This 45-minute evening of theatre will examine the experience of being a female-presenting, Eastern-European, queer immigrant performer in the US. What exactly is it to be untrained? Why is untrained considered unattractive? Through a mixture of movement, monologue, drag and sound, this piece will attempt to make the audience reconsider what ugly means to them. Define ugly.
What are Petri Projects?
The TEAM’s Petri Projects program was launched in 2017. Its goal is to foster a pipeline of inquiry and development into new work led by artists in our community. This program provides funding, rehearsal space, and producing support to seedlings of new plays. The Petri Projects are a laboratory in which artists receive support and also vital feedback that sheds light on the work’s integrity.
Support for the Petri Projects Program is provided by the Axe-Houghton Foundation and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.
In episode 5 of the Petri DISH, Sarah Gallegos interviews Ema Zivkovic on their new experimental work AREN’T YOU GLAD YOU STAYED (IN), which explores immigration, gender identity, body image, and more. Watch to learn how Croatia, Drag, and Ema’s phone notes inspire their artistic process.
To turn on video captions, click the button marked “CC.” For the full interview transcript please read below.
Sarah: Well, hello, Ema.
Sarah: Cool. So I just have a few questions for you. I guess the first question is who are you and how are you connected to the TEAM?
Ema: Yes. So I’m Ema, Ema Zivkovic or Zivkovic. And I started working with the team a few years ago, initially for PRIMER FOR A FAILED SUPERPOWER through a workshop. And then I also worked with them on ANYTHING THAT GIVES OFF LIGHT and that was an amazing time. And that sort of kicked off sort of an on and off collaboration with the TEAM. And then I had this project and I was like, “Ooh, let’s work on this project.” And the TEAM said, yes. And yeah, it is just sort of been a company in New York that I’ve always had my eyes on and ears out for. Because I really respect the way the TEAM does have artists pay and administration and production and yeah. So here I am. Yeah.
Sarah: What exactly is the project that you’re working on with this?
Ema: So the project is called AREN’T YOU GLAD YOU STAYED (IN), which is the title that I chose after I ordered McDonald’s really late at night and that’s what it said on the bag. And I was like, you know what, why not? This seems like I want this. And it started off as a solo show and it premiered at the Humana Fest with Actors’ Theater of Louisville last year. Yes. Right? Yes. Last year. Wow. Time doesn’t make any sense anymore.
Sarah: It’s like a vortex.
Ema: I know. Was it this year or last year? No, it was this year. It was this year. Yeah. Wow. So premier online and then we had to do the film version because everything was remote. It was like a 12 minute condensed piece that I really tried to put a lot in, but like not too much, so it was sort of, it needs a lot of breath to it.
So now through the Petri Projects, I want to expand it, but not as in like add more information to it, but add like space and like focus and like breath to it. And it’s going to be in person obviously. Well, not obviously. It is going to be in person. And also that balancing whether it’s still going to be a solo show or whether I want to add more people, which I am very seriously considering. Yeah.
And it deals with a lot of different things. Like the experience of being an immigrant in the US, in the industry that we’re in, in the performance industry and a lot of it comes from my experience of course, but then also from the experiences of people who are close to me and people who have also moved to the US from a European country specifically, but also I really want to collaborate with as many people who have an immigrant experience, no matter where they’re from. And yeah. It deals with gender and body image. That’s something that I think about a lot, especially with casting in the film and theater industry. So it’s like a jumble of a lot of things that do come together somehow, but it’s part of the process to figure out how that happens on a stage. Yeah.
Sarah: Do you think you’re going to have any filmed elements brought into this new iteration?
Ema: I thought about that and I also thought about like, oh, I don’t know, do I throw away this, not throw away, but do I sort of put to the side of the film version and just maybe return to it later in the game, but then I have considered because there are some movement sections of it, the filmed ones, that I think would be cool if I got another mover to sort of mirror that on stage because then it’s like having another person on stage but it’s just on the screen. So, I am thinking about adding that but I’m also going to hire a sound designer so there’s someone who can really help me out with the tech-y aspects of sound because I have my music but I need help on that.
And also I’m doing a lot of research into drag, which is part of the project as well, and trying to go into sort of, like get a good grip on the history of it and how it relates to me and why I want to do drag and stuff like that. So I think the filmed aspect might be more towards the movement part of it. And as far as drag, maybe it’ll go into that as well as in the performance of it. Yeah. Because that’s like a good media as well to sort of lift things up. But yeah, that’s what I’m thinking.
Sarah: That’s great. That’s really cool. Can you describe your artistic process?
Ema: I love when people ask that. I know. I love when people ask that because I’m like, “Oh wow. I just go and go into my notes on my phone and figure out why I wrote down what I did at like different points in my life.” Yeah. The notes on my phone are like my main script. I think it’s because it’s so low commitment and I just write stuff down there in the moment and whether I’m super tired or super energetic or tipsy or whatever, I just put it in there and it’s usually horrible, but then there’s going to be like one among like 1500 that will be like, oh my gosh, that’s great. I’m brilliant. And then I sort of go from there. So that, and then I get a lot of material, it’s inspiration from poetry and that, and I love and plays that are sort of written in a nontraditional way, stream of consciousness type of stuff.
I really like sort of an unedited, of course it’s all edited, but like unedited feel to things and that’s sort of where I start. And then I go into like, okay, now you have to figure out is this a character? Is this you? As far as dance goes, with dance, I do really rely on poetry and sound and my inspirations. I love the company Batsheva, they’re amazing. Everyone should look them up. I won’t go into them but they’re amazing, just their quality of movement. They’re amazing. I love the poetry of Warsan Shire. She’s this incredible poet who talks a lot about the experience of being a refugee, an immigrant, about also women’s bodies and how they relate to each other through generations and stuff like that. So that has been helpful in this process specifically, sort of to be inspired by someone who’s so good at talking about all of this that I aspire to be one day. But yeah, that’s my process.
