A Conversation with Jeff Augustin & Srda Vasiljevic
Srda Vasiljevic and Jeff Augustin have both played instrumental parts in my first year post-grad. Both as artists and as people, they surprise me with their warmth, focus and generosity time and time again. Srda and I played in the same playground of college theater and the splash he’s made in New York in the short time he’s been here has been nothing short of inspiring. His hard work and clarity of vision teach me something every day, but even more than that, his willingness to make space, to pull others up with him has made me more excited than ever about being part of the New York theater community. I was struck first by the quiet precision with which Jeff enters a room, and quickly came to love both the joyful movement and radical thoughtfulness he brings to his work and his relationships. As Jeff closes The Last Tiger in Haiti at La Jolla Playhouse and Srda opens Dust Can’t Kill Me at the June Havoc, I am endlessly excited by the stories they share.
Corey Ruzicano: How have you come to tell your origin story, publicly or privately, and has the practice of telling that story informed the way you tell stories as an artist? What is your story and how has it given you a lens to listen to other stories? How did you come to be who you are, and how have you drawn the lines between those points of the constellation for yourself?
Srda Vasiljevic: I was born as a refugee. Actually, I was born right before the Bosnian genocide happened, so I guess there was a six month period where I was not a refugee. I think when most people hear the word refugee, they think of women and children wrapped in layers of fabric, people huddled together, decrepit housing, but my understanding of what a refugee was, was based on the community around me. As a young child, I was always with other children – it was for the most part women and children, and I feel like that plays a huge role in the kinds of stories I’m interested in and the kind of relationships I hold dear. I think I’m drawn to telling female stories and have always loved female characters, because I love and appreciate my mom and my sister and my grandmother. I feel very tied to the women in my family.
Jeff Augustin: Did you still feel like a refugee, moving around?
SV: I actually wrote about this recently for a grant application or something – I don’t think I realized that I was a refugee until I started grade school in Iowa. When you grow up like that, that very, very early, elementary age, you don’t realize that your situation is different from anyone else’s.
CR: It’s like a categorization only in hindsight.
SV: Exactly, and then we moved to Iowa and lived with refugee families, so I was still surrounded by other people like me. For some reason that cultural smashing of Bosnian and Iowan together was normal, because that’s what everyone else around me was, too. It wasn’t until I met people with other understandings of what a refugee was, that I started to think about what I was or what it meant. That was a big time historically with Clinton’s involvement with Bosnia – specifically in those few years – you would say “refugee” and you would just think of photos shown on the news of the Bosnian Genocide, and think of these horrific stories. So my presence was always defined then by others’ insinuations, their very limited understanding of what this culture actually is. I started grade school and I guess at that point, I decided I needed to start American-izing myself. My name is so weird, I hated it growing up – you have to hate it growing up! Every substitute teacher is scared of it…
JA: You know it’s you when they pause…
SV: Weirdly, I remember as a seven- or eight-year-old going to the vending machine at the big K-Mart by where we lived that sold these really gaudy fake cross necklaces. I needed one. I thought if I had a cross necklace, that would make me feel so much more American. I’m not really sure why. I remember thinking, I’ll be one of them. I wore it for a couple of days until my family said, “you can’t just wear that, it’s not just a necklace, it’s a symbol that means something.” So I quickly moved on from that, but I do find these little vestiges of needing to become American, subconsciously. It’s always little things, little ways of wanting to acclimate myself to the culture and the art.
JA: Yeah, I grew up in Miami, the youngest of seven. So it was a whole lot of people. My sister and I are the two youngest and we’re the only two who were born here and everyone else was born in Haiti. I learned Creole and English at the same time. I remember distinctly in fourth or fifth grade finally figuring out how to say the word “iron”, because it sounded so different in Creole. Things like that stick in my mind even though my Creole is practically gone. But growing up in Miami, it just feels like the Caribbean – it’s just like all these different immigrants. It’s tricky. I also remember going through this whole thing of understanding what black meant – having a phase where I was African American and then reevaluating and realizing I’m very much Haitian American. My roots come from Haitian culture and so a lot of my journey has been exploring where that comes from, all sorts of things like vodou and the Haitian revolution. And I do think very much that the way I first started stories was very influenced by the folklore quality of Haitian culture. I think Haitians are some of the best storytellers. And then I think the first time I really began to understand the cultural difference of what it means to be American or what America looks like didn’t happen until I left Miami and went to college.
SV: Because Miami is such a specific pocket of American culture?
JA: Yeah. I went to Boston College, and BC is one of the whitest institutions and economically is also so different from where I grew up. That was a culture shock. And that was the first time I really felt like my identity was shaped out of that shock – it was the first time I really felt like “I am a Haitian American.” It’s where I started to understand the significance of place and what home means.
CR: What did some of those things mean or look like to you?
