A Borderless Future

As part of the Café Onda soft launch this summer, we asked five authors from different places in the generational map, at different stages of their career, to open their hearts and their minds for us to reflect on their experience at the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders. This is the first post in the series. 

Que Onda from the West Coast!

I recently made the eight hundred and nineteen mile pilgrimage from Ashland, Oregon, and my playwright-in-residence duties at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to travel from one border to another in my blue Ford Windstar soccer-mom van with the license plate: 6ALFARO.

What was it that made me drive around majestic Mount Shasta, roll past the hairpin curves of the Trinity National Forest, cruise a lonely stretch of industrial silos near the tiny town of Williams, stop in Sacramento just to see people walking, brave a three hundred and sixty-seven mile swath of flat farmland between Stockton and the Grapevine, hit the pedal over Kern County, stop in the City of Los at King Taco for an horchata and continue south past a breezy view of the Pacific Ocean, the soldiers at Camp Pendleton, and go back thirty something years to my past?

Time has moved quickly for me. Just yesterday it was 1982 and I was starting to work professionally in the arts, first in the wild and exploratory world of performance art, then into the comfort of words in the commune of poetry, and finally, through a chance encounter to study with María Irene Fornés, into professional theatre and playwriting.

I was an “emerging artist” for twenty or so of those years and, truth be told, with no academic history, I was determined to learn every possible aspect of our field. Among many other things, I stage-managed, I designed lights, I directed, I belonged to a theatre collective for ten years, I helped start a number of not-for-profit arts agencies, I even took off all my clothes and played a country-music-loving pedophile in a musical with my own song and won a Backstage West award for it.

But most of all, I never stopped writing.

People ask me what I did during my border-to-border thirteen-hour ride. I am not going to lie. Like with most of my long-distance drives, which I do a lot, I rarely play music. I go inside of myself, I get clear about a lot of things—I laugh, I cry, I work on some speeches, I mourn my father, I get the details of a play moving in my head, I run lines not yet written to see how they sound in the air, and I get ready for whatever is waiting for me.

And waiting for me at the end of my journey this time was the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) conference in San Diego. Or was it my dead grandmother in Tijuana, Mexico, where I spent a portion of every summer in the colonias, feeding goats and cows, and riding in buses with no doors or windows?

A lucky one hundred of us were selected for a pre-conference TCG track at El Centro Cultural de Tijuana, which included a trip to the border fence running into the ocean where we saw an excerpt from a Mexican Antigone.

 

I go inside of myself, I get clear about a lot of things—I laugh, I cry, I work on some speeches, I mourn my father, I get the details of a play moving in my head, I run lines not yet written to see how they sound in the air, and I get ready for whatever is waiting for me.

 

At the pre-conference, participants could either chose a Diversity & Inclusion track or one exploring International Artists & Touring.

It was an incredible bonding experience with colleagues and friends I have known forever and with many new people in the field. Many of the artists I had the pleasure of connecting with at the Latina/o Theatre Commons National Convening last October made this journey as well. The bus rolled out to the border at eight in the morning and rolled back in after midnight. Seventeen hours later, I was exhausted but renewed with artistic faith as we wrestled with some big ideas and ate tacos. Could there be a better combination?

Latina/O Theater Commons banner
Latina/O Theatre Commons Banner. Photo by Latina/O Theatre Commons. 

Nothing that came after beat sharing this pre-conference experience, and I was reminded of my compañero, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and a piece from his beautiful poem, “Freefalling Toward A Borderless Future.”

I see

I see

I see a whole generation

free falling toward a borderless future

incredible mixtures beyond sci fi:

cholo-punks, cyber-Mayans
Irish concheros, Benneton Zapatistas,
Gringofarians, Buttho rappers, Hopi rockers...

I see them all

wandering around

a continent without a name,

the forgotten paisanos…

It has been fifteen years since I have gone to a TCG conference. I always liked them, but for this playwright of color, they were always lonely affairs. This used to be a conference mostly for artistic directors (missing in woefully obvious numbers this year) and staff from theatres. One could count the artists and people of color on one hand back then.

What happened?

While we might all agree that the art on display in regional theatres throughout the United States does not adequately reflect the world as it actually is, the extraordinary number of women, people of color, activists, and artists of many disciplines at this year’s conference was not only astounding for its size and representation, but also for what seemed to me a group not interested in asking when anymore, but how we are going to make the theatre that reflects an honest representation of the country.

This conference was what many of us in el movimiento have been waiting for: that moment when the next generation of amazing young artists, scholars, producers, and administrators are not only ready to step it up, but have also been trained through mentorship programs, internships, and good old theatre jobs.

