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September 27, 2023

Aliens with Extraordinary Skills: An Interview with Playwright Saviana Stanescu


Aliens with Extraordinary Skills (US/UK), Saviana Stanescu’s fictional dark comedy about immigration, street clowns and the American Dream, premiered off-Broadway at the Julia Miles Theatre on September 22, 2008. To celebrate the play’s 15th anniversary, we sat down with the playwright to discuss her work and its enduring relevance.

Nadia is a professional clown, and several of the characters in the play learn at least some aspects of clowning. What made you choose clowning as a theme for your play about the immigrant experience in the U.S.?

First of all, thank you so much for this invitation to dialogue, Jim. It means a lot for me to have the opportunity to talk about Aliens with Extraordinary Skills at this time, after a pandemic, and 15 years since the play opened off-Broadway at Women’s Project (currently WP Theater).

A few things about me that will lead to my answer: I am a Romanian-born and raised playwright with Balkan roots who spent her formative years during the totalitarian system of dictator Ceaușescu. After our revolution (I was there, in the streets, protesting/fighting with my classmates), I worked as a journalist for the newly created free press and became one of the top up-and-coming poets/playwrights in Bucharest. For a while I was even a TV talk-show host. My plays were getting produced/presented in Paris, Vienna, London and other European cities. It was the first time I was allowed to travel to Western Europe after the restrictions of the dictatorship, and I tried to make the most of it.

Two weeks before 9/11, I arrived in New York with a Fulbright fellowship and started again, from scratch, as a graduate student at NYU (Performance Studies and Dramatic Writing). I had to shed my old identity as a successful public intellectual in Romania and become a “foreigner,” an “immigrant” with a “funny” accent who doesn’t have a (strong) voice in the U.S. society. My creative work grew to revolve around topics of identity, otherness, displacement, hardships and reinvention. It’s not easy to start again, in a new language and culture, when you’re not a teenager anymore, but hey, I did my best. 😊

Why did I choose clowning as a metaphor for immigrants? It’s a long story but I will try to make it short. The title of the play, Aliens with Extraordinary Skills, is inspired by my U.S. work visa for Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities in the Arts. I had to renew it annually for a long time in order to stay and work in the U.S. I had to prove every year that I am “extraordinary.” 😊 It felt a little bit like I was inflating my American Dreams daily, making balloon animals out of them, trying to entertain people in order to survive and be accepted in the U.S.

Plus, you know that old paradox without borders: the sad clown. For me, there’s something endearing and realistic in looking beyond the happy façade of something/someone and discovering the complexity hiding behind the public mask. In all my plays I’ve tried to make the invisible visible, to look beyond stereotypes while (sometimes) employing stereotypes…

Metaphors aside, as a former journalist I still get a lot of inspiration for my plays from the news. In 2006, in some tabloid, I read a story about a Romanian and a Ukrainian men who got arrested for bringing people into the USA on questionable circus visas for “aliens with extraordinary abilities in the circus.” The U.S.-based circus they were supposed to work for was just a website, it didn’t really exist. That’s when I imagined my two characters: Nadia, a naïve from Moldova, a professional clown who didn’t know that her visa was based on a lie, and Borat from Russia, who knew that it’s a scam but went for it anyway.

I wanted to show that each immigrant’s case is unique and people’s lives are often influenced by a mixture of good intentions and bad circumstances, by the paradoxes and oxymorons of everyday life. Sometimes you need to put on a happy face when your heart is filled with sadness and even despair. Moreover, as an immigrant or refugee, you gotta be careful not to show an angry face – you might be regarded as a (potential) criminal or terrorist…

So yeah, it’s better to learn some “clowning skills” to bring joy and laughter into people’s lives, and avoid trouble. Put on your smiley face. Be cool, unassuming, and funny. These are some basic survival skills if you are a wanderer, a foreigner, an immigrant, an outsider.

To be honest, I am actually a person who has a lot of joie de vivre – enthusiasm for life in all its aspects. I am trying to make the most of each moment, cherish daily acts of kindness, find joy in little things and serenity in nature. I’m all for discovering the silver lining in each cloud and attempting to have a sunny disposition even when things get tough. My mom and some close friends think I’m naïve and absurdly romantic. Probably. Hopelessly. Luckily my rational intelligence is able to control my impulsive emotionality most if the time. Not always… 😊

I’m particularly interested in that in-between space where migrants dwell, living in the “hyphen” between two cultures and communities. That hybrid identity/place fascinates me. In my plays, I try to analyze and dramatize the ways in which the American Dream can turn into a daily nightmare while also remaining an idealized paradise for many immigrants.

