Saturday Success Story #22: Randy Gener
Randy Gener, is a renowned Filipino-American lecturer, speaker in the arts and culture, playwright, visual artist, editor, writer, freelance dramaturg, New York Theater critic and the founding critic of the online magazine, New York Theater Wire in New York City. He has written numerous essays, articles, criticisms and reviews for The New York Times, The New York Magazine and to many more publications worldwide. He is also the founding board member of the web journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics, Critical Stages.
Randy is also the first and the only Asian who was a given the George Jean Nathan Award in 2009, the highest honor for dramatic criticism in theUnited States. In 2010 he was named Journalist of the Year by the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists. In the same year, he was also the recipient of the Presidential Award from the government of the Philippines.
Here is his story:
AMS: Tell us about yourself. Your education, training and where you are currently involved in.
Randy: I create texts, essays, journalistic articles, publications, digital packages, plays, events, art pieces, installations, exhibitions, conferences and cultural dialogues. Born and raised inManila, I received a strong Catholic education (Paco Catholic School and Ateneo de Manila University) prior to immigrating to the United States, where I completed my liberal arts studies (English lit and journalism). Growing up poor in the Santa Ana district, I was raised by a single mother and a grandmother. My mom later married an American Vietnam War veteran who I consider my father. I struggle to earn a living in New York, even as I pursue many different writing, artistic and creative endeavors. In this sense I am a typical New Yorker.
AMS: Growing up, did you always dream of becoming a writer, editor and a visual artist?
Randy: Growing up, I aspired to be a poet. I wanted to write poetry in high Tagalog — “deep Tagalog,” as my friends like to refer to it. At a young age I read “Florante at Laura” by Francisco Balagtas and Jose Rizal’s poetry and novels not in the original Spanish language but in Tagalog translation. (I performed the roles of Florante and of Crisostomo Ibarra in front of my classmates. I staged chapters from “Noli Me Tangere.” You might say, this was my first brush with theater.) To this day, I am completely enamored of the expressive depth and lyric beauty of the Tagalog language. (Cebunao, too: at home, we used to speak a colloquial mix of Tagalog, Cebuano and Illonggo.). At Ateneo, I was a groupie of Rio Alma, Bienvenido Lumbera, Paul Dumol, Rolando S. Tinio, Jose F. Lacaba, Amado Hernandez. I aspired to a Tagalog poet.
There was one terrible complication: I was a natural-born speaker and writer of English. My time at Ateneo was marked by deep existential crises, because among the tisoys, burgis, scholars, anti-Marcos activists, liberation theology-spouting Jesuit seminarians and Tagalog poets I palled around with, English was frequently deemed the language of Western oppressors. To love your native language was a mark of nationalistic passion. I have made peace with the writer I turned out to be.
AMS: Tell us about how you started being involved in various theater critic circles in NY?
Randy: For me, joining critics’ circles and journalism organizations is a mark of seriousness — a belief in professional standards. In college, I was introduced to the Society of Professional Journalists by happenstance. A University of Nevada journalism professor Jake Highton entered an opinion column I had written for the college newspaper to the annual SPJ Marks of Excellence Award competition. He did it without my knowledge. One day he asked me to stop by his office. The piece I wrote had won an SPJ Mark of Excellence Award for Best Opinion Writing. He handed me the award certificate. That event stayed with me. As soon as I had my first professional gig at the Village Voice, I became an SPJ member.
I was a staff contributor and theater critic at the Village Voice from 1992 to 2001, and had written about television and films for The Daily News and other publications. At the time, I thought that joining the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) would be a way to meet and interact with the topNew Yorkcritics of the time who were working at mainstream publications like the New York Times, the Daily News and Newsday. Boy, was I wrong. Except for Mel Gussow,New York theater critics are not members of ATCA, which I had joined after my first year at the Village Voice.
I remain an ATCA member, because I did not want to be simply aNew York critic. I wanted to have a purview of theater art that transcends Broadway commercialism. I aspire to become what the former Yale School of Drama dean Robert Brustein had called a repertory critic with a national purview: someone who had deep knowledge of the field in which she or he opined, who knew the whole history of dramatic literature.
