the april issue
This month I had the great pleasure of interviewing my friend and guru Georgina Escobar, who I met while I was studying at the O’Neill program. I am very grateful to have her featured this April on Figures of Speech, please enjoy!
[Georgina H. Escobar]
Birthplace: Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua; México
Current home: NY– Manhattan
Q: Tell me about the map of your different homes. How has home and place influenced your writing?
Born a border-straddler,(dual-citizenship), I never realized there was such a thing as “borders.” I moved from one country to the other freely and undisturbed. When I was very small, I moved to colonial México; the capital city of Zacatecas where I attended kindergarten and some elementary school. The school was an old monastery. There was a large fountain in our school patio and the hallways smelled like an ancient cavern. I would leave this place to go north again to Chihuahua, where I shared my playtime with a series of bunnies (all named Gus), two yellow-headed parrots, a boxer and two Siamese cats. Then my father re-married an Irish-American woman and we moved to El Paso, Texas—which I associated only with shopping, since my mother only took us to the US to buy electronics, or to eat Pizza. For the longest time I remember thinking “El Paso” was the mall. I ended up moving back south to the highlands for high school, then back north to San Diego, where I finished my senior year. After that, my journey led me to New York for acting school, El Paso for undergrad, New Mexico for graduate school, New London for a culture shock, and back to the place that is for the desaraigadas (rootless) like myself: NYC. I think it’s this experience of being part of many places, but never belonging to one that makes me write worlds that take place in a pseudo-mythical landscape: places that never were, but that could be.
Q: What are you working on now?
On everything and, therefore, on nothing. I’m working on twisting some thinking and releasing some benevolent mischief. I’m working on my breathing— that’s a hard one. I’m working on my temper, which, with the breathing, has gotten better. I’m working on my posture—that’s for my grandmother; and on an illustrated compilation of nonsensical rim-rambles for the light on their feet and the young at heart.
Q: Tell me about Ash Tree, How was that story born?
I guess you can say the story was born when I was. Like all stories, it was merely waiting to be picked out and heard thru. But in a timeline, let’s see…Well, my mom died, so, that was there. After she died I created worlds and realities for myself. Some were scary, so after she died I never slept. But then I grew up and I wore myself out, and I slept to dream. Ash Tree, like most of my work, came to me in a dream. Then I picked up the “Book of Imaginary Beings” by Borges and then I took a class on Theatre for Young Audiences. All the elements came together and before I knew it, I had written a play. I didn’t set out in life to write plays, that just sort of happened, and, after Ash Tree, I thought: “Well, that was that.If this is the last thing I ever write for the stage, I’m okay.”
Q: Tell me a story from your childhood that influenced who you are as a writer or as a person.
So many come to mind. Like sitting by a pond at the canyons in our family’s ranch (off the Santa Fe Trail in Chihuahua) and learning to hit stones together—invoking “Chac” the god of rain–in order to call out the hawks. This made me understand how small we are in relation to nature. Learning at a young age how to ride, climb and how to empty a cave of bats. That made me realize I could do anything if I had sagacious discipline. Another moment that sticks out is having my grandmother put me in a blue room where she told me to connect to angels, and where she left me meditating for hours until I did… This made me appreciate stillness. I just grew up around very interesting, very sad people. I saw my grandmother and grandfather loose two kids—my mother and my uncle—and still face the day to day with incredible grace, nobility and strength. The attitude towards loss was never “God wanted this” or “God has a plan” or such things that make no sense to a child. We faced life and the unknown with an attitude of: “No I didn’t deserve this, but guilt or anger is not going to change a thing. So what do we do to move forward?” And this shaped the way I look at Family. And Art. And Writing. And History.
Q: Will you describe to me your dream theater?
My dream theater is in a farm or a ranch somewhere. The land is sustained and worked by the artists involved in said theatre. Audiences interested in seeing what that particular group of artists create have to journey into their world. My dream theatre is one in which we as creators don’t have to advertise or market our work, people just come by as naturally as it was for people to visit Yosemite in the 1800’s: for the experience. My dream theatre puts us back in the service of others, of nature, of art, and pulls us away from the self-serving, the absolute and the mundane.
