Caridad Svich is an award-winning playwright who just received the American Theatre Critics Association 2011 Francesca Primus Prize for her play House of the Spirits. The Prize is awarded annually to an emerging woman theatre artist. (More info here.) With more than 30 scripts under her belt, Svich is more than emerging, she is exploding into the theatre world bearing a message of courage, equality, and the transformative power of art.
dramachicky (dc): What would you say is the driving force behind the plays you write?
Caridad Svich (CS): I’m mostly driven by landscape and voice. Who lives where, why, what’s the climate, who else lives there, what sounds, songs, dialects, idioms are heard. I work from land and sound-scape primarily and through that characters emerge. This is on a practical level. On a spiritual level: art making is always political, isn’t it? You face the blank page, you make a choice about what you’re going to write and why, or the work itself chooses for you. Either way, ultimately, you say I will keep writing or I will not. So, what keeps you writing? Stories that you haven’t seen before, stories you want to see again but told differently, etc. Writing is as much about discovery as it is about cultural recuperation and inscription. At the end of the day, the choices you make are the ones that are reflecting what you want to speak back to, shout, or whisper to the public and society. Writing for the theatre is about engagement in a civic dialogue but through the metaphorical and ritualistic means. Theatre is transformation.
dc: What is the first play you wrote and what inspired it?
CS: Well, I was one of those creative writing students that was always writing poetry, short stories, etc. Plays came later. As a dare. For fun. And because I was interested in performance and how one writes for live performance. The spoken word. The word aloud. The word embodied. The body in motion. In space and time. There are a lot of plays, but I always think of my first play as the first play where I discovered my way of seeing for the stage and that play was my MFA thesis play BRAZO GITANO (Gypsy’s Arm). It was coincidentally the first play wherein I wrote about Latina/o characters and subject matter. It’s about Cuban American enclave in Miami, Santeria, bad love, good love, plastic societies, spiritual quests, carnival, West African deities, migration, and making home. The play contains all the seeds of my future work. It has songs, poetry, scenes with media (projections, video, etc.), puppets, shape shifting, characters in flux, gender-bending, ritual, dance, movement, and stark sharp contrasts in tone and style. It’s a carnival play in the Bakhtin sense. It was produced as my thesis production at UCSD and much later
published in OLLANTAY Magazine. It’s a play I still wish would receive another production, because it’s still, for me, a significant play in my body of work. It’s the
template, as it were. And great fun too! The fact that it’s the first play where I begin to address the complexity of being a hybrid Latina in the US is also significant. Although not all of my plays feature characters that are designated as Latina/o, the fact that I am Cuban-Spanish, Argentine-Croatian born and raised in the US in a bilingual family (Spanish-English) affects everything I write.
dc: Can you tell us a little about your writing process?
CS: On a very practical level: I am not one of those writers that writes diligently every day. When a play overtakes me, I commit to it until I write the words “end of play.” And then begins the long process of revision, which can take months, and in singular cases, years! When I am working on a play, I do write every day. I journal first. Long hand. Character observations, monologues, scenes, etc. Then I work on the laptop, directly on the screen and begin to transfer and translate what is in the journal into a shape. I always go back over scenes written the day before, and edit as I write. Editing is a way of continually trying to discover the core of the work itself: what needs to be there. Then usually after the first draft, I wait a month or two before going into a revision process. Just to give myself some distance from the material. Then the writing begins all over again, and then, because plays are collaborative, it’s only when you’re in rehearsal that you really find the play all over again.
dc: You talk about the importance of departure as a metaphor in much of your work. Why
is this important to you?
CS: Where one goes, where one has gone, what sets you on a path or what makes you take a different path… these are all important life decisions. Writing for me is an exploration of these decisions in people’s lives. Whether they’re taken, not taken, forced to be taken (for political, economic or other reasons), or merely contemplated. So many characters in fiction and theatre long to go somewhere, or have just arrived somewhere. It’s just the nature of storytelling. The point of departure and the aftermath of departure interest me because especially in the era of globalization the boundaries blur and merge, but at day’s end, there is physical and emotional reality that is not virtual, but absolutely, concretely felt. I write from that place.
dc: Your ethnic background is as varied as your repertoire – on your website you state that you are of Cuban-Spanish-Argentine-Croatian descent. What kind of influence has this had on your writing?
