“Trying to Look at Opera From the Pillars of Theatre” — Interview with Ruth Margraff, U.S. Playwright and Librettist ShareThisfrom Interviews 2011/12/15 05:25
“Trying to Look at Opera From the Pillars of Theatre” — Interview with Ruth Margraff, U.S. Playwright and Librettist
Interviewed by Randy Gener 
The playwright and librettist Ruth Margraff has been called a leader in the new opera movement in America.
Margraff, who is an associate professor of writing and playwriting at the School of the Art Institute Chicago, has toured with her Café Antarsia Ensemble and with her work throughout the U.K., Canada, Russia, Romania, Serbia, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Greece,Turkey, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Croatia, Japan, Egypt and India.
Educated at Brown and Yale Universities, she started out performing in churches all over the Midwest to raise money for her father, an Ohio preacher and her mother, who became a peace-keeper in Bosnia. “Being thumped pretty often with the Bible in the Bible belt,” she says, gave her a “wealth of King James imagery and hellfire swirling through [her] language.”
Playing the accordian and Cretan lyra in the band Café Antarsia Ensemble, a four piece acoustic group that plays world folk songs inspired by Greek blues and Balkan Roma gypsy music, Margraff often refers to her written work as world folk opera. “Almost everything I write comes from music,” Margraff says, “so I’ve been put in the categories of music theatre or experimental opera, new opera.”
In addition to playing with her band, Margraff has delved into collaborative projects. She has worked with saxophonist, composer and activist Fred Ho to write six martial arts operas. Her artistic process, she says, is about trying “to be awake and alert” and the need to respond to the world, “even when it is involuntary or brutally laborious.”
Margraff is a recipient of four Rockefeller Foundation commissions, a McKnight national commission and residency with the Playwrights' Center, a Fulbright New Opera Award to Greece, and two NYSCA Individual Artist awards, in addition to awards from TMUNY, TCG/ITI, NEA, Arts International, and Meet the Composer, among others. She is an alumnae of New Dramatists and a member of Hourglass Group, Theatre Without Borders, and League of Professional theatre Women, and represented by Susan Schulman.
A collection of her plays, entitled Red Frogs and Other Plays, will be published in early 2012 under the NoPassport Press literary imprint. The book brings together the title play, The Elektra Fugues and Stadium Devildare. A preview-edition-only is available right now print on demand for $15 at
1. In your country/city, is there any major issue (e.g. a contemporary social problem) that artists fail or neglect to address on stage? Why? Is this due to censorship, or to a blind spot in the community's shared perception of the world? — or to a community’s consciously or un-consciously avoiding it?
In Chicago, I’ve come to recognize three blind spots that echo nationwide: war, class and a deep prejudice against thick description. That’s the last taboo — the tongue of the poet. There is an impatience for the play to spell itself out, to come clean. I feel this bias is linked to America’s apathy toward war and class — two other complex blind spots avoided like the plague, which I tumble with headlong inRed Frogs and Other Plays. Most U.S. narratives depict characters that struggle with class conflicts, but they won’t directly address class as a central issue, because most of our theatre’s audiences belong to the upper-middle class, and they are worried about losing their status: the fragile status of being in the know, of being in the audience to begin with. Most theatre artists also come from the upper-middle class or have to make their way there eventually to stay in business. Or they have to write for and serve that upper-middle class audience if they want to stay in business. This condition is the glass ceiling dramatized in my play Red Frogs, this is the reality program of Stadium Devildare, and it finds its roots in the dysfunctional family of The Elektra Fugues.
America waged wars, because we were duped by language. America couldn’t read the lips of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and their corporate cronies. We are involved now in class warfare, of which Occupy Wall Street could be seen as one manifestation, because we can’t understand the onslaught of language hitting us like a typhoon everyday about who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to buy. We are duped as to what class we really are. The wealthy people do photo ops as if they were one of us — if we only had more confidence. The poor vote as if they are rich. All three of my plays (Red Frogs, Elektra Fugues and Stadium Devildare) tackle violence, class and language in some way. Elektra Fugues is embroiled in a war that erupts from a tonal pitch of dissent and truth. Red Frogs teems with over-the-counter girls who try to ignite a revolution based on Marxist poetics but end up weeded out and hogtied by the torso of it and thrown back out into the sea. Stadium Devildare reimagines the Iraq war as a reality program on the verge of syndication. My most radical gesture in these works is the poetry in which I choose to traffic. I have been saying for a while now that form is more radical than content. What we fear most is that reality is in any way formless.
