INTIMATELY with emerging playwright Sevan K. Greene

Sevan K. Greene is a force. He is my Royal Central hero. Anyone who's been on Central's writers' course under the watchful eye of the indefatigably brilliant Tony Fisher will tell you that the course itself is a journey: a journey for the spirit and a journey for the soul. Mine and Sevan's started in October 2013 and since then he has been unstoppable: short listed for the Papatango Playwrights' Award, the accolades keep on coming: 2014 Princess Grace Award Semi-Finalist, 2014 Saroyan Social Justice/Human Rights Playwriting Award Finalist 2014 Saroyan Armenian Commendation Playwriting Award Finalist and 2011 Public Theater Emerging Writers Group.

He may still be training but Sevan Greene is already there. Last summer his show Greene Card, authored and performed by him, apart from making us aware of his baritone talents was a true shock to the system. The man who comes across as a cool educated American guy opens the door and lets us into an unknown world of war, strife and perpetually being the Other : his Iraqi adventures, his Armenian heritage, his sense of identity, his US citizenship, his name, his wounds and the innermost layers of his soul. Greene Card is dizzyingly honest. Sevan Greene’s narrative reads like a woman's journey: mistaken, misdirected and misunderstood. I caught up with him on New Year’s Day and here is what he intimated to me about being and being perceived as the Other.

You've written 11 plays in about 38 months or something. I'm not playing Freud here but is that accumulated pain or anger at social stereotypes or can you not tell the difference?

I had to actually go back through my files and check because I was so curious. I have written 14 plays (not including short plays) in 4 years. That’s not a lot. Is it? To be honest, I just have a lot of stories to tell and I find inspiration in a lot of things, places, events, and people. I’m always looking for the different voices. I’m sure my being an overachieving minority with a Type-A personality has something to do with it as well. Initially, my impetus for writing so much was the first writers scheme I was a part of with The Public Theater in NYC. It was on the back of my first play Forgotten Bread. I was in a room of other emerging playwrights who had been in the game for a while, so I felt this made-up pressure to write write write.

Knowing you, I don't think you want to answer that one but I'm so curious: what's your biggest fear?

That I have wasted time and years in pursuit of a career that I am actually no good at and that no one actually has the courage to tell me this. Though this is a pretty standard artist’s fear, no?

Greene Card was an amazing narrative of what it’s like being the Other. We, as women are invited to be born and live in Another’s world all our lives. We have to bow and comply if we are to be made sense of at any given moment. Tell me a bit more about being the Other and how that was woven into dramatic form.

Oh lordy, this is a loaded and heady question. I have made no secret about feeling like the Other back in the States; specifically New York City in the theatre industry. After my family escaped from the Gulf War we ended up in Florida. And with the exception of my first few months and the day right after 9/11, I never felt like the Other. When I talk about my NYC experiences with my Florida friends they are all flabbergasted because I was just Sevan to them. They never saw colour. And I WAS the only ethnic face of my ilk in three counties. The formula was there for me to be made the Other, and I wasn’t. In NYC, for the 8 years I was there I felt like the Other on a weekly basis. I’m not foreign enough, or dark-skinned enough, or have an ethnic enough name. I came to realize very quickly that I was not like everyone else and no one was going to let me forget it. But the positive to that is that it forced me to rediscover my cultural identity; to be proud of it. I have very little interest in and patience with people who want to try to label me because it’s impossible given my cultural, ethnic, and religious background. I never set out to make that my playwriting platform but when I looked back through all my plays I noticed that I consistently deal with how characters (ethnic or otherwise) deal with and fight for identities that don’t fit into the ordinary world of their plays; characters caught between two worlds or trying to be of a different world.

The Greene Card… was the most obvious exploration of this theme because I was putting all the Other cards on the table and saying, ‘Look, here is what it means to be an immigrant. Surviving a war is easier than navigating your White Privilege. Let’s fix that.’ But I think part of my fight is to say that I am not just the Other. My plays are not just about that or feature the Other. It is my responsibility to challenge the paradigm by writing plays people would not expect of my (like my recent commission to write a WW1 play). It is my right as a storyteller to explore voices with authenticity and not as some cultural tourist or fetishist. I know when and where to draw the line and many playwrights don’t, so we end up with ‘ethnic’ plays that lack authenticity because the playwright is not of the ilk. Some people would say this is racist of me to say. It probably is. But the truth is you will never be able to write my people the way I can because you lack the experience and cultural upbringing, but the irony is that I can write your people perfectly because as the Ethnic Other I have been forced to grow up in two worlds and to adopt two cultural identities. You have never been made to feel ashamed of who you are so you have been content with your single identity. The rest of us have suitcases full of masks we have to don just to get through a single day. It’s exhausting. It’s annoying. But without it I wouldn’t be able to write what I do.

