In the twilight of a waning late summer day, thoughts turn quite naturally toward the upcoming US Presidential election, and what is certainly a contest of idols on the blue and red sides of the US’ mainstream political parties. Much empty rhetoric has filled the media-waves over the last year, and this summer has been particularly rife with hollow phrases sung loudly on both sides of the respective campaign platforms. This is hardly unusual. In fact, as citizens in this country, “politics as usual” has become a familiar, comforting phrase, as opposed to one that should sound an alarm.
Why it is that “politics as usual” grants comfort, rather than outrage? Is outrage only possible in momentary flames signaled through the fires of resistance and action? Is the OWS movement, in the US at least, in danger of becoming a passing phase? Or will OWS’ demand toward increased accountability and radical change to late capitalism’s structures prove successful in another ten years’ time? Or twenty?
The flames of passion that stir the desire toward moral accountability in society – toward, for example, the indictment for war criminals that live quite comfortably among us fellow citizens with no shame attached to their names – seem to flicker in burning embers, as another election year is upon us. The talk all summer on the media-waves has been about the “economy,” but the talk rarely focuses on the sixth of the US that is unemployed and/or living below the poverty level. Somehow, the “inconvenience” of poverty – its strange stigma – cannot compete for attention with the perceived glamor of Mitt Romney’s fashion sense or the manner in which President Obama carries himself with a measure of savvy grace at a fund-raiser. Yet, poverty, in the richest country in the world, where outsized, heaping plates of food are served daily at restaurants and diners across the US, is very much with us. In plain view. And with it, also, the stories of over two million Americans who have fought in the 2nd Iraq and Afghanistan wars since 2001, and the families of these Americans who have had to cope with trauma and its aftermath.
No mention was made at the recent 2012 Republican National Convention of the over two million Americans who have served in these two long-standing wars. Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s advisor, was so bold as to defend on CNN on 2 September 2012, the omission of the wars at the RNC and in Romney’s speech, especially the 11-year engagement in Afghanistan, due to the fact that to talk of war and especially these wars, was “unpopular.”
While President Obama spoke at Fort Bliss immediately on the heels of the RNC to demonstrate his acknowledgment of our currently deployed service men and women, and veterans, and a military mom addressed the audience as introduction to First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech on the first day of the DNC, both wars have taken on a rather theoretical presence in US culture as a whole. While 2008’s “The Hurt Locker” won the Academy Award, it was by no means a box office wonder. And although countless films, TV programs, books and other creative forms of expression have addressed and continue to address the lingering effects of these two wars on our society and culture, somehow they seem to have become phantoms of themselves in the US’ collective communal discourse. Due to unpopularity? Is it more comfortable to talk about who will be on “Dancing with the Stars” this network TV season? Or is there something else that has generated self-censorship in our society? Is it, as Rachel Maddow has called it in her 2012 book of the same name, a kind of “drift?”
These thoughts stir on a humid night in New York City, where the occasional siren breaks the otherwise pall of seeming quiet, as I work on my new play Spark, which centers on a returning female soldier from our recent wars, and her coming home to a family of little means, a family of sisters, living in a poverty-stricken region of the Carolinas. In two months time, in November, right in the thick of what will be, by all seeming accounts, a tough Presidential election, Spark will sustain multiple readings through a NoPassport theatre alliance (http://www.nopassport.org/spark) scheme at diverse venues across the US and abroad, including ones in New York City, Omaha, Boston, Portland, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Nagodoches, and even western Australia. With actor-producer Gloria Mann (spearheading a special reading/event at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City on November 11, 2012), line producer Lanie Zipoy, dramaturg Zac Kline, assistant dramaturg Erin Kaplan holding the ropes to this life-raft of a play, we will engage with a wide range of artists as well as communities of many shapes and sizes: of little, middling and more than middling economic means, with students, veterans, arts practitioners and families in the hope that this little story of faith and healing, hunger, forgiveness, trauma and reconciliation can be part of a larger conversation, one that moves past the reading room floor, and into the coffeehouse and street, about how living with war , even at home, when it is miles and miles away, is not a theoretical enterprise, but one that has real costs on a physical and emotional level, and one that – no news here, but history bears repeating – demands we take into account the reasons behind why these wars are fought and how, when they are fought, and that the damage that is effected is not only “over there,” but on the home-front as well. However much the clarion calls of the respective political campaigns stress the need to go forward as a nation without too long of a backward glance, strategic omission will not make the damage go away. It will only make the process of healing much more complex than it already is proving to be.
