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

You get real boots-on-the-ground experience of how to do something lo-fi in a way that serves you. Z sophomore play is Nana. 
It is Sunday, May 3, 2020. There’s so many acclaimed accredited resources and spaces where you can just hone your craft. 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. Not for playwriting, not for me. I don’t think L.A. 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. You have to know what you’re making, and you have to know why you’re making it. They have these hubs where people are actually walking. It feels like a lot of the stuff I see at bigger theaters in L.A. One of the criticisms that I’ve seen for the L.A. 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. ¤
Daniel Lisi is the co-founder of Not a Cult, a book publisher based in Los Angeles. 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. Word, yeah. Those are usually a little more insulated. 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. 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. I feel like what L.A. 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. JUNE 25, 2020

Banner image by Jazzy Harvey. 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. I don’t really know what to make of it. Yeah, it doesn’t feel like it. I love that. 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 Nana explores colorism within the Black family dynamic. is missing is people really going to neighborhood theaters. 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. 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. is pretty difficult. 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. — especially in the context of theater. Which is really interesting. I think that’s really well articulated. 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 if you’re making art, so much downtown theater in New York is art, you know? When comparing that to the theater scene, what would be the alternative to that insulation? And I’m so thankful to Steppenwolf for all the work that they did to get Black bodies in that space. Pockets of art, literary, and music scenes permeate under the big visage of the Hollywood industry. He sits on the board of directors for community arts nonprofits Art Share LA and Junior High LA. ¤
Contributor’s note: It has been a process for both Aziza and me to find a new work-life balance at home. 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. 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. But like, it is harder I would say, to break into that in L.A,. 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. 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. The entertainment theater comes here! Absolutely. It was just this thing of like every night there’d be something! Is there a way of actually opening it up further? Instead, we try to adapt to the emerging needs of care that are circulating when everything we thought would last is upended and gone. I felt very in collaboration with them to make that happen, which was really cool. And the white people are just along for the ride. It just really exposes classism and disparity and what knowledge is given, what knowledge is hidden, and it was a fucking trip. 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. She’s really dope. 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. I remember when I first brought this interview up to you, you told me there’s no ladder in L.A. 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. 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. 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. And I do think it’s possible. But not often. Like what’s the big, Hollywood-y version of theater? 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. 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. 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. So giving Black stories to the theater comes along with this great existential dread of like, am I a joke? People who are flying in have the ability to collaborate with other playwrights, and you can finally have that community, and that’s cool. We import the entertainment theater, and we occasionally import a little more art house stuff, if you will. That was really cool. — 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. It’s hard, because you’re learning craft, but whose craft are you learning? What we do have out here: the Broadway comes here! So those kinds of things help, but living boots-on-the-ground in L.A. And it is funny, and I want people to laugh, but do I want you to laugh? So, what you’re saying is, you’re noticing a very top-heavy infrastructure where you have a very pristine, bankrolled, large infrastructure —
White. 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. 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? Maybe like one in the dramatic writing department. ¤
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. 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? In a space that’s really beautiful! I think the Geffen a little more, but, in any case, if we are prioritizing theater, it’s like, The Pantages. Your play BLKS explores close friendships among Black women, the deluge of nonsense they have to put up with on a daily basis. 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! And it feels like this big weight sometimes. Aziza and I are sitting in our dining room. 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? I think I’ve experienced at least what part of a theater scene in L.A., at least for a working playwright, feels like. 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. 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? Larger-tier galleries like Gagosian have such a bigger share of the wealth pool inside of the art trade. is flown in. 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. 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. for emerging playwrights. Doesn’t feel like it. Club. It astonishes me to hear people make statements generalizing Los Angeles’s creative scenes as nonexistent, with such an economy for cerebral invention. 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 talk different, they move different, time is different, you know?   Do you think because of that ultimate output goal, the art of theater is deprioritized? But I feel like you’re an expert on this, so: Is there a theater scene in L.A., in general? 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. 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! So a lot of these conferences are recommendation-only, like you can’t apply. The way we communicate and engage with our audiences has indelibly shifted. 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. Yes! I learned about her through my playwriting friend and colleague Dennis A Allen II, who’s really dope. Am I doing help or hurt to my people? 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. But if they’re with it, I’ll feel really good. Barnes’s BLKS was nominated for two awards: Outstanding Costume Design and Outstanding Play. 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. 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. We are attending the 35th annual Lucille Lortel Awards, recognizing excellence in off-Broadway theater. Times Festival of Books postponing to October (bold), to name some examples. The ramifications on the book trade are apparent: online book releases, Zoom workshops, a resounding decline in retail distribution, the L.A. So you have to go find that craft for your stories. 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. Like you are not just yelling at me! As we are both writers, we’re lucky to see a great deal of our work lives translate into remote environments. I know for Sundance, their theater labs are also performance-driven, product-driven. What is your experience delivering Black narratives into the mainstream theater scene? For me, it was living in New York. So I did that. Yeah, it’s imported. 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. That’s really the biggest thing: rental property space, and actual theater space in the community. It’s a really brilliant festival they do at the Kraine Theater, led by Kelley Nicole Girod. 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. So, what do you think it would take for L.A. The Kraine Theater is gorgeous, and tiny, and old. Flock to them, go to all their stuff, enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. 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. In L.A., it’s like, you have so many artists pointing their production toward entertainment. Which is something I grapple with a lot, if I’m limiting myself. And then you have the special ones, like the Bootleg, and those are really diamonds in the rough. to be able to better support that spectrum? And I had this whole, policing the audience fear in my head. AZIZA BARNES: Sure. But no. I just know what feels good! ¤
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. And I agree with Max. He’s a producer spanning film, television, VR, and print media. And process-driven for sure, but you get to show people what you made. 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. 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! You have Sundance, you have the O’Neill, you have Yaddo, MacDowell.