An Interview with Quiara Alegría Hudes
Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Emma Pratte
May 17th, 2016
Quiara Alegría Hudes got rid of all of her high school journals. Notes and correspondence she kept, but her own writing in her journals she got rid of, because she fears someone might find them and that the writing they house isn’t very good. And she wants the writing she puts out into the world to be good. That type of precision is currently on display in her newest play, Daphne’s Dive at the Signature Theatre, where she is playwright-in-residence. Daphne’s Dive is the story of a group of friends over five non-consecutive days in the course of their lives, and marks a conscious choice by Quiara to write about the complex relationships between women. Her other plays include Water by the Spoonful, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama; Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, which was a Pulitzer finalist; and the book for In the Heights, which was also a Pulitzer finalist. Suffice to say, she probably doesn’t have to be that worried about the quality of her early writing. We met Quiara at her home in Washington Heights to talk with her about Daphne’s Dive, her writing process, new play development, and more.
I wanted to start by asking you about the structure of Daphne’s Dive. What was the genesis of the scene structure and time jumps? Why did you think that was the best way to tell the story?
It’s funny, because with any story there are infinite ways to tell it, infinite character arcs to follow, when you drop the needle into the story, and when you pick the needle up. So for this one, I was interested in longer scenes and really seeing the ebbs and flows of a group of friends over time, and this group of friends in particular is almost like each other’s family. What the jumps in time allowed me to do was create a distance from the story, a reflectiveness in the audience’s experience of the story where they can ask a lot of questions like, “What happened in the intervening time?” I don’t think we always experience time chronologically in our lives. We swim in many times at once—past and present. It’s an experiment in time a bit.
Did you look at different permutations of the scenes?
Yes, especially the ending. The return to the original time at the end was a recent discovery in this rehearsal process. It used to just go chronologically with the jumps, but when I discovered that we go back at the end, something about that felt right, [like], “Oh, this is why I was doing the jumps.” Because it’s also about the returning to. I think in some ways this is a memory play, so having that memory dramatized in the last scene felt very right.
The play starts in the mid ‘90s. The idea of recent history is really interesting—it seems like something we don’t talk a lot about—how the recent past affects the future and how all of that adds up over the course of a person’s life. I was wondering how you made your choices of what cultural and social markers to put in the play?
I was locked in a bit by Occupy [Wall Street]. There was something that felt very right about that. That maybe this woman, Jennifer Song [a character in Daphne’s Dive], missed her chance, she missed a moment in our cultural history where her outsider-ness, her rebellious nature, her commitment to what seemed like a fringe ideology, might have been embraced. I can even imagine that during Occupy she could have been somewhat of an effective leader. I feel like Occupy might be a small footnote when all is said and done, but it was important to me. One of the things that I think the movement struggled with was finding those leaders that could have stuck with it for the long haul, and I feel like this character, Jennifer Song, could have done that. So in some ways that was the anchor point for me, and I had to work backwards from there. There was something that felt kind of right about four- to five-year gaps between the scenes in terms of the character of Ruby coming of age. Starting as a girl and then becoming a woman, and not dealing with questions of age, just that transition between girl to woman. So what happened was, we start in ‘94 with Contract with America [the 1994 Republican platform], and I was watching the show last night and thinking, “Wow, because of the primaries, Contract with America does feel kind of immediate.” The audience might not know that this is actually happening in the past because of splits within the conservative movement and the Evangelical Christian base. But I think that was a special feature of yesterday being a primary day.
It’s also interesting to think how much has actually stayed the same and how much has changed in that time period of twenty years.
Absolutely. We’re still asking questions about what the two-party system really means and how it affects our ability to build a nation. We’re still asking questions about what is the space for protest, and I think especially now with Black Lives Matter—the play doesn’t come up till now, it ends in 2011. The culture wars of 1994 also reverberate with me today a little when I watch the play. I was interested in the study of accumulation and when you realize all the stuff that accumulates through one’s life—the headlines, the stories—they do tend to overlap and ring true of the present moment.
How did you conceive of the characters of the play?
