A Roundtable with Laurie Woolery and the Women of El Huracán
October 16th, 2018
In Charise Castro Smith’s new play El Huracán, hurricanes both literal and figurative bear down on four generations of women as they confront their history, what they’ve lost, and what they’ve found. It is a big and bold play that spans time, location, and styles. Loosely based on The Tempest, El Huracán is currently having its world premiere at Yale Rep in collaboration with The Sol Project, which is dedicated to producing new plays by Latinx writers. I recently spoke with director Laurie Woolery, who is also director of Public Works at the Public Theater, and actors Irene Sofia Lucio, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Jennifer Paredes, and Adriana Sevahn Nichols about creating a different way of working, making room for inherited memory and instinct, performing a show about women in our current cultural climate, and more.
What attracted you to the play? What was the thing that made you say, “This is really compelling to me and interesting to me, I definitely want to do this”?
Irene: For me, it was strong Latin American women and multi-generational strong Latin women that have different relationships to Spanish because of when they came to the United States. And the hurricanes themselves. The first time I interacted with the play, it was right after Hurricane Maria, and I’m from Puerto Rico, so that was very personal. I had a very personal connection to the devastation after that hurricane.
Maria-Christina: The play just hit me on such deep personal levels. And not being used to stories that are centered and focused on strong women, this had not just one, but four and across generations, who also happen to be Latina. The immigrant story really resonated with me. My parents are immigrants and came here in pursuit of dreams. Ironically, the character I play, her parents speak to her through the previous generation, but the character I identified with [most] was Miranda [born and raised in the US]. All of these aspects of my identity felt like they were reflected through all these different generations. My family is half from Puerto Rico, so when I first encountered this script, Hurricane Maria had just hit. I felt like this play needed to be produced, and what it was doing as far as representation and the themes and issues that it confronted was really important to put out there.
Adriana: When I read the last words of the play for the first time, I was undone. I was weeping audibly, and that’s never happened to me before from a play on the page. I knew, for all of the reasons beautifully stated, that there was such a deep connection that I had. This story deals so much with family, with ancestors, with the things that are lost and the things that we have to give up in exile or in a diaspora. All those issues are deeply important to me and resonant for me and my own story. Also, how the Alzheimer’s is dealt with so beautifully, so delicately, and so realistically in a theatrical highly stylized ritual. Theatre as ritual is so important, and that this could be a place where conversations and illumination and healing could be possible from a theatrical event shared with a play like this [was very appealing].
Jennifer: There is a sense of healing that was just so present in the script that once we were able to put it up on its feet and have people see it, I was able to reconnect to that sense of purpose that I had when I initially read the script. I love the string of cycles that you pick up on. The first half of the play takes place in 1992, and the second half of the play takes place 27 years later. And what I was really drawn to is seeing how people change over that span of time, but also the ways in which they are still the same after all that time and how lineage is its own character sometimes. And being able to tell a story that taps into that is an opportunity that you don’t see too often. I felt like it was a blessing that kind of fell into my hands that I understood, but also I was highly aware of all the parts about it that I didn’t quite understand. There was enough mystery behind the play that made me want to keep investigating what that other part of the world was. I just had to be vulnerable and say, “I don’t know what this says yet,” but there is a lot of room for growth and discovery that I really embraced and was able to tap into with the help of so many brilliant people in the room. I don’t think I would have been able to grow so much if it wasn’t for the team that was present through the journey.
Laurie: I echo everything that my brilliant team of magicians of have just stated, and I will add that, for me, besides the incredible language and the metaphor of the hurricane as natural disaster, as hurricane within personal trauma, and as hurricane in terms of losing your mind and memories through Alzheimer’s, the play also just terrified me as an art maker. I didn’t know how to do it. I was intimidated by the scale of it, which meant that I wanted to do it. I always want to find pieces that push me outside of my comfort zone. This was a hard one to give birth to and I knew it when I signed on, and I’m honored to have been able to dive into this world.
What was your process like for figuring out how you wanted to actually put the production on stage and physicalize it? As everyone touched on, this play has a very specific tone that bridges a lot of worlds and, at times, uses heightened language. Did that affect performance styles?
