(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)
TCG Online Conference Salon: Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc–Latina/o Theatre series
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
CARIDAD SVICH: I am a playwright, translator, editor, educator, independent publisher, curator, songwriter/lyricist, arts journalist, and artivist (www.caridadsvich.com). I am also founder of NoPassport theatre alliance and press. My plays tend to focus on transnational stories that center on migration and displacement; reconfigurations of ancient myths and stories; and contemporary plays about the working poor and/or socially marginalized. As an administrator, my occupation as roving producer/mentor of NoPassport theatre alliance puts me in charge of publishing new theatre titles, organizing and curating national conferences and conversations, and staging theatre actions on a local and global scale with other producing collaborators.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
CS: I was born in the US of Cuban-Spanish, Argentine-Croatian parents. I identify as a US hybrid Latina. My work as a theatremaker, in both English and Spanish, is profoundly marked by the constant negotiation of in-between spaces – through languages, cultures, identities, and boundaries of form, style and content.
JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?
CS: Most of my body of work has been produced by experimental theatres/companies and less so, comparatively, given my career trajectory so far, by theatres with a clear identity-politics-based mission. My early work was produced at the Women’s Project, INTAR and Cincinnati Playhouse. In the last five years, my work has been produced three times (in Spanish) at Repertorio Español in New York City, twice at Mixed Blood Theatre (bilingually), once at Denver Center Theatre Company, once at Gala Hispanic Theatre (in Spanish), Miracle Theatre Group, Borderlands Theatre and Phoenix Theatre, to name a few theatres. What is significant about this is that my work has been produced in Spanish and/or bilingually more often in the last five years than it has in English, even though ninety percent of my body of work is written in English. The Spanish-language-market door both here in the US and abroad (productions in Uruguay, Chile and Ecuador, also in the last five years) has opened doors to new audiences and ways of working. Of the companies listed above, quite obviously, Mixed Blood Theatre, Miracle Theatre Group, Borderlands Theatre and Gala Hispanic Theatre have an identity-politics-based mission. Repertorio Español is one of the oldest companies in the US devoted to work primarily written in the Spanish language, and I would say that they identify their mission quite differently. As one of its founders, the estimable Rene Buch once said on a panel at the 2nd NoPassport theatre conference panel at the Martin Segal Theatre Center at CUNY Graduate Center in 2008, “They were founded as a company devoted primarily to classical repertoire in Spanish – to master authors and plays – and within that have embraced over the years, as the company has evolved, to producing new works by living authors of Latino/a origin born in the US and outside the US alongside a classical or neoclassical repertoire.”
In regard to the wider network of US resident/regional theatres, I think the fact that my work as a playwright is not always transparently rooted in its subject matter in or about US Latina/o or Latin American culture has been an obstacle in terms of doors being open and doors being closed, although to me, the lens is always the same. My point of view, regardless of the subject matter I choose to write about, is borne from the way I see the world and who I am as a human being of a hybrid Latina background.
In other words, I think that the politics of identity politics has created challenges for artists. I am a writer. With every work I make, I should not be called upon to represent an entire culture or identity, which is I think how often authors of hyphenated identity in the US are often asked to do: i.e. this is a play about being Latina or being Asian or being queer, etc. I think, whilst a certain kind of “branding” can make it easier for potential producers to categorize a writer and their work, it is damaging ultimately, because it re-inscribes “otherness.” I think the doors that have been closed to me thus far have been precisely the ones that persist in “branding” an artist and their work based on identity. I think that if you’re a dramatist who happens to be female and Latina, certain things are expected of you – in terms of how you write and what you write about. These expectations are not the artist’s own expectations, but rather the expectations of the “market” mentality that has affected so much of US theatre’s programming.
JL: Do we need racial, ethnic and gender based culturally specific theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?
