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An interview with Rodrigo Duarte Clark

Theater, Esperanza, and Mountaintops

Part 2 - A different sensibility

Interview by Nic Paget-Clarke
near Kelly Fork, Kentucky

The following interview (part 2) with Rodrigo Duarte Clark is part of a series of interviews with some of the members of a group of 25 artists from around the U.S. and Canada who went to Kentucky and Virginia to participate in the initial stages of a multi-year, multi-site community art project sponsored by the American Festival Project. The American Festival Project is based in Whitesburg, Kentucky with Appalshop, a regional community arts center. Also see: Fred Campbell, Harrell Fletcher, Shannon Hummel, Stephanie Juno, Suzanne Lacy, John Malpede, Robbie McCauley, Nobuko Miyamoto.

These adults take their questions seriously

Rodrigo Duarte Clark:It’s not one of those things you can measure but I sensed from them they saw us not as mentors but somebody from the outside who gave a shit. Who thought that their work was important and treated it with importance. Treated their opinions with importance. I think that meant a lot. I think it’s a continuation of what Appalshop is doing that these adults take their questions seriously. That they are not alone out here. That there’s other people who care about the mountain people. It was classic. Classic in the sense that it’s an international struggle. It’s all working class people caring. For me, it reminded me of the old days. The UFW days. The BFI garbage strike. Being in the thick of it again with people who are absolutely genuine. I was moved.

In Motion Magazine: There is no separation between the local artists and their community?

Rodrigo Duarte Clark: No. They are students working on media. I don’t think they thought of themselves as artists.

In Motion Magazine: Did they start to think of themselves that way, do you think? Had they ever made a video before?

Rodrigo Duarte Clark: I think they had worked with Appalshop. Hope, she was the spokesperson often, she had been working on a video about the founder ...

In Motion Magazine: Her name is Hope?

Rodrigo Duarte Clark: Yes, Hope. She had been working on a video about the founder of the school. This school is a community school. There’s a history of independence here that they weren’t supposed to have this school and they put energy and money together and fund-raised and built this school. There’s a rebelliousness about this area. Hope was doing a film on the woman who founded this school. They think of themselves more as media.

Knowing that we were artists from New York and California, we were looked at as somewhat special. But once the first day passed, they sensed we were here to see what their community was about and weren’t just artists.We were human beings who wanted to meet their folks.

They were passionate about us meeting their people and understanding what their community was about. What they were doing. They wanted to drag us to meet so and so. Meet this guy. And look what they did to this guy. That was the thing that stuck out as opposed to anybody being an artist or defining roles. They just wanted to share with us their community. They were proud of what they were doing and they were anxious to share what was going on here. Their anger about what was being done to them.

The voices that come out of my writing

In Motion Magazine: What does this say about the possible relationships between developing art and identifying problems in the community that need to be dealt with?

Rodrigo Duarte Clark: Different ideas go into this. I know that some of the dancers were thinking about how might they work with their own communities. Martha (Bowers) is from New York and she works in Brooklyn with immigrant children and communities that are working class and poor. How will this experience help her to better understand her own work. The same for Elizabeth Johnson from Dance Exchange who does residency work in Washington, D.C. with African American youth.

In my case, it’s important to see how Appalshop works and how specifically they worked with this particular school. How the media people went in and helped provide technical support and machinery. Provided them with the technical expertise, the tools to defend themselves with

We have a project in the Mission district with a community organization called Jamestown Community center and we work with a middle school. The media aspect was fascinating to me. We generally teach theater, and that’s good but media seems to grab their attention more. That you can actually make a ten minute movie is more on the pulse of where youth are. I was thinking how could I take some of what they are doing here over there. How can we make our work better. I was learning things from them.

As a playwright, it’s complicated. We went through this art / politics thing for years and years in discussions but I learned that the voices that come out of my writing are the voices that I run into. The ones that make impressions upon me. I don’t know how they will surface but I certainly was charmed and illuminated by these people. When I find something interesting I know it’s going to reappear in my aesthetic in some way whether it be a specific character that appears or a similar situation. Something will stay with me and re-surface in some other way. It helps me as a playwright. It inspires me as a writer.

In Motion Magazine: It’s funny you should use those words - art and politics. It sounds so old school now.

Rodrigo Duarte Clark: Yes.

In Motion Magazine: Yet what is happening here is much more integrated without even thinking about it. The old way made the separation.

