Dallas — Many local playwrights dream of presenting their work at Dallas Theater Center, the biggest game in town and one of the country’s major regional theaters. (As a playwright myself, I certainly aspire to that.) For my second installment of Work in Progress, a new TheaterJones column that focuses on new work, I sat down with David Lozano and Lee Trull to discuss the evolution of their play Deferred Action, which opens Friday at Dallas Theater Center in a co-production with Lozano’s Cara Mía Theatre Company (it has been in previews since April 20).
The long process involved exploratory workshops, seclusion in actor housing, and a fine-tuned working relationship between the two artists. So how do you create a play with two writers, and then have one of the writers direct the show as well? Lozano and Trull's answers may surprise you.
TheaterJones: Now that you’re entering the last stretch of the production, how have these final weeks progressed?
David Lozano: It’s going well; we’re putting a lot of pieces together. The play has a lot of scenes. I’ve felt that’s the challenge of the production, the quantity of scenes, putting them together, and then directing and designing that production.
Lee Trull: So how many scenes do we have? We had numbers for a long time and then I removed them and the designers were mad about that. We were trying to give the feeling of a play that doesn’t stop for each scene. You know, this should push on through.
[David looks through his script for the final number of scenes.]
DL: We didn’t want it to be episodic even though it’s written that way, we wanted it to flow. But I needed the numbers to know where I am. So we have 38 scenes.
What was the origin point of this play?
DL: Cara Mía had an original work that was supported by the Donna Wilhelm Family New Works grant [called] Dreamers: A Bloodline. That was the first in a trilogy on immigration, the story of three El Salvador women traveling to the United States. But, one woman carrying a baby dies, and she passes off the baby to another woman who wasn’t kidnapped by the narcos. She crosses the border and takes this child. When Kevin Moriarty invited Cara Mía to collaborate on a co-production, an original new work, we talked about it being the second piece of this trilogy. And then we started workshopping the play, in the context of exploration. At that point, Lee was part of the acting company.
LT: And I was on staff as well, so I was involved with setting up the workshops too. [Trull is now Director of New Play Development.]
When did this process begin?
DL: The first workshop was in December 2012. In later workshops, we advanced our research and created characters and dialogue. Then, it was time to start writing the script and I felt that I had developed a strong rapport with Lee. And it seemed right that a member of each company would be one of the writers. So we would have a team of co-writers, I think that was in the latter part of 2013.
LT: So then we just started poring through research. There were a lot of things we just didn’t understand. Just some normal stuff, like passing a bill and the political system. We had already started a lot of interviews with Dreamers here in North Texas. Long interviews, so we had to transcribe those and pore through that. It took us awhile. I would say really a year ago, 2015, is when we said, “Ok. Now we have a story.” There were certain characters we knew. We had Javi, who was the baby in the first piece, and Dale Jenkins which is this character that [Brierley Resident Acting Company member] Steven [Walters] had come up with in the first workshop. We knew those pieces and we knew we wanted it to be about an activist who finds himself inside the political machine, inside the system. The conflict became clear to us, but the story was tougher to find.
How much source material that you read or investigated is in the final script? Or did your research provide more of a jumping off point for your creative process?
DL: It’s certainly a jumping off point. What we gained from the interviews was the dynamic of what it means to be an activist on the ground level. If you look at 20- and 30-year-old activists that are organizing their own actions, they can run the gamut in terms of the spirit of the action—how confrontational will they be, how diplomatic will they be, how spontaneous, how strategic.
LT: Add to that [they have] full-time jobs and go to college and get fired from those jobs because [they] don’t have documentation. So you’re struggling at all times, all of the human drama of that is really heartbreaking.
DL: Also, the fact that this history hasn’t been written, that the story isn’t over yet. In order for us to pursue this question we were posing about this immigration problem, we needed to create a fiction. And then, the material created by the actors gave us enough of an askew angle or several angles to look from rather than simply a journalistic point of view. It created storytelling opportunities.
In these early workshops, how did the actors help in the exploratory phase of creating this work? Was this before any script was formed?
LT: In the early workshops, we created characters, tableaus, and situations. And then, we threw opposing characters in the scenes together and said [to the actors] go away and create a scene. These scenes maybe had a little dialogue, but it isn’t in our play. It also included moments of storytelling leaps of fancy that I don’t know David and I would have come up on our own. Including, a big plot twist. We thought that it was just a cool exercise, and in fact we kept it out of the play for a long time. And then we were like let’s see what happens if we put it in the play. That’s where a lot of the material comes from, from those early explorations.
What was brilliant about David leading us through that was that the notion of conflict became so clear. This politician and this immigrant should not be in a scene together; it doesn’t make any sense. And you could see immediately, that’s pretty sexy, that’s really dynamic, that’s scary, that’s dangerous for both people. You know, what does that mean? I think even before that stuff found its way in the plot. It guided how David and I thought about the tone of the piece and the boundaries of it. We could stretch it a lot further than we originally thought. It sort of created the canvas and the starting point for us.
How many physical workshops did you hold before you sat down and wrote a script?
LT: We did at least two workshops of that.
DL: That’s where we started. We did the workshops before we had any material. The first workshop is where we first gathered pieces of research material and so it was a starting gun for us. That’s when we reached out to the Dreamers in the community. We interviewed a couple on our own and then we brought the founder of the North Texas Dream Team to a workshop, but we were creating material based on articles and interviews.
