Playwright Platica: Interviews from the Brown Side of Town

By Selene Santiago

Staff Writer

How does an extremely visual person sit down and write a full-length play?  She probably doesn’t.  She instead paces the proverbial floorboards of a paranoid uncertainty and spends most of her time looking at pictures and listening to music that inspire silent choreographed moments that she then jots down on copious slips of paper or notebooks.

Hi, I’m Selene and I have a really hard time writing plays.  Give me a well-written play and I can design and direct the heck out of it but sit me down and tell me that I have to write something super structured and I balk.  Connecting the tissue of image to image and creating compelling dialogue and arcs and conflicts and a resolution is just SO OVERWHELMING.

With the help of my creative co-conspirator and writer ruca, Ramona Gonzales, and by  interviewing playwright homies, I have begun to tackle exploring a process for visual writing, using what motivates me to write – images, sound, movement – and pulling words and story structure out of those elements.

This first installment of interviews on the playwriting process is with Jose Casas.

How do you set deadlines for yourself and how important are they to you? I’m so bad at my own deadlines—I always break them—but deadlines are the best creative motivators.  Try and stick to them.

How do you approach the first draft? I take notes, maybe a skeleton outline that’s nothing more than bullet points then I just hit the script.  I don’t write linearly…I gravitate toward monologues.  I also like to find unofficial dramaturges when I’m writing a piece.  Two to three people that I trust and whom I think gets where I’m going.  As I’m writing, I’ll give them sections to read and base my initial rewrites on that feedback.

How do you know when you are done with a piece? I average three to five major drafts and there are always the tinkerings.  You know you’re done when you’re like “I can’t go anymore with this…”

What inspires you to write a play? I’m not someone who comes up with characters or stories…I’m issue oriented—homelessness, racism, etc.  If I feel strongly about an issue, I create a story around that.

What do you find to be most challenging about playwriting? How personal a story is.  The more personal it is, the more difficult it is to write.  I’ve had to separate myself from the work in order to write.  It’s very challenging.

What’s your general advice for playwrights? First draft, write with your heart.  This is so important.  However the story comes out is what you put to paper…it may be stream of consciousness but that’s what needs to come out. If you can get people to understand or see where you are going in the first draft, you are on the right path. The rest you write with your brain.

Aside from the first draft, the other important thing is to define what the conflict of the play is.  THIS DRIVES THE PLAY.  If you don’t do this, you start going a million different directions.  The more distinct the character, the better the conflict.  What is at stake for these people?

Read Backwards and Forwards and remember that writing is a domino effect: as the story unfolds, one domino has to hit the next.

What do you suggest for someone like me who is a visual writer? Reminds me of August Wilson who was inspired by paintings.  It’s how you approach it.  I teach playwriting and one of the practices I have my students do is I write four words on the board: pictures, dance, words, music.  They then need to start filling in the columns for their play.  Some people are inspired by sound, some visually and sometimes you don’t know what inspires you the most or what was your point of inspiration for one project may be different for another so give yourself the opportunity to find what calls to you for each piece you write.

Any last words? and Yeah, ask yourself why anyone would want to see this play.  But don’t trip about the audience.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJose Casas is a playwright, director and adjunct faculty member in the Chicano Studies department at California State University, Los Angeles.  His award winning plays have been produced across the country. Works written include mindprobe/freddie’s dead, the vinela rosa still grows beyond the wall14, somebody’s children and la ofrenda.  He has three published plays: la ofrenda (Dramatic Publishing), 14 (AltaMira Press & Paseos Nuevos) and somebody’s children (Dramatic Publishing). He recently completed a commission for Dramatic Publishing, alex: a conversation about nothing, which was included in the anthology, The Bully Plays.  He is currently working on two plays: all brown all chingon which will be a part of the 2013 Hollywood Fringe Festival and a collaboration with East LA Rep entitled, the gardens, a play inspired by Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.