(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.)
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
RUTH MARGRAFF: I’m a playwright and write a lot with music. I play accordion and sing and with my band Café Antarsia. And I’m the Chair of Writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so I love the work of writing in an Art School across the street from our sister Art Museum. I’ve been very inspired lately by painters and gallery space because we teach writing like it is studio art training.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, culture, and gender? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
RM: I feel like I’m split between how I see myself and how I get identified. Which might be a “complaint of the hysteric” since, according to Slavoj Žižek “Why am I what you say that I am?” is a hysterical question. He claims you are always split between what you are “and the external place where the truth about you is inscribed.”
And I have written a couple hysteric operettas, so I’m not afraid of that vocal pattern. I have written¹ about this split as a possible marking of an interior self in an alliance not fixed by fate.
Most American pop culture seems foreign to me. I grew up without TV or films and very little music other than hymns I played for church. I’m white and female, but was almost raised in Africa, and friends my age were often missionary kids. Our house was open to homeless people, widows, people in poverty, unwed mothers… A couple times our living room was used as one of my Dad’s tiny churches or we’d meet in schools and pack everything away in the janitor’s closet afterwards. I would sneak over to the upright piano when everyone’s eyes were closed. Now I’ve strayed from the working-class, evangelical culture I was born into. But a lot of what I know as an American is privileged to the rest of the world. The obscure corners I knew as a kid have mushroomed into sprawling corporate churches and movements that are now branded politically.
Since 1999 I have worked with artists who don’t exactly mirror my identity. In a post-show convo last week I was talking about the past 16 years of collaborating closely with composer Fred Ho. Sometimes my input is yin to his yang, and at other times I know we appear to be completely different – yet we share a deep common ground.
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?
RM: There seem to be more doors closed than open to American artists and we try to figure out why. But we certainly don’t have it as bad as some places where you have to go underground to perform – like Belarus Free Theater. I wonder what kind of plays we would write if we did. A handful of US artists have told me it was easy to get “in” and I’m suspicious of their easy pass. I suppose it helps to be brazenly aggressive. And privileged artists have the headstart of a trustfund, rent or school paid for, or the ego to go up and hobnob with the powers that be.
I was called avant garde early on, and saw a few doors slam like the plague around that label. I went knocking around abroad and found passing embraces for what I do. I remember a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright telling me “oh she’s nobody” or “who is he? He’s nobody.” I thought well maybe I am nobody. In the Sufi and martial arts traditions that is when you are ready to grow.
I used to be named with Erik Ehn and Mac Wellman as a “language playwright” and it is interesting that we three have been a bit too extreme for the regional market which eagerly embraces our students. I’ve crossed between non-profits and commercial venues my whole career – but this doesn’t get celebrated in my identity. There is something transgressive about the poetics, abstraction and femininity of my plays. But more than that – if there is a cry there – a protest against the powers that be – then you are invisibly marked. You are trouble. You are using a language that can’t conform to the dominant cultural identity of realistic, cool corporate logic, depositing the brand as advertised. This has nothing to do with exterior identity which can be masked and marketed in all sorts of ways.
JL: Where do you feel we are in terms of gender and race in larger landscape of the American Theatre?
RM: Well on the back of my first book of plays Randy Gener calls me a “landscape playwright” and I like thinking about the landscape of dialogue… However the actual landscape is grim for women. And it’s well-documented that a few playwrights of color are segregated to one diversity slot per season. You can read a litany of stats and articles about the count of women in literary arts by VIDA. It’s bleak. I was on a recent panel of women where we decided to ignore all that and talk about what we are doing constructively to make our work. I’m encouraged by the recent large playwriting awards with benefits coming from foundations because they are spreading the wealth and honors. There are new names, and a diversity of cultures and ages. But I’m also worried about sustainability for playwrights. What are we doing to sustain all our emerging and sprouting and developing playwrights?
JL: How do you feel your community has addressed the issues of race and gender parity? How has this particular issue impacted you and your ability to practice your craft?
RM: I’ve moved around so much – my community of artists seems as transient as I am from project to project. And yet certain places like Minneapolis, Austin, New York City, Los Angeles and now Chicago can have the feel of an upper room that a prophet returns to over the years. Theater Without Borders gave me a set of conversations I’ve had since 2004 and I feel very close to these artists. My sisters at Dah Teatar and I don’t see each other often, yet we started making work together in 2005 and they are like family to me.