I’ve always been interested in OUTSIDERS, since my very first dramatic poem The Outcast. Outsiders as un/documented aliens, global foreigners, disoriented/misunderstood teens, loners, rebels, revolutionaries, or just regular people who felt like an “outsider” at some point in their lives. The need to belong/conform versus the need to rebel/stand out. For whatever reasons a person’s mind could become a battlefield for those two needs at any given moment.

In 2008 I was a playwright-in-residence for Women’s Project in NYC, developing Aliens with Extraordinary Skills before Obama got elected president. I talked with immigrants in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Both documented and undocumented immigrants experience the fear of not belonging, of being labeled THE OTHER – a stranger, a suspect, an alien who doesn’t deserve to be in the USA.

Aliens With Extraordinary Skills is based on some of those true stories of migration, explored and fictionalized by a playwright who tries to understand her own journey. Dramatic living and dramatic writing. Regardless of our roots and native language, we all have in our hearts a genuine and peaceful “alien” in search for love, respect, and a place to call HOME.

The play is very funny, often mining laughs from absurd contrasts, like people having a serious conversation while dressed as a clown or a cheeseburger. How important was it for you to express your ideas through humor?

Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw are both credited with saying: if you are to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you. 😊

I love to tell a serious story and express thought-provoking ideas through humor and comedic absurdism. Dramedy is my favorite genre. I sometimes call my plays dreamedies. You get the audience to laugh, to imagine fantastic worlds, to inhabit a comedy, but drama sneaks into people’s minds and souls. And stays there. Or so I hope.

The narrative is interspersed with “incisions” into Nadia’s mind… scenes in which Nadia imagines that her worst fears are realized. Despite the tension, these scenes are often very funny. Later, Nadia experiences genuine trauma, though the play remains a comedy. How did you maintain a balance between dark and light, between terror and humor?

Oh yes, the Dreamscapes: Nadia, the protagonist from Moldova, is haunted by two imaginary immigration officers who tease and bully her in humorous ways. They are meant to give us a glimpse into her imagination, fears and the inner turmoil due to her undocumented status.

Nadia is a clown specialized in telling children stories with balloon animals – of course she is going to dramatize her inner dialogue in a similar way. The “incisions” in her mind are comedic scenes in which she’s interrogated by INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service, currently Immigration and Customs Enforcement – ICE). They remind her that her role, as a poor undocumented clown/artist, is to keep a low profile, to entertain, to make herself pleasant, to accept whatever comes her way. It goes as far as a climactic moment in which Nadia endures an abuse but cannot report it to the police because she’s afraid of getting deported…

The INS officers are fictional characters, but I gave them lines/questions that foreign people are asked in the visa applications or when they marry a U.S. citizen and must prove that the marriage is real. As opposed to motivated by the need for a U.S. green card – the documented status. I pushed those questions towards an absurd theatricality. Enjoy it. 😊

INS 1: What toothpaste does he use?
INS 2: What deodorant?
INS 1: Does he eat hotdogs with mustard or ketchup?
INS 2: What salad dressing does he like?
INS 1 / INS 2: You don’t know!
INS 1: Do you really know him?
INS 2: Have you ever met his mom?
INS 1: His dad?
INS 2: His sister?
INS 1: Have you ever met his sister’s brother-in-law’s mother?
INS 2: Have you ever met his sister’s brother-in-law’s mother-in-law?
NADIA: I don’t…
INS 1: What elementary school did he go to?
INS 2: When did he have the first crush on a girl?
INS 1: Did the girl have braces?
INS 2: What was her bra size?
INS 1: When did he have sex for the first time?
INS 2: When did you two have sex for the first time?

One question the play asks is, “What does it mean to be happy?” Most of the characters seek a “normal” life. Do you think there is such a thing?

Every person has their own definition of “normal” life. For many immigrants and refugees coming from war-torn countries and/or difficult economic circumstances, normality is living above the first level of survival. It’s a state in which you can start looking for opportunities, love, and happiness, because the very basic needs – food, water, shelter, peace – are met.

