I recently interviewed playwright Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro to write a note for the program of her upcoming show, Before I Leave You. Parts of the interview were excerpted, so we are offering the whole, uncut interview here on the blog. Enjoy!
Charles Haugland: What was your first play about? Why did you write it?
Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro: My first play was Behind Enemy Lines about the Japanese American internment camps. It was an angry political play that followed the Toda family from the horse stalls in the assembly center to the tarpaper barracks in the camps and the segregation center.
CH: Tell me two big turning points in your career?
RA: Before Behind Enemy Lines (which I wrote in my late 30’s) I had published many short stories and a handful of poems. I was enchanted when stage characters became flesh and blood. I was utterly fascinated by the interaction of director, actors, and audience. It was a case of love at first sight, and I never wrote another short story.
The other big turning point in my career was this year when at 72 I became a Huntington Playwriting Fellow, received a MCC Artist Fellowship, and was given a slot in the 2011-2012 Huntington Season. My son Pablo said, “It sounds like the beginning of a brilliant career.”
CH: Does your work share common themes or obsessions? Images or ideas you return to over again?
RA: I am still angry about the Japanese American internment camps, which have reappeared periodically in my plays. Old age is another obsession. I have written a long monologue about an actress whose doctor tells her she has Alzheimer’s and who responds by taking a trip down the Amazon. I’ve also written a full-length play about a woman who is selling her aging mother’s house and, in effect, shutting down her life.These plays were told from the outside in. Before I Leave You is told from the inside out.
My characters are four friends at the cusp of old age. They meet regularly for dinner and drop in unannounced at each other’s houses; they finish each other’s sentences, help parent each other’s children. When a serious illness strikes one of the group, it’s as if death sits down at the dinner table. Emotionally and professionally, passions in this group still run deep – do they remain steadfast, or is it time to run away?
CH: How do you find each play’s voice? Where do you look for inspiration?
RA: My plays are usually character driven and rarely begin with a story or theme. Once I am halfway through a play everything seems to be related to it: the bumper sticker on a car in front of us, the annoying comment of a friend, the overheard conversation of a mother and child on the bus – all of these have set off a scene.
CH: This is your first play set in your own neighborhood. Why here? Why now?
RA: My plays have been set as far afield as Paris, Amsterdam, Mexico City, Mount Olympus, and an imaginary dictatorship in Central America. With Before I Leave You I finally decided to come home to roost in multicultural Cambridge where I’ve lived most of my life. My characters are recognizable Harvard Square types – accomplished, neurotic, and opinionated, but they also have their unique and deeply felt problems, based as they are on people (including myself) I’ve known for a very long time.
CH: Before I Leave You started out as a short play. Why did you make it into a full-length play?
RA: Some ten-minute plays, like haikus or sonnets, seem content in their small packages. The characters in Before I Leave You though cried out for more elbow room, and a chance to complete their stories.
CH: What is it like to be a writer in Cambridge and Boston? What’s unique about working here?
RA: Boston has a thriving and supportive playwriting community, full of very serious writers, highly skilled at their craft, not to mention wonderful directors and actors willing to do readings of their work. It has an unusually large numbers of theaters and universities, not to mention coffee houses and bars, perfect venues for rewriting each other’s plays.
The complaint of local and national playwrights remains the same: although festivals for shorter plays and staged readings abound, there are few opportunities to get a full-length play fully produced. Playwrights can spend years reading and writing, fretting and tearing out their hair before they experience the enormous pleasure of a three-week rehearsal. I’m convinced a large part of whether one gets on or not is luck. 2011 is the Asian year of the Rabbit and I just happen to be a rabbit.
CH: What keeps you writing?
RA: Writing is a bad habit I hope I’ll never break. Things don’t seem real to me until I think about them and write them down.