Increase Our Cultural Currency

by Michael Mejias

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation

Post image for Increase Our Cultural Currency

(Malik Ali, Alejandro Rodriguez, and Sean Carvajal (left to right),  from the Dramatic Question Theatre Company’s premiere of Michael Mejias’ GHETTO BABYLON at 59E59 Theaters (Photo: Lisa P. Silberman). Michael’s play is part of the 30/30 US Latin@/NoPassport reading scheme. 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?

MICHAEL MEJIAS: Admittedly, I was unaware of the Sharks v. Jets nature of things, now that I do, it’s head-scratching; especially, when you consider devisers have been around since, at least, 1947 (the Living Theatre). You’d think the conversation between both parties would have grown beyond dissention. Personally, as a playwright, I’m interested in alchemizing some of the techniques routinely used by devisers into new play development methodologies. I think there is a lot to be gained there.

CS: how do you negotiate the very real diving lines that get drawn, quite arbitrarily, and quite often, in our field in regard to art-making and its role in culture?

MM: I’m uncertain who is drawing the lines or how often they are drawing them. I’ll tell you what, whoever is doing the drawing needs a new hobby. Maybe yoga? In any case, I suppose the point to consider here is the role theatre plays in our American experience and in our Latino communities in particular. Theatre ranks behind music, movies, television, video games, fashion, clubbing, and stand-up comedy with regards to how impacting and regular it is in our life. If we surveyed our communities, theatre might rank behind shit like glass blowing and yodeling. So, whatever the role is that theatre is currently playing in the Latino community, I expect it’s a pretty small one. That’s a big problem and this is why:

1. If we agree in the uniqueness of theatre to tell our stories, if we agree that theatre has the power to move us on a personal level, raise our level of discourse, trigger civic action, challenge social norms, and tackle taboos, in ways other disciplines can’t, then, I expect we agree the absence of theatre in our Latino communities is culturally, socially, and politically disadvantageous to us moving forward.

2. If there isn’t a regular and robust Latino theatre audience in NYC and across America, there isn’t much incentive to hire Latino actors, directors, and designers or do plays by Latino playwrights that share our diverse points of view. If this happens, and Latinos remain only nominally represented on American stages, then, an important, vital, and vibrant plotline in our national narrative is omitted. It’s on us – artists and audiences – to discourage that. We have to respond to that.

My response was to co-found a playwright’s theatre, the Dramatic Question Theatre (DQT). The DQT member-playwrights make both the artistic and business decisions and have stake in its future. Beyond developing and producing plays that regularly speak to Latino, African-American, and others on the margins of the American experience, we’ve implemented audience-building initiatives with enrichment programs like Girls Write Now, Harlem RBI, Urban Art Beat, and LitWorld. Ideally, these partnerships will build our theater audiences of the future. My fingers are crossed.

CS: as a playwright, how do you devise your own process? dramatic project (life goals as artist)?

MM: Chiefly, these days, my process involves a whole lot of reconciling. I’ve written 26 plays and each, in its own way, has been a fucking drag for me (albeit, on the road to being something joyous for me). I never devised it this way, it is simply what has happened and, after several decades of struggling against it, I’m reconciled. I’m reconciled I’m simply not going to sit down and type out a play over a rainy weekend. I’m reconciled whiskey won’t make me a genius. I’m reconciled I don’t always have the best ideas. I’m reconciled I’m not the smartest guy in the room (my girlfriend is!). I’m reconciled I’m not the starting centerfielder for the Yankees or the author of The Catcher in the Rye.  For me, clearing out all that space in my “closet” advances my process. Beyond that, on a more practical front, since I’m one of the decision-makers at DQT, I know my plays have, at the very least, a customized development platform in place and in waiting; that is to say, I don’t have to keep my fingers crossed in the thereafter that my play is picked for development by some other entity or have to solicit anyone else’s interest.

CS: and how do you wish to live as artist in and with engagement in local and global dialogue with citizens and artists?

MM: Mentoring is a dynamic way for me to engage with community. Lately, I’m feeling a need to find more ways to connect to young people; specifically, Latino and African-American interested in playwriting. On behalf of the Dramatic Question Theatre, I’ve reached-out to educational enrichment programs, for instance, the Wadleigh Scholars Program in Harlem, with the hopes of establishing a young playwright’s workshop.

CS: 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?

MM: There is agency in starting your own non-profit, community-building around your work, and self-producing. The member-playwrights of the Dramatic Question Theatre have benefitted from this model. DQT playwrights have won national awards, have been invited to speak at local public schools, been signed by agents, and are the recipients of grants and fellowships. The plays have received positive notices from many relevant media outlets and are performed to sold-out audiences. It’s a model worth serious consideration; especially, if you regularly find yourself outside the current play selection-making metrics.

CS: when you see/hear/read the phrase “US Latin@,” what does it make you think of? what is your relationship to being of or part of (or not) a US Latin@ context in your art-making or thinking about art?

