Artist Interview: Larissa FastHorse
Tim Sanford: Let’s talk about your evolution as Larissa FastHorse the playwright.
Larissa FastHorse: (Laughs) Okay.
And that all starts with where you grew up and what were your influences artistically, and from your community.
I was actually — little known fact — born in San Francisco. But we didn’t stay there. It was where my birth mother was from. And then I returned with my birth father back to South Dakota shortly after. So South Dakota is my home. That’s where I grew up.
So your birth father and mother had a relationship?
Yeah, they were married, actually.
But they were splitting up at the time of your being born?
Yes. Shortly after. So I didn’t know my birth mother until I was an adult.
What was her ancestry?
She’s the white half of me, primarily Norwegian, a few generations away from Norway. And then my dad is full-blood Lakota. So he brought me back to South Dakota and that’s where I grew up.
Was he on a reservation?
Yeah. He was enrolled on what’s called the Rosewood Sioux Tribe reservation. And by the time I was 11-months old, my birth father wasn’t able to care for me, and so he knew my Hunka family, my parents, Edmund and Rhoda Baer, and asked them to care for me. They lived in a small town bordering the reservation called Winner. They had been married 22 years and weren’t able to have children. They told my birth father that they couldn’t care for me unless they could adopt me.
Could you explain for us what Hunka family is?
In the Lakota culture it’s one of our seven sacred rights. It’s called “the making of relatives.” Everybody has a family by birth, obviously, but a family by choice is something rare and special, and if you are blessed to get a family by choice, somewhere in your life, which can happen at any time, if you find that, then you take them on and put them above your biological family. You are considered especially blessed because you found a Hunka family. And so that’s what I was given at 11 months old, my Hunka parents, which are my parents.
Was that relationship created when your father knew that he had to give you up, or was that a relationship he already had?
My birth father had known my parents for a long time. The FastHorse family is very large in that area. Okreek is our land on the reservation, and my Hunka father knew all the FastHorses through his work. I’ll just leave it at that. (Laughs)
You were talking the other night about the evolution of the name “FastHorse”—
—and you also mentioned something I didn’t know which is that names change.
Exactly; originally in Lakota culture, we didn’t have surnames. You just had your name. And it would change throughout your life. You might be given a name at birth, then you might be given other names through your life, and then you might find your own name. There are different ceremonies, becoming a man or woman, where you then tend to choose your own name for the first time. Although sometimes they are still bestowed on you. Also then throughout your life as things change and things happen you may either choose or be given a different name or you may choose to give your name to someone else. A member of the FastHorse family did a genealogy search through the rolls, which is a lot more complicated for us because we didn’t have a written language. He found the first place that my particular family of FastHorses was put down on the rolls was by a military trader in the 1730s. Since we didn’t have surnames, the white folks would look around, figure out who seemed to be the ruling patriarch of the family, in their opinion, and make whatever their name was, our surname.
And this was some sort of census operation that the military did? Or traders too?
Both. Different people were paid by the government to keep track of all the Indians they were dealing with, so they could get some idea of who we were. My tribe was completely nomadic. We had no towns. So the white folks were feeling very unsure of us and how to calculate us.
Yeah, how long had your people been relegated to a reservation?
Really late. We were the last indigenous folks to capitulate in the United States of America and that happened in 1890–
—in December of that year. That was the Oglalas on Pine Ridge Reservation. My band, the Sicangu on Rosebud, was a little before that.
So that must have been part of the collective memory you grew up with.
Yeah. And we didn’t become citizens of this country until 1924. So, there are people alive now who were born as citizens of their own nation and later became Americans.
Was that done en mass in the whole country?
Calvin Coolidge signed the law. But, back to my name. Originally the guy who the white guy named us after, his name was, “He who steals horses fast and gets away with it.” Because he’d stolen 500 horses from the military and apparently gotten away with it. Our names tended to be quite descriptive. They’re not so long in Lakota, but when you translate them to English, they become long and so, whoever the military guy was, he knew enough Lakota to pull out something about “fast” and something about “horse” and we were given the surname FastHorse after that.
Didn’t you say a later strain of your family actually were horse-breeders?
That’s actually an Oglala family, which is Pine Ridge. They are geographically close to us, so we are constantly getting confused for each other. They were actually put on the rolls later than us but I was told that they were horse-breeders for horseracing.
And your Indigenous-language names are different, but when you translate it to English they become the same.
And then it messes us up because the government just says, “’FastHorse’ and ‘FastHorse’ they must be the same!” Actually we’re not, and we’re not from the same bands of people, but they constantly intermingle us on records due to poor translation skills.
