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Talking to Julián J. Mesri: A Cultural Democracy in the Performing Arts Interview

The Brooklyn Commune’s Cultural Democracy and Representation Team, led by Kyoung H. Park, has designed an artist survey to invite artists to share their experiences working in the field in order to open up public discussions regarding diversity and inclusion in the performing arts. Over the course of the next few months, we will highlight interviews with artists who are in conversation with the Brooklyn Commune’s Cultural Democracy and Representation Team, and we invite members of our community to help us gather more information by completing our survey here. Our team will synthesize our findings and share these interviews and our findings online.
Julián J. Mesri

Julián J. Mesri

1. How do you identify yourself? How does your identity influence or inform your work?

I am an Argentine-American New Yorker who has basically been raised in this city. I emigrated to the United States at the age of four, but I have always been between cultures. As of late this has worked itself more and more into my work – trying to bring the bilinguality, and multicultural threads of New York together on American stages without polemicizing or explicitly drawing attention to the fact. It also makes me more aware of being a citizen of the larger America(s) and the often complicated relationship that our country has in the Americas. My work is oftentimes concerned with these shared histories and how this informs our current situation, particularly what happens in this city.

2. Do you face challenges in the field based on the way you identify yourself?

This is a complicated question. I would say yes, but this is a very difficult field in general, and sometimes one wonders whether embracing such a specifically catered to and formally succinct diaspora would actually allow us to grow as artists, even though it virtually guarantees one some measure of success were they to essentially “sell out” and embrace a very limited description of our culture. The problem is, that Latino, while embracing the better part of a continent and the various languages, cultures and diasporas both in and out of this country, has a very specific aesthetic and formal connotation within the bounds of the American theatre and oftentimes, this aesthetic, rather than cultivating its own poetics of expression, is just a representation of the classic “Americanplay” in “Latino”-dress. I never identified my own experience in these kinds of stories, and its oftentimes the formal experimentalism, the unbridled but unexaggerated politicism and honest, visceral text driven work that I identify with my culture, but I hardly see on any of our stages.

3. Where do you (or can you) locate representations of your culture [community] within contemporary performance?

I feel that the dearth of Latino representation in theatre in NY has left out a fervent avant-garde movement that is both happening here in NYC as well as the rest of Latinamerica and I don’t just mean the uptown theaters that have all those bougie well-made plays that are so easy to take apart. Unfortunately, I’m also talking about the downtown theatre scene that I have grown up with, and that many of us at the Commune participate in. And though the idea is of course for this to be the venue for the honest to goodness honest, crazy and experimental work, I find that it suffers from the same disease of homogeneity as the uptown. This is exceedingly troublesome, since it’s always going to be the bigger money venues that are going to skew conservative. But to have your downtown venues, which, at the same rate that they grow more and more curated and popular begin to affect a sameness that permeates not just the backgrounds of the performers (more often than not coming from backgrounds we call “privileged”) but also the very content and formal approach of the work, means that we are in danger of losing one of our best forums of expression.

I feel that there are two problems here: the lack of minority representation in theatre and a nearly fatal mistake in figuring out who we’re making work for. This double-misrepresentation of the use of theatre leads to the work itself suffering, endlessly repeating previous innovations from the groundbreakers of the 70s, or content to dwell in somatic crowd-pleasing irony or mindless design exercises that speak more about the technical rigor of the work than any meaning behind it. Which is precisely the problem. Other avant-gardes could fill this listless gap because they arose in communities that formed around the work not vice versa. A need was found and it was exploited. But a need that connected us to an actual group of people.

The only real “need” I fear the new downtown theatre is fulfilling is the same kind of need as any new New York “trend” is fulfilling. It’s the same kind of thing the average subscriber of New York magazine looks for. It’s the paperchild of an administration that has made New York City one of the most pleasing cities in the country by constructing an essential playground for the rich. The result is an era replete with communities that are queer but not too queer, political but certainly not explicitly so, and diverse enough to cast a few POCs to fill the quotient, or else endlessly reflect on diversity with irony, as if to say our shame is enough to cover up our gross misappropriations. Does it never gall us to think that in one of the most diverse cities in the world, we should still be having this conversation? Yet this very conversation holds the seed of a very real need that unites us as New Yorkers and Americans.

I firmly believe that New York’s need requires stripping away the luxury of our new city like a vandalized Citibike, and walking across the street of our gentrified neighborhood and re-alienating ourselves in the city. Theatre has become too comfortable and as a result has made itself all but irrelevant to the people and communities who could do the most with it. We are all a part of communities that speak multiple languages, who are affected by American policies both in and out of this country, and need to  humble ourselves to re-make our spaces as spaces of opportunity, not spaces of “refined art” which has resulted in the increased homogeneity and aesthetic sleepiness we all too often find in our fading downtown.

4. Are there moments in which your cultural identity [community] is misrepresented or underrepresented, and how do you address this?

Yes, I get absolutely uncomfortable whenever a theatre company (even one I love) steps into questions of race, or identity, particularly when the members of the ensemble begin telling these stories about things they might not have experience with. Our love of stories (and I say this as a storyteller) can sometimes numb us to the fact that there are some stories that we have to be more careful about how we tell. I get worried when I see a performance and the only POC is the villain or the sexpot – or when stereotypes are reinforced, even in ironic ways. I remember seeing a piece that was by a Latino playwright, at an important off-Bway theatre that dealt with issues of race but did so in a more humorous way. I could understand how this piece was progressive, but all I saw was a majority white audience laughing at jokes making fun of minorities in a really nice theatre with really bright costumes and lights. It was one of a few times I’ve felt like I was at a minstrel show at a NY theatre. But this is a function of the system, not the individual parts – the play itself, in a different context may have had a much more different effect, but I feel that when it enters into this structure it can become awfully dangerous (and I’m not talking about being PC but being conscious of how someone who has a very different experience would read what is being said/portrayed).

