The World is Wrong-side Out: a Conversation with Playwright Karen Malpede

by Jody Strimling-Muchow

Karen Malpede, Hermes and Cleis

I was feeling pretty crappy the day that I had scheduled an interview with Karen Malpede. I was just hoping I had enough energy to make it through without sounding like an idiot. And I was nervous, because, well, it’s Karen Malpede. She is a playwright, a director, a teacher, an ecofeminist, a renegade artist, and co-founder of Theatre Three Collaborative. She’s dedicated her artistic talent to making a difference in the world. Her latest book, Plays in Time, collects four of her plays in which “nature, poetry, ritual, and empathy are presented in contrast to the abuse of persons and world.” And they’re funny, too.

As soon as she said ‘hello’ the conversation flowed and I forgot to be nervous after all. Suddenly an hour was gone, and I realized how incredibly lucky I am to have spent it with her. The conversation was energizing and wide-ranging. Below is a some of what we discussed. But don’t stop here. Karen will be our guest on June 9th. Come and be inspired for yourself!

GET LIT BEACON: You call yourself an ecofeminist playwright. What does that mean, and how does it inform your work?

KAREN MALPEDE: It informs my work in every possible way. Ecofeminism is a way of being that is always aware of the importance of the earth and her many creatures, and the interconnectedness of all beings – the nonhierarchical relationship between healthy living systems. It’s an assumption that the world is wrong-side out, that the relationship with self, with others, could be very different than it is. I try to show that in my work.

In Europe, it’s assumed that theatre plays a role in reflecting the wrongs of society in order to work toward change. Theatre has a political voice. It’s located in a social political system, which is human-made, suffered in by humans, and can be opposed, changed, by humans.

American writers, on the other hand, are influenced still by McCarthyism. There’s a sense of self-censorship, maybe unconscious in many playwrights. So we have dramas about isolated families in a vacuum. What’s going on in the outside world doesn’t appear, the focus is on the personal. I call it domestic drama, or couch drama. A story that doesn’t impact your worldview, and where what’s happening in the world doesn’t impact the play.

GLB: You’ve classified your plays as outside of the mainstream, as “renegade art,” and you started your own theatre to produce them. Was your initial dream to see them produced on Broadway, or in the many regional theatres in America? Or did you always want to give them their own home?

KM: Never! Mainstream theatres tend to be funded by corporations who invest in the industries I’m criticizing. There is an economic censorship inherent in the way that they choose their seasons.

I came out of the mainstream theatre. But the theatres that inspired me as a young writer were the Living Theatre, the Open Theatre, the Bread & Puppet Theatre. Theatre for the people, with a political sensibility, that was much closer to European theatre than what was seen on mainstream stages. And it was much easier to start your own theatre at the time I did it. I had patronage, city money, grants. You could live cheaply in New York City. That sort of thing is much harder now. I don’t really know how you would do it now, when no one wants to take a chance.

Plays in TimeMy play, Prophecy, for example, links vets in Iraq and Vietnam. Links the trauma of both. It has two Palestinian characters, and shows the trauma of the bombings by Israel of Lebanon. Charles Isherwood, of the New York Times, showed up to review it. Isherwood hates political theatre – it was a savage review. I felt brutalized. I had been in talks with the Public, but they called off a production of the play, calling it too risky.

I sent my play about climate change, Extreme Whether,  to other theatres. The Executive Director of the Theatre Communications Group wrote an editorial about it, saying how important the play was, but no one picked it up. She suggested that American Theatre Magazine publish the script but they declined. I sent the first draft of the script to the Sloan Foundation which funds plays about science. They ranted that they’d never fund a play with ‘villains’ in it. The so-called villains were oil industry lobbyists. The Sloan Foundation is funded by the railroads.

GLB: In addition to writing plays and running a theatre, you teach both theatre and environmental justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It surprised me that theatre was offered there. What does it bring to these students?

KM: They have an environmental justice minor and a theatre minor at John Jay. Most of the students that go there couldn’t contemplate a career in the theatre. They need jobs, pensions, healthcare when they graduate. Most are inner city kids and immigrants. Many are the first in their families to go to college. It takes financial backing to contemplate a career in the arts these days.

In my Theatre and Justice course, I start with James Baldwin. He’s one of the most important American writers, and yet most of my students have never heard of him.

I had nine students in another course writing plays about the war in Yemen. There was a Yemeni student in the class, but most of the others hadn’t heard of Yemen, didn’t know that there was a war going on there. A student from Haiti later said that she hadn’t understood what Yemen could possibly have to do with her life, and then after listening to the Yemeni student, she realized that she is from a country of freed black slaves. And that Haiti and Yemen have a lot of similarities.

GLB: This has been an incredible discussion! Is there anything else that you want talk about?

KM: Ecofeminism isn’t exclusive to women. My partner at Theatre Three Collaborative is a man, George Bartenieff. The cast in my plays is fifty-fifty, men and women. The audience is similarly mixed. Men are equally wounded by sexism. I’m thinking of Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur. I had a student at NYU in the 80’s, Anohni. Dinnerstein’s ideas are so important to them. They are now a world-renowned musician. They were called Antony at that time, I knew them as a man. Now they have no sexual gender, but they are an embodiment of an ecofemnist: caring, non-hierarchical, nurturing, fierce. They despise identity politics. They envision coming together as creatures. That’s what their work is about.

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