Jan 28, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 310: Marisela Treviño Orta
Marisela Treviño Orta
Lockhart, Texas. The BBQ capital of the state, thank you very much.
San Francisco, California.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Several things, all in various stages of development. I often think it’s like plate spinning (there’s a visual for you). Late last year I finished up rewrites on my play Woman on Fire, a re-telling of Sophocles’ Antigone set along the U.S./Mexico border. I’m now in the process of sending it out (so cross your fingers).
This year I decided to create a work plan for myself to keep all my projects moving and so far it’s working. At the moment I’m in the middle of rewrites for my play Heart Shaped Nebula.
Heart Shaped Nebula is a play very close to me. I say that because there’s so much I love in that play: science, astronomy, Greek mythology and half of it takes place in the Texas town I lived in before I moved to California.
Later this year I’m going to shift gears to work on a series of “grimm” Latino fairy tales.
Q: You were a poet for many years, how did you transition to playwriting?
A: I fell into theatre while working on my MFA in Poetry at USF. I joined El Teatro Jornalero! (Day Laborer’s Theatre) as their Resident Poet. ETJ! was comprised of Latino immigrants and they focused on developing social justice plays.
I started hanging out at their rehearsals because I found their physical exercises inspiring and my poetry muse need to be fed. I wrote poetry, took pictures and ended up becoming a sort of Girl Friday for the theatre. Meaning, I designed programs for their play, then started recording their performances and even once ran a rehearsal.
After a year of watching them develop and write a play, I got curious about playwriting. Luck would have it that just as playwriting was beginning to pique my interest, playwright Christine Evans came to USF. Christine came to teach an introduction to playwriting course and collaborate with ETJ!. I took Christine’s class and with her encouragement submitted my first play, Braided Sorrow, to the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. That was in 2005. After participating in the festival I started to think of myself as a poet and a playwright. But some time around 2006 I began to work almost exclusively on plays.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: It’s two stories actually. They’re different sides of the same coin.
In one I’m a first grader telling my parents the kids at school can’t pronounce my name. “What do they call you?” my mother asks. I reply, “Marcy,” like the Peanuts character. It’s a lie. I want to fit in and that’s the name I wish they’d call me. My mother questions me further and I feel that something is not right. That my desire to fit in, to nonchalantly take on a new name, is somehow a wrong to my parents and to myself.
The second story is a woman, an acquaintance of my parents, who asks them, “Why doesn’t she speak Spanish?” Still a child I internalize this, I interpret the question as “Why has she chosen not to speak Spanish?” I feel inadequate.
As a third generation Mexican American I spent my adolescence coming to terms with how I straddle two cultures, how I exist in a liminal zone between the two. I came to understand the power of names, of language. My experience isn’t unique. I grew up with scores of friends in school and college who shared the same cultural experience and awareness.
As a writer I’ve used poetry and plays to continue my exploration of cultural identity. I ventured into playwriting specifically to write about social justice issues that affect the Latino community. Since then my work has evolved. Now the plays I’m working on explore other interest areas (science, mythology, folklore), but one thing remains the same about my plays.
Actually it’s two things.
Almost all my characters are Latino and the majority are women. I think we all write ourselves into our plays, consciously and unconsciously. For example, you could say my characters have “less-than-common names” (Soraya, Miqueo, Yolot, Septimo, Dalila, Lalo), like me. I’m very intentional about character names. I guess it’s a way of honoring my own.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: My first theatre hero was Christine Evans. Taking her class is what got me excited about theatre and the possibility of playwriting.
I also take great inspiration from Christine’s work as a playwright. Her work is visually striking, poetic and often political—all things I strive for in my own work. Other playwrights whose work I greatly admire include: Sarah Kane, Jose Rivera, Marcus Gardley, Julie Herbert, Bertolt Brecht, Suzan-Lori Parks, Octavio Solis, Federico Garcia Lorca and Euripides.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: As a poet and as a playwright I’m very image-driven. Therefore I’m excited by theatre that takes into account the entire sensory experience that theatre is. I especially love theatre that doesn’t reign in its imagination, but rather lets it run loose on the stage.
And I love the idea of the emotional world of the play impacting the physical world. I wouldn’t call it Magical Realism, but rather moments of magic and wonder.
There’s something spectacular about live theatre. When you’re watching television or a movie you know they’re using CGI or editing to create moments of magic, but in theatre it happens right before your eyes. In a time when we’re all very desensitized to the world around us, it’s those theatrical moments that tap into my own child-like sense of wonder. I think that’s an amazing gift.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: I think you blogged about this subject once and reading that post was really helpful to me, especially your first point: it can take 10 years for your career to start moving. That was like lifting a weight off my shoulders.
As for my own advice, I recommend developing a yearly work plan. Give yourself monthly goals, year-long goals and then map out the work you want to accomplish each month. And don’t forget to give yourself deadlines for those goals. I’m finding it very useful for keeping myself on track. Like many artists, I have a full-time job, so carving out time for writing is a challenge and I’m finding that the work plan is helping me move all my projects forward and I have a better sense of the overall big picture of my work. My work plan includes both writing goals and lists out all the places I want to send my plays, i.e. festivals, theatres.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: I definitely want to give a shout out to theatre here in the Bay Area. We have such a varied and exciting scene with theatres of all size from large regional stages to scrappy companies that are barely a few years old. Some of the theatres I frequent include: Crowded Fire, The Cutting Ball Theater, Impact Theatre, Magic Theatre, Marin Theatre Company, Shotgun Players, and Sleepwalkers Theatre.
Also I have to say there are some wonderful organizations that support playwrights here in the Bay Area, including: Playwrights Foundation (where I’m one of several Resident Playwrights ); Playground (which has a writers pool of 36 playwrights); and Theatre Bay Area.
Lastly, I want to plug the playwright community out here. I’ve always found my fellow playwrights to be very supportive and open. For the past few years I’ve been co-hosting the Bay Area Playwrights Pub Night with playwright Tim Bauer.
A few years ago we came to the realization that despite the best intentions we never had the wherewithal after a show to go get drinks and catch up. So we decided to dedicate an evening to just hanging out. And we thought inviting all the playwrights we know would be a great way to keep tabs on one another’s work. Now the pub night happens about 3 to 4 times a year and we rotate through the city—each pub night in a different pub in a different neighborhood. Our first pub night for the year will be February 26th at Valley Tavern in Noe Valley. If you’re reading this and you’re in the Bay Area, come on out, the invite is open to all playwrights and theatre peeps.