I don’t know if it’s a process more than just me living my life and being like, ah, I’m going to make something out of it. I went to Croatia, which is where I’m from, which has a big presence in this project, for almost three months this summer or summer slash fall. And I feel like that’s really, really important to my process because it gets so kind of crazy in New York. You can forget where you’re from and what you’re doing and why you’re doing the things you’re doing because everyone’s just like, “We’re here, we’re spending a lot of money on everything, and we have no time”, and you forget the rest of the world exists in very different ways. So that was important, and it’s important to regularly go back home to remind myself where I’m from and what has changed, what hasn’t changed, and stuff like that.
So, that is an essential part of the process that I have to remind myself to go back to. Yeah.
Sarah: Is English your first language?
Ema: No. So, I moved to America when I was 16 and I moved with my parents and my brother to Chicago. And then I went up to Sarah Lawrence to study and moved into the city afterwards. So it’s not, but I really, I did my best to get rid of my accent. That was like my huge goal because the obvious issues of wanting to not sound foreign, sadly. My brother didn’t do that. So he has a strong accent. So people think either one of us is faking it. So it’s like even the sound of my voice and the fact that now, I sound very American to everyone.
And even when I travel and when I go back, people are really surprised to know that I’m not American. That also creates this dissonance where it’s like, oh wait, wait, no, I am not, I’m not American. And I do consider myself sort of American as well because I’ve been here for a bit, but it’s like dealing with compartmentalizing stuff where it’s like, oh, it’s so easy to sort of forget the hard parts of moving across the world and the things that were lost in the process and the things that will come up with time and be like, Ooh, that was rough. Let’s explore that. But like, yeah.
So that’s, I don’t know. That’s a really long tangent, but language also is, I wanted to be a linguist for a bit when I was smaller, but then I was like, I can’t do everything. So I love languages and it is part of this piece as well. I want to put in a lot of Croatian into it since it’s also a language that people are not very familiar with. And to now go on for too long accessing the Balkan community in New York is a huge deal for me.
And I would love to do it as much as I can because the arts within the Balkan community are very much not emphasized and not encouraged among most people. And I genuinely know maybe like two Croatian artists in New York, which is insane. So I would love to be like, okay, we can do art. We can have communities. There’s so many different nationalities that have art communities in New York, but we don’t. So, that’s part of what I would love to start, not start. I’m not like this Messiah. I’m just like I would try and get it going so that we have sort of a center to go to as far as art goes. Yeah.
Sarah: When is your project going up?
Ema: It’s going to go up, I am thinking and that’s probably what’s going to happen, in the spring of 20, what is it, 22, 2022.
Sarah: Sometime inside of the vortex.
Ema: Yeah. So spring 2022, it will, probably, April-ish. It feels like a good time and I wanted to give it time to sort, for everything with the health crisis right now, to maybe get a little bit more solid in ways so that we don’t give anyone hopes up. So, that’s what is happening and I’ll keep everyone posted on all the social media and it’ll be a good time. It will be a good time.
Sarah: Awesome. Well, I look forward to seeing it, AREN’T YOU GLAD YOU STAYED (IN), Coming soon, 2022.
In episode 4 of the Petri DISH, two-time Petri artists Camilo Quiroz-Vazquez and Ellpetha Tsivicos interview Marika Kent on her new project, BETTE IN THE DISTANT FUTUREPAST. This new disciplinary work is constructed from Marika’s archive of documents, photos, and oral history about her grandmother. Listen now to learn more!
To turn on video captions, click the button marked “CC.” For the full interview transcript please read below.
Camilo: Excited to be here with you today.
Marika: Same. Thanks for taking the time.
Ellpetha: Well, we love what we heard about your project, so we’re really excited to introduce the world to it.
Camilo: Well, why don’t we start, you introducing yourself?
Marika: Sure, of course. So, this is a great question. We’ll go background then foreground. So background, I’ve been engaged in this long on and again, and off again, family research project for myself personally. And recently, over the last year, year and a half, it’s been manifesting as a visual art album that I called BETTE IN THE DISTANT FUTUREPAST. And I found out a lot about my family in doing this research. And this is particularly on my matrilineal line, my mother’s mother. But the project BETTE IN THE DISTANT FUTUREPAST is, really the center of gravity is my grandmother, my mother’s mother. And it already exists in an online media form on a web page, where I’m adding images one-by-one until I feel as though this album is complete.
And then what I’m working on via the Petri Project is, thinking about how it might manifest somehow physically in space, which I think I’m not sure yet, but I’m starting with a gallery showing structure, but adding in installation elements like the sound and maybe sculpting the room and designing the room and thinking about how these pieces are presented, and what we hear and what it sits in, not just on the internet.
Ellpetha: I was going to say just from the little bits of images that I saw in-person, which were slides and photos, there are so many different ways to display. Like a slide is translucent. So light goes through it, and then it can be projected, whereas a photo is a flat image. And then I know you have other things too, I think some writing and stuff like that, especially because your background is in lighting, it can be such a cool installation of mobiles of the slides and walking into a future distant past memory thing. It’s such a cool, cool story. Do you want to share a little bit about the story of your grandmother?
Marika: Sure. I can tell you what I know about her. And perhaps, I should say first that she actually passed away before I was born. So I’ve never met her in person. Although, I do feel that throughout my life she’s been a very real presence and a thing that I know, a person I have a relationship to. But at the same time, I feel that that feeling I have about that relationship exists somewhere between ancestral memory and what I have inherited in my body, and also completely my own projection of who I imagined her to be, how my mother has described her and all these things. But in terms of what I know about her life, I know that she was born in Sacramento in probably 1925. And her ancestors were slaves and they migrated to Sacramento shortly after emancipation and stayed there. And then, she, around when she was 17 or 18 enlisted to join the military during World War II. She was part of the 6888 Battalion, which was the only battalion of African-American women to serve overseas in World War II, in Europe.
