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FAMILY, LOSS & THOSE LONG BOSTON WINTERS…

Melinda Lopez and David Dower headshot

Playwright Melinda Lopez brings her one woman show Mala (previously staged to great acclaim at ArtsEmerson) back to Boston and to her artistic home at the Huntington, where she is playwright-in-residence. Mala won the 2016 Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding New Script, and was named one of the best plays of 2016 by The Boston Globe, WBUR’s The ARTery, and DigBoston. Lopez sat down with Kat Klein, the Huntington’s producing apprentice, to discuss the return engagement of her darkly funny look at family dynamics and the unsentimental poetry of everyday life.

Kat Klein: How do you decide which elements from a real event to trim or change? How much artistic license do you feel you are allowed to take with events?

Melinda Lopez: The process for working on something autobiographical is not that different than writing a fictional play. The emotional truth I was trying to replicate has a claustrophobic feeling, so within all the real events I talk about, I do some condensing of time. The play has license to careen into the past or into the future. I want the audience to see their own weaknesses, their own mistakes, their own poor choices and not feel like they are alone. Grieving and end of life care can be a very lonely, isolating experience.

How do you prepare to play yourself in a show?
I’m not playing myself. I’m performing in Mala and I talk about Mala like she’s a character. I’m very hard on myself as a character, but that’s what the play needs. The play needs to have this incredibly imperfect protagonist. Mala will say something incredibly insightful and the next minute she’s behaving terribly. I do that on purpose because I don’t want the audience to like her too much, I don’t want them to ever feel sorry for her. I really want the audience to have enough critical distance to laugh at her. I want the play to remind us that however poorly you behaved, I behaved worse, and there’s comradery there. I think you have to laugh. The response from [Artistic Director] Peter [DuBois] was great — he was so moved by it and he just laughed throughout. Peter is a big laugher and you can hear him in the audience, that’s how you know it’s working.

One of my favorite lines in this show is “…this winter, this endless biblical winter.” Can you talk about the significance of keeping the play in the winter of 2015?
The more I make theatre the more interested I am in the local community. It’s important that this play has the feeling of a shared experience, such as we lived through this winter or we lived through the end of something important. I try to bring that spirit into the performance. Anyone who lived through the Boston winter of 2015 knows we survived something together and that kind of hardship makes a community. The hardship of grieving a parent connects you to a community. Suddenly you’re a part of this club that you never wanted to be a part of, you don’t have to speak about your loss but it binds you together in a way. I think that’s all a part of the Mala experience.

This show has been produced in Boston previously and in Minneapolis. How has your relationship to the show changed?
The night before starting rehearsals at the Guthrie I had gone out to grab a bite to eat. I’d been thinking about my mother and how far our story has come. My mother died two and a half years ago and I had this really clear sense for the first time, and it probably should’ve occurred to me long before this, that this play is her final gift to me. That she gave me this experience. It made me feel really close to her.


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