Night envelops the cabin as the airplane flies across the United States en route to South America. In many hours time, I’m to land in Santiago de Chile for the Latin American premiere of my stage adaptation of Isabel Allende’s landmark novel The House of the Spirits. The play has already been running in New York City for a year at Repertorio Espanol, and will be staged in my English-language version at Denver Theatre Center and Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis later this season. Although I’ve been working on many other plays and collaborative projects in the last year and half, The House of the Spirits has been at the forefront of my consciousness most of the time. Living with Allende’s novel as its adaptor has brought my work to a new audience, both here in the United States and now abroad. Press from Spain, Colombia, Mexico and England covered the New York City premiere, and a mostly bilingual audience has seen the play – an audience that, in the main, did not know my work at all as a playwright even though I’ve been writing plays for over fifteen years. What does it say about the strange and (sometimes) mysterious business of theatre that a dramatist can have a life (and indeed, many different artistic lives) and still find herself in the ‘emerging’ slot to some people, and in the ‘mid-career’ one to others?
When I was asked to write this essay and explore what it means to be a woman who writes for the theatre in the 20th and 21st centuries, I wrestled long and hard with the subject of a) being a woman who writes and b) a woman who writes for the theatre. Are they different things? Should they be? When I face the page, does the fact that I’m writing a play change what I write about and how I go about it? If I were a female novelist, would I choose altogether different subjects? Does the fact that I’m not only a woman but also a hybrid Latina artist affect the kinds of topics and stylistic forms I explore on the page and stage? Would this essay even be in existence if I didn’t write for live performance?
How does one write a life? Where does the will to intervene socially and politically in culture begin? Some writers choose what may be deemed a “more quiet, interior” position in the field. Others may choose to use the work itself as a vehicle to exhort and proclaim their beliefs. Others still may simply choose to amuse, to create divertissements to comfort and/or soothe their public. There are many roads, in other words, to a writer’s life. The first job of a writer, however, is to notice, to observe the world, to train the eye to really see and record, and sometimes to see what isn’t there but could be. As a playwright, my path so far has been marked by a daily practice of seeing that has expanded in its global outlook over the years.
At first, writing was enchantment, a spell of words to fall into and seek refuge. Writing, thus, was initially for me a retreat from the world. Part of the retreat had to do as much with being a child of immigrants as it did with wanting to create an alternative universe where ready-made constructions of identity and language were much more fluid and open. As I’ve kept writing and training as an artist, the enchantment has remained central to my relationship to words and signs on the page. The drunken ecstatic transformational materiality and beauty of languages verbal, visual and aural restlessly plays with my imagination. But what is it that one sees as a writer in the theatre? How does one face the world?
Theatre is a public forum. Writing for the theatre and live performance, thus, demands engagement with the world. To write a play is a civic act, or at very least the articulation of a desire to take part in a civic dialogue with society. Broad questions of identity and human rights enter very much into the frame of a play’s vision. What stories do you choose to tell when you face the page? And how indeed will you tell them? Content and form are inextricably linked, as they are in the “real” world outside the site of action of a theatre piece. When I write, the question nearly always has become over the years: Why this story now? And how can I shift the world a little bit by re-framing the ways in which we are conditioned to see the human figure, the post-post colonial erotic, political and spiritual body, in space and time? As a bilingual child of immigrants from Cuba and Argentina, the question inevitably also rises: How does this story or stories engage with the Americas and the larger world?”
I’ve spent most of my writing life challenging and resisting labels and categories. Perhaps some of my colleagues would attest that the fact that I trained with master playwright and teacher Maria Irene Fornes right after receiving my undergraduate and graduate school degrees in theatre has something to do with this. After all, Fornes’ example was one of sublime resistance. She wrote all different kinds of plays over a forty-year period. Her body of work is uncompromising, consistently surprising, unequivocally female in its concerns, and relentlessly ambiguous in its approach to the delineation of character. Her protagonists are deeply flawed, ornery, not particularly noble most of the time, and often blind-sided by their own complex natures and/or their socioeconomic positions in society. The intensive four-year training with Fornes at the INTAR Hispanic Playwrights Laboratory certainly had a profound influence on me as a young artist, but I recall resisting categories even before I worked with Fornes.
Back in graduate school at UCSD, I wanted to write outside any box, pursue interdisciplinary collaborations, and make all kinds of plays. If I think a bit harder on this, I would say, well, that’s just part of being an artist. Writing for live performance has always meant to write for this moment in time. Margaret Atwood talks about ‘negotiating with the dead’ when she writes, and for me, that negotiation has as much to do with listening to the ancestors as it has to do with the spectral beings that haunt theatre itself and its history. What is it that often we recall with fondness when we think about the acts of performance that inspired us at an early age? The sense of community, the ability to dress up and lose oneself in a role, the wonder that simple stagecraft can elicit, and the ability to re-awaken the senses and sharpen the mind to new ideas, forms, and stories. Most of my students, when I work in a classroom setting, fess up that it wasn’t the wildest post-post modern piece of theatre that first made them want to write, but rather, often, the cheesiest, hoariest, go-for-broke plays and spectacles they first saw or took part in as five or six-year-olds. Disney Theatricals is often mentioned with a bemused and somewhat ashamed countenance. “Yes, it was Beauty and the Beast that made me want to go into the theatre,” some students express.
