(New Repertory Theatre, NRT) Ramón, Jenna and Erin, first off, thank you all for taking the time to talk with us and give our patrons an inside look at your plays and yourselves as playwrights. Our first question comes from Zoe, a local theatre student who is considering pursuing playwriting as a career path. She asks: “Why did you decide to be a playwright? Was there a catalyst to that decision?”
(JJ) My playwriting passion was born during the pandemic. I was cut off from the creative outlet I’d been turning to my whole life: performing. Wanting to stay connected to theatre, I returned to my long-lost love of playwriting – something I hadn’t attempted since high school. Now I’m hooked. It’s electric to see other artists bring the words I’ve written to life.
(EL) I’ve been writing as long as I can remember, and have been into theatre since the 6th grade, but I didn’t put those two things together until college. I took Kirsten Greenidge’s playwriting class at BU while studying for my BFA in Stage Management. At the time, there wasn’t really an undergraduate playwriting track at BU (there is now, hooray!), but I snapped up every class Kirsten offered, and by the end of my time there had found something of a niche writing queer sci-fi stories for the stage.
(RE) I didn’t write my first play until I was thirty years old. I was studying for my master’s degree in Educational Theatre at New York University when the program’s playwright-in-residence, Laurie Brooks, encouraged me to take her beginning playwriting course. It was for that class that I wrote my first play, Dulce. I had written short stories and sketches before, but never a play. Dulce is inspired by my experience as a child grieving the death of my bisabuela, my great-grandmother who lived with us. It was a confusing time because I had lost someone near and dear to me for the first time in my life. I felt profoundly sad at the loss, and yet everyone around me seemed to cheer me up and get me back to being a happy, chubby little boy. In fact, wanting to shelter me from the worst part of Abuelita’s illness, my family sent me to stay with relatives in Arizona for the summer. She died while I was gone, and by the time I had returned, the family had already held the memorial and buried her. Dulce is a deeply personal story about why it is vital that we allow children their full range of emotions. I’m grateful that Laurie Brooks, my playwriting teacher, encouraged me to write an unconventional first play and make it theatrical and magical and honest, and not worry about getting it produced or published. I’m also grateful that she gave me the extra push and encouragement to take her class because I didn’t think of myself as a playwright before then.
(NRT) Wow! It’s really interesting how you all started your playwriting paths at different stages in your lives. In what ways do you think your underrepresented identity has shaped you as a playwright?
(RE) Born and raised in a suburb of Seattle, I rarely saw performers, stories, and cultures on stage that reflected me or my life or my culture. I figured that was because Seattle, at that time, did not have a large Latinx population, but no, this phenomenon is systemic. People who grew up in cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Houston that did have large Latinx populations also rarely saw themselves reflected on the stages of their cities’ big theatres. Like all writers with identities that have been historically excluded from theatres, I want to tell stories that I never got to see. I want to see my selves, histories, cultures, and worldviews explored on stage. I hope to tell deeply personal stories that tap into universal experience and understanding. As a queer, brown, working class, Mexican-American and Yaqui Indian person, playwriting has been important to my navigating my relationship with heteronormativity, white supremacy and predominantly white institutions, capitalism, and xenophobia. More and more, though, my writing has moved away from centering conflicts with power structures and more towards celebrating my identities and experiences in and of themselves. I hope this means that my plays are becoming more personal, freer, and innovative, but also more universal.
(EL) As a queer, nonbinary person growing up in the (sort of) South (North Carolina is a bit of a mishmash depending on where exactly you live), I had the same experience a lot of other marginalized folks have of not seeing myself in the stories being told around me. Apart from stage managing a production of Dog Sees God just after graduating high school, I didn’t see any non-straight people onstage, and to this day I can count the number of productions featuring trans and nonbinary characters I’ve seen without running out of fingers (and on one hand if I don’t include my own work, which I’ve been lucky enough to have produced a couple of times). I also grew frustrated with how stories about queer and trans people were always about being queer and trans – we are so rarely allowed to be a part of stories that are about something bigger. So, when I started writing my own plays, I decided to tell the genre stories I loved, centering queer and trans characters. I’ve been blown away to find such a wonderful community of queer and trans actors and other theatre artists who are excited about the plays I’m writing, and to prove to the theatre world that these stories are worth telling.
