Playwrights Foundation presents a reading of local playwright, Marisela Treviño Orta’s Woman on Fire at the SF Playhouse this Monday, March 31st. This reading kicks off Playwrights Foundation’s eight-week In The Rough Reading Series. Marisela won the 2006 Chicano/Latino Literary Prize in Drama, and is currently working on a commission for the Marin Theatre Company called American Triage. Marisela is also a flourishing poet, and has been published in BorderSenses, Double Room, 26: A Journal of Poetry and Poetics and Traverse.
Playwrights Foundation invites you to read an interview with Marisela about her history as a poet and her journey as a Latina playwright:
PF: As someone who has a long history writing poetry, how do you feel it influences your playwriting?
MO: My poetics are very present in my playwriting. In fact almost all the prosodic elements I use to craft poetry are part of my playwriting.
As poet I’m very image driven and I’m finding the same to be true about my playwriting. I love that images can be layered with multiple meanings and metaphors.
I also find that verse often works its way into my plays, sometimes as actual poems or as poetic prose. That’s definitely the poet in me coming out. Sometimes I can only express a character through poetry, as if verse and prose are the only suitable way for them to speak given a particular emotional state.
But I have to say that I think theatre in general is very poetic. That’s what first drew me to playwriting. Plays are like living poems: visual, emotional, narrative. Lorca said, “A play is a poem standing up.” I couldn’t agree more.
PF: Is there a particular poet who's work you find inspiring, or who has strongly influenced your poetry?
MO: As I mentioned earlier, I’m an image-driven poet. So one of the Imagists that first comes to mind is William Carlos Williams. His poem To A Poor Old Woman is one of my favorite poems. It appears deceptively simple, but the rhythm, the imagery, and the poet’s choice in line endings are crafted so tightly. So much of his work is like that, deceptively simple and incredibly powerful.
The past six years or so I’ve been focusing mainly on writing prose poems. Poets working in this form that I find particularly inspirational are Truong Tran, Naomi Shihab Nye and Maurice Kilwein Guevara.
PF: Can you talk a little about the genesis of Woman on Fire and the process you’ve undergone in developing it.
MO: Woman on Fire began as a bake off for the Latino Playwrights Initiative, a program coordinated by Austin Script Works and Teatro Vivo to develop new work by Latino playwrights. By bake off, I mean the submission call to participate in LPI’s festival required that the plays include a set of ingredients: 1) a rolling pin, 2) edge (in any sense of the word) and 3) an overwhelming, holy and utterly empty pause. Devastatingly sad and deeply joyous, with no value or dramaturgical/structural meaning for the performer or the audience, true cessation in action, intent, movement and thought - a moment of pure living, of supra-rational awareness.
The one act version of Woman on Fire was selected for LPI’s Primer Pasos: Un Festival de Latino Plays. My play was one of five read in the festival in October 2006. Then in early 2007 LPI coordinators offered me a commission to write a full length for the second phase of the Initiative and I began expanding Woman on Fire into a full length.
Last summer the one act version was part of the Playwright Festival’s BASH program (Bay Area Shorts). It was during that reading that I met my Director and Dramaturg Nakissa Etemad. When BASH ended I approached Nakissa about working on the full length version and coming with me to Austin in December of 2007 for the second LPI reading. She’s continued to work as my Director and Dramaturg for the In The Rough Series as well. It’s been great to have her with me through several incarnations of the script.
That’s the technical development of the play. But I should also mention the inspirational genesis of Woman on Fire. I often refer to it as my Antigone play even though it’s not an direct adaptation per se of Sophocles’ play. I read Antigone when I in a philosophy class as an undergrad and always remembered one of the central themes we discussed in class: the law of man vs. a higher law.
The philosophical conflict in Antigone is what I wanted to explore and I wanted to apply it to the issue of immigration and the militarization of the U.S./Mexico border post 9/11. To do so I borrowed another premise from Antigone: a body needing to be buried. However, my main character Juanita is an unwilling Antigone, she doesn’t want to bury the body.
PF: You've worked with El Teatro Jornalero!, which is comprised of Latino immigrants. The play that will be read for the ITR Reading Series, Woman on Fire, is in part about cultural identity. Tell us about how your own background finds its way into your plays.
MO: My introduction to theatre was through my work with El Teatro Jornaerlo!, a theatre company that focuses solely on social justice theatre. Since I was a teenager I’ve been very interested in the social justice issues that affect the Latino community. As a poet I had been unable to write political poems without feeling like the verse was too rhetorical.
When I was introduced to social justice theatre through my work with ETJ! I was so excited because finally, here was a form (theatre) that can explore political issues through the personal narrative of characters. That was what I learned. You get to the political through the personal, through empathy.
All of my full-length plays, thus far, are social justice plays concerning the Latino community. And, coincidently they all deal with issues concerning the U.S./Mexico border. I’m fourth generation Mexican American. I grew up speaking English, learned Spanish as I got older in school and my family has lost touch with any relatives in Mexico generations ago. Yet I’ve always felt a connection to the border. Only recently I’ve realized why: the border represents my personal struggle to articulate a cultural identity.
But I’d have to say I’m not sure if my background is making its way into my plays. I think maybe it’s the foundation for my plays.
PF: How do you hope that the Spanish in your play (or plays?) lands on a non-spanish speaking audience. What are your thoughts about a non-Spanish speaking audience watching a play in Spanish, or a non-English speaking audience watching a play in English?
MO: Let me answer the second question first. Audience members go to see productions in languages they don’t speak all the time, look at the Opera. Yes, they have supertitles, but you don’t have to read along in order to enjoy the performance.
Theatre is more than just dialog; it’s a complete sensory experience for an audience. They see, they hear, they connect with the actors on stage. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are many ways to experience a play and appreciate it.
When I include Spanish in a play’s dialog I am very conscious that I not repeat it in English. As someone who speaks both languages I personally find that the repetition can start to get on your nerves when it’s done ad nauseum.
I try to provide some context for the Spanish so that you can infer the meaning. I try to do this either with character dialog, so that the dialog before and after the Spanish give some hint as to what might have been said in Spanish. Or if a character is speaking in Spanish due to a physical event on stage, I try to incorporate the physical staging so that even if you don’t speak Spanish you have a general idea of what was said.
In Woman on Fire two characters reference a Spanish rhyme used for children when they hurt themselves. The first time it’s referenced as a joke, and the second time it’s used to express as a poignant exchange. If you don’t know the rhyme or don’t speak Spanish you may not get the reference. But I think any author takes that risk whenever they include a reference from another language or from classical literature or music—Just look at my Latin reference two paragraphs above.
I don’t put any important plot points in Spanish, so I don’t think an audience is missing out if they don’t speak Spanish. And, if they feel slightly outside, I’m okay with that too. In a way, that’s part of my cultural experience. The non-Spanish speaking audience members can experience a bit of exclusion, the way I did as a child when listening to my parents converse in Spanish with my grandparents. As a child I would listen to them talk, not comprehending what they were talking about. That longing, to know what was being said, to be included, stayed with me, still is with me. Even as a child I still found a way to appreciate the language, even if was just the sound, the texture. Spanish was like water, something magical, like voices muffled through a wall. I hope audience members who don’t speak Spanish will at least get a taste of that.