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Playwright Virginia Grise

Q&A: Virginia Grise

An interview with the first playwright-in-residence at Cara Mía Theatre. Free Zoom performances of her play a farm for meme will be presented Aug. 1-2.



published Friday, July 31, 2020

Photo: Netza Moreno
Playwright Virginia Grise

 

Dallas — The work of Texas native playwright Virginia Grise is not new to Cara Mía Theatre Company, which has performed three of her plays. Her early work The Panza Monologues (co-written with Irma Mayorga) was performed by Grise and directed by Mayorga for Cara Mía in 2005 at the Latino Cultural Center and Fort Worth’s Rose Marine Theater; and then CMTC programmed her play blu in 2015 and her solo show Your Healing is Killing Me in 2019.

So when Cara Mía’s team decided to apply for a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Howlround Theatre Commons’ National Playwright Residency Program, it made sense to apply with Grise. She is now the theater’s first playwright-in-residence, with a grant paying her a salary and benefits for a three-year term in Dallas.

The first fruit of that program is her play a farm for meme, which will be given four Zoom performances (two in English, two in Spanish) this weekend in a collaboration between Cara Mía and allgo, a Texas queer POC organization, and a todo dar productions, with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s National Playwright Residency Program administered in partnership with HowlRound Theatre Commons, the  Alice Kleberg Reynolds Foundation, and the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin Economic Development Department. Performances are approximately 20 minutes with ASL Interpretation and there will be two performances in Spanish and two performances in English. The first performance each day will be followed by a brief talkback moderated by artist Sharon Bridgforth.

The play is about a 14-acre farm in the middle of South Central Los Angeles, built in a vacant lot after the 1992 LA rebellion.

David Lozano, Cara Mía artistic director, says Your Healing is Killing Me, which was produced in CMT’s Latinidades festival of solo work and featured actress Florinda Bryant, is what spurred him to pursue this grant.

“It was that play that made me realize what a special artist [Grise] is, and it was what we were all about it. The performance of it is what took my fascination with it to another level. She was community building in the performance of the piece. What’s so beautiful is that it’s not agitprop or didactic form or organizing. It really sneaks up on you.

A farm for meme is free, and is performed at 6 and 6:45 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 1; and 2 and 2:45 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 2 via Zoom. More info is below this interview with Grise.

TheaterJones has interviewed Grise several times, and we again engaged her about this opportunity.

 

TheaterJones: Congratulations on this grant. Will you relocate to Dallas for these three years?

Virginia Grise: Because this residency coincides with a global pandemic, it is still uncertain. I live in Austin currently and beginning this month will be doing monthly visits to Dallas to meet with folks (safely) to begin a project that will be created in and with the local Dallas community.

 

When did you apply for the grant?

We applied in August while we working on Your Healing is Killing Me, a process I think we both enjoyed very much and we wanted the opportunity to deepen our relationship, an opportunity that this residency provides. 

 

What were your initial pitches for the grant committee, and what, if anything, has changed in the wake of the pandemic, in terms of how you would have to work as we're still shut down?

Everything has changed in the wake of the pandemic. I think pre-pandemic I was thinking about how to create a diverse body of work during the three years that would position me to work in a number of different ways and in a number of different venues — anything from site-specific work to Greek adaptations.

I think I am much more focused now in what I truly need to continue to develop my voice and craft as an artist which has never been divorced from my political commitments and understanding of the world. The residency is a playwrighting residency so I'm not working less right now; in fact, I am working more. And now I am much clearer that my work at Cara Mía really is going to be about creating spaces for dreaming using art-based methods of generating work collaboratively. The physical space of the theatre may be shut down but not creativity, so now I have begun thinking much more expansively and hopefully deeper about what I can make as a writer who writes for performance. In the past month alone, I have generated text for a coloring and activity book, a virtual theater piece, a number of essays, and a radio play. And because I work in an art form that is about the body, I have also started taking somatics, voice and dance classes.

 

Everyone in the arts world — and this includes us at TheaterJones — is having to reset, so to speak; to rethink what we do and how we do it. Although bottom lines have been affected, I do like that artists are thinking of out-of-the-the box ways to collaborate and present. Some of the digital productions are getting more adventurous, for instance, than simply a single-camera filmed staged production. How are you thinking about collaboration in the future?

