Theater’s Second Sex: Caridad Svich on playwriting as a woman, as an act of political resistance, and for the first Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival

“For me, writing for the theater is an act of political resistance. You are putting something on the page and the stage that wasn’t there before. It doesn’t mean I face the page and say, “Hi, I am a woman writing”. I don’t do that, but you have to write from who you are.”
—Caridad Svich, author of THE HOUR OF ALL THINGS

Philly, WTF? Ask the women behind the first Philadelphia Women's Theatre Festival. Photo by Kim Carson,

Philly, WTF? Ask the women behind the first Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival. Photo by Kim Carson,

In honor of the maiden launch of the Philadelphia’s Women’s Theatre Festivalkicking off this Thursday, July 30 and running through Sunday, August 2, 2015, at the Asian Arts Initiative—here are a few facts that you may have read before, but you’ll never read too many times:

  • In 1908-09, only 12.8% of the productions on Broadway were by women playwrights. Some 100 years later, the percentage of major New York productions written by women was 12.6% (source: The Los Angeles New Play Initiative).
  • Over the past three seasons, about one-fifth (22%) of the productions staged nationwide were written by women (source: NYTimes.com).
  • Only five years ago, award-winning playwrights Marsha Norman, Julia Jordan, and Theresa Rebeck, founded the Lilly Awards intending to honor the work of women in American theater.  The awards are named for Lillian Hellman, a pioneering American playwright who famously said, “You need to write like the devil and act like one when necessary (source: Playbill.com).
  • In the past season, in Philadelphia, only 29% of 84 major productions were written by women (source AmericanTheatre.org)..

Founded by women, mostly recent graduates of Villanova University, the Philadelphia’s Women’s Theatre Festival is a theatrical collective devoted to creating opportunities for women in theater. This year features a fully fleshed out production of Philadelphia-based playwright Alisha Adams’s Other Tongues; a one-woman musical, I Can Dress Myself, written and performed by Christine Petrini; Wo(Men) in Shakespeare Project and the Diana Theatre’s all-female performance of Shakespeare’s sonnets and scenes; a solid hour of comedy-cabaret; and a staged reading of local playwright Lindsay Harris Friel’s Wide Open Spaces. Crowning the festival is a solo show, THE HOUR OF ALL THINGS, performed by New York based actress Blair Baker and written by Caridad Svich,

A bi-coastal American playwright of Cuban-Argentine-Spanish-Croatian descent, Caridad is a songwriter, critic, translator, and the recipient of the 2013 National Latino Playwriting Award, and the 2012 OBIE for Lifetime Achievement. Phindie caught up Caridad by telephone at her parents house in Los Angeles. Days before her 45-minute solo show hits the Asian Arts Initiative black box, Caridad tells us how she almost talked herself out of becoming a playwright. [Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine Street] July 30–August 2, 2015; phillywomenstheatrefest.org.

Blair Baker stars as Nic in THE HOUR OF ALL THINGS by Caridad Svich. Image courtesy of phillywomenstheatrefest.org:

Blair Baker stars as Nic in THE HOUR OF ALL THINGS by Caridad Svich. Image courtesy of phillywomenstheatrefest.org:

Phindie: You are a true nomad, living between cultures, you’ve lived in New Jersey, Florida, North Carolina, Utah, New York and California. Where you born?

Caridad Svich: In Philly—lived there in the early part of my life. I’ve visited, honestly.

Phindie: What neighborhood?

CS: Spring Garden Street. I’ve only been back to visit, but this will be my first show in Philly.

Phindie: Did you grow up around theater?

CS: Oh, Lord! No one in my family does theater. I was always grew up with music and a love of the arts in the house. My mother is a teacher. My dad used to be professional soccer player in Argentina and then when the family moved to the United States they had to re-make their lives and he went into textiles business, which is a real 180. But there were always records and CDs, and a love of books. Someone was always saying: “Let’s go to the ballet.” “Let’s go see a show.”

Caridad Svich.

Caridad Svich.

Phindie: What made you start writing plays?

CS: My mom was always reading to me as a kid, bedtime stories. So I would go to sleep with stories in my head. So I started reading books on my own. So I came at it through literature and a love of words, and wanting to write. Seeing words on the page, being fascinated by them and seeing how stories unfold made me want to write stories. I started writing stories when I was five years old. Just for my self. Just for fun. I loved the idea of being an author. It seemed very glamorous. Its says: By so and so. I thought Oh, that’s so awesome, I harbored that fantasy. All through grade school

In junior high in Florida, I started writing poetry and short stories and an English teacher, Ms. Richard, said to me, Have you thought about writing plays? And I was like: Nope. It wasn’t really on my radar. I mean I was one of those people who read Shakespeare at an early age. Just for fun. I was just enchanted by the language. In third grade I remember thinking Shakespeare is amazing, I have no idea what is happening, but I love the language, and I’ve seen musicals that came through town.

But the idea of a play, the idea that plays are things people did for real, for a living was alien to me. Especially as a woman, and I think that is because everything I was exposed to in writing was written by men. I was relatively unconscious of the fact in junior high, but It did not seem to be an available thing for a woman to do with her life. So I didn’t even think about it.

Phindie: What made you think about it?

CS: Well, Ms. Richard mentioned it, and I wanted to get an A in the class. Ha! And you know, I trusted her, I think this thing about how teachers can effect you, or anybody who has a sort of mentor role in your life can effect you. Where if they say something, you really trust this person, and you really respect them. That you kind of take that on. I wanted to impress Ms. Richard. If she says I should write a play. I am going to write a play.

