When we sing a song from memory, it comes out entero (“whole”). We don’t just recite the lyrics as we might read a shopping list out loud. We include the beat, the melody, the nuanced intonation we’ve learned from the times we’ve heard the song before. If it first comes to us as a multi-layered aesthetic experience, that’s how it is extracted from our memory as we sing it. But a song like the legendary “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen has even more umph to it: like an oratorio, this mini-opera features multiple characters in sung dialogue, with a pronounced beginning, middle, and ending. It clutches you like no other song.
Similarly, a performance poem or spoken word piece might also be staged as a mini-drama or short-form theatre work. Nuyorican poet Piri Thomas, in the award-winning documentary Every Child is Born a Poet, interprets one of his poems as a live-action comic strip with the use of colorful set designs and whimsical costuming. It is a successful adaptation that engages and explodes the poem into a 3-D spectacle. In the best scenario, bringing poems from the page to the stage is a form of outsizing that can connect more people to a written work.
Sometimes, though, a poet doesn’t realize his or her work has the potential to translate into performance.
“It wasn't until a friend of mine asked if he could use one of my poems for an audition that I started to see how my work had a theatrical connection,” recalls Alvaro Saar Rios, playwright, director, and poet. Originally from Houston, Alvaro sang for a death metal band, sometimes including his poetry in the lyrics. Years later, he became involved with the spoken word community there as a founding member of Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say. He now holds an MFA in Writing for the Stage and Screen from Northwestern University and is an associate professor of theatre at UW-Milwaukee.
Playwright and performance artist Virginia “Vicki” Grise might possibly applaud Alvaro’s zigzag path to theatrical stages, as her own preference is for “the in-between places—I find these places very exciting.”
Vicki’s trajectory of creative production is pretty exciting itself. From her work as a Zapatista activist in Austin, co-editing Conversations with Durito: Stories of the Zapatistas and the Defeat of Neoliberalism, to performing with her belly bared for The Panza Monologues (co-written with Irma Mayorga and published by the University of Texas Press in 2014), Vicki was also awarded the 2010 Yale Drama Series Award for her play blu.
She says, “I believe I have always written for performance and I think the possibilities for performance are in fact infinite. The question of what is ‘theatre’ is narrowly defined by the industry or the field—it is not a definition I accept or practice. I work in a way that is inherently cross-disciplinary. I want to constantly experiment and find new ways of creating work that is at once poetic and meant to be performed in the body, seen by an audience—that, to me, is theatre.”
Multipurpose Writer or Multi-Disciplinary Artist?
These writers, steeped in poetry but now producing work for theatre stages and other public spaces, don’t seem to be limited by canonical literary boundaries, or genre borders.
Alvaro: “As a playwright, I feel my job is to use the least amount of words to tell a story. My skills as a poet have definitely helped me with that. I am actually working on a piece right now where the protagonist is a spoken word poet. I specifically did this so I could reintroduce myself to that world I have been yearning to return to. The genre/form I use all depends on what story I want to tell.”
Alana Macias, Austin-based poet, film director, and performance artist: “My parents were revolutionaries in the Nicaraguan conflicts of the 1980s and 90s. I grew up with both of them writing and giving speeches. It was very normal to me to give public performances organized around personal experiences and demands for justice. This was important in the development of my writing voice and in internalizing the idea that I had the right and duty to use my body and experience to express myself and design a better world. When I started seeing spoken word, I felt this connection from my days with all the revolutionary performance and writing. And then I went to CalArts, which introduced me to a whole new world of different kinds of theatre.”
Raquel Valle Senties, a visual artist and border writer, based in Laredo, Texas, didn’t start writing formally until well into her mid-life. “I was writing poetry on and off since I was a teen but it wasn't until 1988 that I took a class in Creative Writing (poetry, playwriting, short story) at Laredo Community College (LCC) and started developing as a poet and playwright.” Her teacher was none other than Dr. Carlos Morton, who these days serves as the Director of the Center for Chicano Studies and Professor of Dramatic Arts at UC-Santa Barbara.
“If it hadn't been for that class with Dr. Morton, I probably would not be writing plays. The first play, Alcanzando Un Sueño (Spanish language script), started in his class, went on to win in 1990, third place in the University of California-Irvine Chicano Literary Contest—which was a tremendous boost to my self-esteem as a writer.”
Vicki didn’t write her first full-length play until she was a graduate student in Los Angeles: “Carl Hancock Rux was my mentor in graduate school at CalArts. He forced me to write my first full-length play.”
Even slam poet dynamo Amalia Ortiz didn’t take her place on a stage, or writing for it, until she got nudged by a theatre veterano who recognized her potential. In the 1990s, as a theatre manager for the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, she absorbed hours of performances by others, but stayed in the wings.
