Caridad Svich

Photo by Jody Christopherson

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Caridad Svich is a multi-award winning playwright who received the 2012 OBIE Award for Lifetime Achievement in the theatre.

Key works in her repertoire include 12 Ophelias, Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart, The Booth Variations, Alchemy of Desire/Dead-Man’s Blues, Any Place But Here, Archipelago, The Way of Water, The House of the Spirits (based on Isabel Allende’s novel), and JARMAN (all this maddening beauty). She has also adapted for the stage novels by Mario Vargas Llosa, Julia Alvarez and Jose Leon Sanchez, and has radically reconfigured works from Wedekind, Euripides, Sophocles, and Shakespeare. Her first independent feature film Fugitive Dreams, based on her play, is scheduled for late 2020 release.

Caridad is an essayist and an editor of multiple books on theatre from Theatre in Crisis (2003) to Fifty Playwrights on their Craft (2018). She also serves as associate editor at Taylor & Francis’ Contemporary Theatre Review, where she also edits their Backpages section. Her newest book is on Mitchell and Trask’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Routledge’s 4th Wall Series, 2019).

She sustains a parallel career as a theatrical translator, chiefly of the dramatic work of Federico Garcia Lorca as well as works by Calderon de la Barca, Lope de Vega, Julio Cortazar, Victor Rascon Banda, Antonio Buero Vallejo and contemporary works from Mexico, Cuba and Spain.

Caridad is a founder of theatre alliance & press NoPassport and her work intersects with diverse communities. She also teaches creative writing and playwriting at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and Primary Stages’ Einhorn School of Performing Arts.

Caridad’s The House of the Spirits (based on Isabel Allende’s novel) is running at the Cervantes Theatre, London until 11th December 2019 – Tickets available at https://www.cervantestheatre.com/home/la-casa-de-los-espiritus/

Potentiality and possibility

PC: What is theatre?

CS: Before I knew I wanted to do this for real, I thought it was a place where you could lose yourself in order to find yourself. That’s what attracted me to the form initially, outside of its plasticity and its malleability. The ‘what is theatre?’ question for me has been an ongoing dilemma with forces of structural capitalism and, also, external expectations around what being a Latinx artist means. That is, what that means to me and what that means to other people might be different. I’ve just had to contend with that because sometimes I’m being told the answer (by others) to the ‘what is theatre?’ question. I feel like my work and a lot of what I actually do is, to quote Martin Puchner, against theatre. I see it as a place of potentiality and a place of possibility.

PC: What are the things about theatre in the US that make it distinct from other theatre cultures?

CS: I think that the difference from a writer’s position may have to do with form actually more than anything. I think that there’s a massive unwillingness (from audiences) to contend with ruptures in form unless you’re doing a musical, even though there is a strong and vibrant history of formally adventurous theatrical work in the United States from Mae West to Edward Albee, from Adrienne Kennedy to Maria Irene Fornes, from David Henry Hwang to Paula Vogel, from Suzan-Lori Parks to Annie Baker, to name only a few. Yet, somehow, musicals for some reason are the most experimental artform that’s done commercially in this country; there’s some pretty radical stuff happening. But if it’s ‘play play’, or a play that may be a play, then there is this notion at the outset somehow that it has to be linear, which ignores the fact then that abstract art, hip-hop, jazz and post-modernism has happened. We’re in the 21st century! We haven’t really had that Blasted moment, that moment that Alex Sierz suggests writers in the UK today are responding to. So, what’s our zeitgeist, is it Kushner and Shepherd or is it still Miller and Williams as the critics would have it? I think that’s crucial actually because if your reference points aren’t necessarily altogether form breaking then of course form becomes the contentious thing. I would say that the generation coming up, looking at Anne Washburn and Brandon Jacob Jenkins, Jeremy Harris and Jackie Sibblies Drury it is beginning to change, but it’s going to take a while to see that manifest on more stages.

Mindful of spectacle

PC: Is theatre in crisis?

CS: I think theatre is always in crisis and that’s a good thing. That’s what makes people experiment and rail against and love and embrace and explore the form. If people start to think it’s not in crisis then I think we’re in trouble. That’s when things get comfortable.

How theatre responds to the climate-crisis and how it manages eco-sustainability is a really pressing concern. The implications of the electrical power behind spectacle in theatres is a big question. We can’t just pretend that it’s all fine. But I feel like that’s what’s happening, except for rare instances where the carbon footprint of making the work and presenting it is actually being considered from the ground up. How do we deal with that? That’s where my moral quandary lies at the moment.