Any ATCA member is automatically a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC), a UNESCO-affiliated organization that sponsors congresses, seminars and conferences around the world. IATC became one of my bridges to working in the international performing arts scene. I am now the U.S. editor of CriticalStages.org, the web journal of IATC.
AMS: How did you start your website?
Randy: Actually I have two websites. I started them after doing a great deal of thought and deliberation. I already have a lot of publication outlets so I did not need a website that would simply be another outlet for my writing. At the same time I knew that I needed a website that would aggregate my existing works. When you freelance a lot for money, as I do, your work is all over the place; it is important to have one site where potential employers can visit your latest work.
My solution was to create two platforms. First, I re-designed and re-vamped an old site (http://randygenerlive.blogspot.com/) and turned it into a portfolio blog so that I can drum up new opportunities for work. This site contains my résumé, the editorial packages and multimedia projects I have worked on for print and online publications, a list of my current and past speaking engagements, online photo albums of art exhibitions and installations I have curated, as well as samples of my writing. It also functions as a news site about my most activities. It contains a list of my social media and online profiles on Quora, Reddit, Bebo, Google+, Dot429, and so forth.
My second platform is “in the theater of One World” which you can find at http://theaterofoneworld.org/. This site is a long-term project. It is still a work-in-progress. It’s more than a blog. It’s wilder and more experimental than an online magazine. Using contemporary performance, theater and visual art as intersecting foundations, the site focuses on the exchange of ideas, projects, performances and exhibitions between Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and theAmericas.
The site is a conceptual project, a curatorial research portal and a new-media publication. It reflects my current investigations. It explores the modes and politics of artistic experimentation and pushing boundaries across cultural, linguistic and geographical boundaries. On occasion, the site showcases my own visual-art practice which is rooted in documentation, photography and installation design.
AMS: How did you become a visual artist?
Randy: Over the years I have had the pleasure of seeing my photography published in magazines, books and journals. My photographs have been included in a number of group exhibitions. The turning point for me was my 2007 experiences at the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space in the Czech Republic. I found that if I could apply concepts of scenography and space design to installations and exhibitions, I could re-stage the poetic and formal potential of photographs. I could create a richer gallery experience.
One example was “in the garden of One World,” which was presented at LaMaMa La Galleria inNew York City. This show was a scenographic performance and a thematically organized exhibition. I wanted to put forward a dream of a world garden. On display were more than 35 photographs of flowers and intriguing places I took in countries where I had worked as a critic, travel writer or theater lecturer (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Italy, Nevis, Panama, Romania, South Korea, Sweden and the United States). These photographs were the “flowers.”
To simulate a greenhouse, I grew 8 trays of grass and propped up 150 pictures of flowers inside the soil. To simulate a park (in the installation entitled “Garden of Solitude”), I arranged several trays of real marigolds and real begonias on the floor side by side my pictures of actual brick paths and walking trails. To simulate a lake area, a Romanian scenic designer created a pool of water on which he floated my photos of lilies and vines. We placed two rocking chairs beside the lake so that visitors could take a rest and meditate. Using the metaphor of a garden, the show visualized the dream of “many cultures, one world.”
AMS: What is your regular day-to-day routine given that you wear different hats? Where do you get your inspiration to do everything all at once?
Randy: I am sorry you have the impression that I “do everything all at once” (to use your words). Far from it.
I work on one thing at a time. I do things piece by piece. There are days when I get very little done. Some projects receive greater priority over others. Other projects stay on the back burner. I give myself enough time to research and work on these projects until they come into clearer focus.
Sometimes everything happens all at once. The key is to swim with the flow. The first weeks of January 2012, for example, were challenging. In addition to my work as an editor and writer, I agreed to be a project evaluator for a foundation that gives grants and support to artists, ensembles, producers and presenters who work in the disciplines of contemporary performance. I also served as one of three U.S.judges for a prestigious international play competition.
So I wake up in the morning and have coffee. I read the papers, check for online news and significant posts, then I spend an hour running on the treadmill while reading a play script each day. Then it’s off to work after I shower and get dressed. By 6 p.m., I head off to see a play or musical or attend a gallery opening or a panel discussion (depending on what’s happening) or head home to fix dinner. Before I go to bed, I login to the foundation’s website so that I can read through and evaluate and score some 40 project proposals.
