The Luso Bat Signal: An Interview with Elusive Portuguese Playwright Elaine Avila
In this reprint from Howlround, PTC Associate Elaine Avila talks about her path to playwriting, her Azorean-Portuguese roots and telling stories missing from the stage.
Playwright Elaine Avila’s grandfather, João Henrique Avila, was one of the first photographers in his village Ribeiras, Pico, in the Azores, Portugal. He came to America for an education. He realized his dream was impossible while he was washing dishes at Santa Clara University. He ended up being successful in the fishing industry in San Diego. In his thirties, he went back to the Azores and married Avila’s grandmother, Arlina.
Though João—who later changed his name to John to ease American pronunciation—was unable to get an education, he left the gauntlet at the door of Santa Clara where his son, daughter, and Elaine would all eventually earn diplomas.
While Elaine’s patrilineal heritage is distinctly Azorean-Portuguese, her mother was part of a California state bureaucratic experiment in social engineering. Given up for adoption at birth, Avila’s mother was placed with a family that was a “close genetic match” to her biological parents; then all information leading back to the birth parents was wiped out.
When Avila’s mentee and fellow playwright Kamarie Chapman took maternity leave from teaching at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA in September of 2015, Avila was already slated for a playwriting residency there during winter 2016. She stepped in to teach Chapman’s playwriting classes in the fall, which landed her in an adjunct office across the hall from me. The Portuguese heterographic shibboleth “-lho” on my nameplate caught her eye. My usually misidentified ethnic origin was easily kenned by this descendentes notáveis—“Notable Descendant”—an honor bestowed by the Government of the Azores, Portugal for theatre work.
Suzan-Lori Parks was my playwriting mentor in graduate school at CalArts. She refers to the “Great Hole of History” as a theme park in her work The America Play. It was this “Great Hole of History”—all the stories missing from our stages—that finally kicked me into gear.
Chris Casquilho: I know people who got into theatre because it was all they ever wanted to do; I’m in the group that wasn’t paying close attention, and ended up in theatre without deciding to. Which camp are you?
Elaine Avila: When I was eight years old, I had a friend say, “I’m in this play—it’s cool! Come with me.” I’m not sure if I was paying close attention, but it quickly became “all I ever wanted to do.” Jim Houghton, founding Artistic Director of the Signature Theatre in New York, and Director of the Drama Division at Julliard, gave me my first paid acting job at a reader’s theatre at San Jose Rep I when I was seventeen. At the Rep, their founding Executive Director Jim Reber taught me about management and producing. He said, “Why don’t you write plays? There aren’t a lot of great roles for women.” But I was too shy to take up his charge at first.
By the time I got to college, I was considering taking a playwriting class and they said, “You’ve got to write a play.” I thought: “I can’t write a whole play,” so I didn’t take the class. Truthfully, I loved all the jobs in theatre, especially acting and directing. It took me a little while to get up the nerve to be a playwright.
Chris: When did you realize that you might have a calling as a playwright?
Elaine: Suzan-Lori Parks was my playwriting mentor in graduate school at CalArts. She refers to the “Great Hole of History” as a theme park in her work The America Play. It was this “Great Hole of History”—all the stories missing from our stages—that finally kicked me into gear.
I was also in an undergraduate theatre history class at Santa Clara University. We were studying commedia dell’ arte. There was a footnote about a troupe in the sixteenth-century run by a woman that was captured by terrorists, which led to the overthrow of the French government. I was shocked that a woman was leading a troupe, and that something so dramatic happened. It became my first play. There are too many great stories missing.
Chris: Why not write fiction, or non-fiction? You have to get this horde of resources together to pull off a play and convince everyone it’s worth doing.
Elaine: I do write in other forms, but playwriting has an incredible place in my heart. It’s mad to do it; it’s very public. It requires a team, a community. But that’s what I love. It’s the playwright’s job to inspire a world. What you write comes alive before your eyes. Theatre uses all of the skills you can bring to it. I love collaborating, seeing the visions of the director and all the designers. I love to go to the shop and watch the set and costumes take shape. I love seeing actors breathe life into their characters for the first time. I love watching how our visions weave back and forth together.
