Name: Elaine Avila
Hometown: San Jose, CA, USA
Current Town: Vancouver, BC, Canada
Associate, (PTC) Playwrights Theatre Centre, Theatre Without Borders, NoPassport Theatre Alliance and Press
Recent Faculty Positions/Residencies: Pomona College, Western Washington University, and DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon
Q: How do you self-identify?
A: Azorean Portuguese
Dual Citizen: Canada & US
Q: Tell me about your last year as a playwright.
A: I’ve had three epic, large cast shows premiere:
1. Outside Los Angeles, California; Vancouver, BC and Lisbon, Portugal
Kitimat is one of the first Portuguese plays to be performed in California and British Columbia. It’s my play about a Portuguese family, a small community and Big Oil. The play is based on true incidents that happened recently in an industry town that found itself the center of international controversy when the town was asked to vote ‘no’ or ‘yes’ on an upcoming oil pipeline project.
My play focuses on two sisters: Marta Viveiros, a City Councilor, has worked for years to bring lucrative projects to Kitimat, to give her son work, and the town a future. Julia, her sister, begins connecting to the environment through hiking and whale watching, Julia starts to object to Marta’s plans. But if Julia opposes Marta publicly, she puts her husband’s, her nephew’s and her daughter’s jobs at risk. As Julia and Marta’s twenty-something children struggle to find a footing in the boomtown, Julia remembers the different lives her parents led at the same age, when they first came to Kitimat. All of the Viveiros sift through their family and their town’s past, to find a way to move into the future. As Election Day approaches, the residents of Kitimat struggle to decide between economic prosperity and protection of the natural world.
Kitimat was funded by a Mellon Foundation Elemental Arts Commission at Pomona College, and was directed by Janet Hayatshahi. Janet is of Iranian descent, so she intimately understands how a culture can quickly change because of oil. She is also very innovative– one of the original members of San Diego’s renowned Sledgehammer Ensemble. Kitimat has since had readings/stagings in Vancouver (Playwrights Theatre Centre; Equity in Theatre, Vancouver Fringe, Ruby Slippers; Arts Umbrella Senior Performance Troupe) and Lisbon (DISQUIET International Literary Program, where I was on faculty last summer.)
2. Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Lieutenant Nun is based on the true story of a woman conquistador. It won many awards in 2003 and 2004, and was one of Theatre SKAM’s biggest hits in their 20-year history. (Which amazed me, but it is useful statistic–a play by a woman writer about a transgendered character). One of SKAM’s founders, Ami Gladstone staged it, on the ocean, and throughout an amazing park.
For the ReMix, Theatre SKAM paired me with Mercedes Bátiz-Benét of Puente Theatre, and Kathleen Greenfield of SNAFU Dance Theatre. These incredible directors challenged me to include the Inca/ Indigenous perspective this time around (Mercedes is part Indio, from Mexico) and went back to my rehearsal draft to re-include some of my original scenes and ideas, now that transgender is more in the public consciousness, and gender/queer theatre has evolved. It was such a magical, immersive experience. Rehearsing with these two, I felt like the workshop room was an incredible extension of my writing desk. The actors were superb, brave, and brilliant. Great pictures here.
3. Bellingham, Washington and Cumberland, British Columbia
The Ballad of Ginger Goodwin was a commission from Western Washington University in Bellingham, and directed by my long time collaborator, Kathleen Weiss. Goodwin was a labor leader in 1918. He led a strike at a smelter that ended up shutting down the British War Machine, during World War I. The smelter made zinc for bullets. Goodwin was fighting for the eight-hour day, and safety standards…and he ended up being gunned down and killed. It’s about the dreams of immigrants, coal and smelter workers in Canada and Pacific North West. I loved getting to work with music of the period, and to commission a ballad from composer Earle Peach.
The play was recently performed on May 1st, at Miner’s Memorial Day in Cumberland. This is an annual historic event, which the people who inspired the play (Ginger Goodwin and his friends) would have attended in 1912-1914. Cumberland is where Ginger Goodwin was assassinated. I hear that there were many workers about to go on strike in attendance, who were moved by my play. Truly, there is no greater honor for a playwright than this. My father-in-law was one of the biggest union leaders in Canada. He worked for years for there to be a play about Ginger Goodwin, but it never came to pass. I wrote this play in honor of his memory.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: My newest play is Lost in Fado. It’s about Lina, who goes to Lisbon to learn to sing the Portuguese form of the blues–fado. Fado music sweeps in fascist propaganda, the resistance, drag Queens, hidden powers of women, heartbreak of losing sailors to the sea, and the longing of immigrants. My characters include the emblematic Queen of Fado: Amalia Rodrigues, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Haden–who had a deep relationship to the music, a very stern fado instructor, a mysterious Portuguese author, and Lina’s formidable Aunt. The play is in early stages, but it’s already had lots of interest, with a workshop at the PTC in Vancouver and a reading of the play at Saudades Theatre in New York City, with an incredibly talented group of actors.