“It was there that the Director of Theatre, Jorge Piña, urged me to stay hungry as an artist and to do the art, rather than remain satisfied as a behind-the-scenes arts administrator. It was also there that I met performance artist Robert Karimi, who encouraged me to write and perform my own stories.”
It took a challenge and a cash offer to motivate Alvaro to give scriptwriting a try. “I have Ed Muth to thank for my playwriting career. He’s part of the theatre department faculty at Houston Community College. Knowing I liked to write, he asked me if I had ever written a play before. He offered me $200 and gave me a one-month deadline. I was so excited to write the play that I finished it in less than a week. It wasn’t until the first day of rehearsal that I knew this playwriting thing was for me. Hearing the actors say my words really affected me. From that day, I told myself, ‘I am a playwright.’”
Alvaro Saar Rios’ most recent work, Luchadora, a commission for First Stage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, just ended a three-week run in April 2015.
Drawbacks or Dilemmas as a Multi-Genre Writer/Performer?
Whether a book of poems or a script ready to be produced, these poet-playwrights realize it’s mostly up to them to push or promote their work. Without a producer or dedicated funding, Raquel’s scripts are rarely staged. She did luck out when she met Screen Actors Guild member, filmmaker, and playwright Pedro Garcia. But that was more than ten years ago.
“My plays Alcanzando un Sueño and La Mala Onda de Johnny Rivera premiered in McAllen, Texas, in 1999. They were produced by Pedro García's Teatro Nuestra Cultura, which is based in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. Pedro also took the plays to Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico, for a one-night performance.”
And Amalia adds this: “My spoken word is in higher demand, because it is easier (and cheaper) to stage. I was very fortunate after the first staged reading of my musical to be approached by someone willing to produce it.”
“Producers tend to want work they can easily define, describe, market,” says Vicki. “I think one of the problems of the field is the standardization of the playwriting/making process. I am invested in radical acts of experimentation and relish the moments that theatres actually ask artists ‘what do you need?’ something we surprisingly rarely get asked.” Though awarded a prestigious prize, Vicki’s play blu has yet to receive a professional production in her own hometown of San Antonio. (San Antonio is not bereft of theatres or hosting theatre companies, by the way.)
What About the Audience for Poetry vs. Theatre Productions?
If a poet’s work for the theatre does get to travel, it leads to an overall expansion of that artist’s audience—as in Alvaro’s current situation: “As a poet, I was portable. Yet, I was limited because I would only perform where I could afford to go which usually meant I didn’t get much out of Texas. On the other hand, my plays can be where I can’t. I have had my plays produced in Texas at the same time they are being produced in Wisconsin. Plays allow me to have more exposure to different audiences.”
Alana has found that theatre audiences can appreciate her spoken word work/multimedia performance, but she has also seen “totally new people who don't go to theatre who come to my multimedia performance. They are generally more radical, younger, and excited by the nontraditional form and general anarchic attitude.”
The cross-disciplinary performances that Vicki creates also “draw a very mixed audience—I think this is because my work often addresses issues that affect different and, at times, intersecting communities including women, queers, youth, organizers, artists, Mexicans, and Chicanos. Often times my audiences are first time theatregoers. But again because I tend to perform in nontraditional spaces I do not think I have to deal with the same challenges of traditional theatre when it comes to audience development.”
Future of Straddling Genres or Art Forms
Raquel is finishing a new play, Two Chicanas in Paris and writing a book of vignettes.
Amalia Ortiz will forge ahead as a theatre playwright and poet, as both seem possible if the artist is willing. In October, her first poetry collection, Rant. Chant. Chisme. will be published by Wings Press (San Antonio).
Alvaro is now writing his first opera, setting up a tour schedule for Luchadora, and “writing the book for a musical about a group of teens who start a band that only uses instruments made out of recycled materials”—a commission by the Zoological Society of Milwaukee.
For Alana, her creative focus is on Zero Libertad—the full-length graphic novel and the cinematic/live performance piece, (which premiered at Austin’s Fusebox Festival in 2013). Both will be released and on tour by 2016.
And Vicki’s goals (besides embarking on her recently-announced National New Play Network commission)? “I have four in the next four years—direct more, write a book, write and stage an opera, and take back the San Antonio River for at least twenty-four hours.”
These writers fluidly navigate across literary genres, allowing fuller exposition of their talents and creative impulses. As Raquel Valle-Senties aptly declares, in the closing lines of her signature poem, these poets who are also playwrights (and more), feel little need to follow convention or justify their chosen artistic path:
Soy la contradicción andando.
En fin como Laredo,
soy como soy y qué.
I'm a walking contradiction.
In other words, like Laredo,
I am what I am. So what?
Excerpted from Soy Como Soy y Qué by Raquel Valle-Senties.