From Poet to Playwright

by Marisela Treviño Orta

I’m an accidental playwright.

I moved to San Francisco from Texas to get my MFA in Writing, to take a few years to focus on my craft as a poet. I’m an Imagist. That is, very image driven. And it was images that first attracted me to theatre—the line of limbs stretching and moving, the pantomime of bodies.

I was watching El Teatro Jornalero! rehearse. They were doing a series of movement exercises, silent yet so expressive. Watching them I had the urge to write, to sit down and watch and write.

And that’s what I did. I joined ETJ! as their Resident Poet and began attending their rehearsals so I could write poetry while they did exercises and worked in collaboration to develop a new play.

ETJ! was a social justice theatre company made up of Latino immigrants led by USF theatre professor Roberto Varea. It was fascinating to watch them work and the subjects they explored were very close to me. Politics was an area I avoided in my poetry. I was always weary that I would fall into heavy-handed rhetoric, that I would be hitting people over the head with my opinions, when what I really wanted was for my readers to feel, to re-experience my own emotional state.

Working with ETJ! I learned that social justice theatre can do just that, create empathy by making the political personal.

Every Friday I’d hop on the 33 bus and traverse the city to the Women’s Building in San Francisco’s Mission District. They’d rehearse and I’d write, take pictures and maybe help run lines. Then we’d all sit down for dinner. We were a little family.

I kinda became the theatre’s Girl Friday. I made programs for their performances using my poetry and photos, created slides for their English supertitles, recorded performances and even once helped translate one of their plays into English.

After a year I began to get curious about playwriting. ETJ! developed their scripts collaboratively, but I wanted to know how to write a play by myself. Luck would have it that playwright Christine Evans came to USF to collaborate with ETJ! and teach an introduction to playwriting course. That last semester of my MFA I took her class with the goal of writing a full length social justice play.

At the end of the semester I showed the scenes I had written to Christine. I explained that I hadn’t written the play linearly, that some of the scenes were from the middle of the narrative, others from the beginning or end. Even today I seem to resist writing from A to Z. I jump all over the narrative, writing whatever my muse seems most excited about.

It was Christine who suggested I keep the play non-linear. She also suggested I submit my play, Braided Sorrow, to the Bay Area Playwrights Festival.

Getting into the festival was a bit of a shock. That was in 2005 and it was after the Bay Area Playwrights Festival that I began to seriously consider continuing to write plays.

My transition between genres was really cemented by the encouragement of others—Christine Evans and the Playwrights Foundation—coupled with the fact that my first play kept opening doors for me.

But there was something else, something about playwriting itself. As a child I used to write short stories, even worked on a novel. And my poetry always had a very strong narrative bent. Playwriting it turns out is perfect for my writing sensibilities.

Federico Garcia Lorca once said, “A play is a poem standing up.” I love that line. Love that I first new Lorca as a poet and it wasn’t until I came to playwriting that I discovered his plays.

I see the potential for poetry in plays. I don’t mean this literally, even though I do occasionally include poems in my plays. What I mean is that my poetics greatly inform my playwriting. Imagery. Lyricism. Repetition. Metaphor. All prosodic elements, can be applied to playwriting. And in doing so a play becomes a poem, stands before us, looks right into our very souls and takes hold.

 Marisela Treviño Orta is a San Franciscan poet and playwright. Her first play, Braided Sorrow, won the 2006 Chicano/Latino Literary Prize in Drama and the 2009 Pen Center USA Literary Award in Drama. Her poetry has appeared in BorderSenses, Double Room, 26: A Journal of Poetry and Poetics and Traverse.