According to data from the World Values Survey, Moldova is the unhappiest country in the world. I found that research fascinating. I had to include an exploration of happiness in my play. What makes people happy? Is it connected to money and the economic status? Is it about opportunities and hope? Is the lack of love and human connection making people unhappy? I don’t have a definitive answer, but I have a protagonist who’s an immigrant clown from the unhappiest country in the world, in search of Ha-Ha-Happy American Dream. 😊

You capture many great details about New York City life in this play. What role does NYC play in the story?

New York, New York… the microcosm of the entire world. Folks from all continents or small-town America come to change their lives in the city that never sleeps, but always dreams… Their daily struggles are sweetened by the magic of caffeine, hope, traffic noise, long walks, cool restaurants, and Theatre with capital T and seductive h. 😊

A critic called Aliens with Extraordinary Skills a love letter to New York. It’s true, it is. I can’t really describe my feelings for New York. I’d need to dramatize my inner dialogue, temper my long internal monologues, and a new full-length play might emerge… 😊

Back in Romania, I was introduced to New York via movies that enraptured me every night on the public TV. I remember being fascinated by Sex and the City and identifying with Carrie when I worked as a journalist. At some point, as a graduate student at NYU, I imagined a similar TV series with immigrants as main characters: New York with an Accent. In a weird way, Aliens with Extraordinary Skills might be my version of Sex/Love and the City with clowns, balloon animals, exotic dancers, and taxi drivers, instead of the posh Carrie and her friends…

One character in the play says we listen more carefully when there is a language barrier, and Time Out New York said that your “writing in English has more scrupulous care, more pure attention than someone to the grammar born.” Can you talk a little about the attention you pay to your writing in English, and the attention we as an English-speaking audience grant you as we listen to your words?

I do pay lots of attention to my writing in English. I’m still in love with this rich language and get giddy each time I discover a new word and use it in a sentence. It’s literally a sensuous pleasure to write in English. Of course I love to write in Romanian as well, but nowadays I feel that I can express myself in a more nuanced way in English, especially when the story is set here in the U.S. I enjoy playing with words and phrases, and digging for the right term. I revise a lot until I feel that I achieved the perfect form for my thought. I would revise a paragraph forever if I didn’t have a deadline…

A few years ago, I wrote a new play about the Romanian revolution, Kilometer Zero. The Revolution Project, in Romanian, during my sabbatical semester in Bucharest. The words didn’t come to me as easy as I expected. I found myself frustrated for not being able to use English.

I’ve been teaching Playwriting and Contemporary Theatre for many years at NYU, ESPA-Primary Stages, Transylvania Playwriting Camp and Ithaca College (where I’m a tenured associate professor). I love nurturing and developing young playwrights’ voices. I founded and produce the IC New Play Incubator, cherishing the new plays we launch into the big old world.

Speaking about languages and cultures: “Alien” is a word impossible to translate in other languages while maintaining all its meanings: foreigner, extraterrestrial, immigrant… When Aliens with Extraordinary Skills got produced in Mexico City at Teatro La Capilla in the Spanish version, under the title Inmigrantes con Habilidades Extraordinarias, I noticed different things that were relevant and impactful for Mexican audiences. At Odeon Theatre in Bucharest, the play was called “Clown Visa” and the Romanian audiences resonated with other aspects of the characters and storyline. While there is always a core of the play that stays the same for spectators everywhere, the nuances of reception are different – people resonate with their own historical, social, political and personal references.

In Romania I used to write absurdist plays and create interdisciplinary performances. Here in the U.S. (after completing an MA in Performance Studies and an MFA in Dramatic Writing at NYU, Tisch) I became concerned with issues of identity and immigration. At this point I’m working on integrating my 22-year American experience and U.S.-developed craft with my (b)old Eastern European inventiveness and imagination, while tackling meaningful/global issues.

We could say I’m a 22-year-old American writer ready to spread her wings, again and again. 😉

To some extent, everyone in this play is “performing” as someone else, yet they all seek something genuine. Do you think this experience is particularly heightened for immigrants? Or is it universal to all of us? In what way do these characters need to “perform” more than others do?

“Perform or Else” is the title of a book by a former NYU Performance Studies professor of mine. We all perform, choosing a social persona to put forward in the world at any given time. And I imagine that we all seek genuine connections as well. At least, I do.

Theatre is (one of) the most genuine art forms because it allows us to unpeel those layers of social and personal “performing” and everything in-between.

