Barbara Jwanouskos chats up the playwright behind Shotgun’s Heart Shaped Nebula.
How fortunate to have a chance to interview Marisela before she departs for the Iowa Playwrights Workshop later this summer. I met Marisela at a going away party for Amy Clare Tasker (a wonderful director who is missed!) and was struck by how precisely she captured my feelings about a life in theater. A couple years later and I still feel as though she has that precision of insight that gives a sense of relief when talking about playwriting, inspiration, and navigating the many paths artists have to realize their potential.
Barbara: I’m curious about your playwriting background. How did you get into theater?
Marisela: It was all happenstance. I’m a poet turned playwright. And I’ve only been writing plays for about 10 years now.
I came to San Francisco to study poetry. I was in my first semester for my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of San Francisco (USF) when I found my way to theatre. USF is a Jesuit institution and Jesuits are very big on social justice. My on-campus job’s first assignment was to produce a video on the work students and professors were doing in the community. That’s how I was introduced to El Teatro Jornalero!, a theatre company made up of Latino immigrants devising original work on social justice issues.
I was a poet in search of inspiration. And as an imagist I was drawn to the visuals of the movement exercises the actors would do. So I joined ETJ! as its resident poet. After a year with them I became curious about playwriting. I ended up taking an introductory course in playwriting with playwright Christine Evans—she was a visiting professor/artist one semester.
So my final semester in my MFA program I began writing my first play BRAIDED SORROW. That play is what brought me fully into this genre. It was accepted into the 2005 Bay Area Playwrights Festival and the rest is history—in that, I realized this was the genre I’d been searching for all my life.
Barbara: Perhaps related to that, I know you have a background in poetry as well, does this influence your style as a writer?
Marisela: My poetics are very present in my playwriting.
Poets attend to line breaks (breath), word choice, imagery, lyricism, space on the page. Everything I learned as a poet is applicable to playwriting. I mentioned earlier that I’m an imagist. I’m inspired by images, drawn to them, and use them as a way to construct narratives. When I write, I think about the visual language in the play—symbolism and also what the audience hears. While a sound designer will realize that soundscape, I think playwrights can create a whole world on stage using dialog, images, and sound.
Barbara: How would you describe your voice?
Marisela: I don’t know how to answer that. Maybe it’s because it’s sometimes hard to see the forest for the trees. Perhaps it’s easier for others to articulate what it is we’re doing as artists.
Barbara: What brought you out to the Bay Area? How have you found the theater scene here? Anything that was particularly influential or inspiring (or both)?
Marisela: It was my MFA at USF that brought me out to the Bay Area. I actually never intended to stay after I finished it. But it was theatre that kept me out here. I found the theatre community exciting and welcoming.
I find our theatre scene to be very supportive, as opposed to cut throat. Playwrights share information, go see one another’s shows, recommend one another for opportunities.
Barbara: And I hear you’re headed to Iowa’s Playwrights Workshop – Congrats! How did you make the decision to apply, and then subsequently once you were accepted, attend this program? Any special considerations you were mulling over?
Marisela: For 9 of the 10 years I’ve been a playwright I was adamant that I wasn’t going to get another MFA (one in playwriting). I didn’t want to incur more debt, but I also disliked the idea that you had to go get an MFA in order to tap into the production pipeline. I didn’t want to go get an MFA because it would be “good” for my career.
Instead, I’ve spent the past 10 years developing a network of theatre friends, peers and advocates. I also spent that time writing, improving my craft, and seeing shows. It wasn’t until a year or so ago that I decided I would apply to grad school.
It was my bad back that started it all. I have chronic back issues and the past 3 years it was really bad. I decided to apply to grad school when I was lying on my office floor at my day job. I realized that if I had limited time to sit in front of a computer, I didn’t want to use that time for my day job. I wanted to spend that time writing.
I decided that I wanted to go to grad school so I could have time to just write. Because for the past 10 years, as I’ve perused playwriting, I’ve had a full time job. It’s been a grind. Like having two full time jobs. So grad school is about having time just to write and to improve my craft. Someone recently said it’s like me going on a 3 year writing retreat. And since I didn’t want any more debt I looked at programs like Iowa’s Playwrights Workshop.
When I got the news about my acceptance I then had to grapple with the fact that I had an unexpected development—a world premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And OSF production is a game changer. And since most MFA programs only let you go away to work on outside productions for a limited amount of time, I had to ask a lot of questions since I wanted to really be there for the entire rehearsal process.
I knew Iowa was the place for me when their response was to immediately brainstorm ways to help me make the most of my OSF experience and still enroll in the program.
I can’t wait to begin my MFA at Iowa. I can’t wait to see how productive I can be when playwriting is my sole focus. Though…I will have 13 hours of classes. So there will be homework. But I welcome it all with open arms.
Barbara: Many writers and artists have the debate on whether to go to school or not – what influenced your decision?
Marisela: My reasons for going to grad school are personal now. It’s not just “to advance my career.” It took some time for me to realize what I wanted from a grad school experience. That felt empowering in a way.
I applied because I had juggled my playwriting with a day job for a long time and I was not only tired of it, I knew that in order to go from good to great as a playwright you have to really pour a lot of time and energy into your work. I knew the juggling wasn’t just unsustainable—it would hold me back as a playwright.
Barbara: Tell me about creating theater in the Bay Area vs. other regions – is there anything different about it here? What do you wish would change in theater both here and nationally?
Marisela: I don’t actually have a lot of experience in either of these areas. My upcoming production at Shotgun is only my third production.
