How Does an Artist Get a Passport?
Two Austin playwrights join dozens of writers from across the hemisphere to 'dream the Americas'
We have been Dreaming the Americas.
We being Austin playwrights Amparo Garcia-Crow and C. Denby Swanson and Dreaming the Americas being a theatre conference in New York City organized by fellow writer Caridad Svich with support from the Immigrants' Theatre Project, Theatre Without Borders, the Translation Think Tank, and the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center. We went because we're both members of NoPassport, a Pan-American theatre coalition/collective founded by Svich in 2001 to foster cross-cultural diversity and difference in the arts, and because it gave us an extraordinary opportunity to sit face to face with our peers and talk about subjects like identity politics, queer theatre, intercultural audiences, theatre and democracy, and border stories. We went because it gave us a chance to view the Americas from a variety of perspectives and through a variety of languages. Here's a taste of what we learned about playwriting, passports, access, and art.
A passport is issued by a national government. It identifies your citizenship and requests that you be permitted to enter and pass through other countries. Potentially even more important, a passport gives you the right of re-entry into your own country. So it gets you away, and then it gets you home.
NoPassport is sort of the reverse of that. "The name came from the idea of defining the nomadic condition," says Svich. "In reality, naturally, one does have to travel with a passport, and where you come from and where you're going matter. But politically and ideologically, I believe there shouldn't be a passport, that the desire to move should be free in every sense of the word."
Austin audiences know Svich's work from Salvage Vanguard Theater productions of Fugitive Pieces in 2002 and Thrush last fall. She is prolific on several fronts, with more than 40 plays and 15 translations under her belt and a whole host of editing jobs on collections of theatre criticism and commentary.
In 2003, while she was a Theatre Communications Group/Pew National Theatre Resident Artist at International Arts Relations, or INTAR, one of the nation's most firmly established Latino theatres producing work in English, Svich organized and moderated a landmark panel called Shaping the Future of the American Voice: A Roundtable on Potentiality, Difference, and Community in the New Global Order. It brought together more than 20 Latina/o playwrights, including Eduardo Machado, Jorge Cortinas, Oliver Mayer, Karen Zacarias, Aravind Adyanthaya, Nilaja Sun, Michael John Garcès, Luis Santeiro, Elaine Romero, Amparo Garcia-Crow, Alberto Sandoval, Alejandro Morales, Cándido Tirado, Carmen Rivera, Migdalia Cruz, and Ricardo Bracho.
There, scrunched together in chairs in a small Manhattan rehearsal room, was a stunning array of this country's diversity: Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, African-Americans, Irish-Americans, Puerto-Rican Hindus, Mexican-American-Irish, African-American Latinos, Asian-American Latinos you can sort of hear the "Celebrate the flavors of your life" commercial start. Svich herself is of Cuban, Spanish, Argentine, and Croatian descent. However, most of the playwrights on the panel had common development histories at South Coast Repertory's celebrated Hispanic Playwrights Project, the Mark Taper Forum's Latino Theatre Initiative, and, frequently, a direct lineage to the playwright Maria Irene Fornes.
The room fairly crackled with excitement as all the artists got a chance to read a selection from their works and talk about where they were and how they had arrived.C. Denby Swanson: It was breathtaking. Amparo Garcia-Crow: It was the moment that we realized "our tribe."
From there, NoPassport took a giant leap forward.
In her opening remarks at Dreaming the Americas, Svich asked several great questions: What is happening to the American play? Where is the American play? How often do we see plays from Canada in the U.S.? How often from Central and South America? How often from the Caribbean? And how often stories written from the perspectives of not only North and South but the hemisphere itself? And who gets to tell the stories?
NoPassport has recommitted its members to an expansion of "American-ness." At Dreaming the Americas, panels like the Invisible Visible had exhilarating matchups, like Arab-American playwright and actor Betty Shamieh, author of Roar and The Black-Eyed, with Elana Greenfield, a playwright who moved as a child from Israel to Iowa, and Brooklyn College professor Mac Wellman, a white guy from Ohio who writes poetic and political theatre (Terminal Hip) and who has been quoted as saying he got into the theatre "because it was a low, sleazy, discredited art form that had to do with sex and things of the devil."
