Toward a Visible Theatre

by Caridad Svich

in Generation Without Borders

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(Generation Without Borders is an essay series created by TCG for the 50th Anniversary of World Theatre Day. )

How does one write a life? Where does the will to intervene socially and politically in culture begin? Certainly, not every playwright’s path is marked by an activist intent. Some writers choose what may be deemed a “more quiet, interior” position in the field. Others may choose to use the work itself as a vehicle to exhort and proclaim their beliefs. Others still may simply choose to amuse, to create divertissements to comfort and/or soothe their public. There are many roads, in other words, to a writer’s life. The first job of a writer, however, is to notice, to observe the world, to train the eye to really see and record, and sometimes to see what isn’t there but could be. As a playwright, my path so far has been marked by a daily practice of seeing that has expanded in its global outlook over the years.

At first, writing was enchantment, a spell of words to fall into and in which to seek refuge. Writing, thus, was initially for me a retreat from the world. Part of the retreat had to do as much with being a child of immigrants as it did with wanting to create an alternative universe where ready-made constructions of identity and language were much more fluid and open. As I’ve kept writing and training as an artist, the enchantment has remained central to my relationship to words and signs on the page. The drunken ecstatic transformational materiality and beauty of languages verbal, visual and aural restlessly plays with my imagination and stretches the limits of the world that I see. But what is it that one sees as writer in the theatre? How does one face the world?

Theatre is a public forum. Writing for the theatre and live performance, thus, demands engagement with the world. To write a play is a civic act, or at very least the articulation of a desire to take part in a civic dialogue with society. Broad questions of identity and human rights enter very much into the frame of a play’s vision. What stories do you choose to tell when you face the page? And how indeed will you tell them? Content and form are inextricably linked, as they are in the “real” world outside the site of action of a theatre piece. When I write, the question nearly always has become over the years, “Why this story now? And how can I shift the world a little bit by re-framing the ways in which we are conditioned to seeing the human figure, the post-post colonial erotic, political and spiritual body, in space and time?” As a bilingual child of immigrants from Cuba and Argentina, respectively, the question inevitably also includes “And how does this story or stories engage with and of the Americas and the larger world?”

I’ve spent most of my writing life challenging and resisting labels and categories. Perhaps some of my colleagues would attest that the fact that I trained with master playwright and teacher Maria Irene Fornes right after receiving my undergraduate and graduate school degrees in theatre has something to do with my wariness of labels. After all, Fornes’ example was one of sublime resistance. She wrote all different kinds of plays over a forty-year period and defied expectations of what a female dramatist could do in the United States if she simply set about pursuing her vision relatively unconditionally. Her body of work is uncompromising, consistently surprising, unequivocally female in its concerns, and relentlessly ambiguous in its approach to the delineation of character. Her protagonists are deeply flawed, ornery, not particularly noble most of the time, and often blind-sided by their own complex natures and/or their socioeconomic positions in society. The intensive four-year training with Fornes at the INTAR Hispanic Playwrights Laboratory certainly had a profound influence on me as a young artist, but I recall resisting categories even before I worked with Fornes.

Back in graduate school at UCSD, I wanted to write outside any box, pursue interdisciplinary collaborations, and make all kinds of plays. If I think a bit harder on this, I would say, well, that’s just part of being an artist. One needs to start busting outta the box right from the get-go in order to get heard or want to get heard. But actually I think that for me writing for live performance always meant writing for this moment in time, however the moment manifested itself. Margaret Atwood talks about ‘negotiating with the dead’ when she writes, and for me, that negotiation has as much to do with listening to the ancestors as much as it has to do with the spectral beings that haunt theatre itself and its history. What is it that often we recall with fondness when we think about the acts of performance that inspired us at an early age? The sense of community, the ability to dress up and lose oneself in a role, the wonder that simple stagecraft can elicit, and the ability to re-awaken the senses and sharpen the mind to new ideas, forms, and stories.

Theatre is poetry, and the poet’s song rides the chord of every emotional beat in the theatre.

