Interview with Mary Swander

mary swander thumbnail(Dawson)We have on the phone BEI fellow and scholar, author, professor, and Iowa’s Poet Laureate, Mary Swander to talk to her about her insights on performance.  At this year’s Black Earth Institute annual gathering of fellows and scholars we will be focusing on all types of performance and their place in today’s culture and how they relate with the mission of BEI.  So first Mary can you give us some background on two of your recent plays that have been quite successful?  What are Farmscape and Vang?  Who were the performers and who were the audience?


(Mary) Farmscape was a play that was written in a class at Iowa State University.  I had this crazy idea to write a verbatim play about a problem or an environmental issue.  We have an MFA program in creative writing and environment and I had 10 students in the class.  We brainstormed a lot of environmental issues but our main constraint was that we had no money and so we couldn’t go research the melting of the ice caps or the destruction of the rainforest and things like that.  So, we concentrated on farming and the environmental issues involved with farming, which are huge.  I would say it is probably the second most pressing environmental issue contributing to climate change.  One problem with that is most people associate the Midwest, the heart of agriculture, as the fly-over zone and they have no interest, background, or knowledge about it.


I had my student’s fan out all over the state and they interviewed people involved in the changing farmscape.  We took their interviews and put them into a reader’s theater play.  It ended up being performed very steadily for about five years and now we are in our seventh year and it is still performed but not as frequently.  It was performed in big and small venues and because it’s a reader’s theater piece the venues would provide the actors.  That could be anybody from farmers to professional actors.  So, we had quite a range of performances and it was a lot of fun.


Out of that came a follow up play called Vang, which is a play about recent immigrant farmers. In farmscape, there was some diversity but Vang really concentrated on it.  Actually, it was at the prodding of the state folklorist and it profiles four couples, Hmong, Mexican, Sudanese, and Dutch.  They have all come to the United States in the last 20-25 years and are farming and doing urban agriculture as we know it now.  The Hmong were actually some of the first people to ever do urban agriculture.  They are all doing anything from urban one acre plots to CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operation), to dairies and conventional farms.  Vang is still touring and I have another show touring that I was actually commissioned to write and that is called Map of My Kingdom, which is about farmland transition, and it is a fictional show.  It is not a verbatim play although I did a lot of interviews and research to get the material.  It’s the one that is touring the strongest right now.


(Dawson) Can you tell me a little bit more about where the idea for Farmscape came from?


(Mary) The first 3 weeks of the class, I had the students read lots of verbatim plays and then every week, I had 10 students, and each of them had to come in with a different environmental issue that we thought we could shape into a play.  So, at the end of the 3 weeks we had 30 environmental issues and we had to look at them.  The students saw it before I did, most of these fell under the changing farmscape or at least the issues that we could do.  Like I said, we couldn’t do the melting ice caps or something like that so they came up with the title and the unity of the project and away we went.


(Dawson) I noticed while watching the trailer for Vang that the two actors performing the roles of the immigrant farmers were white, have you ever received a question or criticism about this?


(Mary) Vang is set up as four couples, three are of color and one is white.  There are two actors who play all the roles and I set it up and wrote it so the actors could be any color, any shape, but there is always a man and a woman.  The idea there is a multi-cultural, multi-racial transformation.  I’ve been asked that a few times, “How can a white guy act these roles?” Well, then I would have to have 8 different actors if we wanted to this realistically.  The photographs are right there so people can see whom we are representing.  The actor is basically a symbol for the real people themselves.  It was something to deal with though.  The thing about theater is you are always up against the wall economically.  You have to pay a venue and venues don’t want to pay you.  And then to tour there are logistics.  If we were to tour 8 different actors we could only pay them maybe $25 each and that just isn’t acceptable.  People in the audience don’t always think about the money involved, but when you’re producing, it’s one of the first things you think of.  So immediately when I was writing it, I knew I had to get it down to just two actors.


(Dawson) I would love to talk to you more about all of this, but for the sake of time I’m going to stick to our questions.  You have been involved in many forms of public performances from duties as Iowa’s poet laureate to Farmscape and Vang, this latter performed for the secretary of agriculture in Washington. Can you tell us about these different types of performance and why you choose them? So, the play or the readings as compared to maybe a video, or anything else like that; what do you find important about this type of performance?


(Mary) Well, live theater is very dynamic and it was the original performing art, poetry or live theater and I don’t think you could beat it.  It would be wonderful to do everything with video but that is also expensive and takes equipment and different kind of skills than what I have.  I’ve always been a theater person.  We have made a trailer of Vang and there is one in works for Map of My Kingdom.  But videos require computers and Wi-Fi, and it is hard to get broadband to some of the very rural communities we are trying to reach.  It’s such a pain and I’m sure you’ve had these problems too.


(Dawson) [Laughs] Yes.


(Mary) You can’t do anything about farming and expect to reach farmers with an Internet video.  So, this went to barns, church basements, and cafes and we got the farmers playing the parts.  Of course it’s not reaching across the whole country like a video might, but it has traveled from Denver to New York.


(Dawson) How did students receive it, and later how was it received when performed in different communities and audiences?  How did the research done by students affect their later performance?


(Mary) Well, the students were the authors, the playwrights so that’s kind of a funny question, “how was it received by them?”, but in some of the productions they did take the parts and were the actors.  As one of the students said that was the longest class they’d ever taken because some of them stayed with the project for years and were really troopers with it.  They weren’t paid or anything like that.  We actually had one marriage and another “significant other” coupling out of the class. So out of 10 students 4 of them coupled up. [Laughs]  And the students ended up in a few different places, some of them went on to work for the community college, some went on to graduate school, some went to graduate for completely different things, some went on to completely different jobs, and some went on to use the play on their resume.  One of them got a great job in communications in the University of Wisconsin from using the play on her resume.  I hope in the long run it gave them a great educational experience.  We also published the play into a book and a couple of the students wrote commentary for it.