Q: What and who inspires your writing?
Jorge Luis Borges, of course. Shel Silverstein, Lewis Caroll, Kurt Vonnegut, Christopher Moore, Neil Gaiman. It’s not so much that I read them and go “Oh I’m so inspired” it’s that I get completely lost and taken by them and I see their humanity in their writing. The kind of writing that makes me want to write is what we would call non-fiction. History and philosophy make me want to write. See, if I read a work of fiction, I accept it. If I read a piece of non-fiction, I have the ability to reject it. And to reject a story, means that one constructs another in its place. It’s more exciting to me. It feels active and evolutionary: To reconstruct, re-imagine and recreate. I’m a big fan of thinkers like Boethius, St. Augustine, Hegel, Abbot, Ayoucán, Buckminster Fuller; of the Bhagavad Gita and “A Course in Miracles”. Give me anything by Plato and Aristophanes, or by my great-great grandfather Jesús Escobar y Armendáriz and I will immediately start sketching. My writing starts in image form. Maybe it’s my background in the Humanities, but writers like these have created a foundation that I always return to when I need a launching pad. They propel my thinking and thus, my writing.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
What a difficult question to answer! I think this is the problematic relationship I have to theatre and my role in it. Nothing really excites me about theatre right now (which I recognize as personal and perhaps just a phase)—but it’s the truth. I feel like a cynic because my relationship to theatre is not one of disappointment, or excitement—but of indifference. And THAT is extremely saddening. I’m currently searching for answers and seeking truth in that feeling of indifference. I am not sure if it’s me or if everything I’m seeing and reading is just utterly failing to enchant me. That’s what I want, see: enchantment. I want to go to a play and feel like I’ve been put under a spell, at least for a few hours. I want to feel like I’m in someone’s imagined reality and I am completely okay with it. I haven’t felt that in some time but I’m still searching.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
Beware of getting too comfortable or of believing in the constancy of your ‘voice.’ If you want to be a playwright, ask yourself everyday why you need to write this play, why the world needs your play. If you can’t answer these questions, then you’re probably on the right path. Go from there. Write to explore, write to discover, write to reveal or to explode. Don’t write because you have something to say. Everyone’s got something to say. Write what is absolutely irresistible for you and for the designer, director, actors and audiences. Also, don’t listen to a thing I’ve just said.
on the pulse
[from interviews by adam szymkowicz]
Hometown: I don’t really have one. Although I’ve lived in several places that have pieces of my heart-Calcutta, London and New Haven to name three.
Current Town: New York
Q: Tell me about Blown Youth.
A: Blown Youth is the result of a commission from the ever amazing New Georges and the New Plays initiative at Barnard College. The commission was a result of director Alice Reagan’s vision for Barnard to be a real home for playwrights to develop new plays and the appetite New Georges have for adventurous, theatrical plays. I’ve had the opportunity to nurture Blown Youth with Alice who is a wonderful director and the super undergrads at Barnard. And of course the support of New Georges who are such a beacon of hope for new plays that go out on a limb in a generally risk averse theatrical culture.
The play is a response to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It was borne out of my desire to challenge to the notion that Hamlet (the character) is the embodiment of human consciousness when he is, in fact, a man. Where Hamlet’s madness smacks of genius, would a woman in his shoes be seen as just as stunningly witty and seductive-or just a pain in the ass hysteric? Trying to write the play with this question in mind was like staring at the sun. I was at my wits end trying to write this play when I threw in Irene Fornes’ Fefu and her Friends into the mix and the play blossomed into a story tracking the lives of seven women in the decade after they leave college. We enter through the eyes of one in particular, Celia, a struggling actress intent on playing a great role. Fornes describes women as ‘live wires’ and says ‘if women should recognize each other-the world will be blown apart’. I was interested in what this meant-and whether it was good or bad and how as women we might be able to live in the world without electrocuting each other!
