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Interview: Caridad Svich

Caridad Svich is a true Renaissance woman — a playwright, songwriter, translator and editor.  She has adapted work by Isabel Allende, Ugljesa Sajtinac, Euripides, and Sophocles.  Her latest adaptation is In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Alvarez’s beloved book about the murder of three of the Mirabal sisters in the Dominican Republic 50 years ago. The production continues its run at Repetorio Espagnol in New York City through April 8th.

Here is the first part of the interview with Caridad Svich (pictured left, photo credit: AnneMarie Poyo Furlong ).  The second part which delves into her future work and hopes for women in American theater will be published on Thursday.

1) You’ve adapted work by Isabel Allende and Ugljesa Sajtinac. You also write new work. How do you approach each – adaptations and new work?

I’m a playwright and a translator. Adaptation is part of both sides of these writing selves. As a playwright, I’ve written my own radical riffs on plays originally written by Euripides (Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart (a rave fable) and Wreckage), Sophocles (Antigone Project, Lucinda Caval), Shakespeare (12 Ophelias and Perdita Gracia) and Wedekind (Lulu Ascending). I’ve also written plays based on major novels by Isabel Allende and Julia Alvarez. As a translator, I’ve translated nearly all of Federico Garcia Lorca’s dramatic texts and thirteen of his poems. I’ve also translated plays by Julio Cortazar, Antonio Buero Vallejo, Calderon de la Barca, Lope de Vega and contemporary plays from Mexico, Cuba and Catalonia. In the case of Ugljesa Sajtinac’s play Huddersfield, I created an American English adaptation of the play based on a literal translation from the original Serbian language.

Along the way betwixt and between the complicated terrain of free response, adaptation and translation, I’ve also written plays, ostensibly based on nothing, though of course I always think that as writers we are always drawing on not only our own lives and memories but those of friends, lovers, and colleagues who inspire us. I think that the act of writing a play in and of itself is always an act of translation/adaptation. You take notes and from those notes you translate the experience of them into characters, landscape, poetry, song, movement, and so on. However, the process of working, say, from a novel and trying to figure out how to effectively translate it to the stage is a very specific one. The first novel I evoked for the stage was Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Needless to say, it was an ambitious first time project! The novel is not only epic and notably digressive and unwieldy, but also a contemporary classic and one of the most beloved novels written in Latin America in the last thirty years. Allende’s voice as a writer in Spanish is mischievous, sensual, magical, and shape shifting in its affect. The novel spans more than fifty years of history (1920s to 1970s) and has a vast array of characters, subplots, and complex family trees to unravel. But, despite the daunting nature of the task, I was emboldened by Allende’s prose to try to figure out my own voice in response to hers and to set about the construction of a play that would capture the novel’s multivalent tone and expansive spirit.

The writing process for the play took about a year, which is quite fast considering that the novel is epic in scope and scale. Repertorio Espanol commissioned me to write the play and promised a Spanish language premiere in February 2009 under the direction of Jose Zayas. I received the commission in the late spring of 2008 and set to work on it right away. The first half of the process was spent reading and rereading the novel in the original Spanish. I took many notes and drafted several story charts diagramming the many plots and narrative threads alive in the novel, esp the ones that were central to the overall narrative drive of the work. Then, I started to free write a bit in an effort to begin the process of locating my own voice and response to the novel’s themes and storylines. After a few months, I started writing the play with a clear conceptual idea that it would involve puppetry, projection and video design, poetry and music. I wrote the lyrics and melodies for the songs in the play, and structured the cantilevered design of the fluid narrative tracks the play weaves throughout the course of two and a half hours of performance time.

My focus was on finding voices for the characters and situating the layers of storytelling in a present that “ghosted” the past. I chose not to use Allende’s actual text in the play, but rather write my own. This artistic choice was crucial. Many adaptations of novels to the stage (and to film, for that matter) “lift” text from the source novel and put it in characters’ mouths or, as often occurs in film, in voiceover monologues. Although that process of adaptation can be effective, I felt that I couldn’t work with that kind of artistic parameter on The House of the Spirits. So, I decided to find my own way through, and thus, in effect, re-voice Allende’s characters. The writing process was exhilarating, and I did find myself paying light homage in terms of structure and/or tonalities explored along the way to many dramatists I have long admired: Chekhov, Garcia Lorca, Shakespeare, and Tennessee Williams.

The House of the Spirits is my valentine to theatre and to the act of creation itself, along with the fact of the play’s strong political focus and rage.

When I worked on Sajtinac’s Huddersfield, the process, of course, was very different. Sajtinac wrote the play in Serbian but its first production was in the UK in a British translation. When New Dramatists received a grant from The Trust for Mutual Understanding to create new US adaptations of plays from Eastern Europe, Huddersfield came my way and delightedly so. Sajtinac’s play is a roar of a play. Young, volatile, passionate, intelligent, heartbreakingly and scathingly funny. It looks at the generation caught between the fall of Tito and the aftermath of the Balkan Wars, and their restless pursuit toward integration. It’s a play populated with young men struggling to maintain their bonds of friendship while they no longer feel a connection to the country in which they were born and raised.