And so, she went to first England and then France. And then while they were in France, they traveled a couple of different places. And then after that, she came back to the States, went to UCLA for a year, presumably on the GI Bill. And then she ended up working in Liberia for, I think the better part of 10 years. And that’s where my mother was born and my uncle. And then she moved back to Monterey and lived there basically for the rest of her life. And some of these things were things I always knew and some of them were things I found out. I knew that she had served in the military my whole life, but it wasn’t until I started digging that I found out about which battalion and what she was doing there and all these things.
So, those are the touchstones of the story. And in fact, the project is in these three parts, starting with the battalion, going back in time to her origins in Sacramento, and then flashing forwards to her time in Monrovia. So, those are the three big chapters that I’m dealing with. And then again, the more I work on it, and the more I think about what I know, what I don’t know, what I project, and what I feel, the more I come to realize that this isn’t necessarily a telling of her story so much as it is scratching at this thing of that anytime we try to tell a story about the past, is in part, fiction. And so, I think fiction and things that didn’t happen to her also appear in the piece, as it stands now.
Camilo: It’s so interesting and like, there were both huge fans of grandma art in general. So, it’s definitely very…
Ellpetha: And just also the complexity of an American. It’s like Sacramento, an all African-American battalion in a war, female soldier, Liberia, and then Monterey. There’s so many crazy iconic things. What a story? And it’s really cool that you find these little markers in her life that open up access to more research. Like, when you discovered the battalion that she was in, and then you were like, “Oh my goodness, I can search this battalion.” And, she was there. I also remember you telling us about Liberia and everyone in the room was like, “Okay, none of us knew this about Liberia.” It’s so much information that is connected, but who would ever just think that all of those things are connected? So, it’s very, very cool.
Marika: Yeah. And I think too, as I’m bringing this and showing it more to other people and thinking more and more about how is this useful for anyone other than me to see? I think something that I have found about it that has a lot of potential energy in it is this thing of counter-narrative and alternate history. Because what I learned about Black history in school was a very clear and narrow narrative. And that I felt like everything I learned about my own family verged off that narrative. Like, some of the things you were just talking about and it always made me feel like it made my own family very hard to describe and explain to people, these different things.
But then, I think that is really common now. The more I talk about this project with other people, the more I hear other people be like, “Well, yeah, my family’s from here, but you have to understand about this and that. And then this happened and this person moved here and then this person was adopted.” And again, that goes back to how much of the past can we really speak to as fact because, if everyone’s narrative is a counter-narrative, then what is the narrative? Right. And I can feel myself be about to lose the thread of what I’m saying. But that’s one of the things I’m really interested in exploring with the work.
Camilo: I think, yeah, looking at the past is about having all those threads of narratives that you’re like, “You know what, I can’t actually connect this to anything, but I’m going to fill it in with my imagination.” So, what you were saying earlier about, some of it is just your own reflection based on your life and the things you learned about your families. Yeah.
Ellpetha: And it’s just the complexity that exists within one person and memory and nostalgia, and then like you’re saying counter-narrative. I think that’s something I think about also with my family, just like little traits I’ll see in my elders where I’ll be like, “I’m like that.” And then I’m like, “Maybe I’m not like that.” Or, maybe that’s just my own impression, but I’m sure in some of your research, there are things that you’ve seen and you’re like, “Oh, that’s like me.” And then there’s this sense of like, “Well, I’ve never met her. Is that really like me? Or, it’s me imposing it?” But sometimes you have to be like, “I’m sure there are things about me that were like her because I am part of her.” And I don’t know it just, every time you talk about it, it’s like I see this very vivid world. I can’t wait to walk into it, wherever it is. It’s going to be really beautiful. It already is. The story is so beautiful.
Marika: I appreciate that so much. Thank you.
Camilo: Is there anything else you’d love to share about either this project or anything else you got going on?
Marika: Only that I’m really enjoying working on it, and I’m really enjoying, sharing it with you now. And then with this group. All these Petri Projects are so cool and different and I didn’t expect to enjoy sharing with people. So, that’s a pleasant surprise and that’s it, onward into the future.
Ellpetha: Well, I think that’s great. And I think the Petri Projects are just a great opportunity for people to just explore things more deeply than maybe we never would’ve gotten the chance to do. So, it sounds like you’re doing great. And I don’t think we introduced ourselves, so if you’re wondering throughout this interview who we are. I’m Ellpetha.
Camilo: And I’m Camilo.
Ellpetha: And are also Petri artists.
Ellpetha: So with that, thanks for watching. Thanks for sharing, Marika, and we can’t wait to watch you along this journey.
In episode 3 of the Petri DISH, James Harrison Monaco interviews Sarah Gallegos on her new project, created in partnership with Brittany Coyne. ANNIVERSARY PLAY: A COMING OF THE NEXT AGE STORY is a new project that ignites a nuanced conversation on the grey areas of abortion, trauma, and preconceived notions of adult women in a patriarchal society.
To turn on video captions, click the button marked “CC.” For the full interview transcript please read below.
James: Cool. Hi, Sarah. How’s it going?
Sarah: It’s going pretty good. How are you?
James: I’m doing well. Are you in New York right now?
Sarah: I am. I am currently based in Harlem.
James: Okay, well hello from down in Brooklyn.
Sarah: Oh, Hey, there.
James: I’m happy that I get to interview about this project. I guess I’ll start, first I’ll start with the question that has been assigned. Which is can you just talk about who you are generally as an artist and however you wish to describe yourself and then what your connection to The TEAM is?