*

As a playwright, my mission has never been to speak for the Americas. Who could? In all their raging and beautiful complexity and diversity. But I have spent a great deal of time speaking to the Americas that can be sung and spoken of and made visible on US stages. I know that for me, Luis Valdez and Maria Irene Fornes as models of how to go about things as a dramatist in the complicated theoretical space which is part of Latino/a writing identity for the stage. John Jesurun is also a model. And so are Lynne Alvarez and Jose Rivera and Milcha Sanchez-Scott and so many more. But I’m also part of a history that includes Euripides, Eugene O’Neill, Sam Shepard, Adrienne Kennedy, Joe Orton, Caryl Churchill, Miguel Pinero, Ana Mendieta, Lillian Hellman, Ntzoke Shange, Federico Garcia Lorca, and…and…  Let’s think on all those stories we’ve seen, all the songs sung, all the many blushing moments that awake the mind as it faces the screen or page to create. “Blushing moments” I call them because writing is a dare and often the dare makes us blush. Dare I write this? Dare I write that? How do I dare and why?

Making a play is in and of itself a fragile game that involves the particular relationship between and among collaborators or potential collaborators. It’s a tough and tender affair that demands courage, a strong sense of humor and a great deal of commitment to the craft itself, its discipline, and the daily spiritual practice of believing in the art. A text for performance, a score for performance, is tested every night in front of an audience, regardless of whether it’s been performed a hundred times before or only once before. Every night the play could fail. That’s the dare of it. It’s all about the audience (of one or many) and what the dynamic exchange is between the audience and the performers. As a dramatist, you enter into this crazy game of chance willingly. I don’t anyone in this field who’s been ‘pushed into the writing life.’ A writer writes because… Writer wrights because… A writer Rights…

*

Gertrude Stein and David Greenspan dance a nimble dance in my mind when Greenspan performs Stein’s lecture Play in New York City. I remember the way Greenspan caresses words and exalts in the peculiarity of the English language, in Stein’s English: precious, defiant and true. The right to speak, the right to design an alternative world. When a dramatist makes a play, the play creates a new order. Ideologies, politics, the sense(s) of feeling and form (to quote Suzanne Langer), the membranes and tissues of existence, and the blood history of beings long gone (ancient sung) are called forth.  Stein speaks back to Greenspan, Greenspan writes his own inter/play of gesture and utterance as he interprets Stein. Stein’s text lives in the air.

A woman writes in the air. She dares speak. She dares whisper. She dares… challenge space and time and language(s). When I write I write, in English, I write in Spanish, Spanglish and sometimes I write in an English low-down, a little messy, scavenged from the slag and junk-heap of English itself, a vernacular invented, and at one and the same, time-worn: the language of folk songs written by anonymous… no longer.

*

What is the path we take as artists if we want to live in a world of NoPassport? A practical utopian ideal that nevertheless acknowledges with respect, tolerance, humility and grace the differences between and among us? How do we as artists who practice this premise, this dream, really, also acknowledge in an honest and poetic manner the emotional and spiritual cost that the fear of difference bears upon bodies subjected to the constraints of economic and political tyranny, oppression and hatred? I return to the ancient dramatists and the central questions of their art, to the inscriptions on the virtual field of history that we carry in our bones and hearts in the stream of writing and making art in civic dialogue with the body public and private, with the self within and outside the realm of governance: How we do celebrate our lives? How do we mourn our dead? What lessons, portraits and dreams through performance – through the enactment of remembrances – can we offer to our present and future citizens about the messed-up nature of being human in this world as we write a life, and lives?


Caridad Svich is a US Latina playwright, translator, lyricist and editor whose works have been presented across the US and abroad at diverse venues, including Denver Center Theatre, Mixed Blood Theatre, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, 59East59, McCarren Park Pool, 7 Stages, Salvage Vanguard Theatre, Teatro Mori (Santiago, Chile), ARTheater (Cologne), and Edinburgh Fringe Festival/UK. She received the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for her play The House of the Spirits, based on the novel by Isabel Allende.

Next season her new play GUAPA will receive its NNPN rolling world premiere at Borderlands Theater in Arizona, Miracle Theatre in Portland/OR and Phoenix Theater in Indianapolis, and her play Love in the Time of Cholera, based on the novel by Garcia Marquez, will premiere at Repertorio Espanol in NYC.

She has edited several books on theatre including Out of Silence: Censorship in Theatre & Performance (Eyecorner Press), Trans-Global Readings and Theatre in Crisis? (both for Manchester University Press) and Divine Fire (BackStage Books).

She is alumna playwright of New Dramatists, founder of NoPassport theatre alliance & press, and Drama Editor of Asymptote journal of literary translation. She holds an MFA in Theatre-Playwriting from UCSD. Website: www.caridadsvich.com