Montez Uma and Maliyah Gramata in RED BIKE at Know Theatre (2019). Photo credit: Dan R, Winters Photography
To locate the origin of the initial call to art-making is always a fraught enterprise. You will surely get it wrong because memory is ace at playing tricks with time, place and even what you think you read/saw once long ago from what you really read/saw. As a writer, the call to create stems from a mix of many things - the desire for attention, the need to articulate/make sense of the world around you, and too to escape. Writers are torn often between a love of ‘home’ (however it may be personally defined - through geography, family, affinity, languages, gender identities, etc.) and a love of running away. The tension between these two aches at the cut of writing’s wound from the moment you inscribe the page to when you say to yourself the words “the end.”
I grew up mostly along the eastern seaboard of the United States: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Florida. My parents were born in Cuba and Argentina, respectively. My grandparents were from Galicia in Spain and Pola in Croatia. I was born in Philadelphia in a bilingual (Spanish-English) household. Feeling in-between things was par for the course. Writing was a way to figure out who I was and where I fit in this complex world, even when I was writing stories about fictional characters. It was also a space where through the will of the imagination I could leave where I was and go somewhere else - the further the better. Like I said earlier, writers are pretty good at running away. The funny thing is that no matter how far you roam - in your mind, or, for real, out in the world - you always end up back home, and whatever that word-place means to you.
Did I choose to write for the theatre or did it choose me?
I ask this question of myself often. Especially more so in recent years when keeping faith in this mad business and its curious and sometimes hurtful ways can be too much to withstand sometimes.
Why did I seek theatre out? What was it about live performance and this so-called text-based stuff that I made me feel, well, at home?
I could tell you that the first time I walked into a theatre as a budding acting student in high school that I finally felt this is where I belonged.
I could tell you that when I first read Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the 4th grade, on my own, just for fun, I felt under the spell of its linguistic enchantment as if I had been sprinkled with fairy dust by Puck themselves!
I could tell you that when I read David Mamet’s American Buffalo for the first, second, and third time - repeatedly, all in one sitting - that I felt as I understood something thrilling and concrete about both the deep sadness and simultaneous fuck-all exhilaration of being ‘American.’ And oh, too, how I loved the way Mamet worked with the poetry of swearing on the page and stage. The syncopation and jagged quality of his language felt bristlingly alive and unlike anything I had encountered before on the shelves of the drama section at my local library. And yes, he was writing about a world of men. But to my mind, it felt like license to bust through that door and take liveness on. With all the swaggering, sweary bits, if I so desired!
I could tell you too about being in a college production of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, and just trying to wrap my brain around the structure and daring of that play turned a whole heck of stuff around for me in terms of what I thought a play could do.
I could tell you that reading Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls… woke me up - way before wokeness - to a new way of being/seeing/feeling/making in the theatre, and it rocked me to my core.
I could tell you I loved the feeling I got when I saw a production of my first full-length Waterfall while I was a second-year student in college, because it felt liberating to see my work interpreted and embodied and to witness the hard work and time put in by so many people over a play I wrote only months before alone in the solace of my writing room. You can dream something up and then somewhere some people you may not even know will want to dream it into corporeal being for other people to be with? It almost seems out of this world! Except it is not.
I could tell you I remember when I saw the late Raul Julia for the first time on stage in the original Broadway production of the Maury Yeston musical Nine under Tommy Tune’s direction, and I could not believe that what I was seeing was possible. Everything about that production - not just Julia, who was mercurial, funny, sensual, commanding and tender - but the scenic and costume design and Tune’s beautiful audacity as a director to have all those amazing women in those amazing clothes on stage the whole time. Owning it. Each and every one of them. Proud and strong and mesmerizing and sexy. All different body types. All stunning. Killing it. In a way I did not know was possible then. Or at least had never really thought about before. And geez, the beauty of the elegant choices of that production. The black-and-white first act, the quick burst of color in the second act with the full-on Casanova number acting as bas relief against the sea of white upon white upon black design. And geez, too, the non-figurative choices made throughout! You don’t need to see the thing to think the thing! Right. That’s theatre! The audience thinks it/sees it in their mind! But then at the very end of the show, suddenly the choice to have real doves flying in the air! The natural world calling to the constructed ‘artificial’ world on stage. Ah, right. Theatre is/can be the place where humans and nature have a discourse somehow. I can tell you that production changed my life.
I can also tell you that when I try to pinpoint the ‘origin’ or ‘aha’ moment for me I somehow always circle back to a moment late night watching TV when I was a kid and I should not have been up late, and I saw this amazing, androgynous woman in a white shirt, black tie and black pants hurling herself across a stage, microphone in hand, belting out ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine’ before launching into an ecstatic, messianic, dirty, messy chorus of ‘Gloria’ that I was, like, whoa, yes, THAT - that’s what I wanna do.
So, hey, yeah, thanks Patti Smith. Cos writing is dreaming - a different this.
[Caridad Svich received a 2018 Tanne Foundation Award and the 2018 Ellen Stewart Award for Career Achievement in Professional Theatre from ATHE. Her play RED BIKE is currently receiving an NNPN Rolling World Premiere. She is editor of several books on theatre, among them Fifty Playwright on Their Craft (Methuen Drama, 2017), and Audience Revolution (TCG, 2016).]
This post is a part of the Our Stories salon, curated as part of TCG's 2019 Gala: Our Stories in support of TCG's vision of a better world for and because of theatre. To participate in the salon, email Gus Schulenburg. To attend the TCG 2019 Gala, go here. To support TCG's work, go here.