Portuguese American Journal

Elaine Ávila: Portuguese Canadian playwright debuts new play – Interview

By Millicent Borges Accardi

Meet Elaine Ávila, a Portuguese-American-Canadian writer who grew up in San Jose, California, and now lives in Canada.  Originally her grandparents immigrated from Ribeiras, Pico, Azores, to the Prusch Ranch and then, later, her grandfather worked in the tuna-fishing industry of San Diego. 

She still has family in Santarém (mainland Portugal) and in Pico and São Miguel in the Azores. Ávila’s plays have been produced in London, Lisbon, Azores, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Seattle,Toronto,Vancouver and Victoria.

Her education includes a degree from Santa Clara University where she studied theater, acting, and art history. Her first play was inspired by an historical event  about a commedia de’ll arte troupe in the sixteenth-century run by a woman who was captured by terrorists.  After graduating, Ávila received a scholarship to attend the California Institute of the Arts, where she was mentored by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks.

Ávila’s newest play, Fado—the Saddest Music in the World, takes place in old Lisbon, in the back alleys and brothels. It tells the story of a young woman confronting her country’s Fascist past along with her own search for identity, interwoven with the national music of Portugal known as Fado, which means Fate.  The play is part concert, part theatre and even features the ghost of the great Amália Rodrigues.

At the Victoria Fringe Festival, Fado—the Saddest Music in the World won an award for Favorite Musical. The play will be officially debuted next month at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia, from November 21 to December 14, 2019.

Other plays authored by Ávila include Jane Austen, Action Figure, Quality: the Shoe Play, La Frontera/The Border, Lieutenant Nun, Change, Memorial and Burn Gloom. She has published in the Canadian Theatre Review, Portuguese American Review, Café Onda, American Theater, and Contemporary Theatre Review. 

She is also an Associate at the Playwrights Theatre Centre, former Endowed Chair/Head of the MFA Program in Dramatic Writing at the University of New Mexico and founder of the LEAP Playwriting Program at the Arts Club Theater in Vancouver.

Her writing has received  awards from Victoria Critic’s Circle, DISQUIET International, New Works for Young Women (Tulsa) and a Best Production/Audience Favorite award at the Festival de los Cocos (Panamá City). She has taught in universities from British Columbia to Tasmania, China and Panamá.

In this interview with Millicent Borges Accardi, Elaine Ávila speaks of how the idea for her new play Fado came about many years ago – now premiering in Vancouver, Canada, – and how important her Portuguese heritage is to her work.

Millicent Borges Accardi is a pro bono contributor for the Portuguese American Journal.  Because you value her work please donate to paypal.me/Millicent500

Q: Congratulations and Parabéns! Your play, Fado—the Saddest Music in the World,  is premiering this November in Canada.   How did the project come about?

Ávila’s newest play, Fado—the Saddest Music in the World, takes place in old Lisbon, in the back alleys and brothels.

A: The premiere of Fado in Vancouver is the first time a Portuguese play by a Portuguese playwright has played a major stage in Canada and possibly, the US as well.  It is a co-production between Puente Theatre, Canada’s oldest Latinx Theatre Company, which has a very open mandate, to produce the work of immigrant writers, and the Firehall Arts Centre, which is renowned for producing and presenting theatre reflective of the pluralism of Canada.  

Each company has been doing this work for over 30 years, and it is the first time they have collaborated. It is also very special that Mercedes Bátiz-Benét, one of my favorite directors (and Artistic Director of Puente) was available to direct. She brought in Sara Marreiros, one of the best fadistas in Western Canada, to play the ghost of Amália Rodrigues and Dan Wisenberger, to play guitarra.

The whole cast is stunning: Natasha Napoleão plays the lead, Lucia Frangione (who writes great plays about the Italian-Canadian experience) is cast as her mother, Pedro M. Siqueira her mysterious cousin, Chris Perrins her love interest, Judd Palmer (one of Canada’s best theatre artists, a founder of The Old Trout Puppetry workshop) her teacher and venerated fado guitarist.

Q: What was the initial idea?

A: The idea for the play came about many years ago.  I told my 90-year-old Azorean Portuguese grandfather that I was sad that I didn’t know any Portuguese songs. I grew up outside the community. He led me down the hall to his living room, negotiating with his walker, and instructed me to put a CD on the stereo. It was Amália Rodrigues. As soon as we heard her voice pour out of the speakers, he said, “wonderful.”

As we listened to Amália, her voice wrapped us in our culture. Then my grandfather told me that he sang fado in the Portuguese Hall in San Diego before Amália’s concert. I was so proud of him. Many years later, when I supported by a three-year residency from Vancouver’s Playwrights Theatre Centre to write about my heritage, I knew I had to write about fado. Along the way, something lovely happened: when contemporary fado star Mariza played Vancouver, I was asked to read from my play before she sang: a full circle tribute to my grandfather.

Q: What’s your favorite fado house in Lisbon?

