(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. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)
TCG Online Conference Salon
Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
MICHAEL JOHN GARCES: I’m the Artistic Director of Cornerstone Theater Company, an ensemble-based community-engaged company based in Los Angeles. We create work in collaboration with communities defined variously, and mount the plays in that particular context using the artistry of professionals and non-professionals side-by-side.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
MJG: In terms of culture and heritage, as the son of a Cuban father and an American mother, and having grown up in Colombia, I identify as Latino, in all of the “racial”, ethnic and transnational complexity of that term. Race is, of course, a deeply problematic construct that is, in and of itself, racist, and so I decline to define myself in those terms. Certainly I have white skin privilege, regardless of background or self-identification.
I think that my identity has served me as it serves anyone, by providing a basis for inquiry, and also something to push against, embrace and reject, etc. There have been times when I have focused, in my writing and in my directing, on “Latino” work (whatever that may mean; I would define it, for myself, as work that is primarily generated by people who self-identify as Latino – or Hispanic, or another analogous term – and which explicitly engages with issues through a lens of Latinidad) and other times in which I have not at all. I think producers have, sometimes, been more likely to hire me to direct work that is specificly Latino, or by a writer of color, than not. I’m more than content with the work I have had the opportunity to engage, so I don’t see it as any kind of disadvantage, but I do think it has been the case. At times it has likely been an advantage. In terms of my writing, well, writers write from who they are. I don’t think I write plays that fit comfortably in the Latino “box”, such as it may be, but that box is constantly changing, expanding and being redefined. I think from a Latino perspective that box is incredibly elastic, but from the pov of established producers and cultural decision-makers, it seems to be more limiting. Either way, I think my plays would be less than likely to be produced in most theatres, so I don’t really worry about it too much.
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?
MJG: Sure, both, I would guess. People tend to define and limit people in terms of how they have been defined. That is particularly pernicious in terms of race in this country. I think it likely, that certain opportunities would not have been afforded me if I were not Latino, but I have no idea, of course, as I would not be me, first of all, and who knows in that case what I’d want to do. And I’m reasonably certain that my name is not in some conversations when it comes to some opportunities; some of that may happen to be because of identity, I guess, though, lord knows, there are plenty of other reasons for that!
I established myself in the context of a Latino theater in NYC, INTAR, and that was and continues to be a home for me, for which I am very grateful. And I received amazing opportunities there. So that is definitely a door that swung wide open!
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?
MJG: We need the theaters that we make. Everything is gained by a broad plurality of stories being told, and by having opportunities for artists of every community to have voice. Whether that is due to having identity-based theaters, or some other context, is a complex question. We only don’t need specific theaters when everyone, regardless of “race”, class, ethnicity, gender, etc. etc. etc. has access not only to being generative art makers but also cultural decision makers.
JL: What is the current state of Latino/a Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)
MJG: Well, people do stupid (or, more usually, insensitive) things sometimes, usually due to thoughtlessness or convenience. So, we’ve seen that in the last couple of years across the board, and not just in Latino/a theater, in dumb casting controviersies, etc. But that is hardly confined to Latino/as. Most theaters are deeply conservative, and by that I mean resistant to change, however it is seen to manifest. That can be change in the stories being told, that can be change in who is telling the stories. So, that’s always a problem, and it is the calling, the duty, of artists to combat that tendency, to challenge it, to explode it. To piss people off, to excite and provoke, and to open people up to beauty. I think Latino/a artists continue to inspire and challenge me. Which is as much as can be asked. I’d list artists, but I worry about who I would be omitting.
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
Michael John Garcés is the Artistic Director of Cornerstone Theater Company, a community-engaged ensemble in Los Angeles, where he most recently directed Plumas Negras by Juliette Carrillo, as well as writing Consequence and Los Illegals. Recent directing credits at other theaters include productions at Woolly Mammoth (where he is a company member), The Wilma Theatre and South Coast Rep. He directed Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s red, black and GREEN (a blues), created in collaboration with artist Theaster Gates, which has been presented at venues across the country such as The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, REDCAT and BAM
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