Thursday, January 27, 2011

I Interview Playwrights Part 309: Quiara Alegria Hudes



Quiara Alegria Hudes

Hometown: Philadelphia. West Philadelphia, to be precise. But I have a foot in many Philly neighborhoods including North Philly (el barrio, where my cousins live) and South Philly (the Italian Market, where my aunt and uncle work and live) and Malvern (the burbs) where I lived on a horse farm for a few years.

Current Town: New York.

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I'm wrestling through act 2 of a new musical adaptation. It's based on the Mexican novel Like Water for Chocolate, written by Laura Esquivel. It's hot and romantic and very sensual. It's a highly theatrical piece so I have to think visually as well as with my literary brain. I've been writing it standing up for that reason. It helps. I am also gearing up to "bake off" the first draft of a new play. It will be the final installment of my "Elliot Trilogy," begun with Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue. It's a play about nostalgia and sentimentality, with Puerto Rican folk music interspersed throughout. So far I've double-dared one other writer to create a first draft on the same deadline with me. I'll order beer and pizza and we'll read our new drafts aloud at the end of February.

Q:  Tell me about Welcome To My Neighborhood.

A:  In 2005 I wrote a 10-minute play for People's Light and Theatre. The task at hand was to write about Philadelphia for their gala celebration. I find 10 minute plays difficult in terms of plot and character. There's not enough time for me to explore. So I created a tone poem of sorts, alphabetized, about the alphabetic streets of el barrio in North Philly. I thought it would make a good children's book, and Arthur Levine at Scholastic agreed. They published it in August with meditative illustrations by Shino Arihara.

Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  Half my childhood stories stem from SEPTA, Philly's public transportation system. I was always shuttling from school to Aunt Alice's to Abuela's to piano lessons to Quaker meeting to the Art Museum (free admission on Sundays). There are buses, an el, a few subway lines, trains, and trolleys in Philly, and I knew them all and I rode them all frequently. They came infrequently and they took a long time and so my imagination would just run wild while I sat there. I'd stare out the window, watching the neighborhoods change block-by-block, like shifting DNA. Row homes, mansions, juvenile detention centers, parks. I saw a man puke on the trolley, I saw a young women be verbally abused by her boyfriend on a bus, I myself received my favorite all-time love note (from my future husband, then boyfriend) on the Broad Street Line. One time I was on the trolley and for some reason the brakes didn't work and we SLAMMED into the trolley in front of us. Everyone flew out of their seats onto the floor, and though no one was hurt, two people yelled out, "I'm calling Allen Rothenberg!" simultaneously and then everyone burst out into laughter and applause. That's probably the most Philly story I could tell.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  1. Productions would last forever. They'd never close. And the best, most electric, most on performance would be what everyone saw each night, and what every performer experienced each night. So tonight, for instance, I could've said to my daughter, "Let's go catch Zero Mostel's closing night performance as Tevye." (In reality I showed her the DVD track of "Tradition.") 2. I'd create a time-machine device so that any audience member could go back in time and hear the first draft of a play they love or are confused by, read aloud around a table in a blind reading--that is, the actors have never read the play. There is something so magical, so raw and unhinged about first drafts and first reads. Before the polish and intellect take over. When it's a piece of writing from the gut. 3. I'd be a fly on the wall of every playwright I love for one day. I'd spy on how Mamet and Sorkin and Churchill pace, type, handwrite, and eat banana nut muffins. 4. High school students would read and study classics, but they'd produce and perform their original works and the works of their classmates.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Paula Vogel has an incredible amount of knowledge about theater, surpassed only by her child-like love of play and her pure pure writing. I wish I could turn a phrase or imagine a scene like Sarah Ruhl, Rajiv Joseph, or Annie Baker. I just read a play by a writer named J.C. Lee which convinced me that science fiction can not only work onstage, but can make me cry like a baby. I love Franz Xaver Kroetz's play Through the Leaves. August Wilson: he's so decadent and he marched to the beat of his own drum without wavering. I'd love to take Jose Rivera to lunch one day and ask him a lot of questions about writing and life.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Theater that makes me laugh, cry, furious, embarrassed. The only sensation I hate in the theater (and in life) is boredom. Don't give me middle of the road. Give me a strong point of view. (My least favorite writing that I've done is in plays where I didn't swing for the fences enough.) I like poor theater. Overly literal sets always strike me as lost opportunities. I also love playwrights whose voice lead to a distinctive body of work so you can hear a line and go, "Yes, that's a Lynn Nottage play" or "Ah, Nilo Cruz, how I've missed you..." I love extremes: meticulous plays steeped in the virtuosic minutiae of experience and language (I'm thinking of Annie Baker's The Aliens here) and I love big huge theatrical ambitious messes that push form (I'm thinking of Thornton Wilder's Skin of Our Teeth and Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play here). And the theme of mortality is pretty much what sticks in my mind and gut.

I saw Complicité perform their play Mnemonic at the National Theatre in London. A wooden folding chair turned into the puppet of a dying man before my eyes. I will never forget that moment--watching the "chair" gasp for breath in an arctic landscape. I will also never forget a father burying his child in Sarafina! Her grave was a simple square of light that grew darker with every pantomimed shovel of dirt. By the end the stage was just black.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Have a strong point of view. Have a strong voice. (Even if you're being very soft, be strong in that choice.) Be virtuosic with your imagination and your language. Be a craft junkie. Study it. Master it. Break it. Study the great plays, and think about form within them. The wider range of work you know, the wider your toolbox. Study the masters of the abstract arts: dance, visual art, and music. Go see Alvin Ailey and Baryshnakov. Go to the Romare Bearden exhibit at the Whitney. Go to hear Schubert Piano recitals and Etta James at SOB's. Bring your notebook with you. When I lived in London for a few months, I brought my notebook to the Tate Modern on a weekly basis. The virtuosity of other forms can serve as a perpetual high bar for playwriting. And finally, self-produce.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  The tour of In the Heights continues until April 3. Visit intheheightsthemusical.com to see if it stops in your city. Beyond that, keep your ear out for my next play, Water By the Spoonful, which will open in fall 2011. It's about addiction and recovery, with nods to Coltrane.

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