Monday, January 26, 2009

A Conversation with Playwright Eric Gansworth

In the First Person, Telling it Like it Is:
A Conversation with Playwright Eric Gansworth
by Tom Pearson

In my interviews with Native Theater Festival artists for the online Native Theater Journal and the Hemispheric Institute archives, my mission was to establish background information on each interviewee, to find out what their current and future projects consist of, and to situate those within a conversation regarding politics and performance in the Americas.

Visual artist, poet, novelist, and now, playwright, Eric Gansworth has no lack of ideas or inspirations, and also no lack of political and cultural fodder for his work. We spoke about Eric’s professional trajectory and his current endeavor, which takes on a monumental topic, loaded with concerns regarding cultural sensitivity, ownership, and inheritance: a re-telling of the Haudenosaunee creation story from a deeply personal perspective.

Tom: I wanted to start off talking about your background. Will you say a bit about who you are, what you do, what your work is about and how you became an artist and a writer?

Eric: Ok, well I’m the youngest of seven from a family that is Onondaga, living on the Tuscarora reservation, and though we’d been there from the beginning, we had this kind of complicated history of being “other” within an already smaller group of “other,” so I think it was maybe difficult, perhaps, for many members of my family, but the perfect place for somebody who’s interested in becoming an artist because you get to be outside of the culture most of the time even while immersed in it. So, you’ve a viewpoint on it, I guess, that’s a little bit distant from people who are fully immersed within it. And I think technically, as an artist, I was pretty interested from the very beginning. I guess all kids draw when they are two and three, and you know, they color and they draw and things like that, and at some point, some stop and others don’t. I was pretty serious and committed to drawing, and I recall being annoyed that I didn’t have the technical motor skills in kindergarten to master the kind of drawing I wanted. I was largely influenced, at that point, by comic books. And I think I would say I went through a fairly long period of not being particularly interested in writing or drawing within the bounds of the culture. As I got older, it was rock music. I probably became serious about writing as a direct result of rock music from the 70s. I discovered that the lyrics were really moving me in these really interesting ways, and as a result, I began mimicking them and reading fiction and finding that same thing, that I was moved by certain pieces of fiction and had the desire to start writing. I had almost no awareness that I was following the best advice about composing which is to respond to what you know, so I thought I was writing a horror novel, and it turns out that I was writing a novel about reservation life that had these weird monsters in it [laughter]. By then, I had hit college and my creative writing professor said, “Well, you know, this is a really vivid story about reservation life, but what’s with the monsters?” That was a big shift moment for me, and I was able to say, “Oh well, maybe I can just get rid of the monsters.” I discovered that I was really writing about the things, the areas in my life, where I had passion, which were family dynamics and relationship of memory and history and contemporary life. So, it was an easy progression once that had happened.

Tom: You do so many different things. You are a visual artist, a writer, a poet, which I guess falls under writer [laughs].

Eric: [laughing] A lot of people make distinctions about those two.

Tom: There are nuances there. I was wondering when an idea comes to you, does it demand of you, “Make me a painting or make me a poem?” Does the idea dictate the medium, or do you approach it a different way?

Eric: I think there’s an experimental phase. And so often, I’ve tried out ideas in a variety of media to discover in which medium it’s going to sing most and have some kind of relationship with an audience. As an example, I really wanted to wrestle with the loss of one of my uncles. We’d spent a lot of time in his house growing up, and he lived two doors down from us. And he’d no electricity and, you know, we had electricity, but we didn’t have running water. But his house was even one degree more from finished than ours was, and he used to play the acoustic guitar and would sing for us all these blues standards and country songs. So that’s really the music I grew up listening to. I guess I was in college when he passed away, and I wanted to really deal with that in a legitimate way, in a meaningful way, and it started out as an idea for a performance, which was me playing the guitar incredibly badly. And it was going to be called Songs My Uncle Taught Me because none of us ever… We sort of took advantage of him or took his presence for granted, and that he was always going to be there, and so none of us bothered to learn to play the guitar from him or learned to sing these songs. So when he was gone, suddenly there was this huge void in our lives, but then I thought about the reality of audience and, of course, who would want to sit through somebody playing guitar badly for more than a minute or so? So I ended up turning it into a piece of fiction that became a chapter in my first novel. Often that’s part of the process, is to see which medium is going to most effectively deliver the idea. Sometimes there are many false starts for a variety of ideas.

Tom: And your current work, part of the festival, Re-Creation Story, is a play, and this is your first play?

Eric: It’s the first play that’s gone beyond the rejection phase. I had written something that started off as a short story maybe five or six years ago now, then when I saw the initial call for work for Native Voices at the Autry, so this is going back to 2003 I guess, I thought, “Oh, maybe I could rewrite that short story.” it was a much more immediate short story than most of my work. I thought maybe I could rewrite it as a play and see what happens, and I sent it to them and they didn’t take it, but they were encouraging in their rejection. So, that was the first move in that direction, and then when it came back rejected, I just rewrote it as a novel and it came out as a novel. This piece, now, originally started as a lecture, kind of a failed lecture. I mean, I delivered it, so I knew that it was going to be kind of performance based, but I didn’t think it was as successful as I’d wanted it to be or the way I’d imagined it. And I thought what it really needed was more voices because it was just too static the way I had done it as a single person. And then when I saw the call for work from this, the Public’s Native Theater Festival, I thought, ”Well, let’s go back to that piece because it was too long to be an essay and too performative in its structure to be viewed on paper as well. I mean, it was definitely meant to be presented aloud. And so I decided to commit, to see where it would go, and really make sure I got to an ending, to give it a judgment, to say, “Does it exist as a piece of drama?” And I was happy enough with it that I decided to send it out.