My experience of Philadelphia was a very eclectic and mixed experience. I have since learned, and I don’t know how this is determined, that statistically it is the second most segregated city in the United States, which was shocking to me because my experience was not that. That might be a product of my bi-cultural family, but I was always in rooms where there were people of many backgrounds, and really dancing in those spaces between each other. I was interested in creating a group that was a motley crew of ethnicities, class, political interests, but that liked each other. That were just friends, and they were friends because they have a common interest in storytelling and a common sense of humor. As I developed the characters, I thought, “Where are the differences and where are the similarities?” We ended up with Jennifer Song, who is very counter-culture and in any group of friends is always going to be the one pushing, and a character like Inez, who is just a vibrant and vivacious storyteller and a very enigmatic woman. She loves material wealth, she loves fine clothing, but in some ways she is the most committed activist among them because she runs a women’s health services hotline. We have the character of Acosta who makes it, he’s the local guy who becomes the politician and is successful and helps the community. And then we have Daphne, who is a character who has committed herself to a more modest lifestyle as a real choice because of some of the trauma she’s lived through in the past.
When you were putting the play together, how do you balance making sure the characters are doing what you want them to do, but also making sure that they don’t become signifiers?
I pretty much live in the details of them, and they teach me while I’m writing. I don’t come to it thinking, “I want this character to serve this function in the play.” I have a very inside out approach as opposed to outside in. My friend Amy Herzog, who’s a playwright I deeply admire, she taught me something: you can’t determine too much about a character before you start writing, because then you deny them their own open destiny. That struck a chord with me. I live with these characters and they teach me about where they’re going. That’s a big part of my process.
When you first have an idea for a play, where does that idea come from?
I rarely have just one idea. I often have a few things knocking around, and it’s kind of like molecules, and they start bumping into each other and I start to learn a lot from how those bumps happen. Some of those initial molecules, for me, in this play was someone I knew growing up named Kathy Change—I knew her as Kathy Chang, she changed her name later—who was a kind of activist and performance artist and I admired her. Many people didn’t like her and thought she was a nuisance. There was something about her that fascinated me—how did she do what she did? She went out to these Philadelphia street corners and danced and waved these flags with her ideals, and I thought that was fascinating. So she had been knocking around for a while. Another point of origin was a family story. My cousin, in the adjacent row home to her, there was a raid and they cleared out the house, and the next day my cousin could hear a child crying. She went into the house and found that one of the children had hidden in a closet and was scared, and ended up adopting her for quite a few years before the girl’s family was ready to take her back. That act of abandonment coupled with the act of unexpected generosity by my cousin was living in me, and something that I wanted to explore. So those were two little molecules that were bumping around.
I want to go back to what you were just saying about Kathy Change and being fascinated by her. In the play, Ruby’s fixation on Jennifer Song seemed very true to life but something not often dramatized.
Well, after writing a trilogy of plays that really centered around a young man’s coming of age, I was ready to really more consciously start working on female relationships and really exploring them. So, Daphne’s Dive is one of a handful of projects I’ve been working on where I had to consciously say: write female characters, a number of them, and get them together, and make it as complicated as possible. So there’s Daphne’s Dive, and I’m writing a new musical for La Jolla Playhouse called Miss You Like Hell that is about the complexity of mother-daughter relationships. I just wrote a play called The Good Peaches, which is also about mother-daughter relationships and female academics. That’s a conscious choice. I realized that I probably squeaked by on the Bechdel Test for my Elliot trilogy, but I wanted to get a higher score on that. One of the things that I find rewarding about Daphne’s Dive is there are these moments where these very enigmatic, atypical female characters get to relate to one another on their own terms. Ruby doesn’t get very much face time with Jen, but I do find their moments of interaction—and Jen and Daphne’s moment of interaction, and the sister’s moments of interaction—to be particularly rewarding. For me, they were ones I wanted to dig into.
The relationship between Ruby and Jen you see mirrored in the way girls can be about celebrities, or even people who have just passed through their lives and they’re like, “Oh, that’s really interesting to me.”
I think what Ruby sees in Jen is a willingness to say things out loud that other people don’t want to hear. I think that’s one of the qualities that Ruby is most attracted to in Jen, and that she does it with a smile on her face and a dance on her feet. Whereas Ruby struggles with her adoptive mom, Daphne is a much more private person and does not wear her heart on her sleeves or her beliefs on her sleeves. But Ruby wants to go out into the world. She’s hungry for big, meaty conversations, and I think Jen provides that. And I think Jen provides a model of beauty to Ruby that is exciting, that’s kind of on her own terms. And also a different approach to sexuality. Ruby is a character who comes from trauma and has a troubled past, so for Jennifer Song to model a kind of sexuality that isn’t overt but isn’t apologetic and that is very present in the body without humiliating herself, I think is something Ruby is really excited by.
When you were saying before that you have the molecules knocking about, do you have a moment where you’re like, “Okay, time to sit down and write”?