I have always been an out-of-the-box artist. In fact, just last year I started a production company, a todo dar, whose mission is to create theatre outside the black box. I did so because theatres often had a hard time understanding how to produce and support the development of work that wasn't a play and I think of that theatre as more than just plays. Now so many theatres are scrambling to figure out how to produce work that is not a proscenium play or in the black box — that has never been an issue for me.

And I think the way that I am thinking about collaboration in the future is not that much different than how I was thinking about it pre-pandemic. I had started to create work that had very long processes of development. My last play, an adaptation of the novel Their Dogs Came with Them by Helena Maria Viramontes, had four-year developmental process from the original commission by the National New Play Network and the premiere of the play. We premiered the play in a women's prison outside of Phoenix, Arizona, and six months later we staged it under a freeway in Tucson.

I was set to open perhaps my most ambitious project to date, rasgos asiaticos, in Los Angeles right before shelter-in-place orders were implemented nationally. We were a week to opening. That project was conceived as a performance installation with seven large-scale cargo boxes that were going to ship all over the United States. As opposed to touring the show we were going to create a unique and different experience at each location. That project also had a four-year developmental process. So already I was starting to make work differently — slower, allowing ideas to shift and change but also to root in profound ways. I want to commit to collaborators and collaboration over long periods of time. I am not interested in a four-week rehearsal model that we have grown accustomed to in this country. Instead I am interested in going on a journey with other artists.   

 

Recently the We See You White American Theatre organizers released a letter and a list of demands in regard to representation in all facets of theater in our country. Groups like Cara Mía have been doing this work already, of course. The list of demands is powerful and necessary, and theaters across the country have released Black Lives Matter statements and others have gone further with outlining coming changes. This really shouldn't be something that arts groups are JUST NOW talking about, but it’s finally happening. What are your wishes for theaters that are not culturally specific, in terms of representation for BIPOC artists, admin, staff and boards of directors?

I have never been interested in a conversation about inclusion and diversity in what is being called White American Theatre. It has never been the theatre I have made. For over 15 years, I have committed to making theatre as an artist with and for communities of color. All of my work has been made predominately with women, queers, black and brown folks. My first show was first staged at allgo, a statewide queer people of color organization, at the invitation of Sharon Bridgforth. My teachers at the beginning of my career were predominately queer black women. In fact, I will often joke that I didn't know anybody else made theatre until I went to graduate school.

I do not have a problem drawing in diverse audiences when I produce my own work. I remember looking at the audience when we premiered blu in Los Angeles (a show that was made with a black and brown team from designers to the director to the stage management) and the theatre was an intergenerational audience of college professors, teenagers, cholos, OG vatos, dykes — all sitting together watching the same play because I write about and I am a part of all those intersecting communities in some way. So yes, White American Theatre, like the United States of America, has a race problem — that is obvious. It also has a gender problem, a class problem, so many problems. But my problem with the current conversation of representation is that we are still centering the White American Theatre. That is not the center of my theatre making; I have never aspired to be a part of White American Theater so while I am glad that there is a push to force White American Theatre to change, let me just say as the daughter of a Chinese-Mexican immigrant, I do not think it is my job to clean it up.

And the truth of the matter is if White American Theater was left to its own devices, I think it would die, because especially at this moment in time it is irrelevant. We need to stop throwing money at institutions to fix their own houses of problems they created (I think this was one of the demands though phrased differently issued by the We See You folks), but I would go a step further and say in fact what we need to do is just defund those institutions until they actually start addressing those problems because as you say "this really shouldn't be something that arts groups are JUST NOW talking about."

 

Tell me about a farm for meme? How did the story originally come to you, and how did it develop into the piece that we'll see in the Zoom performance? Are there plans for it once we perform live again, for live audiences?

