Festival dramaturg Ellen Joffred sits down with award-winning playwright Saviana Stanescu to talk about the birth of undergroundzero and her curatorial philosophy for playgroundzero, the festival’s new play reading series.
Food for Thought: playgroundzero
At the first playgroundzero event, I picked curator Saviana Stanescu out of the crowd immediately. Colorful, passionate, and vivacious, Saviana is one cool, hyphenated artist. She is a “Playwright-poet- screenwriter-performer-teacher-ARTivist-journalist-curator,” who definitely knows how to draw an audience. The Kabyitos Theatre at Clemente Soto Velez was packed for the works-in-progress reading of Dawn Saito’s Sword of Sea, and even in the sweltering heat wave, the entire audience stayed to support her post-performance talk back. Saviana’s role and approach to playgroundzero is fascinating and inspiring; she generously shared her thoughts with me about playgroundzero in our interview below.
You’ve been a crucial part of the undergroundzero festival since it’s genesis. How has playgroundzero evolved and grown in the past 5 years? What are you most excited about this year?
Yes, I was with the festival from the moment of immaculate conception – I’m its Godmother, or Goddessmother, I came up with the name undergroundzero in a brainstorming discussion with Paul Bargetto. Then playgroundzero got born and after a year the common ground talk-shows. Everything else was built up from that creative ground and the idea of empowering the artists to manage and present an artist-driven festival. playgroundzero has grown since then, it’s is now a smart toddler asking lots of questions.
I’m very excited about the 4 fierce and provocative women artists that I invited to present works-in-progress: Dawn Saito, Cecilia Copeland, Penny Jackson and Pamela Jackson. I didn’t plan to select only women initially, it just happened. Those were the artists I felt would bring something imaginative, strong and diverse to the playground. Those were the artists I wanted to play with this year. Male artistic directors make this kind of argument each time they select only male artists in their season: those were the artists that excited us, we select based on merit and the needs of our audiences. Well, me too. I don’t have the power of the big theatres but in my small way I’m trying stay truthful to my vision.
Tell me about your curating philosophy and process; what do you love about curating?
I am mainly a playwright and I care deeply about my plays and seeing them come to life and to stage. But I can’t focus only on my writing. I wear many hats. (pointing at her pink hat: Literally!) I need to be in a stimulating dialogue with the global society we live in and with the other artists. I am a teacher as well, I teach in the Drama Department at Tisch School of the Arts and occasionally at ESPA, Primary Stages. When I wear my professorial hat I feel responsible with inspiring/pushing my students to do their best and try to fulfill their creative/human potential.
I like curating because it allows me to implement my bigger vision (in small bits). I care about work that’s risk-taking, provocative, boundaries-pushing, I love intriguing self-challenging artists that pose meaningful questions without providing easy answers. I appreciate shows that give the audiences food for thought not just entertainment. Given the lunchtime when we present playgroundzero this year – 1 pm, on Sundays – the metaphor “food for thought” feels more appropriate than ever.
What has been most challenging and most rewarding about curating playgroundzero?
Challenging? Hmmm. I guess the fact that there are many brilliant artists that I could invite but I can only choose 4. The most rewarding? The fact that I can choose 4 artists to support and offer them the (small yet meaningful) opportunity to bring a work-in-progress in front of an audience, as part of a well-attended and buzz-inducing festival. Hopefully playgroundzero helps them test some ideas, see what works and what doesn’t, and move their project to the next stage towards production. That’s why I think the talk-backs are important too. playgroundzero is not only about presenting a work-in-progress but engaging in a conversation about the collaborative process, the research involved in the project, the context, the pretext, the subtext, not just the text.
What struck you most about this primary piece Sword of Sea? Why did you choose this particular piece to kick off this year’s playgroundzero?
First I should mention that the title is now “Suns are suns”, another proof that we just zoom-in in a developmental working process. Dawn Saito is an amazing performer and artist, I was really excited that she was interested in presenting her solo show-in-progress in playgroundzero. The topic of sex/human traffic concerns me deeply and I think it is not talked about enough. I myself have written about Eastern European women & men being trafficked and I know quite a few other strong plays and movies that explore the theme. But Dawn Saito brings something unique to the tapestry of painful stories of human traffic in her solo-show, employing movement and a very special and powerful character. Director Maria Mileaf has helped her shape a beautiful piece that I’m sure will reach big stages and hearts.
If you had to describe the playgroundzero series in seven words (or a haiku…) what would you say?
A question mark
Ellen: As Saviana explained to me, playgroundzero records “moments in an evolution of artists.” Don’t miss these fresh final playgroundzero presentations this Sunday 7/22 and 7/29!