Tell me about your Hunka family.
My parents are awesome. They were in their 40s when they got me, which now is more common, but at the time, especially in South Dakota, it’s not common. It’s a ‘get married, and have children’ kind of place so they were the age of all my friends’ grandparents. To me that was a real advantage, because they were very chill. They had a better life perspective.
Did you have any siblings?
I was brought up as an only child. I have other siblings but they didn’t come into my life until I was an adult. But my parents are amazing. We were lower-middle-class, but I was not aware of our class growing up. I mean my mom sewed all of our clothing. We almost never ate out. We had one car that we shared. But it was never a childhood that felt like I lacked things. Now I realize how hard they worked to budget and make sure I wasn’t aware of need.
Did they have careers?
My mom was home when I was in grade school and eventually became the assistant librarian at our high school library. My dad has a master’s in sociology with an emphasis on criminology. He was originally a teacher. He taught in Nigeria when they were young, but he became disillusioned with teaching when he came back to the United States after having such a great experience in Nigeria.
So they really believed in education.
Was that unusual?
My dad and his sister were the only two from a family of six that got to go to high school. They were farmers. My mother grew up on a college campus in Minnesota, It was a religious college so her father was a pastor and a dean at the school, so education was definitely an assumption in her family, although she ended up not finishing her degree because they moved to Nigeria.
What did you aspire to when you were growing up?
I didn’t aspire to anything for a while. My parents intentionally moved me away from Winner. The FastHorse family is pretty notorious in a lot of negative ways, even today. I probably shouldn’t say this, but when I meet a person and they say, “Oh I know a FastHorse,” I immediately say, “I’m sorry.” (Laughs.) They either beat you up, slept with your sister, or stole something. (Laughs.) There are definitely good FastHorses, but they are a family that struggles with a history of addiction and abuse and they are working hard to get out of that but poverty has been a big block for them. So my dad took a job as the executive director of probation and parole for the state and moved us 100 miles away from the reservation so that I could grow up on my own and free of the shadow of my birth family.
So, with that move, did you become more immersed in a white culture?
For the first time I was also able to choose — because I can pass as white — I was able to choose to just belong to my parents. Before everyone knew my Hunka family, everyone knew the FastHorses, everyone knew everybody, and it was the first time I was able to just be me and not be a descendant of somebody else, and that was pretty profound for me. It allowed me to pass in a way that I wouldn’t intentionally do, we never hid who I was, but it gave me access to white culture in a way that set up my whole artistic career. However, my parents curated this amazing indigenous education for me as well.
How did they do that? Curate your indigenous education.
Because of the realities of continued genocide and assimilation policies in the United States, we continue to see poverty and all the social issues that go along with it rampant in the indigenous people in South Dakota. We have the poorest people in the nation in Pine Ridge. So to combat the realities of what we’ve been left with as an indigenous people, my father through his job encountered a lot of successful and positive indigenous folks working in the government, and so there’s this kind of parade of people coming through my life who were like, “Here, Larissa, meet this person!” As a kid, having meetings with whatever judges and attorneys, and people who were very successful in the world that were Lakota. And eventually my father helped found our community college in town. He taught the sociology, criminology, and indigenous studies and all of that. He had a lot of students that were coming up from the reservation to the school.
In terms of the public education you were getting, was this parallel? Did it intersect ever? Did you feel like it was two different worlds?
I was fortunate; I grew up in the time of reconciliation in South Dakota. So we didn’t have Columbus Day. For Thanksgiving we never did Pilgrims and Indians. It was always just about food and gratitude and family and Fall. It was about harvest. Which is a huge thing in South Dakota. It’s an agricultural state. So, I didn’t grow up with any of that negative stuff in school necessarily. And we always had Native American topics in history. South Dakota History was primarily indigenous history.
Were there other indigenous kids in class with you?
There were, but by high school the numbers had dropped significantly.
Because it wasn’t required?
Yeah, after 16 you don’t have to go to school in South Dakota. So the Native kids tended to kind of pile-up in junior high. Because of poverty and social issues and racism, many of them struggled in school, so they’d hold them back in junior high until they reached sixteen and then they let them go. So by the time I graduated there were only a couple of us left in my class which is crazy considering it’s a state where ten percent of the population is Lakota.
So talk about the evolution of your aspirations.
