Lydia: Lyrical and Magical

Interviews with the playwright and director of play set for the Mark Taper Forum, April 2 through May 17

By Jes??s A. Reyes
Published on LatinoLA: March 5, 2009

Lydia: Lyrical and Magical

A Mexican-American family is mired in grief and guilt over a daughter tragically disabled. The Flores family welcomes Lydia, an undocumented maid, into their El Paso home and is immediately set on a mysterious journey of discovery that threatens to uncover elusive secrets. Her nearly miraculous bond with the girl first elates and then startles the household.

Set in the 1970s on the Texas border separating the United States and Mexico, Lydia is the deeply emotional story of a group of people dealing with loss and teetering between two worlds. A lyrical and magical meditation on family and cultural identity.

Mature themes. Recommended for adults only.

Apr 2 - May 17, 2009

Interview with playwrite Octavio Sol?°s -

Q: Tell me about working with Juliette Carrillo and how the play may have shifted from where it was to where it is today. What elements did she add?

A: Juliette was a director to whom I could entrust this play. She loved it instantly, understood it implicitly, relished the opportunities to take its choices to their most dangerous degree, and knew how it beckoned for her to push it into its next phases. She has sharply-honed dramaturgical skills, and she applied them to this work rigorously with my full permission. As long as she left the final choices and discoveries to me. We were a superb team. I let her in my play, as she let me in her directorial sphere. She never second-guessed the mysteries in the play, but rather, respected them for the way they worked on us all. I don't know what text she added; I would say none, I would say that I added all the text; but I would also assert that she suggested many countless avenues for both action and word during the process, and this made my revision both easier and more colorful.

Q: Once the actors gave voice to your characters how did they add to the world of the play?

A: The actors gave the words sinew, bone and flesh. They gave the words weight and consequence. Nothing in the play was superfluous. Every choice mattered, and our actors fought hard to make the choices stick, and when they didn't, they were vociferous in their protests. They became these people, felt deeply for these people, hurt and cried and clamored loudly for these people. I had the sense that I had written some of their personal mythologies into their characters without intending to. We realized then how similar our childhoods were, and how by enacting this play, we were all coming to terms with our pasts.

Q: Tell me about a moment during rehearsal that either shifted focus or made an impact on the play.

A: The backdrop of our Denver production as designed by Antje Ellerman was a huge painted photograph of the border fence along the Rio Grande, flanked by a dirt road and some telephone poles. But all of the action took place inside the Flores house, in the living room set. The backdrop seemed like an impressive visual element in this space, little more than that. Then the actor in the cast playing Alvaro mentioned one day that looking at the backdrop made him realize why his character had signed up for the Border Patrol. He pointed to the road upstage and said, "It's so that I can drive to where the car crashed. That is the scene of the crime." Or words to that effect. At that point, I realized the backdrop was actually the most crucial visual element in the play, and that it was telling me something deeply true about Alvaro. Something that had to be added to the play.

Q: How did Lydia come to you?

A: Certain images from the play have been in my head for a long time. Some, I would venture to say, are central sacramental tableaux. The final image of the play, the image of the girl locked in her body, the father locked in his stereo headphones and TV, the picture of a terrible accident happening in the middle of the night. These have all been working on me for many years. I knew they were part and parcel of a play, but I didn't know which play. So they sat unused in me but fermenting all the while, dreaming themselves into this strange cohesion. There has also been the young budding poet, who bears a passing resemblance to me but really stands as his own person. He's been asking for this play.

Q: What are the elements that are unique to the story of Lydia?

A: I don't know if I can say what is unique about Lydia. That's for someone else to address. But comparing it strictly to my other works, I think what makes it unique is that it's a "family" play. I've long avoided the one-room Latino family play because I knew I would take it to a darker, more personal place than I wanted to go. The last family play I wrote about was in Santos & Santos.

Q: What have you found to be an effective model for the development of a new play, what are the ingredients that make it effective?

A: There are no pat formulas for new play development. Each play will call on its own organic process of discovery and maturation. Some of my plays take years to write. Some come in a single burst of weeks. Each one, in my experience, requires a rigorous and continued process of revision. I am no genius. I can't write a perfect play the first time out. And I depend on the solid wisdom and insight of my dramaturgs and directors. But ultimately, I harken only to myself. And to my people in my plays. They know what they need. But most theatres have their own play development tracks to rely on. Sometimes their methods and timetables coincide with my own, and sometimes they don't. That is where the negotiation starts, the relationship between the organization's wants and the play's needs. None of this ever has a chance to get off the ground if there is no trust in the room. The organization must trust the writer to deliver the produceable play, the writer must trust the organization to foster his work in just the right way, and both must trust the play to emerge when the time is right. So trust is the necessary ingredient. And then fearlessness.