JA: I think I understood privilege in a very particular way. I understood my place and how I was seen. I was this poor Haitian kid and also very obviously gay, so there were a lot of different lenses to be seen through. A lot of people at Boston College are at least upper middle class and my fashion sense was so different – I think I always had a bit of fashion sense but what I could afford was so different from everyone else.
CR: Well especially when so much of the dominant culture only sees color, it doesn’t always see the cultural gradations within it.
SV: There’s a strange separation but overlap of race and culture that I think many people don’t really understand. I’m white, obviously I’m caucasian, but I feel such a very specific identity with Eastern European culture, so I don’t necessarily identify with white American culture, although I’m very obviously white. For example, a lot of Bosnian people are Muslim. It’s the predominant religion in Bosnia, especially in the countrysides. A lot of my community and friends and family are Muslim, so when Donald Trump says “let’s ban all Muslims” and focusing his attacks on the Middle East, he doesn’t realize that a lot of Muslims are not what he imagines Muslim people to be. It’s also the language. Anti-Muslim rhetoric is cropping up in schools, but the people that are persecuted for being Muslim are people with brown skin, people who look different, and that’s troublesome, because people are associating religion and a culture with a shade of skin. It’s very intricate, that way of compartmentalizing.
CR: And so much of it is informed by external projections from the outside world that aren’t factual, but exist in their own kind of fact because perceptions create reality.
SV: If they exist in any world, they exist. We as people need to understand why these biases exist and how to clarify… or do you need to clarify things?
CR: It’s an interesting question. I was talking to a writer the other day and he was talking about being a white-presenting biracial person and that for him, he’s gone through so many iterations of understanding and owning his racial identity that he’s begun to think of race as a fluid thing the way we think of gender as a fluid thing. But it doesn’t work like that for everyone because not everyone has the capacity for or is beholden to that fluctuation, or is able to make choices about that journey they’re on. When you’re having to identity yourself as a certain thing, how do you find the license or empathy or understanding, or the ground to stand on, when you’re trying to tell more than your own story?
JA: I think it’s tricky. I feel, at least in theater, there’s this mark of “I’m this Haitian playwright.” And I think the expectation, when I walk into a room or a meeting, is that I’m going to pitch you a play about Haitian culture. And I do want to tell those stories, but I shouldn’t feel forced or obligated to. Fundamentally I got into writing because watching TV and movies, I did not see any stories about Haitian culture, or if I did it was horribly exploitative or just wrong. So that’s kind of where I entered and that’s just part of the fabric of who I am, and so I do feel that pressure of having to be a specific type of writer. But the question of the ownership of work… I was born here. And my siblings who spent fifteen, sixteen, twenty years of their lives in Haiti, they are Haitian people.
SV: Do they consider themselves Haitian American or Haitian?
JA: I think they consider themselves Haitian. I’ve never asked. But for me, that American part of me is important and very much a part of my identity, but there’s also a fear when Haitian people come to my plays to know if I’ve gotten this quote unquote right. Am I telling the story right? And how am I presenting Haitian culture to these majority white audiences? And making sure it’s clear that this is my one experience, my one lens into this and there are many Haitian stories. Please do not make this your one reference.
SV: But people do that. People see one thing and just automatically assume that it’s everyone’s experience. Just like you were saying, there’s a such a gradient of white stories, there isn’t one experience. You don’t think all white people think this way, because Willy Loman does.
CR: Because white usually means “neutral,” and anything is defined by the negative space that that leaves. There are only these tiny corners made for the non-dominant culture, so it’s made to feel like there’s only room for one or two types of stories within that corner.
SV: You look at a theater season and there are six slots and you have to – I hate to say this – but there’s usually a show that caters to a “minority” audience. Why aren’t we focusing on human stories regardless of background for every slot?
CR: People are always worrying how you make any story relevant, but the theory of the United States of America should predicate that they’re all relevant. We aren’t carrying out the thesis statement we started with, so of course there’s a lot of gear shifting to be done. And it’s not only a cultural conversation to be had but a capitalist one. Because when there’s a price tag on everything, some things will always be valued more than others. You’re always in a marketplace, you always have to be thinking about how to sell yourself and your stories. So does that change the way you make choices about the pieces that you look for or the collaborators you’re interested in working with?
SV: As a refugee I grew up with stories – we didn’t have television to watch. So now as an adult, I want to tell stories that feel larger than life, a deviation from your normal circumstances. Theater is the last art form where you can present something on stage where the audience has the ability to use their imagination to understand the world you’re presenting. I feel like that’s what storytelling is, at it’s basest form, you’re saying “fill in the rest.”
CR: Especially when you’re thinking about what it means to own a story… and the word own has such specific, dark roots in this country –
SV: Yes, it can be very challenging being a director, directing a work that is outside of your own background.
