If you had told me a few months ago that I would get the chance to meet OBIE Award-winning playwright, Caridad Svich, I would’ve let out a long, high-pitched squeal before diving into New Play Exchange for the next 12 hours. So, when I received the Google Calendar invitation to “Meet Caridad!” simply for building captions for Fringe Lab’s production of Theatre: A Love Story, you can imagine just how I reacted!
I’ve been fangirling over Caridad Svich for a few years now. From her affinity for lowercase, to HowlRound articles penned in poetry, to her prolific and eclectic body of dramatic work itself, Svich has largely influenced how I, as a young theatre-maker, conceptualize “rules” in theatre (hint: there are none). Her work has shaped my delight for experimentation with transmedia, physical theatre, verse, and bilingualism, all of which have helped me imagine new futures for American theatre and the world. As an Argentinian-American woman who grew up semi-nomadically, I also admire the way that she weaves bilingual, bicultural, and migration stories so compassionately.
With all this in heart, the opportunity to meet Caridad was a dream come true. Being the theatre geek that I am, I took notes during the conversation and am excited to pass Caridad’s wisdom forward. Consider the following a humble list of things I learned:
#1. A play is an event in space, and that’s it!
This came from a question that I (nervously) posed. A bit giddy, I asked Caridad how she conceptualizes non-Aristotelian theatre, or plays that don’t adhere to the conventional Western canon’s plot structure, with a clear exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. So, that rules out most non-realist plays.
Some people still believe that this is the only way to tell a story–a misconception that gets me pretty heated! After all, our lives do not have a climax, let alone most of our days. Magnificent changes occur gradually. And sometimes, the most important things that happen to us don’t have a central conflict. Sometimes, things just happen. “A play is an event in space,” Svich said, “That’s all!” With a definition that wide, consider all of the things that might be theatre: a court hearing, a tennis match, a supernova, a campfire sing-a-long, a tree falling in the forest, the world…
But, when a play’s plot is as ordinary as a family dinner or (god forbid) people talking, how do you tell a story compellingly? Svich has some ideas. For her non-realist works, in which she includes Theatre: A Love Story, Svich finds structure by asking how events accumulate–an approach that works by “iterating sequences that sample themselves.” Everything that happens inevitably influences the next thing that happens, even if nothing happens.
Have I lost you yet? If it helps, I interpreted the tone underscoring Svich’s eloquent response to translate to, “Don’t overthink it!” As a chronic overthinker myself, sometimes I find it helpful to limit myself to the basics. So, to my kindred spirits, perhaps it is best for us to focus on this bit of Svich’s advice: remember that “theatre happens in the present tense. Always.”
#2. Svich attributes much of her practice of writing movement-based plays to her late mentor, Maria Irene Fornés.
I remembered reading that Svich had trained for four consecutive years with Fornés at the INTAR Hispanic Playwrights In Residence Laboratory, so hearing her reflect on the experience–even for a moment–was magical. Svich expressed how Fornés’s writing process was seldom solitary; she put words on the page by having people and objects in the room with her. Watching her work, Svich realized that, “She’s a maker!” She gave the word “maker” an emphasis that I knew meant something closer to “magician”.
Svich admitted that, nowadays, she does not always have the opportunity to write physical theatre in a workshop setting, which presents new challenges. She shared with us some strategies she finds helpful for playwriting solo-style:
Write down all the visuals that you see in your head. This helps her recall both her visualizations the next time she sits down to write, and it welcomes future creators into her mind’s eye.
Phrase your notations (character descriptions, stage directions, etc.) as invitations. I particularly love how Svich does this in Theatre: A Love Story, by including additional notes on text and staging at the end of the script, seeming to address only those who have read it once-through already.
#3. For adaptations and translations, she divides her process into two methods: “strict” adaptation or “reconfiguration.”
Having an avid interest in adaptation and translation myself, I asked Svich if she had any approaches or guiding principles for her work in these modes. Overall, she relies on two guiding principles: (1) stay close to the spirit of the original text and (2) think carefully about how much context regarding the source material to give the audience. Of course, depending on the intentions of the adaptation or translation project, she adheres to these guidelines very differently.
When adapting novels, she tends to be more faithful to the source, because those stories weren’t originally intended for the stage. Changing the form of a story is already a huge shift (also, the novels she adapts often have living authors, in which case respect is even more important). Alternatively, she uses the term “reconfiguration” to describe instances in which she is intentionally taking a (usually classical) work and examining it under a particular lens. Think Iphigenia or Desdemona’s Child (blood cry).
There is so much beyond what I have mentioned here that I am sure I will be digesting long after the specifics of this meeting have faded from my memories. Sharing cyberspace with Caridad Svich, in the company of the insatiably curious minds of WTF’s Fringe Lab, was such a gift. Here’s to hope for the future of theatre, and the world!
Come experience WTFringe Lab’s promenade-style production of Theatre: A Love Story at WTFringe 21.
Click here to view the full schedule for the (virtual) National Women’s Theatre Festival Fringe 21 and here to register for inspiring conversations with industry change-makers at WTFCon.