However, that routine was broken between Jan. 4 and Jan. 6, because I needed to attend an international symposium and to see performances at least three performing-arts festivals which were running simultaneously inNew York. So during those days, I was hopping from theater to theater seeing at least four shows a day. I also had meetings, lunches and drinks with a veritable United Nations of arts administrators, cultural ambassadors and performing artists. So I made sure I had finished any writing projects so that I do not feel the burden of having uncompleted assignments waiting for. I had to be super-conscious of the time so that I get enough rest. I am now responding to your questions on my first true rest day. Tomorrow, it’s back to normal.
AMS: You delivered a presentation inManila about challenges of migration and development, would you tell us how you were selected to be a part of this huge event.
Randy: In December 2010, I went back toManila with my family to pick up a Presidential Award from His Excellency Benigno S. Aquino III at his residence Malacañang Palace. The Commission of Filipino Overseas (CFO), which administers that biennial awards system given to individuals and organizations overseas, invited me to speak on the topic of “Solutions of Culture and Education: Keeping Second Generation Filipinos Overseas Rooted in Philippine Culture” at a two-day conference entitled “Vision 2020: Responding to the Challenges of Migration and Development.” This conference brought together all the stakeholders and sectors (academe, civil society, international organizations and the diplomatic corps, national government agencies, local government units, private sector and Presidential awardees who belong to the constituencies of overseas Filipinos). The Philippine government wanted to discuss the direction it seeks to take in relation to migration and development.
Basically the Aquino administration aims to undertake public-private partnerships to modernize the infrastructure of thePhilippines. The aim of the CFO is to cooperate with a host of stakeholders and sectors (which also includes leaders of the National Federation of Filipino Associations inAmericaand US Pinoys for Good Governance). Can Filipinos overseas and in the diaspora inspire or respond to the future development of their homeland? What, if any, is the role of arts and culture? How can Filipino artists and arts groups abroad (indivuals, networks and organizations overseas) actively participate in the development of Philippine arts and culture, given the fact that whether we like it or not, Filipinos are both a global, mobile and diverse people?
AMS: Would you share us your views on migration and development?
Randy: I am presently looking for speaking opportunities, discussion platforms and collaborative partners who might be interested in listening to my views on what (and how) arts and culture can do to keep the second- and third-generation Filipinos overseas rooted in Philippine arts and culture. I think that supporting the Filipino languages through education is one obvious answer, but it is not enough.
Second- and third-generation Filipinos — in particular, children of Filipinos overseas — need to see Philippine arts and culture as a dominant aesthetic force both domestically and internationally. We do not need any more “role models.” We need to see the international world’s recognition of Philippine artistic works and aesthetic styles as a moving spirit and a generative and creative force. When second- and third-generation Filipinos visit thePhilippines, they need to see that there are thriving Philippine artistic and educational communities back home from which they can draw inspiration, influences, new forms and artistic training. Otherwise, they will turn their attention elsewhere.
Performing artists in the Philippines, for example, need to be cultivated, developed, encouraged and promoted so that our postmodernity as artists is identifiable and recognizable and generative, similar to how the world perks up its eyes and opens its eyes when they encounter new trends in African-American aesthetics. Without an infrastructure that supports both emerging and established Philippine performing artists back at home, our second- and third-generation Filipinos will latch on to other foreign cultures (usually in the foreign lands where they were raised), and they will only see their connection to Philippine culture as only a matter of ancestry, tourism and geography.
The parents who work abroad to make money which they send back home, often turn their backs on the development of Philippine arts and culture in the process of attempting to assimilate in the new cultures. Frequently these parents will forbid their own children from pursuing careers in the arts (in favor of business, medicine or law). This process not only impedes the advancement of Philippine art forms abroad but also imbues a sense of shame and embarrassment in our culture.
In the U.S.theater, we are stuck in a cycle. Filipino American writers are under-represented in mainstream U.S. institutions, because the leaders of those companies will say, “We haven’t found the kind of Filipino American plays that will speak broadly to the mainstream U.S interests. If we do produce Fil-Am plays that speak directly to Filipino-American issues and concerns, we don’t make money by programming these Filipino-American productions. There is no prestige value in putting them on. Filipino American communities do not make an effort to show up in the audience. It is too difficult for us to put Pinoy butts in seats. Sometimes Filipino Americans themselves will say to us that they are not interested in these works.”
