Know What You’re Making, and Why: A Conversation with Aziza Barnes




Banner image by Jazzy Harvey.

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ONE OF MY FAVORITE statements about Los Angeles, something that really captures its ethos, comes from Cameron Esposito in an article she provided for The A.V. Club. Esposito remarks on “how logical a backbone [L.A.] provides to completely illogical pursuits.” It’s this feeling that is at the core of the cultural industries that vibrate throughout our vast region. Pockets of art, literary, and music scenes permeate under the big visage of the Hollywood industry. It astonishes me to hear people make statements generalizing Los Angeles’s creative scenes as nonexistent, with such an economy for cerebral invention. Prior to the boom of the Arts District, a burst of artist-run spaces, and the arrival of New York– and London-based institutions such as Hauser & Wirth, the contemporary art scenes of the world had written off Los Angeles as a fledgling community of emerging artists that would not have any hope of establishing gallery representation locally. The Los Angeles literary landscape is often given this same reductive treatment, despite a diverse range of salons, readings, independent publishers, and booksellers that create a global literary nexus.

Now, in month two of the stay-at-home measures (as of this writing), I’m swept up in nostalgia for hardly a quarter ago, when readings, events, and gatherings were accessible on the daily. The ramifications on the book trade are apparent: online book releases, Zoom workshops, a resounding decline in retail distribution, the L.A. Times Festival of Books postponing to October (bold), to name some examples. The way we communicate and engage with our audiences has indelibly shifted. I cannot help but think about the effects on the theater scene, to which I have immediate, expert access: Aziza Barnes, my roommate, friend, and author of the beautiful play BLKS, a New York Times Critics’ pick for one of 2019’s best plays and recently published under the Dramatists Play Service. Z sophomore play is Nana. 

It is Sunday, May 3, 2020. Aziza and I are sitting in our dining room. We are attending the 35th annual Lucille Lortel Awards, recognizing excellence in off-Broadway theater. Barnes’s BLKS was nominated for two awards: Outstanding Costume Design and Outstanding Play. Close to 1,500 people are streaming the pre-recorded event on YouTube, the host and guests delivering speeches from their homes, a community of artists celebrating in the face of their platforms being put on hold. As the playwright Idris Goodwin recently said in his article for American Theatre, “To be a playwright now is to write about our condition for whatever platform that’s available. Right now that platform lives inside our bodies.” Despite the isolation, the awards ceremony is still an exuberant event filled with moxie and charm, in a way only theater kids could pull off.

Even prior to Rona, the question of platform in regards to the Los Angeles theater scene resonated with me, particularly in comparison to the other cultural facets in our great town.

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DANIEL LISI: I’m wary of anyone saying that there is no scene in any city, like when people say there’s no literary scene in L.A., I get very affronted.

AZIZA BARNES: Sure.

But I feel like you’re an expert on this, so: Is there a theater scene in L.A., in general?

Word, yeah. I think I’ve experienced at least what part of a theater scene in L.A., at least for a working playwright, feels like. Like doing CTG’s [Center Theatre Group’s] workshop where you work with 10 other playwrights over the course of nine months — meaning, having people workshop your pages. That was really cool.

We do have beautiful theaters, for sure, but what I feel that L.A.’s scene lacks is central hubs of community with theaters that are not Broadway projects, theaters that are not big-budget, subscriber-base-heavy. For me, it’s hard to find room to play and experiment in like, say, a 200-, 300-seater that’s just a little more lo-fi, a little more neighborhood. I feel like what L.A. is missing is people really going to neighborhood theaters. And then you have the special ones, like the Bootleg, and those are really diamonds in the rough. Flock to them, go to all their stuff, enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. But you know, when I think about New York (and how can you not), I just think about whole streets where there are three, four, five theaters, and they all have programming that doesn’t overlap with each other, they’re contributing to each other’s life, and I just want to see more of that. And I do think it’s possible. I don’t think L.A. is so spread out, like that mythos it’s just so spread out, I don’t think it’s that spread out that we can’t make something happen.

So, what you’re saying is, you’re noticing a very top-heavy infrastructure where you have a very pristine, bankrolled, large infrastructure —

White.

— white infrastructure, and there’s not a lot of the mid-tier to indie infrastructure to support playwrights that want to get to that larger infrastructure.

