Rivers and Tributaries: An Interview with writer and director Carin Jean White, SoA Directing MFA ‘11

All artists need to overcome a fear of failure in order to continue creating their work – the failure to be good enough, to choose the right path, to be accepted, loved, to make the right artistic choices. Rivers and Tributaries, written and directed by Carin Jean White, explores one artist’s struggle to overcome these fears. Yesterday, I had the chance to discuss her process and inspiration for writing and directing Rivers and Tributaries, her senior thesis production in Theatre at the Columbia University School of the Arts and explore her relationship to a question every artist must consider: can artistic doubt be transformed into artistic brilliance?

February 16, 2011

What would you say this play is about?

In broad strokes, this play is about how and why an artist creates their art, what obstacles they face and why these obstacles end up inspiring them. The title, Rivers and Tributaries, harkens to the metaphor of the connection that happens between different generations of artists: how you find inspiration in the artists that came before you.

Why did you write it, and where did the inspiration come from?

I created an outline for the play last spring and put pen to paper in August. Two things inspired my creative vision: one, I needed to select a thesis production. This put a focus on senior year, graduation and what comes after graduation. There is a lot of fear about what happens after you graduate from the supportive community of the university. I was dealing with this fear when I went to see Marina Abramovic’s work at the MoMA. The subject of her work struck me: she was taking the things she was most afraid of – the fear of emotional, physical and mental exchange with others and her own emotional, mental and physical endurance – for artistic inspiration. She used her artwork to pit herself against these intense personal challenges. I thought this was fascinating – she was trying to transform herself in the process of creating her work. This made me reconsider what I should be working on in my thesis. With all of these thoughts floating around in my mind, I decided that, to move forward as an artist, and as a person, I needed to confront my fear and ask the question: can we let fear be a catalyst for the creative process? I decided that this was something I would write about.

What is your specific focus within the SoA program?

I am a directing MFA student and this thesis this is the first play I have authored.

What was it like to take your work from the page to the stage? In the process, what did you learn about both writing and directing?

Watching the play come to life was a really exciting process. I had the fortunate experience to study with playwright and director Stan Lai this summer in Taipei on his piece Happiness Lessons. Watching his work and how he works with actors in creating a play really helped me get into this process. He does not devise his work, but his collaborators directly influence his work. I took his process as a model.

I am also fortunate enough to have some friends the Bay Area – that is where I am originally from – who were willing to workshop the play before I took it to rehearsal. So I had two workshops with this theater company before starting the formal rehearsal process. In the process, I realized that the title of playwright and director all fall under the same banner of “storyteller.” I found thinking of myself as a storyteller very helpful. Sometimes I had to stop myself and say “I don’t have to answer this with the text. I will give myself and the actors space to fill this in.” And I gave myself more permission to not always be the expert in the room. In the end, it made me a better listener both as a director and playwright.

Is there anything you hope the audience will take away from the experience?

Ultimately, if they’re artists, I want them to be thinking about their choices and journey in the artistic process. Whether they are making active choices, or letting things happen to them, it is important to remember that by not making choices we are still making choices. As an artist, it is important not to let the fear of making difficult decisions stop you from being an active participant in your career and, on a larger scale, your life.

Columbia University School of the Arts, Theatre Arts Program Presents RIVERS AND TRIBUTARIES, Written and Directed by CARIN JEAN WHITE runs February 16-19, 2011

The Riverside Theatre
91 Claremont Avenue
Between 120th and 122nd Streets

Talkback with director and ensemble: Sat., Feb. 19 following the 2:00 PM performance

$15 General Admission/$5 Seniors FREE with Columbia University ID or any other valid student ID

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