Meanwhile, our own Fil-Am arts groups are struggling just to keep afloat. Their capacities are small and their resources scarce so they cannot help everybody. This creates resentment, upset or misunderstanding, all of which contribute to the further disintegration of the Fil-Am artistic scene to the point where young artists give up. Or the ones who don’t give up remain disillusioned.
So we’re stuck in a self-fulfilling cycle. There are no Filipino-American plays because Filipino-American audiences rarely come to see them. Except for families and friends, non-Filipinos are the ones who frequent your occasional Filipino artistic events. In terms of culture, Filipino-American audiences do not represent an economic force to be reckoned with because the top theaters and institutions are not convinced that programming or producing Filipino-American shows will lead to their material success. Filipino-American artists both abroad and in our homeland remain in the twilight. Since we, as artists are perpetually hidden, Filipinos overseas who are not artists fail to see that a strong arts-and-culture aesthetic plays a defining role in the global market. Meanwhile, the young people who want to become actors, singers, writers and performers are either out of work or (if they are lucky) working in Western shows or remain perpetual amateurs, because there are no Filipino-American productions where they can practice and ply their trade.
In my presentation, I argue that it doesn’t have to be this way.
AMS: As a playwright, you’ve written quite a few plays. What are your favorites?
Randy: My favorite is “Love Seats for Virginia Woolf.” This play was an intellectual biography of the life and work of Virginia Woolf. It was staged in a Brooklyn gallery. During the day, the gallery was the venue for an exhibition of furniture design by an architect (Annie Coggan) who was herself inspired by the modernist writings of Virginia Woolf. In the evening, the furniture exhibit becomes (to borrow the words of a Village Voice critic) “a living, breathing set.” Her furniture design came first. The play followed her design.
My play is not interested at all inVirginia’s suicide. The play is concerned with her creative life and her intense relationships with the novelist Lytton Strachey, her sister Vanessa Bell, her close friend Vita-Sackville West and her husband Leonard Woolf. Some people thought I was out of my mind for writing a play on an obscure literary subject. It was actually among the first in a wave of theater projects, films and novels about Virginia Woolf. And my production was the only Woolf-inspired project that cast an Asian American actor (Mia Katigbak) in the lead part ofVirginia. I would love to have a chance to revise and re-stage it one day.
AMS: In writing plays, where do you take your inspiration? How long does it take you to finish a play?
Randy: I’d be lucky if I can write one play a year. I spend a great deal of time thinking and studying and researching first. Once I can see the play in my mind, setting it down on paper is the easy part. Working with actors is the next step, and the work is never complete unless I develop it with actors. I wrote an original play about Jean Genet because I was fascinated by his erotic fascination with the Arabs and Palestinians. I adapted a novel by Christopher Coe because I was seduced by his icy and seductive prose. I re-worked two stories by the novelist Andrew Holleran into a theatrical evening because I wanted to capture both the excitement and comic despair which Holleran saw in urban characters devoted to the pursuit of love and sex. A friend of mine, a composer, has asked if we could collaborate together on a musical, so I am reading around and looking for a story that would inspire me.
AMS: I also read that you were named Journalist of the Year 2010 by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, would you please share to us how did you get that award? What does it take for an individual to become a successful journalist?
Randy: Every year the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association hands out two major awards. One award recognizes the outstanding contributions of a journalist working in the LGBT media. The main prize, Journalist of the Year Award, recognizes the outstanding professional achievements of an LGBT journalist working in the mainstream media. The award was given for a body of journalistic writings completed in one year.
In the year I was awarded Journalist of the Year, I wrote about the intersections between architecture, theatre and space. I wrote about how site-specific work in theNetherlands reflects Dutch cultural identity. I wrote about how the re-mediation of the screenplays of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni into stage pieces by the Flemish director Ivo Van Hove. I wrote about the Yoruban cultural influences of a gay African-American playwright (Tarell Alvin McCraney). I wrote one of the first serious critical essays on the emergence of a new genre of Middle East–American playwriting after the Sept. 11 tragedy. And I shed light on government censorship and repression of independent artists in the former Soviet country of Belarus, which has been called (rightly) as “the last dictatorship inEurope.”