The play in its tonal aspect recalls David Rabe’s Hurlyburly crossed with Adam Rapp’s Finer Nobler Gases. It’s raucous and very alpha male in tis energy, and I loved jumping into its beautifully wrought, poetic world. Sajtinac was part of the process at New Dramatists as I worked on the adaptation with director Michael Sexton. Sajtinac read the entire play to me in Serbian so I could hear and feel the rhythms of the play and we discussed every line and its intention. My goal with the project was to be faithful to Sajtinac’s characters and theatrical world and to make the play work for a US audience. In a way, the characters in Huddersfield are not unlike many disaffected working class men in US towns where factory jobs have disappeared, and values of life and status have shifted. The sadness of the lives that Sajtinac depicts and the strange, thorny hope on which the play resolves itself is very moving. My adaptation premiered at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago as a TUTA Theatre production. It was a glorious, sensitive and intelligent realization of the play.

When I approach new work, what changes? Well, the impulse is definitely more direct. Usually a specific sonic/musical and visual landscape presents itself to me in my dream life and characters begin to inhabit and voice that landscape, and pretty soon I’m taking notes and scribbling little scenes until a lay emerges full blown. But I have to say that, for example, when I wrote 12 Ophelias, which received its professional premiere courtesy of Woodshed Collective in a site responsive production at McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn, after years of readings and workshops, the impetus to write was also very direct. I was working on a collaborative project at the time that incorporated and examined Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and naturally Ophelia as a character was very much in the air for me. I remember that I started writing the lyrics and melodies for 12 Ophelias (there is a score that I wrote which was used in previous readings and workshops although the Woodshed Collective production commissioned The Jones Street Boys to set my lyrics to music) as a way of exploring bluegrass melodies and harmonies and Ophelia started speaking to me right away.

2) How did you decide to adapt Julia Alvarez’s IN THE TIME OF THE BUTTERFLIES for the stage?

The decision grew out of the work on The House of the Spirits with my director Jose Zayas. We had such a terrific time on House and the critical and audience reception to our work was so positive, we sat down and thought what would be or could be the natural follow-up, and second installment in a proposed trilogy of the Americas, to House. In the Time of the Butterflies entered our discussion right away. The novel focuses on similar themes as does House of the Spirits: resistance to dictatorship, women in positions of political resistance, women taking charge of their stories and embedding their stories in their country’s narrative, etc. However, Butterflies of course is a true story, and Alvarez’s novel is quite distinct from Allende’s. Alvarez’s work is very intimate, quiet, tender, and although it spans thirty years and more, is less obviously epic and in the grand narrative tradition. It’s a very unusual novel written in diary entries, prose, occasional drawings, and multiple shifts in points of view. It also has a framing device: the present time narrative of a female reporter interviewing the surviving Mirabal sister Dede. I was intrigued by the novel’s challenges, and also delighted that it could afford a chance to craft a very different kind of play than The House of the Spirits.

If House is epic and violent and go for broke and two and a half hours, then Butterflies is gentle and impressionistic and an intermissionless 100 minutes. They’re very different theatrical experiences. I knew from the start of the commission process with Butterflies (spring 2010) that this was to be the case. I also knew that the play (and with both House and Butterflies the writing process is doubly complicated because I write not only the Spanish language version but also the English language version) demanded I immerse myself in the rhythms and sounds of Dominican Spanish: a whole other sonority! (I am grateful to Marco Antonio Rodriguez and Yolanny Rodriguez and the nearly all Dominican cast of Butterflies (pictured above, photo credit: Michael Palma) for guidance with the rhythms and idiomatic phrases).

The story of the Mirabal sisters moreover is so specific, so remarkable and so tragic (due to the brutal nature of their murder) that the opportunity to celebrate their lives, their humanity, their courage, resilience, sisterhood and tremendous life force was something I carried with me daily as I wrote the play. Again, as with House, I made the choice to not lift text from the novel, but find my own way through. Unlike House where Isabel Allende gave her blessing but was not very involved in the process of the scriptmaking Julia Alvarez was very hands on in the early stages of the writing. She read early drafts and was very gracious in offering notes and suggestions and pointing me to research. Her input was invaluable, and it was such an honor to have her faith and blessing on re-realizing and re-imagining her work of historical fiction as a play.

3) Why is the Mirabals sisters’ story still so important 50 years later?

The political events in Cairo shadowed us during the rehearsal process, so working on the Mirabal sisters story never felt as if we were working on a period piece, even though it is historically speaking. Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa Mirabal and the entire DR suffered under Trujillo’s dictatorship for 30 years. Their political awakening as activists and leaders of an opposition movement is inspirational, esp. if you consider the fact that they were going against the tide of what was expected of a woman’s life in the DR in the 1940s-50s! It is important to celebrate and honor and be reminded of their awakening as activists and of their courage as agents of change against absolute tyranny. Their horrific murder at the hands of a squad sent by Trujillo is why we mark the International Day of Violence Against Women.

But for me, the tragedy of their death isn’t the Why of retelling this story, although the brutality of fact cannot be ignored, but rather I wanted to focus on who they were, what kind of world they were living in, what lessons they handed down to their daughters and sons, and how the surviving sister Dede has had the unbelievable courage to continue to honor and tell their story for the last fifty years. In a culture where velocity dictates progress, and enforced forgetting is perhaps encouraged, re-membering is important.

En el tiempo de las Mariposas (In the Time of the Butterflies) is performed in Spanish with English translation available.  The production continues through May 22, 2011 at Repertorio Espanol.

Check back on Thursday for the second part of the interview with Caridad Svich.

4 comments on “Interview: Caridad Svich

  1. Pingback: Interview: Caridad Svich Part II « Works by Women

  2. Jose Antonio Cruz
    March 17, 2011

    What a lovely interview! We love Caridad.

  3. Pingback: ‘The Way of the Water’ Finds Its Way in April « Works by Women

  4. Pingback: Call for Gun Control Plays « Works by Women

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