Tom: Re-Creation Story is going to have its reading on the last day of the festival. I had an opportunity to read an early draft, and a couple of things struck me. It seems like there’s a few very delicate balancing acts that you are navigating in this. One is that the main character in your play is Eric Gansworth. I think that is an interesting challenge, not only with regards to production but also in the writing of the work. And the play itself is grappling with the telling and re-telling of the Haudenosaunee creation story. What are the politics involved in rendering yourself in this way and in rendering something that belongs to a community of people, a bit of culture that a whole confederacy of tribes shares ownership of?

Eric: Well, that is a funny reality of a community-based story, and there certainly are people who consider themselves, either community-granted or not, consider themselves culture cops. Who has ownership of this story, and who can tell it, and under what circumstances? Because of the complicated nature of that, I have largely stayed away from it in any kind of verbal context. I have painted it a lot, because I think you can safely render moments of it as a visual artist, and with even more, let’s say politically charged paintings, can still have it grounded in that imagery more safely than you can verbally. As it turned out, I got stuck giving a presentation, very inadvertently, and realized that, of course, there are inherent skills in being a storyteller that I just don’t have. Then I thought, “Why did I even agree to this?” It seemed like I was just setting myself up for failure in agreeing to do something that was just a bad idea for me. Through the process of having accepted that, I agreed to it, and I began realizing that I did know a lot of it, but there is was also a lot that I didn’t know. And it became a very meaningful relationship to me to think about what it means to have ownership of that story and also what it means to be responsible for it. One of the last major documents to have appeared about the creation story came out maybe two years ago, and it was a fairly encompassing version of it but written in a contemporary diction. It was by a Seneca scholar named John Mohawk, and he also had a fairly fascinating introduction to it. The introduction was maybe twenty to twenty-five pages of contextualization of why he chose to write it now. I understood its importance, in his choosing to tell it and tell it for a contemporary audience and I think that his introduction was as important as his choosing to document it. I thought, “Well, the only way I’m going to really be able to make the creation story something that’s very explicitly connected to my life is to examine what it means to me and what it means to me that I’m not this kind of storyteller, and when I arrived at that, it occurred to me that I’m almost being asked to be that kind of storyteller even though I’m not. And I thought, “Well, that would be kind of a weird and interesting addition to the process, that it always involves a relationship with an audience, allows it to go in this other place.” And so much of it, the autobiographical elements, really did–and it’s sort of weird that, like email errors on my part–start forming what becomes part of the oral tradition. Because when somebody sees you needing help, they are compelled to help you, even though you don’t necessarily want to hear that kind of help because when I started getting those emails….

Tom: … People’s ideas of what help is sort of runs the gamut…

Eric: … Yeah. Exactly.

Tom: I like that you said the word “responsibility” in relation to all of this, and I think that comes up in different ways in different Native works. When you are dealing with this kind of subject matter is there a different sort of accountability, a different sort of responsibility that you are cognizant of as your writing? I know this hasn’t had an audience yet, but do you have some anticipation about how audiences are going to react or how Native versus non-Native audiences will react to it?

Eric: I have absolutely no idea how people are going to react to this or if it has any audience whatsoever. I think it’s one of the risks in working in between two different things. There’s this group of writers I guess I would generally consider myself part of, who tend to work in fairly contemporary ideas or contemporary narratives, and I think that’s true of my visual art as well. It’s got a post-modern aesthetic, generally speaking. And then there’s a whole other group of people who are very traditional in the way they work, who do beadwork designs that have been in their families for a couple of hundred years. And so to jump in between those things is to potentially alienate both groups of people. I think what John Mohawk tried to do in rewriting the creation story with a contemporary diction, is he chose that risk, and because he believed that it was a necessary risk. You know, in order to preserve the story for another, for the future, you have to take some risks, and you are going to have some enemies as a result. So I guess if I’m writing for any audience, it’s for the future. Our story does recreate itself. I guess I’ve taken the extreme stance that the teller has to take ownership of the story to some degree. So, where I wanted it to go was some place that I didn’t see any of the other versions taking it, which is to really show a dual narrative in which its meaning is manifested in the personal, individual life as well.

Tom: And what’s next? What are you working on now?

Eric: I usually have several big projects going at once. My next book will be out in the fall of 2009. It’s a collaboration with a photographer who had, for fourty years, documented the Indian communities of western New York. I have written a series of poems in response to his works. So that’s in production at the moment. And I have a new novel being considered by another press, and I’ve got notes on what I think is the next piece for theater because this is really exciting and interesting.

Eric Gansworth’s novels and poetry collections are available in bookstores and online through, at Barnes and Noble, and other major book retailers.