Sarah: Sure. That’s a large order. Well, I guess, no, I am a writer and a filmmaker. I came to the city in 2016 and interned at The TEAM, which is I guess how I personally became connected with them. However, I first learned of them – I saw ROOSEVELVIS at the Royal Court in the UK in 2015 and was obsessed. I really dug the way that they kind of created that show. I bought their anthology after I saw the show.
James: The 5 Plays one?
Sarah: Yes. I don’t know. I learned more about kind of the process and the way that they create work in a really democratic way. It just seems really radical. I was but a fledgling human at that point, but I was like this is the kind of thing I want to do.
James: What were you doing at the Royal Court? Why were you in the UK?
Sarah: Actually, I went to school in England. I studied acting at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts for three years and it was a great time.
James: Cool. Can you talk a little bit then about this, I’m interested both in this specific project and generally. Would you say that your writing and creative process has much relation directly to The TEAM style? Or do you feel like you work in a very different way?
Sarah: I would say that overall at this point in my life, I’m not doing a lot of group devising when it comes to generating material. However, I’m extremely interested in the concept of collaboration when it comes to the bigger picture. I think that the writing and as much as the acting and as much as the design is just like they’re all cogs in one huge kind of machine. Honestly, I think the audience are also part of that machine. I don’t know if machines the right word because that feels very industrial. I feel like it’s a little bit more holistic.
James: Yeah, like an organism. A multicellular organism.
Sarah: Yes, exactly. Anyway, I haven’t had the opportunity really to do much collaborative devising of material, but I really love the intersection that happens after the writings. I’ve been really lucky to work with quite a few wonderful theater companies in the city over the years on a more technical aspect. It’s been wonderful to kind of witness that type of collaboration happening during tech and seeing people’s wonderful and weird and crazy writing come off the page in a way that is inspiring.
James: Cool. Well speaking of the writing, rather than ask you to give the elevator pitch, I’m very intrigued, well I was intrigued hearing you both describe the project when we had the Petri Project meeting sometime in the past. Also the blurb that I have been received in particular. Do you mind if I read it right now and then ask you questions about it?
Sarah: Of course.
James: ANNIVERSARY PLAY. A COMING OF THE NEXT AGE STORY. Already thrilled by that title. That blurb then reads: “a new work about a woman on the brink of her 30th birthday, who teams up with her aborted fetus Dee in the biggest ghostbusting case of their lives. They set off to destroy a demon conjured by an early two thousands botched seance slash 13th birthday party, but end up confronting demons of their own. Through this work, Sarah and Brittany, [the creators],” that’s my parentheses, “want to ignite a nuanced conversation in the gray areas of abortion, trauma, and preconceived notions of adult women in a patriarchal society.”
Okay. My first question. One great blurb whoever wrote it in my opinion. Two, you described yourself as a writer and filmmaker. Are you thinking of it as strictly a theatrical work or strictly a film work or both or something, in what forms are you envisioning this project?
Sarah: I definitely think that this is a theatrical thing. The play itself is quite funny. I think, in my humble opinion.
James: Yeah, I get that sense.
Sarah: It’s very campy and it’s very kind of just a bit out there. I’m really fascinated by this idea of creating environment where it can also be very scary. That’s something I think that can really, I know that you can do that in film and stuff, but again I’m really fascinated by this idea of humans being in a room together exchanging energy. I think that there’s something to be said. I mean, the play itself is inspired by true events. I myself partook in a botched 13th birthday party slash seance. It’s very, I don’t know, I just think there’s something ethereal about sharing a space and how kind of spooky that can actually be in a real felt way. To answer your question, I do think that it’s really, I’m interested in seeing it theatrically.
James: Yeah. I mean, when you talk about it being quite funny and thinking about live space energy and seances. In terms of that speaks to me to some of what you’re were talking about earlier with the feeling of the collaborators, the writer, the performers, the audience, all of what’s happening in there. Something I was thinking about is one aspect of this subject matter. I mean it says right here, the conversation in the gray areas of abortion, trauma, and preconceived notions of adult women in a patriarchal society. There’s the humor and then there is seemingly pain, what many would at least conceive as painful subject matter and the word trauma is a word that you all have used. Can you talk about your interest in the gray areas and in the inner section of camp and humor with subject matter that is maybe not always treated with, that people might not obviously jump to camp and humor for that.
Sarah: Yeah, of course. I think that when we talk about trauma, so I’m going to take this back. Demons, that’s a big theme in my play is like demons. Something that I’m exploring, hypothesizing in this play is the idea of good demons versus bad demons and what it means to live with a demon and what it means to not want that. How do you go about exorcising those demon slash do you want to? When I think about, I think obviously we’re talking about demons in the literal sense, but also I think that there’s everyone has demons that they have that are like demons.
I guess I’m curious about that. I certainly have had things happen in my life that I’m like, wow, that was pretty bad, but things that have happened from that, I don’t know. I’m just curious to explore that. That’s what I mean by the nuance of that because I don’t necessarily think that a traumatic situation and I’m just speaking from my own personal perspective. I don’t necessarily think a traumatic experience is always going to be a hundred percent negative. I mean obviously, yes. I don’t know if I just talked in circles there.
James: No, no, no, that makes sense to me and speaks to the thing I think about a lot. George Elliott, she wrote something like, and I’m quoting it badly, but like: the evil things that happened to you, there are ways that they make you better but it doesn’t make them any less evil and it’s important to hold both. Your personal growth from an evil thing doesn’t excuse the evil thing or make it less evil. Anyway, that’s something I think about a lot.
Sarah: Yes, exactly.
James: It makes sense to me in what you’re saying.