A:  I love hearing fado at Lisbon’s summer festivals, on the streets, the energy at large venues like the Coliseu. But I also love the intimacy of the small, out of the way, late night clubs at 2 or 3 in the morning. I love going to hear amateur fado in the neighborhoods. It’s in these intimate settings that fado is born. 

Fadistas from the neighborhood enter the fado house, dressed up in their finery, pour their heart into two songs, confer with the guitarra players, then pull out small notebooks, make notes on how to improve their technique.  The audience in these clubs often knows the songs, and sings along, especially with Nem às Paredes Confesso (Not even to the walls will I confess) or Amor de Mel, Amor de Fel  (Love of honey, Love of Bitterness) turning the whole house into a beautiful musical instrument.

Q: Favorite fado singer?

A:  So many!  I’m always discovering new favorites. Here are a few: Amália Rodrigues, Mariza, Ana Moura, Misia, Argentina Santos, Cristina Branco, Antonio Zambujo, Caminho, Gisela João, Sara Marreiros. 

Q: How important is your Portuguese heritage to your work?

A: Nobody can come from nowhere.  The stories of who we are, of where we come from, are precious. It’s part of our history (and sadly, our present), that people have had to erase or hide their origins. Why?  Because these stories are powerful.

I’ve worked with actors in Vancouver who have never had the chance to play a Portuguese character on stage, and it’s such an honor to hear the love the pour into the work. I interviewed Azorean women during my recent Fulbright at the University of the Azores (where I was among the first scholars/writers to ever be at the Ponta Delgada Campus, on São Miguel). As you know, both Azoreans and women tend to be underrepresented in literature and theatre. To hear women get excited about being at the center of a project is a vast, deep joy.

Q: Do you write other genres?

A: Yes, I write non-fiction, poetry, screenplays and I am working on a novel.  I was honored to recently be selected by Enroute/Air Canada magazine to write about the poets of Porto:

Q: What other Portuguese artists do you admire?

Elaine Ávila with Teolinda Gersão

A: Katherine Vaz and Teolinda Gersão are among my favorite Portuguese fiction writers —Vaz, as you know, is the premiere Portuguese heritage novelist in America, and has encouraged other Portuguese writers through teaching at the Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon, where I met Gersão, who writes so beautifully about Lisbon and the retornado experience.  Both often write stories with female protagonists, paving the way for so many of us.

Google “Oona Patrick,” an incisive non-fiction writer, and you will find she has, seemingly, written on almost every essential question to Portuguese literature, and how it relates to North America.  Rosa Alice Branco (a poet, who showed me around Porto) is exquisite and brave, Paula Rego (a visual artist) is profound and bold.

Theatre-wise, I’m pretty crazy about the work of Portuguese playwrights Tiago Rodrigues (his play, By Heart, is one of my favorites, he is the Artistic Director of Portugal’s National Theatre) and Joana Bértholo, (I caught her site specific piece at Café Nicola) and Jacinto Lucas Pires is delightfully wry and innovative.

My favorite Azorean writers include Carolina Cordeiro, who combines her female ancestors/ stories with Jane Austen; Diana Zimbron, who writes beautifully for and about young women; poet and novelist Pedro Paulo Câmara, who explores the fascinating history of the Azores and fearlessly, the complicated present.  He was just named one of the top poets of Ponta Delgada, ever.

Q: You’ve said women have been underrepresented on the stage, how are your plays changing that?

A: I write stories about several groups I have found to be underrepresented:  women, workers, and the Portuguese. I can’t speak to whether or not my plays change things for any of these groups.  I only know that these stories were missing from our stages when I was coming into the field, so I found it necessary to write them, because I didn’t want to be invisible any longer.

This semester, at Douglas College, I am teaching playwriting. We are reading plays by writers who have Latinx, Indigenous, Queer, Chinese, South Asian, and Filipino backgrounds: by Kevin Loring, Marjorie Chan, Carmen Aguirre, Jovanni Sy, Paneet Singh, Jordan Tannahill. As I hoped, my students, many of whom are from these backgrounds, are experiencing these plays as a big welcome to the field. These plays have opened the doors in terms how I conceive of my own writing, so I want to pass on the joyous experience of reading, and seeing their work.

Honestly, despite the hard work of so many great people and organizations, I find the statistics around gender parity in the theatre (and elsewhere), are for the most part, appalling, and I’m not even addressing race in this question. Every change makes a difference. In a way, it can be easy.  If you are a writer/producer/director, change your cis-male character to any other gender, and you’ve instantly made it better.   As a reader or viewer, empathize with any non-cis-male character in the lead role, and you are making process.

Q: You were introduced to theater when a childhood friend invited you to see a play she was in.  Once you were there, what about theater drew you in, became a way to express yourself?

A: Ah, thanks for reminding me of that.  My childhood friend, who now works as a singer and piano player in Paris, encouraged me to check out this crazy thing she was doing: theatre. As soon as I arrived, I was invited, pulled into being in the play, crossing into a mysterious, magical world. I was eight years old.  I still love it just as much. Theatre/film/ TV are the only forms where you see your work come alive in another person, literally coming to life. It’s profound and fun. It opens the heart.

