Address to LEAP Playwriting Program (Learning Early About Playwriting) at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre November 14, 2016
Welcome. Congratulations! You have written your way into this room.
This room is a very special place. It is a place where you will be listened to, and fostered. Writing and theatre are very precious and magical. Yes, they can be silly and stupid and banal and pointless and celebrate the wrong thing or be done for fun or just to make money. Of course they can. But playwriting (and film and new media) is the only kind of writing that comes to life, right in front of your eyes, in the hearts and minds and bodies of actors. And in this room, your plays will come alive in the hearts and minds and bodies of your fellow writers. You and your teachers will ask questions of each other. You will ask each other to look at things from different angles, in deeper ways. All this expands empathy. Shawn MacDonald and Christine Quintana are the most wonderful, versatile theatre artists. They can be funny and they can face fear. And they have so much to offer you, here, in this room.
Shawn invited me to join you in this room, today, to kick off your year with a keynote about playwriting and about how I founded this wonderful program called LEAP, ten years ago. That was before the results of the US election.
I was planning to give you suggestions for your writing life, tell you a little about my life as a playwright, and why I founded this program. I’m still going to do that. I’m going to welcome you into the playwriting community, to this beautiful new theatre, also a dream come true. But I’m also going to LEAP into this moment, our present moment. It pains me because you are just starting out, and I want things to be 100 percent wonderful for you. But part of being 100 percent wonderful is admitting to you that people in our theatre and writing communities, the one I am welcoming you into, are under attack. If learned anything from the past four days, it’s this: It is vital to open your heart, to bear witness.
So I’m going to tell you four true stories from the past four days to bring us into our new context.
Yesterday, a car sped up in America, ready to mow down my dear friend. My friend is a playwright, theatre director, and professor. He is also, visibly, of Mexican descent. On Facebook, he wrote, “You never know who is feeling emboldened by their cocktail of hate, fear, and victory.”
Another treasured colleague, who has fostered new plays for most of his career, who runs HowlRound, a theatre commons out of Boston, which has literally changed the way we speak about theatre to each other across North America, through online articles, gatherings, and streaming of events on HowlRound TV (you can study/write with Suzan-Lori Parks or livestream a panel discussion with Robert Lepage); the director and co-founder of HowlRound recently came out as a trans man. He writes,
It’s such a terrible time for all of us who know we are specifically targeted by Trump’s America. As a trans man, one who is only understanding now what it means to embrace my full self, to realize late in the game that I deserve to live as myself, that I am not crazy, sick, or wrong. …We all deserve to live in the full glory of our difference.
And Eden Robinson, another friend, a Canadian novelist who just won the Writer’s Trust Engel/Findley Award for a mid-career author with an exceptional body of work, in response to the election, she says she is “Ready to use my voice to give you any sanctuary I can. You have allies. You are not alone.” She lives in Kitamaat Village, British Columbia, and is of the Haisla First Nation.
And in the New York Times recently, there was an article reporting a rise in bullying of students of color at campuses across America. For example, at a middle school in DeWitt, Michigan, students made a human wall, and made it impossible for immigrant kids to get to class, telling them they were going to be deported to make America great again. Here in Canada, I’ve begun to see reports of bullying of Muslim students in Toronto schools. Canadian teachers are reporting great anxiety about the election coming from their students. Bullies didn’t have the kind of example at such a high level of power that they do now.
No matter what your politics are, even if you voted for Trump or would have if you could, it’s still true: many in our theatre and writing communities are being targeted. People emulate those in power, in the US, and in Canada. Bullies have been given permission.
So today, I welcome you and use my voice to give you sanctuary, to let you know that you have allies and you are not alone. LEAP is part of that.
I believe it is more important to make art, to write plays, than ever. In a world where we are expected to respond immediately, where news cycles try to keep us addicted to panic, where we are isolated, yet connecting, through social media…it’s very, very powerful to take the time to write a play. It’s powerful to come together in a room, to hear stories, to be together, to laugh, to cry, to consider things deeply, to slip inside the skins of other people, to understand their perspectives.
I became a playwright because I was working in Vancouver as an actor, director, and artistic director, and I felt there were too many stories, especially about women, missing from our stages. I’ve written plays about women at work (Quality: the Shoe Play), motherhood (Jane Austen, Action Figure), and history (Lieutenant Nun—based on the true story of a woman conquistador, or a trans man). Like the founder of HowlRound, I thought these wild stories, especially my first plays, might be “crazy, sick or wrong,” but much to my surprise, these plays have been produced, and celebrated. More recently, I’ve been writing about other untold stories—how we got the eight-hour day in Canada, how last year a small town in British Columbia became one of the only cities in North American to vote on whether or not they wanted big oil to come. Last year, I was one of three playwrights who founded an international climate change theatre action. We invited fifty playwrights from every continent on earth, to write short plays about some aspect of climate change, which were performed in over 100 venues worldwide.