In my plays, I’ve always tried to find a theatrical way to explore concepts that go beyond psychological realism. This is happening not only because of my Eastern European heritage (see my Romanian plays The Inflatable Apocalypse, Miss Dracula, Black Milk, Final Countdown), but also because, as a writer-in-residence for director/scholar/professor Richard Schechner (YokastaS Redux, Timbuktu) in my first years in New York at NYU, I learned to write in English with an enhanced sense of the performative possibilities of a theatre piece.

In many of my American plays I have scenes and choruses that take place in the cyberspace – in chatrooms, on Craigslist, Facebook, etc. I sometimes use spoken emojis, they are lots of fun for audiences and actors. In my 2000 Romanian play, The Inflatable Apocalypse, winner of Best Play of the Year UNITER Award, I wrote “commercial breaks” and used a postmodern non-linear structure that intersected different narratives. A Transylvanian critic called me “the female Ionesco” and “the hard poetess-playwright at the border between millennia.” 😜

My first assignment as a journalist in Bucharest was to write about the pulling down of Lenin’s statue from its pedestal. Then I had to travel to interview the first woman prime minister of Turkey. Those experiences informed my playwriting much later. As a graduate student in the Dramatic Writing MFA program at NYU, I wrote “Lenin’s Shoe,” a play about the trauma of the Past “pulling you down” from the reality of the Present.

I needed time and distance (personal, political, cultural) to better understand my own past and hi/story and explore them in my writing. In Waxing West, which won the 2007 New York Innovative Theatre Award for Outstanding Play, I was finally able to create a character, Daniela, who confronts her memories from the Revolution while trying to adjust as a newcomer in the 9/11 New York. I dramatized Daniela’s inner conflict: she is haunted by dictator Ceausescu and his wife Elena, who appear to her as vaudevillian vampires…

Even my recent play What Happens Next, a futuristic “Waiting for Godette,” with two mysterious women in a dystopian white room (commissioned and produced by The Cherry Arts), engages with multi-media performativity and innovative playwriting techniques that might remind people of the Netflix series Black Mirror.

This past summer my new play Zebra 2.0 was presented in the last ICE FACTORY festival at the New Ohio Theatre. It was billed as an “AI immigrant rom-com.” ZINA, an undocumented night-shift janitor at a Wildlife preservation/tracking company in the U.S. develops an uncanny friendship with AL, the main Artificial Intelligence. Can the two misfits, Zina and Al, connect across the borders of human/artificial intelligence? My silver lining answer is YES.

On a side note: Zina means fairy princess in Romanian, they’re very popular in fairy tales. Maybe my dramedies are just contemporary “fairy tales” combining psychological realism with fantasy. Back to Aliens with Extraordinary Skills… 😊

The play is framed by Nadia, as a clown, telling a children’s story. She explains her life through colorful storytelling. In writing this play, are you doing the same?

Yes, of course. I am (in) all my characters. In a way, I feel that I’m writing the same story, my story, over and over again, in different versions, styles, and languages. 😊

The women characters in my play – Nadia, the clown-artist from Moldova and Lupita, the Dominican exotic dancer and actress – are strong, resilient, yet vulnerable. Nadia, the newcomer, learns from Lupita how to be strong. They both have to endure #MeToo moments of sexual harassment/abuse, but cope with them differently. Nadia learns the hard way that she doesn’t have a voice and can’t report the abuse as an undocumented immigrant. The solidarity and friendship between the two women are what ultimately helps Nadia to overcome challenges and move forward.

Lupita’s advice and support for Nadia speaks volumes about my brand of feminism and its key words – women’s solidarity, strength, resilience. In Lupita’s words: “Honey… don’t think I’m insensitive… I’m not… but we must keep going, that’s all. We can’t afford depressions and – how do they call it? – post-traumatic stress and other shit like that. Only rich people do.” I strive to create nuanced and complex women characters that challenge the stereotypes and empower women across the world to be who they really are.

I call myself an ARTivist. All my artistic work is situated at the fluid intersection of women’s issues, queer perspectives, ethnic/race studies and theatre for social change/justice. I truly believe that multiple identities and multi-rooted belonging need to be cherished in the contemporary society, not othered.

In the 15 years since this play was first performed off-Broadway, how have circumstances changed for immigrants in the U.S.? Which aspects of your play are even more resonant today?

In 2008, I was a playwright-in-residence for the Women’s Project in NYC, developing Aliens with Extraordinary Skills before elections. After our show’s run, Obama got elected president, bringing new hope and ideas of change.

These days, immigration is an even more concerning issue. Un/documented immigrants still experience the fear of not belonging, of being “the other” – a stranger, a foreigner with a funny accent, an alien who doesn’t deserve to be in the US. However, despite hardships, regular people are supporting and helping each other.