Sarah: One of the things that I’m also very interested in kind of exploring in this is that it’s very… One of the characters, as you said, she basically lives with one of her demons. Her demon is her aborted fetus who is this kind of surreal, it’s a person that’s a character, a grown person. They live together and it’s like whatever. I don’t know, things happen or whatever but… Sorry, I lost my train of thought.
James: No, it’s okay.
Sarah: I got very excited and then, never mind. I don’t know what that was.
James: Totally fine.
Sarah: Yeah, never mind.
James: If you want to take a moment you can think about it or I can throw a different question your way.
Sarah: I guess another thing that I’m trying to explore is the idea, specifically we’re talking about abortion or just a woman’s sexual life. That’s something that I’m trying to kind of create in the world is that it’s not the issue. It is what it is. This demon that she lives with is this demon that she lives with and that’s its own interesting dynamic that has.
There are some really fun nuanced things with that. The demon itself is feeling unseen for the first time in the play, they’re seen by another person. Then that demon’s like, wow, I know what it’s like to feel seen and now I want to like. Anyway, there’s some interesting, but that’s beside the point. This person, this character who has this demon and that’s I think what I’m also really interested in exploring is that the fact that regardless of whatever this person did in her life, it doesn’t matter to the main point of her life. Does that make any sense?
James: It does make sense to me, yeah.
Sarah: I think that like on a grander scale, politically at this point right now, that’s something that I see. It’s an issue that’s frustrating to me because I see that happening and I’m like, why do we have to just be that? Why do women just have to be kind of portal for humanity? Can we be more? Anyway. That’s all.
James: Thank you. We’re at the time we’re supposed to wrap up. Was there anything else about this or about yourself or anything else you wanted to share before or wrapping?
Sarah: I don’t think so. No.
James: Okay, cool. Well thank you Sarah.
Sarah: Thank you.
James: Thanks The TEAM. Happy to have done this interview.
In episode 2 of the Petri DISH, Ema Zivkovic interviews artistic team Camilo Quiroz-Vazquez and Ellpetha Tsivicos on their project RUMORS OF WAR, a new multi media project that explores the harsh realities of war juxtaposed against the beauty of homeland.
To turn on video captions, click the button marked “CC.” For the full interview transcript please read below.
Ema: Okay. Hello everyone. Welcome. So let’s start. My name is Ema and I’m interviewing y’all. How about you tell me about you and how you started working with the TEAM? How you started working together. Yeah, go ahead.
I oversaw, there were a bunch of interviews with activists that played as videos. I was coordinating all of those and the team wanted a documentary made of the entire project. So I hired Camilo to do that and he made the documentary, but that’s not how we met.
Ellpetha: Or started working together.
Camilo: Working together long before that.
Ellpetha: Yeah. In college, I guess.
Ellpetha: Yeah. We both wanted to leave housing and we weren’t friends at all. Everyone in my acting class was very theater-y and I didn’t really want to talk to anyone, but everyone liked talking to me. Camilo was sitting in the back of the room, not speaking to anyone, but making funny jokes. I was like, I’m going to go talk to that person. Which was like, “Hey, do you want to move into an apartment? I really have to get out of housing.” And he was like, “Yeah, my roommate really smells, and our beds don’t fit in the room.” It was much cheaper to live in an apartment than it was to live in the stupid dorms.
Camilo: And 12 years later, here we are!
Ellpetha: It’s 12 years later and we still live together.
Ellpetha: So we are artists in residence, always.
Ema: Wow. I love that. That’s incredible. Wow. I want to be in your pocket and see what happens.
Ellpetha: You can come be in our living room whenever you want.
Ema: That’s probably better than a pocket
Camilo: More spacious, but only slightly.
Ema: Yes. Okay. Amazing. It’s funny because, as I’ve been moving, I’ve been telling people, “I do theater, but I’m not loud.” I don’t talk all the time. I swear, I don’t. Anyway.
Back to the point. Amazing. So always artists and residents. Do you want to tell me about your project? You can start wherever you want.
Ellpetha: It’s called, right now, Rumors of War. You can talk.
Camilo: It’s still very much an exploration. We’re working a lot with the script that we worked on our senior year at NYU. So real throwback. Which kind of touched on a lot out of the traumas of war and the residual traumas that come with being from a war-torn country, and having family that are refugees. So we wanted to dip back into that and start interviewing, particularly, our fathers, who both came to the United States, because of very traumatic and violent situations in their home countries of Mexico and from Cyprus. And start to research and explore that, and find a way to talk about it in a way that wasn’t so dark and heavy, but used elements of our culture, like of music and poetry and these things that we’ve always used to move beyond these things, to explore a really difficult topic.
Ellpetha: Yeah. It’s part of both of our identities so much, and a lot of our work is very celebratory and joyous and colorful. These things are not separated from those aesthetics. The thread is very difficult to find and articulate. It’s touching on a lot, lot of different topics of a Western saviorism of the wars, or the conflicts in our countries and how there’s this ideology that they need to be solved by people other than gay, indigenous people of those regions. This idea that the trauma needs to be taken off of us, but that’s ours. It’s not necessarily a miserable thing. How to separate those things and mold them into something that would not be unpleasant to watch.
People love going to Mexico. People love going to Cyprus. It’s beautiful in both of those places. It’s incredible. The people are amazing. The culture is amazing. The food is amazing. And everything that led up in our history to the current moment is factored into those things. But there are very, very ugly parts of the past. It’s figuring out how to hold space for those things, but also share them.
I don’t want to go see theater that makes me feel terrible, because life is very hard. I think there’s a place for those things and it’s totally okay if you make work like that. Everyone does something different, but for me, the arts have been a way to heal or explore healing and joy and imagination. I don’t want to make something that is miserable, but I can’t…
Ellpetha: I can’t sugarcoat violent wars.