(Dawson) What were some of the differences in how it was presented and how do you feel the audience reacted differently to each?


(Mary) The play is a reader’s theater, so it’s performed as a reading.  So when you say as compared to a reading or play, that’s one in the same.  It is not a casted performance; they do not memorize lines, you just read it off of the list.  We had some costumes and stuff like that, but it is not a fully directed or memorized show.


We’ve had some quite remarkable responses from our audiences.  At one show, a man down in the front row, a banker, in a three-piece suit was the first one to speak at the end of a show.  He stood up and he thanked me for the show and the actors and then he burst into tears.  The show is focused around an auction and he said, “That auction that you just heard about, that was my auction that was my real farm that was auctioned off.”  I don’t think there is anybody around here that is over 50 years old that wasn’t deeply scared by the farm crisis.  The rest of the country thought the economy was great, it was the Reagan years, but it was a depression here.  But nobody cared and nobody did anything about it.  Farmers were hanging themselves in their barns, we had hotlines all over the state and it was the most ignored thing in the country.  It reminded me of the Irish potato famine because it was an “uncool” group of people who were marginalized already.  Farmers talk about themselves as being “surfed”, like the east coast and the west coast being the colonialist and they are the surf connecting them.  It was a horrible period; family farms were closing every single day.  And now we have these big corporate farms and it changed the entire landscape, the entire food scape, it changed everything.  It changed the sociology of small town America; it changed the very fabric of our culture.


(Dawson) Why do you find it important that this be performed in this manner?


(Mary) Well it’s very interesting because to get regular people to perform the parts, it just really depends on where I was doing it.  For example, I performed this one show in northern Wisconsin and there were a lot of big Ag people in the audience and of course their comments were that they totally agreed with the Monsanto agent in the play.  And then later, I performed the show in Fairfield, IA which is home of the Maharishi School of Management and (laughs) they could not find anyone in the entire town who would play the Monsanto agent!  It really brought out whatever your stance was.  It covers the whole gamut and it’s very balanced, so you saw a reflection of yourself because there are ten different characters.  The Monsanto agent is a guy and in Fairfield they absolutely could not get any guys to play the role, so finally they had to do some gender bending because finally a woman said, “oh fine I’ll do it.”  They turned it into a complete melodrama and would boo every time she got up to say her lines.  Whereas in Wisconsin, they were really cheering that character on.


(Dawson) Wow, you would really not get that kind of insight out of any other performance, very cool.  At BEI we are interested in the role of performance in modern culture, how do you feel about the role of performance in today’s culture?  What kind of insights can you give us on performance?


(Mary) As I’ve said, performance is a very ancient art and in my mind it’s the thing that is the basis of two things that BEI is after.  One is ritual in the sense of spiritual; performance is a ritual.  The original morality plays were performed on the steps of the church.  Religions really understand performance, and that’s what draws a certain amount of their population to them.  There is something transformative about a performance that was said by Aristotle and that is, it is catharsis.  It has never failed to move people, even in the Greek theater, everyone knew the plot, they weren’t going to see Oedipus and not know what was going to happen.  So the engagement wasn’t on the plot level, it was the emotional level, the catharsis, and in the level of spectacle.  And then, the second thing that BEI can plug into performances is activism.  Performance can bring up issues in a way that is persuasive to people.  A speech or editorial in the newspaper might not do as well.  The literary arts invite you to engage your imagination and it’s very hard to move people out of their paradigm.  And that’s what we’re trying to do, move people out of their paradigm in any kind of political activism.  People get in their paradigm and then they stick there.  How do you do that?  Do you harangue them, do you ridicule them, are you sarcastic, or are you combative? Well a lot of people are all of them.  Do you do mass demonstrations (which is really performance)?  But I think you can involve them in imagination.  You’ve already turned their brains on to a different light and it might have a chance.


(Dawson) And finally, do you have any ideas in the works for any new performances?


(Mary) I’m touring a show right now called Map of My Kingdom, and it is about farmland transition, which sounds like a deadly dull topic but it is the most conflict-ridden topic I have ever engaged in.  Something like half of the farmland in the US right now is owned by people over 65 years of age, who have not created a plan for the transition of that land.  There are all sorts of pressures out there from urban sprawl, to farmland prices, to family rivalries that could sink their farm.  On one level you think, oh that happens to one family but when you add up all the families this happens to, its contributing to our problems with trying to retain the family farm or retain any condition of the environmental awareness of the soil or the landscape.


Its really incredible, I just had an email this morning from a really good friend who lives on a farm.  He and his wife have stayed on the farm and helped his parents into their old age.  He has two siblings who went off into the cities, made a bunch of money and my friend stayed on the farm where they were just leaking out a living but what he had thought would that he would inherit the farm or at least a chunk of it and that would be part of the reward.  Now the two parents are in a nursing home and they have to sell the farm to pay off the cost of the nursing home.  So there are lots and lots of things to plan for and basically he is losing the farm right out from underneath him.  He himself is 65 years and has lived there his entire life.  So that’s the kind of issues that are in Map of My Kingdom.


(Dawson)I think Map of my Kingdom needs to come to Wisconsin!  I would love to see this.  Well thank you for your time Mary, and we wish you all the best in doing this awesome work that you’re doing!


(Mary) We would love to come to Wisconsin, find me a venue and we’ll do it!  We don’t need anything fancy, barns, coffee shops, an old freight house; we just need enough people so we can pay for the venue. Thank you Dawson.