While I suppose I should be quite the serious artist and disdain the notion of Disney Theatricals’ dominance, I admit that well, yes, I remember seeing as tried-and-true a performance piece as The Nutcracker ballet as a child and being completely taken with the whole enterprise. I dreamt about the dancing mice and the exuberant Russian dances and the rather odd coming-of-age story that the ballet presents. I remember too being swept away by the mind-blowing Brechtian yet commercially-driven stagecraft of Harold Prince’s direction of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita and Tommy Tune’s black-and-white directorial fantasia of Maury Yeston’s musical Nine, and Bob Fosse’s gloriously decadent film of Cabaret. Okay, three not-so-conventional musicals to begin with, but still… all indebted to elements of spectacle, bald emotional moments, and epic storytelling. Fast forward to 2010 and Nine, Evita and Cabaret still make me cry and shiver in all the right places, even though I know full well I’m being thoroughly and artfully manipulated, and The Nutcracker in any choreographic version (Mark Morris, Matthew Bourne, etc.) still manages to capture my attention, even though I know exactly what’s going to happen and why and how the musical score will transpire (canned, miked, pre-recorded and on rare occasion, live).
What a young artist recognizes as imprint early on – shamefully, blushing a bit, perhaps even somewhat embarrassed by the whole notion – stays with you. The fact that Evita, Nine, and Cabaret feature strong and complicated female protagonists is a factor in how I make theatre now. Why bring up music-theatre at all? Because if I’m to talk about influence and what has shaped my work for the theatre, then music-theatre is at its center. Why do so many of my plays have songs: Alchemy of Desire/Dead-Man’s Blues, Fugitive Pieces, Prodigal Kiss, 12 Ophelias, Iphigenia…a rave fable, The Tropic of X, Thrush, etc. ?
I’m interested in the voice lifted in time and space, raised in song.
I trained initially as a singer and musician.
I love the free interplay between the spoken and the sung.
Because theatre is poetry, and the poet’s song rides the chord of every emotional beat in the theatre.
Night spins its tremulous spell as the airplane steadies its climb and I dream about Santiago. In my play Prodigal Kiss, a young Cuban female rafter from Santiago de Cuba lands in the United States and encounters immigrants and pilgrims from the many Santiagos of the Americas (Dominican Republic, Argentina, Spain, Chile). She traces the path of the Milky Way elucidated by many myths of Catholic peregrination and also brought to elusive light in Luis Bunuel’s film of the same name. Prodigal Kiss was not my first play, but it did mark and has marked my writing since, for it was one of the first times I set out to tell a ‘road story’ of and about the Americas. In speech and song. It’s an open-hearted play with some tough lessons told, and it breaks my heart every time I think about it. See, plays have lives for a writer. They live inside one for a long time, then they live on the page, endlessly chasing or obeying the copy and paste assignations on the keyboard, and eventually they live inside actors’ bodies and mouths and minds within a space that reverberates with its own identifiable music, and through design and composition, a play begins to breathe in the space between the site of play and the audience: in between. But when a play closes, it continues to have a life. Sometimes in publication, but beyond that, in a writer’s mind. Why think of Prodigal Kiss now? I wrote that play nearly eleven years ago. Because as I fly toward Santiago, I dream about the Santiagos I wrote about in that play, and also the imagined Santiago that is contained within my stage evocation of The House of the Spirits. It’s as if all the Santiagos are calling to me now.
As a playwright, my mission has never been to speak for the Americas. Who could? In all their raging and beautiful complexity and diversity. But I have spent a great deal of time speaking to the Americas that can be sung and spoken of and made visible on US stages. I know that for me, Luis Valdez and Maria Irene Fornes are models of how to go about things as a dramatist in the complicated theoretical space which is part of Latino/a writing identity for the stage. John Jesurun is also a model. And so are Lynne Alvarez and Jose Rivera and Milcha Sanchez-Scott and so many more. But I’m also part of a history that includes Euripides, Eugene O’Neill, Sam Shepard, Adrienne Kennedy, Joe Orton, Caryl Churchill, Miguel Pinero, Ana Mendieta, Lillian Hellman, Ntzoke Shange, Federico Garcia Lorca, and…and… Let’s think on all those stories we’ve seen, all the songs sung, all the many blushing moments that awake the mind as it faces the screen or page to create. “Blushing moments” I call them because writing is a dare and often the dare makes us blush. Dare I write this? Dare I write that? How do I dare and why?
