This blog focuses on what our community members have to say about where we’re headed as a society and the tools we’ll need to get there. Each month, we invite a guest essayist to share a unique perspective on the role of live theater in the twenty-first century and what the field has to offer society as a whole.
Our guest essayist this month is Caridad Svich, a playwright, translator, songwriter and longtime member of our artist community. She is a collaborator on many levels and a polymath. She has supported Lark’s growth by sharing her expertise in a range of subject areas, from desktop publishing to international exchange, and currently serves on the advisory committee for our U.S.-Mexico Playwright Exchange program. Caridad astounds me with her ability to set and achieve ambitious goals; she multitasks with grace, poise and evident pleasure. She recently participated in Lark’s week-long Winter Writers’ Retreat where she wrote a brand-new play in just eight days. At the same time, she is organizing a major conference, publishing four new volumes of plays from Migdalia Cruz, Karen Hartman, Chiori Miyagawa, Octavio Solis and Saviana Stanescu (the book launch is on February 26th), and preparing to travel to the Denver Center Theatre Company to see one of her own plays at the Colorado New Play Summit. Meanwhile, the same play—The House of the Spirits, based on the novel by Isabel Allende—continues its repertory run at Repertorio Espanol in New York City (check out www.caridadsvich.com).
One of the things I admire most about Caridad is her ability to balance art and activism and to inspire others through both means. In this spirit, she founded NoPassport—a remarkable artist collective that arose in response to the impact on the theater of communications technology, globalization and other modern realities. NoPassport acknowledges that we are often overwhelmed by information, distance and violent divisions among the peoples of the world—despite the internet and our best intentions. Caridad, however, is a true visionary; she looks beyond shifting circumstances and recognizes the human need to connect on a deep and personal level. In her essay, she contends that the future of the theater—and of our humanity—depends upon finding new ways to create shared space for communal dreaming. She defines “Utopia” as a place where we are able to dream with other people. In her own words, Caridad describes NoPassport as “a virtual and live forum for the exchange of work and dreams, a live network between theaters and the academy, and a mobile band of playwrights, directors, actors, producers and musicians.”
If you want to know more about NoPassport, its annual conference takes place February 26-27 at Nuyorican Poets Café (with a pre-conference event at New Dramatists on February 25th), and culminates in a celebration event in the Lark Studio. The conference—“Dreaming the Americas: Utopia in Performance”—promises to tear up our assumptions about what constitutes theater and how audiences connect to it. I’ll be there throughout. Registration is online at www.nuyorican.org
In the essay that follows, Caridad explores what makes the theater special to the interlinked communities of artists and citizens who collaborate as creator-participants in shaping and supporting our evolving culture. We look forward to reading your responses to Caridad’s thoughts—and to one another!
by Caridad Svich
by Caridad Svich
Find yourself in a hotel room in Utopia, Texas overlooking the cypress-lined Sabinal River. Consider the expanse of sky and the relative ease of the rivers current. An image of a perfect society emerges in your mind, where the metaphysical space that encompasses language, history, morality and sexuality is in harmonious, hopeful balance. Here in the small room in the middle of seeming nowhere, considerations of beauty, love and social change dance on an open stage liberated from the concerns of globalization, neo-liberalism and terror. Today, you think, is beauteous pretend and play. Tomorrow will be another day. But the more you look out of your hotel room and scan the limits of Utopia, the more the Texas sky calls you to action, to, in effect, give up pretend, and get on with the reality of life. And yet, what if your job is to pretend, and indeed, to play?
In the collective no-space shared between audience and practitioners, expressions of utopian desire abound when we walk into and take part in the theater laboratory. In the Here of shared literal and metaphorical space, dreams of new societies are imagined, constructed and dismantled, liberated from the constraints outside the demarcated space of deep play. Theater and live performance retains its dangerous potentiality, in part, because it posits a shared space of dreaming for society. Running counter to theater’s multidimensional, utopian impulse are the anti-utopian modes of hierarchy and exclusivity inscribed in its economics, forms and institutions (especially of bourgeois theater). Thus, if you are committed to a utopian practice after the onset of late capitalism, where do you go to dream?
In Utopia, Texas, the modest Main Street runs through the center of town, and talk of fishing, hunting, gardening, cycling and swimming tends to dominate the conversations overheard on the street. There is some talk of art and occasionally of photography, but very rarely, if ever, of live performance, unless the subject is of a local or national pop, country, or roots band playing in a town or two nearby. Theater, in other words, is something of a curiosity and best left to the local kindergarten or high school play. How odd it is to pretend to be someone else? Odder still to want to do that for a life’s journey.
I’ve been writing plays and theater pieces for nearly twenty years. Sometimes I can’t even imagine what compelled me to consider the strange utopia of the stage as the most exciting embodiment for my stories. I often ask students to describe the first live performance they say that truly made an impact on them. Most of them speak of moments when they were on stage for the first time in their local kindergarten, elementary, middle or high school and often how they delighted in singing, dancing or some combination thereof. Occasionally, some of my students will talk about a show their parents took them to see for a special birthday or graduation. Often, the show was a Broadway musical or a touring production of a Broadway musical. One of my students said to me the other day without the least bit of facetiousness that the Disney Corporation probably had had the greatest impact on his imagination.