2. What, if anything, is difficult in communicating with the designers/directors/actors/playwrights? Why? How early and how often do you exchange views about the coming production? Have you designed shows yourself, and if so, does that make communication easier?
I always think I am not a lucky person. And yet when I look back at these plays which span over 10 years of my writing, I realize that I stumbled upon something marvelous when the director Tim Maner and I came up with the Opera Project.
I now know how rare it is to enjoy the longevity of my collaborations with the director Elyse Singer, a stability which made it possible to have long conversations with the designers of Red Frogs early on, and I remember especially set designer Juman Malouf whose imagination was truly inspiring to me as a writer. I remember conversations I had with the designers also of Theater of Note: some long emails I exchanged with them long after the production took place. I had the luxury of collaborating with the Rudemechs actors of Austin on Stadium Devildare over a whole year because of a TCG grant. The close relationship I had with the designers Nancy Brous and Allen Hahn was unlike almost any other I’ve enjoyed with designers before or since, because Tim Maner envisioned us as a team that collaborated on more than seven projects over five years. Because of Tim’s role at HERE Arts Center in Soho, we spent a lot of time together and ransacked sources of Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850s Courtesans, the Greeks, nuclear winter Christmas, and so on.…
I feel the great loss of the Opera Project designers as they have all left for the opera or commercial theatre and as the composer ran off into the world of classical ballet.
3. In your creative process, which part do you enjoy least? Why? How do you tackle it?
I dread the doctrines. Having come from religion, I recognize the scent of conformity, and I rebelled hard when I was seventeen from pretty much every dogma. It’s hard to go back to any form of church. And it is hard to think of theatre as church, but frequently the theatre system behaves as if it were a kind of church. I have tackled this repulsion in many ways. Sometimes I use realism as a brushstroke; you might say I turn to hyperrealism with the aim, at least, of turning “reality” on its axis. Today I think of what I’m doing as cubist; in fact, I’ve written about this a bit and have started preaching a few sermons on it for my students. I want to make art, and often making theatre gets too social at the expense of art. I have always turned to other forms to inspire me when theatre becomes too oppressive. For many years I turned to opera: trying to look at opera from the pillars of theatre. Lately I want to write theatre inspired by painting.
4. During your career, have you ever received a particularly insightful piece of criticism? When, and what did it say? What made it especially important for you?
There are three Austin critics in particular who have given me gifts of insight into my work: Robi Polgar, Michael Barnes and Robert Faires.
Kyle Gann of the Village Voice described The Elektra Fugues as a “cascading libretto...spinning emotional and scientific orbits...eloquently subtle symbioses” — which I learned from for a long while after that. When he wrote about my Elektra as having the “vocal endurance of a quintet of Diamanda Galases...words would form into motivic images sliding into unison...spinning in emotional and stylistic orbits...mesmerizing dynamic of rich material and uncanny artistry.” When he wrote those words, it made me want to talk with him, and in a way this piece of criticism began a personal artistic dialogue with how I see my work in production, and Gann’s words have affected how I write to this day. His criticism drew me closer to the idea of the “uncanny” and to Diamanda who crossed into my frame of influence.
A Los Angeles Times critic called Red Frogs "edgy, confrontational…worthy of Jean Genet” which made me think twice about Jean Genet as part of my lineage. Los Angeles Weekly made me think of The Elektra Fugues as "sheer beauty...a hypnotic montage of words and literary images...rhythm substitutes for tone, so there are no arias to speak of — rather, soliloquies and overlapping rants of what the author describes as a ‘choral flotsam.’” This idea of soliloquy returned years later as I moved from thinking about recitative into this more-private reverie of reflection.
I would say though that the Austin and Dallas critics have been the most insightful in describing my work. The Austin critics, in particular, have been incredibly important to how I write and about how I think about writing. For example, the Dallas critic Lawson Taitte described a recent work Judges 19 as “layer after layer of richly textured emotion...imminent danger...with precision of cadence and inflection.”