Yeah, it doesn’t feel like it. What’s cool about those theaters — and the Geffen does this, and CTG does this, and that’s all I know of the folks doing it — is that they’ll have these workshop spaces for playwrights. People who are flying in have the ability to collaborate with other playwrights, and you can finally have that community, and that’s cool. But like, it is harder I would say, to break into that in L.A,. whereas in New York or Chicago, I think those two places are great for Oh yeah, I’ve been putting up my own stuff at La Mama, or doing Joe’s Pub, or I’ve been doing this more niche theater where all the people from bigger theaters are coming to see stuff because they want to put stuff up. It feels like a lot of the stuff I see at bigger theaters in L.A. is flown in.

Yeah, it’s imported. I remember when I first brought this interview up to you, you told me there’s no ladder in L.A. for emerging playwrights.

Doesn’t feel like it.

If you’re hoping to establish a career, you have to go to New York or Chicago or elsewhere to then have that success flown in to Los Angeles. Which is really interesting.

Unless — and I will say that mine is a unique experience, and I was living in NYC — but the thing that did propel me was the Ojai Playwrights Conference. So those kinds of things help, but living boots-on-the-ground in L.A. is pretty difficult.

So, when you were getting started in your career, what resources specifically elevated you in your playwriting that gave you the access to interface with the Ojai conference, or to be able to get your foot in the door?

For me, it was living in New York. I went to NYU, I went to Tisch, studied playwriting, and while I was there I found out a lot about the Black playwright theater scene through off-Broadway, through the Fire This Time Festival. It’s a really brilliant festival they do at the Kraine Theater, led by Kelley Nicole Girod. She’s really dope. I learned about her through my playwriting friend and colleague Dennis A Allen II, who’s really dope. At NYU the thing is like, Oh, I’m at NYU I’m learning playwriting, but there are no Black people who teach here, work here, go here

There were no Black teachers?

Not for playwriting, not for me. Maybe like one in the dramatic writing department. But no. It’s hard, because you’re learning craft, but whose craft are you learning? So you have to go find that craft for your stories. They talk different, they move different, time is different, you know? So the Fire This Time Festival was amazing because you write a 10-minute play, it goes up in a serial of 10-minute plays with other playwrights, you get to meet people, and then, in a similar structure over the course of a year, produce your play, hire a director, hire a cast. You get real boots-on-the-ground experience of how to do something lo-fi in a way that serves you. In a space that’s really beautiful! The Kraine Theater is gorgeous, and tiny, and old. I love that. So I did that. And I wrote my senior thesis play BLKS, which ended up being my first produced play, and a friend of mine from school had gone to Ojai Playwrights Conference and had passed along my play. So a lot of these conferences are recommendation-only, like you can’t apply. A lot of them you can apply, but some of them have the kind of big readings, with agents coming and this, that, and the third. Those are usually a little more insulated. Which is something I grapple with a lot, if I’m limiting myself. I don’t really know what to make of it. I just know that I have a lot of gratitude for it, because from there I was able to have representation and have commissions and that’s really cool.

It sounds very similar to the contemporary art scene, where you have such consolidated money pools, so the people who are actually able to elevate themselves in a career sense in that industry is very limited, because the patron base is so limited. When comparing that to the theater scene, what would be the alternative to that insulation? Is there a way of actually opening it up further?

Absolutely. You have Sundance, you have the O’Neill, you have Yaddo, MacDowell. There’s so many acclaimed accredited resources and spaces where you can just hone your craft. I know for Sundance, their theater labs are also performance-driven, product-driven. And process-driven for sure, but you get to show people what you made.

One of the criticisms that I’ve seen for the L.A. theater scene is that, in addition to a lack of infrastructure, there’s a lack of leadership, specifically for the indie to mid-sized tier of infrastructure. So, what do you think it would take for L.A. to be able to better support that spectrum?

My dream would be if we could get — and I’m not being facetious — if we could get like five millionaire, billionaire people who are already in the arts or are just like, into people or diversity or some shit about storytelling, and if they were able to bankroll space. That’s really the biggest thing: rental property space, and actual theater space in the community. And that’s the thing too, I think why the Geffen and CTG work is that they have spaces in downtown, or Westwood where there’s a lot of foot traffic. They have these hubs where people are actually walking. And I love the Bootleg as an example, because it’s on the east side, you can walk to it, but there’s not a whole lot of other shit around it really? But if you were to fund a theater, even on Sunset or Silver Lake, where there’s like, restaurants and boutiques and stuff, if we could get some monied people to throw down on this space, it would alleviate a lot of pressure.