CS: I think any way to fight against one dominant story is important. There is nothing worse than to buy into the idea that there is only one way to tell a story and experience it. I always think of novelist Chimamanda Ngozi when she speaks about reading colonial (British and US) writing when she was a child in Nigeria, and feeling that stories belonged – that the world of fiction belonged to stories about British and US people, and that only later did she begin as an adolescent to discover writers from Nigeria and other countries. There is a kind of erasure that can occur – self-erasure – when you as an artist privilege one point of view over another, one culture over another, one language over another. I know, for example, that when my US Latino/a students read Luis Valdez or José Rivera or Cherríe Moraga or Maria Irene Fornés, it is often the first time they have encountered a US playwright of Latino/a origin or birth on the page. If they don’t come from the world of fiction, where Márquez and Allende and Bolaño and Borges (and so many others) have been translated into English, or who have read Junot Díaz and Julia Alvarez, for example, their knowledge of US theatre is very, very limited, and to them the fact that there can be a play with US Latino/a characters is a revelation. Still. Today. All of which means that there are still many, many battles to be won in terms of full representation and visibility of stories from the many cultures that make up the US on our stages. It is still quite common, sadly, to see programmers sometimes treat the black/Latino/Asian/ plays as one or two possible slots in their seasons, whilst the “regular” plays –which tend to be Anglo dominant – are the “norm.” I think this kind of programming only aggravates the problematic of representation – it makes writers sometimes feel as if they HAVE to represent an identity. But this is so limiting, and only reinforces a strange and curious vicious cycle. However, do we need racial, ethnic and gender based culturallly specific theatres in this country? I think the paradigm has shifted in the last 20 years. The needs that made such theatres rise in the 1980s, esp., have changed. Audiences have changed, for one thing. Artists who were once beholden or expected to be beholden to a representational identity aesthetic are less so. What happens, then, to the theatres that were founded with a need to represent and/or “make seen?” I think that until we have a US theatre scene that doesn’t segregate in any way in its casting practices and programming, then there is a place.
JL: What is the current state of Latino/a Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)
I think US Latina/o theatre is vibrant and rich and abundant, especially in its actors and writers. This doesn’t mean that we are all working or making a living. But that there is talent aplenty? You bet. I think directors and designers and producers need to be nurtured much more. Recently on the ATHE listserve, there was an informal poll – a call to name at least ten working US Latino/a directors and designers, and it was embarrassing that amongst a fairly wide membership of scholars and practitioners, the same five names came up, by and large. Depth of knowledge about who is training, who is in the field, and access to to job opportunities is important. Still. On all fronts. The late Jose Quintero and the late Gerald Gutierrez were both exemplary directors who mostly made their careers on working on the classics and the US repertoire of O’Neill and Albee, etc. Both worked at the highest levels in our industry – in the not-for-profit and commercial sectors. Off and on Broadway. Today, there is not a single, as of this writing, director of US Latino/a origin outside of Moisés Kaufman (the lone exception) working consistently at the same level as Quintero and Gutierrez in New York City uptown, midtown or downtown, and I mention NYC, because it is often perceived as the ‘center” of US theatre-making. How is this possible? Now, you may say, well, Quintero and Gutierrez never focused on directing US Latina/o work. Maybe that’s how at the time of their respective rise(s) in the field, they were able to forge ahead. Would we argue in twenty years time the same about Moisés Kaufman, who was born and raised in Venezuela? I hope not. Because to me, it is the artistry that should matter. Quintero, Gutierrez, Kaufman were/are terrific directors. But the caveat may be about perceptions of Latinidad. If you direct a US Latino/a play as a US Latino director, does this mean, in people’s eyes, that that is ALL that you can do? Identity equates identity? And what does this even mean? Directing is a craft. Writing is a craft. Acting is a discipline. It starts with craft, talent and skill. I think talking about the state of US Latino/a theatre means you ARE talking about the state of American theatre. Until the playing field is level on all fronts, which may not be in our lifetimes, then we can talk about American theatre and where it is at and where it is not.
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
Think expansively about casting (esp); practice inclusion like breathing; lower ticket prices,; produce much more, workshop less; put to rest “season” mentality in programming; make theatre programming flexible; program, if need be, three months out; keep the work revolving, fresh, immediate; keep budgets low; pay your artists; nurture your artists; do not try to “predict” success.
Caridad Svich received a 2012 OBIE Award for Lifetime Achievement in the theatre, a 2012 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award for GUAPA, and the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for her play The House of the Spirits, based on the Isabel Allende novel. She has edited several books on theatre including Out of Silence (Eyecorner Press), Trans-Global Readings and Theatre in Crisis? (both for Manchester University Press) Divine Fire (BackStage Books), Out of the Fringe (TCG), and Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornes (Smith & Kraus). caridadsvich.com
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com