Cara Mia Theatre kicks off new residency with hopeful story 'a farm for meme' by Virginia Grise
Heading into its 25th anniversary season, Dallas’ Cara Mía Theatre has been awarded a grant (the largest in company history) to bring writer, Virginia Grise, to its staff as the Playwright in Residence for the next three years. The prestigious grant was funded from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s and HowlRound Theatre Commons’ National Playwright Residency Program. The kickoff to the residency is a Zoom performance, which played over the weekend: a farm for meme.
Grise and Cara Mia Theatre have a long history together. The company produced her play, blu, several seasons ago, and in August 2019 produced a workshop of her play, Your Healing Is Killing Me. The idea to apply for a grant came about as a way to deepen their artistic collaboration. Cara Mia Theatre Executive Artistic Director David Lozano said, “Virginia has a really special voice that resonates with our community and specifically, non-traditional theater goers. Because she's a poet of the hood. When we produced her play, blu, there was a visceral response to her work. She’s truly speaking their language, and putting their lives on the page.”
Grise’s career began as a high school teacher. She shared that at the time, she didn’t identify as an artist herself, but knew that art making was a way to create a space for her students to express themselves. So, she would invite different artists and writers to her classes. One of her collaborators, Raul Salinas [writer and bookstore owner based in Austin, TX] was facilitating writing workshops in juvenile detention centers. He insisted that Grise write a poem and share it at one of the workshops. Another program facilitator, poet Sharon Bridgeforth, took a liking to what Grise wrote and began mentoring her. Through Bridgeforth, Grise found a home with other women as part of a group called The Austin Project, an experience she said, “...became my creative home for several years. Writing for the theater was never something that was confined to plays or playwriting. For me, it’s always been a very collaborative art form. I think that gave me a freedom to think about work in different ways. I've never felt confined to the physical space of a theater. Through the work that I've done, I've worked with dancers, musicians, video artists, um, poets, visual artists, and in a number of different mediums.” Grise’s work has been performed in living rooms, under freeways – even The Alamo.
Freedom, land, and community are common themes in her work. a farm for meme tells the story of the South Central Farm, which was built in a vacant lot after the 1992 LA rebellion. Essentially, something beautiful and alive was created out of destitution, and it was created with the resources of the immediate community.
In our conversation, Grise and I discussed the importance of community in her work. She told me, “The farm was built in a vacant lot of trash. I mean it was refrigerators, broken glass, and the farm was built on this 14 acre vacant lot, and became the largest urban farm in the nation. And so I think the question that I'm asking with the piece is what can we imagine where it seems like there may not be possibility? What can we imagine on a vacant lot? So, in this moment of all of these historical forces colliding, with the pandemic and the rebellions and everything else - what is it that we imagine? What do we dream? What are the seeds that we're going to plant?”
The virtual performance, directed by Elena Araoz and produced in collaboration with allgo and Innovations in Socially Distant Performance at Princeton University, is a mixed-media, visual monologue. Grise’s poetic storytelling is mashed up with paper collage animation and stock footage. In the short 20-minute program, a farm for meme imparted an innocent hope. The purity of planting seeds and creating something positive for the future, through the effort and knowledge of the local community, is illuminated through Grise’s graceful words. As I experienced the Zoom performance, I felt the childlike freedom of anything being possible. It is an inspiring narrative, and a balm within our pandemic reality.
Going forward, Lozano describes a vision of community partnership through Grise’s residency, and a reimagining of how the arts can not only entertain and engage audiences, but serve the community. Lozano shared, “there is authorship in everything Virginia does. So when she's talking about working with communities, that's a sense of authorship. Because when she leaves, she will have left her mark, and that will be part of her playwriting residency.”
Virginia Grise is the recipient of multiple writing awards and fellowships. Her published work includes Your Healing is Killing Me (Plays Inverse Press), blu (Yale University Press), The Panza Monologues co-written with Irma Mayorga (University of Texas Press) and an edited volume of Zapatista communiqués titled Conversations with Don Durito (Autonomedia Press). In addition to plays, she has created a body of work that is interdisciplinary and includes multimedia performance, dance theater, performance installations, guerilla theater, site specific interventions, and community gatherings.
At the time of publication, a farm for meme is available for replay in both English and Spanish (with ASL interpretation) on HowlRound TV.