Looking at it from an industry-wide thing too, you were saying that the Hollywood entertainment industry is out here, and that propagates so many writers. I was talking to the painter Max Maslansky the other day about galleries, and he was telling me how mid-tier galleries right now are just getting slaughtered across the board, there’s just no emergent structure. Larger-tier galleries like Gagosian have such a bigger share of the wealth pool inside of the art trade. One of the things that he brought up was this boundary he sees between art and entertainment, and how art must remain art and entertainment must remain entertainment —

I think about this a lot.

— especially in the context of theater. In L.A., it’s like, you have so many artists pointing their production toward entertainment. Do you think because of that ultimate output goal, the art of theater is deprioritized?

Yes! I think that’s really well articulated. What we do have out here: the Broadway comes here! The entertainment theater comes here! We import the entertainment theater, and we occasionally import a little more art house stuff, if you will. But not often. I think the Geffen a little more, but, in any case, if we are prioritizing theater, it’s like, The Pantages. Like what’s the big, Hollywood-y version of theater? And I agree with Max. You have to know what you’re making, and you have to know why you’re making it. And if you’re making art, so much downtown theater in New York is art, you know? And some of it gets made profitable, and that’s a beautiful thing for the artist and for the people in it, that’s amazing, but they know what they made wasn’t just to titillate and be essentially an advertisement for something.

Your play BLKS explores close friendships among Black women, the deluge of nonsense they have to put up with on a daily basis. Your play Nana explores colorism within the Black family dynamic. What is your experience delivering Black narratives into the mainstream theater scene?

I remember when BLKS was going up at Steppenwolf, and was going up for the first time, and, because BLKS was a comedy (whereas Nana is humorous but not a comedy), I had this like, horrible pang of anxiety and fear that is derived from a Richard Pryor quote: are they laughing at me, or with me? And because this is a subscriber base, majority older white people, I was really concerned that they were laughing at me, and that I was a joke, and that it was minstrel, and there was nothing I could do about it, because it is just how I talk, it’s just how I and my friends speak. And it is funny, and I want people to laugh, but do I want you to laugh? And I had this whole, policing the audience fear in my head.

What ended up happening was so informative, because every night, there was something, every night we would bring Black people in and make this really big charge. And I’m so thankful to Steppenwolf for all the work that they did to get Black bodies in that space. I felt very in collaboration with them to make that happen, which was really cool. It was just this thing of like every night there’d be something! Every night there would be a white person shushing Black people and Black men shushing Black women and Black women being like, that’s me on the stage! And Black people yelling at the stage in triumphant-ness and exuberance but then like, the Black actors who were acting being like, you are throwing me off! Like you are not just yelling at me! All this cultural exchange that doesn’t happen in the theater as often as it should because then it probably would have ways of holding each other with it, through it.

There’s all these white people that are like, well I know how to be in this space, and a lot of Black people who are like, well I know how to be in this space, and then a lot of Black people who are like, well I don’t! I just know what feels good! It just really exposes classism and disparity and what knowledge is given, what knowledge is hidden, and it was a fucking trip. So giving Black stories to the theater comes along with this great existential dread of like, am I a joke? Am I doing help or hurt to my people? And it feels like this big weight sometimes. And then I got to a point where I was just like, look, I’ll just get enough Black people in there, so they can be the judge of this, and if they’re not with it, I’ll feel bad. But if they’re with it, I’ll feel really good. And the white people are just along for the ride.

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Contributor’s note: It has been a process for both Aziza and me to find a new work-life balance at home. As we are both writers, we’re lucky to see a great deal of our work lives translate into remote environments. The establishment of this new process has been one that we’ve had to treat with great delicacy and patience, with ourselves and those immediate to us. As stay-at-home measures persist into the summer, it’s difficult for me to assuage this creeping feeling of returning to “normal” levels of productivity and focus, as if normalcy is something to ever achieve again. Instead, we try to adapt to the emerging needs of care that are circulating when everything we thought would last is upended and gone. It has been inspiring to see several community-oriented organizations sharpen their missions of support, and with that, I’d like to encourage you to donate to the Actors Fund, on which the Lucille Lortel Awards focuses their fundraising efforts. Since the 19th century (whoa) the Actors Fund has supported everyone in the entertainment industry by financing basic living necessities, and — here’s the big phrase of 2020 — now, more than ever, your support counts toward curbing unprecedented financial crises for artists and those who work to bring life into theater and the arts. Thank you, reader, and stay safe.

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Daniel Lisi is the co-founder of Not a Cult, a book publisher based in Los Angeles. He’s a producer spanning film, television, VR, and print media. He sits on the board of directors for community arts nonprofits Art Share LA and Junior High LA.

 

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