Karen Zacarías: A Writer's Tightrope
She's in the family business, but goes about it her own way
Karen Zacarías is the founder and artistic director of Young Playwrights' Theater, an award-winning company that has worked with students in Washington, D.C.-area schools since 1995 to enhance literacy, spark creativity and resolve conflicts through playwriting. Zacarías's play Mariela in the Desert, a winner of the National Latino Playwriting Award and a finalist for several other prizes, debuted at Chicago's Goodman Theatre this past February, and her new musical comedy for children, Einstein Is a Dummy (written with composer Deborah Wicks La Puma), just premiered in an extended run at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre. The Sins of Sor Juana, winner of the Charles MacArthur Award for outstanding new play at D.C.'s 2000 Helen Hayes Awards, has been widely produced, and Zacarías is translating it for a Spanish-language production in April at D.C.'s GALA Hispanic Theatre. Her other plays for young people include Ferdinand the Bull and Cinderella Eats Rice and Beans: A Salsa Musical. Zacarías earned her B.A. from Stanford University and a master's degree in playwriting from Boston University, studying with Nobel laureates Derek Walcott and Elie Wiesel. We conducted this conversation by e-mail.
CARIDAD SVICH: "Beware of the big idea" is something I often tell students when I teach playwriting, "because the burden of the big idea can stop you from writing the real play at hand." Many terrific plays come at their large questions through almost imperceptible means (Chekhov is exemplary at this). Your play The Sins of Sor Juana focuses on the personal and political trials of 17th-century Mexican nun, poet and pre-feminist icon Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz—it tackles the question of the necessity of artistic freedom sometimes head-on and sometimes more deceptively. It's a wonderfully sneaky play! How did you wrestle with bringing her to theatrical life? As artistic freedoms are curtailed in many countries around the world, what do you think Sor Juana's story can teach us?
KAREN ZACARÍAS: I started writing Sor Juana with the grandiose idea that I was introducing this noble character to a new audience that "needed" to know who she was. Two minutes later (and for the full next four months), I was completely blocked. Plays about icons are insufferable to write and even worse to sit through; plays about people, however—now those can be interesting.
I did a crazy amount of research on "Sister Jane" and then decided to throw away everything I knew about her—I had to figure out why I personally wanted to write about this woman who was doomed to be silenced. Then suddenly I realized that Sor Juana's story was very parallel to my grandmother's life story—she was the true brilliant writer in the family, difficult and charismatic and contradictory, who was silenced in so many ways, and died in her room alone, just like Sor Juana. But unlike Sor Juana, my grandmother was far from being a nun—she was an early feminist who fell madly in love with the wrong man. She struggled with her conflicting feelings for my traditional grandfather and her need for expression in a world that did not deem her worthy. And so my play strayed from being a biography into a creative study of Sor Juana's life through the angle of writing, love, compromise and betrayal. It became a play about societal obstacles to expression, but also a study of how all of us bargain and negotiate away certain freedoms and artistic choices for uncertain comforts and societal acceptance. I'm afraid these 17th-century themes are still relevant today.
At "Shaping the Future of the American Voice" [a Latina/o playwrights' panel discussion held at New York's INTAR Theatre in 2003], you spoke about the importance of writing texts that are "fluid in their meaning and yet permanent in their existence." How do you keep yourself alert to unfixing meaning in your plays, and therefore allowing for multiple meanings to co-exist?
I have discovered that the best way to keep a text unfixed in its meaning is for the writer to be uneasily uncertain of exactly what she is trying to say. I always think of writing as an exploration, not a forgone conclusion—and it isn't until after the piece is "done" that I discover the various themes that have been nagging at my core. This means during the process, I have to learn to trust my characters—let them breathe, be vulnerable, funny, ruthless and contradictory. More often than not, my characters lead me to a plot or story, not the other way around. I have images of certain moments in the play, but I'm not always sure how to get there—I get lost, must retrace my steps, go back to the beginning. This dependency on complicated characters is what keeps a work from becoming fixed or dogmatic.
Your work has a sense of formality and a lively humor, even in Sor Juana. How did you develop your comedic voice?
Predictability is deadly in storytelling, and I find humor to be one of the most effective ways to create tension, surprise and connection between the audience, the characters and the story. Personally, I go to the theatre to be emotionally moved, and subtle humor is one of the best ways to disarm an audience and create an attachment that will allow them to follow the characters to darker, starker areas. Humor humanizes. If it is used organically, it is one of the most powerful tools a writer has to create gut-wrenching drama.
You come from an artistic family in Mexico, so in a sense you're working in the family business. Have you been able to share your work with your family and seek their advice?