CS: You’re born into a heritage. That’s a gift. It’s about owning up to it. Whatever it may be. Some writers write in reaction against their background, others write to honor it, others write to understand it, others to confuse it deliberately and impose a new heritage upon the old. Blood memory is something you can’t let go of. So, I write to do perhaps all of these things: claim, rebel, honor, comprehend, make mischief with, explore, dive, etc. For a long time as a child I rejected my heritage. I kept trying to invent new ones for myself. New biographies! But the writing, the act of it, the journey of it, has taught me to embrace and keep digging, learn and honor my ancestors, from wheresoever they’re from.
dc: Several of your plays (Twelve Ophelias, Wreckage, Iphigenia Crash Land Falls…) create new worlds and new stories for classic characters. What compelled you to write about well-known characters in new places and situations?
CS: Rewriting a character’s life and/or destiny. Plain and simple. I wanted to resurrect Ophelia and give her another chance at life. I wanted to understand Iphiginia’s sacrifice. I wanted to hear the voices of Medea’s children, who barely speak in most of the adaptations of the myth. Reconfiguring the classics, sustaining a conversation with canonical texts and characters, re-routing perception… are all fuels for me in the act of re-imagining. I’m also drawn to classical structures and am very interested in acts of linguistic and spatial and visual superimposition, mash-up, and breaking open ideas of what a text may or may not be for the stage.
dc: A number of your works take place in what some might consider the “afterworld.” Would you care to talk about why?
CS: It’s a mystery to me, but, yes the afterlife/afterworld plays a large part in my work. I’m interested in the dialogue the living have with the dead. How a society moves forward through this conversation. How histories are told and why. What haunts us? Why? Also,
you know, theatre is already a haunted space. Texts are scores for future haunting. Actors work in spaces where other actors have worked for years. Each physical site of production has a history to it. Palpable. Theatre is continually inscribing notes and phrases into the afterlife we can’t see. Historically, the afterlife is a huge part of playtexts. Look at the Greeks! Shakespeare!
dc: What of your pieces speaks to you the most personally and why?
CS: Ah, it’s impossible to choose from so many plays, but I always come back to Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart (a rave fable) because it was a significant artistic breakthrough for me. Blood, tears and a lotta love are in that play. And it’s also the first play where I consciously, absolutely let loose on every level, and found an elasticity and freedom I hadn’t found before as a writer.
dc: A study conducted by Princeton student Emily Glassberg Sands found that in 2008 less than 20% of plays being produced in our country were written by women. Would you comment on this disturbing trend?
CS: Not a trend. A reality. Has been for some time. It’s a simple fact. Fifty percent of the population is not represented on our stages in the US on a regular basis and has not been for some time: works written by women, but also roles for women as actors, directors, designers, etc. It’s a very steep hill to climb to right this act of discrimination. Because we’re dealing with hundreds and hundreds of years of inequality. Yet, not an
impossible wrong to wish to right and wright! There are fantastic women doing fantastic work in all levels of the field, and there are fantastic men. And transgender artists too. In the fight for equality, I think the duty is to continue to raise awareness of the inequality, to educate, advocate for others in the field, try to keep the conversation about what stories we tell, whose stories are told, what stories we see and hear, how often, and why at the forefront.
dc: What do you think women playwrights, dramachicks, and other concerned individuals
can do to increase the number of produced works written by women?
CS: Keep doing. Plain and simple. Not give up. Advocate for each other. Raise the bar. Keep the circle rising.
dc: What advice do you have for playwrights who are struggling or just starting out?
CS: Make sure you don’t put all your hopes on one project that will “make your career.” A writing life is about ebb and flow, making things, hitting against the wall, making some more, finding your people, making work with those people, continuing to strengthen and deepen your voice, and recognize you’re not alone.
About Caridad Svich…
Education: MFA in Theatre-Playwriting from the University of California, San Diego
Career: Playwright, translator, songwriter and editor.
First Play Production: but there are fires, The Women’s Project, New York City, 1991
Notable: Profiled in the July/August 2009 issue of American Theatre magazine; recipient of the 2009 Lee Reynolds Award from the League of Professional Theatre Women; elected member of New Dramatists, 2000-2008; Fulbright Senior Specialist in Theatre Candidate, 2006-2010; Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Fellowship, 2002-2003; Pew Charitable Trust/TCG National Theatre Artist Residency, 1999-2000; NEA/TCG National Playwright in Residence at the Mark Taper Forum and Latino Theatre Initiative.
Selected Works: Alchemy of Desire/Dead-Man’s Blues, Any Place But Here, 12 Ophelias (a play with broken songs), Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart (a rave fable), The House of the Spirits (based on the novel by Isabel Allende).
For more on Caridad Svich and her works, including current and up-coming productions of her plays, please visit her website.