HowlRound Interviews Marissa Chibas: Aesthetics of Diversity

Jun 14, 2011

Marissa Chibas is a performer, writer, and educator who’s worked in a wide variety of theatrical forms for over two decades. Her American premieres as an actor include; the co-production with The Center for New Performance at CalArts and INTAR of her one woman show Daughter of a Cuban Revolutionary at the REDCAT Theater in Los Angeles and the Lehman Theater in Miami. Currently the head of Teatro CalArts—a bilingual theater initiative, Chibas was until 2010 the head of MFA Acting at CalArts.

Howlround, the online journal of the  American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage, recently posted a very interesting interview with Chibas on the notion of aesthetic diversity, its relationship to cultural diversity, and the relevancy of institutional arts training.  An excerpt of the interview by Daniel Alexander Jones:
Daniel: You have spoken eloquently about the urgent need for aesthetic diversity on contemporary American stages. As a starting point, can you summarize your views on this subject, perhaps including your observation of current aesthetic trends (mainstream and underground) and your concerns about any perceived lack of diversity?

Marissa: I see American theatrical institutions holding on to old notions of who their audiences are and what they want. An aesthetically diverse theater would not only embrace the many cultures and stories reflected in their communities, but also include productions outside of the Anglo-European narrative-driven aesthetic. Everyone is talking about things becoming more global and the rapid change of delivery systems; performance needs to respond to this changing world. In fact,the change has already happened and the theater in this country lags far behind the other arts in this arena. We seem to be stuck in 19th century ideas, and this is reflected in the programming at theater institutions around the country. Now, there are many companies and individuals working outside of that, and truly exploring exciting ways to incorporate new technologies, new ways of making theater, cross-cultural and multilingual, cross-disciplinary processes that connect us with a broader audience, and work with text that takes into account the multilingual tapestries that are our communities. The problem is that these artists and companies are working mostly outside of institutions and are presenting work in this country but having to self-produce that work. In this economic climate that becomes increasingly unsustainable.

The people that we’re training at CalArts are ready to begin a new conversation. But, what you have are producing organizations whose leadership is really firmly holding onto an Anglo-European aesthetic—traditional narrative aesthetic. And the people who are in the literary departments and so forth are being groomed to weed out material that is not part of that. I know many playwrights who begin with wanting to investigate a more non-narrative structure, something more along the lines of Lorca—I don’t like the term magic realism, but for lack of a better term—and part of it is that I do think that’s realism for some cultures. You know to speak to ancestors is something that’s real for me as a Latina, I grew up seeing family members do it. So, you know, it’s not magic; but looking within a frame of Anglo-European narrative, it is magic realism. And then in the workshop process it’s not fitting the formulas the theaters have decided are what the public wants. And part of it is that the public that they are engaging with still continues to be narrow. I know that some theaters are trying to do something beyond that—or they say they are—but the thinking is still really embedded in 19th century ideas of theater. And so we have a lot of graduates who are finding venues like MPAC or Mass MoCA or international film festivals where the work that they are exploring that is more interdisciplinary in nature, more a part of their generation that just grew up with technology, those are venues where they can present, maybe even get produced. But the producing theaters that have the ability to actually support these new works are not doing it.

Daniel: You see this as a wakeup call to our larger American theater that we are losing a generation to other media?

In 2009 one of the presenters at TCG said the America of the future that you envisage as being in the future is actually here now. Look at these populations that are not being addressed in your programming. It was very clear. Two years later I don’t really see any difference, any big changes. One of the things I want to work on are some statistics related to the percentages of people of color and how much of the work being done in theaters actually reflect those communities. We have a pretty standard season that we’ve been doing for the past thirty years without changing much and then throwing a bone to communities of color—but no bone is being thrown at all to the community that is young—young communities who are interested in new technologies (aesthetics); who are interested in a theater that includes what they’ve grown up with. Collage is a big part of it. There’s something about how we’re wired. It would be interesting to trace the leaders in the field of non-traditional, non-text based work to see how many of us are bilingual. There’s something about (what happens) once your brain is needing to access more abstraction, it becomes a need for you to see that abstraction in the arts as well.
Read the complete interview at HowlRound.

Marissa will be speaking at the 2011 TCG Conference "Global Strategies: Transcultural Theatre in the 21st Century" session.  More information at

Tags: HowlRound, Marissa Chibas, diversity, aesthetics, duende, TCG2011

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