Beth Leonard, the Chair of Theatre and Dance at Western, was able to raise funds to bring in Kathleen Weiss to direct my play. Kate is one of Canada’s finest directors, and the Chair of the University of Alberta. Working with Kate is one of the greatest treasures of my life—our collaboration began with my first play. We’ve been in “art love” ever since. She allows me to be bold, wild, to take risks, and to be extremely vulnerable.
John Han, Christina Patterson, and Judd Palmer in Lieutenant Nun by Elaine Avila; directed by Kathleen Greenfield and Mercedes Bátiz-Benét. Puente Theatre and Snafu Dance Theatre presented by Theatre SKAM. Photo by Jam Hamidi.
I think of finding homes for my plays. These homes almost always far exceed my expectations and marketing plans.
Chris: I’ve been marketing theatre for years, so I have to ask—when you write, are you thinking about how to get your work to market?
Elaine: I think of finding homes for my plays. These homes almost always far exceed my expectations and marketing plans. This process teaches me to be proactive yet very open. For example, my play, Jane Austen Action Figure premiered in Panama City in Spanish, even though it was first written in English. Then, Lieutenant Nun, my play based on the true story of a woman conquistador, began on the ocean; the cast entered singing on rowboats. That play found a terrific home in Victoria’s Theatre SKAM and was remounted for the twentieth year anniversary season in concert with SNAFU Dance Theatre and PUENTE Theatre last summer, winning various Audience Favorite/Best Drama awards.
Then, The Ballad of Ginger Goodwin, which is premiering at Western Washington University, is about a Canadian labor martyr, a coal miner, and a smelter worker. I decided to do this play when I was riding the bus to campus last quarter. WWU staff and faculty riding the bus mentioned that all of Bellingham is on a coal mine. Other people on the bus started talking about their fathers and grandfathers being labor leaders, and the depth of labor history in the Pacific Northwest. I realized that WWU is the ideal home for this play. I’m finding that our students relate very strongly to it.
Homes for my plays are now all over the world: Panama, New York City, Lisbon, the Azores, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, London, Toronto, Edmonton, Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria. My theatre family includes many communities around the world too: Theatre Without Borders, NoPassport Theatre Alliance, the Latino/a Theatre Commons and Café Onda, CalArts, HowlRound, and the Playwrights Theatre Centre (PTC) of Vancouver. At the PTC, I am in a three-year residency program called the Associates and it’s been a treat to work with Kathleen Flaherty, a gifted dramaturg.
Chris: Tell me about some of the people in your theatre family.
Elaine: I got my MFA at CalArts in the narrow window of time when playwrights Suzan-Lori Parks and Erik Ehn ran the program. Alice Tuan and Brian Freeman came in to teach, while Luis Alfaro and Bridget Carpenter came in to talk with us. Mentorship between writers and theatre artists is a tremendous gift—it’s like a river where you pass along the gifts you are given. For example, Suzan-Lori Parks studied with the great James Baldwin. Erik Ehn cites Mac Wellman as his “godfather.” It’s a tremendous honor to be on that river of writers. I pass what I’ve been given to my students at WWU and at Pomona College, and at the DISQUIET Literary Program in Lisbon.
The longer you work in theatre, the more it moves from a river or mentor/student relationship into a community that supports and sparks each other. During my residency at Pomona College last year, Art Horowitz, my theatre history teacher at CalArts, inspired me. He was my mentor, and then asked me to be his co-teacher, and recommended me for a residency and commission supported by Chair James Taylor. I got to work with director Janet Hayatshahi, who is so visionary and capable, and her stellar design team—Christopher Scott Murillo, Sherrice Mojgani, Professor Sherry Linnell, and Nicholas Drashner. My colleague Giovanni Ortega is an ongoing inspiration as a director and playwright.