My aspirations... (Laughs.) As a child I had what’s called tibial torsion which means my tibia bones, the shin bones, were spiraling inward. When I was little I was supposed to wear these metal braces on my legs at night, but I cried a lot and my mom couldn’t stand it. So instead I wore these orthopedic shoes during the day and I still struggled. When we got to Pierre, a Shriner orthopedic clinic came through town, and this German doctor — I’ll always remember him — said I needed more intensive physical therapy to correct my legs. I needed Swedish gymnastics or ballet. In Pierre, South Dakota which at the time was a town of like thirteen thousand people, we had one ballet teacher who had inherited her mother’s studio over her garage. She had gone to the University of Utah and gotten some decent dance training. They put me in ballet and I hated it, hated it, hated it. I was a really intense — what we called at the time — tomboy. My parents were lovely about it. I remember my mother trying to put me in dresses from time to time, but they let me wear boy’s clothes or at least boy’s style. In PE, I always got to be on the boys’ side and never played with the girls. I did not identify in a girly, female way at all and my parents were really awesome about it.
And that didn’t change at all when you hit puberty?
Puberty was a nightmare, so everything changed because I was really hideous. It was a very bad time. I was very skinny and a bit androgynous and I was bullied horribly by women. So no, I did not get girly then.
How old were you when you started the ballet?
I was in second grade, but they made me start with the babies. It was literally called the babes. I had to dance with them because I was so far behind.
Ballet kids start at three, so by eight I was five years behind. So I danced with the babes, which sucked. They wore baby blue leotards and pink tights and it was just my worst nightmare. I was so unhappy.
Ballet was really hard and very painful for me to do it. In fifth grade I suddenly jumped up to my class level. And then in sixth grade, I jumped ahead of my class. It was actually in fifth grade when I got a book with Maria Tallchief in it and I had this life defining moment. I remember it so clearly, of opening this book my aunt who was a chemist at 3M had given me; it’s one of those chick empowerment books, where it’s like all these successful women. Maria Tallchief was in there and I saw that she was half Native American, half white, and she’s from the middle of nowhere Oklahoma, and she became America’s leading prima ballerina. And I was like, “That’s me, obviously! (Laughs.) That’s what I’m gonna do”. And I remember my parents being like “Okay, great.”
You must have gained some interest in it in order to catch up the way you did.
This is going to sound incredibly pretentious but remember I went to public school—ballet was the first thing I wasn’t good at and so it was the first thing I enjoyed. I hated school, I have a photographic memory so school was easy for me and really boring and frustrating. But ballet was hard. It was incredibly hard for me; it wasn’t something I could just overcome by being me. I had to work at it and that’s what I love about it.
You don’t sound pretentious to me. I had a similar thing when I moved after the sixth grade and my transcripts got lost for some reason, they put me in the middle level math class, right? And I was there for a whole quarter and I got B’s in that class.
Because you were so bored?
Because it was just so boring, right.
Yeah, me too. So ballet was the first thing that was challenging and that’s what I loved about it. I didn’t necessarily love ballet itself yet until I saw that picture of Maria Tallchief. I had never seen a ballet; no one in my family had ever seen a ballet! So it was just this abstract concept that none of us had ever experienced. So the fact that all three of us, my parents and I were all like okay, you’re going to be a professional ballet dancer was really insane, but they stuck with it, all the way through until I became a professional. I, fortunately, had a patron, the same aunt who was a chemist at 3M. She had wanted to dance and grew up in a time when her family, my mother’s family, didn’t allow that. So she asked to pay for my dance training.
They didn’t allow dance for religious reasons?
Yeah. I don’t think they had ballet in their town anyway, but she always thought that’d be cool, and her family was like, “Oh no that’s like scandalous.”
I seem to remember reading about Christianity and Indigenous peoples and the complicated relationship of the two. Was that part of your growing up at all?
Well actually I grew up in a very different type of Christian household. My parents helped found a church that was Christian-based but free of organizational religion.
So it was an independent church without any denominational influence.
Exactly and very intentionally apart from denominations, apart from organized religions. There was no membership, there were leaders chosen by the group to lead.
Did it have any paid staff?
No. Everybody just gathered and followed.
It’s like the early church.
Yeah, exactly. It followed the New Testament, following Jesus. He’s a cool dude. So that’s the type of Christianity I grew up in, so it was different than the issues that we had with indigenous folks and missionaries. I was told once that the missionaries in different Native areas got together and divided up the Indians between them.
And they were like okay, the Mormons can have this chunk, the Catholics can have this chunk, the Protestants got another chunk, and it’s like, “Wait a minute.”