Another panel focused on women artists working across borders, with participants like Ruth Margraff (The Cry Pitch Carrolls, Wallpaper Psalm), who has performed her work in Greece, Italy, and Russia; Romanian playwright Saviana Stanescu, who teaches at NYU; and Catherine Filloux, a French-Algerian-American playwright whose plays frequently confront stories of genocide. Filloux also belongs to Theatre Without Borders, an international virtual community created to advocate for theatre artists as part of a global community as well as citizens of their respective nations and cultures and to open up dialogue across political boundaries. Stanescu and Filloux are among the next generation of border-crossing playwrights for Austin audiences to explore.
"In American theatre," Svich told conference attendees, "a border story can take place not only in California, Arizona, or Texas, but also within a three-block radius in a Philadelphia neighborhood. A Latina story can exist in a bayou where not a word of Spanish or Spanglish is spoken. A straight story can be told queer. If we dream our American theatre as big as it truly is and really listen and let others listen to the many stories that inhabit this hemisphere, then our stages will not beg for art. Rather, it will be plentiful in nonstreamlined, non-ready-made, perhaps not immediately understood languages that will make our theatre and our daily talk as spiritually rich as it truly is."
Bucking the 1%
In 1990, women in the Screen Actors Guild decided to compare the pay scale between male and female performers. They broke down the data about roles on television shows into occupation, age, gender, and ethnicity. Garcia-Crow was then a working actor, sent out for day-player roles as whores, maids, and gang-leader moms.AGC: The number that changed my life was that Hispanics are represented on TV 1% of the time. I glanced next to it and saw that extraterrestrials were also represented 1% of the time. That's when I started writing my own work instead of waiting for the phone to ring.
In 1997, The New York Times called Garcia-Crow's play Under a Western Sky, co-produced by INTAR and the Women's Project, "sensitive, insightful, and beautifully written." With that kind of combination a New York production and a strong review many plays get distribution with a major publishing house. Not this one. One of Garcia-Crow's rejection letters said, "There's not a big enough audience." Meaning, "It's a play about a small South Texas town populated by Mexican-Americans," the assumption being that only Mexicans want to see a play about Mexicans.
Publication remains a problem for many Latina/o artists and for artists working across all kinds of boundaries, which was why it was important for the conference to include works in progress readings and performances of excerpts by participating artists. Friday night, for instance, Amparo called upon her former student Chris Alonzo (In the Middle of the Ocean), now a New Yorker; Austinite Joe David; and a pianist to render a cabaret approach to the story of civil rights activist Gustavo Garcia.AGC: Those who know my work know I've been telling Gus' huge historic story every which way I can for 15 years, at least. That's because the history books haven't done it yet.
In 2003, Nilo Cruz became the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, awarded for his play Anna in the Tropics. Like many other writers, including Amparo, Cruz received support from South Coast Repertory's Hispanic Playwrights Project, the longest-running developmental workshop for Latino writers in the country. In 2004, however, the program was ended. David Emmes, SCR's producing artistic director, is quoted as saying, "How would you know when a project was completely successful? The answer was when it was no longer needed." In 2005, the Mark Taper Forum followed suit, ending its Latino Theatre Initiative.
Some distinguished Latino theatre artists, like writer and professor Jorge Huerta, believe that the HPP and LTI created "ghettos" for Latino work, marking them as different. But in a 2005 article in American Theatre magazine, director Juliette Carrillo, former head of the HPP, observed, "This is where the real disappointment comes in: We're on a roll now. Nilo Cruz just won the Pulitzer. New writers are emerging. The work is getting better and crossing over to mainstream theatres. SCR sees this as an opportune time to bow out of the commitment to HPP; after all, the work is moving forward. But I am concerned that the momentum is precarious. Without proper support, we could have a backslide. Many regional theatres still consider our work too foreign, too outside of their aesthetic, to venture into producing."
Today, there are several U.S. hubs of NoPassport activity, including New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Austin. In fact, it was conversations through NoPassport, in the wake of the decisions at SCR and MTF, that mobilized Austin Script Works to found its own Latino Playwrights Initiative, to step into the breach, and, as playwright Elaine Romero has noted, connect creative work more strongly to communities. As the artistic director for Austin Script Works, C. Denby Swanson helped develop the project, in association with Teatro Vivo, and Garcia-Crow recently received an ASW-LPI commission to write a new full-length play.
