Kat Sherrell interviews award-winning playwright Georgina Escobar for SWFWW
Southwesterners are few and far between in the Wild, Wild East coast landscape of New York theater, so Georgina Escobar stuck in my head long after we met at a musical theater conference in 2012. She is an award-winning playwright “born in Ciudad Juárez, raised in Chihuahua and Zacatecas, humbled in SoCal, grown in El Paso, marinated in New Mexico, lives, breathes, works in Manhattan.”
I took the opportunity of us both being back in our native Southwest during the pandemic to talk with her:
Kat: I’m excited to talk Southwest and your writing in the same space, because they’re so intertwined! You describe your writing style as sci-fem, Latinx futurity, and my favorite – frontera funk (frontera = Spanish for border). What is that?
Georgina: Yeah! Frontera funk describes the affinity that I have for writing dystopian and utopian things in that retro-futura style where you don’t know where you are in time. I think I borrowed the term from a visual artist, Zeke Peña, a friend and big influence for me. He captures something unique and totally recognizable to anyone from the border, because they see it and go, ‘oh yeah, I understand that duality, that nowhere-land that is the border.’
K: Is visual art a big component of your inspiration?
G: Absolutely. I start with painting when I start a play, so for me the visual is the fountain for the writing. So whenever I find visual artists that inspire me, I try to translate that into action, which is what dramatic writers do, right? What does frontera funk – not necessarily feel like, but what does it do? And the answer always seems to be this kind of…grappling. This need to understand belonging. And this need to redefine the frontera as its own space.
K: That makes me think of that map of the United States where instead of the 50 states, it’s eleven cultural regions, and we’re in El Norte, the region that stretches across the border from West Texas across to Southern California.
G: Exactly. I went to grad school at UNM with Riti Sachdeva, who’s a beautiful playwright, and she would talk a lot about the borders in Palestine, in India, other borders across the world, even class borders. And! I just read this book Becoming a Man by Dr. P. Carl about transitioning from woman to male, and that book is frontera funk to me.
K: So the frontera state of being can show up as geographical, or gender identity, or so many other ways.
G: Absolutely. It’s a liminal identity, this in-between that then becomes something. And for some of us – for non-binary people, for frontera people, for bisexual people, there’s always this non-full definition. Ni de aquí ni de allá, neither here nor there. Frontera funk is a really interesting way to investigate all of these different borders that we have, or that we create for ourselves.
K: So speaking of borders we create, let’s talk about Monsters We Create, the new play you wrote this past year with playwrighting students at UTEP.
G: Sure. I was brought on by Kim McKean [Professor of Performance at UTEP]. She and I were co-conspirators in figuring out how to get 22 students to create a script. I suggested conceiving it as if it was a TV show, in the sense that we start with a pilot episode, and build a writers room that continues the story. But instead of a 60-minute pilot, we have a title, and from there it becomes completely about what percolates in the classroom.
K: How did you choose “Monsters we create” as the prompt to kick off the writing process?
G: Kim and I threw a bunch of titles around, and – because good art is making, and great art is stealing – “monsters we create” came up as a festival somewhere in Scotland or something. At first I was thinking we’d just call it that internally, since we had no idea what we were making. But Kim loved it, because monsters can mean so many things, and when you pair it with creating them, it sparks a lot of ideas.
K: And it’s very active, too.
G: Right, and it also has that element of non-real, of fantasy, and it was important for me to give the writers the opportunity to go there, if they wanted to.
K: Had you ever worked in a writers room setting before?
G: I knew the mechanics of a writers room, but I’ve never been part of one, which was even better because here I was making up my own mechanics. I was very direct with them from the start: I said, we will be writing collectively; however, it’s my name attached to this project when it hits the stage. I am the executive writer, and I will make executive decisions. But we will work them out together through a democracy, and I will show you every step of the way how rewrites work and how things get voted off or on.
K: So you actually had a voting process for some decisions?
G: Yeah, we totally did!
K: I’m glad democracy is functioning properly somewhere in this country!
G: We called it a demo-crazy!
K: What was that handoff like, when you took over the process?
G: As an educator, you have to make sure that their voices are being valued in the room. But at the same time, you can’t coalesce 22 voices into a cohesive script. So, it was a lot of them not seeing their work directly reflected, in the sense of me cutting and pasting their words into a script. Instead, I would say to them, for example, “From what I’m reading in your scene, you’re interested in making Katya this person who has self-image issues, is that correct?” If they confirmed that was what they were going for, we’d shape that character accordingly, and that student would be recognized for their contribution in the footnotes. So I was honoring their instincts, if not necessarily their writing word for word.
K: Which teaches them to look underneath the words they put in a draft, to what they’re actually trying to get at.
G: Right, and also to work collectively towards the common goal – to be able to collaborate and to meld the voices and understand the motive of the whole. So in a way, it’s a much more employable trait that I was teaching them.
K:For those who didn’t get to see it, Monsters We Create is set in a future dystopian El Paso. What would you say it’s about, and what does it have to say to these times?
G: It’s a piece about protest and resistance. It’s about the last straw, and what loss and friendship can do in a call-to-action moment. Even though it’s dystopian and scary, I think it’s ultimately about the power of el pueblo unido (the people united), and the hopefulness of that.
K: Last question: What are you excited about? What’s challenging?
G: <<sings>> Everything’s a challenge! <<normal voice>> Umm…I’m excited to spend another 9 months here [at UTEP] – in this incredibly difficult time of social distancing, not being able to be in the same space with the heartbeats – which is what makes theater unique, right? I’m excited to work alongside the students and ask, “What do you want to create? What excites you?” I’m really excited about getting in trouble for being the anti-pedagogy artist in the room, but I don’t care –
K: That sounds like good trouble.
G: It is good trouble! Most of the theater being produced is still under the umbrella of replicating theater that already exists. We do value these archaic stories, but it’s like, “THAT’S theater, it’s over there, and it’s cultured.” And we go to the theater to be cultured, but we’ve been fed this idea that culture comes from a dead white man. So mostly I’m excited about feeding the flame here on the border. It’s getting strong, especially since the shooting at Wal-Mart. It’s just been feeding this Promethean fire: people are starting to get their hands messy and feet wet, and realizing we can write new stories that matter to us, and that audiences are invested in. And that’s really exciting for me.
For more information about multidisciplinary musician, author, and member of SWFWW Kat Sherrell, see https://www.katsherrell.com/.