This keynote was originally delivered at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference in Boston in August 2018. Quiara Alegría Hudes (the playwright who won a Pulitzer for Water by the Spoonful and a Tony for In the Heights) and her sister Gabriela Sanchez (founder and manager of Power Street Theatre Company) provided dialogue on the conference's theme, “Theatres of Revolution: Performance, Pedagogy, and Protest” (coordinated by the VP for the 2018 conference, Ann M. Shanahan). The extended version, featuring remarks by both speakers, will be published in the March issue (29.1) of Theatre Topics, published by John's Hopkins University Press. This version of Hudes's speech has been edited for American Theatre readers.
I want to start with love. I suspect there is at least one love story in your life that blazed the trail to this very magazine page. Maybe you loved the way lights felt on your face, the blindness as you looked out at the invisible audience bank. Maybe you love backstage anonymity, the chaotic machinery and runaround that keeps a performance seamless. Maybe you were seven and loved the first play you saw. Back then you probably loved it more than you understood it. Remember how glorious that was—immersion in an experience you didn’t necessarily understand? Why do grownups cling to “getting it”? What a small, unadventurous parameter for experiencing art.
-Tomasito, what do you want to be when you grow up?
-Luzecita, what about you?
-When I grow up, I want to go to the theatre and “get it”!
Maybe, like me, you loved a cousin and wanted to tell their story.
Maybe, like me, you had a mentor. In my case, Paula Vogel and her warm, ebullient energy. One time in our 16-year friendship, I saw her lash out with anger and self-defense at a bunch of whiny MFA students (hint: myself and my cohort), and the way she showed that hurt made me love her more than ever, because it is hard for a woman to stand up for herself. I always wished my abuela had stood up for herself just one time in a life spent in service of others, so when Paula did just that, I loved her doubly for it.
Tending our wounds is central to loving. Love is richer when it comes with an understanding of pain endured, of mortality faced, of chasms crossed. To love is to face the wound honestly and then let the wound be less than one’s entire truth, to love despite the wound. That is the kind of love, I think, that calls me to express these thoughts today.
I suppose I need your help. I am writing this not to share wisdom, juicy gossip, or war stories but to articulate a question and reach out a hand for guidance.
For I fear that at 40, having produced three musicals and four plays I am proud of, two early plays I am fond of, and a handful of work I’d rather forget about—at 40 years old, having worked on Broadway and Off, regionally and internationally; having gone into debt and then paid off those debts, all thanks to my theatre habit; having some paperback books that sit on library shelves with my name on the cover that maybe a kid like me will discover for free and feel less lonely as she cracks open the pages—I fear that today, after all that, the wound feels bigger than I can handle. I fear that the ways theatre has harmed me are winning out over the ways theatre has nourished me.
Since my first musical in 1998, opening night has always entailed stress. There is much to do and few hours to do it. An entire team looks to me, the playwright, for ballast and strength, for confidence and support, for vision, clarity, and therapy should everything topple. And yet reviews loom and the set isn’t working and neither is Scene Seven and what if I rewrite it and the actors memorize it only to discover that the new Scene Seven sucks? How will the audience view my Latinx stories, and if they are mostly white does that mean my cast is performing race, and doesn’t that injure our pride, our self-determination? How will it feel to go out onstage and once again not be afforded the luxury of neutrality? Will all the community outreach I’ve done in the Latinx community, saying, Hey, you know that huge theatre downtown? I’m here to say, you are welcome there, I invite you inside!—will all that community outreach lead to 2 percent Latinxs in the audience, or hopefully, dear God, maybe 15 percent? Will the audience be mostly wealthy and so will my characters’ poverty seem monstrous? Is my play cultural tourism? Will the critics be mostly male and white? Will my little sister come and see how she has inspired me and feel outed and humiliated and angry at what I’ve turned her life—our life—into? Will I lose my family due to the mockery I’ve made of our stories? What right have I to joke about or fictionalize our pain? Is honesty, which I strive for, also a form a violence?
By opening night I have lost weight. The mirror reflects back Skeletor. Reviews are posted. I will not read them for days or weeks, but their simple existence suffocates me. Even positive reviews yank my art from my hands and serve up my heart like a well-dressed ham. Even rave reviews have deposited me, post-celebration, in a disorienting depression where I feel my mouth has been slapped with duct-tape. People call and congratulate me not on the work but on the Times review. Against my affirmations and meditations, I become once again the little girl seeking approval when I have worked so hard to reject that frame.
For a play I wrote in grad school, I remember feeling that the play’s bluntness was a violence inflicted against my own sanity. My own words exposed and outed me, made me feel too raw. Terrified, I emailed Paula Vogel, my teacher, who told me of her own experience with the terror of writing.
