What is a/are #PLONY? Find out here, and also read an explanation as to why I’m writing a series of #PLONY Profiles.
From the time I started the #PLONY (Playwrights Living Outside New York) series, I wanted to interview Karen Zacarias. Not surprisingly, her busy schedule—which includes not just continual productions across the country, but also a family with three children—made it difficult. In the meantime, I more or less finished the series, recapped it for Howlround, and chatted with Karen occasionally on Facebook. But after finally getting to see one of her plays, MARIELA IN THE DESERT, in Buffalo, I got in touch with her again, and finally nailed down a date to discuss her mad journey to #PLONY stardom.
What is your geographical history?
I was born in Mexico, and lived there until I was ten, then moved to the States [Massachusetts] for nine months, which ended up becoming a lifetime because of my father’s [Fernando Zacarias] work. He was becoming an expert in STDs, and there was a disease killing gay men and Haitians, so we moved to Atlanta in my high school years. We thought we were going back to Mexico, but then my dad became head of the Pan American Health Organization’s AIDS program for Latin America, and that changed the course of our family history. I went to college at Stanford, and they moved to DC, and, after college, I moved here, too.
Your degree was in international relations, not playwriting. How did you end up a successful playwright?
I always wanted to be a writer, and come from a very artistic family; the first money I ever saved up, I bought a typewriter. But I also wanted to be sure I could always stand on my own two feet, that my art wouldn’t expect other people to support me. I worked in international relations for three years; I knew it was something I could do to earn a living, and then writing became a very active choice.
I was a creative writing minor and had written a play that had won some awards, BLUE BUICK IN MY DRIVEWAY [Editor’s Note: this play was produced in Alleyway Theatre’s Buffalo Quickies in 1997; coincidentally, I have a play running in the 26th iteration of Quickies right now.] I wrote a full-length—that never got produced—to apply for graduate school, but it was the one-act that had done well in all the festivals [including the 1994 DC Source Festival] that opened my mind to it, so I left international relations behind and went to Boston University for theater and playwriting.
And promptly returned to DC after graduation.
I’d gotten a scholarship to go to BU, and, as part of it, I needed to design something for the community using playwriting. I thought it would be something I’d do on a Saturday, but, because of my international relations background, I wrote a pretty elaborate grant about using dialogue for community. The people who gave me the scholarship gave me $20,000 seed money to start the program, and that became the beginning of Young Playwrights Theater, which is now an almost million-dollar organization that’s been around for since 1995.
In a nutshell, what was the mission of Young Playwrights Theater?
I taught playwriting in public schools, and hired actors to read the kids’ plays, and then hired directors who directed plays written for kids. That was a way of getting to know the theater community, and doing education stuff for different theaters while I was building Young Playwrights Theater.
YPT became non-profit in 1997, and you left in 2006; what was going on with your writing during this time?
I was writing grants! And doing payroll and directing and hiring, and all sorts of things. Grant writing was a forte, but payroll was not. I had THE SINS OF SOR JUANA, which I wrote in graduate school, and South Coast Rep used to have something called the Hispanic Playwrights Project to foment Latino voices in theater, so I just sent it cold, and it got picked. I was 28, and it was my first foray into regional theaters. It ended up winning the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play in 2000.
Then, before we had our first kid, in 2002, my husband and I ran away from it all and lived in Mexico for a year. My husband quit his job, the managing director stepped in at Young Playwrights, and we went a little crazy, but it was the best thing we ever did. Living where I grew up, and showing my husband where I was from was a big catalyst. I wrote five plays there, including FERDINAND THE BULL and MARIELA IN THE DESERT, which was my big break.
There were a lot of places you could send things cold, and I was lucky; it was well-received by the places it was sent. I didn’t have an agent, I was just sending my work; I can’t even go to the post office anymore because I get PTSD from having gone so much. This was before the Internet, and I spent so much money photocopying and sending out scripts. I went every single week to send out scripts.
And then the Public writes back, “We love it and we want to do a reading.” So I use that reading to try to get agents to come, and every single agent ignored my request, except one who emailed me back and said no. But that was the best response I got, so I wrote back, “Thank you for your direct response. Why don’t you want to see my reading?” He said it sounded like kitchen sink drama, and he gets 500 scripts a day, and I said, “When you go to a restaurant, do you always order the same thing?” and he wrote back this long email, and, by the end, he’d asked to read the script, and then he called me and said, “I will come and I will represent you.”
That’s a great story! What happened after the Public reading?
There was a lot of interest, and four or five different theaters were vying for it, and the Goodman got it. Then I screwed up and did a bad rewrite, got terrible reviews, and hid under my bed for three weeks and thought my career was over, and it was nobody’s fault but my own. It was a huge learning lesson about what happens to young playwrights. I kind of lost my story and lost myself a little bit in the process.
That’s awful! What happened after that?
