Nov 10, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 280: Elaine Romero
Hometown: San Juan Capistrano, CA. This is a complicated question. I’ve spent many years in Tucson, Ariz., and my husband and I still own a home there. We’ve relocated to Chicago where I teach at Northwestern University.
Current Town: Chicago, IL.
Q: Tell me about Wetback.
A: A lifetime of border experience culminated for me in Wetback. My play tells the story of a hate crime against a Mexican immigrant and implicates the Latina, Amalia, who fails to protect him. Amalia is a high school principal, an educator, who has employed and housed an undocumented worker for many years. She fires him when she fears for her job. I’m exploring the big questions for Chicanos/Mexican-Americans. What is our relationship/responsibility to the Mexican immigrant? Do we have any? And now that my home state of Arizona has upped the ante with their anti-Mexican laws, what do Mexican-Americans do? What’s our moral responsibility to the people in a region that once belonged to Mexico?
I’ve spent the last many years living close to the border in Tucson, Ariz. and I grew up close to the border in California. My grandparents lived in San Diego, so we always had to go through a border checkpoint to visit them from Orange County. There’s a certain psychological terror that looms around border checkpoints for me. As a result, the Border Patrol/La Migra has never been far from my psyche. The last few years I’ve split my time between Los Angeles and Arizona. I’ve watched the Southwest border transform from tolerant to intolerant in a matter of a decade. It seems just a couple months ago that Lou Dobbs still had his nightly anti-Mexican rant on CNN. Even liberal politicians lobby for the Great Wall of China—Southwest. Even Obama is sending 1200 troops to guard the border. So, what does a Latina playwright do? The recent reelection Gov. Jan Brewer raises the possibility of immigrant camps/prisons along the border.
I’ve felt in my bones that our border tensions would result in violence. I received a commission, alongside Mexican playwright, Berta Hiriart, to write a short piece about the border. That’s when I first started getting the early rumblings of the play, though I’ve been taking notes on a play that involved the Minuteman Militia for many years. I’d initially thought I’d expose their roots with the KKK, then I opted for a Chicana point of view, and to point the finger within, at the Latina character. I reconceived the play as a full-length story. I took that through a rigorous process at the Lark New Play Development Center. I should list them under Hometown! Then, I had an opportunity to spend a week with professional actors and director, Samantha K. Wyer, through Voice &Vision’s ENVISION Retreat. They fed us the most amazing food and supported us in the most profound way. I wrote like a maniac, drafted and deleted scenes, worked tightly with a top-notch team. I questioned every line. I got as far as I could in that week. Samantha and I took the play to Voices at the River at Arkansas Repertory Theatre and I kept digging and adding scenes, and deleting. We had another amazing workshop and I uncovered deeper layers of the story that really excited me. Arkansas Repertory Theatre, and, now, Urban Stages and the Invisible Theatre, have really stepped up to the plate with Wetback by giving me more developed time through staged readings. A play sympathetic to the Mexican point-of-view is sadly controversial at this moment in time. I’ve lost a lot of sleep over Wetback because I feel the immediacy of it. Today is the day for this piece.
As a side note, and perhaps as a primary note, a couple days after I finished my first draft of Wetback, Mexican immigrant, Luis Ramirez, was murdered in a hate crime in a Pennsylvania park. The murder shares eerie similarities with my piece. He was murdered because he openly loved a white woman in a park. Ramirez was murdered by skinheads. My character dies at the hands of a member of the Minuteman Militia. I don’t know if a political event has hit me quite so hard when I realized life had imitated my art. My soul is crying for Luis Ramirez in ways it has not cried before. In some sort of spiritual retroactive way, I believe the play was written for him.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I’ve been working on Ponzi with Kitchen Dog Theatre through a commission with NNPN. Far beyond Madoff, Ponzi schemes have unraveled all over the world since the economic collapse. Recently, I received this ridiculous gift of several weeks on the Manasota Key at the Hermitage Artist Retreat in Florida. They gave me a place on the beach and I slept to the sound of the waves. In the mornings, I’d walk the beach, collecting shark teeth and getting myself into a meditative mode to write. I started Ponzi originally at the Lark’s Winter Retreat. It’s a three-actor play that deals with three recent acquaintances, money, power, and sex. I’ve been drawn to the idea of how we permit money or status to define us and who we are, as humans, at our core when one of our identities slips away. The main character, Catherine, grapples with the issue of whether or not the money she has inherited she can be loved for who she really is, or if all her relationships are colored by her inheritance. I’ve boiled it down to the statement: is it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich woman to be loved for who she is? I think in many ways Catherine unconsciously wants to unburden herself of her money to see who she really is——to see if she can really float on her own? She’s always controlled her world through sex because she doesn’t trust she can be loved. But her sexual power has always stemmed from her economic power. When she loses her wealth in a Ponzi scheme, she has absolutely no idea who she is and if she can survive. We presented it in June at Kitchen Dog’s New Works Festival. We explored time in Ponzi. I’d written the play with three different structures. I’ve landed on a good one, and added some live video and slides. The play just won an Edgerton Fund for New American Plays Award. We are premiering it at Kitchen Dog Theatre in the spring. We’re looking for partners for the Continued Life Fund, so I’m putting the word out to theatres.