Yes. So that molecules knocking about thing, that’s a long time. In some ways those molecules have been knocking about since I was a teenager, since they’re in me. But when I sat down to actually start writing this thing, I knew I wanted it to be about a group of people who tell stories. That was an early conceit. And they’re going to tell stories that gloss over some of the things they’d rather forget, but the stories are also their way of coping with the things they’d rather forget. So I just wrote that [from] scene one. I just sat down and thought, “Let’s see what stories these people are telling.” And it turned out that they all wanted something from Acosta. Acosta is a gateway to many resources in the community. So the stories they’re telling all relate to what they want from Acosta. So Pablo, who is the local artist, he tells the story of how he is obsessed with garbage, collects garbage, arranges that garbage on his living room floor, sketches that composition onto a canvas, then paints the garbage on the canvas, and he needs some money for paint. And this curious thing happened where I had this long meaty scene of naturalism and this phrase “I am eleven” just popped up and I didn’t know why so I just left it there. It turns out, why was because we were going to watch this girl grow in a way no actor realistically can, and I wanted it to be one actor, so there was a utility in her saying, “I am 11,” “I am 15,” “I am 20,” but there’s also this fun little Brechtian touch in framing what is essentially a naturalistic play. And I liked that duality a lot.
I read in a lot of other interviews that you have a very musical background. How does music affect your writing process?
I hear things. I hear rhythms and I hear the world and I hear the voices and I hear how loud and soft the voices are. I saw in your interview with Lynn Nottage that she has a soundtrack that she listens to, and I do something very similar. For this play, it was the piano music of Michel Camilo, who is a Dominican, Latin jazz piano virtuosic. He’s just explosively joyous when he plays. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a teenager. There’s something about the explosive celebration of his music that I was like, “I want that spark of life to be in my play,” despite the fact that there are some very heavy and painful moments in it. But I want this to be a group of people who are still celebrating even though it’s hard. So I listened to his music and he inspired me, and then I approached him and he composed the score to the production.
When you hear music do you put a narrative to it?
It’s three steps, I think. I hear music and I feel an emotion, and the emotion tends to have three parts. The emotion the music is portraying and the emotion outside of the music. So for Michel Camilo, for instance, the emotion of the music was joy and celebration, but what I heard outside of it is that life is painful and we’re all going to die, and yet there’s still celebration. And then the third step is saying, “How do I capture that energy?” So it’s more about an energy for me. This isn’t always the case, but for Daphne’s Dive I discovered the narrative out of character work and character exploration.
Can you talk more about that?
As I mentioned before, it’s like the different characters—why do they all want to be in this room? Why do they all want to come here together? And in some ways they’re all a little bit of outsiders. Despite their very divergent portfolios of who they are, they’re all outsiders. Even Acosta. He is the man of his people, but he becomes a politician and that makes him a little bit of an outsider. Inez is an outsider because she loves this community and works in this community, but she’s like, “Get me to the suburbs, I don’t want to breath in this air pollution.” She doesn’t want to live on those blocks. Jen is very obviously an outsider. They all have outsider qualities. And then there’s this character of Rey who is this biker dude who hangs in the bar. He’s not from Philadelphia, he’s not Latino, it’s a mystery why he’s there, but he just likes them and that’s why he’s there. In some ways it’s a place where these outsiders can be themselves together. So discovering what makes each of them an outsider in a different way, and how they show off to each other about who they are, and how they brag about who they are, and how they compete over who is more authentic or who has a funnier story—that was a lot of the character work.
Going back to music. Classical music has a structure to it even without words. Do you think a musical background helps you have a different and more varied understanding of structure, outside of the Yale School of Drama, “this is what a good play is” model?
Structure is a deeply emotional and musical thing. Repetition and variation is just a basic component of music that I think of all the time when I write a play. Scenes three and four in Daphne’s Dive are an example. Scene three ends in such a moment of crisis and is deeply painful, and scene four is one and a half minutes of salsa dancing, and that’s a moment where I’m saying the audience just needs to get their bearings and get back on their feet to move forward. And that is my musical instincts informing my dramaturgical, structural instincts a bit. The thing that’s nice about music is that it essentially has no meaning. It is free of meaning and there is real freedom in that. When you know something isn’t quite working or not quite landing in the way you want it to, rather than saying, “What’s wrong with the story,” or, “what should be happening literally that’s not happening?” It’s like, what kind of music do we need here? Have we been hitting it legato or staccato for too long and we’re tired of that and we need a change? Or do we need to double down on that and keep going forward? This how I knew in scene five that I’d landed on the correct ending with “I am 11,” because musically that is correct. It is the reprise of the original theme. There is something that is very familiar about that even if it’s not a quote-unquote well-made play that follows the rising action and denouement and all of that. There is something recognizable to the audience when the original three words of the play—“I am 11”—pop up again. They know, here we go, home stretch.
