Thursday, December 03, 2009

I Interview Playwrights Part 98: Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas




photo by Marlene Ramirez-Cancio

Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas

Hometown: Miami, FL.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm getting my play BLIND MOUTH SINGING ready for a production in Havana. A talented Mexican writer by the name of Rodrigo Vargas handled the translation into Spanish. Even translating the title was hard. We came up with CANTO DEL POZO NEGRO. This is the first time that a Cuban theater company is producing a play by a Cuban-American playwright and I'm very pleased. I see the production as part of the ongoing process of strengthening ties and relaxing tensions between Cubans who live on the island and Cubans who live outside the island. The fact that we're able to do this today owes a lot to the bridge building work done by Cuban-American artists as varied as Ana Mendieta, Dolores Prida and Achy Obejas. I'm walking in their footsteps.

Q:  Do you find there are different challenges when writing fiction than writing plays? Which comes easier to you?

A:  Both genres are exacting for a writer. With fiction, well, getting it out into the world is less work of  course. Sometimes it feels great not to have to explain a text to, I don't know, yet another designer. But other times I feel very lucky to be able to get a text out of my head and into an actor's body. It feels less lonely. Sometimes I think that's the biggest advantage that writing plays has over writing novels, the playwright gets to hangout with actors. But ultimately I believe genre chooses the material, not the other way around. This is maybe why adaptations always make me a little sad. When I sit down to write, a mood or tone establishes itself and that almost always seems to insist on its ideal genre. Interiority, reflection, the confessional impulse -- all of that seems best suited to the page. Playfulness, affection, ghosts, history -- to me that seems better suited for the stage. It depends on the material. Interestingly though I've never had a question about where a particular text belongs. That always seems obvious. The text insists on the genre it needs. The rest of it, the differences in process between publishing and staging, those are just the lucky consequences.

Q:  Can you talk about what it's like to be a NYTW Creative Resident Fellow?
A:  I don't know of a theater that supports artists more than NYTW. The folks over there really seem to take seriously the idea that we should run our organizations in an artist-centric way. Every decision they make -- scheduling, design choices, casting, choosing collaborators -- it's all driven by artistic needs. There is an openness, an accessibility to that theater that you feel the minute you walk in. Also a kind of restless curiosity about the theatrical form and also the world. New York would be
infinitely impoverished without them. I've benefitted handsomely from their generosity, they supported me and my work during a two year residency. So many of my favorite theater artists in New York are people I've met at NYTW. I could go on.

Q:  Tell me a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A:  María Irene Fornés once asked me if I played with dolls when I was a child. When I told her I, in fact, had not, she looked at me with wonder and asked, Then how did you ever learn how to write plays? I remember this incident fondly because it speaks volumes about Irene's wondrous, idiosyncratic methods but also because it confirms my general allergy to trying to understand art by examining the childhood of the artist who created it. If you really want to pursue this line of inquiry I'd be happy to send you my father's mailing address (he's serving time in a federal penitentiary in Indiana and likes to get mail). And let me know what theories he comes up with, I'm curious.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?
A:  The surprising kind.

Q:  Is it true you make your playwriting students read books on architecture or visual art before they even start talking about theater?

A:  It's true. Those terrible books on how scripts should be written have done such a successful job of shrinking the vocabulary of our theater. There is a certain kind of well educated, middle class student who comes to theater with all of this baggage, all of these rules. Conflict, psychology, the moral of the story, the most reductive ideals about symbolism. Stuff they learned by watching the Sundance channel or listening to too many post-show talk backs. But what I also find is that those same young people have this other vocabulary around mood, environment, spatial relationships, a more visceral relationship to art that they've experienced when listening to music, walking through great buildings, falling in love or even traveling. And so part of what I try to do is get young people to see that all those other ways they have of describing experience or thinking about art, all those more mysterious and idiosyncratic insights they don't think apply to theater, well they apply.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Remember that you aren't competing against anyone, that's the beauty of art. If you like competition try Wall Street. Be fearless. See everything. Try everything. Stay up late. Kiss people. Of both genders. Commit an act of civil disobedience in defense of a cause you care about. Make as many friends outside of the theater scene as you can. Live the kind of life that gives you something to write about -- even if that means you spend your twenties living dangerously and fully and with no time to write.

Q:  Any plugs?

A:  This has been a exciting season in New York. Standouts for me include Liz Duffy Adams's play OR, at the Women's Project (lots of cross dressing and a three-way), Tarell Alvin McCraney's trilogy at the Public (the world just seems bigger when you walk out of that theater) and Sarah Ruhl's IN THE NEXT ROOM, OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY (a play that makes you very happy you have a body). I'm looking forward to Packawallop's production of Alejandro Morales's MAREA. What a bold writer he is. Also Katie Pearl and Lisa D'Amour's collaboration this December at PS 122. Those two are visionaries and New York is lucky to be hosting their piece.