Marissa Skudlarek, BOA 2013′s Anthology Editor, is conducting interviews with the festival’s playwrights, directors, and actors. Next up is Ignacio Zulueta, writer of “3 Sisters Watching Three Sisters.”
Ignacio Zulueta is a Bay Area playwright who served as BOA’s dramaturg and conductor of playwright interviews in 2011. You can probably figure out what “3 Sisters Watching Three Sisters” is about; if not, this interview, should clarify matters.
Marissa: Can you talk a little about the genesis of “3 Sisters Watching Three Sisters“? I was a fellow participant in the Wily West Productions event last February where the play made its debut, but our readers probably won’t know this backstory.
Ignacio: In Wily West Productions‘ Cowboys vs. Outlaws 2013 season kickoff, participating playwrights had two weeks (I imposed a three-day deadline) to create a seven-page play from a prompt: mine was “He found it in a dark hole in the woods.”
Marissa: So how did you get from that prompt to a story about three women watching a Chekhov play?
Ignacio: By kicking against the obvious. I felt the prompt to be rather over-specific, so instead of treating it as a plot synopsis or key point and locking myself into a scenario, I used it as a bit of found dialogue instead, and built the play from the dialogue out. Sharp-eared audience members can hear the distinctive line in the play itself. Plus, Women’s History Month was coming up in March, and the nation was twisting itself in knots over the Supreme Court’s still-impending ruling on Prop 8. Combined with my rebellious instinct against the prompt, I decided that the “he” in question should be an offstage character, and the voices in question should all be “she’s.”
Marissa: Your characters argue about whether Chekhov’s work is touching and important, or boring and depressing. Where do you stand on this issue?
Ignacio: I would argue that Chekov is so important because it is so depressing. I also think the Slavic writers have an appreciation of the tragic, the unjust, and the futile that is in synch with East Asian literature and my sensibilities as an Asian American playwright. It is said that Chekov told Stanislavsky and the cast of the premiere production [of The Seagull] that they were performing a comedy. Whether this is apocryphal, misguided, ironic, or a very Russian joke played by the playwright on his cast, is best left to others to determine. The ambiguity is all, and I also see entertainment as encompassing more than wish-fulfillment, or immediate gratification. This play, and my full-length comedy in production at AlterTheater, The Fellowship, obliquely address the happiness trap that lies within the artistic output of incredibly wealthy, consumer-driven cultural producers that we are. For my part, I believe that theater thrives on depicting crisis, while consumerism thrives on creating insecurity. Both are exciting. One is markedly unhealthy.
Marissa: So do you have a favorite Chekhov play?
Ignacio: OK, it’s dirty confession time. I have not read or seen the entire Chekov canon. God, what have I been doing with my life? That said, I find the sibling rivalry, duels, and bad-to-worse arc of Three Sisters to be pretty compelling – not just for this short, but for my other full length, Kano and Abe, being featured at SF Playhouse’s Sandbox readings next month. I’ll save the pitch for later in the interview, though – just remember those bloody duels and spats when I do.
Marissa: I also wondered if you were familiar with Will Eno’s short play “Intermission,” which has a similar premise to “3 Sisters Watching Three Sisters” — a conversation among some audience members during intermission of a play at a big regional theater. (San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater produced “Intermission” in 2011.) Could Eno’s play have influenced yours, or is this just a coincidence?