5. Are you able to do what you would like to do as an artist given the current situation of U.S. theatre right now?
I have never been able to do what I like as an artist in the United States, so I can’t imagine that. I feel incredibly censored and confined and stifled when I serve American audiences and theatres. Playwrights are slaves to a certain dramaturgy that fits the reality-programmed mode. The rewards for conforming are manifold productions, critical acclaim, applause and money. I am the writer as waitress, and this is why, perhaps, the serving tray keeps recurring in my plays.
I’ll digress a little here. While going back through Red Frogs, I realized that this play is about working my way through college. Since I paid for college completely on my own and I am the only one in my family with a master’s degree other than my mother, I see college and later grad school as a pivot in my fate. I paid for college by waitressing doubleshifts at Waffle House until I discovered I could make more by being a maid cleaning peoples’ summer homes. As I mopped and scrubbed, I began to see another world I had not known and perhaps can never know from the picture windows of the affluent people in the Lakeside part of Port Clinton and then later Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. In Nantucket, I was cleaning one day for a historical romance novelist who had a brain tumor and whose mother I also cleaned for (she owned the Calico Cupboard in town) and I was in the midst of realizing that my mother had also cleaned for them both. This was when my mother ran away from our family and from religion. Sending her to, of all places, Nantucket and later Bosnia!
So I had been smelling this lovely sort of soup simmering on the stove and I was really broke and hungry, and I don’t think they had surveillance cameras back then. Anyway there was really no dust in that house but I was feeling grateful for the dog fur so at least I had something to vacuum so that I could work all day, paid by the hour. The lady had to go out with her gorgeous younger stud-muffin husband who was clearly in it for the money and/or waiting for her to die from the brain tumor so he could cash in. When they left to go to town, I ate a little of the soup on the stove to keep from starving that day. When I tried to casually ask her about the recipe, I found out that was the dog food. I tell this story now in perhaps a linear fashion, but I could not have told this story this way then, or during the writing of the play.
When I work abroad, I don’t feel the waitressing mode of playwriting as much or as deeply, but at home in the U.S., I find I’m always limited by the imaginations of those who I need to go along with me, so in subsequent drafts of my writing, I often have to re-dream something that can work for them — something that for me is much smaller than the sum of its parts. I do write my first drafts as I like; in that sense I am decadent and free. However bringing it to the stage is always an infinitely challenging and often deductive task. Each project falls somewhere on a spectrum of independent to collaborative. This compromise can be good in the sense that it takes my work to larger and more commercial arenas as in the work I have created with composer Fred Ho (Voice of the Dragon trilogy) and with seven female playwrights on Seven. I am fully aware of the great need and tremendous value of working with others in productions. And yet I think of it as writing with my hands tied behind my back — restrained in some way. I have come to value this artistic restraint. When there is no demand or when there is no determined use-value to something I write (that is, when the restraints are not artistic), I feel this bondage in another, even more painful way. Most artists, I think, don’t mind the bondage, or they have been writing this way without being conscious of it in the first place. I’m saying we live in a free country where there is ominous censorship
 Randy Gener is a writer, editor, critic, and artist in New York City. Author of Love Seats for Virginia Woolf and other Off-Broadway plays, Gener is the recipient of the George Jean Nathan Award, the highest accolade for dramatic criticism in the United States, and NLGJA Journalist of the Year, among numerous other awards, for his critical essays in American Theatre magazine, where he works as contributing writer. He also won a Deadline Club Award from the New York chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for “shedding light into censorship and repression of the arts.” Gener most recently helped curate, produce and create “From the Edge,” the USITT-USA National Pavilion to the 2011 Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space. His website is theaterofOneWorld.org.
 Seven is a full-length documentary play collaboration of seven award-winning playwrights. They are Paula Cizmar, Catherine Filloux, Gail Kriegel, Carol K. Mack, Ruth Margraff, Anna Deavere Smith and Susan Yankowitz. Based on personal interviews with seven women leaders of the Vital Voices Global Partnership network who have triumphed over huge obstacles to create major changes in human rights in their home countries, the play weaves together seven interwoven stories which explore the commonality of challenge and of bravery, and which reveal their collective stories.