Isn’t Mormonism especially problematic because it posits itself as kind of the American Christianity?
Actually, Mormons are very strong in Indigenous populations because they believe that we are one of the chosen tribes in a lot of their teaching. So because of that they very much targeted Indigenous populations. We can get free schooling through the Mormon Church and through their colleges, like BYU.
Well this stuff is really interesting but—
We haven’t talked about playwriting! (Laughs.)
So you got good at ballet?
Yeah, so I got good at ballet.
And then some opportunities began to open to you.
I became a dancer eventually, at the Atlanta Ballet. That was my first contract, at 19, which is crazy old for a dancer, to have my first professional job. I left Atlanta pretty quickly, because I met my now- husband and he was in LA so I moved to Los Angeles and danced with all the various companies there for 10 years.
So you got married, so you got in touch with your feminine side at some point.
(Laughs.) I don’t know if Edd would agree with that. I don’t cook or clean, but I guess I do other stuff. That’s another long, complicated question, Tim, of what gender roles mean. So I danced for ten years then found myself retired.
I ask simply because I think our perception of ballet, classical ballet, at least, is that it reinforces traditional feminine/masculine roles.
I was doing a lot of Balanchine ballets, his…
He’s more abstract.
Yeah and the way he uses women in his roles is so athletic and challenging. I did several of Suzanne Farrell’s roles – she and Balanchine had such a beautiful partnership where she was a very large contributor to what they were creating.
But you never went to New York.
(Laughs.) No, not even close. That’s a whole other play I’m working on about how with my body I couldn’t get into any major ballet schools. I had to beg my way into dance school and got kicked out of one because they said my body would never let me be a professional. But it was the best thing that could have happened because then I found this amazing teacher and got into Atlanta Ballet so there you go. But it’s a hard career. I loved it, I adored dancing, but I got chronic injuries because of some of the weight distribution issues I have because of my legs. I had to do a lot of faking things to make it look right on stage. What I do have is musicality, and I’m a performer. I’ve been performing since I was two and that I do really, really well so I worked consistently at times when women who were much better than me technically couldn’t get a job because people want to watch me on stage and that’s what I know how to do well.
But your compensatory techniques eventually caught up with your body and—
I had to look at either surgery or quit and I didn’t want to hobble out over years of surgery and maybe it works maybe it doesn’t, and I’m like ugh. Stop while you’re ahead.
So what did you do?
Well first I thought, like many dancers, that I’d do musical theater. I did a musical in Europe, a horrible musical, that I had a principal role in. I got the best possible experience because it was a super popular musical. I toured for a year and hated it.
Was it an American musical?
Are you not going to name it?
(Laughs.) It’s Fame, the musical, which at the time was different than the one that they brought here. It was the first European tour and I played Iris Kelly, the bitchy ballerina, and I dyed my hair blonde.
They did, yeah, it was hilarious. It wasn’t blonde blonde; they went like a golden blonde. The hairdresser freaked out and wouldn’t dye it all the way blonde. Fortunately, it was pre-internet so there’s not a lot of pictures. But it was great, the show was hugely popular in Europe. It was a three-hour musical, my part was much bigger in Europe than what they brought to States. I brought my husband along, we toured Europe for a year; we were quite famous, we were in all the magazines, reporters following us everywhere, and I hated it. I hated it so much.
Why’d you hate it?
In 10 months of performing, after two months of rehearsals, we performed the same show 450 times and I was so miserable. I just don’t have the constitution artistically to do the same thing again and again. Especially coming from ballet where you’re constantly doing different ballets, and every couple months you’re starting a new program except for Nutcracker every year. And in Nutcracker you get to do different roles. Artistically, I was just so depressed and felt like I worked in a factory, churning out the same thing again and again. That is certainly an honorable thing but not what I want to do as an artist.
So 86 musical theater.
Yeah so that was gone. Then my dancing partner, who unfortunately had HIV and it was just turning into AIDS in LA, so he decided to move back to New York where he had more of a support system. So I took over his teaching gig, teaching at ballet school. And I did that for a year and I was like, “Oh my gosh, no.” (Laughs.) I’m just not ready, I’m way too selfish to be a teacher. And then I was really kind of lost and wandering. In the middle of that I was trying acting in LA and just the whole world of that is just not me. You know that endlessly presentational selling yourself thing. You can’t possibly go to the grocery store without your hair and make-up done because you could meet the director that’s going to change your life and needing to be at parties, and that’s just not me at all.
Did you get so far as to have an agent and appointments and all?