These days, it is very difficult to make a living as a journalist. So if you are getting paid for your work as a journalist, then I’d say that you’re a success. If money is not an issue, I hope you are a building a reputation as a serious journalist. Journalism is a competitive field that has changed dramatically over the last few years and is expected to continue changing as new technology is introduced.
AMS: As an artist, would you share to us what are the most important skills/qualities one must have in order to stand out and become successful?
Randy: Hang out with successful artists and study them. You will discover that the bedrock of their talent lives in an amazing technical ability which they feed and cultivate every day. Surround yourself only with people who support your artistic or writing career 100 percent. Limit your time and emotional involvement with people who are negative, especially about art or writing as a career choice.
AMS: Who or what inspired you to be who you are?
Randy: Artists inspire me. The work of other artists frequently have a generative effect on me. When I see or read or hear or experience works that I find fascinating in some way, I am frequently moved and stimulated to follow the artist’s way.
AMS: What are some of the greatest achievements that you’ve had aside from what we already mentioned?
Randy: I’d like to mention three. The first one is an artistic project, the second is an award, and the third is a trip back home to the Philippines.
In 2011, my most significant achievement was working as a curatorial advisor and co-creator of “From the Edge,” USITT’s USA National Exposition at the Prague Quadrennial in theCzechRepublic. USITT is the United States association of professional stage designers, production and technology professionals in the entertainment industry. The Prague Quadrennial is known as the Olympics of Design, because countries enter expositions of theater design in a competition. The Prague Quadrennial is to the Czech Republic what the Venice Biennale is toItaly.
For four years, I volunteered to work with a team of curators to create a U.S.exposition of bold and cutting-edge productions and U.S. ensembles that tackled sociopolitical issues (such as war, racism, disabilities and religious intolerance) between 2006 and 2010. That period in consideration coincided with the tumult of a worldwide economic recession and a political transition in the White House — a wrenching reevaluation of core American values that brought about the rise of an African-American as our country’s forty-fourth president.
The result: the architect of “From the Edge,” William Bloodgood, created an arrestingly iconic structure — a disheveled old garage space in a grubby section of a city inNowheresville, USA. With its brick walls, concrete floor, metal trusses, and industrial lighting, the mode was beat-up realist. As you approached it from the entrance of Prague’s National Gallery, the first thing you see confronted with was a huge graffiti of President Barack Obama’s face prominently painted on one side. Then you saw a playful inflatable sculpture jutting out on the roof’s edge — a fanged dinosaur-type monster engorging the figure of Uncle Sam entitled “WarUSaurus.”
I realize awards have no meaning for anyone other than the person who received it. However, in 2009, I won the Nathan Award, which is the equivalent of winning the Tony Award or the Academy Award for drama critics. Every year, the heads of the English departments of Yale, Princeton and Cornell Universities, and their counterparts in the theatre departments of those institutions, hand out the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism to the American who write the best drama criticism (whether it be a book, essay or treatise) published or broadcast in any medium (print, television, radio and online). It is the highest award for dramatic criticism in the U.S. and one of the most distinguished in the American theater. Past winners consist of the who’s who of American dramatic criticism. The first Nathan winner, given in 1959, was the drama critic and stage director Harold Clurman. The first female Nathan winner was the fiction writer and literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick. I am the first and only Asian American writer to win the Nathan Award since it was first given out 53 years ago.
The third one concerns the first time I returned to the Philippines. As I stated earlier, I was honored to win a Presidential Award from the Philippine government. The award, “Pamana ng Pilipino (Legacy of the Filipino Nation),” goes to overseas Filipinos “who have demonstrated the talent and industry of the Filipino and brought honor and recognition to the country through excellence and distinction in the pursuit of their work or profession.” The Commission of Filipino Overseas, which administers this biennial award, told me that I am the first overseas Filipino who won for my work in the field of theater.
But for me, it was the actual trip back to thePhilippinesthat proved the most meaningful. It was the first time I returned to the Philippines since I left as a teenager. My mother saw the trip back home as personal victory. She has suffered great indignities and terrible hardships to survive and find a new home for us here in theU.S. She had sacrificed a great deal. She missed a lot of important events (like my high school graduation). She was an overseas Filipino worker who sent money back home.