In some ways the American theater community is always addressing issues of race and gender parity and never getting anywhere. Maybe it is because we focus on character rather than plot! We have to change the capitalist narrative first. The story of a hero with a thousand faces going on his colonial journey, overcoming obstacles, almost losing and then winning… By disenfranchising everyone else. Then maybe we can change the system. Everyone who gets into power, gets corrupted by the easy pass status quo. I used to think the quickest way to silence a rebel was to give him some money. But there’s very little rebellion dangerous enough to silence. There is the silence of omission and exclusion but who can hear it in the mass debris of our self-status updates? As in Ortega & Gasset’s true revolt of the masses we might be better served to stop making art at all.
JL: Do we need gender based theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community? What is lost?
RM: There’s a lot to gain from working with people not exactly like us. We have to be open, humble, to give and to receive. But that’s not how every artist feels. Some artists need to be with like-minded artists to give them strength. And there are times that only other women can understand things about me. I feel that way about the “Lean In” group on Facebook. I love how fresh and intimate it is in that space.
Also I’m not sure I’m trying to tell the story of my identity. I probably did in the first few plays and then noticed a greater world than my own. Or is my identity in motion? As an empath (or playwright) I am writing other characters all the time so I’m listening from another point of view beyond my own. I wonder if my identity is actually there in each character, in all, in none of them at once? Lately I’m reading mystic poetry and inspired by the beloved as omnipresent.
I think we need all the theaters we can get. They will gain and lose as they go – who is to tell anyone not to take on the mantle? We need all the mantles.
In authenticity perhaps there are modes of translation – some of them rooted simply in time or proximity. Sometimes I have to wait to truly convey the interior of a trauma because I am too close. Someone less close may find the words that fail me in that moment. I’ve seen heartbreaking eye-witness testimony that needed no translation. Other times the translation kept the heart from breaking through. I’ve seen some people unscathed by a catastrophe someone nearby is ruined from witnessing. I’ve also seen a lot of profiteering from stories that are not one’s own. Stories can be taken from one’s own community or even family and not attributed. There’s an ethics to this that artists either care about or they don’t. For me it’s wrong not to care about these things.
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
RM: It is mainly the theaters that have the most power and money that need to serve more. Smaller theaters are trying to find more local inclusivity. We need to follow the money and have integrity as to where it goes. Why do theater lobbies look like office buildings? Why are theaters mimicking the identity of corporations? When will theaters stop assimilating into that void of featureless systems that erase our distinctions, disorientations and diversity into a smoothly packaged blurbable message to pacify and dispose, even as the play is consumed?
Ruth Margraff has written 5 martial arts operas for composer Fred Ho’s VOICE OF THE DRAGON 1,2,3 (Apollo Theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Guggenheim, CAMI tour), NIGHT VISION (Here Arts Ctr, Cooper Union) and DEADLY SHE-WOLF ASSASSIN (acclaimed by the New York Times, etc. now at LaMama in NYC) and co-wrote SEVEN now touring worldwide, introduced in 2010 by Hillary Clinton and Meryl Streep at the Broadway Hudson Theater (NYC). Her critically-acclaimed ANGER/FLY premiered last season for Trap Door and she’s been writing new operas in France, Serbia, Turkey and Austria for the Pivot Arts Festival and the Art Institute of Chicago Ballroom/Shapiro Ctr/Link’s Hall. Her CAFÉ ANTARSIA ENSEMBLE (Innova Records) has toured to Ice Factory 3LD, Chicago World Music Festival/Navy Pier, New York Gypsy Festival, Baku National Thtr/Mugham Ctr (Azerbaijan), Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Cairo Jazz Club (Egypt), Accidental Festival/ICA (UK), Sibiu Festivalul, Cluj Euphorion Studio (Romania); Novaja Drama/Moscow Art Thtr (Russia); BELEF, Dah Teatar, Rex (Serbia); Festivale L’anglicane, Toronto Junction Arts (Canada), Karantena (Croatia); Preglej Na Glas! (Slovenia); A38, Trafó (Hungary); Pøíští Vlna, Rock Café Praha (Czech Rep); Rebetiko Mercouri Hall (Greece); Halka Art Project/Ikametgah Kadikoy (Turkey); Ruth has published many plays and received awards from the Rockefeller, McKnight, Jerome, Fulbright foundations, Arts International, TMUNY, NEA/TCG, NYSCA, Illinois Arts Council among others and has taught playwriting at Yale, Brown, UTAustin and now is Chair of Writing at the Art Institute of Chicago. www.RuthMargraff.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