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Blog, CULTURAL DEMOCRACY & REPRESENTATION

TALKING TO KAREN MALPEDE: 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.

Karen Malpede

Karen Malpede

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

I’ve been writing and producing my plays since 1979; you can do the math.  I’ve always been a woman and women have always been discriminated against in the theater, especially as playwrights and directors.  The situation has not changed, even as many women become artists, very few women get produced, reviews of plays by women are always worse than our male counterparts.  But, there is more:  I write poetic language plays about crucial social issues.   I am a poetic and a political playwright.  I’m an eco- feminist and a pacifist.  My plays are about envisioning new ways of being just as much as they are about addressing the costs of violence.  In 1995, I founded Theater Three Collaborative with George Bartenieff and the late Lee Nagrin in order to produce plays that could not be produced elsewhere.

2. Do you face challenges in the field based on the way you identify yourself? Or because of your age?

I came of age during the Vietnam War.  I went to undergraduate school at the University of Wisconsin and to graduate school at Columbia.  Before I went to my graduate seminars, I would block traffic on the West Side Highway to hand out antiwar literature.  I was lucky:  I have known some of the great pacifist feminists of the 20th Century: Grace Paley, Barbara Deming, Dorothy Dinnerstein, Judith Malina, Christa Wolf (whose novel Cassandra I adapted for the stage), Ynestra King, Alex Kates Shulman, Charlotte Phillips, and I’ve been arrested with most of them.  What a privilege to spend a night in jail with Grace Paley.  I interviewed Noam Chomsky for a CBS special I was writing about the theater of Peter Handke and the Open Theater and libertarian socialism in the 70ies.  Then in 2008, we reconnected when he came to my play “Prophecy” and did a great talkback afterward.   I have always said the real rewards for the work I do are the people I’ve met. As my friend Julian Beck used to say: “Do we grow old or do we grow wise?”

There is a certain freedom in growing older.  I no longer care what people think.  I go days without looking in the mirror.  I believe in keeping fit.  I do yoga, walk dogs; I haven’t eaten meat in 40 years.  I do love nice clothes.

But, there is enormous economic censorship at work and in insidious places.  My favorite recent example is this one:  The Alfred Sloan Foundation offers grants to playwrights who write plays about science.  My new play “Extreme Whether” is about the struggle of climate scientists to tell the truth about global warming in the face of climate change deniers, who are usually funded by the fossil fuel industry. “Extreme Whether” has been read and heard in an April reading by America’s finest climate scientist, James Hansen, who has been a victim of many of the tactics dramatized in the play.  “The play certainly resonates with me.  Would be good if many more people could see it,” he wrote to me.  It turns out that the Sloan Foundation (whose founder Alfred P. worked for General Motors) funds one of the biggest climate change deniers in the nation: Sloan endows the Chair at MIT of Richard Lindzen.  Sloan is funding someone who is actively engaged in discrediting climate science—who is lying, that is, about climate change.  They refused to fund my play on the grounds that they did not wish to put such “evil” characters on stage as the climate deniers in my play.   I have tons of similar examples.  My last play “Another Life” tells the story of the US torture program; it has been widely praised by this country’s major human rights activists, but it was refused funding by all but the Open Societies Institutes, that gave us a small grant, and the TCG Mellon Foundation which provided an early travel grant.  We had to sell the only thing we owned to fund the play ourselves.  In other words, if an artist dares to speak truth to power, watch out.  Power holds the purse strings.  Insofar as artists are trying to change the culture, we are always subject to economic censorship.

We have had to become very creative with funding.  In the past, we have partnered with other not-for-profits to offer them benefit nights in the theater.  They buy the house from us in advance and then sell the tickets at a higher price to their members.  It’s a win-win situation.  For the anti-torture play, we found funding extremely difficult. We did partner with Bailey’s Cafe, an intergenerational arts and culture project based in Bed-Sty (and that was a most wonderful audience; the black folk understand torture and have enormous empathy.)  With “Extreme Whether” because it is about climate change–which affects everyone on earth–we are more hopeful about finding funding sources. After all, the Sloan Foundation aside, there must be an interest in funding a good play that addresses climate change in a compelling way.

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

Many people say to me that at Theater Three Collaborative we do work unlike anything else that is being done.  “Who else does what you do?” is usually the way this is said.  I don’t know.  Of course, the same can be said of many of the artists I admire, in history and the present day:  we are each unique.

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

All the time.  We slog on.

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

Our offices are in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn and we love this neighborhood.  But it is difficult to work in Brooklyn.  We love Brooklyn for Peace, a grass roots organization that has been enormously helpful in bringing audiences to our work.  We are a New York based theater, but I think it is increasingly difficult to work in NYC and that it would be better almost anywhere else.

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 get better reviews, even rave reviews, abroad—London, Berlin, Italy.  In NYC we decided not to allow the NYC critics into see “Another Life”.  We were getting enormous praise from audiences, lawyers, writers, activists; we didn’t see any reason to invite the critics.

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?

We did a truly beautiful production of “Another Life”.  We produced the play three times and ended up taking it to a festival in London.  London audiences were thrilled by the quality of the play and by the acting.  My partner, George Bartenieff, is one of the great American actors and his performance as Handel, the mogul, was astonishing.  But the entire company was excellent, so was the design.  Our first concern is always the artistic quality of our work.  We work with a talented team. We surround our plays with Festivals of Conscience: major public intellectuals (Noam Chomsky, Mark Danner, many lawyers for Guantanamo detainees, activists like Michael Ratner and Jesselyn Radick, major climate scientists, etc.) speak after our plays.  We believe that powerful art opens audience hearts and minds, and then informed discourse with experts becomes an added pleasure.  Our audiences love this mix of high art and good talk.

8. What do you see as the most pressing financial issues of your age group?

Money is the most pressing financial issue.  Money to live is even increasingly difficult to come by.  I was let go from a teaching job at a private theater school during the 2008 recession (they decided not to teach dramatic literature any longer) and I’ve been living at bare subsistence ever since. We are a poor theater and we do beautiful work on surprisingly small budgets.  There is simply not enough money for the arts, and what money there is goes to the big institutions—but the big institutions are afraid of the sort work we do.  I’ve been told to my face by a major producer that my work is “too risky” for him to present.  He was being honest.  Yet, audiences don’t feel that way at all; they crave the sort of work we do.  If we had the money to reach them we could grow our audience.

Karen Malpede’s most recent plays are “Extreme Whether,” “Another Life”, and “Prophecy” (published in Acts of War: Iraq & Afghanistan in Seven Plays).  She is the author of 17 produced plays, numerous essays on theater and other topics, and short fiction. She is co-founder with George Bartenieff, and the late Lee Nagrin, of Theater Three Collaborative, an award-winning social justice and social action theater based in Brooklyn.  She has taught theater and writing at Smith, NYU, CUNY-Graduate Center, AMDA, John Jay College.  Recipient of a McKnight National Playwrights’ Fellowship and a NYFA playwriting grant. Please visit our website www.theaterthreecollaborative.org for more information.  Join our mailing list at info@theaterthreecollaborative.org

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About kyounghpark

Artistic Director, Pacific Beat Collective

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