A place called Sanctuary: Home, Theatre and Texas

by Caridad Svich

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation

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About a year ago, I started working on a piece called Sanctuary (American Psalm), which will be seen in work in progress showings January 28-31st, 2016 at Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle Series in Washington D.C At the time, it was a series of poems that had no ostensible home. I was in the midst of another project which was the actual gestation place for these poems, but the working conditions of the project did not allow for the text to fully blossom. So, I spent a good part of the latter half of the year wondering what these poems meant, and why I thought they were for the theatre.

The poems were thematically-linked around ideas of citizenship, class, place, faith and memory. I was thinking a lot, and still am, about how we can make healing spaces in our lives. The more that real and fictionalized narratives of war and violence are sold and disseminated in various media, the more I have been thinking about the need to create invitations through art for reflection of and contemplation around the precarity of the body, the environment, and the relationship between humans and nature.

Work for live performance is in and of itself precarious. It depends on such things as a) time – variegated and conceptual, b) space – governed by physical limitations indoors or out of doors, between mediation and not, and c) body and the senses of the body– of all involved, including the audience, and d) breath – how space is given shape by breath, by step, etc. with spoken text and silence and “pure” sound. At any juncture of the process of art-making, one riddled by doubt, fear and invariably leaps into the unknown which require more than a little bit of trust and faith, it may all fall apart.

But for a moment, it is here.

Or it can be.

For a while.

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 What do we talk about when we talk about “home” in theatre?

As a freelance artist, I have called many places my temporary artistic home – from one-off productions to works for hire to occasionally, more engaged, consistent relationships with particular venues and their audiences. But by and large, the search for home is continuous, and sometimes fractious.

Perhaps the weight of history has something to do with this. That is, as a playwright, it is easy to summon the specter of Shakespeare’s Globe, Moliere’s Theatre de Monsieur, and Wilson’s Circle Rep, but less so to necessarily envision the scale of commitment, resources and time – especially dream time – that are required for a playwright/theatremaker to fully become part of a theatre family. It takes more than one residency program, project and certainly more than one production. A home is forged through give and take, trial and error, and lots of unknowns.

What do I mean by “unknowns?”

Just that.

Say, an artist just wants to play with some material for a while or bring in a varied assortment of collaborators into a space. Say, an artist wants to test new pages on their feet or walk into a rehearsal hall with nothing but some images and some themes in mind. Without having to jump through a grant proposal hoop, fit into “set parameters and outcomes” for a development programme, and/or meet the often tortured remits of a funding application. Say an artist earns the trust of a company – the trust to play and from it to eventually come up with something someday that may be worth a lot of people’s time, energy and love – and perhaps a home may take shape. In other words, a home is made when you are not asking “please, may I” every time, when you are not, de facto “auditioning” every single moment, and when you feel as if there is sufficient faith amongst all, to be able to allow the art to find its way.

I think about “home” a lot. And not just as an artist.

I think about it as a citizen too – the daily question of where and how am I going to live, if and how can I afford it and what sacrifices need I make to pretend a place is home for a while.

But the art question is indelibly part of the citizen question, because as an artist, time and again, societal structures do not apply. And whether I call myself “a creative” or simply “talent,” the fact often remains that even though I am a tax-payer, when you’re an artist in the artist class, you tend to fall outside (a great deal of the time) existing guidelines when it comes to matters of affordable housing, insurance (yes, even with the AHCA and its fearsome penalty warning) and other such daily essentials.

Okay. I know no one is forcing to me to be an artist. But who is forcing a doctor, a lawyer, a plumber or a stock broker?

This is where things get muddy, you see. Because in these United States, unless you work in salaried positions in TV or film, (and even then), being in the artist class – which is often the artist working class or poor class – is considered a temporary option in life. In other words, you’re not really supposed to be thinking about home as an artist, because it’s just a phase through which you are passing.  Ergo. You haven’t a right to a home. Because you made an adolescent life choice. And really, it’s time you get over it, and move on to a proper job.

But what if I say, this is my job? I think of it as a calling, a vocation, but I know that the word “job,” is also part of it. I know I am a cultural worker, even when my position as an artist is “outside” culture. How else to reflect upon it? To have the eyes through which to really see?