A big part of why I became a playwright is because I am female. I became a playwright because, in ancient societies, like the Greeks and our First Nations, I learned that storytelling is a place to debate and explore the issues of our day. For me, playwriting, producing and teaching are all forms of writing. They are blueprints meant to inspire, they are blueprints of how we’d like the world to be.
And I know, in my bones, how much some people hate women and immigrants and People of Color and their allies, First Nations and LGBTQ people. Some want to silence us; some want us dead. Since the election, I know this even more deeply. But every time we open our mouths or pick up our pens, we are not merely in defiance of the bullies—we are celebrating.
Safe spaces are popping up all over North America in the past four days—mayors are making declarations that their cities are safe, people are learning tactics to support people being bullied in public places, university leaders are declaring their campuses are sanctuaries. I declare that LEAP is a sanctuary too—for your writing.
When I named the program LEAP it was because I wanted you to be brave and bold—to make leaps in your writing. It was because I saw that being at the Arts Club Theatre, would allow you to LEAP, directly into the theatre community…to see all sorts of theatre, meet all sorts of artists, dream all kinds of dreams. This has all come to pass, it’s come true. Shawn has expanded all this and he tells me that over the past ten years, LEAP itself has become a community—for example, alumni will come back and see your work. Such a beautiful thing. (A few days ago, I ran into the people who produced my first play and it made me remember what wild, crazy, audacious things I was writing about. It made remember something the great nature writer Barry Lopez told me, that sometimes who you are at twenty is something you need to live up to.)
Part of why I founded LEAP is because of things that have yet to come true. Vancouver’s stages are still not reflective of the range of Vancouver’s population. There are amazing stories, amazing people here, and we don’t get to hear from them. This is why LEAP reaches out to schools across the lower mainland—to find you.
Part of why I founded LEAP is the story of Leslie Cheung. He is the star of the movie, Farewell My Concubine, and in China, he was ranked the favorite actor in 100 years of Chinese Cinema. Not only a stunning performer, he was bravely and openly bisexual. He moved to Vancouver in 1990. But as far as I know, no one in the Vancouver theatre community, including me, had any idea that he was here during the 1990s. By the year 2003, Leslie Cheung went back to Hong Kong and committed suicide. I realize he was suffering from depression. I can’t help but wonder if it would have helped his depression to be connected to a community. I can’t help but dream that we’d have the sort of community where we could find and collaborate with brilliant artists like him.
I have five suggestions for your writing life.
1. Theatre of the Impossible
This is something I ask my writing students on the first day:
“What’s something you’ve never seen on stage, but you’d love to see, even though it’s impossible? Shout out some things. Can you write them down?”
I’m not leading you through a whole writing workshop right now, so I’ll tell you what comes next.
We write plays, using the list.
And then we discover, nothing is impossible.
It happens every time.
Theatre is like that.
2. Make a plan, but be ready for it to be way better/wilder/weirder than you think.
Some call these dreams of where you’d like to do your plays “marketing plans.” But what happens in my life in the theatre and with my plays is always bigger/wilder/weirder than my plans, so I call them “dreams” or the work of finding “homes for my plays.”
For example, when I wrote 100 plays in a 100 days, I never dreamed that the collection would become a play called Jane Austen, Action Figure and it would be first performed in Spanish, in Panama City, and where it would be called Jane Austen, figura de accion. I never dreamed that it would become a groovy time capsule of my life when my daughter was three, of how I felt about motherhood and writing and life. I never dreamed it would be workshopped in Vancouver and at the Women’s Project in New York City and that it would be performed in Edmonton.
I never imagined my plays would be performed in Lisbon, Portugal, a capital my grandparents never saw, and could only dream of…
I never imagine how many wonderful writers I would become friends with and how much we would inspire each other. Yes, some of my plans include more traditional markers of success, but they don’t usually work out that way. For example, I’ve applied to Sundance and big theatres in Toronto and New York. It hasn’t worked out. Instead, a play I wrote was performed in the streets of New York—an actor started the play by rapelling off a building. For example, one of my plays, remounted last year by Mercedes Batiz Benet and Kathleen Greenfield, started on the ocean, from where the actors entered in rowboats, singing.
Writing is like a river. The people before you gave you the best they could, to let you know you are not alone, and how to survive dark times. They made us laugh, they helped us understand, they made joy. All that has flowed into you. Now it is your turn to write. To give to the next ones, down river from you. Give it your very best. Do not think about whether or not you are up to it. You are. This is your moment to write, to learn to write, to give back for all that writing has given you.
My mentor, Suzan-Lori Parks, is the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. I got a full scholarship, like you have here at LEAP, to study with her. She said, “be a great writer, why not?’
