Saturday, February 05, 2011

I Interview Playwrights Part 313: Elaine Avila

Elaine Avila

Hometown: Wherever my family is…the road….places I’ve lived and consider home: Vancouver, BC, Canada; New York, New York; Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, California…

Current Town: Albuquerque, NM

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I recently completed a new draft of Lieutenant Nun, based on the true story of a woman conquistador. The play had a wonderful premiere, in a site specific production with a cast of twelve, directed by Amiel Gladstone of Theatre SKAM, won awards, was published…ran for two years… but I’ve turned it into a new play…with four actors. I’m excited by the intensity of the new draft.

I’ve been workshopping Jane Austen, Action Figure and Other Short Plays with the marvelous Heidi Carlsen, and some inventive, generous actors at the Women’s Project in New York, where she is in their directors’ lab. The play was recently accepted into Playwright’s Theatre Centre National Colony in Vancouver, BC where I had the pleasure of working with more inventive, generous actors and dramaturg D.D. Kugler. He is the former president of LMDA, the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, and introduced me to structural strategies you can use in linking short works that bounce off of each other…This work has translated into Spanish (Jane Austen, figura de acción, … y otras obras cortas) and about to premiere in Panamá.

I was recently asked to speak in Nanjing, China about American Playwrights, 1970-2010. (I told them about the Canadians too…) it was a profound experience to describe my culture to students in China…to have deep, heart to heart conversations with them about Maria Irene Fornes, feminism, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Eileen Chang, free speech in America/Canada, Tennessee Williams, Suzan-Lori Parks, Erik Ehn, Chay Yew, Eugene O’Neill, Alice Tuan, David Henry Hwang…I am writing a short, non-fiction piece about the experience. I continue to explore my Portuguese roots—a new development over the past three years—in plays, poems, non-fiction, fiction.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  My Dad took me to see Barnum and Bailey Circus when I was three. I remember a clown giving me a feather. It was frightening, exhilarating, crossing from a magical world into my own. I later found out the clown gave me the feather because I was crying-- an elephant had been cruelly beaten by its trainer for trying to get a peanut. I also remember being scared by a devil, beating the aisles with a broom, in a theatrical presentation in my Catholic church as a young girl. Theatre crosses and creates worlds, terrifies, heals.

Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  We keep telling the same stories about what is wrong with the theatre. I believe in advocacy, and in busting open doors for women and people of all cultural backgrounds. But sometimes we forget that what we are doing matters, right where we are. Broadway and Off-Broadway are ultimately, just a few blocks. It is a great bummer when people think that their region, their work isn’t as important as what is happening on Broadway or television. We have nullified the power of theatre—its localness, our community, the writers that live among us-- with our thinking.

I wonder what would happen if we could realize we do matter, that the opportunities we do have are beautiful, are important.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Hallie Flanagan, director of the Federal Theatre Project-- part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)-- during the depression, who supported innovative projects and bringing them to people in America who had never seen theatre. Tim Miller, who is funny, exhilarating, compassionate…while facing political darkness (especially in the U.S.) head on. He writes/performs great pieces, inspires students across the nation, and creates homes for work (P.S. 122, Highways). Kathleen Weiss, who ran the women’s theatre festival in Canada for many years, literally launching dozens and dozens of artists, while being one of the most excellent directors in the nation. My colleagues at Tricklock Theatre Company in Albuquerque, New Mexico who band together to create amazing work, again and again. Mac Wellman—both his writing and how he enjoys helping his students realize their dreams. I believe the future of theatre belongs to those who have not yet spoken—characters, communities, writers who are getting up the courage to tell their stories—a truly heroic act. The future belongs to the audiences and producers brave enough to listen to and support these stories.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Theatre that crosses borders, experiments, embraces the circus, has bold design, theatre with heart. I’d rather see something shooting for an exciting target (and maybe missing) than something safe and well done.

The Book of Grace by Suzan-Lori Parks opened a conduit in me that still runs tears…Maria Kitizo by Erik Ehn, Wonderland by Chay Yew, Jose Rivera, Mac Wellman, Caridad Svich, Charlottee Meehan, Christine Evans, Luis Alfaro, the grad students I work with at the University of New Mexico, the students in the LEAP Playwriting Intensive at the Arts Club Theatre…a program I founded in Canada now run by the marvelous Shawn Macdonald. Brian Bauman’s play Atta Boy in the East Village or Sigrid Gilmer’s plays at Cornerstone…Alana Libertad Macías work in Austin, Texas…my theatre community in Vancouver, BC….

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

A:  Suzan-Lori Parks once said to me, “be a great writer, why not?” It seems simple, but like a zen koan if you keep thinking about it. You realize what is in your way, that it is movable. Master trumpet player and teacher Bobby Shew says “talent is the removal of obstacles.” (I hate it when people say ‘you’ve either got it (talent) or not.” Lots of people have talent.) And Shew means the removal of all kinds of obstacles—like “I can’t afford a trumpet” or “I can’t make the time to practice” or “I live somewhere where there aren’t any gigs.”

The best thing I figured out after grad school—“give what you want to get.” Also like a zen koan.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Tricklock Theatre Company’s International Revolutions Theater Festival, Albuquerque, NM, USA. Push International Performing Arts Festival, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Erik Ehn is about to have premieres of his plays on genocide, at La Mama in New York and across the U.S. in 2012. Watch for the work of Brian Bauman, Alana Libertad Macías, Sigrid Gilmer.  Here is my website:

Two of the MFA students in my program at the University of New Mexico are having New York Premieres:
Riti Sachdeva's PARTS OF PARTS & STITCHES at NYC's NewBorn Festival the first Saturday in February.
‎2011 NewBorn - Maieutic Theatre Works, MTWorks
MTWorks' mission is to birth new plays inspired by playwrights and regions outside of New York, that question the boundaries of our society, humanity, and individuality.

Georgina Escobar's THE RUIN
UPCOMING: THE RUIN @ Manhattan Rep Theatre; Feb 23-26

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