Sevan K Greene is a playwright and actor. His play, ‘bi’, will be performed at Rich Mix (London) in March. This week Alexandra Birchfield interviewed him on his upcoming work, as well as his thoughts on theatre, sexuality and life.
First things first, how did you get involved with Rich Mix?
Rich Mix posted a brief on Ideas Tap looking for submissions for their Small Story/Big City programme. I had been thinking about bi when I finished doing The Greene Card…, so I saw this as an opportunity to test if my idea has any legs.
I’ve also loved that space for a while so the chance to get in there and do some work is very exciting.
Tell us about bi. What is important about this play to you and how does it differ from your other work?
I have been a professional actor for 8 years. I started writing, accidentally, 4 years ago. I didn’t have any overlaps until I decided to write The Greene Card… I had, and have, no desire to be a solo performer. It doesn’t interest me. I like having other people on stage with me. I ended up creating what I call a cabaret-play: The structure of a play but the presentation of a cabaret. It’s the only way I could negotiate even beginning to think about telling my stories. And let me be clear I have avoided telling my stories in public for years. In my culture you don’t air dirty laundry. Everything is great all the time because if people know you have problems then they know you are weak which means they take advantage of you.
The only reason I started down this side path is because I wanted to try it and fail and be done and not worry about this quasi-solo thing. But it went well. So I thought: Well, get stuck in, Sevan. And I enjoyed it. It was a pleasant surprise. A welcome one. bi differs in that it’s another cabaret-play but I am playing some more with the form. I want to see if this can be driven by more book scenes and less monologue and finding more ways to integrate the songs/music into the narrative. I generally write plays, so this is fun for me to play with some different in form, structure, and presentation.
It’s also personally challenging because I am talking about things I NEVER discuss with anyone. Most of my friends think I’ve got a Ken doll plastic mound for genitals. It’s not a part of my life I am open about. Not because of shame but because it’s never been relevant to my friendships. Why should it be?
I’m also talking about my family which is a massive no-no. I wish I could say this show is self-serving and I need to exorcise some demons. It’s not. I know my crazy and where it’s from. I don’t need public therapy. My mission as an artist has always been to bring unheard and marginalized voices and stories to the stage. To connect with people who otherwise never see themselves in any media. And if that means putting myself and my life out there, then so be it. Plus, this show addresses a community of people who might be bi or gay and can’t live their lives the way they want because they are caught between two worlds and two generations; between disparate cultures that can’t figure out how to live in the same space. But let’s be real, I also love entertaining people; making them feel. The most amazing sound in the world is laughter – pure joy.
What in your opinion are the challenges facing LGBTQ theatre?
I am likely going to get into trouble with my answer. I honestly don’t have a personal opinion about it. I don’t write LGBTQ theatre and I don’t see ‘bi’ as of that genre: however, what DOES annoy me is the need to label plays that have gay premises or characters as ‘gay’ or ‘queer’. I often find that people place those plays in the same categories as fluffy musicals. It’s as if Angels in America and The Normal Heart are it. When is the last time a ‘gay’ play made headlines and changed the paradigm? Maybe there aren’t any good plays being written on that level, but I think the powers-that-be feel those types of plays are hard sells. It’s like ‘ethnic’ plays: There is that fear of alienating and/or trying to find audiences. I used to call myself a playwright of color and lead with the Brown Card in conversations. I got a reality check when I met with Madani Younis at The Bush Theatre. He made me realign my entire thinking and to focus on the work and what I had to say as a person and as an artist. And he’s right. If we label and section ourselves off, then how can we expect others to do differently? I’m a playwright. Full stop. No adjectives needed. I’m interested in stories and characters, not agendas. But isn’t any piece of writing an act of revolt in some way? My favorite thing is to challenge people’s pre-conceived notions and present new truths about familiar situations.
Do you find there are particular challenges facing people who identify as bisexual as opposed to homosexual?
I talk about this in the play a bit, but I am the least political when it comes to bedroom acts because I didn’t grow up with those sexual preference delineations. And when I DID discover them, I found them pointless. I wish I could say I was walking in parades and fighting the good fight out there, but I’m not. My sexual preference is what I am not who I am. I fully expect to get skewered for that response. I don’t mean we should diminish people who have been through the harrowing dark night of the soul because of their sexual preference, but I also don’t think it’s fair to hold every single LGBTQ person responsible for waving the flag. What I CAN say about bisexuals is that people think it’s a fetish, a one-off, or a cover up – especially when it comes to men. I got to a point where I just let people think what they wanted to about me. It’s easier than having to explain anything because people don’t or don’t want to get it. You’re screwed either way (no pun intended): If you date a man people say, ‘See! I KNEW he was just really gay!’ and if you then date a woman they say, ‘He’s just covering up because he’s ashamed.’ At the end of that day, that’s your issue not mine. We have been trained to see the world in binary oppositions. Grey areas can’t exist for us. I call bullshit. We close ourselves to so much in life and to so many experiences because of these this-or-thats that are reinforced by religious, political, and cultural biases. I don’t know how I escaped that in my family given I am Arab, Asian, Christian, and Muslim. It’s probably because I was a very independent child. My parents just left me to myself. And I am the luckier for it.