On Daphne’s Dive, I remember one night after a preview. The production was impressive, the cast was inspired. Nothing was going wrong at all—how often can we say that in previews, usually a calamitous precipice of disaster? And yet I got into a taxi heading home and my heart pounded so hard, I said, This is it, a heart attack at 38. I texted Amy Herzog, a fellow playwright, and said, “Can previews actually kill? My heart is going to break outta my ribcage.” I threw a 20 at the driver, fled the backseat at the first red light, and began walking to the St. Luke’s Roosevelt ER. But the crisp evening in Hell’s Kitchen, the foot traffic of drunk couples, calmed me. Breath found me again. Another night of previews, survived.
Amy Herzog has diagnosed my condition: “theatre-induced psychosis.” That she can name it so precisely leads me to believe I am not the lone sufferer of this malady.
After opening my last musical Miss You Like Hell in New York earlier this year, I called my theatre agent and asked him to cancel my productions and commissions for the next two years. I need a break. Hey, my heroes have shifted genres. Ntozake Shange wrote choreopoems, plays, and straight-up poems. Leslie Marmon Silko wrote essays, novels, and poetry. I can try my hand at other mediums.
My work in theatre is not done. I’ve just pressed pause.
Why? Because I feared that between taxicab panic attacks and theatre-induced psychosis I might not survive another opening. And truth is, I like living more than I like theatre. I had to prioritize.
Having stepped aside for a minute, I can see and understand with clarity what was happening inside. Theatre, at least at the upper echelons of the professional field, is frequently elitist, expensive, exclusive, and non-democratic. Our biggest-budget theatrical institutions purport to encourage equality and champion the underdog but in fact must appease wealthy patrons and subscribers, disproportionately feature male leadership, and carry stubborn institutional memory beholden to the white aesthetics and values they have built themselves upon for decades.
To restate: I love what I do, what we do, and I stand extremely proud of the work I’ve made at theatres big and small. But the institutional theatre landscape replicates many of the old structures and dynamics I abhorred in Philly, that I rebelled against by writing my Latinx family stories in the first place. These structures and dynamics have hurt me. Like an onslaught of wolves, they come at me biting, growling. They mock, especially, my explorations of female wisdom, self-determination, and pleasure.
At my worst moments, my mom has begged me to practice wellness. “Quiara,” she says, “you’re not only a treasure to our people, you’re a treasure to yourself. Take good care!”
To which I look at her like she’s deranged. Didn’t she hear the audience member demand his money back at intermission because he doesn’t come to the theatre to hear Spickanese? Wasn’t she at the talkback when an older white subscriber praised my play but took exception to the fact that the characters were Puerto Rican? “Why limit the story like that?” he asked. On the heels of this comment, an older black subscriber stood, emotional, saying, “We have a right to be here too! We don’t have to explain ourselves! This is my theatre too, and I’m sick of having to apologize for my existence!” At which point many of the longtime subscribers at this talkback erupted into shouts and finger wags, and I watched this all unfold—it was the first year of my professional career—and realized that many of the challenges I faced had nothing to do with my work at all. I’m toast! The system’s rigged before my words even hit the stage!
Didn’t Mom know about the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning board president who asked me to step down quietly, despite my being female and Latina (his words), because they were beginning a campaign to save the NEA in the era of Trump, and my schedule would not allow me to participate in such a travel-heavy project? I said yes to his request, then learned later that there was no such campaign. His longtime collaborator, a white man, had not been reelected to the board but was quietly ushered back into his old board seat at my expense. Meanwhile the other board members had been told that I had volunteered to give up my place due to family obligations. This in a democratic organization. This from a “liberal” leader. It’s shocking what people do to protect the status quo, to keep their friends in power.
I will not bore you with further anecdotes, but the math is that they add up over time. Corrosive and painful.
Theatre, I love you. Accomplishments, I stand proud. I treasure the collaborations I’ve built, the friendships I’ve earned, the jobs I’ve created. I treasure the letters from high school and college students who find value and comfort in my work. Who feel seen. Who imagine themselves with the title of protagonist. Who grab the baton and write their own truth.
But theatre, it hurt to get here, and I only now see the nature of the wound. I’ve only recently acquired the vocabulary to describe the affliction, the clarity to admit the hurt.
Just like my family loves Philadelphia, and yet it hurt them to leave their Puerto Rico farm behind. They love the 215, but it hurt to arrive in Philly and be harassed by the cops, be attacked by gangs because of their Spanish tongue, be priced out of their green-tree playground blocks every few years, migrating further and further north, getting further isolated from Center City, until finally they were living on treeless no-playground dilapidated cement blocks while judges and lawyers moved into their old homes. That my family holds fast to their Philly love even after the city has hurt them so, I think makes the love more profound, more earned, gives it a realer edge and flavor.
I remember my abuela, who, armed with nothing but a second-grade education and maybe—maybe—a coffee can of savings, left her husband, moved four daughters to Philadelphia, and then for decades nursed and fed and caretook until her descendants had graduated from Yale or were locked up in state penitentiaries. She loved till her back doubled over, curving like Big Sur, a testament to every meal cooked, every diaper changed, every neighbor advised.