Laurie: I think what’s so incredible about new work is it’s never been up on its feet. I think anybody who has read this play loves it. The challenge becomes, “Okay, on my watch, how are we going to make it walk and run on its feet?” It started with my designers and sitting in the room and trying to figure out the playground in the landscape that we were going to create for this world to exist and transform and lift off of. Charise has written some very specific requirements within the play. Two hurricanes happen. One is before, and then we’re in it. And we’re cleaning up after [the second] one. And that’s just the natural disaster. It wants simplicity, yet it needs theatricality. The language is poetic, but you can’t handle it with kid gloves. You have to dig into the dirt and mud of that language and really use your muscles in saying those words and embodying those words. [There’s a sort of] dance of how to incorporate certain scenic aspects that are required, yet liberate us from actually having to create walls and ceilings and doors. There’s a great direction at the very beginning of the play that says, “An open evocative space.” In other words, no couch. Yet there’s a couch that the grandmother sleeps on. The team wrestled for the longest time trying to figure out is there an interesting way of not literally having doors and couches. We found that we could do a minimal bit of it, but we had to have some of it represented. I worked with the team really, really religiously. We had about five weeks to come up with the design, which is not a lot of time when you’re looking at a new play. With the designers, we read the play over and over and over again, all playing different roles, and then we brought Charise into that process so that she could approve and buy into what it was. She had very strong ideas. So that’s the house that we built.
More and more theatres are asking for plays from specific cultural communities, and these communities are oftentimes coming from a place of trauma. So how do you invite cultural trauma onto the stage? How do you invite cultural trauma into the room to be a part of the building process? I think what I have learned over the last two shows that I’ve directed is you can’t do it as business as usual. You actually have to create a different space to invite the ancestors in, to invite those stories, and so that we can find it in our bodies, we can find it in our language, we can find it in the rhythm of the words that we speak, and not separate it out. The more and more we dive into the history of being conquered, and that island being conquered over and over and over again, how do we take the rules of those conquerors and place it in our art form? We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to strip it away and get down to the roots of the people who are there. That’s why I’m so happy that the team is here to talk about it because I think we all had to get rid of our tricks and our toys and those things that we rely upon normally to create a play and come up with new language and new processes.
Adriana: Something that I think was an incredible foundation was the creation of space that could hold not only the building of a play, but the stories that we are carrying from own families, from our own ancestral trauma, from loss of language or land or name or any of those sort of traumas that we walk with while making the play. We would begin each day by checking in, in a formalized way, and allowing for whatever anybody walked into the room with. Allowing those things to be part of the making of the work, so not just sitting down at a table and talking about beats. There was something very formalized to how we began each rehearsal that everybody in the room was invited to be a part of, so that we really made that space sacred. And the amount of improvisation that Laurie invited us to do, which built relationships, and so that the whole instrument was becoming part of the storytelling. In many ways, our days were layered in such a way that we were bringing forward many things versus doing things in a very bullet point way. For me, that helped me build the body and the psyche of [my character] Valeria that I know I could not have gotten to [by just] sitting down. It has allowed a depth of work that I think is essential to this play and to honoring this particular role.
Jennifer: Being able to check in at the beginning of our rehearsal with where you were actually at as a human being was so relieving, because it was the first time that I felt like I could come into the room and not have to be an actor. Not to have that title in my brain, and instead be able to check in with myself as a person. Having that sort of honesty in the room allowed me to easily find moments where taking flight was not something that I had to force. It could just happen, and it was also based on instinct. We’re talking about lineage, and one of the things that was interesting for me was I started off in that place and then, all of a sudden, I started going into this intellectual place that wasn’t actually serving me, and so I discovered that an important thing for me to hold on to is to just follow and have the courage to just follow whatever this instinct is. I feel in some crazy way that’s connected to this cultural cloud. That if I just invite it, then magic can happen.