Your work often deals with what it means to be “other”, does this theme come into play in bi?
Oh indeed it does. bi is not just about bisexuality. It’s about being bisexual, bicultural and bireligious and the intersection of the three. I mean, Christ, it’s hard enough being the ethnic Other. You throw in the religious and sexual preference Other and it’s enough to make you want to go live in a cave. But the piece is not political. I don’t write political theatre. Not overtly. I lack the skill to do that. But I always manage to explore the political through the personal.
Your work resonates with many people as evidenced by your success. Do you think there are a lot of people that feel as though they are somehow on the outside or “other”?
I wouldn’t say I’m successful. I haven’t reached that place in my career yet. With so many subcultures I think virtually anyone can feel like the Other. Whether it’s warranted or not is a different thing. You can be the Other just by not having as many followers on Twitter as your peers. To which I say: Go find some real problems and come back to me.
What we need to talk about is why today anyone has to be made the Other. I mean, really? What is that nonsense about? We can’t move beyond our puritanical morality and self-imposed ignorance to accept people? I don’t have patience for that. I am a cultural conundrum so am virtually the Other wherever I go. I own it. I wear it proudly. And I use it for what my friend calls: educational retaliation. I’ve got a great race and bullshit sensor and I will call people out. I’m not afraid to use terms like ‘white privilege’ and ‘white guilt’. Why should I be? They’re real. They exist. But you don’t get to call yourself the ‘Other’ just because you feel like you’re on the outside. If you don’t come from a history of oppression and hierarchical cultural repression then what are you othered by? Your lack of skinny jeans and ‘unique’ taste in music? Not today, Satan. Not today.
Finally, on a different note, but I’m just curious; as someone who has experienced both, what are the differences for artists working in the US as opposed to the UK?
They are massive. I didn’t feel at home until I came here. Part of it is that the UK reminds me of growing up in the Middle East. After years of being put on the offensive and dealing with racism in New York (in the theatre of all places) it was such a relief to come here and not deal with any of that. I mean, racism does exist here but people are generally so class-obsessed that race takes a back seat.
Also let’s talk subsidized theatre. I would not have achieved a tenth of what I have in the past year here, in New York. Three years as a writer there and I was struggling to get work up and get people to pay proper attention. Here I’ve been so lucky, fortunate, and blessed to have three full productions under my belt so far. And I’m hungry for more. New and emerging artists can take the onus of getting work up. You can’t really do that in the States without serious funding and/or vetting by an organization. Audiences here are more open to different structures and forms of theatre. There is less pressure and expectation for perfection. We are allowed to make mistakes and experiment – within reason. It’s opened up so much creativity for me. My only wish is that audiences were more diverse. I want to see my people in the house every night. And it’s something that needs work from all sides: producers, theatre makers, marketers, and audiences. There is a huge percentage of the UK population that is untapped. At the end of the day, I feel like the UK is giving me possibilities and hope. Not just as an artist but as a person. I recently applied for my artist visa and am nervously awaiting endorsement. I don’t want to go back. Even if I don’t become a raging success I will feel like I was given a chance to try. I finally feel like I’ve found a place I can call a home. And it’s been a long time since I could say that. A very long time.
Thank You Sevan!
bi – Sevan K Greene
Part of Small Story/Big City 2015
(Performing as a double-bill with BLEACHED)
Friday 20th March 7.30pm
How does an Arab-Asian, Muslim-Christian bisexual fit in a world where the odds are against him? From the writer-performer of The Greene Card: The Unbelievable, Yet Completely True, Story of a Brown Boy in a White World, comes a new cabaret-play about cultural obligations, religious trappings, and sexual awakenings in a Western world.
Featuring pop, gospel, and musical theatre songs, bi examines the oft-ignored bisexual male, often seen as just another closeted homosexual. It’s hard enough to find a partner when you have one gender choice, but the decisions are multiplied when you get two. And when one of your choices flies in the face of your cultural and religious upbringing how do you being to negotiate the already tricky gauntlet of the modern relationship?
Juxtaposed against the almost impossible marriage of his own parents, Sevan Greene explores how it’s possible to feel alone in a city of 8 million people as you try to figure out what you are and who you want, so you can decide what you want and who you are.
Interview by Alexandra Birchfield and Sevan K Green © 2015
Alexandra is a New Zealand born actor and writer who has been living in the UK for 4 years. She spent the first three years in Glasgow studying at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and is now living in London with two lovely flatmates and one very pampered cat.