Camilo: How do we have interviews with people who experience these things firsthand without pushing them deeper into any kind of trauma that they’ve already have worked so hard to move past? How do we do it in a way that’s healing, not just for whatever audience is experiencing it, but for the interviewees themselves?
Ellpetha: Yeah. Yeah. A lot of them haven’t had the opportunity to heal, or maybe they have band-aids all over their psyche from it. Offering them this experience as a way to heal and documenting all these different perspectives and making this catalog of information that we can then utilize to make a multimedia project. It’s been interesting because it’s the first time we want to work on a project for several years and develop it before we want to share it. I don’t know about years. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done before it’s something.
I’ll say we’ve been wanting to focus a lot on the narratives of women because we think of war and we literally think of a male soldier. The women were there for the whole thing too and experiencing war and fighting. I’m sure in very, very interesting ways. Making sure that, that’s very much a part of this storytelling.
Ema: Yes, absolutely. I am so psyched about all of that. I’m very interested in all that myself as well. Well, that sounds layered in a really tough process, but joyful as well.
Speaking of process, do you have a favorite part of the process so far, or is there something that you’re planning that you’re really psyched about? Whether that’s interviews with specific people, or something that’s not interviews? Do you have anything that you’ve done that you’re really like, “Oh, this has really worked. We want to do more of that.” Or something like that?
Ellpetha: I think one thing was connecting it with this script that we had written in college after we had had the Petri meeting and everything. We were like, “Whoa, that script is innately attached to this narrative.” Okay. We were 22, but a 22 year old wrote it. I wonder what it would be like to integrate parts of that script. Use that as a beginning place or just use it as something. That was a really exciting thought.
Camilo: Yeah, definitely.
Ellpetha: We’re going to spend two weeks devoted to just working on this project, with the funding from the Petri project. I have 20 jobs and I’m never doing just one thing.
Camilo: Getting to focus is really exciting.
Ellpetha: I don’t even know what that would be like, cause I literally never had the opportunity to just do one thing. That’s going to be a big exercise with this. That is our job for two weeks exclusively. That might not yield anything. It could be like, wow, that didn’t work for us. We’re better when we’re doing 20 things, or it could just make a really strong foundation. So we’re excited about that.
Ema: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I’m terrified myself. I’m like, “Can I even do that?” Word, word. When are you planning on taking up those two weeks? Are you planning on spring, or before the new year? What are your plans with that?
Ellpetha: I think sometime in the darkness of winter, we’re planning to do this.
Ema: Good. Good.
Ellpetha: Yeah. Yeah. Sometime in the winter, we’re figuring it out. Some point between December and March.
Ema: We love a winter. Winter hibernation slash art making.
Ema: Good stuff.
Ellpetha: Good, good.
Camilo: Seems like a good time.
Ellpetha: To have a purpose.
Ellpetha: You know?
Ema: Oh yeah. Oh definitely. I think we’re almost at time. It’s been lovely talking to you. I’m super excited about whatever you end up coming up with in two weeks and the future of this project. I think it’s super important. What you’re talking about as far as joy and joy in theater, that also has some heavy stuff behind it.
Well, thank you. I don’t really know how to wrap things up, but thank you for talking to me.
Camilo: Thank you.
Ellpetha: Thank you for interviewing us.
Ema: Anytime, can’t wait to come to your living room.
Ellpetha: There’s currently a three-foot by three-foot papier mache skull in the living room. So there truly is always something…
Introducing the Petri Dish, our new series featuring 1-1 artist interviews about the incredible works featured in the TEAM’s Petri Projects Program. In episode 1, artist Marika Kent interviews James Harrison Monaco about his new multi-disciplinary work, Travels.
To turn on video captions, click the button marked “CC.” For the full interview transcript please read below.
Marika: All right, so we will begin. So hi James.
James: Hi Marika.
Marika: How’s it going?
James: It’s going, I’d say well, all things considered. How is it going with you?
Marika: You know, good. It’s a sunny day.
James: It’s so beautiful today.
Marika: So I thought a great place to start would just be to introduce yourself to the world who may or may not know you and require an introduction or reintroduction. So who are you and how are you connected to the TEAM?
James: I’m James Harrison Monaco. I’m a writer, composer, storyteller, musician, performer, translator, and with the TEAM, I’ve been a fan for a long time and a friend and a collaborator with various TEAM members on non-TEAM projects. And then came on the same time you did, well offer the same project RECONSTRUCTION. Maybe we entered at different times. I don’t recall.
Marika: Yeah, maybe.
James: Wait, I have a formal question about all of this, which I should have asked before this interview started. Are we interviewing each other or are you interviewing me?
Marika: I’m interviewing you.
James: Oh, okay. Well, all the questions that I prepared for you, I’ll ask you some other time then.
Marika: You might be interviewing someone else.
James: Oh, okay. Great, good information. We can hold for edit.
Marika: Oh we can do that.
James: Sorry, go ahead.
Marika: No, but that was my first question. And you answered it and then sort of rolling off of that. If you will introduce your project and what it’s called and maybe just the elevator pitch.
James: The project right now is called TRAVELS, though maybe it’ll be called TRAVELERS or maybe it’ll be called something else. It’s in the early stages. The idea it’s for live performance combines music and storytelling, as my work pretty much always does. And the idea is it’s kind of a collection of short stories and in that kind of format, but one evening lengths work, a character based largely on me is the narrator of these stories and is a first-person narrator. And there’s stories that involve travel, either that narrator based largely on my stories that that narrator has picked up or heard from other people while traveling, or just stories that he has learned or researched that involve travel or heard from other people about their travels, all combined with dance, music and synthesizers and drum machines. Yeah. That’s the elevator pitch.
Marika: That’s a good one. And that makes me want to ask you, are you drawing from places like personal experience where you’ve traveled or, is a lot drawn from the imagination?