(NRT) Ramón and Erin, building on that, have either of you experienced systemic barriers in your playwriting career?
(EL) Not in so many words, but I’ve definitely noticed a hesitancy towards my work. Even setting aside the science fiction aspect, my casting requirements are difficult for a lot of theatres – my plays heavily feature trans and nonbinary characters, and I specify that those roles must be played by trans and nonbinary actors, which can be difficult if theatres haven’t already done the work to connect with those populations.
(RE) Yes, even if leaders of predominantly white institutions have tried to convince me otherwise.
(NRT) Thank you for sharing your backgrounds and experiences. Jumping to your plays that our new drama selection committee absolutely loved, what inspired you to write these plays?
(JJ) My husband turned to me in the car one day and asked, “If you could get a bionic body part, would you do it?” That one random question launched my brain in a million directions. I knew I needed to explore that question in my writing. I’m also a sucker for sci-fi and rarely get to see it on a stage.
(RE) In 2006, someone very near and dear to me ended his life by suicide after a decade-plus struggle with depression. He had been my college sweetheart for two years, and even after we broke up we stayed close friends until he died at age 28. So young. At his memorial, the minister spoke honestly about the suicide. I was grateful for that. As difficult and triggering as it may be, we need to talk about not only suicide but also depression and mental health to lessen the stigma. At my friend’s memorial, the minister said something that has always stuck with me: “If love could have saved him, it would have.” It took eight years before I was able to write anything about losing my friend, who was deeply loved by many people, and who knew and felt he was deeply loved by many people. He didn’t end his life for lack of love. He was sick, for a very long time, and then he died. Aurora is that story. Now the play is being brought to life in Watertown, quite near to where my friend was born and raised, where I met his family, and where his ashes were spread at the base of a tree. I miss him most when I am happiest because I still want to share my happiness with him. I am happy now, and I miss him still.
(EL) It was actually in response to a specific call for one act plays – the prompt was something like “Shakespeare meets social justice”. I hadn’t read a Shakespeare play since high school, but I was interested in revisiting the trope of someone having to dress up and ‘pass’ as someone they’re not (Olivia in Twelfth Night, Rosalind in As You Like It) through my own lens as a queer trans person. I was also inspired by a play I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe a few years back called Siren, which centered around a siren stuck on an island who keeps being visited (and accosted) by a series of men, all played by the same actor.
(NRT) How do you think this play connects to or reflects the world today?
(EL) The fun thing about sci-fi is that, even though it’s set in another time, in an imagined future, it always reflects and comments on our current world. This play reflects many of the power structures we currently deal with today, and one of the ways in which some marginalized people are forced to navigate it. But I think it ends on a hopeful note – a moment of recognition, and the chance that something could get better, which is incredibly important when it feels like the world is becoming so dark.
(JJ) For most of human history, people have chosen to change their bodies in all kinds of ways for all kinds of reasons. This is a futuristic take on that uniquely human tendency.
(RE) The world is in crisis. Humankind is out of balance with other life on our planet. Many people are sad, depressed, anxious, feeling hopeless. It is important that we feel all of our emotions, especially the ones that are painful or messy. I also believe it is important to distinguish between sadness as a strong emotion and sadness that is a symptom of clinical depression. Knowing the differences can help us articulate and communicate our pain so that we can get the specific support that we need. At some point, of course, we all die. Death has felt everywhere in recent years. Religious people can turn to their faith for answers of what comes after death, but where can humanists and other non-religious people turn? For me, I turn to nature for inspiration, hope, and comfort. The natural world has inspired our species all over the planet for as long as we have had consciousness. Aurora is my only play that does not mention God or evoke religion in any way. At the same time, it is the most spiritual story that I’ve ever told.
(NRT) Do you have a favorite line or moment in this play? If you do, why is it your favorite?
(RE) “I am a Giant Pacific Octopus.” My friend who died was obsessed with octopuses. That line is for him.
(JJ) My favorite moment is Dr. Flores’ body euphoria. I had so much fun inventing the smorgasbord of body upgrades they list. But more importantly, I loved being able to showcase a non-binary person who loves their body. So often, transgender and non-binary people are portrayed in media as hating their bodies. Rarely do we get to see the elation that can come when someone finally feels their body has become a perfect fit for their mind.