Spark is the third play in what has become, I have realized over the course of the last year, a quartet of plays that focus on individuals who live in the burning holes of our torn fabric. All of the plays in this emerging quartet, which includes The Way of Water (set in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster), have been written out of an increasing sense of outrage – over the continued, seemingly convenient and remarkable (if you think about the fact that we live in the era of “advanced” communication) invisibility of stories on many of our arts platforms of those who live amongst us, with us, next to us, and who have perhaps the most to teach us, by dint of their experience, lives, and circumstances, about who we are, in the here and now, who we have been, and who we can be as a culture.
I don’t mean to say that only those who have suffered a great loss, lost their livelihood, have been beset by human-made and natural disaster, or who have experienced and witnessed in their own flesh and blood the devastating nature of war itself, are the only figures that are worthy of recording in our books. Such a claim would be rash, unforgiving and freakily ennobling of loss, poverty and trauma as the only viable literary, cinematic and/or dramatic subjects that can merit and effect and/or contribute to a measure of cultural reparation. Moreover, while the impetus for this quartet has come from a need to draw attention to something in our culture and desire for it to have a hearing (one of a writer’s essential duties, after all), at day’s end, I do not pretend to be a journalist, and to do a journalist’s or documentarian’s job, but rather to come at and through my outrage from a poet’s position: seeking the truths in and between the lines and their breaks, through acts of speech and gesture, and ultimately through a spiritual engagement with fictional characters drawn in flesh and blood.
Nevertheless, I think that when a culture –and Romney’s RNC speech and the scripted omission of wars of long standing is only one example of the kind of media spin that perpetuates moral chaos – condones and continues to reiterate the effacement of its citizens – its invisible majority – and their service to this country or their suffering at the hands of power to which they wish to speak truth but for whom there is no answer – then perhaps it is indeed art’s work to offer an open space – an emotive space that goes for and doesn’t bypass the heart – for these stories to come to light, and in turn, for our fellow citizens, even if they are twenty or fifty or a thousand in an audience, to consider what their call to action can be, how they wish to live and how they indeed do have choice, power, and capacity to not accept “politics as usual.”
How do communities operate? When do they function as communities and when do they stop functioning, because they are caught in a prescribed longing for an idea of community that was broken at the advent of modernity? Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has proposed in his seminal text The Inoperative Community that:
“Community is revealed in the death of others; hence it is always revealed to others. Community is what takes place always through others and for others. It is not the space of the egos – subjects and substances that are at bottom immortal – but of the /’s, who are always others (or else are nothing).” [p.15]
If we consider Nancy’s proposition, only one of many in his profound treatise, in relationship to, for the sake of this article, the representation of political consciousness in US society, then it would not be unfair to say that you and I may be living in communities that are essentially inoperative, because the space of the egos has consumed the others, who are, in effect, you and I, and that, consequently, this space of egos has been determined collectively by many in our society as “healthy,” despite the quest for moral truth and the desire to live a moral life.
Now, why speak of morality, truth, community and functionality when thinking about theatre and art-making? Is it “unpopular” to discuss how it is and why it is that we make what we make, where we make it and who gets the dough at the end of the day?
No one forces anyone to be in the theatre. It is, quite notoriously, as the creators of the musical “Annie” made us all sing “a hard-knock life.” There is no guarantee of a paycheck on a daily basis, unless you are permanently hired by an institution or arts organization in some capacity, and even then, unless it is incredibly well-endowed and supported, there is always the chance that the institution or arts organization may fold. There is little glamor in trotting the boards every night, if you’re an actor, or emailing scripts to literary offices and directors, if you’re a playwright. There certainly is no end to the glass ceiling it seems if you happen to be a director of color. And so on. You get my meaning. It is a community within a larger community that operates pretty much in spaces of egos that shift in hierarchy/ies depending on the ebb and flow of either commerce, the effable nature of buzz, pre-existing funding structures, or the mysterious dictates of the public.
There are many deaths in theatre – metaphorical ones, but also real ones. If you are a cultural worker in this field long enough, and you have some sense of the flow of history, you will begin to consider how, for example, at one time certain dramatists were all the rage, and now no one, and I mean, no one, touches their work. How certain actors seem to rise and rise and then flame out, through no fault of their own talent or skill, but simply because of the strange cruel mercy of casting. You will begin to also see theatrical movements that were dormant or had seemed to reach their peak, say, fifteen years ago, suddenly stir up again, with little recognition or awareness that what is being debated now was in fact debated some time ago by equally passionate, talented, vocal creative artists. You need only look at the evolving nature of the gender parity “debate” as one example of the peculiar but operative nature of theatre history and how it functions as its own micro-culture within the macro-culture of the fabric of society.
