No Passport Byspassing Theatrical Borders Caridad Svich with Eliza Bent
As I assemble this interview, I keep getting e-mails. Mando Alvarado is looking for an actor in his new play Post No Bills, which will have a reading at INTAR; Repertorio Espagnol is advertising play submission opportunities; and Erik Ehn forwards information about the political unrest in Kenya. What do these three e-mails share? They’re all sent on behalf of the NoPassport (NOPE) listserve moderated by playwright and politico-spearheader Caridad Svich.
On the occasion of NOPE’s upcoming conference, Dreaming the Americas/The Body Politic in Performance, on Feb. 22 at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at CUNY Graduate School, Caridad talked about NOPE’s history and future.
Eliza Bent (Rail): Tell me a bit about how NoPassport started.
Caridad Svich: In late 2002, I kept having conversations about words and music with fellow artists, mainly playwrights, and how we could create new kinds of lyric texts for the stage—Erik Ehn, Sheila Callaghan, Lisa D’Amour, Christine Evans, Michael Gladis, Gary Winter…there were about 12 of us. We met and said, “Let’s do this. Let’s become a band of sorts. We are NoPassport!” And the idea behind it initially was to experiment purely with virtual space, songwriting and dramaturgy, but beneath the initial impulse was a larger impulse to make work that crossed borders and boundaries, real and imagined. So we set up a list-serve, and we started making discreetly adventurous texts. These collaborative texts grew into many conversations about art and theater, which led to a manifesto called “Dirty Thoughts about Money,” which was published on Jonathan Kalb’s online theater journal & forum Hotreview (www.hotreview.org). The purpose was just to create work and collaborate across the country.
Rail: NOPE has a slightly different scope now...
Svich: Yes. During the timeframe that NoPassport began, I had a PEW/TCG National Theatre Artist Residency at INTAR. Towards the end of my residency, founding artistic director Max Ferra kept saying “We should have a big meeting with artists who have been part of INTAR’s history to talk about what the future of this theater company can be.” It was a great idea, but I felt that even though INTAR is a significant part of U.S. Latino/Latina theater history, there were so many artists across the U.S. who could contribute to a more global conversation about where and how U.S. Latino/Latina writing and theater-making could find new creative paths. So under the auspices of the TCG/Pew residency, I organized something I’d always dreamed of organizing: a convergence of U.S. Latino/Latina artists from around the country for a public conversation. [Its form was] a panel about the “Re-Shaping of the American Theatre” and all these amazing colleagues—Karen Zacarias, Amparo Garcia-Crow, Oliver Mayer, Migdalia Cruz, Alberto Sandoval, Eduardo Machado, Michael John Garces, Nilaja Sun, etc.—showed up, many on their own dime, from California, Texas, D.C., Massachusetts. I was humbled by it, and very moved.
Rail: Tell me about the panel.
Svich: There were maybe 15 of us. It was a public event and I wanted it to be a marker of where we were, where we were going in the field. Nilo Cruz had just won the Pulitzer for Anna in the Tropics and there was a feeling that an enormous shift was about to happen not only for new writing in general but for U.S. Latino/a drama. At the same time thereabouts, ASK Theater Projects, a major organization devoted to new play development, shut down in L.A., which left a huge void in the theater community. So there was this sense of uplift about possibilities as well as concern (and this was months before South Coast Repertory closed its Hispanic Playwrights Project and the Mark Taper Forum theater shut down its five developmental new writing labs) for where the next generations of artists were going to find their voices, be mentored and nurtured.
The panel was supposed to last two hours… But we just kept talking and it turned into a four-hour jam session.
So I pitched the idea of expanding the concept of NoPassport beyond an intimate, virtual and sometimes live theater collective to my initial NoPassport-er colleagues, and they all felt it was an exciting step to take. Then the question came up, “Well, what happens now?” It’s not about being exclusively one thing or another; if we’re to honor NoPassport conceptually then it’s all-inclusive, even though, yes, a large portion of NoPassport is U.S. Latino/a artists. But in the end, this is about cross-cultural pollinization of ideas, temperaments, methodologies and ways of seeing theater and performance. Still, you can only exist virtually for so long. So it became clear that we needed to have a big physical event.
Rail: And this was the event at the Segal Center last year?
Svich: I spoke to Frank Hentschker at the Segal Center at CUNY Graduate School about creating a two-day conference for NoPassport. He said: “How many rooms do you need? Can we cater it for you?” He was truly instrumental in making things happen. The 2007 Dreaming the Americas/Diversity & Difference in Performance established the physical identity of NOPE. Out of the energy of that conference the idea of doing this year’s conference arose and also the idea of the publication entity—let’s get the new work out there so people don’t have to burrow in their filing cabinets looking for unpublished stuff or work that’s now out of print.