The Latina/o artists present at TCG used the affinity group meeting for introductions—to see who is out in the field, where they are at, and how we would be meeting over the weekend. Many of us, of course, knew each other, but to see the breadth of la comunidad, presente, was one for the record books.

 

The extraordinary power, and subtlety of human interaction is first and foremost why we travel and need to keep meeting, whether in regions, nationally, or more importantly, in the Americas to build our collective artistic community.

 

Aside from some powerful intergenerational leaders of color meetings, lunches, impromptu group sharing, Herbert Siguenza’s site-specific reimagining of Henry V, the drama, the chisme, the affirmation, the name-calling, and the introductions, I did manage to see something formal that inspired me.

I went to a panel called “El Movimiento Will Be Digitized” which was facilitated by Olga Sanchez, artistic director of Milagro Theatre in Portland. The panel had the all-female brain power of Abigail Vega, the new producer for Latina/o Theatre Commons, Jamie Gahlon, Associate Director of HowlRound, Lisa Portes, head of directing at DePaul University and 2015 Carnavál of New Latina/o Work lead producer, and Chantal Rodriguez, programming director and scholar at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. No order of preference, just how I remember them sitting.

We got a great primer about organizing, using tools like Basecamp, Free Conference Calling, Dropbox, Google Docs, and more. It’s clear that technology can inspire us to imagine how we broaden the notion of not only how we communicate, but with whom.

I say all female because also scheduled was Tlaloc Rivas, director, who sat patiently by in Iowa on Skype. But somehow the gods of technology, ironically, were not on a panel about technology’s side. This was okay and brought home that there is nothing like coming together face to face.

The extraordinary power, and subtlety of human interaction is first and foremost why we travel and need to keep meeting, whether in regions, nationally, or more importantly, in the Americas to build our collective artistic community.

This is incredibly important. The national community and agenda is developing and in need of action. The leaders in our field are present and willing, the work is full of abundance, rigor, and ready for expression. Artists are hungry for the exchange with other artists and as we have learned over the last thirty or so years, the American theatre, once the center of progressive thought and idea, is in desperate need of leadership.

In other words, our time is now.

And by “our” I mean just that. If you see yourself in the “our,” then the movement is waiting for you. The tools are there; we just have to use them.

A borderless future awaits.

Para pedir este articulo traducido al Español, por favor escriba a cafeonda@howlround.com; Titulado: Traducción para NOMBRE DEL ARTICULO.

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To hear that the soft launch of the refined Café Onda begins with a series of cross-generational responses reflecting on the powerful bridge-building that occurred during the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders thrills me – especially because this year’s TCG Conference was my first.

A necessary and exciting component of what the Latina/o Theatre Commons refers to as El Movimiento, it is through this kind of archiving and reflection that we are able to take our histories as a community and use these testimonies as a springboard to the next generation of diversity and inclusivity within the broader American theatre conversation.

As a young leader of color (a Tejano by way of El Paso, Texas) I must say that Luis’ reflection on a “borderless future” is one that resonates deeply within me through my upbringing as a border kid, my education as a UT Austin alum, and my current profession as the new Literary Manager and curator of Public Programs at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago.

I have to say, this concept of “crossing borders”, “a borderless future”, and “diversity and inclusion” through an institutional lens is best demonstrated through the very production brought into question within this conversation – Victory Gardens’ recent production of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden.

I would argue that not only is Dorfman’s play a relevant testimony to what he himself considers a necessary and present-day dialogue, the level of involvement the actors had in conversation with torture survivors and our public programming lends itself to support this very idea of a borderless future.

For those who do not know, as part of Victory Gardens Theater’s initiatives to bridge the gap between our plays, our audiences, and the world outside these productions, we produce an event series for each show called “Public Programs.” These varied events, though complex in nature, center on large recurring themes that are then deconstructed through town halls, pre-show performances, and post-show discussions.

As the direct liaison between our patrons, playwrights, and performances, I facilitated a post-show discussion following every performance of Death and the Maiden with an average of 60-150 patrons interested in engaging in a larger conversation surrounding torture and rape. Our audiences were burning with the desire to speak, and many asked the very same questions we asked ourselves through this entire process:

“What is true justice?” “What am I supposed to do?” “Is there a point where torture survivors are able to forgive and let go?” “How can we support them?”

Difficult questions with even more complicated answers. Many argued; many cried. Many felt frustrated; many shared their own stories of rape, violence, and oppression. But they all left seemingly enlightened and provoked to think deeper about these issues that are very present in our world today.