Rodrigo Duarte Clark: Yes. When someone tells you their story it’s there. You don’t have to think about the precise political ... . I’m talking twenty years ago, but somewhere in the process I learned that you’ve got to trust you instincts. Your beliefs will come through. Certainly when you come to a community like this and you are inspired everything clicks. It’s the kind of thing where you don’t have to put on it your ideological position. It’s there already and it allows an artist to be an artist without any kind of posturing or forcing or dishonesty. The feelings, the situations, they are all there. When I write plays I hope that the honesty that was here and the clarity, will be there.

A different sensibility

In Motion Magazine: Is there anything particular to this being a rural area, as far as you looking at art?

Rodrigo Duarte Clark: Being in San Francisco, a very artsy place, they really mess with you about what you should be doing.

Trucks at a stripmine in Kentucky wait for more coal. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Whenever we do a play, we have to have all the critics come and give us their negative opinions about what we should be doing. You have to insulate yourself from their preponderance about what art should be. Also you are surrounded by other artists that judge you, either by being on panels that fund you, or by their opinions.

It’s a very urban taste. They would call it sophistication of some sort. Yet when we go to rural areas, or urban areas with a different relationship to the arts, for example San Antonio has a different sensibility, when we take our art outside of San Francisco, it changes our relationship to the audience. What they laugh at. What has resonance with them. It’s very different from some of the urban, professional audiences. Even Latinos, “Haven’t you guys got past that?” “You are still doing that kind of political theater?” “It’s kind of passé?” That kind of response.

But when we go to this not-sophisticated -artsy audience, their prior world maybe was in El Salvador, or Mexico. They are not a highfalutin’ kind of audience. Our play resonates with the audience. For me that is really the test. I want to know what it does to that audience. If it doesn’t work with them then I judge it there. With the sophisticated audience, I don’t know how to react. I don’t know if it means the play is bad. Or it’s just them and they don’t have the same notions about art as I do.

When you come to a place like this you realize here is a another distinct sensibility. I’ve seen Roadside do theater. I’ve seen music here, dancing. And I feel at home. This is the kind of audience that I relate to in Chicano and Latino circles. It’s hard to pin it down. There’s an earthiness about the humor. There’s a simpler quality, though not un-complex.

For example they like straight-on stories. They don’t like the messing with time. You have to do something avant garde to get any positive reinforcement in San Francisco. You have to do something bizarre. If you brought that to San Antonio they’d go, “What is it? Why are you doing that?” I feel like this audience is like that. They like straight-on stories, characters that relate to them. Even if they aren’t people from the hills, there’s still a quality that they relate to. They understand. Like and dislike.

I know it as a playwright. When I see Roadside’s work and I see the response I say, “This is the kind of stuff aesthetically I learn from.” I don’t feel that this is something foreign to me. It reinforces my beliefs as a writer. My direction and aesthetic as a writer.

Ultimately this trip might have helped the local people, and I’m sure it did, but it really does a lot for me and my work. I’m talking in selfish terms but it reinforces and makes me feel good about the work that I’ve done and that I’m doing. Doing theater with no real economic anything. Even your own family wondering when are you going to get a real job. It’s a field where you are always doubting, “Did I do the right thing?”

This kind of trip reaffirms. And you always need that reaffirmation that you are fighting the good fight. That this is the right thing.

In Motion Magazine: So now you have been here for five days, what do you think about the openness of the process? Is that the correct way to describe the process?

Rodrigo Duarte Clark: It is genuinely open. In all honesty, at the beginning I thought, “I’m giving up a week of my life and I’m busy” and I was disappointed at the vagueness of it. I could sense some of the other artists were wondering if are we going to get any more explanation than this? Is there more structure.

That was Sunday, the first day. But on Monday there was a clear program. We were going to this program on that day. The more we saw of it the more clearly we realized we could do what we wanted with this.

By the second day, we were locked into the same struggle. We knew we were going to Frankfort. This was preparation for that and we knew we needed to work with the kids and help out in what ever way we could. Whether or not it was an open process was no longer a question. We were fully involved and willing to be involved as artists, or not as artists, just as people engaged with this community. For us the openness of it meant that we were willing, we weren’t forced into anything.

It was good. I appreciate that now. It’s still kind of vague about the next two days - but now I have faith that these people have a good plan. It worked in the first phase so it may very well work in the second phase. We are going to be talking about collaborations. I don’t know what’s going to happen but I have a certain amount of faith now.

They were right on the money.

Published in In Motion Magazine October 18, 2000