CR: Yeah, I never think about it as much with directors as much as I do with writers.
SV: But I also think there is a stigma. August Wilson wanted his plays to only be directed by directors of color, which makes a lot of sense. I think there’s a specific reason why his stories about the African-American condition should be told by directors of colors. But do I, as a gay, Bosnian American director, have the ability to direct an August Wilson play? What is my “ownership” of that – do I have any ownership at all? Am I just the third party observing and trying to make sense of it? I think one of the reasons I love Jeff’s writing is that the cultural aspect of it resonates with me. It feels like our backgrounds are incredibly divergent. Do I have a clear understanding of the Haitian American experience? No. Do I have an understanding of growing up in an immigrant household? Yes. So it depends on what context you’re talking about. You definitely have to make choices about whether or not you have the authority to tell a story and why. You have to be conscious of it, or you aren’t really telling the whole story.
CR: Ultimately the idea is that the ideal we’re moving toward is that the playing field is not uneven, so that sharing each other’s stories will not be so fraught with inequity, that no one will be disenfranchised from the platform to tell stories. But that’s not where we are right now, so the choices you make sort of have to be prioritized in that direction. It’s hard because there are times right now when the gear-shifting feels really transparent and uncomfortable and pointed but it’s all about habit forming.
SV: You’re making a statement. I think there should be more cross-pollination of ideas and backgrounds, especially between directors and playwrights. A lot of the time we get paired together because of our similarities, rather than our differences.
CR: It’s like saying two people of the same culture will automatically have the same thoughts and want to work in the same way.
JA: It’s a tricky road. There are certain plays where there is a certain kind of director I would like to work with because of the matter that I’m diving into. I’m working on a play about a bunch of generations of Haitian women working on this farm and there’s this very particular director I want to work with that’s half Haitian, and that’s important because I’m diving into this world and I want that perspective. But other times, back to that idea of the machine of season planning, a company decides to do your show and the directors that they come up with are only people of color and you can feel the pigeon holing. This is our minority play so we’re going to stuff in every minority that we can. In the same way that plays written by straight white men should not only be directed by straight white men.
SV: Signature just announced their season and I think five of the six directors are female, and it’s so exciting to see shows written by men being directed by women, because women can and should do more than tell female stories. I do think the pairing thing is really problematic because sometimes the best stories are told by people with completely separate backgrounds. Look at John Doyle and The Color Purple.
JA: When I’m writing a play, I’m thinking more about what these characters are going through and what kind of director, what kind of people whose work I’ve seen connects with the heart of that story. We can’t forget that there are people on stage who are acting the way people act.
CR: Of course, and some of the circumstances have been informed by a social paradigm, but if I’m coming to your show as an actor, I’m looking for what anxiety or desire or fear would make me say the next line on the page. It’s an endlessly interesting conversation that never has an answer.
SV: I don’t know if people talk about it, though.
CR: Well it’s a privilege too, to have the time and space and resources to have these conversations. Sometimes I forget that. I also feel like I’m always asking this question, but I’m always trying to define what community is for me and for the people around me. What does community mean to you and how have you found your place in it?
SV: I grew up in one culture and then was plopped in another, so I never really felt at home in either. I feel a kinship with both, but do I feel at home in either? I think I finally felt at home in New York. It feels like an island of misfit toys to me. Everyone has weird backgrounds and weird ways they got here. The artist community here that didn’t take the same narrow path to get here but we’ve all sort of hopscotched to it, so it feels like we’re all very similar, yet incredibly different, and that makes me feel at home.
JA: I think one of the most important ideas about community for me is a place where I can feel grounded, where I can just be whatever version of myself I want to be, where I can find mental stability. When I work with people who are of both my artistic and my deep friend community, I feel like they carry me creatively and personally, and that always challenges me to be a better person. Community for me is very much about my personal alignment, because as a writer I spend hours and hours alone and feel like I’m in a bubble.
CR: And in New York as individual artists who aren’t always working collaboratively or with the same people, there’s also a very practical question of how you find your people.
SV: Yeah, finding community in a freelance life is definitely a puzzle. I’m part of an artist board and that introduced me to so many people on similar artistic wavelengths. I think you just have to be open to it. You meet people all the time, so you really have to put the time into finding out what your connection is with them. That’s my job as director – finding the connective tissue. I know that if I were working in an institution and using that as my main throughline to meet people, I wouldn’t have met the same kind of varied groups of people that I have freelancing. They connect the dots for me, make me a more whole person, supplement something in me and make me stronger, and truth be told, your artistic community doesn’t have to just be artists.
CR: Absolutely, and I love the idea that your community is the people who make you want to be a better person. I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about it like that, but I think it’s completely true for the people I’m most drawn to–they make me want to show up and be better.
SV: But it definitely takes a while. It doesn’t happen immediately. It accumulates, the people and the experiences.
