Friday, June 6, 2008

Interview with Christine Evans

Christine Evans, recent Ph.D. and now Harvard Professor, has returned to the Bay Area to teach for PF’s New Play Institute. Bay Area audiences will not soon forget her Crowded Fire premiere of Slow Falling Bird discovered during the 2003 BAPF, and her play Trojan Barbie will receive a world premiere at the American Repertory Theatre in 2009. Ms. Evan’s class will lead students through a powerful exercise using everyday objects, borrowing from the work of world famous polish director Tadeusz Kantor.



Ms. Evans spoke with PF about her experience with found objects and their influence on her work:

PF: The class you're teaching for the New Play Institute is about using found objects in creating plays. Can you talk a little about how found objects have influenced a play of yours?

CE: I really fell in love with the writing of Tadeusz Kantor on objects and making theater. He wanted to pit theatre against reality and was fascinated with how humble, everyday objects resisted the artificiality of the stage. A very large “found object”—a police van for collecting stray animals—literally drove into my play Pussy Boy. The van was called “The Princess Memorial Animal Van” (after a beloved cat) and the gap between its sentimental name and it’s awful purpose (to transport strays to euthanasia) opened into the dreamscape of my play. Other things—umbrellas, chance lines of dialogue, newspaper reports—land into my notebooks and then in my plays. Sometimes an event (a trapeze artist falls and breaks her spine; a woman climbs out of a window to get away from her children) inspires a play.

PF: After an MFA in playwriting, what motivated you to go for a Ph.D. as well?

CE: Temporary insanity. And more practically, the need for an extended student VISA and fellowship while I figured out my U.S. Residency.

PF: Although you're Australian, your work often strikes me as infused with a very American sense of theatricality. Do you see different trends in the new plays being written here versus there?

CE: There’s a fascinating new thread in Australia, loosely referred to as “Australian Gothic”—Stephen Carleton is an exponent—a kind of lush camp re-imagining of the bones and dirt harshness of Australia’s convict past. There also seems to be a strong renaissance in political writing in Australia, and also in highly physical, image-based performance (not necessarily scripted plays. Words are hard for Australians; they don’t trust them. There’s a fundamental working-class embarrassment and suspicion of expressivity.

Words come more easily in the U.S. Though they often seem cheaper. As for an “American Theatricality” in my own work—I studied with Nilo Cruz and Paula Vogel. Paula’s way of talking about space on stage, and Nilo’s sensual, dreamy landscapes made a profound impression on my sense of what one could do with a play. Also, coming here I was knocked out by the power and richness of the Latino/a drama, and I sometimes think my plays are the love-children of dry-as-dirt aussie humor and restraint, and the fever-dreams I find in plays by writers such as Nilo Cruz, Jose Rivera, Migdalia Cruz, and Cardidad Svich.

As for trends in American Writing—the plays being written are so rich and strange. There are brilliant writers—Stephanie Fleischmann, Marcus Gardley, Claire Chafee, to name but three in this year’s festival—whose plays re-order the world in a poetic and original way. By contrast, the plays actually being produced in the U.S. (at least in theatres where the director isn’t painting the floor at 2am after Xeroxing the programs) often seem “deep on the surface” to me—plays that expand from a neat synopsis like a dehydrated soup to which you just add water. (My rule of thumb is to beware of any play with “project” in the title).

PF: Your play Trojan Barbie (which was a finalist for last year's BAPF) is scheduled for a high profile premiere this year at American Repertory Theater in Boston. Can you talk a little about the genesis of that piece?

Trojan Barbie began life as a commission from the University of San Francisco’s Performing Arts and Social Justice Program, instigated by Roberto Gutierrez Varea. I was playwright-in-residence there for a semester and Roberto asked me to write an adaptation of ‘The Trojan Women’ for his students (mostly young women) and El Teatro Jornalero, a Latino/a day-laborer’s theatre company. It was a mad and beautiful project with a cast of thousands. The play was at that time called The Doll Hospital. It had a huge chorus and a wall of suitcases and at that point was about the three plays mud-wrestling with each other. I wanted to keep working on this play after our U.S.F. student production and wrestle it into shape some more, and it became much more streamlined. Cutting Ball invited it to “Risk Is This” and I rewrote a lot—also at Sychronicity Theater’s “She Writes” Festival. Then it won the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award and came to the attention of A.R.T. I’ll probably revise some more before it actually goes up. I’m hugely grateful to Roberto, U.S.F. and El Teatro Jornalero for giving me the time, space and collaborators to begin this work.

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