A Brand New Old-Fashioned Fairy Tale
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
By Sam Hurwitt
In the January/February 2015 issue, Theatre Bay Area magazine is proud to publish the full script of The River Bride, the lovely, lyrical theatrical fairy tale by San Francisco playwright Marisela Treviño Orta that AlterTheater premiered in a downtown San Rafael storefront last January, then moved to American Conservatory Theater's Costume Shop (directly below the TBA office) for a brief San Francisco run. I caught up with Orta over fancy teas downtown in November to talk about the play.
Playwright Marisela Treviño Orta. Photo: Angel Duncan
What inspired The River Bride?
I had this dream, a scary dream, of being chased by wolves. I run into a house and I think I'm safe, and then I realize that the house is made of glass and they can still see me. And so they come charging in through and break into the house, and I run up to the next floor and I close the door behind me. I'm looking at the handle because it wasn't locked and I'm holding it, and I can see teeth coming through the wood, and the dream stops there. I was explaining the dream to my coworkers, and I heard the phrase "wolf at the door," and my coworker was like, "That would be a great title for a play." I thought, "That actually would. What is the story that goes with that?" I thought I wanted to try and write a myth. And so I started writing that play.
I was watching The Storyteller on Netflix. They did a bunch of Grimm's fairy tales with a mixture of puppets and people. Watching the way the people interacted with the magical creatures, I was like, "Oh, I'm writing fairy tales. Okay, I'm going to do a cycle of three fairy tales," because poets like things in threes.
So that was going on in my head when I came across the idea for The River Bride. I was watching a marathon of River Monsters on Animal Planet, and they were splashing trivia across the bottom of the screen. The episode about piranhas happens in the Amazon, and the host was like, "Piranhas travel in schools. People think it's really menacing, but they do it for protection, and there's a reason why they're scared. There's one animal in the river that they fear." The river's really murky, and he's throwing fish, and you see something coming up. Then he gets in the water, and then they show you the dolphins. Then the trivia splashes across the bottom of the screen about how there's folklore that in the month of June, they believe that dolphins would turn into men and come onto shore.
I had this whole idea, "I want to do fairy tales, and I want them to be inspired by folklore from Latin cultures." Then I saw that, and I was like, "Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding."
Did you then go and research this particular legend?
I did a little bit of research, but I didn't do any writing for a long time, because I was like, "No, you're working on this other play." By then, I started to collect things, just inspiration stuff for the play. It wasn't until AlterTheater was interested in it that I actually started working on the play. The research was just online research, wherever I could find it on the Internet.
The structure of it really does feel very much like a fairy tale. What were your inspirations for that story?
I looked very much to the Western conventions for fairy tales. With a lot of fairy tales, the hero has to do something and they usually have three attempts before they succeed. I read somewhere that's connected to Christianity, like the Trinity. I like things in threes, so I tried to make that happen in the play. It's three days in June. There are three gifts that he's supposed to give her. The material for the dress, the necklace, and then her wedding ring technically is also one. I just started there.
Actually, when I first started, the story was more about the younger sister. It was going to be a cautionary tale, and she was going to be punished at the end. As I started writing, the older sister just seemed so much more interesting. And Moises changed from a trickster character that was there to punish Belmira to this more sympathetic character who was looking for true love.
Have you finished Wolf at the Door?
I have a draft of it. That one does feel like a cautionary tale.
Wolves are good for that.
They're good for that. And all of the fairy tales have some element of shape shifting.
What's the third one?
River Bride is like "Brazil once upon a time." Wolf at the Door is like colonial Mexico-ish. Alcira, which is the last one, is set in San Francisco in 1999, three months before the millennium change. It's so challenging, because I wonder if it's cheesy to do a fairy tale in a modern setting. That one also feels like it's going to be a much longer play. Not a three‑act, but maybe two.
I got the inspiration of the name from the opera Alcina, which is about a woman changing her lovers into different objects when she wants to get rid of them. Someone kind of does that here, she turns them into hummingbirds, but she's not tired of them. She's basically sucking their life force so that she can be eternally beautiful. That one is supposed to be a heroine's journey. Wolf at the Door is the cautionary tale, and it's about a wife gaining agency in her relationship with her abusive husband. Then of course, The River Bride is a tragic love story.
What do you see as the overarching themes of this cycle?
I don't know if it's a theme, but all of them have a really strong female presence. In River Bride, there was parity between characters role‑wise, but in the other ones, I fall into my default where there is one guy and three women. The actresses I work with love that. They get lots of really interesting roles.
I guess you could say, again, it's about agency or finding their strength. Helena finds her strength a little too late, and the character in Wolf at the Door, she finds it and is able to make her life better. With Alcira, the protagonist discovers her strength in the midst of battle.
You finished The River Bride in the AlterTheater program, right? How did that all work?
Every month we came in with pages so that we could hear it out loud and then discuss it. It was kind of brutal for me, because I don't have a car. [Laughs] But it's actually the fastest I've ever written a play. It was really good to have something pushing this along. Because the thing I've been working on lately, I've been working on since 2008, and there's still work to do.
I always kind of felt that these fairy tales felt simpler in the narrative. There's just something very focused about the fairy tales. Because of what we have in our head about how fairy tales are supposed to unfold, it helps you really hone in on the story and stick to it, without giving every single character tons and tons of background or narrative arc. Though I tend to want to give most people background, which is why with the parents in The River Bride it was really important for me for us to learn about them and their love story. It's like, there's a happy couple in that story! Everybody else ends up so sad.
