Halfway Between the Church and the Whorehouse

by Oliver Mayer

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation

Post image for Halfway Between the Church and the Whorehouse

(Photo by Michal Daniel of Oliver Mayer’s play, Fortune is a Woman. Oliver Mayer’s play Dark Matters is part of the 30/30 US Latin@/NoPassport reading scheme. The same interview questions have been sent to each playwright taking part in the scheme by Caridad Svich. This post was originally shared on the NoPassport blog. After you read the interview, sign up to participate in the 30/30 US Latin@/NoPassport reading scheme!)

CARIDAD SVICH: a false (i think) divide has been erected in some art-making circles between what is called “devised” work and “text-based or text-driven” work. this divide or, shall we call it a “gap?,” has served to alienate makers of text-driven work for live performance in the field and in academia. in effect, certain battle grounds have formed that encourage oppositional thinking about this, so that we have now, in many ways, the devisers on one side of the field and the text-makers on the other. devisers are seen as being on trend, text-makers are seen as behind the times. it is exactly this kind of oppositional thinking that can be so damaging not only to those of us making art but those on the “outside” perceiving what is happening in art. (more on that later). how do deal with the positioning of your work, if at all?  how do you negotiate the very real dividing lines that get drawn, quite arbitrarily, and quite often, in our field in regard to art-making and its role in culture? as a playwright, how do you devise your own process? dramatic project (life goals as artist)? and how do you wish to live as artist in and with engagement in local and global dialogue with citizens and artists? and are there lessons you’ve learned you wish to impart to fellows in the field and elsewhere? or lessons you are still learning that impact the kind of work you make or think about making?

OLIVER MAYER: What we do is very old and very sacred – also very profane. I like to think that we are halfway between the church and the whorehouse, and that we tend to see the same people coming and going. I am firmly a writer (that would be text-driven) but I think my best writing is often gestural and highly visual; I take not backseat to any deviser out there. As a dramatist we simply have to do it all – direct, design, act, dance, sing and be the audience as well as write – and we have to do it first.

In terms of engaging in a global dialogue I am all for it, as long as it occurs one person at a time. That is what gets lost in blockbusters in other media, and what we can hold onto: the ability to use our plays to open another person’s eyes and heart at his or her own pace and ability.

CARIDAD SVICH: when you see/hear/read the phrase “US Latin@,” what does it make you think of?

OLIVER MAYER: I don’t use that phrase. I am a United Statesian and a Latino, but I have tended to use Mexican-American to describe myself; I like the hyphen. US Latin@ seems to me transitional at best. Someone soon has to give us a new way to describe ourselves in an active way. Anybody out there have a good name for us?

CARIDAD SVICH: what is your relationship to being of or part of (or not) a US Latin@ context in your art-making or thinking about art?

OLIVER MAYER: I love my particular context, as I must, because I live there both as an artist and as a citizen. Again, I prefer the hyphen which feels to me like a bridge – and a precarious one – between walled cities. That bridge helps me write on both sides as well as in the middle.

CARIDAD SVICH: as a maker of text for live performance, in what ways are you challenging or calling into question the nature of embodied speech and action when you write a given play or collaborate with fellow artists?

OLIVER MAYER: Text is life, but music must be there in some way. The poetic consciousness demands an elevated sense of musicality in the words on the page. The duende demands that it be performed live and that the performer and writer stretch their abilities to the breaking point. That’s what it’s all about. I am prepared to spend a lifetime extending my abilities to and past my breaking point, as dramatists have done since the Greeks – and probably before.

BLADE TO THE HEAT October 18, 1994 - December 5, 1994 Oliver Mayer, Playwright George C. Wolfe, Director Ricardo Hernandez, Scenic Design Paul Tazewell, Costume Design Paul Gallo, Lighting Design Dan Moses Schreier, Sound Design Paul Calderon, Mantequila Decima James Colby, Reporter/Announcer/Referee Kamar De Los Reyes, Pedro Quinn Marciela Ochoa, Sarita Malacara Chuck Patterson, Three-Finger Jack Jaime Tirelli, Alacran Nelson Vasquez, Wilfred Vinal Carlton Wilborn, Garton

Photo of Oliver Mayer’s Blade to the Heat (c) Michal Daniel.

CARIDAD SVICH: casting is a tough and thorny aspect of our art and business. i think we all know plenty of terrific actors who wait and wait for that one or two gigs every year that ask for their “type” to be cast. i am personally of the mind that the more expansive casting can be, especially in theatre, which is, after all, not a photographically representational art form but an abstract one in its essence, the richer an audience’s understanding of the form can be. but i know that this may not be everyone’s pov. understandably.what do you do when someone says to you “we don’t have culturally specific actors in my town, so we can’t even look at your play, even if we were to deeply admire or want to put this story on stage?’ what do you say to potential collaborators and casting directors about the nature of how to cast your show and how casting can carry its own political power?