Yeah I had an agent, and I was SAG, and I had a few lines here and there on things. My very last acting thing was actually my favorite thing. I got to audition for a lead in a Miloŝ Forman film. The experience of auditioning with him was amazing.
What was the film?
I can’t remember the name of it now. He eventually pulled the film and didn’t do it because he got in a fight with the studio about casting. He wanted to cast a black actor — it was Jamie Foxx actually, before he was famous — and the studio wouldn’t let him cast him. But I went through the whole process of auditioning and screen testing for him and it was just amazing and so different. I thought, “Oh wow! Why isn’t all of it like this? This is awesome.” Working with him — he would only work with you one on one and you’d spend- and it sounds terrible. You spend time alone with him in his hotel suite for an afternoon, but it was just working on scenes together without readers. Just the two of us reading a script back and forth and really pushing and playing and trying all these things. It was the most exciting audition process I ever did.
So was that the final straw?
Oh no. It was actually, “This is a nice way to leave.” So in that time while I was doing all of that, I was also going to Career Transitions for Dancers. They are now under the Actor’s Fund, but at that time they were their own organization, funded by all the unions and they help dancers transition because we retire so early.
I was 30 when I retired and went to career counseling there to figure out this whole transition process. Through that, I found script writing. When I went on auditions, I didn’t know where to find scenes and monologues, so I wrote my own. I wasn’t a theater person, so I didn’t know where to find these things.
You just said theater. I mean you would think for LA, in transitioning, for writing, it would be geared towards screen.
Totally. And that’s what I was going to do. But the actors in LA are all theater kids that went into film and TV, right? I wasn’t a theater kid at all. I didn’t do theater in school, I didn’t know any plays. So when I needed to do auditions, I just wrote all my own material. And then they’d ask me what it was from and I’d just say “Oh. It’s from this play I found.” And I realized – “Oh! I can do this. I can write this format.” I went to film and TV first because I was in LA. Playwriting made more sense coming from ballet, but every playwright I knew had a master’s degree, so I thought it was a requirement. I went to film and TV because I couldn’t afford to go to school for six years. Then I met a woman at a party who said, “Oh, I have a paid internship at Universal Studios.” But to get paid, which I needed, I had to have been in film school in the past year. So I made up a writing program I had just graduated from in Santa Monica that, unfortunately, had just closed. I had references. My acting teacher was my dean of students and my ballet teacher was my academic advisor.
So you had to ask all these people to be references and make up stuff?
Yeah. And if you know LA, going from Universal Studios to Santa Monica is like going to the moon. People never cross town. So I knew that they had never been there. I ended up doing an internship with the Executive Vice President of Universal Pictures, Lenny Kornberg. He was an amazing man. On the first day I confessed. He knew I wanted to be a writer and he was a writer himself and ended up staying on the executive track because he had a family and he regretted not writing. So he said, “I will be your mentor. I’ll make sure you come out of this a writer.” All this great stuff. So I confessed to him the first day. Hollywood is the one place where lying your way in makes you even better. They’re like, “Amazing! That’s the best story ever.” It kind of made me a hero. I wouldn’t recommend it elsewhere. And that’s how I learned to be a writer. Fast forward three years. After all of that, I became a creative executive of a company at Paramount and then was writing scripts at home and got my first feature film into the Sundance Native Film Program and I also sold a TV show that I was co-creator on. And I left my job.
Yeah. I left Paramount for writing TV but hated it and left that too.
Why did you leave?
Hollywood is just not my people. Hollywood people are wonderful people who kill themselves for that business. But the whole point of television is that it was created as a glorified commercial to sell products. That’s the only reason TV shows exist. I was depressed, creating this TV show. In six months of development, I had two live meetings. The rest of the time was alone. And that was hard for me after coming from being at a dance studio every day and being with people. And getting notes from fifteen people at once, word by word, “but a sponsor would like it if we could fit in this”, product placement and such. Then Peter Brosius, from the Children Theater’s Company, went to the Sundance Native Program and said, “We’ve never commissioned a Native writer. Could you recommend some people?” And I gave him my script and he commissioned my first play and produced it within a year and a half and –
What was that called?
It was Average Family. It is probably a play that I will never get to do again because I didn’t know how to write a play. It had ten people in it, seven of them children. There was an 800-gallon pond on the stage. There was a forest of live trees, we had fire, we built structures, then destroyed them. We chopped down trees, we shot guns with children. We shot arrows with children. It was crazy. I had no idea it was nuts. We had a film going on the side and live cameras around projecting things. I had never done theatre. It was great that I didn’t know.
