On Writing, Fornes and 40 Ounces of Sand
An Interview with Caridad Svich
Q: Where do you draw inspiration from as a writer? Where did you draw inspiration from this book in particular?
CS: Inspiration is not something I think you can really pinpoint. That is to say, you may think, after you have written something that it definitely came from listening to a piece of music or reading a news article or listening to a family story or traveling to a new or old place, but really, it could be all of those things and other things you can’t put a finger on. I think inspiration is very mysterious. But I do think that there are things that do serve as catalysts for writers to write: a piece of music, a voyage, etc. There are objects, events, writing other than your own, other artworks and so forth that can become talismans for instigating a process. Often, though, I think you are writing/recording memory(ies). You are disguising them as and through other characters and situations, but really, you’re working stuff out. Writing is a map of the self. The trick is to really be open to what the self is and can be, because writing too is about potentiality and understanding how the possible can occur from dreaming the impossible.
Q: When did you start writing?
CS: My mom tells me I was always writing, scribbling, etc. ever since I learned to read and write. I do recall writing little stories around the age of six, creating my own little handmade books out of paper and staples. The idea of being an author attracted me, though am not sure why. No one in my family is in the world of arts and letters. My dad was a professional soccer player in Argentina and later in other countries in Latin America. My mom was a schoolteacher in Cuba, and when they both came to the US, they had to remake their lives together – my dad had trained as an accountant in Argentina but really didn’t find that to be fulfilling, and took on odd jobs to make ends meet and support the family, and we are working class or what used to be called lower middle class, which now barely exists! But there was a love of literature in the house and also of music. So, I think, even just that was enough. I gravitated toward arts and letters. In junior high I was writing a lot of poetry and short stories, and was one of those kids that was getting awards in school for my writing. An English teacher in junior high suggested I try writing plays because most of my short stories had tons of dialogue. I respected her opinion, and was surprised by her suggestion. Plays had never occurred to me! But I love a dare, and so I went to my local library and started reading as many plays as I could. I read ten plays a book – across time periods, in and out of translation. I really wanted to figure out what the form was. The delight for me was the discovery that the form was so elastic. Plays even in the same time period and country of origin varied wildly. I loved how different writers approached the challenge of writing for space and time. So, I wrote a play. About forty pages. Which is a lot for a first play ever! I’d like t say I was smitten from the first, but I wasn’t. I loved the process, but I didn’t quite understand anything about revision or the practicalities of the stage. So, I started taking some acting classes (I was already studying music: piano, voice and guitar) to get a sense of what embodied speech into action really is and how you can sense action in a script and how you can analyse and break down a text to understand its structure or what is commonly called “script analysis.” It wasn’t until my 2nd year of college that I really focused on playwriting and realized not only that I loved the form and its possibilities but that I could maybe excel in the field.
Q: You lived in seven different US states when you were growing up, and as an adult you have continued to live something of a nomadic existence. I was wondering if you could expand on that for me, and tell me how it shaped you as a storyteller.
CS: If you are in the arts, esp. in the field of the performing arts, you’re going to be traveling. It’s just the nature of the beast. You go where the work goes, as they say. One day there’s a gig in New York, the next in Detroit, the next in London, and the next in Chile. You can’t really predict it. You can try to map out your life, but God makes other plans, as another saying goes. So, I think if you enter the life of being in the performing arts in some way, you just have to be ready that that’s going to be part of how you live, and you have to figure out a way to a) stay productive and honest with yourself, b) stay healthy and sane, and c) keep the faith that it’s going to be a life of ebbs and flows, high tides and low tides. As a writer, even if you work as I do, in multiple areas – as translator, editor, essayist, curator, lyricist, educator – there’s never any real guarantee (unless you have a job for life or some such) that you will wake up and have a gig in six months. If you’re lucky, you will. If you really pursue the business side of the life, you will. But really, no. To compound that, I grew up as a child in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida, North Carolina, Utah, and California – my dad ended up in the textile business and he kept getting transferred from job to job. So, I already was someone who was always the new kid in class. You have to learn to adapt very quickly, if you’re always moving around. One of the things that did shape me as a storyteller was listening…listening to America. I mean it. Every time we moved we did so by car, which meant I got to see a lot of highways and back roads as a kid, and listen to all sorts of regionalisms and dialects and ways of shaping American speech, whether the speaker was native to English or not. I became infatuated with the different and beautiful and strange ways people articulated their existence. I am still infatuated.
Q: After undergrad and grad school, you trained with Maria Irene Fornes. Can you talk about Fornes’ impact on your work?