I grew up in an extended family where it was not uncommon for someone to stop eating to write a poem on a napkin. I always knew I wanted to be a writer. At six, I used all my allowance money to buy a plastic manual typewriter. Every Christmas, my cousins and I would put on shows, where we wrote scripts, created songs, invented poems. My grandfather Miguel Zacarías was a movie director and writer during the golden age of cinema in Mexico in the '30s and '40s. (He is still alive and well at 100.) Ours was a wonderful, lively, enchanting artistic house, but it also demystified "art" for me. I saw firsthand how "artistic expression" could be misused as a justification for self-indulgent, self-important and destructive behavior, and consequently I resisted being an artist for many years. It wasn't until I was out of college, had worked a couple of years at a Latin American policy nonprofit and knew I could support myself without betraying others that I finally let myself really become a writer.
A great deal of your writing has been focused on young audiences and using theatre as an educational tool. Where do you find continued inspiration for this work? And how do you balance running Young Playwrights' Theater and your own playwriting?
I love writing for young people. You can't find a more honest and challenging audience on the planet. My strongest playwriting lessons have come in trying to create stories that will resonate with young people—it is a rewarding, hilarious and heartbreaking endeavor to create plays in which kids really see themselves on stage. The same is true with my work as the founder of Young Playwrights'—I find it really inspiring to see young people take ownership of their story and voice by creating dialogue that is really about who they are. Their writing is fabulous: theatrical and raw, funny, sad and inspired. There is a lot of discussion, accusation and fist-waving by a lot of artists, including playwrights, on how the American theatre needs to change—how theatres need to embrace new plays by a new America. I agree with that argument 100 percent, but as we all learned in Playwriting 101, telling is not as dramatic as showing. When people come to YPT and see a professional production of a play written by a young urban writer, most find themselves shocked at how riveted they are by the language and the story.
At the same time, these students will hopefully grow to become future audiences of theatre, and demand work that is new and reflects the diverse and universal reality of living in the USA. As artists, especially artists of color, we can't just ask for change from others; we have the responsibility of making change happen ourselves.
Of course it's a struggle to raise the $400,000 YPT needs each year to work with hundreds of kids, to produce the plays written by the students, to write my own work, and to be a mother (I have a three-year-old and a one-year-old, and I am expecting another baby in April). I write in spurts and fits, and inspiration can come at the oddest moment. I can go months without writing—and bang out a draft in two days. I know a professional writer is supposed to sit down every day and write something, anything, but that is not a reality for me. The truth is: I am an uncool artist hoping to buy a used mini-van; I have diapers to change, grants to write, classes to teach. So I spend months writing in my head until I can sit down and pour it out on paper.
Mariela in the Desert was originally commissioned by South Coast Repertory in California and has had the good fortune to be developed at various theatres across the U.S. Are there dramaturgical lessons you learned along the way as it developed?
What I have learned is that no matter how many plays one has written, it still takes a long time to write a good one. At least three years. I'm amazed every time I go through development how much I learn, and I'm shocked I didn't see it earlier. Plays are a process. They are like children—no matter how many you've had or known in the past, each play needs to gestate and grow and be nurtured and molded by time, attention, inspiration and humor.
How do you protect yourself from the "giving-up" demons?
Writing is a choice. Even when I feel I'm going to burst if I don't write, it is still a choice. Playwriting is the oddest of choices, because "success" is so ethereal and impossible. But as an extroverted writer, theatre was the one place where I could interact with the world and still write. So although a play may take forever (or never) to be produced, I get to interact and take pleasure in that world. I realize that the more I write, the less I live. But, oddly enough, the more I live, the more I can write. Since childhood, I have seen people become bitter because they have made big sacrifices and given everything to their art; and art (or any profession, no matter how passionate) will never give you everything back. I have tried to be really patient and realistic with our odd profession. I fight the "giving-up" demons by putting creative emphasis in a lot of other facets in my life—my family, my students and teaching, my grant writing, my bad cooking. Consequently, I am embarrassingly un-prolific, but, strangely enough, I have had the satisfaction of seeing every one of my plays publicly staged in one way or another.
I think the intense geographic separation of Latina/o playwrights in this country, despite active pockets in New York City and Los Angeles, makes these artists in unique need of finding bridges. You're based in D.C. What advantages and disadvantages are there to being a playwright in the country's capital? And how do you forge community?
Washington, D.C., is a secret haven for playwrights. We have 80 working theatres. The Playwright's Forum, run by Ernie Joselovitz, offers weekly roundtables for scores of playwrights. My peers at Young Playwrights' are all writers; the children I work with in the public schools are also playwrights. I have deep friendships with playwrights here and across the nation, and we traditionally support and encourage each other to write—or drink bad coffee and bemoan the state of an American theatre that refuses to recognize the genius of our work.
I realize that D.C. is still not New York or L.A. for a Latino writer, but there are many advantages here—the proximity of the irony of politics, the access to programs and museums and artists from all over the world. There is also a certain kind of novelty of being one of the few Latino playwrights in town. But in a city where things are still seen in terms of "white and black," Latinos of all colors have a challenge in establishing ourselves both politically and artistically as a viable entity in D.C.
Caridad Svich is a resident playwright at New Dramatists. She is the editor of Trans-Global Readings: Crossing Theatrical Boundaries, a collection of conversations on media, language, culture and performance (Manchester University Press, 2004).