Saviana Stanescu reveals to WP's audience her inspirations for ALIENS WITH EXTRAORDINARY SKILLS.
As a foreigner living in the US, how has your own experience influenced Aliens?
Well, I am myself an "alien with extraordinary abilities in the arts" as my O1 visa states, so I know very well what means to be considered an "alien". For me this is a huge irony, because I actually studied here, at NYU (MA in Performance Studies and MFA in Dramatic Writing - John Golden Award for Excellence in Playwriting), I teach part-time at NYU in the Drama Department, I won the 2007 New York Innovative Theatre Award for Outstanding Play, I've had some significant achievements here, in the NYC theatre world and I feel that I am a part of it. It's true, I won the Best Play of the Year in 2000 in my native country, Romania, and I was an established writer over there. I was even a host for a one-hour live cultural talk-show! So I had to start from the scratch over here, in my 30s: I had to live in small dorms with a shared bathroom placed far away on the other side of the floor at International House, I had to work hard on my English language, as words are a writer's tools and you can't really do your work until you feel the core and subtleties of a language. It took me a few years to "move" into the English language, to grow to "own" it, to play with it, to truly love it. But it is extremely important for me to tell my dramatic stories in American-English, to reach larger audiences, to make my voice really heard by the world. The sacrifices I've made are justified, I think.
I came to New York as a Fulbright fellow in 2001, a week before 9/11. Somehow I feel that I belong here, I don't really feel like an alien, I felt accepted by NYC and I fell in love with NYC, so it's a bit hard to see that it's so difficult to be officially accepted. There are "little" things reminding you daily of your status. I can't get to clubs on weekend nights because I don't have an American ID with my birth date on it and I am afraid to carry my passport with me when I go out - what if I lose my purse with my passport&visa in it? I'm always worried when I have to travel abroad to see one of my plays performed in Europe and beyond - what if I can't get back? So I had to refuse many trips and my career in Europe slowed down as a consequence. Today I got an email to be invited to a festival in Alexandria, Egypt, where a play of mine is to be translated/presented in Arabic. I am honestly afraid to go. What if I'm not gonna be allowed to come back to my New York? Stuff like that. And I don't even want to mention financial issues...
I long for a bit of normality in my life and while I am officially an "alien", that's impossible. Despite my "extraordinary skills" in resilience, hope, ambition, friendship, love, and survival.
Would you like to share with WP's audience the real immigrant story that inspired Aliens?
In Orlando, Florida, an Ukrainean and a Romanian got arrested for smuggling aliens under fake "aliens with extraordinary skills in the circus" visas. They created a bogus circus. When those guys got caught, the illegal immigrants received deportation letters. That is the starting point of my play.
All four main characters have been emotionally scarred by life. How important was this to the development of the relationships?
I really wanted to write about people who have been alienated by life, circumstances, status, personal choices etc. It is important for me to dig deep inside people's souls - yes, I know that "soul" sounds a bit old-fashioned in the present day ultra-rational cyber-clever media-obsessed pragmatic society - and see if they can meet on a profound level, beyond their differences in birth and upbringing. I wanted to write about people finding each other in a world that encourages selfishness and loneliness. A world in which you are surrounded by people but you feel so often alone.
My characters are two illegal Eastern European immigrants, a legal immigrant from the Dominican Republic, and a divorced American washed-up musician - all of them with their own traumas and resources for resilience. Paraphrasing Beckett, my characters' refrain is: "I can't go on. I can't go on. I go on." And of course I added a little love and friendship to spice up and help their journeys.
All characters have suffered in life journey. Do you think the suffering has led to the compassion they show each other?
Yes, definitely. They understand each other on that subconscious level of people who suffered. There is solidarity between people with traumas, there is support, and sometimes there is even humor. And I like to show those funny and sweet aspects of life, as well as the bitter ones. The tragicomedy of existence.
I don't like the stereotypical portrayal of immigrants as having exclusively gritty, asexual, humorless lives: work-work-work, make money, send it to families back home, have poor or no English. There is room for subtlety and complexity of immigrant characters.
Love seems to triumph in Aliens. Do you believe this is always the case in life?
No, there's very rarely the case in real life. All my other plays have actually dark endings, they are all funny yet grim "fairy-tales" addressing contemporary issues of displacement and alienation. But in this play I wanted Love to triumph. Maybe as a way to provoke it to triumph in life too :)
Plus, my main character, Nadia, is a clown, she makes balloon-animals and enacts little stories she tells to the kids at Birthday Parties. In her world, a happy-ending makes lots of sense ... Immigrant life might be for Nadia a big imaginary tragicomic circus show
On a personal note, are you a romantic? And what's your idea of a happy ending?
Well, I grew up during Ceausescu's dictatorship in Romania. I had to daily escape from reality using stories and imagination. I had to somehow believe in romance and a happy-ending, as a way to survive. And then, at some point, Reality stepped in and censored my romantic ideals. So I don't know if I am a romantic anymore in my personal life. But nothing can stop some of my characters from being romantic. It's me who decides what's what. Finally empowered :)
As WP's writer in residence, how have you found your involvement with WP beneficial to your craft?
YES, Women's Project and particularly Julie Crosby have been very supportive and friendly to me. The environment provided by the Lab and by the WP community has been stimulating and deeply inspiring. I got lots of work done here, I wrote what I consider my best plays to the date: "Aliens with extraordinary skills" and "For a Barbarian Woman". I owe Julie a lot and I will never forget this chance that Women's Project gives me to have my work seen by the NYC Off-Broadway audiences.
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