CS: It would take years to talk about impact! Fairly seminal. I met Irene Fornes in 1988 when I was accepted to be part of the nationally-competitive INTAR Hispanic Playwrights in Residence Laboratory in New York City. The journey of working with Irene ended up being one that lasted four years and then a few years afterwards in 1995 she directed my play Any Place But Here at Theater for the New City also in New York City. In the year 2000, when she was honored with a season of her work at Signature Theater, I co-edited the volume Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornes for Smith & Kraus Publishers. The volume spans forty years of her career and is comprised of a collage of personal essays and reflections, academic papers, poems (including one by the eminent Caryl Churchill) and an interview with Fornes herself.)
But, of course, a journey with an artist is not limited to historical time. I first encountered Fornes’ work on the page. In a collection published by PAJ. The volume contained the play Mud and other of her major mid-career works. I was in grad school at UCSD at the time, and I remember feeling an immediate sense of kinship when I read her work. You know how some writers make you feel as if you are not alone in the world? Well, that’s what I felt when I read her work. On a formal and thematic level, I recognized that she had blazed a path, and that I also happened to be on it as a writer, even though I didn’t know it at the time! Similar themes echoed in my writing, and a similar dark sense of humor. I am half-Cuban/Spanish, half-Argentine-Croatian, but I don’t think the fact that I am a US Latin@ playwright and a woman necessarily is the reason for feeling this sense of connection to her work. It had more to do with thinking about form and play in theatre, and about time and space. What is it that Rachel Chavkin says? That the fact that she is a woman means that that is the lens by which she reads and makes theatre? So, yes. The fact that I am a woman does influence how I look at the page/canvas of the stage, whether I am writing plays about cisgender men and women, genderqueer characters, transgender figures, animals or mythical beings! However, there’s no question that having two female playwriting mentors – Adele Edling Shank at UCSD and then Fornes – affected what I thought was possible in this field. You feel less alone because you realize other women are and have been making things possible. That, in and of itself, means something. It gives you confidence if you know you are not alone, especially in this field when as a freelance artist you can feel very much so.
Fornes has certainly impacted my approach to teaching as well. To seeing the classroom as a lab, as a space to experiment with ideas, objects, games, and theory. All of us who trained extensively with her will attest, I think, to the fact that when we teach playwriting we are interpreting her lessons in our own way and also passing down a sense of legacy. And this includes too how to think of theatre as a place of human engagement in a very direct way. Fornes always spoke as a teacher about the theatre as a salon – a place to be with friends and enjoy their company – a parlor evening where on this night some plays would be performed but tomorrow could be a song or a dance or a string quartet performing a work. For Fornes, the space of play, however tragic or comic, contains possibilities. Great artists teach you this. I am ever grateful for the lesson.
Q: Where did 40 Ounces of Sand come from?
CS: The play is the second in a group of plays I have written which touch on themes of globalization, citizenship, ethics, political resistance, activism, and geographic, personal, political and spiritual boundaries. The Hour of all Things, which was produced in its full version at the Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival in summer of 2015 by Missing Bolts Productions starring Blair Baker under Zac Kline’s direction, and in its shorter version by Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Marathon in New York City, also in summer 2015, starring Miriam Silverman under William Carden’s direction, is companion piece to this play.
When I wrote this play I was thinking a great deal about the Benghazi attack, and how the narrative of culpability outweighed in the media coverage of the event a contemplation of the narratives of the victims’ lives, and how this so often tends to occur in the coverage of terrorist attacks. I started to think about what would happen if a group of friends had lost someone in such a tragedy, especially someone with whom they once had been close, but where no longer – someone with whom perhaps they shared values and ideals of political resistance, and what happens to dissident ideology over time in Western societies in the throes of late capitalism. The play is centered on what I think is a kind of grief lesson, to borrow Anne Carson’s phrase for a moment, and also about how some of us find ourselves at a crossroads when tragedy strikes, even at a distance, and how others negotiate how they are to move on. Nearly all of my plays focus on the ontological homeless. To me, drama is essentially about what is ripped apart and what can be healed or move toward a process of healing. But rupture and broken-ness is often at the heart of drama. The tragic experience is what we live with, even when we do not wish to acknowledge it. I think there is great strength in reckoning with tragedy. Well, I think it is very difficult to say what is “home.” Is theatre a comforting place? I don’t know. I think theatre is a space where burdens are encountered and lifted. It is where we meet trouble and/or what troubles us as human beings and the drama allows for this confrontation with “trouble” to occur. I do not imagine one heterogeneous audience seeing the work. Ever. I do not think there is one community but always, many communities. Even within one audience seeing a performance. For the duration of a performance, the audience becomes, in a way, a community, but always, a community of individuals. In this, I align myself with Ranciere and the concept of dissensus. But I think dissensus can yield to harmony somehow. At day’s end, like a lot of my plays, it is a kind of love story.
Caridad Svich received the 2012 OBIE for Lifetime Achievement. She is a playwright, translator, educator, essayist, lyricist and editor. Seven of her plays are collected in Instructions for Breathing and other plays published by Seagull Books (2014). She is editor of Innovation in Five Acts: Strategies for Theatre and Performance published by TCG (2015).