Phindie: So you just started writing?

CS: First I decided to read a tons of plays.  I went to a local public library in Miami, Florida. An entire floor devoted to just theater. And I felt like I had to read everything on the shelves, and men wrote everything on those shelves: the Greeks, Tennessee Williams, Moliere, Racine, Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, and Sam Shepard. The only woman on the shelf was Lillian Hellman, and she even wrote like a man.

I didn’t think that there was a place for women in theater. All the plays I read with women in them were about women going crazy, or living horrible lives.  But I became really interested in the form. So I wrote a play.

Phindie: How was it?

CS: It was terrible. It was 40 pages, which was huge thing at the time. On a typewriter. In the moment of writing I was really excited. And at the time, I did havewhich sometimes you get as an ambitious young studentthe thought, This is the Great American Play. You know, all the crazy nonsense.

And so then I sat down, read it to myself, and said Oh, this is horrible.  Except that the characters were interesting, and I had a lot of fun playing all the characters, because that’s what playwrights do, you know, you end up playing all the parts when you are writing. And I kind of took that as Ooo, this isn’t really what I do, actually I should think about acting.

Phindie: Is that what you did?

CS: I was already studying music, voice, piano, and guitar at the time, so the idea of performing was in me. I started taking acting classes, and thought that was the goal, and I started to write plays on the side, for me and my friends to do. Casual, short little things. I didn’t take it seriously. I thought Oh, this is fun. I’ll just jot something down, and we’ll play for a little bit.

In high school, I wrote a play, nine minutes long, I cast it, directed, and designed it. And they gave the theater for theater nights, which was awesome and doesn’t happen very often, you know?  It was huge extravaganza. But I was still thinking about playwriting on the side.

Phindie: When did that change?

CS: I went to UNC-Charlotte, still thinking about acting, until the tail end of my freshman year, 1983. I saw an ad in Backstage Magazine for a contest. It said: “Send in a full-length play where half the roles are for women.” And it had a deadline. And I thought: I’ll write something!

It was very casual. In my spare time, as I was student teaching, I started writing a play, Waterfall, I had the deadline marked on my calendar, I wrote only one draft on my typewriter, made a copy of it, put it in an envelope and I sent it in. And I ended up winning this thing. I get a call in the middle of my sophomore year, saying that I have won this national contest. Over of 300 submissions my play has been selected.

Phindie: That must’ve felt great!

CS: I was like: Are you kidding, really? I was a teenager. A sophomore in college, you know. It was big deal. I was competing with adult playwrights. The Charlotte Observer interviewed me, so my name was in the paper, it was huge! Then I went to see it. They were staging it in Baltimore, and I went to see it, and I think that is when it clicked: Oh!

It wasn’t because I won the contest, it was because I realized that there was something so interesting about seeing how someone was interpreting my work. Which is really freeing. I can walk away and my spirit is still there. And I still get to play the parts anyway because that’s what writers do. And that was a turning point. Everything that followed, grad school at University of California at San Diego on, I was obsessed with playwriting.

Phindie: Given that THE HOUR OF ALL THINGS is a solo show, were you tempted to perform like Anna Deveare Smith, Lilly Tomlin, John Leguizamo, Eric Bogosian, or Spalding Gray, or do you find it liberating to have an actress like Blair Baker take on the role of Nic?

CS: Writing for yourself as a performer, you only know your own limitations. So it was great to break through those boundaries and write for someone else, a great actor. It makes you want to write something great.  It forces you to want to meet their talent.

Phindie: In a recent essay that you wrote on Howl Round, you said writing for the theater is an act of resistance.  Do you think that resistance comes from the fact that growing up there were no female playwrights, except for Lillian Hellman?

CS: Lillian Hellman was the only woman on the shelf in that library in Miami and I remember reading the Hellman’s plays and not liking them. I found them really stuffy, and I really reacted violently to them, Which is a shame because Lillian was actually a very talented writer, but she wrote for her time and I couldn’t connect with her.

If we think of writing as gender based, Hellman was using a kind of male form, structurally, whereas Virginia Woolf was exploring the page in a very different way. And I didn’t run into Caryl Churchill till I was in a production of Cloud 9 in undergrad. And I was like: Who is this? Why isn’t she on my syllabus?

For me, writing for the theater is an act of political resistance. You are putting something on the page and the stage that wasn’t there before. It doesn’t mean I face the page and say, Hi, I am a woman writing. I don’t do that, but you have to write from who you are, what your body is doing. Writing is connected to your body. It’s one of the lenses that effects what you put on the page.

Instead I ask: Why this play, why these words, why now?

PWTF-1

Caridad’s parting words stuck with me, so four days before the Philadelphia Women’s Theater Festival kicked off I sat down at sat down at West Philly’s Greenstreet Café and asked PWTF founder, artistic director Polly Edelstein: Why have Ms. Svich’s THE HOUR OF ALL THINGS as one of the opening rally cries of Women’s’ Theatre Festival?

Polly Edelstein: Nic, the woman at the center of Caridad’s play, is an ordinary woman in just like me. Standing in the check out line at a grocery store, Nic is simply questioning what we’ve come to accept as “normal” in a patriarchal western capitalistic democracy. That’s what we intend to do with this festival: raise questions.

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About the author

Jessica Foley

Jessica Foley is a Philadelphia actor and writer. For more reviews from her, check out Foleygotcomped.blogspot.