Ignacio: I think both plays focus on the way in which theater, despite its anesthetizing potential, nevertheless does the work of raking up audiences’ feelings in unpredictable, risky, and publicly embarrassing ways. That said, I recall watching a double bill at Cutting Ball of “Intermission” and “Lady Grey (in ever lower light)” but I confess that both at the time and some years later, “Lady Grey” left a far more favorable impression than the former. The very literal reveal of Lady Grey and her vituperation for her audience, prompted by the humiliating demands of her profession, resonates more with me than the fatuous characterization of the younger couple in “Intermission” and the insipid quality of the modern play all four characters are watching. Eno’s protagonists for “Intermission” are very much the older couple with their touching dog story, passing on their accumulated wisdom to the blasé younger pair. In contrast, my blasé youngest sister gives as good as she gets, and her suspicion for the traditional theatre is as deeply motivated as her older sisters’ devotion to it. And then there’s setting: Eno’s setup for “Intermission” focuses on the generation gap in audiences, but barring the use of a cell phone, it could just as easily occur in any point in time after the Korean War. “3 Sisters Watching Three Sisters“ occurs with a very specific text during a very specific moment in time. Finally, the triangulations of status allowed by an interrelated three-person cast are very different from the stable quadrant of Eno’s four-person, two-couples cast. From those fundamentally different foundations, necessarily different plays have sprung into being.
Marissa: What do you hope the audience will get out of “3 Sisters Watching Three Sisters”?
Ignacio: I hope my audiences decide to patronize more shows, and not just the ones that their friends are performing in. Since this preaches somewhat to the choir, I also hope they’ll leave with a refreshed outlook on how theater aligns with the modern media environment. As I mentioned before, “3 Sisters…” is an interrogation of why the epiphenomena of live performance matters as much as the performance itself. Though really, anyone who’s scored a vital business card during a post-show after-party, or met their soulmate (or start-up crony) at Burning Man, will recognize the serendipitous value of congregating in person for a rallying work of art. That doesn’t happen playing a solo video game or binging on Netflix.
Marissa: What about “3 Sisters Watching Three Sisters,” in your opinion, makes it feel like an “Ignacio Zulueta play”?
Ignacio: These characters talk too much, and think even more than they talk. Plus, they’re all related. Furthermore, “3 Sisters Watching Three Sisters” is the first of an entire year’s worth of plays (from Feb. 2013 to Feb. 2014) that I decided to write featuring a gender ratio of at least 2 females to every male. Before my male actor friends out there get up in arms, I’d like to point out that is hardly an act of activism on my part, but rather, a simple acknowledgement of the realities of the stark gender ratios in theatre. BOA Artistic Director Sara Staley pointed out in an interview with Ashley Cowan that the production team for BOA 2013 is all female. Thus, it seems reactionary rather than revolutionary to make a year’s worth of my playwriting output match up with the demographic facts on the ground.
Marissa: How has the rehearsal process for “3 Sisters…” been? Has the script changed at all during the process?
Ignacio: I actually expanded the material past the 7-page limit of the original play, which was written during a three-day binge back in February. One of my sisters wasn’t as thoroughly written as she could have been, and changing events on the political landscape, both in California and nationally, threatened to render the script outdated. I talked to Sara Staley and director Kat Kneisel about my plans for a rewrite at the first BOA Program 2 read-through. Sara said, more or less, “Keep it as good as it is now, or better.” Kat said, paraphrased, “The original draft is seven pages, I think we can expand a little and get comfortable.” I said “Gotcha, gotcha, great. I’ll get back to you with the changes.” And that’s how we got to where we are today.
Marissa: What’s up next for you?
Ignacio: As I mentioned before, blood ties and radical adaptations have been very much on my mind. In 2012, PlayGround commissioned me to write Kano and Abe, a Daly City bible story. It’s kind of like Two Brothers to Three Sisters, except the brothers in question are Cain and Abel. How’s that for depressing? SF Playhouse picked it up to kick off their Sandbox reading series on Monday, October 14th. That’s exactly 9 days after BOA closes, so I’ll be able to treat Bay Area audiences to a fresh draft of a full-length work, provided I don’t party too hard at the BOA closing party.
Marissa: You deserve to treat yourself at the closing party, though! “3 Sisters Watching Three Sisters” is a lovely play, especially when placed as the finale to an evening of one-acts. Thanks for talking to me about it.
“3 Sisters Watching Three Sisters” appears in Program 2 of BOA 2013, with upcoming performances on September 27 and 29, and October 3 and 5, at Tides Theatre. We also encourage you to check out the interview that Wily West Productions, which is producing “3 Sisters…” at BOA, conducted with Ignacio!