At Pomona, there were two other writers in residence: Claudia Rankine, the brilliant author of Citizen: An American Lyric (it won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry last year, and many deserved prizes); and Jonathan Lethem, MacArthur Genius Grant/National Book Award Recipient. Lethem co-teaches a class at Pomona, based on his essay/terrific collection called The Ecstasy of Influence.
I love that influence is an ecstatic experience. It’s how I feel about the DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon, where I won the first Portuguese playwriting contest (2014), and was asked to join their faculty last summer. I created a class for them called “Lisbon is Our Muse.” Participants went into the streets of Lisbon to create theatre inspired by a literary café, a miradouro (over look), and the historic Convento do Carmo. We workshopped, performed, and did multimedia recordings of the pieces. Such a terrific group—they were faculty members and award-winning writers.
Chris: The play you’re writingfor the WWU residency is about the Canadian miner Ginger Goodwin. When did you first learn about Goodwin?
Elaine: From land, story, ancestors, place…My husband was working at a jazz camp on Vancouver Island with some of the best jazz educators in Canada. I stumbled into a museum in Cumberland near the jazz camp, and came across Ginger Goodwin’s story. There are pockets of Canadian history that they keep out of books. Ginger led a strike that shut down a smelter that provided the zinc for bullets used in WWI. Ginger was subsequently assassinated, which led to Vancouver’s First General Strike, and to Canada’s first general strike.
Even now, people come from all over the world to lie wreathes on his grave, but most Canadians have never heard of him. In 1918 after Ginger Goodwin was shot, the Vancouver Sun wrote: “let his friends remember him if they may; but let no honest person speak his name henceforth.” Only a few years ago, a conservative government took down all the street signs honoring Ginger Goodwin. There is an ongoing fight to suppress this story. I feel very honored to be able to tell it in such an incredible context. Bellingham has the same history—filled with immigrants’ dreams, labor battles, and wilderness.
Chris: What makes a play a Portuguese play?
Elaine: I would define that very openly—it could be a play by a Portuguese writer or about any aspect of the Portuguese experience. We have a diaspora all over the world—China, India, France, the US, Canada, and Brazil. In North America, our stories are missing from our stages and from our literature. It’s only now that we have overcome the barriers of class, prejudice, and education to change that. There is a shameful history of racism against the Portuguese in literature written in Canada and the US. Read Oona Patrick’s article in The Puritan and George Monteiro’s “From Portingale to Portugee” in the Portuguese American Journal for more information.
Overcoming this shame, this secrecy, this silence, is a joy. It’s particularly great to work with Portuguese actors who have never played a Portuguese character before. One of my Portuguese actor friends said, “Perhaps we assimilate too well.” We are only beginning to tell our stories, to find each other, to send out what my friend and colleague Oona Patrick calls the “Luso Bat Signal.” There is a class at DISQUIET called “Writing the Luso Experience,” led by one of the first Portuguese novelists in North America, Katherine Vaz. She is an incredible teacher, and has invited me into the circle of those writers. Reading her novels and stories always lights the way, captures a beauty that might have been lost forever. Millicent Accardi has an interview with her in the Portuguese American Journal.
I’m currently in a three-year residency to write Portuguese plays as an Associate at the Playwright’s Theatre Centre in Vancouver. I’ve written Kitimat, recipient of the Mellon Environmental Arts Commission, which was produced in LA in 2015; then, showcased in Vancouver and Lisbon. Café a Brasileira won the DIQUIET Short Play Award, and was performed in Lisbon by the John Frey Actor’s Studio in 2014. Then, Portuguese Tomato was a play I wrote for Climate Change Theatre Action, which I founded with playwrights Caridad Svich and Chantal Bilodeau in conjunction with Theatre Without Borders, No Passport Theatre Alliance, and the Arctic Circle to raise awareness around the Paris Climate Change Talks. Our action involved fifty playwrights and over 100 venues worldwide. Lost in Fado was the recipient of the British Columbia Arts Council Grant Assistance for Creative Writers. These plays are about all sorts of topics—from the Portuguese form of the blues, to struggles in contemporary Portugal, and to the dreams of immigrants. There are characters connecting between the “old world” and the “new.”