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“The root of the word theatre means “to see” not to hear, and Caridad captures the essence of this in Sanctuary with a piece that is, yes, full of beautiful, well-crafted, language (as her work always is), but as much as it is a piece to listen to, it is a piece to see – to follow with the eyes (the mind’s eye even) as we go on this fantastic journey”—Zac Kline and Blair Baker.”

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As Sanctuary (American Psalm) evolved this past year, I began to think about the many artists I have worked with over the years, and how we have made “home” for each other across distances geographically near and far, and aesthetically as well. Among them are the artists gathered for the work in progress showings of the piece in Washington D.C. next week: director and performer John Moletress, actor Jocelyn Kuritsky, composer Aaron Meicht of Broken Chord, and co-producers Zac Kline and Blair Baker of Missing Bolts Productions. We have as much as ten years of growing up together among us and as little as six. From many readings, script in hand round a table, to actual productions to digital theatre experiments to hand-shake collaborations and play challenges that have crossed miles and continents. Alongside them are practitioners that have, grass roots style, pitched in to make the work happen – folks that are going on faith that this lil thing will work, but that also know it’s about the human engagement of it all, and not merely the outcome.

I also started to think about how the actual where of where you make work – the places where you are and have been – and how they become part of the work. In a concrete sense. But also through metaphor. For example, there will always be a bit of London, Leeds, Edinburgh, New York City, Minneapolis and Los Angeles in my work, as well as Ohio, Washington D.C., Cambridge and Boston. There’s always going to be Louisiana and Florida and New Jersey and North Carolina in my work as much as Santiago de Chile, Cuba and Texas. To name a few. Where the stuff began, where you lived, where you exchanged ideas, where you heard that amazing lecture that changed your life or that band that changed your life, or that painting or sculpture that taught you how to re-see are part of your artistic composition.

And no, I don’t mean disposition, but composition. What makes you. What is your ongoing artistic project – how you breathe through what you make – this is composition, whether it is a play or performance, a book or an essay, a digital experiment or conference, or a meditation on being.

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“This project could not have come at a more interesting time. As reflected in the text, I, too, have been navigating questions of place and memory in my own work. Where is home? What is home? I am pulled towards objects, people and places because there is an unexplainable familiarity, even at first encounter. Perhaps, the universal particles of experience and empathy create innumerable tendrils that link the most seemingly unfamiliar of circumstances together. Perhaps, this is déjà vu. I look forward to exploring this text with this group of artists.” – John Moletress

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A colleague of mine once said to me that the best way to really get things done, to really up-end systems that push against creative freedoms was “to infiltrate from within.” That is, to sit in the belly of the beast, as it were, and report from its frontlines or gut-lines (depending on your point of view). I used to think that that was an interesting proposition, but what happens to dissidence, then?

Dissidence, you may ask?

Has she been talking about dissidence?

I thought this was about “home.”

Well, let’s just say that dissidence and home go together. Let’s just say that in order to make art that can stand outside culture and reflect back upon it in some way (mimetically or not), a dissident stance is required, which means that you may feel at home enough or have something of a sense of home in order to practice dissidence. Note that I don’t say “achieve” dissidence, but rather “practice.”

I think of artmaking as a practice of continual resistance and dissidence. A colleague defines this position as one of creative restlessness. A constant walk through a terrain that places you one foot in, another foot out of society, and sometimes in the wilderness for stretches at a time.

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There is something of a standing joke amongst my colleagues about what it means to be “in the wilderness.” For some of us, it is the name ascribed to that state wherein you are endlessly pitching the work, making it, re-pitching it, trying and hoping and failing, and striving and failing again. For others of us, it is an actual place where you feel as if you have been cast into the wild, not necessarily out of your own volition, but rather by the mysterious gods of the theatre, in order to find your way back into the known world again. And for others still, it is a state of being and doing – truly – where what you make, and how you make it – the tools by which you craft and shape what you make – feel as far removed as it gets from the ‘’civilized’ world, and you fear you may be forever in the wild.

At some point, if you are in the theatre, you’re going to be in the wilderness.

Sometimes for a short time. Sometimes longer.

And sometimes you have to navigate some pretty treacherous, difficult, stamina-draining terrain to find a way back to something that seems if not familiar, then at least somewhat manageable in order to keep going.