Nothing. Nothing happened. I went from this play’s going to be done everywhere to nothing. I thought my career might be over. That’s where writing children’s plays came into place. I also got pregnant again, and it was overwhelming, and I didn’t write for quite a while. My agent was so great: he said ‘this is a great play; you had a bad experience, but don’t lose hope. There’s a reason people were attracted to this play; you stumbled and you can get back up.” He just always believed in me. I did get another production at Theater of the First Amendment, and then, five years later in 2010, the Denver Center wanted to do it again, and I got a chance to rewrite it, and find the play again. In 2004-5, it was a one-act play with only three flashbacks, and it originally had five. It was a huge success in Denver, and now it’s been done in English and Spanish.
We just glossed over five years of important Zacarias playwriting history! So backing up, in 2006, a year after the Goodman “experience,” you left Young Playwrights Theater. What drove that departure?
It wasn’t easy to write and run a nonprofit, and, when I got pregnant with my third kid, it was clear that something had to go. I had founder experience, but I knew there were people who could do a better job taking the organization further. I stayed on the board, and I’m still connected, and it had a very successful transition. But I’d taken it as far as I could go considering my circumstances, and it still had the potential to grow much more, because that’s what it’s done. It’s fun to watch, like having a kid in college.
And you wanted to get back to writing?
Yes, but I was pregnant with my third kid, and I thought my career was over, and there was no way I could run a theater company and have three kids and be a playwright. And I realized that other people can run the company better than I can, but nobody else can write my plays, so my husband said, “Let’s quit your job, and hire someone twice a week to help you.” Dedicating myself to writing was a gamble, but ended up being a good investment in our happiness, and I always appreciate that he took my art so seriously that we went into debt to have somebody help me while I was in the thick of baby rearing. That first year, in 2008, like I did on our sabbatical, I wrote five plays: LEGACY OF LIGHT, THE BOOK CLUB PLAY, HOW THE GARCIA GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENTS, CHASING GEORGE WASHINGTON, and LOOKING FOR ROBERTO CLEMENTE. And then I didn’t do anything for three years.
How did you do that, in just two days a week?
There was no room for neurosis, there was no room for doubt. I was so tired, too, so it was just kind of like that critic that kind of yells at you, she wasn’t even in the room. And, as a family, we made this decision, and, as a couple, my husband was so supportive and we were going into debt and I wasn’t earning any money. I had a newborn, and a 1.5-year-old, and a four-year-old, and somehow, when you’re most supposed to lose yourself, we found a way and everything made sense. The stakes of life all seemed very clear at that moment.
Work begets work. Once you start being creative, it’s easier to be creative. If you get inspired on one thing, it can catapult. I love feeling productive. Most artists love feeling productive. It’s a great feeling. It’s a little obsessive, you think about it all the time, go swimming and try to figure out why this character is doing this. It’s like exercising; when you’re doing it, you’re like, “I’m never giving this up! I’ll always be running!” and then you get sick, and you stop, and you’re like, “I haven’t run in nine months!” It’s a little like that.
I haven’t written in several months, and today, my son is home sick. I don’t know a lot of women who write every single day. I have more male friends who have a schedule that they keep at. Most of my women friends, and this is a generalization, it goes in waves. There are years of input, and ones of output.
But also, in the years since MARIELA in 2005, you’d been lying low. What were you doing?
I went back to try to figure out what I had done wrong and worked on it for several years. Five years later, I was still dealing with it. A lot of people say just let things go, but I also knew that if I didn’t fix that play, in some ways, I wasn’t going to be able to move forward.
Then I wrote the new plays, and started up again in 2009. The fact that I’d kept in touch with people was important. You don’t get paid much in this business, so making true friends who really believe in you and you them is the biggest reward. They were the ones who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself anymore.
I started in this town not by trying to get my own plays done, but to get kids to write plays and have other people produce them. So it was kind of nice to always be advocating for other people, and I do that with a lot of playwrights because goodwill creates goodwill, and maybe the nature of the work I was doing, and what I believed in, brought out the best in everybody and created a generosity that I was so lucky to get when I was in a bad spot. People I’d asked to help with the kids believed in me. For them, it was, “let’s give her a reading,” but they didn’t realize what a crucial thing that was at the time. My hometown saved my career and I don’t even know if they realize it.
So that’s what re-kickstarted the new plays, and your career.
Yes, and they all went on to production. In 2015, I wrote five more plays, and one of them was DESTINY OF DESIRE, which got produced at Arena, South Coast Rep, and the Goodman. NATIVE GARDENS started at Cincinnati and is going to Victory Gardens and the Guthrie, OLIVIER: A BRAZILIAN TWIST ON DICKENS was at the Kennedy Center, ELLA ENCHANTED just had its second production in DC, and INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH, which is an adaptation of the book by the same name is on a Rolling World Premiere with NNPN. These are the big production years, and then, in between, I rewrite, do smaller projects, try to figure anything I’ll be able to write again, ever.
What is your process when you finish a play? What do you do with it?
At this point, I’ve been doing this for many years, and one of the advantages of living in DC is I have relationships with a number of artistic directors, so most of these had already been spoken for in some way, and had a home to go to. They were not guaranteed production, but somebody had a vested interest in each of these projects. It was the same in 2008, except for THE BOOK CLUB PLAY, which I just wrote for myself, and is the one that kind of keeps on giving.
