This essay is dedicated to Fred Ho, a teacher and muse in my life.
Allow me to begin, as I always do when writing an essay, that I am not an academic. You will not find the word Ibid or a single footnote. If you don’t understand something, I trust that you will conduct your own investigation. If you prefer, you can think of this as an opinion column.
During my foolish attempts in the late 90’s to have plays produced by L.O.R.T. (League of Regional Theaters) theaters I have received the following message from more than one artistic director: “I love your work.” “You have a new, exciting, original voice” “We would love to have your play on our main stage” BUT “it m fit into our season.” I would hang up hopeful that there would be another season. That season never came. Besides telling me that my work doesn’t fit, I have also been told my work is challenging to direct. Few directors, like the brilliant Daniel Jáquez, “get” me. But they are a small number.
My work has on occasion even provoked rage. At a reading of one of my works the actors (all Latin@s) were clearly having a wonderful time. When it came time for feedback, one of the actors referred to me as an “actor’s playwright.” When I asked what she meant, she responded: “your writing trusts our intelligence and you don’t stereotype us.” A director in the room, who had ostentatiously gotten up from his seat several times throughout the reading to adjust the air conditioner, admonished me through gritted teeth: “You need to learn Aristotelian play structure: blah, blah, blah, your play has no arc.” I corrected him. “I do know the Eurocentric rules of playwriting. I made a mental note: (Act One, Protasis, Act Two Epitasis, Act Three, the Catastrophe: exposition, complication, resolution and blah, blah, blah you left out Kissmyassis.) That was the slow motion mind movie that preceded my verbal response: “I find that one arc, like one orgasm, is not enough for me. It is my intention to take the audience on a ride. My plays are meant to be experiential, to elicit a visceral response not an intellectual one.” The actors, who unlike this King of His Own Legend understood the historical and cultural context of the play, laughed and clapped, as this Mr. Man with more clout, access and privilege than any of us in the room, was rendered speechless and Twizzler red. He had decided that if I didn’t play by the rules of the Great White Way (and I don’t mean just Broadway) that I was somehow deficient in craft and inept in discourse. I offered him a Hershey Bar as a peace offering and we moved on. The hero of my play was Puerto Rican, poor, able to communicate telepathically with humans and inanimate objects. He is the re-incarnation of one of the champions of the Puerto Rican independence movement, Don Pedro Ablizu Campos. Mr. International King of the workshop abyss had never heard of this Harvard graduate, who spoke seven languages and considered a terrorist threat, was radiated into a horrific cancerous death by U.S. government thugs. These are the heroes who don’t make it into to school textbooks. You have to go out and find him on your own.
Remember the Japanese interment camps of WWII? Japanese American citizens were forcibly held in concentration camps on the West Coast of these United States, and we stood by with the same glazed look we have as we watch the Iraq war from the comfort of our couches. I shiver at our ignorance of the Comfort Women of WWII, forced into horrifically violent gruesome sexual acts by the Japanese military – they were considered “war supplies.” Many heinous acts of humankind throughout history are forgotten, or revised, especially by my own government, which considers us to be the center of the universe. Perhaps we are the centrifuges of the universe, methodically spinning and separating the whole into parts that cannot function fully without each other. Red and Blue for starters. Our country has Alzheimer’s. We forget atrocities days or weeks after they happen and import ring tones we never forget. How long ago does Katrina feel to you? Thanks to media, film, the iconic swastika, a ridiculous mustache and monster status, Hitler, although a distant memory to many is more difficult to erase. I hold onto to his words so I may never forget to think and think again:
“How fortunate for the rulers that the people do not think.”
This applies to the world of arts as well – how fortunate for the rulers that the people fear them. How fortunate for them that artist will still submit themselves to roles they find distasteful just for the chance to work within the system that holds itself up as the prize we hate ourselves for not obtaining. The gatekeepers of theater impose standards of talent and beauty that can make us hate even our teeth. To the adage of “the show must go on” I say hell no!” Why? Who decided that and why have we bought into it? Why are so many actors groveling for parts, working three jobs to pay the rent, just for the chance to walk across a stage and sneeze? Spare me.
It’s time to subvert the dominant parasite. Yes, I am tired of the word paradigm. Hegemonic grates my gizzard too.