(EL) A lot of the stuff I love in this play happens between the lines, but if I had to pick one line to highlight, it’d be “If I have to explain it, I don’t think you’ll understand.” Marginalized people are often under so much pressure to explain themselves and their identities and experiences to people who refuse to understand, and I think that line is kind of acknowledging and pushing back on that a little.
(NRT) Do you share any of your characters’ characteristics?
(EL) I think there’s a little of me in every character I write (though I hope not too much of me in Frederick, at least). In this play specifically, though Amaranth does not identify as trans by the end of this play, I think she shares the trans experience of ‘passing’ as something you’re not to get by in the world. I also think there’s some of me in Orlando – it’s so easy, when you want to help someone, to overstep, and it’s important to remember that and try to curb that impulse.
(JJ) Both Dr. Flores and Donna Goldman share my value of authenticity – even if they have very different ideas of how to achieve it.
(RE) All of them. All my characters are me — not even partly me, wholly me. This is why writing plays is such a vulnerable endeavor.
(NRT) What is your writing process like?
(JJ) I’m a “discovery writer.” I never go into my creative writing with an outline. I usually have a basic idea of a topic and characters, but I pretty much just start typing words on a page and see what comes out. In every other area of my life, I’m a huge planner and over-thinker, so I honestly have no idea what to make of the fact that my creative brain craves the polar opposite.
(EL) It depends on the play, but the most reliable thing about my process is that I absolutely need a deadline, or else I’ll spend forever staring at a blank Word document and getting absolutely nowhere. It took me a while to really internalize that it’s never going to come out on paper as perfect as it is in my head, and that I have to put it down on paper anyway so I can shape it into what it needs to be.
(NRT) What do you think audiences will relate to most?
(RE) That sense of wonder that can only be inspired by the natural world. It may be ignited by seeing sunset colors painted on mountains or feeling the smoothness of a stone on the seashore. It could last hours or it could be a fleeting moment. Those moments remind us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are part of everything.
(EL) I think anyone from a marginalized group will relate to the decisions Amaranth has to make throughout the play about how she feels she has to present herself to get something as basic as a job as a mechanic. I hope that they will also relate to how comfortable and confident she becomes, even though she has to hide parts of who she is.
(NRT) Why should audiences come see this play?
(RE) All of us grieve the deaths of loved ones.In this ongoing pandemic, that grief has been overwhelming and seemingly never-ending. Aurora is explicitly about suicide — I commend the festival for being forthright about that — and it depicts the depths of despair. But I see the story as ultimately uplifting, a celebration of life, a restoration of balance between humankind and the earth, and the transcendent nature of love. This play helped me grieve when I first wrote it. Revisiting it for this festival, it is helping me grieve now. It makes me feel grateful for my sadness because to feel is to be alive.
(EL) Because it might make them uncomfortable in places. And because it might make them feel hopeful in others.
(NRT) Who in the performing arts world inspires you?
(EL) All the folks who are writing and producing stories that are challenging the American theatre status quo. Here in Boston, I’m inspired by Andrew Siañez de la O, Alison Qu, Micah Rosegrant, Kirsten Greenidge. I’m inspired by all the people I haven’t had the privilege of meeting yet, and am so excited to meet one day.
(JJ) I’m inspired by playwright and author Natalie Symons. I love her gritty characters and environments. I love her ability to blend comedy and drama into something that you can’t quite pin down as either. And I especially love that she doesn’t give a damn if her female characters are likable.
(NRT) What is the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?
(JJ) How the hell will anyone know what you want if you don’t tell them?
(EL) The writing advice I always come back to is Jose Rivera’s 36 Assumptions about Playwriting. I don’t necessarily agree with all of his assumptions, but anytime I get stuck I always find something in there to get the wheels turning again. Right now, I’m especially drawn to assumption #30: “Write in layers. Have as many things happening in a play in any one moment as possible.”
(RE) Stephen Sondheim told me this— through his music, not in person — in Sunday in the Park with George: “Anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new. Give us more to see.”
(NRT) Ramón, Jenna, Erin, on behalf of the New Rep team and our patrons, thank you again for taking time to talk with us today. To our patrons, we hope you enjoyed this Q & A with our playwrights and you join us at the theater for one of the six performances of the first New Rep, New Voices Theatre Festival.