It’s a comedy and audiences love it, and critics have mixed feelings. That play kind of killed me in some ways. People were very mixed about it, and, obviously, not in the right way, not in the controversial way. I knew there was something promising going on and something really wrong at the same time. The play had kind of written me, so I had to figure out what I wanted to say.
Sometimes, you write a play and it takes you a certain way, and it’s great, but the first draft of this play was saying entertaining, provocative things, but not things I believed personally. The first draft sold out, but I didn’t believe the philosophy of the play. It was easy, it worked, but I had to go back and say what I wanted to say to the world as a person and an artist.
You still also do a lot of TYA writing?
Yes, TYA was a real training for me. There were not a lot of plays that spoke to kids when I was teaching, and I started working with innovative programs like Imagination Stage and the Kennedy Center, and looking at theater for young audiences to be provocative and give kids tools for life. It’s really become a revolutionary field that’s given me a lot of commissions and productions, and I’ve learned so much writing for kids. They are an honest audience; they don’t laugh to be polite.
So things were kind of going along swimmingly at this point, and then you were one of the first resident playwrights at Arena Stage, along with Lisa Kron, Katori Hall, Charles Randolph-Wright, Amy Freed, which was just incredible.
Getting the Mellon residency was a huge change in my career. The first thing I did was revisit all of my plays to do the hard work of understanding my process and what I needed to make those plays better. It was excruciating, but I came up with better versions of those plays, and every one went on to have a life after that.
My relationship with Denver Center and the Goodman, who both always want to represent Latina playwrights in their seasons was also a huge break. I started the Latinx Theatre Commons, which is a national network of Latino artists who have come together to update the Latino narrative and that’s been really wonderful with connecting me with people and organizations interested in creating new stories for the American canon.
Another benefit to being in DC! Was there ever a time when you thought about going to New York?
I really wish when I was in my twenties, I had done the starving artist thing there, but instead I started the company here. It was a different time, too, with only 14 theaters, and now there are like 60, so it was a coming of age of theater. When you go from being small, you know all the people who are founding and making things happen, and go from being one of the younger people in the room to one of the older people in the room. I love New York, maybe because I never lived in it. I guess it’s always just going to be a curiosity of what might have happened.
How do you think your career might have been different there?
I would have a different form of community. When I was here, there were not that many other Latino playwrights in DC, and it was both helpful and lonely at the same time. I might have been more part of an ensemble in New York, and less about producing kids’ plays and more about putting on something, and being to exposed to different aesthetics. It’s hard to imagine my life differently. I’m very grateful for what I am. According to American Theatre magazine, I’m one of the top 20 produced playwrights this season. Last week, I had five different plays going on in different places in the country. This is a dream come true. But I’ve only had one production in New York and that was a Spanish language production, so, in some ways, I still don’t have a relationship with New York.
I don’t even have people from New York wanting to talk to me.
Why do you think that is?
New York audiences may be different audiences than the ones I’m writing for. That might change one day but if not… It used to be a big objective of mine, and I’m still ambitious, but I feel very lucky. Every single dollar I make is related to playwriting, and I’m very grateful. You pay a lot for being in New York and there are advantages, but also a lot more competition.
How do you think PLONY differ from NYC playwrights?
I can only speak for myself, and I love New York and New York theater, but people want issues and edge, and other people want to discuss issues, but not to the point where they hate all the characters. There’s an assumption that there’s a kind of jadedness in the audiences that the Midwest or other audiences don’t have. New York is the center of the world, and, for the rest of us, we know that we’re important in our own way, so there’s a different kind of analysis going on.
What proactive steps do you feel like PLONY can take in furthering their careers?
Your community is going to be the place that will most foment you. But nobody’s a prophet in their own land. I had to go a little bit away from DC for people to go “Oh..” Have one foot firmly planted in community, but also be sending things out to places you think will gravitate to your tone and the scope of your material. And know that that doesn’t necessarily mean New York. For me, the breaks for my career were DC, Chicago, Denver, and LA. Not New York.
To what do you attribute your success?
My plays were different in the sense that they were about things not a lot of people were writing about. I have a distinct voice and distinct stories I was trying to tell. And then I work really hard on my craft. I was really hard on myself. I think I rewrote THE BOOK CLUB PLAY maybe 18 times, I’m taking about throwing out a whole draft and starting over, and that’s craft. There’s voice and there’s craft, and both of those take discipline and being brutally honest with yourself.
Any final words of wisdom?
People can give you advice that is good, but not good for you. There should be people in your camp who understand your voice and know how to get the best get it out of you, people whose taste you trust. I don’t do talkbacks anymore except if I’m answering questions. It’s more if I see the reaction of the audience. Somebody’s individual opinion is not as helpful as it was when I was younger. Their questions are useful, but you still need someone whose taste you trust—and actor, director, another writer. I’ve been lucky to find a couple of people who take the time to read my work and I believe them. I might not always agree but it’s very constructive.
Playwrights, remember to explore the Real Inspiration For Playwrights Project, a 52-post series of wonderful advice from Literary Managers and Artistic Directors on getting your plays produced. Click RIPP at the upper right.
To read more entries in this series, click here or #PLONY in the category listing at upper right.