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: A new play called I Enter the Valley about the life of a legendary poet who at the end of his life has writer’s block. It was inspired by the life of Pablo Neruda. I read his memoir and it fuelled an age old love/hate relationship I have with the Casanova character (I have a Don Juan type in almost all of my plays!). This idea of your past being like a foreign country is also central to the play. That as you get older, you look back and who you were at different points of your life starts to seem utterly foreign to you. It’s an oddly Chekhovian play. Lots of coming and going and feeling very strongly about things! We’re doing a reading of it at The Women’s Project in March.
And a piece called Architecture of Becoming also at The Women’s Project with four wonderful playwrights-Lauren Yee, Vick Grise, Sarah Gancher and Kara Corthron. It’s a piece about the impulse to create in characters who don’t necessarily call themselves artists, a present day response to orientalism and the struggle to tell your story in a way that’s authentic to you. We thought ‘becoming’ was a much nicer word than ‘process’ which, in an intensely collaborative venture like this, is the only thing we are perhaps qualified to talk about.
Q: exciting theater?
A: I’ll answer this question in two ways: first of all not to cop out, I am still incredibly excited by Robert Wilson, Robert Lepage and that kind of epic, heightened, visually arresting storytelling where things that don’t normally touch, touch. I’m also excited by the re-invention of language through simplicity (where the ordinary turns extraordinary) and where alchemy or the logic of metamorphosis is at play.
I also see theatricality as a mode of being. We sometimes encounter it when we go to the theatre but it’s bigger than that. India, where I grew up, is a tremendously theatrical place. I think this is in part because there’s an awareness of the sacred in the everyday. I think that when you notice this quality about life and you engage in the desire to create ritual however big or small, you are a part of a kind of theatricality. The quality of your attention meeting the everyday can create an elemental force. Theatricality as a mode is accessible because it’s part of our lives-you don’t need to be at the theatre to touch this chord.
A: That longing is everything. You don’t need to have written a play to know that you want to write one. Your yearning is all you need-it sets your course.
J. Julian Christopher
Hometown: I was born and raised in Levittown, Long Island. Actually the first full-length play I wrote was about my experiences living in Levittown. It is an interesting place. I still go back there often, not by choice really. My sister bought the house we grew up in. It’s very odd to go back. It feels like a lifetime ago. Levittown is not necessarily a place I associate with positive memories. My family was great, but outside of the house within the rest of the community I was always an outsider. Qué sera, sera… right?
Current Town: Currently I reside in Briarwood, Queens New York… but I seem to have lived a nomadic existence for the past decade (13 moves in 10 years) so… who knows?
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now I’m working on two new plays, one revision on an older play and a pilot. I’m definitely A.D.D. when it comes to writing. If I get stuck, I need to move on to something else or I’ll obsess which is never good for anyone!!!
Q: childhood ?
A: This relates to what I began to touch on about living in white, suburban, Levittown Long Island. I grew up as a “white boy.” As a child, I never really had the understanding of what it meant to be Dominican and Puerto Rican. As my parents, sister and I could “pass” for white, my parents kept the “white” façade up and even furthered it by never teaching their children Spanish. I understand why they took these actions, to keep me from experiencing the prejudice they had experienced during their childhood. But I wasn’t white. My name made that apparent to people. But neither was I Latino. This “Americanization” alienated me from my Latino roots as well as distanced me from White America. I was in the middle somewhere — stuck between the Latino I am and the Latino I was supposed to be. The disassociation I felt towards my heritage continued throughout my adult life extending far into my career. Casting directors and agents saw my name (Christopher Julian Jiménez) and automatically assumed I could speak Spanish. Upon discovering that I could not, they did not know where to place me. And I didn’t know where to place myself. I felt divorced from the name Jiménez, but I wasn’t quite ready to give it up completely. I changed my name professionally to J. Julian Christopher, placing my last name first. That way, for me, it was the most prominent, but I didn’t have to answer the questions that have plagued me most of my life: What are you? How could you not speak Spanish? Aren’t you ashamed that you can’t speak Spanish? Do you eat tacos?