Are you a political playwright?

No. I am awful at writing political plays. I can’t wrap my head around how you do that. A writer once told me that all writing is political in a way, but that always made me feel like every single play and playwright always has an agenda. Sometimes I think we overlook the very basic notion of ‘entertaining’ an audience. It’s become a dirty word. But, no, I don’t write politics; however, I do examine it through the personal. I am not interested in what Ivory Tower pundits and politicians have to say about a political moment or how it affects them; I am more interested in exploring how it affects the people. I’d rather explore how siblings deal with the aftermath of an occupation war than what the behind-the-scenes tactics were. Those plays generally bore me – show me the documentary instead.

Women playwrights only represent 17% of the voices heard in commercial theatre today. Would you say there’s a parallel of discrimination with race and class or have we now managed to overcome that?

Oh god, there is most definitely a parallel. Before I left NYC a coalition of Asian writers got together some statistics about the representation of ethnic minorities onstage in professional Broadway and off-Broadway productions in one season. It was horrifying and disgusting. That theatre doesn’t represent our contemporary world onstage is a disgrace. What I’ve noticed behind the scenes is that ‘we’ will be listened to only to the point where theatres can say, ‘See? We engaged them!’ but then they never actually follow through. I have seen it time and time again; these theatres with missions that espouse new voices and new identities so they can collect on grant monies, but when you examine their season they usually will have one token ‘ethnic’ play (if that) then pack the rest of the season with safe bets. This is something that is endemic in New York City. It is also problematic in London, not to the degree of NYC, but it is still very much a problem.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz or Madonna?

Madonna. How can you not respect a woman who has lasted 30 years in a business that burns artists out after about 10 years. She has managed to be a trailblazer and fool people at the same time. She may not be the most amazing vocalist or actress, but she’s smart. She knows how to mix art and business and that is something a lot of artists don’t understand. It’s called Show BUSINESS not Show Fun.

Shakespeare or Spielberg?

Spielberg. I never developed the fondness for Shakespeare that other people did. Sacrilege for a playwright to admit, but I’m not going to pretend so I can be seen as part of the elite or theatrical cognoscenti. I respect the plays and appreciate what they do/say/represent, but I’d rather watch E.T.

Aristotle or Plato?

Socrates.

Fountain pen or ballpoint?

Those faux fountain pens they make are my obsession. But to be honest, I have an office supply addiction. It’s not healthy.

Metaphor or myth?

Myth.

Yesterday, today or tomorrow?

Yesterday.

Oedipus or Medea?

Oedipus. It was the first play I ever read. I was 12. It amazed me. It made me fall in love with Greek playwrights.

Shaftesbury Avenue or Broadway?

Shaftesbury Avenue because it’s in London. But Broadway is less crowded and insane.

Pain or comfort?

Both. Gotta have grit to go with the gravy.

A dictator or a peacemaker?

Peacemaker.

Speed or ecstasy? Dramatically of course.

Neither? I am such a nun and have never done any drugs. Nor have I ever been drunk. So I couldn’t answer this question, dramatically or realistically.

Green or red?

Green.

Blonde or brunette?

Brunette.

And this is the big lie because I know he does like blondes. Because, you see, with Sevan and myself it was love at first sight and I must admit that I'm so incredibly difficult, I'm still observing my vows of chastity. Having said that, the plan was, if I were to become blonde, Sevan would marry me. I'm still an unrepentant brunette so no wedding bells just yet but Sevan's fearlessness and his insight into the workings of the human soul make him impossible to resist: watch this space.

Sevan K. Greene’s play 'Fear in a Handful of Dust' is showing at COG ARTSpace113 Southgate Rd, Above the De Beauvoir Arms. London, N1 3JS until 9 January. http://www.cogartspace.com/programme/2014/12/6/fear-in-a-handfull-of-dust

(c) Effie Samara 2015

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