In crafting Victory Gardens’ most comprehensive public programming for what I would argue as Ariel Dorfman’s timeless new play classic, I immersed myself in Chicago’s anti-torture movement because I wanted an opportunity to take the work that is already being done out in the community, and bring it to Victory Gardens. I attended rallies and marches, vigils and film screenings, and met the most inspiring individuals along the way – all with a story to tell, and all with a passionate mission to end torture.

As a theater with a direct mission to cross borders, we created an opportunity for our audiences to share in this advocacy and activism by creating opportunities to bear witness to the real testimonies of torture survivors walking and living in this city every day.

One of whom remains good friends with me today – a Guatemalan torture survivor and activist by the name of Matilde. A woman with a fierce heart and powerful story, she joined us in the rehearsal process by sharing her experiences with the cast, and participated in several public programs where she shared her story with our audiences. In hearing her testimony and the testimonies of other survivors, our patrons found a way to connect with an experience that most have not lived.

In short – we helped them cross a border.

We found entry points for different communities and groups, who might not inherently identify with those experiences. We found a way for us to stand in solidarity with survivors of torture, and use Death and the Maiden as a springboard toward solution building for an international concern that can sometimes feel insoluble.

If you were to bump into Matilde or any other torture survivor on the street, you wouldn’t know the weight of the past they carry on their shoulders just by looking at them. It isn’t until you hear their testimonies – their bold, uncensored, unapologetic testimonies – that you might start to gain some insight to the slightest idea of the effects of torture on our neighbors, friends, and strangers on the street.

A relevant, necessary, and empowering milestone for our theater – and one that our patrons are still responding to – producing Death and the Maiden in conjunction with its comprehensive public programming and community engagement is not only a contribution towards a borderless future, it is a contribution towards the future of the American theatre.

Oh my goodness, I can’t say I was not warned about responses on Howlround…

When I think about a borderless future, I am hardly thinking about geography, but one in which gender, race, ability, etc. is not even a consideration. Oh, to wish for such a thing these days.

We are in a transformative field and the one thing, in fact the only thing we can count on, is change. The theatre, the most ancient of our expression, will never die, but it must change to survive, that
is clear. It’s the most important thing that I have learned in my now long life in the American theatre.

When I think about leadership in the professional theatre these days is to think about what we burden a leader with – to raise money mostly.

How many of our theatres have missions that express not only the needs of the institution, but of the communities they live in as well? Are these shared values of the world we live in? How do we aspire
to reflect and dream even bigger than our current into the world we want to see and portray?

I have a wish for HowlRound. That we not hide behind anonymity. Our fragile extraordinary community is small and vital. We should speak to each other as colleagues, with respect, even when we disagree most. We should know who we are to each other - that is another borderless future.

When I think of my artistic homes; Playwrights Arena in Los Angeles, Magic Theatre in San Francisco, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Victory Gardens in Chicago, I know I bring my home with me to the world. This is also vital to our survival, and our growth, moving the field forward means crossing the borders that scare you the most.

So, Mr. Ewe No Hoo, your veiled reference to the work of my much lauded and esteemed friend Chay Yew, the artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater, and his production of Ariel Dorfman’s ‘Death and the
Maiden’ is distorted and untrue, and there is no room for that in the commons, I believe.

This production has come at the right time, one only need to look at human rights abuses throughout the world to know how necessary it might be to receive this play again. That it starred Sandra Oh, a remarkable stage actress, who had an equally remarkable journey to film and television, and has decided to return to her roots, should be applauded.

When I think of Sandra, I remember her luminous Adela in Lisa Peterson's production of 'The House of Bernarda Alba' at the Mark Taper Forum that featured Chita Rivera. I also think of her extraordinary turn in Diana Son's 'Stop Kiss' at The Public Theatre in New York. But mostly I think about the tons of new plays she has read in workshops and readings throughout her career. Seeing her in the summer up at the Ojai Playwrights Conference working with young writers on their plays.

The production was not a fiasco, it garnered a record number of critical response, most of it very thoughtful, it actually is one of the highest grossing shows in the history of Victory Gardens and it continues the mission of speaking to the city of Chicago, a city that is at once tremendous in its expression and in deep crisis in its violence.

Working with Chay on 'Oedipus El Rey' and 'Mojada' were the highest critical moments of my career and we walked away with a Jeff Award for Best Play, thank you very much, but more importantly, we built those plays in the community. We spent endless months and hours meeting the audience we were writing for. If he has lost any audience, he has more than gained a new generation of theatregoers that actually look like that city in its fullness. He is building a borderless future.