James: I feel like a lot of it is drawn from personal experience and from research. Some projects, like the PIANO TALES, project that you, me, JJJJJerome and, Andrew Scoville made. There’s some elements that come from personal experience, but it’s a lot of stories pulled from history or just kind of made up. These I think are a little bit more rooted in contemporary research and current events. Yeah, and I would say a lot of the stories have kind of a surface-level element and then a deeper kind of darker is maybe too simplistic of a word and not a word I love like a raw element.
For instance, one story is about that I’m working on right now is kind of based on a trip `I took to Guanajuato in Mexico. And on the surface of it, it’s kind of a bar crawl with these friends that I made there, but underneath it discussion of narco-trafficking violence, kind of kept coming up. But in these subtle ways that I think the people I was traveling with didn’t really want to talk to me about in a performative way. Didn’t want it to be oh, the American comes here and hears about the greedy reality of central Mexico. But at the same time, it was there. So I think that story is kind of interrogating what is my role in these things that are seemingly distant from me. But in fact, a very present part of all of our realities. That’s how I would try to phrase it.
Marika: Yeah. Fascinating. I realize I don’t know, are you working with a collaborator or are you doing your own compositions in music?
James: Right now, the composing is mostly me and the arranging of it is all me or pretty much all me. Some of the music is right now that I’ve been using is music that JJJJJerome and I, JJJJJerome Ellis and I made together. And that I’m now kind of rearranging or shifting around or bringing in experimenting with other musicians to see what happens. But for sure his compositions are alive in it. And then other sections are a 100% composed by me.
Marika: I just imagined this version of reality, which you can confirm or deny wherein you guys just have this sort of world of music and sound ideas that…
James: Hours and hours and hours and hours and hours.
Marika: In and out Of whatever you make
James: Many, many, many, many gigabytes of Dropbox orders. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Marika: So you’re not necessarily always, composing for that piece? There’s sort of maybe a…
James: Yeah. I’m careful not to speak for JJJJJerome. So I’ll make that caveat, but were just talking the other day, maybe yesterday or something we’re in residency at BAM right now making and recording music for who knows what for kind of this purpose. But we were joking about how, as long as we don’t tell directors that we didn’t make this music explicitly for them, they won’t know. But that many directors need to believe that you started with a blank page and you were like, this is for that director. So by that, I mean, I hate starting from scratch, the blank page in any form really terrifies me.
So often I’ll just have on my iTunes, a playlist of music I’ve made during the pandemic and then some, it includes also some music JJJJJerome and I made together during the pandemic. And it’s 30 hours long maybe. And I’ll just have it on shuffle so that if I hear something and I’m like, oh, a story could go with this or, I want to dig at this. I can open it up or I can make note of it or improvise over it, but I kind of just have it going in my house semi-regularly.
Marika: I love knowing this. Is that sort of scratching and mining, is that how this piece started?
James: Yeah, exactly. So during COVID, there was nothing to do for so long of it. So I bought a bunch of music equipment and I just started experimenting and recording a bunch of just total improvisations with drum machines and synthesizers and samples. And then that for a while, JJJJJerome and I got together at The Brick in Williamsburg, and we recorded a bunch of stuff that ideas we’d both been working on jams, just from scratch. And yeah, I guess it was, I think it was like listening to those things and when not being able to travel, I was thinking a lot about these travel stories. And so then I think I would just hear a musical idea and I would be like, this sounds like the emotional reality of that night in Guanajuato or this sounds like the emotional reality of that story my friend from Shiraz and Tehran told me about his coming here or, yeah.
Marika: Nice. You also mentioned earlier that some of your stories come from, or some of the material working with comes from research. Is there any research that you’re particularly obsessed with for this piece or on this day or?
James: Maybe One big one is there in the 13 hundreds, there was this Moroccan traveler named Ibn Battuta from, I think Tangier. And he was sort of just a normal with the equivalent, I think of a middle-class guy or slightly upper-middle-class guy. Would’ve been at that time. And he spent 27 years just traveling all over the world and he didn’t intend to, he started traveling and he just couldn’t stop and was in Indonesia and China and debated how many of these places he actually went to. But he certainly traveled a lot was in India, was in Spain. And then he ended up dictating his memories of this to somebody else. And it made this five-volume book, the travels of Ibn Battuta and unlike the writings of Marco Polo from a similar time, which feel kind of beautiful, but dated and medieval, these are very human they’re kind of funny, they’re interesting, they feel not that different from travel writing now.
And I’ve been researching them just to think about what is travel writing, and what are the responsibilities of it, what are the missteps of it. So that’s one piece of research and then I’m also researching, I’ve been researching the history of Guanojuato City in that region as well, or kind of the two right now, because that’s where my head is.
Marika: As you’re talking about it, I’m realizing that I haven’t read a whole lot of travel writing. It’s a whole genre of… I started and didn’t finish ON THE ROAD probably.
James: If you count, I mean that’s like imaginary travel writing. But based on the writings of Marco Polo, so riffing on that genre.
Marika: Yeah. That was another one. I’m not sure if we finished.
James: Totally. That one, I mean it’s a favorite of mine, but I also think honestly to me, a lot of these travel books, what I’m interested in is I don’t know that you need to finish them or I don’t, I think a lot of them aren’t written now.
Marika: Are they like recipe book where you aren’t…
James: Kind of think they’re made to dive in. Who would ever want to sit down with someone and be like, tell me about every trip you’ve ever taken right now would be a nightmare. And yet, here a little bit of a time. Yeah, I don’t know. There’s something about that. And maybe it’s where the dance music element and this piece comes in, as I’m curious also about permission for the audience to disengage mentally and just bounce with it or dance with it or go on a corner or you need your own traveling when reading about it or hearing about it.