Interview with director Juliette Carrillo

Q: Tell me about working with Octavio Solis on a new play and how the play may have shifted from where it was to where it is today.

A: The world premiere production of lydia was my third full production of an Octavio Solis play. We did El Paso Blue together at SPF in New York and a Cornerstone Theater production of Lethe in San Francisco as well as various readings and workshops. I mention this because I think our history together has definitely served us in the process of developing Lydia. There is an inherent trust between us. We understand each other's process and taste. I also think there is an interesting yin/yang in our male/female dynamic ‘«Ű but interestingly, sometimes he's the yin to my yang and sometimes I'm the yin to his yang. We both write and direct, so there is a lot of give and take to our collaboration. I am rigorous in my notes to him about the writing, and he is rigorous in his notes to me about my directing. We're not shy. Recently I sent him some ideas for cuts and I wrote something like, "You should write it like this‘«™" and gave him an example. Later, after I sent him the notes, I reread them and cringed over my presumptuousness ‘«Ű but when I called him about it, he laughed, as if to say, "Are you kidding? We're way beyond that." I also think we're both really intuitive in our work. We come from the gut and the heart first and the head second. Somehow I think this may be because of our shared Latin roots, but it just might be our natural personalities. We both believe in keeping the room safe and creative and supportive, and because of that, lots of wonderful, surprising things happen during rehearsal.

When I read the first draft of Lydia, I knew it was magic. Lots of things have changed ‘«Ű some scenes have moved, characters have developed, trims have happened, but the essence of that magic has always been there. I do think I've contributed greatly to the shape of the play ‘«Ű I'm good at pressing Octavio with the hard questions ‘«Ű but he's an extraordinary writer and he's made this play even greater by following his impulses and taking risks.

Q: How do you prepare to work on a new play?

A: Mostly it's about reading the play over and over and over again. Getting inside of the characters. Also, researching the world of the play is very helpful. But getting to know the playwright is really important to me, as a person and as an artist. Reading other works of theirs. Reading work they love. What are their tastes? What do they want to say with their work? But nothing is more helpful than reading and re-reading the play.

Q: Once the actors gave voice to the characters how did they add to the world of the play?

A: Both Octavio and I are very interested by the actor's perceptions of the character. Hiring an actor, for me, has to do with not only their talent, but also by what they can contribute to the dramaturgical process. We want to hear what they have to say! More often than not, their ideas are generously included in the text and direction.

Q: Tell me about a moment during rehearsal that either shifted focus or made an impact on the play.

A: Originally Ceci's accident happened at a cemetery outside of town. Christal Weatherly, our costume designer who was brought up near El Paso, had taken a bunch of photos of the area and Antje Ellerman, the original set designer and I were looking at them for a possible backdrop. We chose one of the border. During tech, while Octavio was looking at the set and the action, he realized it made much more sense to have the crux of the action of the play at the border, so we changed cemetery to border. It made much more sense metaphorically and gave the context of the accident much more depth. Designers can contribute dramaturgically, too!

Q: What are the elements that are unique to the story of Lydia?

A: Audience members have told me that the experience of watching Lydia is like looking into a window of someone's home. It is very intimate, and it crosses boundaries in a way that at times makes an audience member uncomfortable. But they keep glued to the window. Although the story is very universal in that it deals with family dynamics, the fact that it is a Mexican-American family gives it a specific context and that is, frankly, a very unique experience for most audience members. Also, both Octavio and I are very interested in the world that exists outside of this physical reality. We don't shy away from mystery.

Q: What have you found to be an effective model for the development of a new play, what are the ingredients that make it effective?

A: I think workshops of new plays can be very, very effective. But the right people have to be in the room in order for the playwright to get something out of it ‘«Ű a director that he or she trusts, actors who are right for the roles and are passionate about the play, etc. And on the flip side, a playwright has to be ready to take in new ideas and be open to change. If a playwright is very set in how he or she sees the play and has no intention of making changes, it's not helpful at all. It takes maturity and confidence to take in what the room is giving you. The ideas may not be quite right, but the right kind of listening will lead you to where you want to be.

Apr 2 - May 17, 2009

Mark Taper Forum
at the Music Center
downtown Los Angeles

135 N. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
More info, click here

Originally published in Center Theater Group New Play Production program, Fall 2008

About Jes??s A. Reyes:
Jes??s A. Reyes is CTG's New Play Production Associate
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