5. Have you been a working artist in another culture [community]? Has this experience exposed something about current practices that we can learn from?

The most amazing theatre communities have been in places that have a mixture of both tradition and need. In Berlin, you have a state-sponsored theatre and a theatre identity that is built into a national identity, one, which history necessitates to be challenged over and over again. In Buenos Aires there is again a tradition, reinvigorated by an event called “Teatro Abierto”, which in the heart of the dictatorship, brought theatre to the people and found a need for artistic expression in repression, a need that finds itself over and over again through the different administration and creates work that even if it’s not politically explicit, always have a firm ear to political and national conscience. In Johannesburg you have tremendous historical institutions like The Market Theatre, and places like Soweto, where the most basics of elements allow theatre to persist precisely because it has an absolutely essential human need of expression. In Buenos Aires, where I have worked extensively, the theatre is made with what’s around – people enter into cooperatives and buy into rehearsal space and spend a couple of years on a work, or move into abandoned schoolhouses to put on work with a couple of lights you might have even stolen from a nearby theatre. It’s almost always temporary, all in repertory and never has the amount of “stuff” that we usually bring into what we consider “professional work”.

Which isn’t to say that these communities don’t have their share of challenges – but it’s a demonstration of how a change of priority and different needs can find a wealth of new voices.

6. Have you worked in other cities/regions and can you tell us about the reception of your work there in comparison to NYC?

I presented work in Buenos Aires, and what I found with audiences is that they were engaging much more in the intellectual, aesthetic and philosophical choices than the craft choices. They weren’t commenting on the quality of the structure or story, or the construction of relationships, but on the novelty of the work, and the political and social undertones. A friend of mine who works as a curator in BA tells me that what audiences want is a new voice. They will forgive issues of craft, length or nonsensical moments in the desire to discover a new poetics.

7. Describe an ideal situation in which your work is presented. Is there anything you’d like your audience to know about you before viewing your work?

A small theatre that’s part of a community where a young and old, diverse audience comes together. Grabs a drink before in the cafe attached to the theatre or across the street. You see a show, maybe another show, you grab a dinner afterward and have a conversation; but most importantly you come back into the city with a renewed sense of awareness. You aren’t convinced of anything, you aren’t indoctrinated, but you’re thinking, you’re active, and you’re trying to find your place in this city, in this society. It mirrors what we do as artists, we carve out a place for us in order to learn our place, and figure this whole thing out. But the beauty of theatre is that it happens in a community, in a city, and it’s a lot more fun and productive if we do it together.

JULIÁN J. MESRI is a New York based Argentinean-American director, playwright and composer who is proud to work with a company of actors encompassing both North and South America and work in both English and Spanish. He was a 2012-2013 Emerging Artist of Color Fellow at New York Theatre Workshop where he developed a bilingual (English/Spanish) adaptation of Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Weavers as well as Immersion a new piece being workshopped about gentrification and immigration. This spring he served as Artistic Director of the Pen World Voices: New Plays from Spain presentation at Martin Segal Theatre, working alongside Artistic Producer Sarah Rose Leonard in an exchange between Spanish playwrights and New York actors/directors. Recent work includes a modern adaptation of Fuenteovejuna at Repertorio Español, as well as the premiere of Susana Cook’s The Homophobes. He was a member of the 2012 dramatists seminar at Panorama Sur, an international symposium of Hispanic playwrights in Buenos Aires. With the Lark theatre center he has worked as both director (2010) and translator (2012) for the US/Mexico Word Exchange.

As a 2010-2011 Van Lier fellow at Repertorio Español, Julian directed Rafael Spregelburd’s “La estupidez” in its New York premiere (ACE nominee, Best Direction) and presented Calderón de la Barca’s “La dama duende”. As director and sound designer he has worked with companies and festivals such as Repertorio Español, Monarch Theatre, NYU, Martin Segal Theatre, INTAR, Incubator Arts Project, Bushwick Starr, EST, Prelude ’12, Fringe NYC, PERFORMA 09, Ice Factory, International WOW, Josh Fox and Teatro IATI. Internationally he has collaborated and worked with artists from Mexico, Buenos Aires, Venzeuela, Chile, Cadiz and the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. As a playwright his work has also been read at venues such as New York Theatre Workshop, Dixon Place and the Lark Theatre Center. His play The King in Exile was presented in a new translation by the playwright in Buenos Aires in 2011. He is also a proud alum of EMERGENYC at the Hemispheric Institute, NYU, where he presented the audio-piece “Inventing the Audience” in 2010. Currently he is a founding member of Fifth Wall theatre company, a collaboration between US, Argentine and Spanish artists based in the US, which will present the original work “39 Defaults” at La Mama in Winter 2014, after a sold out run at Teatro Stage Fest in Summer 2012.

Catch my next collaborations as sound designer and composer at Susana Cook’s “We are Caligula” at the Dixon Place HOT festival on August 3rd @8:30 PM and Ibrahim el Husseini’s “Comedy of Sorrows” directed by Tracy Cameron Francis and presented as part of HERE’s summer sublet series from August 21-25@ 7 PM.

Catch the latest news (as well as future performance dates) at www.julianmesri.com or on Twitter @enemyofthestage 


About kyounghpark

Artistic Director, Pacific Beat Collective


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