The H.E.A.T. Collective was founded by Artistic Director Jessica Litwak to create, advocate and inspire artistic expression rooted in healing, education, activism, and theatre. We work to build collectives in every context: in our performances, workshops and community events. Engaging artists across the world, we aim for powerful bridge building art of courageous generosity. In this series, guest experts will write a piece representing each letter of H.E.A.T. - week one will be healing, week two is education, week three is activism, and the last week of the month is theatre. Together these pieces will highlight the work that is being done across all aspects of The H.E.A.T. Collective in the hopes that we can ignite dialogue, spark further exploration, and encourage more people to get involved.
I am a Romanian playwright with Balkan roots, writing mostly in English now, working in the US, constantly living on the bridge of inbetweeness: negotiating between two cultures, two continents, two cities (NYC and Ithaca, where I teach), between the West and the East, between being an artist and a teacher, etc.
I am used to hyphenating identities and integrating dychotomies, but I hate binaries and anything that puts people in two opposite boxes.
I started as a poet, writing in Romanian, publishing three books of poetry. In the late 90s, a Romanian critic labelled me: "the tough poetess-playwright at the border between millennia". Another inbetween that defines me. When my dramatic poem "The Outcast" was performed in Paris at Théâtre Gérard-Philipe in 1998, I was considering myself a poet, but people were calling me a playwright. So I started to believe it.
I went to Germany to study Playwriting in English with David Harrower and Phyllis Nagy, at the Ruhr International Theatre Academy. Then I went back to Romania and won The Best Play of The Year UNITER (Theatre Guild) Award for my new play "The Inflatable Apocalypse". I officially became a playwright ☺
It is a different thing to write in English for US audiences. My writing has changed. In Romania I used to write absurdist plays with feminist, sexual, revolutionary, and anti-consumerism undertones.
In the US, I am more concerned with identity issues, immigration, and the reality of being a global foreigner, an 'alien', who works hard to feel that she belongs, that she found her home…
I wrote "Aliens with Extraordinary Skills" in English as a writer-in-residence for Women’s Project in 2008. “Alien” is a word impossible to translate in other languages while maintaining all its meanings: foreigner, extraterrestrial, immigrant… When the play got produced in Mexico City at Teatro La Capilla (after successful runs off-Broadway at Women's Project and regionally), in Spanish, under the title "Inmigrantes con Habilidades Extraordinarias", I noticed different things that were relevant and impactful for Mexican audiences. When the play was produced at Odeon Theatre in Bucharest, in Romanian, under the title "Clown Visa", the Romanian audiences resonated with other aspects of the characters and storyline. While there is always a core of the play that stays the same for spectators everywhere, the nuances of reception are different in the US, Mexico, Romania, or France, people resonate with their own social and political issues, respond to their own historical, political, and personal references.
On another note – jumping to a new page/topic like we do on internet - the new global revolution in IT and social media has been influencing our work in theatre too.
In my American plays I have scenes or choruses that take place in chatrooms, on Craiglist, Facebook, etc. I sometimes use spoken emojis and they are lots of fun for audiences and actors. In all my devised theatre pieces there is some internet forum or cyber-chorus of text messages and emails: "E-dating", "Riots", "Back to Ithaca - a contemporary Odyssey" (based on interviews with Ithaca veterans), "The Others" (about microaggressions on college campuses), etc.
In my 2000 Romanian play, "The Inflatable Apocalypse", I had 'commercial breaks' and a postmodern non-linear structure that intersected different narratives. I actually think that my writing style has become more traditional here in the US, although it's still somewhat 'experimental' compared to mainstream dramas.
I particularly enjoyed co-writing DREAM ACTS with 4 strong women writers: Chiori Miyagawa, Jessical Litwak, Andrea Thome, Mia Chung. It’s a play based on interviews with and stories of DREAM ACT-eligible youth. We developed the play together, and after a first production at HERE, we had multiple staged readings followed by panel discussions that always included a DREAMER, an immigration lawyer, and other experts on social change and immigration.
Maybe because I was in the streets, as an idealist college student, at the Romanian revolution in December 1989, and then I worked as a journalist in the newly created free press, I still believe in the revolutionary writer - the writer who's always on the barricades, fighting for the underdogs, pushing the borders of human knowledge and the understanding of The Others.