My protagonist in the earlier anecdote lived in a society where to speak any language other than English had become a federal offense, so people began to develop the ability to communicate telepathically in their own languages. It is a play about the oppressed taking back power by sheer will, intelligence, unified subversive action and the stubborn desire to be free. In hindsight, I think it was my premise and not my play structure that greatly mortified this mono-cultural man who prides himself on championing the work of international playwrights, who tend to be well schooled and of privileged class. I intentionally choose the word schooled and not education. Schooling is what institutions impose upon us so we can get the front row ticket to the well paying job. Education is the gift we give to ourselves. There are two things an evolved educator will inspire in us: a love or even lust for learning and the tools for interrogating and researching our subject matter until we are assured in the deepest part of our bellies, we have landed on something that feels true and authentic.
I have had other, more informal readings of the play and audiences love it. The play won a staged reading and $500 prize in NYC, but to date has not been produced. My work is problematic to those who are invested in following the rules and pandering to the audience that they believe wants to be told what to feel. The society that Eric Frohmm warns us about in his classic book, Escape from Freedom. He writes of a society that wants to be told what to do, when and how to do it. A society grooming itself for Fascism. Perhaps they are right. After all, we are a most submissive audience to the theater of war replete with a cast of corporate whores and war criminals we allow to remain as leaders. And yet, despite this so-called “dumbing down” of the U.S. populace, I maintain faith in people’s emotional intelligence and see their hunger for more substantial art and theater. Substantial is not to be mistaken for inaccessible. Substance and accessibility are not mutually exclusive, unless of course, you are the type that feels you have seen something profound if it has confused you.
If I were to name my style of playwriting, I would name it, The Theater of Viscera, because I want you to feel into in your guts, not gently weep into your hankie in the same way you would watching a sappy commercial for Hallmark cards. Would anyone out there with a little yank like to codify this term for me and give me credit for inventing the form? It might help pay the mortgage. A few brave souls have dared to produce my work and audiences consistently respond enthusiastically. Enthusiasm as hot or cold; the responses I am grateful to say, are never tepid. I can truthfully say that in my over thirty-year trajectory as an artist in theater and as a performance poet, I have never had a negative interaction with my audience. It has been a journey of pleasure. On occasion I have enraged audience members, and was once threatened with bodily harm, but I consider that success as well. If I can provoke another to feel something authentic, to touch some deep longing or fear (since the root of violence is fear) deep in their viscera then my work is organic, alive and moving on an alternating current between my imagination and their experiences. I’ll take a good boo-ing over polite applause any day.
I find the most exciting moments in performance are not the standing ovations, but the room where half the audience is standing and cheering and the other half is sitting and stewing. I trust there will be dialogue. Whether my work is considered a common enemy or a common friend, the audience will leave with something to discuss and hopefully debate. It might even propel them to go out for coffee to trash or celebrate the work. I find that preferable to their running home to catch reruns of American Idol. Engaged in the act of being alive, present and responsive; those are the relationships I want. Unlike the director who scolded me, I don’t need or want to subscribe to the rules determined by those in power. I learn their rules, but apply and invent my own. We will find our moments of intersection, but for that to happen, we both have to be willing to listen and learn from a place of honest, human contact not power plays. I like to approach everyone I meet with the understanding of our immediate and non-negotiable common experience: we laugh, we cry, we shit, we die. Where we get into trouble is that we become afraid of each other because we laugh and cry over different things. Even shitting and dying are political; poverty and stress will harm your digestion and mortality rates do fluctuate with class. So even at our most basic humanity where we most profoundly intersect, there will be discord if we approach each other imprisoned by the arrogance of a mono-cultural perspective. And what about class? I make my living as an artist, but my yearly gross income is considerably less than that of the average plumber or auto mechanic. So am I working class? Or do I belong to an elite few who can actually subsist on their art? Where do I fit? Ah, that question again.
When I first read the title of the course syllabus: Artivism, Performance Praxis and the Sub Altern Avant-Garde, I have to admit that the only word that didn’t make me cringe was Praxis, from the Greek, meaning to move from theory into practice. Artivisim. The term, like the term “applied theater” makes me queasy. Naming like food labels are not always based on the reality of content or quality, but on the skill and audacity of the naming agent to impose their version of the ingredients in that, which is being named. Malodextrin is one of multiple forms of naming sugar. To not know this can be life threatening to a diabetic. The abusive use of a Thesaurus can also be hazardous to one’s health.