Irene: Laurie made a really cool distinction early on about the world of the play. There are characters that are earthbound, that are living in the here and now. And there are characters that are here that have, like, a finger to the firmament, so they have access to people that are no longer here. They’re talking to somebody in their imagination. And then there are people that are exclusively in the world of memory and imagination. And that also created three different worlds physically that we were inhabiting that the set was supporting and that our physicality started embodying. I think that also had a lot to do with how we created the world. That had a lot to do with how I proceeded with the language. The language is very poetic, but Charise mentioned that this is the only way that they can find to articulate something that’s excruciatingly hard. So, as a company, we tried to never lean into the poetry, but speak almost against it. It has nothing to do with trying to make it beautiful. The scale is massive. It’s Greek tragedy scaled. So therefore, you have to freefall, because otherwise you’ll fall short. And then you have to be free to fail in order to discover that scale.
Maria-Christina: That’s what Charise had so beautifully rendered in the structure of it. The play contains all the elements of a hurricane, exciting and exhilarating and terrifying and complicated and nuanced and agonizing, ecstatic, paralleled within these relationships that are so specific to these Latinx, Cuban experiences. It’s not just some play that kind of generally talks about, “Oh, it’s a hurricane, it’s this.” It’s through this specific lens that I don’t think is seen in theatre often, particularly through the lens of strong women and strong Latina women.
Laurie: Four generations of Latina women, which is really astounding on stage in one show in such a realistic, authentic way, is another great joy working on the play.
Going along with the idea of having to get beyond the stereotypical idea of what a rehearsal process should be for this play, a lot of typical rehearsal techniques were designed by and for a very narrow group of people. Did any of you feel like you had a moment where you changed something because you felt like it actually stemmed from some audience in your head, or former theatre teachers, or others ideas of how things “should be done,” to something that felt more correct for this piece?
Laurie: We spent a lot of time on language and accent. Charise wrote the play where, in her mind, the only sense was an authentic Cuban Spanish language. When we spoke Spanish it was Cuban, [but] because we all come from various places [in real life], we made sure that we all [sounded like we] were from the same family [in the play]. But when characters are speaking quote-unquote “Spanish,” but we hear English, it was like, well, what kind of English dialect am I using?
Adriana: I think what’s tricky is that while the audience is hearing English, the convention is that we are speaking an unaccented English as [representative] of speaking Spanish. But in any kind of English that we may be speaking, even if it is just standard American, that’s still an accent. That’s still a choice. I found that in trying to do a standard American clean speech of English while inhabiting this very, very Cubana, mourning Cuban grandmother, that I didn’t feel true in the embodiment of this woman. Not thinking of an accent but thinking of the music of how the vowels are sung, of how the consonants may be a little clipped, and creating an oral score for the Cuban sounds to come through in the English was a real breakthrough in terms of accomplishing what our playwright wanted in terms of not having stereotypical accents. And then understanding that each of the generations will have a different song to their English. It wasn’t one uniform thing. How does the generation sound that keeps getting farther and farther away from the root song?
Laurie : It’s an oral texture that’s necessary for the spirit and the authenticity of these characters and I love how it [remains] itself throughout the four generations of women, and breaking that convention of placing [stereotypical ideas of accent use]. Imposing that upon this play would have been a violation—it just felt like being conquered again.
Maria-Christina: That brings up a conversation that, unfortunately, we have to have as women of color when we’re putting on a piece that is about women of color in a different culture, which is who are our audiences? How do we welcome them into our culture? And not only welcome them, but present us in an authentic way so that they also don’t feel alienated because they don’t understand the language. Because we’re serving audiences that are not always going to be Latinx. So, how do we present our story with truth and authenticity, honoring the language? It’s negotiating that fine line and holding on with integrity and specificity to what we’re trying to honor. I think it’s also related to who the captain of the ship is, as far as the question of whether you felt like you had somebody else in your head saying, “Oh, it should be done this way,” or, “Latin people do this.” If you give Latin people room, they’ll tell you what is truth and what is not. More often than not, my experience has been that I’m one of the few people of color in a room, and choices that are sometimes dictated or encouraged are through a lens that does not have access to the same experiences that I’ve had being inside the character.
