Interview with Saviana Stanescu

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.

Ellen:

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?

Saviana:

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.

Ellen:

Tell me about your curating philosophy and process; what do you love about curating?

Saviana:

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.

Ellen:

What has been most challenging and most rewarding about curating playgroundzero?

Saviana:

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.

Ellen:

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?

Saviana:

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.

Ellen:

If you had to describe the playgroundzero series in seven words (or a haiku…) what would you say?

Saviana:

Playing

Together

Zooming in

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!

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