After Covid hit, we revisited the list of things I said I was going to do over the three years and a farm for meme was one of the performance pieces I wanted to make during that time. I had scheduled it as one of the last things I would do but I decided to focus on it first when Cara Mia's School of YES! was at risk of being cancelled due to defunding after the coronavirus. A lot of arts programs got slashed or cancelled and I kept thinking what happens to these kids that are forced to stay home? So, I called David (or sent him one of my infamous 2 a.m. texts) and said at the very least we should create something that the youth could do on their own at home. Thankfully Cara Mía took action and raised money for the School of Yes! and it has been a great success. I connected Cara Mía to Alfonso Chavez from Flowers and Bullets in Tucson to teach a three-part session for School of Yes! about food justice and traditional crop production as part of their new Agriculture and Nutrition course and I decided to keep working on a farm for meme but at a slower pace.

a farm for meme is about the South Central L.A. Farm, built after the 1992 LA Rebellion, when the police officers accused of brutally beating up Rodney King were found not guilty on all charges despite being caught on video tape. When I started working on a farm for meme, I didn't know we would be in the middle of another rebellion in this country, nationwide protests after the murders of Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna

Taylor, and George Floyd. I chose to work on a farm for meme because it really asks the question, “what seeds will we plant today for a better tomorrow?” It's a story that can be told to children and adults and one that I can tell in a number of different ways. I thought it was an important story to tell during the pandemic because it is also a story about food sovereignty, self-determination, and community. Again, I did not know that this moment would also be coupled with a national movement to defund the police —but in many ways a farm for meme also asks the question — what do we need to maintain and sustain healthy communities?

When a friend of mine, Elena Aaroz, a stage director of theater and opera, started doing these really lovely theatrical experiments on Facebook I sent her the script, through Princeton's Innovations in Socially Distant Performance (a project she helms which studies the aesthetics, philosophies, tools, and artists who are transforming the fields of virtual live performance and socially distant productions), she began working with students to explore how we might stage a farm for meme virtually. Together with Cara Mía and allgo, we will present that work in the next month. I am hoping that we can also revisit it at the end of my residency to see how different the process of making theatre is in three years but a farm for meme really is the seed for my entire residency — I  am using the initial questions of the piece to guide, shape and grow the rest of residency. 

 

In your residency you will gather a cohort of women of color in Dallas to develop new work. What conversations have you already had in regard to this, and where do you hope it goes?

I have started the first phase of that project through a process of conocimineto, getting to know the city, the people that live there and creating conversations for the city and the people that live there to know me and my work. a farm for meme is a part of that process. In addition to the Zoom performance, we are making a farm for meme into a coloring and activity book that will be distributed in August with packets of seeds so that people can plant vegetables and greens at home. Starting this month (for at least six months),  I am commissioning women of color to give me socially distant walking and car tours of their neighborhood in Dallas and starting a series of one-on-one conversations with people about the economic, social, political, and cultural conditions that shape their neighborhood, their city, their lives. I have a very ambitious vision of how I would like for this project to unfold including artistic provocations, questions, facilitated conversations, curated gatherings, and skill building workshops that honor the lived realities, daily practices, rooted wisdoms, and embodied knowledge of the local community. As theatre artists, we imagine, create and build whole worlds. I want to use my tools as an artist to do exactly that.

 

One of my favorite performances of 2019 was Your Healing Is Killing Me at CMT. Will it be performed again? Any changes since that performance?

Cara Mía is committed to producing the touring version of the show and we certainly hope to do it again as soon as we are able to in Dallas. Let's just say, Dear cabronavirus: I have a list of demands! Seriously though, I love the collaboration between Kendra Ware, Florinda Bryant, and Tara Houston and they will work what they learned in the workshop coupled with whatever challenges we will face with the pandemic to build on what we made together last year. Kendra Ware and I have also been working on a self-defense virtual toolbox and writing class as a companion piece to the show.

 

 

a farm for meme

 

PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE & TICKET INFORMATION

Saturday, August 1

Performance 1 in English - 6PM CST *

Performance 2 in Spanish - 6:45PM CST

 

Saturday, August 2

Performance 3 in Spanish - 2PM CST *

Performance 4 in English – 2:45PM CST

 

* This performance will be followed by a brief talkback, moderated by Sharon Bridgforth. 

 

RSVP for English Performances Here:

a-farm-for-meme.ticketleap.com/a-farm-for-meme/

 

RSVP for Spanish Performances Here:

a-farm-for-meme.ticketleap.com/a-farm-for-meme-spanish/ Thanks For Reading




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Q&A: Virginia Grise
An interview with the first playwright-in-residence at Cara Mía Theatre. Free Zoom performances of her play a farm for meme will be presented Aug. 1-2.
by Mark Lowry

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