These identity issues manifest itself all over my writing. I’m constantly writing about identity.
Q: How does your directing inform your playwriting and vice-versa?
A: I sort of fell into directing. I was actually an actor for many years before writing or directing so actually my experience as an actor informs my writing tremendously. My first drafts tend to be double of what anyone actually gets to read. I come at writing from an acting standpoint so I end up writing everything down, every thought and feeling a character may have. I find that writing out the subtext helps me discover what the character really needs to keep private. I have had drafts where there was a four-page monologue that ended up becoming one word, “No.”
Directing has come mostly from a dramaturgical need. When I’m directing anything, I’m trying to make sure the story is clear. Many times an actor and playwright can lose sight of that because they are too attached and precious about the words. Directing has informed how I approach a script and has given me a great revising eye towards my own plays. I do not like to direct my own work though. I thrive on collaboration and I need that give and take. Recently during the workshop of my play Animals Commit Suicide at terraNova Collective, José Zayas would challenge me to re-examine the script and get to the heart of the story. Since working with him I cut about 24 pages. The play in its current state wouldn’t exist without him and I now can’t see it any other way. A good director challenges me and I appreciate that.
Q: Tell me about Bulk.
A: BULK-The Series is a webseries created by myself and a dear friend of mine, D.R. Knott. D.R. and I went to high school together. She went to Columbia for film, and we had been looking for a way to collaborate. We wanted to write about under-represented communities and I automatically thought, “Why don’t we do something in regards to the Gay Bear Community?” A Gay Bear, according to the always reliable *ahem* Wikipedia is, “an LGBT slang term for men that are commonly, but not always, overweight and often having hairy bodies and facial hair. It is a subculture in the gay and bisexual male communities and to an emerging subset of LGBT communities with events, codes, and a culture-specific identity.” These types of gay male characters are not the norm in mainstream media so we thought that creating a story within the backdrop of the bear community would be an interesting perspective for a webseries. It also doesn’t hurt that I’m a member of the Gay Bear Community. We got together, wrote the characters, and created a series from it. You can see the first season atwww.bulktheseries.com.
A: Honestly, sometimes it feels like I’m just starting out and could use advice myself. I’ve been writing plays since 2008 and from what I have learned thus far is to write everyday. Even if you think it’s crap. It’s really hard to write and not judge the writing as you go. I’m still learning that. Sometimes you just have to get whatever is in your head, out. Maybe it will be good. Maybe it won’t. Maybe there will be a moment that is excellent and will take you to place you never thought you’d go. But I try to write at least an hour everyday.
Also get your work out there and submit it. It’s the only way to make it happen, because no one is certainly going to seek your play out when they don’t know it exists. Send it out. You have nothing to lose.
“I ended up deciding I would steal something from every play that I liked, and put those things in a play and cook the pot to see what happens.”
Interview in American Theater Magazine: http://sohorep.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/BrandenJacobsJenkins.pdf
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a Brooklyn-based playwright and dramaturg. His newest play, Appropriate, premieres at the Humana Festival in March 2013, and his play Neighbors will receive its UK Premiere at the Hightide Festival in May 2013. His work has been seen at The Public Theater, PS122, Soho Rep, The Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles, Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, CompanyOne in Boston, Theater Bielefeld in Bielefeld, Germany and the National Theatre in London. He is a Usual Suspect and a former New York Theatre Workshop Playwriting fellow, an alum of the Soho Rep Writers/Directors Lab, the Public Theater Emerging Writers Group, and Ars Nova Playgroup. His honors include a Princess Grace Award, the Dorothy Strelsin Playwriting Fellowship, the Paula Vogel Award, two residencies with the Sundance Theatre Lab, and a fellowship in playwriting from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He holds an M.A. in Performance Studies from NYU and is working on commissions from Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3 and Yale Repertory Theater.