Thousands of migrants are crossing borders as we speak. Ukrainian war refugees come to the US by plane, flying from their neighboring countries (Poland and Romania) and Western Europe, or walk across the border from Mexico. Romania – a NATO border with Moldova, Ukraine, and Russia (on the Black Sea) – is committed to provide homes and work to the Ukrainian refugees. It’s not easy, but it has to happen. Meanwhile, Moldova is afraid of a Russian invasion and asks NATO for protection. On this side of the Atlantic, New York is struggling to house thousands of migrants sent from Texas.

In this political context, Aliens with Extraordinary Skills is even more relevant than in 2008. The main characters are a Moldovan and a Russian, they get along and are good friends despite the conflict between their countries. The war zone they’re trying to escape by migrating to the U.S. is a high-stake reason for doing everything they can to stay here, in a truly democratic country, where they can aspire to have a normal life.

Which productions of this play have really resonated with you?

I loved working with the WP casts of Aliens with Extraordinary Skills: Jessica Pimentel – who’s known from Orange is the New Black – was an amazing Lupita. Natalya Payne, Marnye Young, Seth Fisher, Kevin Isola, Shirine Babb, Gian-Murray Gianino, Tony Naumovsky, were excellent too. We had a blast while developing the play and rehearsing.

I also liked productions of the play staged by Ego Actus, Know Theatre, B Street Theatre, International Voices Project, Ithaca College, Teatro La Capilla, Teatrul Odeon – they all had a heightened theatricality while being grounded in psychological realism.

Directors I enjoyed collaborating with include U.S. theatremakers Tamilla Woodard (Enslaved, Polanski Polanski), Niegel Smith (For a Barbarian Woman), José Zayas (Useless), Tea Alagic (Aliens with Extraordinary Skills), Jeremy Goren (Zebra 2.0), Daniella Topol (Lenin’s Shoe), Benjamin Moss (Waxing West), Vernice Miller (Bee Trapped Inside the Window), Sam Buggeln (What Happens Next), and of course Richard Schechner (YokastaS Redux). In Romania, Radu Afrim and Andrei Măjeri are innovative directors who directed brilliant productions of my plays and other gorgeous shows. In Mexico, Boris Schoemann and Alberto Lomnitz are wonderful friends and collaborators. And the list can continue…

Do you have any advice for theatremakers looking to stage the play in the future?

My plays are written in a style I would call poetic/stylized realism, or absurdist/fantastic naturalism. I mostly enjoy working with directors who value my work and respect the playwright’s vision, while finding an innovative way to stage the play.

I love to work with actors who can do both naturalism and heightened physicality. My plays require performers who can shift the register of interpretation and are open to various styles of portraying a character.

I’m curious to see what future directors, actors, designers, producers, stage managers, dramaturgs, will bring to the staging of Aliens with Extraordinary Skills. I’m sure I’m going to discover new ways of thinking about the show. I love cool surprises. 😉

I was told that this play inspires directors to come up with imaginative ways of using the performance space and an ensemble of actors. At Ithaca College, director Dean Robinson had an ensemble of immigration officers who became set elements in the realistic scenes, suggesting that Nadia’s hyperactive imagination personifies the objects in the room.

My advice for theatremakers looking to stage Aliens with Extraordinary Skills in the future is: Have fun, enjoy working on this play, don’t ignore the serious issues at its core, but don’t overemphasize them either… surprise me, surprise the audience, surprise yourself. Make people laugh and cry at the same time. 😊☹️

What do you hope audiences will take away from the show?

I hope the audiences will get a glimpse into the daily life of immigrants/outsiders: the un/documented aliens, the global foreigners, the non-conformist artists. I hope people will cry and laugh with the characters and walk in new migrants’ (clownish) shoes for a little while…

Most of all, I hope the audiences will feel inspired to apply their own extraordinary skills of resilience, empathy, and love for those strangers with “funny” accents who live across the street, or come to clean their houses, or wait for them in restaurants, or sell them cheese in a Deli, or drive the taxi who takes them home, or landscape their backyard, or repair their internet, or walk their dogs, or throw their garbage, or care for their elders, or wash their cars, or plant their garden, or dance for them, or sing for them, or write a play for them… 😊

To license a production or purchase the script for Aliens with Extraordinary Skills, visit Concord Theatricals in the US or UK.