I am assuming you are referring to Chay and Sandra as ‘borderless’ because of their Asian ancestry. One need only look at the contribution they have both made to the American theatre, the literary world and contemporary culture in general to know that they are both more American than most of us.

Let’s get back to writing those plays and making a better, more unified field, and if we dare go below to the underworld of ‘comments’ - that we wrestle with each other in truth and towards a more excellent expression on our stages.

What do you say?

To hear that the soft launch of the refined Café Onda begins with a series of cross-generational responses reflecting on the powerful bridge-building that occurred during the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders thrills me – especially because this year’s TCG Conference was my first.

A necessary and exciting component of what the Latina/o Theatre Commons refers to as El Movimiento, it is through this kind of archiving and reflection that we are able to take our histories as a community and use these testimonies as a springboard to the next generation of diversity and inclusivity within the broader American theatre conversation.

As a young leader of color (a Tejano by way of El Paso, Texas) I must say that Luis’ reflection on a “borderless future” is one that resonates deeply within me through my upbringing as a border kid, my education as a UT Austin alum, and my current profession as the new Literary Manager and curator of Public Programs at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago.

I have to say, this concept of “crossing borders”, “a borderless future”, and “diversity and inclusion” through an institutional lens is best demonstrated through the very production brought into question within this conversation – Victory Gardens’ recent production of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden.

I would argue that not only is Dorfman’s play a relevant testimony to what he himself considers a necessary and present-day dialogue, the level of involvement the actors had in conversation with torture survivors and our public programming lends itself to support this very idea of a borderless future.

For those who do not know, as part of Victory Gardens Theater’s initiatives to bridge the gap between our plays, our audiences, and the world outside these productions, we produce an event series for each show called “Public Programs.” These varied events, though complex in nature, center on large recurring themes that are then deconstructed through town halls, pre-show performances, and post-show discussions.

As the direct liaison between our patrons, playwrights, and performances, I facilitated a post-show discussion following every performance of Death and the Maiden with an average of 60-150 patrons interested in engaging in a larger conversation surrounding torture and rape. Our audiences were burning with the desire to speak, and many asked the very same questions we asked ourselves through this entire process:

“What is true justice?” “What am I supposed to do?” “Is there a point where torture survivors are able to forgive and let go?” “How can we support them?”

Difficult questions with even more complicated answers. Many argued; many cried. Many felt frustrated; many shared their own stories of rape, violence, and oppression. But they all left seemingly enlightened and provoked to think deeper about these issues that are very present in our world today.

In crafting Victory Gardens’ most comprehensive public programming for what I would argue as Ariel Dorfman’s timeless new play classic, I immersed myself in Chicago’s anti-torture movement because I wanted an opportunity to take the work that is already being done out in the community, and bring it to Victory Gardens. I attended rallies and marches, vigils and film screenings, and met the most inspiring individuals along the way – all with a story to tell, and all with a passionate mission to end torture.

As a theater with a direct mission to cross borders, we created an opportunity for our audiences to share in this advocacy and activism by creating opportunities to bear witness to the real testimonies of torture survivors walking and living in this city every day.

One of whom remains good friends with me today – a Guatemalan torture survivor and activist by the name of Matilde. A woman with a fierce heart and powerful story, she joined us in the rehearsal process by sharing her experiences with the cast, and participated in several public programs where she shared her story with our audiences. In hearing her testimony and the testimonies of other survivors, our patrons found a way to connect with an experience that most have not lived.

In short – we helped them cross a border.

We found entry points for different communities and groups, who might not inherently identify with those experiences. We found a way for us to stand in solidarity with survivors of torture, and use Death and the Maiden as a springboard toward solution building for an international concern that can sometimes feel insoluble.

If you were to bump into Matilde or any other torture survivor on the street, you wouldn’t know the weight of the past they carry on their shoulders just by looking at them. It isn’t until you hear their testimonies – their bold, uncensored, unapologetic testimonies – that you might start to gain some insight to the slightest idea of the effects of torture on our neighbors, friends, and strangers on the street.

A relevant, necessary, and empowering milestone for our theater – and one that our patrons are still responding to – producing Death and the Maiden in conjunction with its comprehensive public programming and community engagement is not only a contribution towards a borderless future, it is a contribution towards the future of the American theater.

I think that, as one who values freedom and my own intelligence and abilities, I understand perfectly well the author's intention in referring to a borderless future. I am a playwright, and I grew up in a border and no Biblical, topographical, geographic or cultural map can capture the reality of the border. It is also incredibly affluent. Plays are being produced there without anyone even thinking about "taking over existing" groups. Our job, as artists, is to create. Our job as playwrights is to keep writing.