I spent the lion’s share of last year working on The Dalai Lama is Not Welcome Here for InterAct Theatre Company through their 20/20 Commission Program. Again, the world economy plays a role in this one. I’m interested in how the personal fits into the global, and in the ways the two collide. In this play an American couple lose their young son to a defective Chinese toy. When the husband gets a job in Shanghai, China, the wife seeks to destroy the small toy manufacturer who made the toy. When she succeeds, she tries to undo what can’t be undone. Writing Dalia Lama shoot me straight into my bone marrow. The play comes from such a deep place of grief and moral confusion. I broke my heart to write it. Kate, the protagonist, is a Medea of sorts. I have a difficult time even reading the play without being overwhelmed by the feeling of loss. And yet, as in many of my pieces, I’m interested in a non-religious redemption, the question of whether or not one can forgive the unforgivable.
I have a short play, A Simple Snow, which premiered at the InsparTO Festival in Toronto last spring. It won their contest. It’s also been shortlisted for Short+Sweet Sydney. The play takes place inside a snow globe. I got the idea when I saw a photograph of an Amish carriage on a postcard while I was doing a residency in Lanesboro, Minnesota. It’s been an odd little play to crack. We Skyped rehearsals in Toronto, which was great. I think my producer, director, and the whole team had been fascinated with the puzzle of how to make that play work. And, for me, it was thrilling to have people say that they didn’t know if it could or would work, but that they want to take the risk of exploring it with me. Sometimes I think it’s the most theatrical plays that scare us the most. The play was presented in their Best of the Fest week, so I felt sure we’d achieved our goal with that premiere.
In addition to these plays, I’ve just written a screenplay for Back Fence Productions. It’s an adoption story that involves a concomitant mythical world that the adoptee creates for survival. I’m working with producer Terry Chase Chenowith.
I just finished an adaptation of SUN, STONE, AND SHADOWS for Arkansas Repertory Theatre. It was neat to adapt fiction and to work with my own translation from the Spanish.
Now, I’m feeling the rumbles of a new play and looking for the right company to commission it.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: I have three brothers. We once discovered a fossilized whale skeleton when we were children. We went home and got a bunch of Hefty trash bags and collected the fossils. I gave the fossils to my friend’s father because he was a geologist. I told him I was giving him the fossils for “carbon dating.” I figured he had a lab and that he could do that part of the job. Hah! I’ve always had an investigative mind, and I’ve always wanted to get to the bottom of everything that could be known. For me, playwriting is an act of excavation. It can be an excavation of my own psyche, or a political or social dynamic. Having three brothers has defined me in many ways. First, because they’re brilliant, and keeping up, has kept my mind flying, but secondly, it has caused me to write about gender dynamics.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I love producers who trust their taste and don’t merely replicate what others do. I would populate the world with them.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Harold Pinter hands down. And Williams. I’m attracted to writers of conscience like Kushner and Miller. I’m drawn into the worlds of Paula Vogel and Sarah Ruhl. I’m always excited to see new work by Octavio Solis, Carlos Murillo, and Annie Baker. And Beckett. Never forget Beckett.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I love adventures in language that delve deeply into character and story. I love broken hearts. I love plays that aren’t afraid to feel. I love characters who find themselves in moral conflicts. I love gray. I like the hard questions. I’m a fan of politics that have been humanized and dramatized. I think there’s a way to write a strong political play without landing in agit prop land. I delight in the balancing act of that. I want to have as much empathy for my antagonists as my protagonists. I love the quandary of being challenged to love someone I hate.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: There seems to be a desire for instant mastery or recognition. Sustained playwriting careers take time to build. And trust me, you don’t want to burn too brightly and out quickly before you’ve found your voice. Be aggressive, but be patient. Keep learning. Support your colleagues. Go to the wall for somebody else every day. I’ve done that on NEA panels and been the only voice saying so and now those playwrights are famous. Fight for the words you believe in whether they’re yours or somebody else’s. Believe there’s enough to go around. Be humble.