Irene: I also just want to echo something that was already said about getting out of the play’s way, when your traditional way of working on a play is blocking it and then maybe fine-tuning it. We started with improv. We started with different passes at it, and the trust that had to happen, that it was going to find its form on its own by us trusting it, was an act of faith. When you have a director or a critic [in your head] going, “We haven’t blocked it. We haven’t finished this. We haven’t…” it doesn’t work. The other [big thing] was allowing room for trauma in the process. There were times where you think you’re blocking it and you’re figuring out the mechanics of a moment, but because you’re invoking personal traumas as well as cultural traumas, it’s not as simple as just figuring out the mechanics of it because people’s emotions and traumas are in the room. I’m speaking specifically about a moment I had very early in the process where I immediately had to go to Laurie and say, “I’m having a hard time because we’re talking about things I’ve lived through, and this is very difficult.” She created a lot of space for all of us to honor those moments, because that’s what’s being invoked by the play. And that’s what the play is demanding.
Jennifer: There was a moment when we were exploring some movements for [the characters of] Alicia and Valeria. This was when the choreographer was in the room. After that session, our assistant director, Danilo Gambini, took me aside and he asked me what happened. He was tuned into the fact that all of a sudden I shifted from following what my instinct was to going into my head and trying to nail things down because I was trying to make things fit in a very particular way. I think that comes from being in classes with professors who have worked in a very specific way for a long time. That came from me fitting into that mold. And once I had someone say, “No, you’re here because you work in a different way, and that’s where you thrive. And it’s okay to take ownership of that and it’s okay to choose a different path if that’s what suits you and that’s what makes sense for you.” That was a huge lightbulb moment for me because then, all of sudden, I wasn’t operating under someone else’s way of working. It was really profound and I continue to be challenged in that way because it’s just a very different way of working.
Laurie: The play demands us to be these open channels. So showing up and blocking a play would’ve just thrown up walls. I’d like to say that I had it all figured out before we showed up, but it was the instinct of who you’re casting, and bringing them into the room, and how they all gel together informs me how to lead the room. It felt like we needed opportunities to let their creative jujus go. Let the family be built. Let the history and experiences enter into the space before we start mapping it out and pinning it down. And I will say there are moments within the play that are not pinned down. There are moments that these actors are having to go, “Okay, this is the objective by the end of the scene. I know I have to do that, yet I need to live within the play and find my motivation moment to moment to moment, because I can’t clean up after a hurricane and nail it exactly.”
Maria-Christina: We’re also celebrating because there’s joy in letting go and allowing and not knowing, and [feeling secure that] it will work.
Laurie: Our projection designer, Yaara Bar, came up with this great comment. She said, “I just realized that here in the present, I’m trying to figure it out, but that my future self already knows it, and all I have to do is be in it because I’m going to catch up to it.”
What do you all hope audiences take away from the play? We’re obviously in a political and cultural moment right now where there’s a lot going on, particularly a lot going on in terms of women and anger and emotion, and who gets to be believed and who gets to express those things and in what ways, and has that affected things for you in relation to this play?
Irene: Charise has a very young daughter, she’s not even a year old now, and the day of the Kavanaugh hearing she says, “I keep thinking about my daughter. And I have to keep reminding myself that our stories are important. That telling stories about women is important, and the act that we’re doing is important.” It gave me a little fire under my ass to anchor myself in purpose in terms of what stories I want to tell and what stories I’m going to keep insisting are important. So I still have anger about it, but that’s sort of how it’s changed for me. Making every day a very important act.
Maria-Christina: I’ve always felt this way. I grew up in New York, I’m from the Bronx. It boggles my mind when I go to the theatre and I don’t see any sort of representation of me, and where I can’t bring my little niece because nobody looks like her. It’s like no access to that world. It’s shocking to me. I deeply believe that stories of women, stories of people of color, diverse stories just need to be out there, and there’s room for a lot of things in the theatre. In light of everything that’s happening in the world right now, I do walk out on that stage saying, “I want to speak from my side of truth through these characters, and put these amazing women out into the world.” These amazing stories that are complicated. They’re not reduced to some sort of stereotype. Our presence is the most important thing, putting out these stories in our most truthful, authentic ways, and getting them produced, too. Getting them out there on a wider level.