Aladdin Ullah has been pioneering the past decade as one of the very first South Asians to perform stand-up comedy on national television on networks such as: HBO, Comedy Central, MTV, BET, and PBS. Co-founder and host of the multi-ethnic stand-up show Colorblind, which Mel Watkins of The New York Times hailed as “hilarious, thought provoking and ground breaking.”
Theater: Member of Joseph Papp’s Public Theater’s Inaugural Emerging Writers group where he wrote/developed Indio during the Spotlight Series and workshops at Joe’s Pub, The IAAC (Indo-American Arts Council) Playwright in Residence-Lark Play Development Center-NY, New York Theater Workshop Residency at Dartmouth, Halal Brothers directed by Liesel Tommy (The Labyrinth’s Barn Series at Public Theater). Aladdin has had numerous staged readings/workshops of his plays at New York Theater Workshop, Cape Cod Theater Project, Classical Theater of Harlem, Lark Play Development Center, Shakespeare in Paradise Festival (Bahamas) Labyrinth, and 1 Solo Festival.
Excerpt from INDIO:
I was the first one in my family born in America. I thought I had absolutely nothing in common with my parents, especially my father. We were from two different worlds.
I grew up in the only Bangladeshi Muslim family in East Harlem. I felt like the only Amish guy at a rap concert. During the 1980s, when I was around 11 I started hanging out with a crew. We’d hang out in Times Square where all the lights, color and decadence was. It was a little different back then. Today Times Square is rolling out the red carpet for tourists. How lovely it is today! Today there is Disney, Spider man, and Mary Poppins, but back then it was peep shows, pimps, and prostitutes. On 7th Ave. there was a theater that used to show Bruce Lee films for two dollars. We’d go every Saturday. We’d see all of them: Enter the Dragon, Return the Dragon, Bitch-slap the Dragon, etc, etc. It was the best place to watch films because the brothers used to scream at Bruce Lee like Bruce was actually listening to them. They’d yell, “You better watch out for that dude with claw, Bruce he’s behind you.” Part of me thought it was silly, but the African American dudes I hung out with were the funniest guys on the planet. I miss that old New York. Not all of it was fun in my old city back in the day. New York had no clue what gentrification was. If there was a hipster anywhere nearby he’d be mugged within two minutes. I am not proud of the old New York but it was like no other place in the world. Especially for a kid growing up in place like New York where the tourists dared not to venture uptown, while we loved going downtown to our favorite places.
Hip Hop was born during this era and I loved it. It was liberating to know that the poor folks in our hood had an art that belonged to us and no one could exploit it. We OWNED it! Our crew tagged graffiti. Graffiti possessed the badass cubism of Picasso and the ferociousness of Pollack’s splatter crashing on canvas! Only we didn’t have any canvas in the projects! Our canvas was the streets and subways of New York City! We didn’t give a fuck about Soho art galleries or getting our art to the Whitney, the MOMA, or the Metropolitan Museum full of safe art for the elite. Our art was free and for Everybody and we demanded the world see us because for a long time Nobody gave a damn about how people lived uptown, past 96th street. 96th street was the Mason-Dixon Line. If you took the 6 Train uptown you knew all the white folks got out at 96th street. Graffiti gave us a voice AND WE WERE GONNA BE HEARD! We weren’t robbing anybody or killing anyone! It was fun up until the moment I got arrested for vandalism. My father came to bail me out of jail at the 23rd Precinct on 102nd street.
My father limped with his cane and said in his strong Bangladeshi accent, “Alaudin, when I come to this country, I never thought I would have to pick up my son in jail for drawing on walls! Haram zat. For this garbage?”
“It’s not garbage Pop! It’s graffiti”, I shouted. “I tag the walls and subways because I let the whole world know who I am thru this art you call garbage! Besides what do you know, (staring him down) you are an old fresh off the boat, Uncle Tom tired dishwasher!”
