BWW Interviews: Playwright Vickie Ramirez Discusses STAND-OFF AT HWY #37
What would you do if the government decided to build a road through your backyard without asking, without having the right, and without any regard for what you think? Playwright Vickie Ramirez examines the subject in her latest play, STAND-OFF AT HWY #37, now on stage at the Wells Fargo Theatre for Native Voices at the Autry.
A dramatic tale about political, environmental and spiritual convictions, it begins with a clash between protesters and law enforcement over plans to build a highway through a reservation in upstate New York. How it affects everyone involved, especially one young soldier [Eagle Young pictured left], will surprise even him. In our interview, Vickie shares why she writes and what a story like this one means to her.
BWW: As a writer, it must be a somewhat surreal experience when you've finished your work and a play is finally ready for the stage.
V: It really is. You have all these images in your head and then you see what comes out through collaboration with other people. It's often so much more than you realized. It's beautiful.
When you're in development - as with Native Voices at the Autry - do you continue to revise the script after you've started working with the actors?
V: Yes, to me it's an important part of the development process because everyone has their own speech patterns, inflections, and interpretation of ways to say things. If you get actors who really are accustomed to going deep into character work, there's a lot of interesting feedback they can offer. In some cases they see something in the script that you hadn't seen before and you get to think about whether you want to explore that a little more. You definitely have the bones of the story down but there's always room for new ideas, as long as they stay within the point you're making in the first place. I see it as a great opportunity to grow the piece. Luckily Native Voices' has a similar perspective and I was allowed to go deep into the process early, with the actors and some really terrific dramaturgs; Shirley Fishman, Dylan Southard and Jean Bruce Scott. It's an incredibly supportive and positive program for development and what's enjoyable is that their regular audience is used to the process and so they are also very vocal and active.
Where did the idea come from for this story, STAND-OFF AT HWY #37?
V: I've had people ask me if the play is based on an actual event but it's not; it's an amalgam of many incidents. My mother's reservation was Six Nations and I grew up two minutes outside of there. We spent our full childhood on the reservation and on our grandfather's farm on the weekends. It's literally a five minute drive, and there was a land claim dispute in the town between the town and the reservation. It was amazing to watch how it affected people; how it affected relationships; how it affected my parents who were living there going to and from the reservation; the response of the townspeople who knew my mother was Indian; how they responded to her after living with her for over fifty years in their town. It happens frequently in upstate New York. One time, Governor Pataki actually sent the National Guard out to police the border of the reservation.
That had to be a challenging situation. How do you handle that emotionally as a child in the midst of all the confusion?
V: You don't really. It feels like an invasion. The best description is, it's as if somebody goes into your backyard and says, we're taking your property and putting a road through the middle of it. You say, no, I don't think so. Then they bring in government troops to ensure that the road goes through. I tried to explain it to people but nobody would take it seriously. Nobody would believe that it was happening because there wasn't a lot of press. Even with the National Guard being sent up to Seneca, try Googling to find the stories about it. There was a point where one of the old clan mothers was saying on the radio that she was ready to go to war if she had to. But because it didn't affect a large part of the population, it didn't register on the radar.
Is Aunt Bev in Stand-Off based on your mother?
V: No, but she visited there a couple of times and went chatting. Native protests are very inter-esting: they are militant, they are active, but they're also very social occasions. People bake for it, they bring nice comfy chairs for the elders and picnic blankets. It's like, well, we're going to be here for a while so let's have fun.
Do you hope that Stand-Off will change the way people see events like these?
V: I hope it makes them a little more aware of what's currently going on. These issues are ongoing. They're not anachronistic. Everybody seems to think that we're all good now and that everything's fine; since the boarding schools aren't happening anymore. We're good but the situation is not. It's awkward because, the truth is, I don't think anyone specifically is a black cowboy hat-wearing bad guy; it's just priorities are different and entitlements come from very different places, and there is invariably going to be a clash.
I read that you started a Native theatre company in the early 90s. Is that something you did to create more opportunities for Native Americans?
V: There was a group of us. It was Cochise Anderson, Irene Bedard, James Fall, Betsy Theobald, and a few others. We were tired of the anachronistic voice and the victimized Indian - the whole archetype of how people see us, because when they see us in that sort of persona, they don't actually see us as regular people. So we wanted to bring forward the contemporary Native voice to examine who we are now because we have been colonized; we have been changed dramatically. How do we cope? Who are we now? We do have major identity issues in the nations about where we fit in the world at large so we did work based on expressing those ideas.
Are you still working together as an ensemble?
V: Not currently, although Cochise still says he wants to get us all back together again in Minnesota. If that happens, I'll be there.
How did you get started writing?
