Apparently knowing four languages, holding four academic degrees, and pursuing an acting career in New York City wasn’t nearly stimulating enough for Sevan Kaloustian Greene; in 2009 he tackled an additional career in play and screenwriting after successfully creating a comedic sketch about a Bedouin version of American Idol. Originally born and raised in Kuwait, the Lebanese-Armenian/Pakistani Sevan and his family escaped the Gulf War and arrived in America in 1990. Now he’s a part of the Public Theatre’s 2010/2011 Emerging Writers Group to develop his writing further. Keep an eye out for him in the future; he’ll be the one gleefully demolishing any and all expectations.
Your plays seem to deal with a lot of history and have a multitude of characters. Did you have a hard time whittling down all the stories into a plausible length?
Well, Forgotten Bread was the first play I ever wrote. I had all of this research accumulated because I was writing a novel at the time and I started to wonder why no one ever writes plays that focus on the Armenian Genocide. So I created this scene cycle that takes different aspects of the events that happened during the genocide and made it into a narrative play. Making history into a play wasn’t as daunting as I thought it would be since I wanted to focus mainly on telling human stories instead of reporting fact. It was very easy for me to whittle down what I needed to include. The actual bigger danger was making sure that it wasn’t two hours of people despairing and at the end the audiences wanted to slit their wrists.
Do you feel that because your artistic interests in your writing often coincide with ethnic themes that you’re confined to “ethnic theatre?”
This is something that’s actually come up recently and that I’ve been questioning a lot. There’s a lot of these natural assumptions when it comes to non-Caucasian playwrights that we’re supposed to carry the banner of whatever our ethnicity or race is supposed to represent. I know from a couple of conversations I’ve had with people that they automatically assume that I’m writing very specific kinds of Middle Eastern plays. If I do write those kind of plays they’re definitely going to be from a different perspective and point of view and have a twist on them, but I’m more concerned with writing the ethnic “Other” stories as people who are second-generation Americans or enculturated, fresh-off-the-boat immigrants. I mean, I’m this very strange, pure hybrid of an Americanized second-generation person whose family history is filled with war and refugee-ism, so for someone to assume that all I can write about is Middle Eastern themes that take place in the Middle East where all the characters have accents and are complaining about Americans is silly.
What are the implications of those pigeon holes for writers? Are there consequences for American culture?
Yeah, I do think so. People go to the theatre to learn something new about themselves, about other people, and about other cultures. There is this sort of National Geographic passport perspective that the audience loves when they get to see plays about things that aren’t American. Because they feel that they can learn something and it gives them this access and knowledge that they may not have had before. But if the access of the knowledge is limited in scope to just one thing—for example, if all they see are plays about Iraq where translators help Americans and get betrayed by Americans—then that’s all they know about that subject. So anytime we’re limiting the kinds of ethnic plays we see on the stage, I think it’s a problem. It doesn’t allow audiences to have broader perspectives, and in turn then their expectations are always going to stay the same.
What needs to happen before American mainstream films and television shows start seriously demonstrating interest in other cultures?
There’s a certain kind of ethnocentricism that definitely plays into it. Americans are not ignorant people, but there’s a certain amount of pride that’s problematic. Then you turn around and you have movies like Slumdog Millionaire that people flocked to go see and it’s a completely southwest Asian movie. Hype will get rid of any kind of negative stereotype, at least temporarily. If anything gets hyped up big enough everyone wants to go and be a part of it because they want to be a part of that national conversation. They want to be able to say, hey look, I’m a part of this, everyone’s talking about it and I saw it too. It’s detrimental because hype is based on popularity; it’s like the jocks and the nerds in high school.
So are audiences now going to expect any future mainstream Southwest Asian movie to be a slum love story with a hint of Bollywood thrown in? And does that really matter if they are economically and socially supporting these kinds of movies to make way for more?
It’s tricky. Do you see any signs of progress? You’ve got TV shows now like Outsourced. Not many in the community necessarily like Outsourced, but you have to appreciate that there’s a nationally broadcast show where the majority of the cast are ethnic minorities; two years ago you never would have thought that that would be possible. It’s a process and the wheels are turning slowly. But if a movement starts in the theatre, even at the smallest scale–Off-Off Broadway or out in Queens and Brooklyn–and starts getting recognized it will automatically filter through to other media. I have to believe that, otherwise I’m going to just give up being an actor and playwright and move to some square state and raise cows. That will defy stereotypes.
Your play, Forgotten Bread, has been described as having a “tragicomic undercurrent,” and you originally started writing comedy sketches about terrorism. Can you explain your thoughts on the role of comedy in dealing with difficult, depressing topics?
I think humor is one of the easiest ways to get into people’s brains. My survival job is that I’m a professor of literature and composition, and in my first year of teaching I discovered that the more I was my funny self in the classroom the easier it was to get knowledge across to people. It’s just a way of easing an audience into opening up their brains and their senses so they can receive all these other things—even tragic things—that are happening. If everything is just one long litany of grief then they’re just going to be so exhausted with it. If you don’t find some kind of levity than it becomes like those damn cat and dog ads with Sarah McLaughlin in the background. Anytime it comes on you’re like, “Oh, for God’s sake, not this again!” and you change the channel. I always have that in the back of my head. Considering how long humor in terms of race has been delegated to funny accents, it’s empowering to see it come back in your work with a vengeance to navigate racial profiling and genocide. Totally, even with something as simple as an accent. Having a character with an accent versus that same character without an accent surprisingly makes a huge difference. The assumption that we all speak with these heavy accents in broken English is an assumption that’s been perpetuated in mainstream media. There’s a lot more to the image of what we are and who we are, and I think humor is a great way to be able to help fix that. At least I hope so, because if you can’t laugh about this shit, then you’re f**ked.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
As an actor or as a playwright it’s all about getting my work out there and getting butts in those seats. I want people to be interested in what it is that I want to talk about and about how I’m doing it. I think it’s important that the mainstream American public gets to see the faces and stories of people who are ethnic minorities that aren’t part of that gross stereotype that we all loathe and love.
audience members, supporters