The Petri DISH Episode 5: Sarah Gallegos & Ema Zivkovic

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.

Ema: Hello.

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.

Ema: Yes. Thank you.

Sarah: You’re welcome. Yeah.

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