Lately, I’ve been thinking more about the context around my childhood friend getting me into theatre. In the 1970s, my parents moved into a racially “integrated” neighborhood. The great James Baldwin, in the 1964 documentary, “Take this Hammer”, mentioned the architect and developers of my subdivision, Joseph Leopold Eichler, because he built one of the neighborhoods where African American families could move.

That dear friend, who introduced me to the theatre, Yasmin Shah, happened to be of South Asian and Puerto Rican descent. Our neighbors were African American. They were so proud when, years later, they found out I was studying with Suzan-Lori Parks, James Baldwin’s protégé. It’s only now that I realize that richness of Yasmin’s cultural backgrounds, of getting to hang out at her house. In a way, I was living Martin Luther King’s dream, and I was extremely lucky to do so. Not everyone gets to benefit from growing up in a non-racially segregated enclave. Harvey Milk was advancing gay rights: feminism was the most exciting thing out there.  When I read Reinaldo Silva’s Representations of the Portuguese in American Literature, and the scholarship of George Monteiro, who bravely faced the racism our Portuguese immigrant ancestors endured, I was ready. 

Q: You’ve worked as an actor, director, Artistic Director and playwright. Can you tell us about your first paid acting gig at San Jose Rep Theater?

A: I’m touched that you asked about that.  James Houghton, who died last year, may he rest in peace and power, gave me my first acting job. He later became the Director of Drama at Julliard, and the founding Artistic Director of the Signature Theatre in New York City.  His final season was focused on the work of Suzan-Lori Parks, my mentor. My first job was a wonderful welcome to the field. I was only 17, in high school. All this happened when I was interning at San Jose Repertory Theatre, being mentored by the Executive and Founding Director, Jim Reber. He founded his company with the focus of fostering women’s voices, he told me to write plays, with more roles for women. He taught me to produce, which is a skill that can’t be underestimated. I try to pass this on through teaching, and by founding initiatives like the LEAP Playwriting Program at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre and the International Climate Change Theatre Action, which reached 12,000 people worldwide in 2017. (You can still be a part of this year’s action)

Q: What books would you recommend for readers interested in, perhaps, an overview of Portuguese-American and Portuguese-Canadian literature?

A: I can’t say enough good things about the writers in and editors of these two recent anthologies:  Behind the Stars, More Stars: The Tagus / Disquiet Collection of New Luso-American Writing (Portuguese in the Americas Series) put together by Christopher Larkosh and Oona Patrick; and Memória: An Anthology Of Portuguese Canadian Writers, edited by Fernanda Viveiros and published by Fidalgo Press. 

As you know, Portuguese literature is emergent in America and Canada. Reading the work of my colleagues is like oxygen for me.  I don’t know where I would be without them.

Q: What can we do to foster more artistic and cultural exchanges between Portugal and the US?

A: The good news is that there are many so many wonderful organizations doing this already. Here are three who have helped me enormously:

  • Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon and the Azores
  • Tagus Press, at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth
  • Fulbright Portugal

Elaine Ávila with Terry Flores (MiratecaArts/Pico)

In Canada, there is the Canadian Centre for Azorean Research and Studies, the Projeto de Historia Luso Canadiana at York University. In Portugal, there is MiratecaArts, the Azores Fringe, the Encontro Pedras Negras Writers’ Festival. My advice would be don’t “self-exclude,” see if you can be a part of these groups.

Q: You’ve commented that this new play is about finding Fado within everyone—can you expand upon what you meant?

A: When I was a Fulbright Scholar in the Azores last summer, I went to have bacalhau no forno at a seaside restaurant. A couple sat at the table nearby. It turned out that they were both singers from Lisbon.  The woman in the couple had won a city-wide singing contest when she was just a girl, and got to meet Amália Rodrigues.   She told me Amália gave her some words of wisdom: you have to find your own way, not just imitate Amália.  This is not a small piece of advice: find your own way. 

Amália opened doors for all female Portuguese artists. She came from the streets, she wasn’t rich, she had to negotiate extremely complicated politics, whenever fado needed to grow, she expanded the form.

I went to her house in Lisbon, now a museum.  I learned Amália used to write poems, then stuff them in drawers, books, even the pockets of her costumes. Despite her stature, her sister had to convince Amália to set these poems to music, to publish them. Not only was Amália the voice of Portugal, she was also one of our first woman writers. Amália opened so many doors. With this play, I hope to pass it on.

 

For tickets and information on the Firehall Arts Centre, please visit  www.firehallartscentre.ca

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Millicent Borges Accardi is the author of three poetry books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge, and Only More So.  She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, California Arts Council, Barbara Deming, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD), and  SOPAS, Special Congressional Recognition for poetry in the Portuguese community of California.  Her new work appears in The Journal, Quiddity, Mantis and Laurel Review.  Find her on Instagram and Twitter @TopangaHippie.

Recent Posts by Millicent Borges Accardi

Millicent Borges Accardi is a pro bono contributor for the Portuguese American Journal.  Because you value her work please donate to paypal.me/Millicent500

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