Not all of the rules of film and TV are antithetical to theater.
No, not all of them.
There is dialogue, and there is character and there is storytelling.
Yeah, absolutely. And I definitely think my TV writing influenced my dialogue for theater because my dialogue is very clean. I’m learning to loosen a little. But TV is counting by the second. I also learned very quickly how to be a professional writer, to write under a deadline and get shit done. And I learned also not to be precious. For me the best thing TV taught me is there’s an infinite number of words. They never run out. You can use them and then you can take them away and then you can put them back. Like in my first TV show, I had to plan out a three-year bible for that show before I had written the first episode. So now I’m like, “Whatever. There are more things that can happen. If this thing doesn’t work, we’ll do something else. It doesn’t matter.” And if you want to go back, you get to bring the words back. It amazes me how many young playwrights coming out of these masters programs are so precious about their words. It’s like, “It’s okay. You’ll never run out. You’ll always have more.” And I think TV gave me that.
What happened next? Who encouraged you? What kind of plays did you want to write?
Yeah, okay. Theater. I was fortunate because I started at Children’s Theater Company, The preeminent children’s company in the nation, one of the top in the world. Before that play was ever produced, I had three more commissions. I jumped into theater hard and fast.
Who commissioned you?
I had commissions with The Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences, with Native Voices at the Autry in Los Angeles, and from a group called History Project Los Angeles. The Children’s Theater Company commission was such a big play; it took a couple of years of development. Native Voices commissioned me immediately and nine months later we put up that play. It was a really fast process to production in my first two years of writing plays. TYA commissions kept rolling in and I didn’t make my jump to adults for a few years.
I love writing for intergenerational audiences, which is very much part of my culture, that we live in intergenerational families. I try to write things that people can come to together. But I also write things that are just for adults. It’s been about 12 years since I started writing plays. And I’m going on year eight or nine of doing this full time, not having to do a day job. Playwriting has been very good for me. I also choreograph for theater.
Do you ever write for Cornerstone?
Yeah. I’ve been with them and in residence for about five years now. We’re working on our second play together and that’s going to be a national tour.
So what was your first adult play to get produced?
I think it was Cherokee Family Reunion. That’s 2012, maybe. It wasn’t TYA, it was an all-ages show in a 2,800-seat amphitheater in Cherokee, North Carolina. It was a huge massive, three stages, crazy thing. But that was not a TYA. And then probably Landless.
What was next?
Yikes, I was doing a grant application this morning, I should know this. Let’s see. My first ever residency was three years ago with Cornerstone. And then What Would Crazy Horse Do? was at Kansas City Rep now two years ago, and I did a second play at Alter Theater called Cow Pie Bingo just this year which was nominated for some Theater Bay Area awards.
We’ve been talking about your development as an artist, but there’s also a political side to your work you’ve talked about.
Yes. Very much so.
You’ve said that your goal is to infiltrate white establishments. And maybe that’s another factor that led you to theater. We didn’t talk about it before but I imagine the TV shows you were writing had limited political content being as they were TV shows.
Yeah. For me – there’s this whole side of talking about me artistically, but there’s this parallel side of me that’s a member of the Lakota nation, right? So everything I do is in relationship to that. Everything I was trying to do with TV shows or indigenous characters and social justice work through television, was watered down so much. And by the time we got the fifteen notes and the sponsor and the worry and the product placement, it was just sad.
Were you upfront about it? On the one hand, the Native Voices program recognizes your heritage and was encouraging you to be yourself and represent your people, and on the other hand market forces were working to dilute it.
I was really fortunate. My first mentor at Sundance, Merata Mita she was a Maori filmmaker and has since passed. And she was very clear. She said to me, “Larissa, as an Indigenous person you can be an educator or an artist. You can’t be both. If you do both you’re going to do both poorly. You have to pick one.” So you can either use your art to educate people about what you do, which some folks do, like Mary Kathryn Nagle is a beautiful example of that. She uses her artwork to educate and that’s her goal and what she does. I think of my artwork as art first. I use my work specifically to fulfill these artistic visions and ideas that I have. But always there’s this parallel, indigenous part of me that is using the art to infiltrate and open the door. In Lakota culture every action we do today, we have to always be thinking seven generations ahead. Right now I’m the first Indigenous person to be in this theater. Seven generations from now, I hope that there are indigenous writers walking in and out of this theater not even thinking about the fact that they are indigenous because it is so common and normal for them to be here. They don’t have to do staff training or have to deal with the racist people in the bathroom. They don’t have to deal with any of the things that I am doing now because it’s completely natural and assumed that they belong here at Playwrights Horizons. That’s what I’m, in a parallel track, always trying to do.
