Barbara Jwanouskos talks to one of SF’s longest running local activist artists.
The day after Valentine’s, Justin Keller, Founder of Commando.io, penned an open letter to San Francisco’s Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr complaining of the city’s homeless problem leaving many questioning whether he understood the complexity of the issue and had any compassion for his fellow San Francisco residents. A few days later, Edna Miroslava Raia responded to Justin Keller in an open letter on Medium pointing out the hypocrisy and frustration many felt with Justin Keller’s original statements.
I learned Edna is also a local performer and comedian who has a company called Potatoes Mashed Comedy. I was very excited to have the chance to talk with her about social activism, performance art and comedy, as well as the creative process she embarks upon when she creates new characters. This is the interview I had with her about her work and how she sees the world.
Barbara: I’m curious about your background. What kind of performance art and/or theater do you make? What’s the experience like for audience members?
Edna: I am a character actor/adult clown. I mostly perform comedic monologues although I also write sketch comedy. Every single one of my characters is an extension of myself so being the social justice graduate that I am, all of them carry social messages.
The feedback is always bewilderment because I am not particularly funny as myself; people are always surprised to learn what’s underneath. When I produced and performed in ‘Spaghetti Monologues,’ the response from everybody was ‘do it again.’ But it was an exhausting show to produce…coordinating, cooking, swimming in, cleaning and composting 120 lbs of spaghetti and red sauce was a venture I’m very hesitant to repeat. I’m told a lot that I should seek fame, which I ignore because I’m not sure that’s what I would like to achieve. I don’t want to move; this feels like home, despite all the newness.
Barbara: So you wrote an open letter to Justin Keller. Tell me about the moment that sparked you to put pen to paper—what did you feel the need to respond to in that moment?
Edna: When people with lots of money, and seemingly an elite education, parade their ignorance publicly, I want to throw tomatoes at their face in the center of town for all to see. His air of entitlement and clear lack of empathy made me so angry I immediately looked him up on facebook and wrote him my letter in a personal message. All I wanted to communicate was the phrase, “how dare you,” but I felt like expanding on that so it turned into a longer rant than originally intended. Most angry letters do.
Barbara: How did you know it was something you should share publicly? I ask since many times people have something to say but then the moment leaves them or they feel they missed their chance or maybe went too far/not far enough?
Edna: After I wrote Mr. Keller the personal letter, I thought he might not read it and had been told in the past that the place to get the tech industry’s attention was Medium.com. Just in case, I signed up with Svbtle.com, where he originally posted his open letter and I posted mine there. I found him on twitter and tagged him with the link of the letter and sought him out on LinkedIn. All I wanted was for him to respond, but he never did. With all the attention it received, I’m almost positive he at least read part of it so I don’t regret making it public. I tried to mirror some of his rhetoric in my letter too, to make him realize how stupid he sounded. Hopefully he learned something.
Barbara: What about the “open letter” format– it’s super popular these days. Do you have any thoughts on why? Its strengths and limitations?
Edna: If this had happened before the Internet, I would have had to mail my letter or publish it in the newspaper and wait weeks for any kind of response. I like the immediacy of an open letter, and in this instance, I was happy to have others read it because I knew so many people agreed with me and would feel like they were given a voice. The rumor mill about Justin Keller and people who shared his opinion was already stirring loudly. I just fed the conversation into a microphone.
Barbara: What has the response to your open letter been like and I’m curious if you had any next steps or further inspiration to write, talk or create something about homelessness and displacement? Or any other aspects of the letter?
Edna: My letter’s response was overwhelming; it consumed my life for a full week. I gained about 300 new friends on facebook, was quoted in four different publications online and interviewed on a radio station in 24 hours after the open letter was released. One journalist even wanted to print t-shirts of my diatribe! It was the craziest day in a while.
Because so many people were writing me (to agree and debate), I felt the need to give the most informed opinions I was capable of, so I began researching everything I was discussing. In doing so, I stumbled upon news of City Hall’s meeting to discuss the homeless situation on February 25th. I encouraged others to attend and I went myself to take notes. I wrote another entry on Medium.com about the 4 hr. experience. It’s a very long, detailed revelation, called ‘All You Need to Know about City Hall’s Discussion of Homelessness.’ I learned a lot and I felt like an advocate, but after hearing how poorly the homeless help system has been run and will continue to run, I’m not sure what difference I can make. I did say during public comment that they should be tapping into the obvious resources we have in the city-the tech companies. The homeless departments kept complaining about not having updated technology to run any kind of cohesive system to catalogue our homeless population. If I was trying to make a bigger splash, I would start there, I suppose. Justin Keller, would you like to donate some of your company’s profits towards this cause?
