An observer sensed energy and activism in the teacher leading Tucson Festival of Books’ recent playwriting workshop. Virginia Grise, co-author of The Panza Monologues, had the class on its feet, loosening its writing muscles. Her thought-provoking comments were encouraging and reflective of camaraderie, contemporary issues of identity and finding a writer’s voice.
It was all a natural extension of this theater artist’s life work, a prolific and creative commitment to crafting words that audiences need to see and hear. Today, in addition to award-winning plays that have been performed internationally and taught on university campuses, Virginia works actively on organizing efforts for women, immigrants, Chicanos, the working class and queer youth.
She found time before her March 14-15 Festival of Books presentations to speak with BorderLore about the interconnection of theater-culture-learning:
Theater and its influences, early memories
My earliest memory of theater was learned at my grandmother’s kitchen table. Mexicans, after all, tell the best stories—the perfect combination of tragedia mixed with humor, fully enacted. I didn’t grow up in the theater, watching or reading plays, but I did grow up in a community that valued stories, storytelling and ceremony; a community that taught me the importance of collaboration, interdependence and self-actualization.
If theater is necessary—it must actively fight against systems that dehumanize and criminalize and it must do so by doing work that is necessary, pulled from somewhere deep inside, too far back for any of us to remember and yet we recognize it, feel it in our own bodies when we see it, when we hear it.
How performance is a learning experience
I write plays because I believe in the power of telling our stories, that the act of memory is a political act. I believe that valuing our stories in fact teaches us that we are necessary in this world. I write for theatre because I am excited by live performance, by the immediacy of breath, acts of collective witnessing and the shared experience and interaction between and amongst diverse communities. I am interested in how memory, images, emotion and stories live in the body. Making theatre is therefore a constant act of (re)discovery (with actors, with audience) every rehearsal, every performance — a constant act of (re)learning about yourself and others.
I still remember as a child being asked “How did school go today?” by my father. I once flippantly answered, “It was boring.” He responded, “No. You are boring.” The lesson being that if I could not find anything of interest in a 6-8 hour day then clearly I was the one lacking imagination. My father taught me how to read, how to use my imagination, how to be creative. He hated boredom and ignorance. This challenge of seeking out new adventures, new learning experiences, is fundamental to who I am as an artist today.
The Panza Monologues as a teaching and learning experience
Arriving at the subject for The Panza Monologues was based on a series of questions (which I believe is the basis for all learning). My co-writer Irma Mayorga and I were both living and working in San Antonio, Texas which was, at the time, ranked the third largest city in the nation (in terms of obesity rates) so the panza (belly), our panza, the panzas of the women around us was something that concerned us and we began asking questions about our panzas and asking the women we worked with to talk about their panzas. The stories they shared weren’t just about body image but about the panza as the core or center of everything we do – and from those questions came stories as wide ranging as how to put on your tight jeans, to abortion, to domestic violence, to workers’ rights, to queer love and desire, to loving yourself. Through the sharing of these stories (even before it became a staged performance) we were both learning from each other and teaching other about our lives and lived conditions. We learned, among other things, that The Panza is Political!
The second edition of The Panza Monologues was designed very consciously as a tool for learning. The book presents the performance script in its entirety, as well as a rich supporting cast of dramaturgical and pedagogical materials. These include a narrative history of the play’s development; critical materials that enhance and expand upon the script’s themes and ideas (a short introduction to San Antonio, where the play was developed, our own autogeographies, and a manifesto on women of color making theater); and a selection of pedagogical and creative ideas, including a DIY production manual for staging the play in communities. The manual includes guidelines and advice for staging a production of the play and for teaching it in the classroom, community-making activities (screenings, hosting “Panza Parties,” community/group discussions), and creative writing activities connected to the play. The hope is that people will not only read and stage the The Panza Monologues in their own communities but also talk about the issues that are presented in the play – what similarities and differences do they find in their own communities.
Learning as life practice and tradition
I do believe creativity is something that has to be taught so an arts education at an early age to me is fundamental. Unfortunately, most lawmakers don’t agree so I am very grateful that I had that training at home – a father that took me to the library and museums, who read to me every night, a father that taught me how to dream.
Tucson Festival of Books, the power of community
The Tucson Festival of Books and gatherings like it are important because they create a culture of reading as a community event. People have a chance to not only hear their favorite authors read from their book but ask them questions. It makes reading more accessible. This is why I support independent bookstores because they are physical sites for sharing knowledge and culture.
- Women’s Studies, Gender and Sexuality (excerpt, rasgos asiaticos, Virginia Grise, Project Muse) https://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/frontiers/v024/24.2grise.html
- Google Books excerpt, When Women Ask the Questions: Creating Women’s Studies in America By Marilyn Jacoby Boxer http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=iDRmEBc1M1YC&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=Grise,+women%27s+studies,+sexuality,&ots=xfNr_XDcsO&sig=m6ctzSMA3f_7NByyt0YTVQVBOHI#v=onepage&q&f=false