I have had a few readings in Chicago and really like that scene. The people are very friendly, similar to the Bay Area.
As for changing something in theatre…Obviously we need more diversity and gender parity both on stage and behind the scenes. I think I’d like to see more self-reflection and intention when it comes to addressing these issues. Sure there are people like Valerie Weak (thank goodness) who are gathering stats on productions, but it would be great to see more theatre intentionally put together a season with parity and diversity.
Barbara: Will you miss/not miss anything in particular about the Bay Area while in Iowa? Do you think you’ll come back?
Marisela: What will I miss? EVERYTHING!
But I also know that I’m nostalgic for the Bay Area of 13 years ago when I first moved here. When the fog rolled in like clockwork every three days.
It may sound silly to reminisce, but the changes in the past 4 years have been so dramatic. I don’t know that I could afford to return.
I came into my own as an artist here in the Bay Area. I think of myself as a San Franciscan. I don’t know what I’ll tell people when they ask me where I’m from. Well….originally from Texas. But I’m a San Francisco gal.
Barbara: Any advice that was paramount to your development as a writer and artist? Anything you wish you hadn’t listened to?
Marisela: Join Twitter.
I’m serious though. And I hated Twitter when it first came on the scene. But Twitter has led to multiple opportunities for me…including that production at OSF.
There’s a vibrant theatre community on Twitter. When I said I’ve spent the past 10 years building a network of peers and advocates—I’ve done most of my networking building nationally on Twitter. So get on it. But don’t just promote yourself. That’s like going to a cocktail party and meeting someone who only talks about themselves the entire time. Listen to the conversations happening online. Share information. Ask questions. Get to know people. It’s so true that theatre is about relationships. And Twitter is a great way of building relationships with people from all over.
Barbara: I’d love to know more about your upcoming productions in the Bay Area – THE RIVER BRIDE will be running until May 16 at Santa Clara University and HEART SHAPED NEBULA is premiering at Shotgun Players May 21. Tell me about the process – what was your involvement? Did anything for you change in either (or both productions) – perhaps your relationship to the play, the script itself, the subject matter?
Marisela: I went down last weekend to see THE RIVER BRIDE at Santa Clara. It was really great to meet the students and faculty. I wasn’t able to be actively involved in their production because its process was concurrent with HEART SHAPED NEBULA.
The production process for HEART SHAPED NEBULA began last fall when I began rewrites. It’s been an intense process, but I wanted to do all the rewrites before we went into rehearsals. All the work paid off as there was only one minor rewrite needed during our rehearsal process. The rest was just edits and adjustments.
As for what’s changed, well one of the characters evolved in a really interesting way. The old draft had two big competing narrative arcs. It was weighing the play down a bit. The rewrites have resolved that issue. I still miss the old version of my character. I’ll have to save her for another play.
Barbara: What are you drawn to exploring next?
Marisela: I’m currently working on finishing my fairy tale cycle. THE RIVER BRIDE was the first of three plays, all fairy tales, inspired by Latino mythology and folklore.
Also in the queue is a play I’ve had on the back burner for years. GHOST LIMB is a riff on the Persephone and Demeter myth. It takes place during the Dirty War in Argentina and focuses on a mother whose son is disappeared by the military dictatorship.
Barbara: May is our month for “Will and Perseverance”. In a lot of ways I feel this an essential component to having a rich life with writing and arts. Is there an anecdote or story from your own journey as a writer/artist that you could share with us where you had to draw upon this trait?
Marisela: Early on I read some advice by playwright Adam Szymkowicz where he said you have to work for at least 10 years at playwriting before things begin to take off. That was helpful to know. It gives you some idea of how long you have to keep working, how long it takes to develop relationships that turn into opportunities.
I’ll also add that I’ve been working on HEART SHAPED NEBULA since 2008. That’s seven years. And in those seven years I’ve grown a lot as a person and an artist—both of which deeply inform the rewrites of the play.
Know that we don’t always see the full journey of a play or production. We only see the tip of the iceberg. Often those journeys can take years.
I think knowing all this can help you persevere. Not that I’m there, but overnight success actually takes years in the making.
Barbara: Any words of wisdom for writers out there that would like to write new plays?
Marisela: I make a point to wait until I’ve gotten a play into several drafts before sharing the script with anyone. I need that time to really get to know what the story so that when people have notes for me I’m able to determine if those notes help me realize the narrative I’m trying to write or if they are going in another direction.
Often in a first draft we’re still trying to figure out what the narrative is. Give yourself some time and space to really get to know your characters and play before inviting feedback.
Also, trust your gut. I find it doesn’t often lie. Even if you can’t articulate why, if something makes you uncomfortable there’s a reason why.
Barbara: Any recommendations to local plays, shows, or events happening around the Bay Area?
Marisela: I’ve been in production for the past few months, so I haven’t seen anything in a while. So I can’t recommend anything.
But there plenty of amazing theatre companies here in the Bay Area. I try to see shows as often as I can because I consider it part of my development as an artist. There’s always something you can learn when you go see a show. I often leave buoyed by the experience. And inspiration is always helpful when you’re a writer.
So get thee to the theatre!
THE RIVER BRIDE is playing at Santa Clara University until May 16. More information is available at http://scupresents.org/performances/mainstage-theatre-river-bride. HEART SHAPED NEBULA is playing with Shotgun Players on The Ashby Stage May 21-June 14. For more information, check out their website at
https://shotgunplayers.org/Online/heartshapednebula. And you can follow Marisela on twitter @MariselaTOrta.