Rail: Yeah, if the work is there it should be there.
Svich: Exactly. So three volumes will be launched at this year’s conference (collections from Oliver Mayer, Anne Garcia-Romero and Alejandro Morales), and now we’re looking at proposals for the next round, [that will likely include] a hip hop theater collection or a new textbook reader.
But that’s only one aspect of what NoPassport does. It looks like a Los Angeles conference is going to happen. And maybe something in Austin and I’m hoping in Chicago.
Rail: What are you excited about for this coming New York conference?
Svich: I’m excited—I think this happened when Steven Duncombe came on board as our keynote speaker—by the idea that it’s shaped principally around the political, even though there are sessions that are going to move a little bit afield from that. Also, it’s an election year so it seems appropriate. For example, there’s a session on translation, and I think we’ll talk about the political place the translator is placed in when you become responsible for that work to another culture. I think an audience often goes in and thinks “that’s the play” and forgets that it’s been translated by someone, [that] you are receiving it through this other person. What are the politics of that?
Rail: I remember going through a program and highlighting all the things that interested me and it was all yellow at the end!
Svich: It was wild, right? It was alive and electric. Last year the session on Maria Irene Fornes was so moving. The fact that Bonnie Marranca spoke so eloquently, a year before the Letters from Cuba volume was published by PAJ, and that Migdalia Cruz spoke so openly about Irene’s influence and teaching, and that that space was created in a way for looking back whilst looking forwards…so important I think. So many of the artists in NoPassport have been influenced directly by Fornes. But there were so many panels last year. Listening to David Greenspan, Mac Wellman, Beatriz Rizk, Jorge Huerta, Daniel Alexander Jones, so, so many incredible people…it was a feast. This year we’re trying to get more information out there about the conference, to raise awareness of NOPE. After all, we’re this strange animal. We’re a theater alliance and a coalition but we’re also a kiosk, a platform, an advocacy group, and basically an interventionist group.
Svich: Yeah, we go in and we say, “This is important.” We go in and we put a book out there. We go in and try to stir things up. And hopefully that stirring up will lead to action—as opposed to just constantly stirring, which is my fear.
Rail: How do you avoid that fear of just stirring the pot?
Svich: There are several things about that. For example, the Brownout panel, which happened in June, happened because of all this forceful and wide-ranging discussion over the listserve about the casting and training of actors of color, and how when we make work the choices we make about who’s on stage are crucial to either moving the cultural dialogue forward or backward. Ephraim Lopez, of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, and I sat down and said, “Can we present this somewhere as opposed to just talking about it?” So, with the graciousness of the Segal Center, the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts and NoPassport, a public event happened in June 2007 (a version of which will appear in the March American Theater). The Alliance is hosting a second Brownout panel in this NoPassport conference to keep having that conversation. This doesn’t mean that tomorrow all casting processes will change, but I think that if people speak up with passion, rigor and intelligence, there will hopefully be people listening on the other end.
I also feel like stirring up for stirring up’s sake is part of what NOPE is about. It’s still a moderated group. Currently it’s by invitation only because I feel like people don’t have as frank conversations with each other if they think the whole world is listening. But there is this feeling that it’s the 300 of us listening. It’s a place where people feel—for lack of a better word—safe. And people can say what they feel about key issues in the arts, in theater, in education, in translation, and so on.
In terms of moving forward, one goal would be that there’s a performance component at some point: works by NoPassport presented in an evening. Because making stuff, creating, was what NOPE was all about originally and to my mind still is. We create art! We create conferences! I’m hoping we’ll get back to making a piece together, though. 300 artists make one huge word-quilt with music!
Rail: Do you think you’ll ever return more closely to the “words and music” version of NoPassport?
Svich: Yeah, I’m hoping at some point it’ll come back. I think the balance of the more private hub of conversations on the listserves leading to public conversations—to civic dialogue—is really important to keep going. Because in its own grassroots, humble way, if someone listens in on a panel or takes part in a Q&A at a conference and that person feels empowered to buck the status quo in their theater-work or how they work in a classroom or laboratory or how they advocate for language that is inclusive and casting and training that is not broken down into white and non-white, then, yes, that’s the pie. And NoPassport has, if not eliminated, then at very least helped make the borders between and among us more porous.
For more information about this year’s NOPE conference, please visit:
Despite popular misconception, Eliza Bent is neither a vegetarian nor a Park Slope resident. She eats meat and lives in Soho and goes to school for playwriting at Brooklyn College. In her spare time, she's an editor at American Theatre magazine.