When I started my parallel career as a translator of dramatic texts, the dare was Garcia Lorca. Would I dare take him on as a translator? The answer was a timid ‘yes’ at first. Twelve plays and thirteen Lorca poems translated later, the answer is less timid, but the dare remains. Lope de Vega, Calderon de la Barca, Antonio Buero Vallejo, Julio Cortazar, Abilio Estevez, Alberto Pedro, Silvia Pelaez, Alfredo Hinojosa, Veronica Musalem are all writers I’ve translated since. Translation is a humbling process. You give yourself over to another, as in love, without completely losing yourself, but you must step out of the way of the work itself and let it do what it needs. The same is true, of course, in the act of writing a new play. Translation reminds me of this, and also keeps me in touch, quite figuratively, with writers in the Americas who envision what’s possible on the stage in a vital and radical manner. So easy to bandy about the word ‘radical’ loosely, but when is work truly radical in its resistance? Just pick up Garcia Lorca’s The Public or Cortazar’s The Kings or Hinojosa’s Deserts and the word is re-animated politically and emotionally. Translation of dramatic texts teaches me continually about the process of creation and collaboration. Even when I adapted a play into the English-language from a literal Serbian translation – Ugjlesa Sajtinac’s Huddersfield – I learned about the music and radicality of possibilities alive in the theatrical space. Radical because it is live, immediate, not reproducible, but not only because of these things. Radical because to make something for live performance is to engage in the probability of failure at every second. If this line is said, if this action is performed, what could go wrong? What could offend? What would happen if the line is said but the gesture that accompanies falls short or doesn’t read beyond the first row?
Making a play is in and of itself a fragile game that involves the particular relationship between and among collaborators or potential collaborators. It’s a tough and tender affair that demands courage, a strong sense of humor and a great deal of commitment to the craft itself, its discipline, and the daily spiritual practice of believing in the art. A text for performance, a score for performance, is tested every night in front of an audience, regardless of whether it’s been performed a hundred times before or only once before. Every night the play could fail. That’s the dare of it. It’s all about the audience (of one or many) and what the dynamic exchange is between the audience and the performers. As a dramatist, you enter into this crazy game of chance willingly. I don’t know anyone in this field who’s been ‘pushed into the writing life.’ A writer writes because… Writer wrights because… A writer Rights…
Gertrude Stein and David Greenspan dance a nimble dance in my mind when Greenspan performs Stein’s lecture Play in New York City. I remember the way Greenspan caresses words and exalts in the peculiarity of the English language, in Stein’s English: precious, defiant and true. The right to speak, the right to design an alternative world. When a dramatist makes a play, the play creates a new order. Ideologies, politics, the sense(s) of feeling and form (to quote Suzanne Langer), the membranes and tissues of existence, and the blood history of beings long gone (ancient sung) are called forth. Stein speaks back to Greenspan, Greenspan writes his own inter/play of gesture and utterance as he interprets Stein. Stein’s text lives in the air.
A woman writes in the air. She dares speak. She dares whisper. She dares… challenge space and time and language(s). When I write I write, in English, I write in Spanish, Spanglish and sometimes I write in an English low-down, a little messy, scavenged from the slag and junk-heap of English itself, a vernacular invented, and at one and the same, time-worn: the language of folk songs written by anonymous… no longer.
Light, grey dawn peers through the window flap on the airplane. I think of The House of the Spirits in rehearsal and of Allende’s story that now belongs to the world. I steel myself for a roomful of actors I’ve yet to meet and a new audience. I wonder what stories this encounter in the Americas will yield, what songs will rise from the red earth, smog-filled sky and quaking rock, and how a woman’s life in and out of the theatre is never fully written, but always in a process of becoming, and how that process of becoming is testament to the essence of performance and the act of writing itself: transformation.
What is the path we take as artists if we want to live in a world of NoPassport? A practical utopian ideal that nevertheless acknowledges with respect, tolerance, humility and grace the differences between and among us? How do we as artists who practice this premise, this dream, really, also acknowledge in an honest and poetic manner the emotional and spiritual cost that the fear of difference bears upon bodies subjected to the constraints of economic and political tyranny, oppression and hatred? I return to the ancient dramatists and the central questions of their art, to the inscriptions on the virtual field of history that we carry in our bones and hearts in the stream of writing and making art in civic dialogue with the body public and private, with the self within and outside the realm of governance: How we do celebrate our lives? How do we mourn our dead? What lessons, portraits and dreams through performance – through the enactment of remembrances – can we offer to our present and future citizens about the messed-up nature of being human in this world as we write a life, and lives?