As for the inspiration, I instantly wanted to create a show based on this whole experience. I could Anna Deavere Smith-it, impersonate all these San Francisco characters. I’m also curious what would come out if I flipped the script and gave gadgets and apps the same stigmas that heroin needles and tents carry, or showed homeless people being ostracized for wearing Google glasses and ordering from UberEats. Ooooo, interesting! When you’re inspired, the possibilities are endless.
Barbara: Tell me about your creative process and how you go about working on something? How do you know it’s complete?
Edna: This is something I’ve been ruminating on lately. My characters usually begin from a phrase in my head or an idea of a person, usually based on someone I’ve seen or something I’ve always wanted to try.
As I said, my characters are extensions of myself so as I write scenarios, subtleties about me are revealed in them. But all of my characters would all react differently to the same scenario, based on their faults or stereotypes. For example, this latest character I’m working on is an imposter who holds no real job but pretends to work places and wreaks havoc. As a bartender she makes a drink with onions in it; I am personally repulsed by onions, but this character loves them. As I wrote her lines, I realized the reason was because she has a deep fear of vampires, which is now taking the character in a whole new direction.
My characters are never, ever complete because they become their own people with backstories and personalities that transcend schticks and quirks. They always have something new to say. I used to think I would retire them when I performed them too much, but they’ve become like friends. You don’t retire friends when you see them too much; you just hang out with other friends until you miss them again. That sounds awful. Haha.
Barbara: What’s your take on theater and performance as it is now? What is the current state? Opportunities that are lacking? Places it could improve?
Edna: I am happy with the new play-writing scene! I was growing frustrated for years, watching companies produce repeats of ‘classics,’ and wondering how we would ever create more classics for the future if we didn’t allow new voices to be heard. I especially love all the new urban plays that touch on diversity in classes and lower income struggles and add other genres of media into their shows.
Contrastingly, in the comedy circuit, I’m disappointed with the fear of mixing genres. I personally feel stuck between realms of funny. Most people who watch comedy want to see standup comedians; I want to tap into that audience but am not funny as Edna. I think the world of standup needs more diversity in their format. I miss Andy Kaufman. One of these days, I’m just going to book a standup gig and be in full character, maybe Regina Pickel, my Jewish lady. If they don’t like her, they can throw her out by her old lady pants; it’ll be a fantastic scene!
Barbara: Any low-hanging fruit ideas of how to change the scene –tech vs. artists– that we, and people who have power and influence, could take?
Edna: Some have told me that ceasing the use of the argument ‘Us vs. Them’ will fix everything. I don’t completely agree. I think we have to realize where we all stand. We ARE on different sides of the fence, financially especially. I would like to see the new SF residents come out to public gatherings more and see what San Francisco really stands for–diversity, freedom of expression, sanctuary. Maybe it would inspire them to make more apps that help their communities.
Barbara: Advice for people who want to do what you do?
Edna: Try harder. Do it better. Be funnier. If you constantly scrutinize your art and keep challenging yourself, somebody will notice a change and then people will stop faking, ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you,’ just to be nice. They’ll actually start calling you. But only if you’re ready.
Barbara: Plugs for upcoming work, art, or shows?
Edna: I am performing two characters at Safehouse for the Arts on April 24th for ‘The Crow Show.’ And in May, I’m hosting one night at the SF International Arts Festival with amazing musicians, Impuritan and Loachfillet and visual artist/filmmaker, Anna Geyer. For that show, I’ll take on one of my most memorable characters, Hillary Like, the depressed goth teenager, hosting her own radio show. The night is called ‘Dada Explodes: A Cluster of Sound, Light and the Absurd’ on May 28th, at Gallery 308 in Fort Mason, at 8:30 pm.
For more on Edna Mira Raia, check out her company, Potatoes Mashed Comedy.