I am starting to understand the hunch of Abuela’s shoulders. I feel it in my heart. The fatigue of the giver.
I struggle increasingly with the atheist white male aesthetics I inherit. These include:
1. That love is dead, romance is transactional, and sex is not a source of pleasure but a race to the bottom.
2. That children hate their parents and vice versa. The suggestion of familial love implies idiocy on the part of the playwright.
3. That wealth is either neutral or a hardship to the wealthy.
4. Regarding God: You’re kidding, right?
5. Joy is sentimental, harmony a falsehood. Harming others is the single human truth.
6. Genius is a male attribute. Intuition is a female attribute.
The canonical plays that led to the aforementioned aesthetics matter a great deal to me. O’Neill, Miller, and Albee are my heroes. Death of a Salesman was the first American play I read. It rollicked my adolescent veins. It is the reason I write today. But why my work must either uphold or negate the values laid out by Miller, Albee, and O’Neill is beyond me, as if all the paradigms have been laid out and we’re now stuck rearranging the puzzle pieces or self-referentially rejecting the puzzle altogether.
Can institutional theatre not hold multiple aesthetic paradigms? Do multimillion-dollar capital projects lead to fancy theatres which reinforce a single aesthetic paradigm?
It is discombobulating and even humiliating to write Latinx characters who will be seen by mostly white audiences. It feels like either their brownness or their humanity is the primary performance, the play itself a secondary action. My characters become Latinxs performing humanity. This fear crippled me during the lead-up to my last piece, Miss You Like Hell at the Public Theater. Why was I writing this protagonist, Beatriz, so that she could be seen first and foremost through the filter of race, not to mention gender? Despite an impending deportation hearing, Beatriz experiences moments of playfulness, curiosity, and celebration. She fucks and dances for pleasure, in moderation. I suspected a criticism would be: Beatriz does not suffer enough. Show us her victimhood, let us see her ravaged. I was correct.
Writing Beatriz felt like having a child and throwing her at a bed of nails.
Business-wise, playwriting is a great deal. You may not get wealthy but your work belongs to you. The independence is remarkable. Freedom from corporate ownership. No Hollywood studio controls your words. No record label locks your ideas in a vault.
But I understand, belatedly, the trade-off, and I wonder if my work has been disempowered too. Plays are things to be produced, and so my work becomes dependent on the market realities of producing theatres and which audiences those institutions have cultivated, historically, for decades. It is a strange marketplace to funnel my particular stories into. In many ways my interests as a writer do not match the U.S. theatrical landscape. Many characters in my plays could not afford to see my plays, and if they were given a comp ticket they’d feel out of place in that lobby.
Sure, I could work exclusively at the smaller theatres where audiences reflect the actual cities around them. Places like Portland’s cutting-edge Teatro Milagro, which first did my work, where it was just an assorted crew of anyone and everyone who plopped down 10 bucks for a ticket to see the new play in town. But how would my mortgage get paid? Groceries get purchased? Health insurance? Dream on.
For this speech I was asked to reflect on revolution. I am unsure that I have earned this topic. My great grandmother, now she was an actual revolutionary. She fought for Puerto Rico’s right to self-governance and self-determination. Her left breast was blown off en el Grito de Lares, fighting for independence for her island. Perhaps I will gird myself and get back into the fray. Perhaps I will lose both breasts if necessary. But it will hurt. I may sacrifice my breasts but I demand the right to say “ouch” when doing so.
For you, educators, artists, mentors, professors, administrators, grad students, fellow travelers: My words are more simple. When you return to your administrative offices, rehearsal rooms, and academic departments, do the ongoing work of scrutinizing the ways, big and small, that your theatre replicates the old structures.
Does your mainstage season, syllabus, and/or curriculum reinforce dominant cultural values, and in particular appearance-based and presentation-based casting hierarchies? Do looks, class markers, accents, and presentation afford artists more or less cachet when it comes to casting? Are there abundant opportunities for artists, administrators, and audiences to center themselves in different values and aesthetic systems? Is your season perpetuating theatre for wealthy ticket buyers? Does your audience reflect the city in which it resides?
Perhaps the greatest revolution I can imagine is to insist that no matter how “other” my characters appear in the wealthy white spaces of theatre, to nonetheless affirm that they are not guests on the American stage. To insist that I am a hostess. New hostesses are required. My art is hospitality and an open door. Just as my abuela left her door open and rice pot full, though she was poor most days, fulfilled many days, and heartbroken some. She still said, Entra, come in, can I serve you? I want to return to the theatre soon, to say this again. Come in. Enter. It is my profound honor to host you. Let me show you my beautiful house. It still stands. Pull up a seat at my table.
I am not there yet.
Today is my high tide of heartbreak. All tides, however, ebb.
And yet there is relief. That I can finally name it or am finally willing to. And there is gratitude that you have taken the time to read.
Before revolution, honesty. That is my first step.