So how do I achieve that in the reality of this world? I have to create an artistically satisfying experience that makes the quality of theater you make want to have me here. So I always have to have both things, making quality art and making sure I’m a strong enough artist that I get invited back into these spaces so that I can then open the door into the future. And that’s ultimately where it’s going. Along with all of that, then I get to make this subversive work that is affecting audiences and changing the way they think about the world.
I think What Would Crazy Horse Do? shows a different side of your work. When I saw it, I could really feel the research that went into its story about a time when the Ku Klux Klan tried to recruit Native Americans to promote ideas of racial purity. But I also felt clearly in your representation of the Native brother and sister your desire to represent complex, deeply felt Native characters. The Thanksgiving Play, on the other hand, doesn’t feel so researched, in fact you said that you wrote it in 10 days while on a residency in Ireland.
Well two weeks before the residency, I did research. But I didn’t write a word, I didn’t know who the characters were until I got to the residency.
There must have been a seed planted somewhere.
It’s funny because it’s been interesting having this play here in New York because so many friends that have known me at so many different times in my life have been in town and seen the show. And I’ve been getting this feedback from many aspects of my life. This one woman who’s in town from Australia that I’ve known for probably ten years from the TYA world was like, “Larissa, it’s just like you talking on stage with four different voices. That’s just you living life the way you see it.” And I was like, “Exactly! It is.”
Did that seem new for you?
Yeah. In some ways. I mean, What Would Crazy Horse Do? is very much the rage side of me that is always lying below the surface but that I keep contained. I’m always ready to go off on something and I’m always trying to keep that down to a certain level.
There have been moments with you when I’ve seen you go off on somebody, but very subtly. I’ve never seen you go off. But it’s been clear that this woman is clocking things 24 hours a day. Right?
Is it a strategy to hold back?
And also not to let it eat you alive?
That too. And I also — so for a myriad of reasons, that’s a whole other topic, it’s partially colorism, I’m allowed at these national tables that I think my native friends who are a darker color aren’t at yet. TCG, right? I’m the first Native American to ever be on that board or at that table. And I think there’s a lot of reasons.
You’re incredibly accomplished.
Yeah, but it also goes back to everything that we’ve talked about. That I’ve realized that – well, being Indigenous, but having this white family, being middle-class, but dancing in this aristocratic art form, doing all these things – my gift and burden is that I’m a bridge. I know how to bridge cultures. I know how to code switch like nobody. And I know how to make those two sides understand each other. And so as a writer now, and at the TCG Board — I totally screwed up my first few meetings and made staff members cry because I didn’t understand the culture. Now I’ve learned how to code switch into that space and I get to be the Vice Chair of the Board. I operate in that space in a different way where I’m learning how to keep a very strong lid on my rage and express it differently in that room and people hear me. Same with work on stage. I’ve been given, for whatever reason, these opportunities. So I have an obligation to continue to get myself in those rooms and be seen as – as some people might say “the good Native.” The one who isn’t offensive, the one who isn’t scary. The one that’s not going to flip out. The good one that we can have in the room. Because then I can slowly keep opening the door and I get new people in the room. I’m going to be pointed, I’m not going to let people off the hook, but I’m not going to completely alienate them. I try to give people a way forward to be better people. And so, all of what I do is very strategic in the way I present myself in the world, in the way I move through this larger theatrical space that I’m in.
Is this institutional?
Yes. Exactly. In this institutional world. All of that is very strategic. Yes, it’s forwarding myself and that’s great and I need that because I need to make money and I need to pay my bills, but it’s also then making sure that I’m leaving the door wide open.
Apply that strategy to this play specifically.
Oh yeah! This play is definitely calculated. It was calculated to make it castable. Four white-presenting people. I was very frustrated with American Theater telling me they can’t produce my commissions — or have second, third productions because of casting. So I said fine. I think America really wants to learn about indigenous issues because we’ve been erased from all of your education, all of your popular culture, intentionally. And I know from living in the LORT world for the past twelve years, people want to learn about indigenous issues. They just don’t know where to go. And so I’m like, “ I’m going to give you what the audience wants, but I’m going to give it to you in a way that theaters can program and that there’s no excuse. It’s one room. It’s four people that can look white – that can pass for white.” And I was very much like “American Theater, if you can’t do this, then you really don’t want to work with a Native artist and you don’t want to work with Native issues.” Then it’s clear. Then we’re dealing with a different issue with open prejudice as opposed to laziness, which I think is what we’ve been dealing with up until now.