My first assignment as a journalist in the early 90s, in Bucharest, was to write about the pulling down of the Lenin's statue from its pedestal. Then I had to interview the first woman prime-minister of Turkey. Those experiences informed my playwriting much later. In 2006, in NYC, I wrote "Lenin's Shoe", a play about a trauma of the Past 'pulling you down' from the reality of the Present. It seems that I needed time and distance (personal, political, cultural) to better understand my own past and hi/story, and explore them in my writing. In "Waxing West", which won the 2007 New York Innovative Theatre Award for Outstanding Play, I was finally able to have a character, Daniela, who deals with the memories of the 1989 Revolution, as she is trying to make a life for herself in NYC. I dramatized Daniela's inner conflict: she is haunted by dictator Ceausescu and his wife Elena, who appear to her as vaudevillian vampires. In "Aliens with Extraordinary Skills", Nadia, the protagonist from Moldova, is harassed by imaginary immigration officers, symbolizing her fears due to her undocumented status. I always try to find a theatrical way to explore concepts that go beyond psychological realism. I guess this is happening not only because my Eastern European heritage but also because, as a writer-in-residence for Richard Schechner (YokastaS Redux, Timbuktu) in my first years in the USA, I learned to write in English with an enhanced sense of the performative possibilities of a theatre piece.
My recent play "What Happens Next", a futuristic ‘Waiting for Godette’ with two women in a dystopian white room, (commissioned and produced by The Cherry Arts, directed by Sam Buggeln, featuring Jennifer Herzog and Erica Steinhagen), engages with multi-media performativity.
I think that the role of the playwright in the contemporary society is to respond to the spirit and the issues of our time, to question the unquestionable, to address the difficult topics, to challenge the taboos, to subvert the mainstream power, and never provide easy answers to stereotypical questions...
That’s why I like organizations like Jessica Litwak’s HEAT - they work hard to create a community of artists who have a socio-political voice, who are ARTivists, like myself. Jessica has been tirelessly working to bring justice and social change to the visible core of our (artistic) lives.
Caridad Svich has created NoPassport and organized many theatre actions that bring visibility to playwrights/artists from different backgrounds. But we also need significant support to be able to bring ground-breaking forms of theatre into the mainstream.
I founded Immigrants Artists and Scholars in New York (IASNY) and we have an annual event NEW YORK WITH AN ACCENT at the Nuyorican Poets Café and other venues, showcasing immigrant artists: poets, playwrights, musicians, dancers, filmmakers, interdisciplinary/performance artists, etc. Unfortunately I haven’t had time to do much for IASNY later as I have been extremely busy teaching full time at Ithaca College, as an associate professor of Playwriting and Contemporary Theatre, and mentoring/supporting our students. Education is of course extremely important.
I got my MA in Performance Studies and MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU, Tisch School of the Arts, and my studies there were happy times for me. I like the rigor of developing a play in a process that makes it stronger and stronger, and I particularly like to work with the US actors and a director towards the production of a play. There is such specificity and attention to the details of the writing that it's very rewarding for a playwright like me, who moved into the English language in her early 30s... I care about the patterns of speech for each character, I love every little word that I add in a monologue or a line, and it must be absolutely right for the character and the situation. So working with American actors is very helpful for me, it's useful to hear my words aloud, to see what works and what doesn't. I am grateful to organizations like The Lark, New York Theatre Workshop, The New Group, EST, Women's Project, The Cherry, Civic Ensemble, that helped me develop my craft and my vision in the last 17 years since I arrived for my first time in New York.
One could say that I’m a 17-year old American playwright.
I will turn 18 next summer and finally become major ☺
I was thinking to write a book - International Artist's Survival Guide.
Your life and work in the US depend on sooooo many things if you are a foreigner, an alien, a global citizen, an international writer.
You need a few of the following basic 'items': a work visa, a supportive community/family, money, theatre industry contacts, relevance of your home country in the public eye, and of course – persistency. "Nevertheless, she persisted"…
On the other hand, I resist the idea that - as a Romanian writer - I should only write about Romanians or Eastern Europeans. I'm concerned with issues in the contemporary society that don't affect only Romanians, I care about the inequality gap, racial injustice, poverty, underdogs, outcasts… I believe in intersections, in expansion, in a global humanism.
It's very limiting to reduce a writer to her biography, no matter how rich and meaningful that is.
The rise of nationalist/populist movements globally is scary on many levels. They put us in boxes, they pit us against each other, they encourage hate and violence against THE OTHERS. It's the old 'Divide Et Impera', divide and conquer...
The only strategy I see for us, artists, is to support each other and raise our voices through our work. To be more revolutionary than ever.
Saviana Stanescu is an award-winning Romanian-born playwright and ARTivist based in New York/Ithaca. Her plays include Aliens with extraordinary skills, Ants (both published by Samuel French), Lenin’s Shoe, Useless, Toys, Bechnya, Hurt, Hobo-Jungle, Waxing West (2007 NY Innovative Theatre Award), What Happens Next, developed/produced at Women’s Project, La MaMa, New York Theatre Workshop, EST, HERE, New Georges, Lark, Cherry, Teatro La Capilla, etc. Saviana holds an MA in Performance Studies and an MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU. She teaches Playwriting and Contemporary Theatre/Performance at Ithaca College and is the founder of Immigrant Artists and Scholars in New York. (www.saviana.com)