PC: How has your relationship with spectacle changed over the course of your work?

CS: It’s changed quite a bit I still love the toys because I can’t resist, I grew up Catholic so all that ritual: the beautiful robes and the stained-glass and the incense. I’m addicted to all that stuff. But when I first started writing it was just folks on a very bare stage. After college, I went to grad school and I became really interested in the notion of spectacle, partly because I’m interested in the notion of carnival and the carnivalesque. In my third-year production at UCSD I really went to town and that play Brazo Gitano contains all of my plays in a way, it has everything: puppets, video, music, ritual, multi-languages. Then I went through a phase where I was writing very dark plays with people fighting with each other in rooms and they had no music. But then I started to reconnect with music in mostly acoustic, barer and poor theatre plays about the elements: earth, fire, air, water. Then I had a reaction against that and I went to what I call my electric phase – Iphgenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart. That was the apex of what I call my decadence plays, exploring decadence and spectacle in a very lurid, intentionally purposeful way of seeing. Looking at commodification and how people are treated as objects. Then I did these big adaptations of novels and that put me in a different mode. I wasn’t doing radical work, I was responding to text that already existed and taking that form and figuring out how that would be in theatre. After all of those phases I started to think about how much everything cost to be honest: the ushers getting paid this much but that set-piece cost this much. So I started to really strip everything down, okay spectacle as a tool, unless I’m doing work for hire, I’m not sure that I want to be part of that ethos. It’s tricky because I know it’s pleasurable but I feel like it’s the wrong moment at the end of the day and it’s an ethical conundrum. I’m trying to be mindful about where spectacle takes place.

Multiplying

PC: How has the act of translating and adapting informed your other theatre work?

CS: It’s pretty central. What I love about that work, besides the opportunity and the honour and the privilege to be able to be that medium for somebody else’s work and present it to a new audience, is that I get to be inside another author’s brain, which is awesome. It’s a break from myself which is great. I’ve learnt lots along the way and those authors are now a part of my vocabulary. You multiply when you’re translator, you have many voices inside of you all of a sudden and that’s such a rich thing. I can call them at any time in my imagination and that’s such a beautiful gift.

PC: How does the fallibility of interpretation guide how you work with theatre?

CS: There’s not one version, there’s multiple versions, which is true in translations, it’s true because it’s an ever-evolving process, it’s always a living organism. When I first started I was being told by a lot of people that plays happen one way and if somebody else is doing a play miles away it has to look exactly like the first production. I’m not interested in that idea, I’d rather twenty different people do twenty radically different versions of my plays. Mysteriously there’s always something, a line or an action, even if it’s not scripted action, that carries through in maybe twenty productions that otherwise are radically different. I’m fascinated by that. Maybe it has something to do with the spirit of the work itself or the under-score?

Democracy and Philosophy

PC: How does using layers to structure your plays, instead of linearity, open up the possibilities of the future and the present in the theatre?

CS: I think it goes back to the notion of song actually and thinking about harmony and melody and dissonance and how many instruments there are? Those layers impact what we make. ‘Play plays’ only focus on melody lines and they forget about other things that are happening in the landscape of the theatre. So, I became interested in how a play looks, in terms of it as a score on the page as a way of opening up possibilities for my collaborators. I’ve become less and less prescriptive about what’s on the page, which I think sometimes bothers people. There is a map there but I’m not necessarily going to give you all the tools to get to the end of the journey. That feels like a democratic engagement because I’m giving power and agency to collaborators and to the audience. That allows us to think about a future and a present that can radiate possibility.

PC: How does theatre create and represent a spiritual existence either of past lives or an ethereal present?

CS: I think the first work that has that moment of a-ha was actually a very strange play by Tennessee Williams called Outcry (The Two Character Play). It’s a deeply weird play and it doesn’t quite work in a conventional way, but it is about spirits haunting a place. The past self of other Tennessee Williams plays are present in that play in a very overt way, but it’s also a brother and a sister in an incestuous relationship who are role-playing constantly throughout the play. After reading many plays, that was the first play which made me think that I wanted to do this. Okay, the play might not work but I was excited by the experiment of it. It had a philosophical framework around it. Since then, I understood in the gut first and then in the mind, that making work is a philosophy. The constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing again is about what kind of world we want to live in. Philosophy is a reflective discipline and theatre is an act of reflection in a pure sense. It’s essentially a philosophical exploration of self / time / space in both a local and a wide sense.

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