Who knew that one day we would all return toManilaas one family unit to visit MalacañangPalace? Who could have thought that one day my mother’s son would meet the son of Corazon Aquino — the son of the same senator whose assassination on a tarmac had marked the end of my family’s future in the Philippines? As a student in Ateneo, I used to demonstrate in the streets ofManila and participate in labor organizing and protests against the dictator who we believed was responsible for Senator Benigno Aquino’s death. So for my family, this trip back to thePhilippines to meet his son, President Benigno S. Aquino III, meant that our lives had gone full circle.
AMS: Who are/were your motivators?
Randy: I am who I am today because of a lot of people who have believed in me over the years. I received an amazing education because my mother believed in me as a young person. My grandmother, Lola Adela, was a teacher of English; she taught me to love language. In high school a chemistry teacher, Evelyn Navarrete, pushed me to do well academically and drilled me after classes so that I could hold my own in spelling bees, science contests, debates and math competitions. In college I had a journalism professor, Jake Highton, who read and critiqued all of the articles I wrote for the college newspaper.
At the Village Voice, I was inspired by Ross Wetzsteon, the theater editor who helped found this legendary weekly. Of course, he benefited from my hard work as an unpaid intern, but he assigned me numerous stories, assigned me to be a liaison for the New York theater community during the annual Village Voice Obie Awards (given for Off-Broadway excellence) and hired me to be his researcher for several books.
Ellen Stewart, the recently deceased founder of LaMaMa E.T.C., challenged me to become a theater artist. She gave me a free space in her theater which made it possible for me to write and direct plays. She let me use her gallery space, LaMaMa La Galleria, in the first year after the renovations were completed. I spent time with Ellen in her home inUmbria,Italy, and I am still haunted by her challenging words. She felt that I have not pushed myself hard enough to succeed as a theater artist.
Certain actors also motivate me. I have written or directed plays specifically for certain actors, because I want to see them perform onstage.
AMS: If you were to tell us what are the most important skills that you need in order to be successful (in general) in life—what are they?
Randy: Three things are the most important: Discipline, discipline, discipline.
AMS: What are your next goals for yourself and for “in the theater of One World”?
Randy: My most immediate goal is to make money and save for the future. Because I hustle to cobble together something that would resemble a career, I confound potential employers and collaborators on a project. Frequently I give my work for free; I will need to stop doing that. I need to change my life so that I can earn decent money so that I can re-position my life into something simpler.
I also want to raise capital for “In the theater of One World.” Over the time, the site should strike visitors as a matrix of art project, journalism lab and curated media portal. The site is driven by a concept: that art, writing and performance offer us spaces to coexist and stages to explore our place and reason for being. In a globalized world, we struggle to live and thrive amid a Babel of colors, languages, races, histories, classes and philosophies which frequently divide and separate us (sometimes violently), rather than unite us. The site does not put forward a corny one-world-one-dream perspective. That point of view is sentimental and naive. The site seeks to chronicle, investigate, record, document and comment on contemporary situations where conflict, violence, repression, censorship, political tensions, social problems or aesthetic differences exist.
AMS: Finally, what is your definition of success?
Randy: If I write a piece of critical writing that persuades readers to appreciate an artist’s work or that calls attention to a neglected or ignored theatrical work or that will convince just one person to go see something I recommend, that piece of critical writing is a success.
If I publish a piece of investigative journalism that materially improves someone’s life or alters the way things are done, then my journalism work is a success. If after line-editing another writer’s work, this writer agrees that my edits resulted in a better piece of writing, that would be another definition of success.
If as an editor of a publication, I managed to somehow transform its editorial direction and improve its visual design while always keeping my readers engaged and stimulated, then I have led a publication down the path of success.
If I write a play that gets produced, that would be one definition of success. If I complete my next visual art project and find a gallery that would agree to install it, then my work as an artist is a success.
Success is about being happy with what you’re doing, constantly growing as an individual, and contributing to other people in measurable and meaningful ways.
Editor’s Note: Below you will find Randy Gener’s interview as featured by the Filipinas Magazine TV.
To read other inspiring Success Stories, click here.