If you feel you have a home, even in exile, then being in the wilderness may not be so bad. Because you feel as if there is something solid underneath your feet.

But if you feel/are homeless, then being in the wild takes a drastically different turn spiritually, artistically and economically (remember, the artist working class? The vanishing middle of the non-middle class?)

But of course, an artistic home does not need bricks and mortar. Although the solidity helps for things like how to keep doing the work in all weather and towards feeling safe.

Ah. Yes. Safety.

Did I mention that?

Along with trust, safety is key to an artistic home. The “place” where is it safe to be yourself, to fail, to dream big and small, to make mistakes, to just try things, but also to run away from and know you can come back again, and it will be okay.

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The piece is as deeply American as Boll Weevil “searching for a home, searching for a home” and finds the beauty and the friction in the search. As Lucinda Williams sang in Fruit of My Labor: “Got in my Mercury/Drove out West/Put my pedal to the metal/My love to the test.” It is that, which we know is out there, but don’t know yet. Sanctuary straddles the places between play, poetry, performance, song, Church – woven in a wonderful web we might call Americana. – Zac Kline and Blair Baker

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Outside of New York City over many years, especially formative ones as a practitioner, most of my work has found place in Texas. Three premieres in Austin with Salvage Vanguard, one with Kitchen Dog Theatre in Dallas and another with Main Street Theatre in Houston, a workshop with Teatro Vivo in Austin, and yearly pedagogical engagement with ScriptWorks. Readings and college productions in El Paso, College Station, Mount Pleasant and more with return engagement readings in the three “big” cities mentioned above. It seems as if every year or so for the last sixteen years, I’ve had some kind of relationship with a venue in Texas. Later this year, as fate would have it, the state calls me again with a workshop of my play De Troya with Amphibian Stage Productions directed by Cara Mia Theatre artistic director David Lozano – a bit of Fort Worth and Dallas coming together. Even one of the first movies that made a fairly significant artistic impact on me was Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” which, although shot in Alberta, is set in the Texas Panhandle.

So, Texas…yeah…it’s all over my work as much as Bowie is and Lorca and Woolf.

So, it may perhaps have seemed inevitable that out of all of the road story-songs I wanted to tell, one about Texas would find its way into one of my works for performance. A few years ago the specter of west Texas forged its heart into my play Guapa, and now this year the series of poems that began as sketches have been off-set alongside some transformed memory pieces from the state to become Sanctuary

A colleague asks me if Sanctuary (American Psalm) is about Texas. I reply that the piece is inspired by the landscape of Texas, but is not “about” Texas per se. It is the container for the elements. The ground for the frame. And it didn’t become so until I recalled how many years ago, long before this piece was even born, I walked into the Rothko Chapel and felt as if I wanted to make a theatre-art-installation-song piece for it.

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“What’s in a word? What’s in a stanza? What’s in an alliteration? And how many thoughts, ideas, and feelings can we deliver to an audience in a (poetic) moment? Caridad’s work is interested in a kind of poetic intersectionality that never ceases to make me think in a much more prismatic way about how we function in the world.” – Jocelyn Kuritsky

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The entreaty of precarious art has to do with a different way of placing value on what we make and how it is made and received, and in turn, how it is that one gives back. It asks that home be made between and among those here, in space and time, in body and breath, and that that home, whether made of paper or string, or dirt and sky, or bricks and mortar be granted spiritual weight, because what you have is not something you can hold, but something you can carry – and something that perhaps can carry you.

This kind of entreaty flies in the face of the shock and awe tactics of culture and politics, because it does not ask of you what the “take-away” is.

Just think. There is no take away.

There is no measurable impact.

There is just what happened between and among some people, somewhere, in a space that perhaps feels like home.


Caridad Svich is a text-builder and theatre-maker. Upcoming productions this season include Hide Sky, agua de luna(psalms for the rouge), The Breath of Stars, and a workshop of De Troya. She 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. A collection of her work JARMAN (all this maddening beauty) and other plays will be published Spring 2016 by Intellect UK. She has edited several books on theatre including Innovation in Five Acts (TCG), Out of Silence (Eyecorner Press), Trans-Global Readings and Theatre in Crisis? (both for Manchester University Press), Out of the Fringe (TCG), and Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornes (Smith & Kraus). caridadsvich.com

Photo credit: Jody Christopherson