A Conversation with Playwright Caridad Svich
On a recent drizzly weekday afternoon downtown, I meet Caridad Svich for a cup of coffee and a chance to discuss her work. I first came across Caridad’s voice (working in translation and adaptation) as a reader for the literary department of a large Chicago area theatre several years ago. I was so entranced by a world she created in one of her plays that appeared in my script pile that I connected with her by email, and I’ve kept track of her ever since. Just this year the American Theatre Critics Association awarded her the Francesca Primus Prize for her play The House of the Spirits. And now that I live in Manhattan, I have watched even more carefully for the chance to catch her work on stage or (as happened recently in a conference room at the newly refurbished Lark Playwright Development Center‘s new facilities on West 43rd Street) read around a table by professional actors laughing and crying and enlivening the text. Her new play Guapa about a family in the Texas borderland was the subject of that table read. Two days later, the subject for us is her work in general.
Caridad is physically slight, inter-personally warm and humorous, and intellectually astute. She listens for a while before speaking, then offers first broad generous statements about the world in which she works and the kinds of worlds she likes to create. We begin our conversations talking about her play The Labyrinth of Desire, the play I encountered as a script reader some years ago. “It’s a big old crazy comedy — goofy but philosophical,” she notes. “It goes to an interesting place any time you deal with love and shenanigans.” I think to myself — that a great title for something isn’t it? “Love and Shenanigans”.
During the reading several days before, I was struck by the instant sense of community the actors exhibited in this table read, after little or no rehearsal of this particular script. I ask Caridad if she often works with these particular actors. She notes that one is new to her work, but she has been watching them all in other productions over the years.Several actors are already part of what she terms “my roving band”, and she has worked with the young director Jose Zayas on prior projects The House of the Spirits and In the Time of the Butterflies. Their friendly and funny rapport is palpable in the room and table of participants that included Caridad, her actors and director, Lark staff, and my pal the project dramaturg Heather Helinsky. I felt welcomed into the world, and this seems an extension of the practice, of the art, of the community.
What makes an actor interesting to you? What are the key variables you look for in your “roving band”? Part of what makes an actor interesting is their sexy presence. “When you go to theatre”, she notes, “part of it is about pleasure. hey have to sort of thrill you are else why are you there?” She wants them to exhibit a range of attributes. “Sexy. Fun. Smart. Fearless. and with a light touch. I need witty actors who don’t hit it hard.” Other attributes she mentions include “fierce, committed, dangerous.” She notes that she keeps her eye out for actors in and just out of the local acting programs, and on the stages all around the city. One of the actors in the Guapa reading, Audrey Esparza, is new to Caridad’s “band”, yet is an actress Caridad has been watching for some time. Flor De Liz Perez was in Caridad’s play In the Time of the Butterflies. Rey Lucas, Bernardo Cubria and Maggie Bofill are all actors with whom Caridad has worked on readings before. About one actress in the ensemble Caridad notes: “She has melancholy that’s in her, that she transmits …. there’s mystery in her.” Caridad gathers around her the familiar and the evocative.
Family and community. Multi-lingual Caridad often works in translation, and in the themes and histories of other countries, cultures, centuries. In the case of her new play Guapa, she focuses on American culture and tells the story of a blended family and a young soccer player with dreams in a hardscrabble area of Texas. The young title character, the woman athlete Guapa is the character that first spoke to her. Caridad reflects that this is only her second family piece — it’s her “big old American play”. In all her work, she continues, there is a consistent theme: How do you make community? In the case of Guapa, the story involves a family in a city in a culture that all limit and extent hopes and possibilities. Headed up by a single woman, populated by children fathered by several different men, and a few distantly related individuals, individuals reach to each other and storytelling magic is made.
Family composition. I observe that the balance among the various characters in this particular play is striking and lovely. Full and half-siblings and distantly related individuals all join in the household of a single woman, raising them all with clarity and love. A woman with an interesting past — stories of past relationships and long evenings over stiff drinks animate but do not dominate this narrative. Everyone has a voice. Caridad recalls another family play she wrote in which the mother dominated the storytelling more than she would like, and has worked in this new play to adjust that balance. Her work-in-translation and adaptation The House of the Spirits is another big family play involving three generations — “epic, passionate, big”
The borderland and playing with form. Caridad notes that the subject and locale of Guapa, the Texas borderland, is one she has wanted to address for a while. Class divisions, poverty, possibilities, and cultural histories. While she usually works in stories that are more overtly poetic (and she notes at one point “I believe theatre is poetry; that’s what the Greeks believed”), this piece and its lead character of the striving and underclass character Guapa came to her and asked her story to be told. While the family drama scenario is formulaic what happens in it is not.
Intimacy. Whether a work in translation or out of myth or a story entirely of her own creation, Caridad notes that “playing in that place of intimacy is very important to me.”
Works in translation, works as poetry. This intimate, committed, funny, witty playwright is busy creating work for intimate, committed, funny, witty actors and designers. I cannot wait to see the next theatrical gifts she has to offer. I cannot wait to continue our conversations.
© Martha Wade Steketee (September 29, 2011)