JA: And you do make relationships with institutions over time, not just people who will do your play but people who are behind your voice.
CR: People do stick their necks out for you every once in awhile. It’s not an industry that supports corporate singularity, it’s totally a word of mouth world.
JA: Absolutely, and the more people you meet, the more new experiences you get pulled into, the more you’re stretching as an artist and as a person.
SV: I don’t want to say it’s happenstance but a lot of it is just where the chips fall… that’s an expression right? That’s one thing about being Bosnian is that I still don’t know idioms.
JA: Oh I know.
SV: It’s how the crackers crunch? No.
CR: Do you have any Bosnian idioms?
SV: No, just curse words. Bosnian language can be vile. And the literal translation of Bosnian curse words can be so much worse than English.
CR: Yeah, expressions like that are so cultural.
SV: And they translate so differently. I speak English fluently and I speak Serbian-Croatian fluently and there’s such a difference of tone between the two languages.
JA: I’ve been thinking a lot lately, talking about language, that so much of understanding my work is understanding the style. So much of the influence of my work is Haitian language and culture, and it’s big and it’s loud. Creole happens to be a lot more poetic than English, so people’s turn of phrase are different, and that has influenced the way I work. Sometimes when I’m writing, I think that’s not going to read or be understood. When you’re directing, do you feel like that ever?
SV: I feel like Bosnian, as a language and as a culture, exists in this slightly heightened realm. We would have parties at our house and seeing how Bosnian adults interact…everything is big. There are big screaming fights, big love, big feelings. There’s a lot of emotion. So when I look at a piece of text, I always want to know what happens if you pull this tiny string and elevate it to this almost hyper-heightened sensibility. Did that change the ebb and flow of a scene? How do you dramatize real life? I don’t necessarily consciously try to hyper-dramatize my work, but I guess in my head I see conversations as much more dramatic, because that’s what I grew up with.
SV: Nothing is ever easy but it’s also just funny. There’s a lot of joy and laughter in my family and in storytelling, so all that emotion and the fights and the laughter all lead into how I tell stories and how I see characters interact. It has that blood flow.
CR: I’m a big believer that often language creates reality. It’s like that John Muir saying, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” and I think language is no different especially because it’s man made.
JA: I can only think about writing-wise, but sometimes I’ll have a line that feels like, there’s so much acting in that, and yeah, Haitian culture can dig at someone with one word, and it’s very still and very smiley. I do sometimes feel that trickiness of navigating having to unpack that more or figure out a way to sound a bit more American or pull in more Western dramaturgy, whatever that means. Sometimes it feels like it opens up the work, but not always.
CR: Where do you draw the line of I want to represent this, this way but I also want it to be understood? It’s a very delicate balancing act. I don’t want people to shut off, but I also don’t want to spoon-feed them.
SV: When you’re looking at a piece as a director, sometimes you feel like you understand exactly the intention of the writer in that moment but it may not read to the audience at large, because it’s so specific. So what do you do? Do you keep it specific or do you open it up so that it’s a moment that more people resonate with? Do you adjust?
JA: I think there’s also a bigger question about how we watch plays and critique works of groups you don’t have an education about.
CR: Totally, how can you engage as an insider and as an outsider or somewhere in between?
Jeff Augustin’s play Little Children Dream of God received its world premiere at the Roundabout Underground, where he was the inaugural Tow Foundation Playwright-in-Residence. His plays have also been produced by Actors Theatre of Louisville (Cry Old Kingdom, Humana 2013; That High Lonesome Sound, Humana Apprentice Anthology 2015), and Western Washington University (Corktown). His work has been developed at the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference, La Jolla Playhouse, The Ground Floor at Berkeley Rep, American Conservatory Theater, and Seattle Rep. He is a member of The Working Farm at SPACE on Ryder Farm and was a New York Theatre Workshop 2050 Fellow. Currently, Jeff is the Shank Playwright-in-Residence at Playwrights Horizons. He is under commission from Manhattan Theatre Club and Roundabout. BA: Boston College, MFA: UCSD.
Srda Vasiljevic is a theater director living and working in New York City. Born in Sarajevo, Bosnia a few months before the Bosnian War broke out, Srda spent his childhood living in refugee camps across Europe before moving to the bustling Midwestern metropolis of Des Moines, Iowa, and later on, New York City. Srda has worked on and off Broadway developing new and reinvented works with artists such as Terrence McNally, Jeanine Tesori, Moisés Kaufman, Billy Porter, Leigh Silverman, and Deaf West Theatre Company. Working on the directorial teams of such productions as The Laramie Project Cycle at BAM, 2014 Tony-nominated Mothers and Sons, ENCORES! Off-Center revival of Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party and the Deaf West Theater’s Broadway revival of Spring Awakening have contributed to Srda’s eclectic and electric style.