(To learn more about Marcy Arlin’s Artist, Immigrant blog series, click here.)
What do you love about theatre in the U.S. for yourself and in general?
The talented, gritty and brilliant people I’ve met, and the exuberance and amazing diversity of work being made. Discovering the work of Latino/a writers in particular has been a real joy, because it’s work I hadn’t encountered before moving here. The social engagement and poetic, imagistic language of Maria Irene Fornes (a pioneer), Migdalia Cruz, Jose Rivera, Octavio Solis, Andrea Thome and many others inspires me. Also—there’s a richness and music to the interwoven strands of speech in this country that owes much to the Black and immigrant experiences.
Most of what I love in the theatre here happens in small rooms with clanking pipes—Mac Wellman’s astonishingly scabrous and linguistically dense plays; seeing Migdalia Cruz’s I Love Lucy the other week at INTAR– rather than the sanctioned and better-funded houses. Also—there’s a real generosity and a scale of ambition driven by artists, despite the parlous state of arts funding, that inspires.
What do you miss about working in your homeland?
Real arts funding. My family, long-term friends and collaborators. A more socially and politically liberal culture. Playing in bands. The weather. The beach and the ocean. Being able to make a living as an artist, even if a scratchy, intermittent one. The underlying presence of the land and the Indigenous history, which is closer to the surface of mainstream culture (or harder to ignore at any rate) than it is here.
How have you combined, in your work, both country’s theatre training and culture?
In Australia, before I wrote plays, I played saxophone in rock and Balkan jazz bands and worked in ensemble-made DIY theatre. Australia has a powerful physical theatre tradition, so working in circus and performance troupes really shaped my sense of the stage and its physical life, as did directing music for plays. Australia on the whole is more suspicious of the consciously “poetic” so there’s a dryness and spareness to the language that’s both bracing and kind of shrink-wraps the linguistic imagination. It’s deflationary, in all senses. Coming here, I completed an MFA at Brown, studying with Paula Vogel, Nilo Cruz, Ruth Margraff and Aishah Rahman and was intoxicated by the language worlds they opened up to me as a writer. Now, as a writer I think my training in music and the poetry of the physical image (from Australia) really infuses what I put on the page and how I imagine stage space.
How do you see yourself/identify yourself as an artist in terms of being an immigrant? Does it matter to you?
Hmmm. On the one hand, I like being “in-between” in some ways—being the bridge, or having a sort of outside/inside perspective. Like many of us, I feel a strong desire to connect worlds that don’t usually speak to one another. To my intermittent frustration, I feel that the power of generic white privilege has given me a pass in the US that paradoxically makes my specific background, and its difference, invisible. The strangest thing about moving here was the utter disappearance of my own country from the world map of politics, news, everyday presence. Americans vaguely conceive of Australia as a more naïve, gentler, quirkier version of the US (apart from the poisonous animals and sharks) with less “problems” (read: guns and race relations) rather than as a different country with its own specific history.
I do think that an outsider eye, however one acquires it, is a powerful asset for a writer. And changing countries forces its development.
How does it affect your getting work? (accent, ethnicity, etc.)
I’ve been very fortunate in the support I’ve received to come here, study and work. The negative side is that I fall between cracks. I’m not seen really as “foreign”, but my work is off-center because of where I come from—although my accent is thought of as cute!
I don’t write purely “American” stories, which the theatre here is obsessed with, and in profound and subtle ways, don’t see the world through American eyes. For one thing, I take issue with the whole notion of patriotism; for another I resist the use of “we” as a way of talking about political behaviour (as in “we” invaded Iraq—an almost universal American trope). But as I said, my difference mostly passes unmarked so the net effect is that I seem off-center without being “exotic” or noticeably foreign. I’m not visible as a minority here—which in terms of having white privilege, is quite correct—but it means that the “difference” in my work has no recognisable place here; it just makes me less competitive for those “American story” slots.
What are you doing now? Here and/or abroad?
It’s busy! I joined the Department of Performing Arts at Georgetown in DC in 2012 and am very excited to be living in an international city and working in a program with a focus on community engagement and social justice. My anthology War Plays was just published by NoPassport Press. My play Trojan Barbie opens at Questors Theatre in the UK this March, at Georgetown this April, and in Australia (its 10th production) this July. This June You Are Dead. You Are Here, a project I’ve worked on for several years with director Joseph Megel and media designer Jared Mezzocchi has its world premiere at HERE in NY. It tells the story of the charged encounter between a US soldier and an Iraqi girl blogger in Fallujah in 2003. I’m really excited about this—we’ve incorporated projected landscapes from the virtual-reality program, Virtual Iraq, in collaboration with its designers. Virtual Iraq is a video-game based software used in experimental PTSD therapy for US veterans that immerses them in animated landscapes of Iraq, and we are the first theatre artists to incorporate it in an imaginary world on stage.