I wanted to ask about your rewriting process. For you, what is the most valuable part of the process for rewriting?
Rewriting is where I do spend most of my time. I have this stage of the molecules knocking about, then I have the stage of writing the first draft, which is pretty quick. It’s three to four weeks, it’s quick and dirty, and it yields a chaotic first draft of the play and a truncated first draft of the play. I think the first draft of Daphne’s Dive was 40 or 60 pages, but it hits a lot of the major notes and has the architectural bones of the piece. After that, I spend a year turning that skeletal draft into the play. So in some ways rewriting is 90% of my process. The thing that I like about writing very quickly, at first, is that it doesn’t give me time to let that editor kick in. It keeps me writing on a subconscious level and losing control of it. That’s really valuable for me. Something very primordial tends to happen at that moment. Rewriting is when my intellect and more critical capabilities are kicking in. I’m really studying what I’ve done and asking myself, “What do I want to do with this? Where do I want to dig in?”
How do you balance that initial emotional impulse that goes into the first draft with the long development process for new plays? How do you maintain, “This is what the play is about, this is why I wanted to write it,” when you’re changing things over the development process? Or do you let that go a bit and are more like, “That’s what it was about then, and this is what it’s about now”?
It’s a muscle and it gets stronger, but for me, it does involve a practice of silence and introspection where I have to constantly be connecting to that initial impulse—why did this matter? Why did I write it? And where am I now? To listen to those things with clarity is hard and something I’ve worked on and gotten better at. But I find, for me, that when I write that fast and furious first draft, it’s pretty hard to un-write some of the guts and viscera of that first connection. It’s just in there. I would have to really essentially take apart the play. One of the things I learned with Daphne’s Dive and that initial fast writing period was that this house had five rooms—five scenes. Something about that felt completely airtight to me. Especially since what happens in scene three is such a fulcrum. In fact, what was happening in scenes one, two, and three felt pretty clear. Scene four was a little hazier. Scene five, I probably wrote twenty-five versions of scene five. Very different things came of these characters in the end. Then when I came up with this version, I felt like I had found the correct version of what I’d been working towards.
Do you see any themes in your work?
I see all sorts of themes. I’m very interested in female sexuality in various guises. In some ways I just love that topic and I think it’s underexplored. Spirituality is a theme that I can’t say I hit very much on the head, but it feels ever-present as I write. I see in my plays time and again an interest in community and family and the enigmatic, eclectic nature of our culture. This is not the first play of mine where I’m putting people of all walks of life together on stage, and there’s something about that experiment that I find true and exciting.
What’s something you think can be done to improve how new work is developed?
I think there are a lot of things that can be done. Having had a handful of years at this racket now, I’m very skeptical of development programs at producing theatres. I don’t totally understand it. To me, it’s like having a publisher go through an editing process with a writer when they don’t intend to publish the book. I have done programs like the O’Neill and Sundance—those were great for me because you’re not at a producing theatre. You’re just developing the work. But at a theatre, I wish they’d just be developing stuff that they’re going to be producing. I just think it’s a cleaner model. I think one of the huge pitfalls of readings and workshops is that it’s actually not when the best rewriting happens, at least in my experience. For me, the best rewriting happens when it’s in three dimensions. When the actors are rehearsing it and it’s in that production mood. It’s like hearing a string quartet on a midi file vs. hearing a string quartet on the actual instruments. I don’t think the greatest rewriting is going to happen off of that midi file.
I also imagine it’s difficult to be doing something with a constantly changing director and cast.
It can be hard. I’ve certainly made my mistakes, which I rue, with having actors I love be in different readings of plays of mine and then not get cast in the production, and that in itself has been a learning curve for me. I just thought, “I don’t need to be doing readings all the time and casting.” It gets a little confused. Musicals are a different beast, and I think workshops of musicals are extremely important, but you want to do those workshops with the commercial producers or the producing theatre. That’s when the producers’ buy-in is the biggest and their notes are because they want the production to go well; the stakes are so much higher than when they’re causally responding.
How do you balance the instinctual side of writing with the more academic side? I’d say at the same time we have an academy around playwriting, we also have theatre as an institution in a weird relationship with other academic pursuits. What do you think about that? How do you balance that?