Think about it. Be a great writer, why not?
Her mentor was James Baldwin, a great writer to turn to in these times. So we’re all part of that river, right now.
4. Give what you want to get
As you build your dreams for your writing life, there will be many opportunities that you would like to “get.” Don’t forget that it may be very well within your powers to “give what you want to get.” You may experience rejection and not being invited into various situations. Remember, you can turn and accept others, you can invite them. This gives great balance and joy to my writing life. It’s why I founded LEAP.
5. What is your exact spot in the universe?
There is so much that only you know, and we want to know about it.
Shawn has reminded me this week about how writers at LEAP have told utterly unique stories over the years. They’ve written plays about school violence, immigrating from Argentina, missing and murdered Aboriginal women. These stories are about things only these writers knew, in their hearts, in their bones. There have been zany stories too, hysterically funny ones. For example, I remember one from the first year—with rhyming characters from the 18th century who burned in a fire and had us all gasping with laughter, who knows why? But that writer followed her crazy idea, she didn’t work her mind like a bouncer, keeping ideas out. Instead she delved into who she was, what she had to offer. Her play brought us amazing joy.
To kick you off, and inspire you, here are some examples of things you know but I don’t know:
How does it feel to be starting your writing career in the age of the Anthropocene, which scientists say has officially begun, a current geological age, where human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment?
How does it feel to have the relationship between private and public that you do because of social media?
How does it feel to be from your cultural and family background?
And, how does it feel, if you have a cell phone like my daughter’s, who is a little younger than you, to have a phone that goes off with the regularity of a small and insistent kind of funny little animal?
How does it feel to be alive today, starting out?
Finding out about your exact spot in the universe can be a life long journey.
Right now, I am an associate at the Playwright’s Theatre Centre. It’s a three-year residency program. I have spent the past three years working on exploring my exact spot in the universe.
My family is Portuguese on my dad’s side, and who knows what on my mom’s side. As you can tell, I am not a visible person of color. I’m visibly white. On my mom’s side, she was part of an experiment, where she was adopted, genetically matched to a family. It was considered helpful to try to wipe out all trace of her birth parents. On my dad’s side, the goal was to assimilate, to become American. My family made the journey from being peasants to being university educated. This is a wonderful achievement, especially for the women in my family. My education is one of the greatest treasures of my life. But we lost things along the way. When I was growing up, I did not speak our language, attend our cultural events, or learn our stories. Until recently, I did not know that we have a literary tradition. Today, we might see this as trying to forget we were Portuguese and become as white as possible.
My background was erased but not quite…which doesn’t seem like a story, and yet it is. I’ve been learning that it’s a very common story, whether you are visibly a person of color or not.
I’m also learning that being Portuguese is extremely complex. We have a long history of oppressing and being oppressed. Neither is easy to face. We had hundreds of years of the Inquisition, the slave trade and the longest dictatorship of modern times. Many of us come from impoverished, rural peasant families, who had to leave Portugal for educational and economic reasons. Some of our families were conscripted into little better than slavery on whaling ships; some worked endless hours trying to get ahead as cleaning ladies and factory workers, farm workers and fishermen. Others rose to prominence as professors and in the computer industry.
Given the issues in America and Canada today, regarding racial violence, the construction of whiteness, and gender parity, realizing I’m a part of the enormity of the Portuguese diaspora is relevant, essential, and powerful. Being Portuguese, as I have discovered, involves facing some of the darkest demons in our collective psyche.
I’ve also found some beautiful things, many inspired by seeds planted in me by my grandparents when I was young. Azorean whalers, like my grandfather, married into the Inuit and the Coast Salish. So part of my exploring my culture has meant that I’ve found new family. In Vancouver, 500 Coast Salish are one-half Azorean Portuguese, from the same island as my grandfather. A new statue in Stanley Park is tribute to this connection.
And it’s taken me a long time to realize the richness and possibility of my exact place in the universe. That’s part of why I founded LEAP. So you can LEAP into that, here, today, now, this year.
I’m going to close with a very short excerpt from a piece I wrote about where I get ideas for plays, so that you can know they can come from everywhere:
Inspiration can come from anywhere.
If a play comes, follow it.
My plays have come from
a book falling off a shelf,
a dinner party anecdote,
pictures that flash into my mind while walking,
an architectural tour,
rejecting an idea and getting a better one,
someone saying a woman cannot do a thing,
looking at a forest,
gaps in stories,
footnotes in history books,
The future of theatre belongs to those who have not yet spoken.
And that’s you.
You can find more information about LEAP here. "This piece, "Address to LEAP Playwriting Program (Learning Early About Playwriting) at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre November 14, 2016" by Elaine Ávila’ was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on February 11, 2017.