Well you can’t write following your voice and only have white-presenting actors for the rest of your career. And you’re now a leader in the American Theater. What can be done to help identify and train a wider spectrum of actors so that you can have your opus, your grand opus – and it can be cast?
(Laughs.) So that I don’t work with just white people? It’s complicated. I think there’s a lot of things that have to happen. It’s the same issue with other marginalized groups, right? We have the issue of access because of economic reasons. Many of our people can’t afford school at all, or they can’t afford the time away from caring for this multi-generational family. I know this pair of teenage girls that I’ve worked with, that I’ve done playwriting workshops with on Lakota land. And these two girls, 16 and 17, are caring for 10 children, none of which are theirs. They are the only caregivers of these children. And so these girls can’t go off to college – even if we give them the money. What are they going to do with these 10 children that they are responsible for? So these girls aren’t going to college. They can’t get training, blah, blah, blah. But it’s that times a million, right? So training and access to training is something that needs to change. The way we do that and the way we support people in multi-generational families that can’t just go off and do college by themselves because they’re responsible for grandma, these children and whoever else. All that has to change. I don’t know how that’s going to happen. I’m not on that side of the educational institution.
You’re saying the economics need to change.
Yeah. Desperately. And the support systems for Indigenous peoples. We have to recognize, and this is part of what I can do, is recognize the indigenous peoples in this nation. We are separate sovereign nations. So the reality of culture shock is massive. We lose so many of the Native kids that go to college in the first year because — while international students have the benefit of support programs that catch them and help them understand that they are in a new culture and new language, the Native students don’t get that. And many of them, their first language is not English and they are not at all versed in Western culture and they’re dumped in this university setting and completely alone. We need to create support systems for Indigenous people that are coming off of reservations that are so separate from the rest of Western culture. But also, we have to recognize that Indigenous artists are here already. Kansas City Rep — they’ve been lovely with letting me use them as an example. When I did a reading of What Would Crazy Horse Do? the year before we produced the play, they said, “Look, Larissa, we don’t have any Indigenous actors in our stable, but we can fly in one of the two characters for this.” I said, “I’d like for you to try. Reach out and say, ‘Hey! We’re looking for a Native actor.’ Reach out to the Native Community House. Reach out to your university. See what happens.” And so not only was the young man that played the second Native character Native American, but he had just graduated from a three-years master’s program from their university and no one knew he was Native because he’s terrified that if people find out that he’s Native American, he’ll never get cast again because they won’t cast him as Latino, they won’t cast him as Italian. And there has never been a Native American role in his entire career. Native Actors wait 10, 20 years for a Native role to show up in their town. So they’re hiding because they’re afraid they’ll never get to work again. We also need to open up and talk more about this really complicated thing of casting a race. What does that mean? If Native American people can only play Native American roles, they’re in trouble.
We’re talking out both sides of our mouth as a community.
You know, the agents and Equity – you can see both sides but—
But you know, we had a problem with this play, that really pissed me off, right? With Casting. I’m very clear in the script that people of color that can pass as white should be considered for this play. Casting was like, “Oh no, Equity is freaking out about that. You can’t do that. People cannot pass for other people.” Are you kidding me? White people are still passing for us all over the nation. But because I want a person of color to pass for white, Equity’s blocking that? I was so angry. Very upset by that. I’m still clearly bitter.
This is a really difficult conversation. I know Equity thinks they are being democratic. They would answer you by saying that because they would not allow you to specify that a white actor should play a character of color, you therefore cannot specify that an actor of color would play a white character. But this policy hamstrings the producers from casting diversely. That was the Hamilton controversy. Everyone knows the conceit of that show depends upon actors of color playing white characters. But apparently, you’re not allowed to say it out loud. To me it’s equivalent to those who would want to dismantle affirmative action programs. To pretend like racism doesn’t exist. I really wish TCG would take a leadership role in bringing this issue to light.
Right. Because it’s stopping me from working in many theaters. It’s stopping me from writing the roles that I want to write. It’s stopping those actors. It’s stopping all these other things – the community engagement, finding new audiences. The casting leads to so many other issues.
Maybe seven generations from now there will be so much intermarrying that there will only be one race.
(Laughs.) There you go. We could all just be whatever. That sounds interesting. I think I already wrote that play, didn’t I?