As to the question of instinct vs. intellect, the instinct has to be given primacy. It has to. If not, anyone could write my plays. There’s a reason why I’m writing this particular play and it’s because of those instincts. And my intellect and my critical eye can look at something and say, “That’s not quite doing what I want it to do,” but my intellect doesn’t always have the solution, and oftentimes when it does, it’s my intellect putting its finger on something and waiting for my instincts to say, “I know, I know.” If we don’t have playwrights’ distinct voices and instincts, then theatre is just boring. I think of a playwright like Annie Baker, whose instincts are so sharp and keen despite the fact that she is a fierce intellectual, her instincts are raw and almost have naïve energy to them. There’s no academic component that makes her play better—it comes from a deep sense of instinct married with her fierce intellect. As far as teaching goes, I do teach undergraduates and I teach at a liberal arts school and I love that, since for me, the challenge is how to teach playwriting not as a craft or professional endeavor, but as something that is valuable to all thinkers. In fact, a big part of my teaching is finding the relationship between the intellect and the instinct and finding a practice where one is engaging both of those, and I think that can go anywhere with you. That’s not just a playwriting thing.
I wanted to go back to something you said awhile ago about just scooting by on the Bechdel Test. Do you feel like there’s extra pressure on you to write women and write strong women?
I would like to put that pressure out to other people, to be honest. You asked what my thoughts were on theatre development today, and I think we need to actively, committedly be trying to produce the most diverse pool of plays possible. I’m not just talking about ethnicities, race, and gender. I’m talking about aesthetics and everything that goes into theatre. I don’t see that happening without a very committed pressure put on ourselves as artists and theatres. If I feel that pressure from anything, it’s from myself. It’s not from the outside world, but it’s me going, challenge your assumptions, [and asking], who is not being spoken about that needs to be spoken about. It’s very important to my practice.
Do you feel like sometimes theatres will only let something be one out of the three of gender, ethnicity, and aesthetics?
I think there’s a danger whenever there’s a slot for the “outsider play,” whether it’s aesthetically or the way we categorize human beings. It’s just dangerous, and it leads to boring theatre and boring audiences. It’s not healthy for anyone. The aesthetic diversity, to me, is just as important as the other sorts of diversity. This is one of the reasons why it’s exciting right now to be writing because I do think the aesthetic diversity that’s coming from a wide breadth of playwrights is thrilling. I don’t see one model that we’re writing after. I see a lot of playwrights all pushing at the boundaries of what a play can be in very different ways. I mentioned Amy Herzog, Annie Baker, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and if I may be so bold to put myself as one of their contemporaries, that we’re pushing at the confines in very, very different ways. I love that and I think that’s important.
Do you find your work is talked about differently than if you were a male writer?
Oh, yes. Absolutely. I mean, my whole life is spoken about differently. I get asked a lot of questions that I’d be willing to wager a lot of money that Edward Albee never gets asked. He never gets asked, “What does being a white male playwright mean?” He never gets asked that kind of stuff. But actually I think he’d have a lot to say about it that would be interesting. I don’t find it a bad question, I just wish it were a question that was asked to those quote-unquote outside the mainstream, but we need to have critical eyes on ourselves inside the mainstream too. So definitely, the work gets engaged in a very different way. I have Albee envy because when he sits down and talks to interviewers, they get right to the meat of the play, which is something I don’t often get to do in interviews. Usually the interview is about my identity, and then the interview is over and it doesn’t even get to the work. That gets really boring really quickly.
I think we’re at an interesting time in terms of identity politics becoming a trend and it doing the opposite of what people maybe think they’re trying to do.
Right. So when we get really bogged down in that as theatre of professionals, I think that can have its pitfalls too. Like saying, “We need a play this season by a playwright of color, who’s that going to be?” That sort of thing. Because in fact the work should be richer and it shouldn’t always be clear. The stories should be more diverse. All of those things. This is a diverse country and I think we’ve outgrown some of the boxes—they’re not irrelevant, but I think we’ve outgrown them and out-sophisticated them. One of the things that I have to deal with a lot, in terms of press, is because my identity encompasses multiple identities, it takes them awhile to get a handle on that. It’s like “Well, are you a woman writer?” “Are you a Latina playwright?” “Are you a Jewish playwright?” And then the interview is up.
What’s something you think can be done to improve gender equality in theatre?
I think be extremely conscious at all times of the existence of gender inequality, and to be actively pushing one’s thoughts and your colleagues’ thinking. It doesn’t happen through silence. It has to be a curated and active discussion. And I’m not talking about panel discussions. I’m not talking about that sort of thing. I’m talking about doing and producing the work. I’m talking about the plays we write and the plays we produce.