My mum always used to say she knew I liked my stories because even as a toddler she would read a story to me and I could repeat it verbatim. "That one likes her stories," she'd say. From a very young age, I always wrote but I shelved it for a long time and in the early 90s I was pretending I could act. The funny thing was, I was watching all the actors around me who were doing the work. They were so good and they were taking the script and breaking it down, finding motivations out of what I thought was thin air. And I was busy restructuring the script...maybe if we cut this line and move this over here, and if I add this doesn't this sound better? And I got a talking to. They basically said, no, that's not your job, you're an actor. And I saw then that I wasn't an actor because I needed to fix this script, or I wanted to write the story. I kept thinking that the stories that were being written were not our stories. I didn't know any of the characters I saw on stage. They were usually pieces written by non-Natives. I really wanted to hear the people I knew up there.
Have you mainly written plays or have you written other kinds of work as well?
V: I've written short stories and I had a screenplay optioned but I write primarily for stage. There's something really great about getting out of your room after spending ten hours at a computer and taking it out to other people to see how it flows. I want people to take it and see what they can do with it, how they can build on top of it. That's the fun part of collaboration.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
V: I can't remember the very first but the story I remember most is something I wrote in the third grade about a mountain climber getting into trouble and having an action adventure.
Do you ever mentor young people?
V: I did some work with the 52nd Street Project in New York City that teaches children about theater and how to write their own plays. I mentored a 9-year old in creating her own play and I created a play for another child based on what they were interested in. It was fun watching them discover the story and the process. I love to work with any child, especially native kids because they don't get a lot of it.
What wisdom do you pass on to them about the work?
V: The most important thing I try to teach them is that nothing is wrong. If they're writing, and if it's something they want to explore, they should do it. It can be silly. It can be them just letting their mind wander. Whatever they do, they shouldn't check themselves. I would rather just let them write because whatever is going to come out is going to come from a real place. The young girl that I mentored at the 52nd Street Project was going to write about summer so I asked her, what does summer remind you of, and she said, flies. So she wrote a play about summertime and black flies.
Did you have a mentor or did you have to find your way on your own?
V: My mum was always encouraging. My dad was more of a pragmatist. He doesn't understand how people make a living doing anything creative. He would always say, but you're going to have another job...a real job, right? And my sister has been really supportive. I have a lot of friends and a couple of teachers in my life who really believe in what I'm doing.
I think that's important because without some type of encouragement it can be hard to stay on the path of your dreams.
V: Absolutely. You can get dislodged, or you can sort of bury yourself, but you have to remem-ber that people believe in you.
That's one of the things that comes through in Stand-Off. Was it intentional that Aunt Bev gives her wisdom to the younger characters without actually leading them right to it?
V: I was hoping it would come through. I really believe in the wisdom of the every day. I don't believe in making the teaching holy or precious because then it becomes separate; it's not organic. If it's just incidental it works better. In my family, my grandfather (my mother's father) was a great teacher, and it was always incidental. He'd say, 'here, climb that apple tree and get me an apple' and then he would tell you all about the apple: where it comes from, what good medicine it was, all while you were eating. That's how he taught everything.
You've written characters like Thomas (played by Eagle Young), that show people how to figure things out on their own without actually saying, this is how you figure something out on your own. That's a great teaching tool for relationships.
V: Eagle does it really comfortably, as do all the actors, because they allow the transitions to happen organically. I enjoy the chemistry of the cast and I think [director] Jon Lawrence Rivera did an amazing job of casting because he found people who really react off each other well. It took us a long time to cast the role of Thomas. They had weeks of callbacks having the actors read with every member of the cast to make sure that the connection happened. I also think that the play is a lot of fun too.
Kalani Queypo certainly adds quite a bit of fun to the play.
V: Yes, he has so much fun with his character. Because we've gone through this long develop-ment process, Kalani was cast as Darrin from the very first reading at Native Voices. He slid into the character like he was wearing a pair of fluffy slippers. He was so comfortable and immediately Darrin. He got all the beats, all the humor. And DeLanna Studi is great as a militant activist - she really enjoys saying "back off, Stormtroopers!". We really got lucky with this cast.
Vickie Ramirez is an alumna of the Public Theater's Emerging Writer's Group 2009, and a member of Chukalokoli Native Theater Ensemble and Amerinda Theater. She is the recipient of the 2009/2010 NYC Urban Artists Fellowship and the 2010 NYSCA Individual Artist Award. Her work has been presented at the Public Theater, the Flea, Ohio Northern University, Santa Fe Theatre Festival, the Roundabout Theater's Different Voices Program, EST, BOO-Arts, Mixed Phoenix Theater Company and the 52nd Street Project.
Native Voices at the Autry's STAND OFF AT HWY #37 by Vickie Ramirez runs through March 16, in the Wells Fargo Theater, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles, CA 90027. For tickets, call (323) 667-2000 x 200 or visit www.NativeVoicesattheAutry.org.
All photos by Craig Schwartz © 2014