Can you tell me a theatre short story/anecdote about when you first came here? A more recent story?
The first show I saw, hugely jet-lagged from the interminable flight from Australia, was Stephanie Fleischman’s Eloise and Ray at the Ohio Theater in NYC. Mark Bazzone, an American playwright I’d met in Australia, took me there, and I sat with stars in my eyes, listening to Stephanie’s lovely cadences on stage. The city itself, the theatre, the downtown crowd (who all seemed to be in black) and my weird, spongy-legged jetlag all combined to create a sense of giddy possibility in this new country.
A more recent story: Twelve years later, I saw an afternoon of plays written by grade school kids performed in Providence at the Manton Avenue Project—a great theater project for young kids from a fairly poor part of town. The plays were gorgeous, surprising, highly theatrical, funny and heart-wrenching. Written by the young playwrights, they were performed by adult actors. Some plot lines: Overcoming fear of wild underpants; a trip to the moon; a pizza pursued by a fork has to deal with terror of being eaten. The most striking element—shades of Tadeusz Kantor– was that the young playwright herself would sit on stage at a desk, watching her work. I was struck by the solemn focus and pride of these writers, who came mostly from minority backgrounds. The audience was wildly on side, but not in a patronizing way—the plays really were great, and so much more imaginative and singular than much of the anodyne fare the regional theater programs for its ageing, upper-class audience.
So much of the American contradiction coalesced in these Manton Avenue project plays for me—the hope, the talent, the passion, the egregious inequality of opportunity, the hectic volunteerism in schools, the arts and elsewhere that stands in for robust arts funding and a missing political consensus on the need for a civic sphere that isn’t run for profit, but is seen as a vital social good. And the fact that, outside of Wall Street and politics (and sadly, much of the theaters where people actually get paid), the country’s incredibly diverse.
What is your residency/citizenship/visa status? How does it affect your life as an artist?
My visa status has entirely shaped my path in the US. I have a provisional green card now, having married my long-term American sweetheart in 2010. However, it took a decade to get that, and there are still more hoops to jump through until it’s made permanent. I originally came here on a Fulbright, with the dreaded 2 year home rule clause—meaning I was obliged to return to Australia for 2 years after completing my studies prior to applying for work or any other kind of visa. I wasn’t ready to return and the exception to that rule was “further training”, so I segued from an MFA to a Ph.D program, since they offered me funding, then to a job that could conceivably be called “training”. After that, I petitioned for a waiver of the 2 year home rule and luckily, it was granted.
I would never have had the backbone to finish that Ph.D. in Australia, and was comically ignorant about how long and how grueling the American doctorate is. However—I now have one, and I’m very glad because it’s given me better work options, not to mention a wider grasp of the field and more critical tools. It’s funny to think that being in a different material situation pressed me to act “out of character”— without that restriction I’d have just moved to NY after my MFA and flung my hat in the ring as a playwright like everyone else—and so I find myself with different work options than in my previous life as a boho artist moving between odd jobs, teaching, grants and other gigs.
Christine Evans’ award-winning plays have been produced in Australia, the US and the UK, and are published by Samuel French, Smith & Kraus, Theatre Forum and NoPassport Press. Premiere productions include Trojan Barbie (ART); Slow Falling Bird (Crowded Fire), My Vicious Angel (Belvoir St., Sydney) and Weightless (Perishable Theatre). An Australian Fulbright alumna, Evans holds an M.F.A. and Ph.D. from Brown and joined Georgetown’s theatre faculty in 2012. She’s a Core Member of the Playwrights Center, a Dramatists Guild member and a Resident Artist at HERE. Her multi-media play, You Are Dead. You Are Here. premieres at HERE in June, 2013.
Marcy Arlin is Artistic Director of the OBIE-winning Immigrants’ Theatre Project. Member: Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, Theatre without Borders, League of Professional Theatre Women, No Passport, and Fulbright Scholar to Romania and the Czech Republic. She curates Eastern European Playwrights: Women Write the New. Her project East/West/East: Vietnam Immigrants Out of War, is a binational, Vietnamese/Czech/English theatre project based on interviews with American and Czech Vietnamese. She created Journey Theatre with survivors of war and torture. Directing venues: 59E59, QTIP, LaMama, MESTC, Vineyard, Oddfellows Playhouse, Artheater/Köln, Nat’l Theatre of Romania. Co-Editor Czech Plays: 7 New Works. She is an Assistant Professor at Pace University, teaching theatre and social change.