The idealist in me wants to believe that we name to understand, to create a platform for dialogue. But most often it is the gatekeepers who are doing the naming. In the old speakeasy’s of the 1920’s during the Prohibition Era, you had to know a password to gain entry. Now you are expected to mold yourself into the definitions others have devised for you and engage in the actions that make them comfortable with who they think you are. Turning up the heat of rejection, you are melted down to your most malleable components and poured into the molds made by those who hold the keys to the dream for your life that they have deluded you into believing in the first place. Many name me an activist. So much so, that for a while, I used it myself, until I searched my intention: it was a marketing tool. It’s what those writing the checks believed I was, so I unconsciously gave it to them. I remembered Lolita Lebrón was still in prison and I flung the word in disgust. I had allowed myself to be colonized and re-named. Like Borikén becoming Puerto Rico. To the Taínos, the island was “the land of the brave and noble Lord” an existential term seeking higher meaning. Puerto Rico, meaning “rich port” changed the name to one celebrating colonial materialism. I will no longer name myself an activist. I consider it a self-congratulatory term for doing what we should all be doing: working for the good of all, for justice, for the equitable distribution of resources, and an end to exploitation of all kinds. We become corrupt when we seize opportunity for self-gain without consideration for the impact of our actions on all sentient beings. Why should I be given a title simply for doing what is just? My intention is that the quality, content, and provocations of my work speak for themselves. If my work makes you re-think a thought that has grown bitter or perverse within you, then I have done my job. If it propels you to take action to change what is bitter or perverse and find a more life generating choice, them we are all the better for it. I am not the activist, but the provocateur of the action. If you need to name me, then I will say I am An Intentional Provocateur.
As for “sub-altern,” where do I begin? Subversive? Yes. Submissive? No. Below the alternative? Absolutely not. To me it is like the word “minority.” I have never been a minority if I look at life in a global context and not simply at 50 States. Where oh, where, do I fit in? I don’t. And I’m fine with that. What I am not fine with is being judged as outsider because of it. Once I am called an “outsider” inside is implied. So what is INSIDE and who gets to be there? Whose version of INSIDE are we talking about?
In my version of the INSIDE I don’t have a specific audience. My ideology is one of mutual liberation by interacting in one’s authentic voice. Mutual liberation is aborted when the authentic voice is not encouraged or shut down. For some, the authentic voice is economically censured as in the case of my plays not being produced on a so-called main stage because it doesn’t fit the season. Others are silenced in the halls of academia. For example, when a female student tried to give her explanation of a Neruda poem to her professor she was told, “No. That’s not what Neruda meant.” Her interpretation wasn’t engaged or given the slightest bit of respect. By the time she came to me, our creative writing work had to begin with damage control. I had to walk beside her and encourage her way back to a love of poetry and her own writing, which that event had caused her to abandon. She had been shamed by a professor who intentionally or not, had made her feel as she put it: “stupid.” I return to the word intention.
When I read or listen to words I am listening not only for their context but also for their intention. Like the ring of truth in a hearty “fuck you” over the erectile dysfunction of “love ya’” casually capping off a phone conversation between new friends.
The term “applied” theater has joined the lexicon of grant getting jargon. When I was engaging in what is now called applied theater as early as the mid-70’s working in prisons, cancer wards, terminal hospitals, temple basements and rented lofts, it was referred to as community theater, community service work, educational, interchangeable with Popular Theater. It wasn’t considered or respected as art, but something in service of the “great unwashed” therapeutic, a form of social hygiene, a way to clean up “youth at risk” or “substance abusers” or “offenders” and give them just enough voice to hear themselves think. We were called amateurs. It was amateur theater, unworthy of remuneration, respect or inclusion into the so called arena of “American Theater,” It was quaint, given the fisheye and a notch worthier when given the title of Popular Theater and attached to the names of Brecht or Boal or invoking the Birkenstock brigade doing their public service in Latin America, while avoiding heinous violations in their own neighboring communities. I compare it to our own local valley residents traveling to Nicaragua to witness elections but oblivious to the police actions that took place in Holyoke when Police Officer John DiNapoli was murdered back on December 22, of 1999. Doors of Puerto Rican homes were kicked in; heads were cracked open during random raids and indiscriminate arrests by the local Gestapo. Not a peep was heard in protest or concern from the elite who had traveled to Nicaragua in an effort to feel heroic, or from the media. No outcry, no outrage, the Christmas lights of the Pyramid Mall hummed in the distance as folks carried on with their ferocious commitment to last minute holiday shopping. . Human and civil rights were wildly violated under our very noses and very few noticed or responded. Who decides and how, what is worthy of our action?