There was a look of shock on his face perhaps even a bit hurt, but like always he never showed an ounce of emotion. He took a breath and it was the longest pause of my life. His eyes were stabbing me as he said, ”That is what you think of your father huh? You think I don’t know what it is like because I was a dishwasher? Let me tell you about something—
Long, long, long time ago, before you was born I go down South to see your Uncle. Cha Cha Loteb. He come to America so I visit him. I take bus. We go to restaurant. We sit down, I say “waitress, I would like a cheeseburger, make sure you put American, that is my favorite!
WAITRESS (in redneck voice): I’m sorry sugar, but we don’t serve your kind. You gonna have to take this to go.
POPS: Ven chud! Kuta batchaya? What do you mean you don’t serve my kind? I’m hungry is that not your kind?
WAITRESS: I’m sorry we don’t serve ya’ll on account of Jim Crow.
POPS: Who is Jim Crow? Let me speak to this Crow? Tell him I am very very hungry. I have money I’m sure this Jim Crow fellow will understand.
REDNECK SHERIFF: Excuse me sir what seems to be the problem?
POPS: Oh you must be Jim Crow! Hello my name is Habib.
RED NECK SHERIFF: Stop calling me crow. I’m the sheriff; I ain’t Jim Crow, Jim Crow is a law that states no coloreds are allowed in this here establishment. That means no spics, injuns, or nigras now get a going!
POPS: I will not leave until you serve me! If a man is hungry he should have the right to eat. This is America!
RED NECK SHERIFF: And this is the South and you nigras are goin’ ta jail!
My father takes a long pause and as he looks at me and continues, “So I know exactly what you are doing Alaudin, being defiant right? But at least my defiance stands for something what are you doing? (shouting at the top of his lungs ) Putting your signature on a wall?”
He looks at me again for a long time and smiles, “But what do I know right? I am just a dishwasher?”
Smith’s play The Bad Guys was made into an independent film and is scheduled to be released this year. Tween Hobo: Off The Rails, the book she wrote based on her popular Twitter account, will be published in June. And she just started as a staff writer on HBO’s “The Newsroom.”
Hometown: Millbrook, NY
Current Town: Brooklyn
Q: Tell me about It Or Her and Plucker
A: PLUCKER is my attempt to write an old-fashioned farce about a new generation. Farce has traditionally been a dramatic form used to talk about the failures of marriage and fidelity; to make fun of society’s inability to live up to its own strict moral codes. (For example, I read a Feydeau play where a man hypnotizes his wife to prevent her from figuring out that he’s cheating on her.) Yet today, we (at least, those in my demographic) live in a culture where these codes are not so clear: we no longer insist upon marriage before sex or before living together; we do not prohibit same-sex love affairs; and, in many ways, we don’t make much of a distinction anymore between the man’s role and the woman’s role in a heterosexual union. When so many of the traditional barriers to happiness have been lifted, or decayed to a point of irrelevance, what are the new sources of conflict that might generate the antic dramaturgy of a farce? (What I found, of course, is that it’s the very absence of strict rules and codes that makes committed relationships today so difficult to sustain.) I should also mention that PLUCKER involves a toy piano, bedbugs, a truth serum, a dinner party, and a parrot with a severe anxiety disorder.
IT OR HER is a play I originally conceived with my former theater company Dead Genius Productions, and it was first performed by DGP in the 2007 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. Now the play is getting a brand-new production with a totally different team of artists: an actor, director, and group of designers, all of whom I went to grad school with at Yale. A solo show for one man, one box, and a bunch of little toys, IT OR HER is a kind of minimalist thriller. It’s the story of an obsessive collector who has locked himself up in his basement with his weird coterie of female figurines. Like a mad scientist, he plays with his objects, fervently searching for what he calls their “ultimate arrangement” – hoping to discover this mysterious pattern before his hideout is invaded, and his own dark secret is revealed. (A friend described this show as a Pinteresque episode of Law and Order, and I’d be happy with that!)
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Don’t try to copy anyone or “follow the rules.” There are no rules. Write the most dangerous work that you can. And say yes to pretty much everything.
SOUNDS: LAURA MVULA
Thank you for reading, looking, listening, ill see you again after May…
It’s Springtime, go crazy!