OLIVER MAYER: Casting is thorny because, like many other things in our country, it’s been so unequal for so long. After nearly 30 years of experience, I want the best actor for the part – but what constitutes the best? Ours is not a photographic art or an expository or overly explained argument – but a play. I want the actors that know how to play best in the hyphenated world of my plays. It makes me very sad how many theaters over the years have eschewed my plays or placed themselves outside the worlds I have created because they believe they cannot cast them or are not willing to try. It makes me very hopeful that the few theaters that have tried have opened their own ideas on what makes an actor the best actor for the part. Some of that involves identity – history, language, culture – but the preponderance of what makes an actor the right one is mysterious, poetic, romantic: chemical.

CARIDAD SVICH:  it goes without saying that we live in a multi-lingual world. do you think our US stages (to keep the dialogue national for the moment) need reflect this? if so, how?

OLIVER MAYER: Plays are growing more multilingual as our country integrates itself. What our godfathers and sisters started as Spanglish has now blossomed into mixes of Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, French, Patois, you name it. It gives strength to the music in our texts and muscle to our stories, not to mention sexuality and fire to our characters. Any theater that is not taking advantage is not just behind the times, they are mastadons.

CARIDAD SVICH: and in your work, how do you address multi-linguality and hybrid aesthetics, if at all?

OLIVER MAYER: I am happy, in my way, to blaze a trail the best I can, particularly as a guy who speaks Spanish pretty badly. I believe in private languages, interior languages that subsets of us know but that large groups are unaware of; and I think that these have a kind of poetry and hieroglyphic power that ought to live onstage, and I’ve written towards that goal for most of my career.

diasyflores_miamidade2

Production of Dias y Flores at Miama Dade College.

CARIDAD SVICH: as a writer/maker for/of live performance, what is thrilling to you still about the form – this old weird creaky thing we call theatre – and why?

OLIVER MAYER: We may be the oldest profession, standing alongside the other shamans and prostitutes and bridging them with our observations on life and death and sex; but we are also the most immediate form of connecting select groups of people and making them feel something and see something that matters, that has substance. No app or artificial intelligence comes close and we are becoming more important with every passing hacking and phishing scandal, every virtual community that will never feel quite real, and every person who feels diminished and lonely at the end of the day having hardly ever looked up from his/her screen of choice, craving bodies and feelings and wanting more than ever to discuss a play over several drinks late into the evening – the way we do in this vida that is very very loca.

CARIDAD SVICH: much is made at theatre conferences (esp) about where and how will we find the new audiences for the work. i think i have been hearing this for about 20 years now. and every year new marketing approaches are discussed and studies are done and surveys get passed around and so forth. lots of data gets crunched. but there is a bottom line, I think, and you may disagree, but what I see as the bottom line is: if you change the programming, lower ticket prices, do work for free even (see Mixed Blood’s radical hospitality model), move out of the building(s), maybe just maybe that elusive “new” audience may be nurtured. but it ain’t gonna happen sitting inside the building thinking about it or tweeting about it either. okay. wee rant over. but seriously, what ideas have you when you make work or are in the process of putting it out there about how to and ways you can create connection with your audience(S) beyond the work itself, for example?

OLIVER MAYER: I believe in doing great work for free – it is one of the last quality things that we can point to in this country that we do for reasons other than money, and that makes it quite literally invaluable. I like flash plays, I like going to elementary schools and entertaining kids and taking questions, I like taking over alternate spaces and turning them into theatre spaces. We must be inventive; we’re in charge on the page, but off the page we may well have just as much to give.

CARIDAD SVICH: what’s inspiring you these days? and/or what’s troubling you these days?

OLIVER MAYER: I’m inspired by enduring love – wife, dog. The cycle of life is fast-moving, so it’s good to be inspired by death too. I’m inspired by sports when they’re good, immediate, exciting and fully committed. I’m inspired by trovadores like Silvio Rodriguez. I’m inspired by how much I don’t know. I’m troubled by liars and people who can’t or won’t cross bridges into the world around them, who can’t or won’t get out of their skin for a blessed moment and see the world with new eyes. In the end I’m more inspired than troubled, but I’m lucky that way.


oliverbwheadshotOliver Mayer is the author of over 20 plays, including Fortune is a Woman, Dias y Flores, Laws of Sympathy, Conjunto, and Young Valiant. New projects include Filo al Fuego, his original Spanish version of his breakout play Blade to the Heat, which continues to receive productions around the world, and Members Only, the sequel to Blade to the Heat. Oliver won an Alfred P. Sloan Initiative Science and Technology award for Dark Matters, an original play about particle physics, which was presented at the LAByrinth Theatre Intensive in New York City in Summer 2012. He wrote Fortune is a Woman expressly for the 2012 USC M.F.A. Acting Spring Repertory repertory, which played in repertory with Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. The Hurt Business: A Critical Portfolio of the Early Works of Oliver Mayer, Plus is published by Hyperbole Books; Oliver Mayer: Collected Plays is published by NoPassport Press, which has also published his newest collection Dark Matters, and Other Plays. After receiving a Gerbode Grant (given once every four years), he wrote the libretto for the opera America Tropical, composed by David Conte. It has been produced several times nationally, and will be performed again at El Pueblo de Los Angeles on November 3, 2012. Oliver Mayer is associate professor of dramatic writing at the USC School of Dramatic Art.


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