For bringing art into the trenches of our beleaguered communities we got minimum wage at best and a wink or pat on the head from those engaged in “real” theater, if we were noticed at all. Those of us doing this work were for the most part as invisible as the communities in which we worked. It was considered a theater of research not art. But now, the relatively new term of APPLIED THEATER has emerged. With this new imprimatur, what has been happening for decades is now recognized as having artistic as well as social merit. It is no longer the domain of the idealistic arts grunts like myself. Or the elite socks with sandals brigade impersonating the poor. Applied Theater now belongs to the vultures that deftly swoop at the first sign of poverty pimping opportunity. Who will get the grants and recognition? The ones who know how to write grants, not necessarily those who know how to do the work or understand the community in which they will work. What happens then is ill-equipped artists armed with the same good intentions that pave hell, descend with a safari mentality, pounce upon economically oppressed communities, ravage them with mediocrity, sleight of hand making a media splash littered with jargon on their own behalf, exiting when the money runs out as smug as when they arrived. Those who do the daily work in the arts trenches, who do the “amateur” work, are left to pick up what is left in their wake.
Another linguistic travesty, is that of Anna Deavere Smith credited with “inventing” Interview Theater. That is as absurd as crediting Columbus with discovery of the Americas; or discussing Edison without Tesla. What Ms. Devere Smith did was market a term, codify and co-opt what playwrights have always done: eavesdrop, listen to other people’s stories and then transcribe them into monologues and dialogues with a twist of poetic license. That has always been a source of the playwright, to capitalize on human stories, images, and phrases. The play is not pulled out of a vacuum. Somebody gave it a name and a savvy publicist ran with it – I don’t call that art; I call in entrepreneurial genius. And good for her. But don’t insult my intelligence by telling me she invented it. Not too different from spoken word, a form that goes back 5,000 years to Mesopotamia now known as Iraq in the person of priestess and poet, Enheduanna. A repetitive, rhythmical cadence isn’t a movement-its a form or style of performance. Again, marketing, Spoken Word. Slam. Catchy, but not new. Open Mics in the 60’s had an unspoken edge of competition, we just didn’t call it slam, we called it ego.
My mother was a brilliant fashion designer in the league of a Coco Chanel. But she died having only experienced the fouled environment afforded an exploited sweatshop seamstress. Why? No English, no marketing, no yank. She would spread newspapers across the kitchen table, and with the dexterity of Edward Scissorhands she would cut and pin together a pattern inspired by something she might have seen in the window of Saks Fifth Avenue or Bergdorf’s, two stores she never entered out of sheer intimidation. Next she’d walk to the neighborhood fabric store and pick remnants out of boxes outside for 25 to 50 cents a piece. For almost nothing she would impeccably sew a fully lined suit, finished in lace seam binding, with patterns perfectly aligned and hand stitched buttonholes that were a layered work of art. Now, if my mother had an interpreter (other than Junior High School me), a publicist, a marketing artist, an upscale fashionista benefactor and supporter, she might have achieved haute couture immortality. However my mother did not have social cachet or the ability to even know where to find an entry point. In her life, there was no one paying attention, except me, the daughter who feared her as much as she loved her. Abusive rage had replaced imagination in her dead end life.
We must first pay attention to our own lives and thinking, and then to those around us, or we might miss the treasures in our own lives for lack of a word. So, we return to our Viscera, also known as our intuition, our guts, our damn common sense. I suggest we reinvent the lexicon of art and speak for ourselves, create our own theaters, publish our own books, record our own music, and remain vigilant that upon achieving success, we do not get suckered into the trap of believing ours is the only way. Arrogance and narcissism, even in the guise of false humility or self-consciousness (which is still about ME) are toxic not only for the recipient, but for the carrier. Together, they kill more brain cells than whiskey, just at a slower rate.
As Brooklyn born guru, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati says: “If anyone tells you their way is the only way, run the other way.”
If you want to read what I would choose as my conclusion to this essay, go and read the poem: The Did-You-Come-Yets of the Western World by Rita Ann Higgins, to be found in “Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times.” Edited by Neil Astley, Miramax Books (Hyperion), 2003 ISBN: 1-4013-5926-4