Marika: Fascinating. Well, maybe a good final question would be as someone who maybe has read more travel writing than me, do you have a top two or three that you could recommend it?
James: This Ibn Battuta guy. I know it’s insane to be well this 14th-century Moroccan travel writer, but he’s…
Marika: No, it’s not a thing. Also, say that after PIANO TALES, I bought a copy of RUBAIYAT
James: Yeah. Oh, so good. Well, that’s been a big one for me, for sure. They’re not travel writings, but in that strict sense, but Roberto Bolaño’s short stories, which is in a collection called LAST EVENINGS ON EARTH, translated by Chris Andrews. There’s something about those stories that have a lot of them have kind of a shared narrator. Who’s sort of just seemingly, supposed to be a fictional version of Bolaño and some of them take place in Chile or his time in Mexico or his time in Spain or in Germany or in Belgium or in France. There’s something interesting to me about those two. They’re pretty problematic and kind of thorny and interesting as all his writing is. Joan Didion’s just I don’t know that you would call them travel writings, but just all her writings about California to me would be another big inspiration to me.
Marika: Solid. Well, all right. Thank you for hanging out with me and answering.
James: Thanks so much. Thanks for asking and prepping them.
Last year, we made the commitment to commission 3 Writers/Scholars to witness Reconstruction‘s process and analyze our work with an eye towards internal accountability with the plan to publish this work publicly. We are pleased to share that we have selected our 3 Writers/Scholars. Scroll down to learn more about these fabulous humans.
Melanie George is the founder and director of Jazz Is… Dance Project and an Associate Curator and Director of Artist Initiatives at Jacob’s Pillow. As a dramaturg, she has contributed to projects by David Neumann & Marcella Murray (on the Obie Award-winning Distances Smaller Than This Are Not Confirmed), Raja Feather Kelly, Ephrat Asherie, Susan Marshall & Company, Machine Dazzle, Kimberly Bartosik/daela, and Urban Bush Women, among others. Melanie is featured in the documentary UpRooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance, and founded the global advocacy website jazzdancedirect.com. Publications include Imbed/In Bed: Two Perspectives on Dance and Collaboration” for Working Together in Qualitative Research (Sense Publishers) and chapters in Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches and the forthcoming Rooted Jazz Dance: Africanist Aesthetics and Equity in the Twenty-First Century (University Press of Florida). She is the former Dance Program Director at American University and has guest lectured at Harvard University, the Yale School of Drama, and The Juilliard School.
DR. TAWNYA PETTIFORD-WATES
Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, Ph.D. Professor of Acting and Directing Pedagogy at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Co-Artistic Director & Founder of The Conciliation Lab, a non-profit social justice theatre company www.theconciliationlab.org. Dr.T is a playwright, director, actor, poet, and writer. She has appeared in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Broadway production of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the rainbow is enuf” performing in both the national and international touring companies. Her television, film, industrial, voice-over, and commercial credits are extensive. Favorite directing projects include “uncle tom: deconstructed” for The Conciliation Project www.theconciliationproject.org, PASSING STRANGE for Firehouse Theatre, “The Niceties” for The Conciliation LAB, and FENCES for the Virginia Rep all to critical acclaim. Fun fact: She’s featured voice talent for the video game HALO. She’s a featured scholar in Black Acting Methods: critical approaches, a best seller on Amazon. Recently her chapter “The Conciliation Project as a Social Experiment: Behind the Mask of Uncle Tom-ism and the Performance of Blackness” was featured in an anthology titled, African American Arts, Activism, Aesthetics, and Futurity, edited by Dr. Sharrell D. Luckett. Dr.T is a columnist for Urban Views Weekly, www.urbanviewsrva.com other articles, presentations and workshops can be found at www.coveringtheground.com
NIA OSTROW WITHERSPOON
Nia Ostrow Witherspoon is a Black Queer theatre-maker, vocalist and composer, and cultural worker investigating the metaphysics of Black liberation, desire, and diaspora, in the context of sacred ecologies. Described as “especially fascinating” by Backstage Magazine, and featured by NPR for her curation of BlackARTSMatter, Witherspoon is NEFA/NTP recipient, a Creative Capital Awardee, a Jerome New Artist Fellow, an artist in residence at HERE Arts Center and BAX/Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and was a 2017-18 2050 Playwriting/Directing Fellow at New York Theatre Workshop. Her works, MESSIAH, YOU MINE, THE DARK GIRL CHRONICLES, and PRIESTESS OF TWERK have been or will be featured by The Shed, JACK, La Mama ETC, Playwright’s Realm, BRIC, HERE, National Black Theatre, BAAD, Movement Research, BAX, Dixon Place, Painted Bride, 651 Arts, and elsewhere. Witherspoon has been recognized by the Mellon Foundation, NYFA, the Wurlitzer Foundation, Lambda Literary, and Theatre Bay Area, and most recently NEFA/NTP. She holds a BA from Smith College and a PhD from Stanford University in Theatre and Performance Studies, and her writing is published in the Journal of Popular Culture; Imagined Theatres; Women, Collective Creation, and Devised Performance; and IMANIMAN: Poets Writing in the Anzaldúan Borderlands. Witherspoon has held tenure-track professorships at Florida State University and Arizona State University taught at Fordham and University of Massachusetts (Amherst), and is currently working on a manuscript tentatively titled NATION IN THE DARK: A Black femme spell for justice.
We’re so excited to share that Live From Mount Olympus, our Greek Myth Podcast created in partnership with Onassis Foundation, has been renewed for Season 2. The new season will premiere in early 2022 so in the meantime, we’ll be releasing monthly “Mythlets” to tide fans over. Listen to the first mythlet, which focuses on Adamantine’s Sword here.