinth of Desire, Federico Garcia Lorca's A Dream of Life, and edited the collection on theatre and censorship Out of Silence (forthcoming from Manchester University Press in 2011). As founder of NoPassport theatre alliance and press, I've initiated four national conferences and published ten titles so far from writers Octavio Solis, John Jesurun, Migdalia Cruz, Oliver Mayer, Matthew Maguire, Saviana Stanescu and more.
The common thread in the various and varied work I've made recently is perhaps an increased (in relationship to my previous work) multi-vocal representation of the politicized body on stage, and in print, and a desire to tell stories that speak to the complicated historical relationship between the global north and the global south. Issues of poverty and class are at the heart of any story that speaks of and about Power. There are so many “invisible” stories still, and one of the beauties of writing for the stage is making these so-called “invisible” stories seen and heard and felt. In terms of form, I think my work as a dramatist is becoming starker and leaner, rather than more baroque.
I'm also working on a dance-theatre piece and two other new plays right now, and co-editing a special issue of Contemporary Theatre Review for Routledge in the U.K. I'm not one for predictions, but I do hope I keep learning and evolving as an artist over the next five to ten years. I hope I keep discovering new possibilities for theatre, film and poetry, and creating more and more hybrid work(S). I hope I continue to keep my ears to the ground and listen to the stories and rhythms of culture, and am able to transform what I hear and see and experience into viable and compelling pieces of art.
2. What, if anything, is difficult for you in communicating with the director? Why? How early and how often do you exchange views about the coming production? Have you directed yourself, and if so, does that make communication easier?
I generally have strong and rewarding working relationships with directors. I love to be in a rehearsal hall. I love working with actors. When I'm working on a new play, I usually start the communication process early with a director, usually after the first draft or so. The dialogue tends to be fairly intense at the macro and micro level, and plans for revision are usually already in the works. I love hearing the first draft out loud with actors, even if it's a cold reading. If a play is in pre-production, views are exchanged fairly regularly (weekly) in the months prior to the first rehearsal, and I'm pretty much hands-on in the room once we're in full-on rehearsal.
What’s difficult to communicate with a director sometimes is the tone of a play. In my least successful working relationships, the failure to communicate has centered on misunderstandings regarding tone and style of a given work.
I have directed my own work very early in my career. I haven't done so in about 20 years.
Would you say something about the language you use when writing plays and how you arrived at this language? Or what do you expect from the actors who perform your words?
Plays are events in time and space. Plays are music. Word music. Visual music. I've always thought of plays as a form of composition—of text and the architecture of the experience of the full-length evening. I started writing plays from a music, poetry and performance background. I've refined the vocabulary I use when working practically in the room with actors and director on a play over the years, but the intent has changed all that much from the earliest days of writing. I still consider the stage a poetic space: paradoxically concrete and spiritual. I expect actors who perform my words to be fluid, extremely playful, sly, fearless in exploring dark and light emotions, and have the ability to be absolutely in the moment and live in contradiction(s).
3. In your creative process, which bit do you enjoy least? Why? How do you tackle it?
The bit I enjoy the least is the crafting of the second draft, because the thrill of the first draft and its creation is past, and as a writer you're not yet in the next and next draft, where you're refining and re-seeing the work. The second draft is about getting on the horse again and hunkering down with the work and sometimes wrestling the work to the ground. I procrastinate a lot and then when I can’t stand procrastinating anymore, I work very assiduously, line by line, scene by scene, act by act, to get the draft into deeper and more soulful shape. I let myself go overboard a bit emotionally, because I know that I tend to write super lean first and not get messy and emotional, so I need permission to do so in the second draft—not out of indulgence, but to find what it is that I'm avoiding or afraid of. I know I write dark first also, so I'm aware that I need to give my plays more tonal and emotional light, and that awareness usually surfaces in the second draft. There are all sorts of conscious and unconscious plays of thought, design and strategy in writing a play—in addition to the ones of which one is conscious. There's no way out of writing, of un-riddling the mystery of work, if you don't go to the mat and put blood on the page somehow though. Cleverness only goes so far. The best work, the greatest work, digs deep and takes hold of you. August Wilson used to talk about keeping the complete works of Faulkner by his computer and the King James version of the Bible, and how he'd look to these texts as reference points for the possibility of Greatness. So, yeah, aspiring towards greatness is key, even if you're telling a “small” story.
4. During your career, have you received a particularly insightful piece of criticism? When was that? Do you remember it well enough to quote? What was so important about it?
Early in my career (1994) critic Chris Jones reviewed my play Alchemy of Desire/Dead-Man’s Blues for Variety. In the review, which was favorable, he spoke about the juxtaposition of the quotidian and the poetic, pop culture and “ancient-seeming” language. At the time I hadn't consciously thought about how my work was actually making these juxtapositions happen. It woke me up to read his review. And to this day I think about how my work can create cultural and linguistic collisions.
Since this is a journal about theatre critics and criticism, question #4 is being asked with an interest in opening communication between critics and artists. Now, with a chance to “speak directly to the critics,” is there something you can say to them?
I long for the days of long-form criticism of new work, because when I was just plain dreaming about being a writer one of the ways I learned about theatre was not only from reading play-texts but also from reading reviews of plays. I was fascinated by how a thoughtful, considered piece of criticism could illuminate an entire piece or even a moment of play for someone who didn't have the chance to see the work performed live. Criticism was a portal for me, and I always thought the dialogue needed to exist between the work and the critic, between the audience and the critic, between the critic and the artists.
In the age of shorter and shorter “reviews,” I know it's increasingly difficult for there to be a sustained, non-consumer-based dialogue between the work and the critic(s), at least in mainstream media. I hope that late-capitalist consumer culture doesn't dictate exclusively the way that works of art—works for live performance—are written about and discussed. Plays do not exist in a historical vacuum. Context is especially crucial toward understanding new work. Critics can help create cultural context for works and educate readers and audiences to what artists, visionary or not, are trying to do. Often works can get shuffled away in the speed of culture, and critics can serve as mediator and reflecting points for them.
 Randy Gener is a writer, editor, critic, playwright and visual artist in New York City. He recently debuted a photographic installation-art exhibition, “In the Garden of One World,” at New York’s La MaMa La Galleria and is the author of “Love Seats for Virginia Woolf” and other Off-Broadway plays. He is the 2009 winner of the George Jean Nathan Award, the highest accolade for dramatic criticism in the United States for his essays in American Theatre magazine, published by Theatre Communications Group, where is the senior editor. He was named Journalist of the Year 2010 by the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association.