To all "types" out there I would say: Keep submitting to the theaters that you want to be part of. Most have a blind submission policy in use. And I can say from experience, that the Literary Managers I know are exceptionally unbiased, educated, intelligent and good at their jobs.

As for Alfaro, I say I believe whole heartedly in envisioning stories, like the reflection above. The World Game as originally envisioned by Bucky Fuller demonstrated the capability to produce the higher-than-ever-before-experienced living standard means; a healthier, less environmentally restrained, better informed, comprehensively educated, ever-more-thoughtfully, spontaneously and cooperatively-productive total humanity, operating as a world family.

If we lose the power to envision a positive collective future, then nations, and Bible stories, and the world WAR games will continue to thrive.

There is always room in Café Onda for positive views.

So to that I say Bravo, Luis.

"American theater, once the center of progressive thought and idea, is in desperate need of leadership... The tools are there; we just have to use them. A borderless future awaits."

It's tough to respond to such extremely biased statements without resorting to the use of the kind of pejoratives that violate Howlround's editorial policy... but I will.

First, not everyone agrees that American theater is in need of leadership. This elitist way of looking at things may seem obvious to those who are "lucky enough" to spend a lot of their time attending conferences, but few of those who are actually writing or putting on plays think they are in desperate need of leadership. They simply wish the economy was better so more people could afford to attend theater, and that more people were exposed to theater at an early age (rather than, say, being bought violent video games).

Second, a "boarderless future" is not everyone's goal -- or (necessarily) the right goal. Even in Biblical times people understood (see the story of the Tower of Babel) the value in geographical separation to promote diversity, rather than have everything mixed all together into one monoclonal society easily destroyed by a virus (whether physical or metaphorical).

Furthermore, the author's word choice and tone is almost frightening, making it easy to conjecture that what he eventually wants is for "leaders" to use the "tools" they already have to get laws passed MANDATING theater groups put on plays by those they don't want to, in the name of a "boarderless future".

Well, those of us who value freedom and our own intelligence and abilities more than some "leader"'s (no matter how much others of lesser intelligence and ability may worship said leader[s]) would like to focus our efforts on writing and producing the plays we want... regardless of whether others approve of our choices or not.

Alas, it seems so many of the "bordeless" types want NOT simply to have the right to create their own theater and build their audiences by doing quality work, but to TAKE OVER EXISTING successful theater groups and their subscription base.

Take for example the recent fiasco in Chicago, where the relatively new ("borderless" type) artistic director of a once-venerable theater group decided to mount a twenty-year-old play of questionable value in order to provide a star-vehicle for a well-known ("borderless") celebrity actor. The reviews were mostly pretty bad, and audiences were often laughing at what were supposed to be serious moments.

The only good to come from it is even the most PC of the long-time subscribers are finally starting to question the decision to get rid of the long-time artistic director(s) in favor of the new one. (Other less PC subscribers have of course already left.)

So this is the future I see if the "borderless" types win out: Theater group after theater group destroyed in the name of political correctness. Sure, there won't be riots in the streets... just fewer and fewer people will subscribe each year, until theater quietly dies completely.

As I've said before many times, if you REALLY want to re-invigorate theater then simply implement a blind submission policy. For almost all of the inherent problems of theater today (other than those due to the bad economy overall) are due to the fact that so many people, including the author of this essay, have an agenda OTHER than putting on the best possible plays.

I would suggest to you that "the best possible plays" is and has always been a convenient excuse and a construct for members of an accidentally dominant cultural group to dismiss the work of a non-dominant cultural group. I would also suggest that there seems to be a tension between your stated desire to "produc[e] the plays we want... regardless of whether others approve of our choices or not" and said "best possible plays" which is namely that you presume your own plays fall into that category but that the word of others, on the face of it, does not.

We are living in a moment of cultural shift that brings with it new possibilities and untold potential for theatre across North America. Dismissing that as "political correctness" and continuing to live in a "bordered" world strikes me, and probably many others, as an insult undeserved.

Hello Ewe No Hoo. It seems your response has no positive inquiry, which suggests to me that Alfaro's does, as all positives attracts a negative. If you mean Latina/os by "borderless [not boarderless] types," it's okay— you can say it. That is the purpose of this conversation. Have you ever been or lived by a border? I have. In fact, I grew up in one. But you mention the Bible, so it makes me understand your statement.

Alas, it seems so many of the "bordeless" types want NOT simply to have the right to create their own theater and build their audiences by doing quality work, but to TAKE OVER EXISTING successful theater groups and their subscription base.

This life, which had been the tomb of his virtue and of his honour, is but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

William Shakespeare