Is myth and folklore an ongoing interest of yours or was this something that came to you for this project?
There's mythical folklore stuff in my first play. Then the next two, one is a riff on Antigone and the other one has an angel in it. Heart Shaped Nebula has a lot of mythology in it because of astronomy. It's because I read a lot of Greek mythology in middle school, and I remember all of those stories. I think they just stick with you. There's a lot of tragic figures in Greek mythology. Lots of sad lovers and punished people.
I don't know that I'm intentionally putting this stuff in there, but I feel like I just put stuff I like in there. There's also a lot of characters that are artists, especially painters. I guess instead of me putting a writer in my play, I put a painter.
How much did you know about Brazil and the Amazon going into this?
Not a lot. I did some research, and some of it was just like, "Okay, once upon a time." It's not contemporary, so you can't compare it to something now and how life is. I know a little bit. I know that the cities are on the coast and as you go into the interior you have more smaller communities. And of course, I don't know Portuguese, so the first draft, with all of the Portuguese in it, it was all just "Okay, I'll just do it in Spanish." And then we worked with local actresses that are Brazilian that were able to help with the translation. Livia [Demarchi] is Brazilian and she was in the cast, and she was able to say, "We'd actually like to make another change." I was like, "I trust you. Do it. Send me what it is and I'll update the script." Yeah, I don't speak a word of it. I had the Spanish pronunciation in my head, and then we hear Livia do it, and I was like "Oh, that's how you do it." It was really interesting.
How many projects are you typically working on at any given time?
It depends. Right now it feels like too many. This is the year of me spreading myself way too thin. I'm behind on everything. This morning I was like, "You're behind on everything, but at least you're consistent." That made me laugh most of the day.
Right now, I'm trying to get ready to submit more of my work to some competitions. I need to finish a draft of Alcira, because I have to do a workshop production. I'm going back into rewrites for Heart Shaped Nebula, which is exciting and scary at the same time. I can see that since I started with that play in 2008, my abilities have improved. It's not like you want to scrap everything and start fresh, but it's like, "How do you go in and keep what's good and remove what's getting in the way?"
I'm actually going to talk to my dramaturg after this interview, because we've been having conversations with our producer [Shotgun Players], and it's got to be ready for next year. So there's a deadline on that for sure.
Are you pursuing other productions for River Bride?
It's actually going to have a production at Santa Clara University next year. Seven performances [in May], I think. But yeah, I'm trying to get that play out in front of people. Of course, it's harder when you're busy. It's like two jobs—day job, playwriting job, and then you're like, "Oh, and I need to be sending my stuff out there to try and get people to read it." Not that having an agent would ever solve that problem, but I don't know, maybe it would make it easier to send the work out.
Do you live in San Francisco?
Mm‑hmm. I'm in the Inner Richmond, been there for about seven years. Before that, I was in Bernal Heights for three years.
Are you from the Bay Area?
I'm from Texas. Near Austin, a small town just south of it, Lockhart. I came out in 2002 for an MFA in creative writing. I was studying poetry at USF, and while I was there, found my way to theatre by accident.
USF's a Jesuit institution. They're really big on this thing called service learning, which means that they want their professors to design classes where the students work with the community. If you're a business student, let's learn how you can work with organizations in the community to do your work, but to also help make a better world.
My on‑campus job was in the Office of Service Learning, and my first assignment for an entire year was to produce a video about it. So we were interviewing professors and students, and we interviewed the theatre professor. At that time, I was looking for visual inspiration, because I'm a visual writer for the most part. We went to get B roll for the video, and they were doing this movement exercise. It was a theatre company in the Mission made up of immigrants from Latin America, and they were doing social justice plays, like devised work.
Politics was not something I'd ever put into my poetry, because it felt really like you're hitting people over the head, but it made a lot of sense to me in theatre. If you create characters that you can empathize with, then they'll start to pay attention to the situation that they're in.
So I was with them for like a year writing poetry in the corner, and then I became like a Girl Friday, taking photos, making their program, running rehearsals, lots of stuff. After a year of it, then I was like, "Well, how do you write plays?"
Playwright Christine Evans was coming to town, and she was going to be at USF for a semester. It was my last semester in my program, so I audited the class. It was Introduction to Playwriting. It was all Tennessee Williams and Sarah Kane and Nilo Cruz, just this big survey course. Sarah Kane blew my mind. I was like, "Yes! Sunflowers bursting out of the floor. I like this a lot." I spent that semester writing my first play. That play opened a lot of doors for me, and I found theatre very welcoming in a way that poetry just wasn't. I think that has to just do with how gregarious most of the people are that are in theatre, or just that they're always working together and collaborating. But it got into the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, which is how I was like, "I'm a poet, and a playwright." Then I was working on a commission from Marin Theatre, and it was like, "Okay, maybe I'm a playwright and a poet." And then I think by the third year, I was like, "Eh, I'm a playwright."
I feel like the poetics that I'm drawn to, I can definitely apply them to playwriting. I'm really big on images, and how you create a world with visuals. And I always think about sound, and the way the language sounds. Especially in The River Bride, where it feels so much more elevated than the other stuff I'm writing, language‑wise. When I started writing that, I was like, "Why are they talking this way? It's so formal. I don't know, but I'm just going to let them do their thing, and that's just the way they talk."
Sam Hurwitt is editor-in-chief for Theatre Bay Area. He is also the author of The Idiolect, a blog about theatre, movies, comics, media and the decline and fall of Western civilization.