If you write for the theater, invariably, you know you’re writing for what is likely a limited audience. The collective no-space of play rarely can accommodate thousands or even millions, unlike the non-collective space of film, which doesn’t even require an audience to complete its experience. A piece of film runs on a loop and it matters not whether someone is watching, but a play really cannot truly exist and vibrate in the resonant space of performance without the presence of the audience, even if it is an audience of one.
What happens, then, when you build a dream in virtuality? In 2002 I wanted to expand some of the experiments I’d been conducting through the creation of online texts with multiple authors into something less tangible and yet hopefully as utopian as the making of a theater piece. I reached out to a band of twelve colleagues in the field to see if they’d like to be part of a virtual, national collective called NoPassport. I said “Let’s play with words and music. Let’s see what mind of word-songs we can share in the free digital utopia of e-mail and the internet. The space we inhabited for about a year was mutable, quirky, offbeat, passionate, adventurous, bold and intimate. We posted pieces for live performance, we wrote texts together, and we performed live in venues such as Tonic and the Bric and even wrote a manifesto entitled “Dirty Thoughts About Money.” In 2003, I curated a symposium at INTAR Theatre in New York City about the state of U.S. Latino/a playwriting. My goal was then to simply gather voices from across generations and also from across the country. Not just the Nuyorican voice, but the Southwestern, Chicano, Afro-Caribbean, Cuban, Western, Southern and hybrid voices that make up the vast, complex, multivalent shelf where U.S. Latino/a writing is placed within the larger American voice. A symposium turned into a jam session and the jam session turned into a call for a hub, a network, a virtual place where we could always meet, jam, riff, rant, advocate, mentor, debate, and play. Suddenly, the band of 12 became a band of 500 and counting and NoPassport theater alliance was in action.
Since 2003, we’ve staged roundtables at universities and theaters across the country, convened for three national conferences (2007-2009) hosted by Frank Hentschker and the Martin E. Segal Theater Center at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City, published eight titles of new plays and translations, and sprung a spoken word arm mischievously called Hibernating Rattlesnakes, that has performed at the Nuyorican Poets Café and Telephone Bar, respectively, over the last year. I can’t even imagine what kind of utopian dream was being conjured when I put out the invitation to play back in 2002, but I do know that a virtual space was transformed by the living, breathing, thinking bodies and minds of a critical mass of practitioners, scholars, and fellow dreamers.
It’s 2010, and next month on February 26 and 27, we hold the fourth national NoPassport theater alliance & press conference at the Nuyorican Poets Café. Much of the last six months I’ve been in the not-glamorous trenches of scheduling, grassroots fund-raising, curatorial meetings (with co-curators Daniel Banks and Daniel Gallant, and with editorial team advisors Randy Gener, Otis Ramsey-Zoe and Stephen Squibb) and logistical copy-editing, or what is otherwise referred to as: Prep. But what is Prep? And how does one prepare to build and confront a dream? How does one enter a space of Utopia? As a playwright (and in my parallel careers as translator and editor), I find myself constantly negotiating the difficult, complex terrain of utopian desire(s). Much of my writing for the stage in particular addresses the shifting political and emotional geographies of characters left behind by their societies or caught in the rigid hierarchies of non-utopian states. I write hybrid, Latina/o, Anglo, Black, Creole, Asian, Indigenous, transgender, bi, queer, straight figures who often are not labeled or categorized, and do not want to be either. I’ve always thought the most amazing thing about writing is the fact that you can enter any Body, that are you always as a writer Another at one and the same, and that the political freedom of writing is charged with the profound borderless-ness that the creative act requires and demands. In effect, the lack of passport, the No Passport, where the bounteous beauty and chaos of creation lives, regardless of the kind of story (genre) you’re writing or its subject matter.
As founder of NoPassport theater alliance & press, I’m also negotiating my role as citizen of the Americas and the world with my role as an artist. A speech I wrote, for example, on legacy and revolution at the 2009 Conference made me think about how I was going to then actually put forth some of the ideas and challenges I presented in the speech in my own work for the stage and in addition, the kind of dialogue I wanted to sustain and nurture with my ongoing, unofficial band of collaborators. When I created, on commission from Mark Wing-Davey and NYU’s Graduate Acting Program, the new play Rift, which centered, in great part on the subject of human sex trafficking, this past December, I was ever mindful of the space of emotional risk in which I was placing my actors, director and design team. Working off of a loose Joint Stock-inspired model, and therefore a model that at its core had been built around utopian, non-hierarchical collaborative practice, the process of making Rift was an act of working across many borders and boundaries, including ones that become instilled in us as artists sometimes in regard to matters of form and content. What does it truly mean to dream a space of radical utopia, for example, when you’re creating work within an institution that has its own set of hierarchies and boundaries?
I find the utopian desire and the shared experience of live performance and the space of possibility and transformation that it calls forth, at its best, to be as honest, flawed, raw, strange and beautiful as life itself. I recognize the deeply collaborative, intertwined nature of the work we all do in the theater, and how community is and can be sustained with simple acts of grace and the joy of playing, despite the considerable hardships that can pose themselves financially on those of us, many of us, in the starving class. I’m invariably surprised by the imprint left on a shared experience long after the experience itself has become worn into memory, how, in effect, the spaces of play invite us to re-consider our daily lives and our interactions with our fellow citizens on this planet. As the Texan sky bears down on a hotel room deep in the heart of Utopia, I wonder at the fact that when we Pretend and Play, real things, real transformation, can happen.