MM: Immediately, I think that there are a lot of us all over this city (New York), this country, this continent, and the globe. I also think we’ve a lot of purchasing power; so, how do we best exercise our financial influence? As it stands, Latinos aren’t purchasing theatre tickets at the same rate as our white counterparts; so, we, as Latino theatre artists, aren’t as represented on our stages. Let’s not ignore the correlation. The good news is that this is something we can fix by being a regular presence on the American theatre scene. I’ll invite everyone to explain this to both friends and family members. Our steady participation on this front will translate into more professional opportunities for Latino artists and increase our cultural currency. I know I already said this, but it’s worth repeating.

CS: 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?

MM: Embodied speech and action is how you might define a character in a play. So, what I think you are asking is how do I write my characters? I’ll answer that: Routinely, when I write a character, I start with someone I know. As the character evolves, I’m delivered to a point wherein I no longer need the original source material. I no longer need that someone I know. The character has his/ her own way. Even though I’m the playwright; sometimes, I don’t know exactly what that means: HIS/ HER OWN WAY. What is that? However, when my collaborators arrive – the director, the actor – we drink many, many coffees and figure it out.

CS: 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?’

MM: Well, I know a ton of talented “culturally specific actors.” They’re experienced and well trained. So, I’d place the load on myself to make it happen. I’d be quick to recommend these actors to the theatre that’s interested. Further still, if they’re still game, I’d raise the completion money necessary to transport and house them for both the duration of the rehearsal period and run of performances. It’s also worth mentioning, Latinos are the fastest growing group in the U.S. We’re arrived at the point where it’s simply good business for American theatres to have an apparatus in place for casting diverse plays.

CS: 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?

MM:  For me, the casting conversation is always about how to best tell the story of the play and who we feel is best suited to the task. I don’t know if I’m looking to make a political or socio-political statement in this sense, probably not. I want the actors I want, but that has more to do with my overbearing personality than anything political. That said, since every play is inherently different and comes with its own specific needs, it’s difficult to conclude there’s just one true way to cast. Ideally, the play receives many productions; this way, many different casting philosophies can be practiced.

CS:  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?

MM: Although I’d like them to, until there is an economic incentive, I don’t think the regional or major NYC stages will see any real need to move away from their current practices. Like I’ve said throughout this interview, we need demonstrate our purchasing power. In the meantime, what’s wrong with building a coalition of new, smaller theatres that are about diversity and inclusion? In the meantime, let’s contribute, in big and small ways, to the fortification and general well-being, of our small and mid-sized theatres that are about our experience.

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

MM: Since personal experience is my primary source material, my plays are regularly informed by my Nuyoricaness, my Catholic upbringing, and my Bronx childhood. My work is also informed by my love of books, movies, TV shows, and 80’s music. Consequently, the way my characters express themselves reflects all that: My characters speak Spanish, English, and Spanglish. Language, the way they express themselves, often affords insight into whom each character is or who each character wants to be. Oh, yeah, there is also a lot of cursing.

CS: 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?

MM: Writing is lonely stuff; so, it’s great when you get to the point you can invite others to participate. For me, that means getting my director, Gregory Simmons, involved. We’re both chatty-as-all-hell. We’ll routinely close cafés, restaurants, diners, you name it. We’ll discuss every word, every beat, every scene, and every act. I go home and re-write like crazy. Then, we start again! A little later in the process, actors get involved and the play changes some more. I love that theatre can work this way.

CS: 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?

MM: Since we haven’t a building, it was easy for the Dramatic Question Theatre to recognize the importance of doing work in spaces our target audience already collected in (like bars); and, to that end, in our first two seasons, we presented the Bar Play Series – plays set in bars, performed in bars. The tickets were very reasonably priced, as, of course, were the drinks. A lot of our current supporters were introduced to DQT through the Bar Play Series. Nowadays, they even go inside buildings, with traditional theatres in them, to see our plays. Also, it’s easier than you might think to get a venue’s cooperation. Remember, in a recession economy, there is equity in being able to deliver 40 people a night for 16 nights to a bar, restaurant, café, museum, art gallery, night club, etc. We’ve been successful in trading off of that and, as a direct result, grow our audience.

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

MM: I’m inspired by expertise. It could be in anything; you can be a rodeo clown, slight-of-hand artist, or a beekeeper. If you’re expert, you’re bad-ass in my book. While I’ll stop short of calling it troubling, I’m bored by the over-abundance of irony in plays; its overuse is the skinny jeans of literary devices. One day, fingers crossed, these guys are going to look back and feel like assholes for confusing it for cool.


Michael-MejiasMichael Mejias has worked in professional theatre as a literary manager, dramaturg, monologue coach, director, producer, and playwright. His most recent play, GHETTO BABYLON, was awarded the 2012 National Latino Playwriting Award. In 2008, MUJERIEGO was premiered by the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre and was included in the anthology, VOICES IN THE FIRST PERSON: REFLECTIONS ON LATINO IDENTITY (Published by Simon & Schuster). Michael is a founding member of the Dramatic Question Theatre.


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