Jennifer: I was thinking about strength the other day. The last day that we were in the rehearsal room, we all got in a circle and we just started throwing out words to acknowledge what the space had given us. And strength came up. One thing that I’ve discovered in the past couple of weeks is the different kinds of strength that can exist. I’ve really been discovering how much strength there is in the feminine, and how that can be a graceful thing, and it can be a compassionate sort of strength, and it doesn’t need to be muscled, and there can be a flow that exists in that kind of strength. And it’s not about dominating, it’s about being open enough and strong enough to listen and take people in and invite a sense of community. One of the things that I hope this play will continue to do is invite other people to soak up some of that joy and strength and healing that we all really need right now. I think that a lot of us are really scared and uncertain about where we’re headed. And so the impulse gut reaction to that is to be angry, which I am as well, but I hope that it’s in contrast to being able to survive among all this. When things are getting crazy, it’s easy to close up your heart, and I hope amongst all this craziness we can still find strength and an open heart.
Adriana: I work with horses, and an Arabian black mare named Tabula Rasa, which means clean slate, once taught me that the wisdom is in the wound. And I would add that the strength is in the wound. What I’m interested in in terms of the work that I choose to participate in, and also the work that I choose to do as a teacher, is to empower women leaders. Wild horses have been such an example to me because for so many decades, people have identified either an alpha stallion male or an alpha mare as both being singular leaders that tell the whole herd, singularly, what to do. There was a study done recently in Germany, and what they discovered is that it is a shared leadership. That each mare steps forward depending on the situation, and what their skills are for leading that moment. I have witnessed and experienced firsthand what it is to be in a room where Laurie was comfortable enough in her capacity to hold the room so that an actor, a designer, the playwright herself, all leadership is invited and welcome. I think if we are going to see any kind of change that has the capacity to shift so that we can stop coming from a culture of war and excess and domination, it is going to be the feminine rising to the point where we have returned to a place of strength and leadership. And it’s going to come from within. It’s not going to be handed to us. It’s not going to be given. I’m fired up because the more I see it being taken, especially the ground that we had gained, the more I understand my responsibility right now to not depend on what had been done or to throw my hands up and say, “How do I?” It’s “How do we?”
Laurie: I am so grateful to be telling this story with these women at this time because we have ridden the news train as we were trying to build this, so this [actual] hurricane was happening outside of what we were trying to create. There were days that we would all show up in tears and enraged and having to take that and put that into the work. That was very healing and empowering. I do believe in different forms of leadership. And I know that has not always been perceived as a strength. [I have been] told that I need to break some heads. I just know that I don’t thrive in an environment like that, so I just try to create an environment that I can thrive in. But being able to build and create something while all of this is happening has, again, just ignited the fire in my belly about what stories am I going to put out in the world? What stories do I want to put out in the world? Who do I want to work with? And how do I want to spend my time? Because that is the radical act that we have. Those are the tools that we have at our fingertips.
Charise was interested in writing a play about how to forgive an unforgivable act. And so much of what is happening in the world is so unforgivable to me. How do I keep the soft belly of empathy turned open and up when there are slings and arrows and where we stand is being attacked? So that is what I’m hoping audiences can walk away with, because we’ve all been on the receiving end of needing forgiveness at some point in time. Forgiving is such a powerful act, not just for the person that we’re forgiving, but for ourselves. I don’t want us to get hard and feel like we have to put on the armor of a different kind of leadership, but that we can move forward with love and forgiveness and compassion and empathy and strength. But anger is a very useful tool in that. I think we’ve seen people falling in love with each other in our audiences. We’re seeing people who aren’t able to get up out of the seats, who are holding the hands of their loved ones, and who are crying in the lobby. People are holding each other a little tighter these days, and that’s what I’m hoping this play is an invitation for—for the soft belly of healing to be open in these dark times that we’re living in.