What theatre, however, does do and can do, when it is truly functioning, is engage spiritually and civically with the public as One. Not one homogenous mass of adoration, mind you, but one heterogeneous, possibly, hopefully conflicted gathering of individuals who are called upon, or who happen to find themselves in a position (if, for example, they went to the theatre not out of their own volition, but at the behest of a friend, lover, comrade, or out of a sense of dutifulness to a friend in the theatre company) to bear witness to their own suffering, joy, folly, misuse of power, and ability to betray a fellow human being or the planet itself. If reading dramatic literature teaches you anything, at its best, at its crazy soul-firing core, it teaches you about the language of hurt. Theatre is often about what hurts – in society, in us as human beings, etc. It is a forum of public, live (even if it incorporates elements that are pre-recorded) engagement with wounding. Genet said it way back when. Euripides said it. And so on. Hurt doesn’t go away.
Societies can heal, to an extent, perhaps even momentarily, perhaps even for a decade or two, at least on the surface, but there’s also the tear in the fabric, as Mark Ravenhill once said in his essay of the same name (2004) – and that tear is what theatre-makers are after. Not because the tear is sexy or popular or on trend, or even, shall we say cynically, remotely good fodder for a grant application. No. The tear (as in tears that sting your eyes, as in the hole that burns through a piece of cloth) is what gives the artist pause, and allows a space for open-ness that can thereafter allow for the space of creation, and down the pike create the space of invitation for the public to walk in and be able to, indeed, witness, participate and sit with/walk with/stand with (whatever the physical situation of the live experience may be) the unfinished work of spiritual engagement.
When a community has stopped functioning, however, the job and daily practice of art-making becomes doubly difficult because the artist is not only dealing with the recognition of the tear in the fabric – and that spark of recognition is key – and how to respond to the recognition with imagination, skill, talent, craft and discipline, but also with the almost insoluble fact that the work itself is not, cannot do the job, as it would in an operative situation. For example, if you are making theatre in a conflict zone, where, say, there are bullets being fired, then your choices have to be different, because the job of healing cannot be done in the same manner as if one were in a what for all intents and purposes in a controlled and “safe” environment.
If you live in an community that is merely functioning somehow, and you have come to at least recognize that fact, then what kind of work do you choose to make, and why? Do you make work that reinforces the nature of the community? Or do you go about an alternate method?
Theatre is a call to action. An action of the spirit. It takes all manner of ambition to assume that a piece of theatre in and of itself can “do” anything. A theatre piece, after all, is merely a score, an offering for a potential performance. It exists purely in ephemera: as mere signs on a page (if you’re working with text). It is, by nature, “useless,” (in regard to the workings of capital). And it takes a strong measure of grand folly to dedicate your life to a useless endeavor. And yet, I would argue, as have so many in history’s long stream, that the uselessness and simultaneous usefulness of theatre-making, and one’s dedication to its purpose, can sustain a life and the lives of others, if not monetarily, then at least through the very engagement and acknowledgment of the tears that we need shed and repair in our communities.
Caridad Svich received a 2012 OBIE Award for Lifetime Achievement in the theatre, and the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for her play The House of the Spirits, based on the novel by Isabel Allende. She has been short-listed for the PEN Award in Drama four times, including in the year 2012 for her play Magnificent Waste. In the 2012-13 season: 2012 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award round two recipient GUAPA receives a rolling world premiere courtesy of NNPN at Borderlands Theater in Arizona, Miracle Theatre in Oregon and Phoenix Theater in Indiana; her 4-actor play Love in the Time of Cholera, based on the novel by Garcia Marquez, will premiere at Repertorio Espanol in NYC; and The Tropic of X will receive its English-language premiere at Single Carrot Theatre in Baltimore. There will also be regional premieres of In the Time of the Butterflies (based on the novel by Julia Alvarez) at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis and The House of the Spirits at Gala Hispanic Theatre in Washington D.C, and academic premiere of her fantasia on 1963, Pop culture and the Kennedy assassination The Archaeology of Dreams at University of Nebraska-Omaha.
Five of her plays radically re-imagining ancient Greek tragedies are published in the September 2012 collection Blasted Heavens (Eyecorner Press, University of Denmark). 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) Divine Fire (BackStage Books), and Out of the Fringe: Contemporary Latina/o Theatre & Performance (TCG). She has translated nearly all of Federico Garcia Lorca’s plays and also dramatic works by Julio Cortazar, Lope de Vega, Calderon de la Barca, Antonio Buero Vallejo and contemporary plays from Mexico, Cuba and Catalonia. She is alumna playwright of New Dramatists, founder of NoPassport theatre alliance & press (http://www.nopassport.org), Drama Editor of Asymptote journal of literary translation, associate editor of Routledge/UK’s Contemporary Theatre Review and contributing editor of TheatreForum. She is an entry in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Latino Literature. Website: www.caridadsvich.com.