What kept coming up at the conference was the strength of Austin as a tribe. There were so many conference attendees who had Austin connections: Jacqueline Lawton, University of Texas-Austin master of fine arts; David Greenspan, who performed in the New York production of Lipstick Traces with the Rude Mechs; J. Ed Araiza, SITI Company member and collaborator with St. Idiot Collective. One panel, the Subversive Politics of Site-Specific Theatre and the Reconfigured Theatrical Space, was moderated by former Austinite Lisa D'Amour (Anna Bella Eema, Nita & Zita) and included Daniel Alexander Jones (The Book of Daniel), an interdisciplinary artist who writes, performs, and directs and is currently on the faculty at UT. The whole conference felt like Old Home Week.
One of the most powerful panels was on María Irene Fornés, the Cuban-born writer whose works like Fefu and Her Friends and Mud (soon to be produced by Salvage Vanguard) won her recognition as one of the best living American playwrights. Fornés' impact on a younger generation of writers was summed up by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Paula Vogel: "In the work of every American playwright at the end of the 20th century, there are only two stages: before she or he has read María Irene Fornés and after." That's certainly true for the two of us.AGC: I met Irene on my Theatre Communications Group Director's Fellowship in 1991 when she led a writer's workshop for us. The exercise she had us do was to break concentration, so that the play has junctures. She constantly interrupted our writing so that it had the unexpected turn in it. And I did not follow her directions. I thought, like everybody else, that to do well in this world, you stay focused on your goal. And when she would say "change," I wouldn't. I thought, "I know what she means, but it isn't time to change yet." The exercise was just so smart, so intelligent, that I failed it terribly. When I heard the others read their work aloud, I was hooked. That was life-changing. CDS: In 1997, I was invited to come to Mexico for a two-week workshop with Irene. It was expensive, so I didn't go, and it's one of those moments now that I think, "Ooh, bad mistake. Really, really bad mistake," because I teach her work in my class each year. I teach her short play "Drowning," which she adapted from a Chekhov short story. It startles my students, because the characters aren't "human." They're large, bloated creatures that look like manatees, and she's very specific: They sweat all the time, and their anuses are purple. But it's a heartbreaking story about love and rejection, and it's intensely, intensely theatrical. For me, the power in her work is its uncompromised emotional logic.
Unfortunately, we're losing her now to age and illness, and she probably won't write more plays. Migdalia Cruz, a playwright who gained her bearings at the Playwrights Laboratory, was on the Fornés panel. She wept as she spoke about visiting her mentor at a nursing home in Florida, and she presented a devastating monologue, inspired by their last conversation, in which the speaker can't remember why all these people are gathered in the room together. Is it her birthday? Is it rehearsal?
Austin Script Works' Latino Playwrights Initiative was formed partly in response to the loss of the Hispanic Playwrights Project and the Latino Playwrights Initiative but also in response to their years of success. Artists speak from their personal experience, their history, their geography, but each of us needs a home base. Each of us needs permission to explore and a place to come back to.
In the 1970s, Fornés teamed up with Sam Shepard, Adrienne Kennedy, Rochelle Owens, and Megan Terry to create New York Theatre Strategy, a place where writers could test out their ideas and experiment with their work. In 1977, NYTS produced Fefu and Her Friends. She also began the Playwrights Laboratory, a professional workshop specifically for Latino writers. So she had the place where she investigated form and the place where she investigated cultural sensibilities. What those two communities gave her was the confidence to commit to her own deeply fascinating artistic voice.
Fornés told an interviewer once that she was okay being labeled as "fringe," because "people put claims on you and expect things of you. I've always liked being on the border." In Texas, we're on the border as well the literal border between the U.S. and Mexico, the figurative border of a vivid imagination. As Caridad Svich said as we started Dreaming the Americas, "It's up to us if we want to continue to live in the bordered spaces that govern the divide between Us and Them, or take the glorious and perhaps confounding risk of living and making art without a passport."