Q: What have been the defining moments of your journey as a playwright?
- Music I married a jazz/blues/salsa musician. His commitment to live art, and the gift of being surrounded by music is utterly defining.
- Invitations. The majority of defining moments in my life have to do with invitations. This means I deeply believe in doing the same for other artists. (Here is an article I wrote about this: How can each of us invite each other into what theatre can be?
- Invitations 2. Here are my defining invitations: Kathleen Weiss producing my first play at the Women in View Festival; Theatre Simple producing my second play in Seattle; Jim Reber at San Jose Repertory Company mentoring me as an Assistant to the Artistic Director when I was 17 years old; Suzan-Lori Parks accepting me into her MFA Program at Calarts; Erik Ehn teaching me there and inviting me as a colleague into many initiatives; Caridad Svich inviting me into NoPassport, her schemes, and publishing my collected plays; writing for American Theatre, HowlRound, and Café Onda; becoming an Associate at the Playwrights Theatre Centre (PTC) and focusing on writing plays with Portuguese themes; winning the first Portuguese playwriting award (that I know of) at the DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon.What I’ve learned from this is that often when we lead, teach, write a play, apply for or get a job…we are advocating for others, creating work. I love focusing on invitations, instead of our usual metaphors of competition, rejection, submission, and acceptance.
- Being a mother This is hard to talk about openly. Women tend to be judged, whether or not they have children, no matter what their relationship is to mothering. It can be scary to attempt to be a parent, if you are theatre artist and not wealthy. My father-in-law said, as a writer, I’d be able to relate to many more people and have even more to say. What a beautiful thing to say. Yes, there are many opportunities I’ve had to give up, but being a mother is also focusing and joyous. My daughter is a very creative, inspiring person. I understand why Anton Chekhov said, ‘If you want to work on your art, work on your life.’
- Every Day. Every day is a defining moment for a writer—are you going to get to your writing desk and write? (Do it. Stop reading this. Go. Do it now.) Suzan-Lori Parks gave us egg timers on the first day of her marvelous graduate program. We set them for fifteen minutes, so we could focus and write, uninterrupted. Most of us can find fifteen minutes to write every day. Suzan-Lori told me recently that she now believes in five minutes, and I’ve been playing with that—to learn music, to learn Portuguese, to write. It works brilliantly. As Migdalia Cruz says, “we have to make time for it. It’s our life.”
Q: Who have been your playwriting mentors and heroes?
A: Mentors and heroes include: Suzan-Lori Parks, Erik Ehn, Migdalia Cruz, Maria Irene Fornes, Luis Alfaro, Alice Tuan, Tim Miller, Jose Rivera, Caridad Svich, Carmen Aguirre, Chantal Bilodeau. More recently, my heroes are Portuguese novelists—Katherine Vaz, Teolinda Gersão, Jacinto Lucas Pires, Anthony da Sá, José Maria de Eça de Queirós and the scholar/nonfiction writer—Oona Patrick.
Q: What advice do you have for Latin@ playwrights at the beginning of their career?
A: Believe that your experience, no matter what it is…it’s valid. It counts.
When you work hard on your craft, you will find others who do too, and you will have a blast together.
Q: What else should we know about you?
A: I’m one of the co-founders of the Climate Change Theatre Action. We involved 50 playwrights and 100 venues, from every continent. You can read more here.
***For more on Elaine Avila, see:
- Elaine Avila’s Personal Website
- Read Elaine Avila’s essays at HowlRound
- “Learning to be Lusitanian Latina” – Elaine Avila (Café Onda/HowlRound)
- “Chasing Kitimat: Going Backwards to Move Forward” – Elaine Avila (Café Onda/HowlRound)
- “#LTCseattle: Flooring It with Espírito” – Elaine Avila (Café Onda/HowlRound)
- “The Luso Bat Signal: An Interview with Elusive Portuguese Playwright Elaine Avila” – Chris Casquilho (Café Onda/HowlRound)