The first workshop was interesting because we had Cara Mía’s resident composer playing percussion. And there were simple exercises on exploring any kind of character just through walking and moving with percussion. And that’s what Lee is referring to, we create these environments and experiences that one may not think may belong in a political play. And then as we started looking more intently at story, we started developing scenelets. Just to see what things would happen. The beauty of devising or exploring like this is to see what brilliant spontaneous ideas that a group of people will come up with. Almost every time we started on our feet, added dialogue on our feet, and then we would take notes.
If you have actors creating characters and scenelets in a workshop setting, that sounds like the process for devising a performance. But, from what I have read, you wouldn’t put this play within that genre.
LT: No, at a certain point we sat down and wrote a play. And really wrote a play fairly in the Aristotilian model.
DL: I did want to add that I’ve hesitated in any other interview to use the word “devised” so that people wouldn’t think this was a devised piece. What we did is we took our collaborative playmaking exercises to the first workshops in the interviews I’ve described these workshops as explorations.
LT: I think it’s fair to say, like Steve’s character [Dale Jenkins], Steve invented that character. But we wrote all the lines for the character and move him around. I think it’s important to note that it’s not a devised piece. Then the notion of two writers, with very different styles, writing a play becomes sort of like: “Wait, what did you guys do?”
DL: People who know us as well are surprised as well.
So after the workshops, how did you create the text for this play? What kind of process did you create for yourselves?
LT: The early part of the process was we’d meet at coffee shops or in the office, we got some rhythm going, it took a while. David would write some stuff and I’d write some stuff and we’d talk and we’d fight or we would love the stuff.
DL: We’d try to write together at the same time.
LT: When we got the story down, which took about a year, Kevin [Moriarty] was like, “You have a story now, we’re going to put you in actor housing.” We didn’t spend the night there, but it was for a month, every day, eight hours a day. We’d go to this apartment and work all day.
And the method we eventually came up with, which I think was really fantastic, was first talking through what needs to happen. We’d make notecards, talk and argue until we were on the same page on what the scenes needed to be and then we’d give each other assignment. You write that scene and I’ll write that scene. And then the other writer would simply take the thing you wrote and edit on top of that. Very little discussion. David was always so kind saying, “Here’s what I’m thinking of doing.” I’m like, “Just write it, write all over it.” At that point, our collective DNA is now in every scene. Which means what Will Power was saying to us, “I can’t tell who wrote what.” At some point our voice became a singular thing for this play, or I hope [it did].
DL: It certainly sounds like it’s written in a unified voice. And it took us spinning the scenes back and forth over and over because we needed to. These scenes have existed in 10, 15, 20 variations over the past 15 months. At some point, we started to tap into the voices of the characters. We knew who the characters were we knew how they spoke, we knew their super objectives and storylines.
When you did the public readings this past year, were there any surprises?
LT: I think the big surprise after seclusion in actor housing…
DL: Was that they liked it.
LT: There were strong reactions. We did two readings on two separate nights. And we did a lot of writing in between. At both of the readings we had hosted at the Latino Cultural Center, which houses Cara Mía Theatre, the talkbacks were bananas. They went on for 30 minutes and spilled out into the parking lot. People wouldn’t let us leave, we had to do note sessions with Kevin, and people from both companies would grab us. And that was before the play was even good. They were really caught up and I think that actually gave us a lot of energy and propelled us.
DL: It felt like a performance even though they’re in chairs and music stands and so we could see the performance of these characters and the trajectories in the lives of these characters and the complexities of their lives and decisions and their situations. Although the play had some plot holes at the time or some threads that needed to be tied further and fortified. We could see how these characters were reflecting contemporary problems of having opinions about politics, voting for people for candidates, and supporting grassroots causes.
Did the fact that this play would premiere at a theater like this on a grand scale terrify you a little bit?
LT: For big shows like Deferred Action and [Will Power’s] Stagger Lee you kind of have to say “OK we’re gonna do it.” There’s not a lot of that happening in regional theater world or in New York and it actually makes me quite angry.
LT: Well, you have to take a chance on a show that isn’t done. And that became terrifying for me at least. At a certain level I was thinking, couldn’t we just wait another year? And then, Kevin in those moments says things like ok we’re going to do it. But this was before we had the story knocked out. That the sense of urgency and responsibility at that point becomes really palpable, and it’s really thrilling. Even now, it’s really hard to fathom that on April 20 there’s going to be a preview audience and on April 29, for a while, we’re just going to be done.
DL: I am thankful for the experience that I do have. I’ve been originating original work for 18 years on short schedules, like 10 days. Even the first piece I did with Cara Mía, an opening for the Meadows Museum, we created it in two days; it was like a 45-minute piece.
LT: That’s insane!
What does the rest of your work look like, now that previews are about to begin. Particularly for you, David, since you are also directing this play as well as co-writing it.
LT: We’ll write all the way through previews. That’s how we do it at DTC and David’s not afraid of it. But the difference is that David is putting in 12-13 hour days at this point. Basically, we have to trust each other. David has to turn around and put it on stage, we don’t have a lot of time to sugar coat things. At this point we really need to be a team in the room, which is tricky.
DL: What is interesting is that I am in the heat of rehearsals, I’m managing a room of actors and scenes and a lot of moving pieces and design elements. There is a value of being a writer in that because then I’ll be directing a scene and say, “If we change a line here all of a sudden it accelerates the action in a way that can be helpful.” What’s really interesting is there’s this time crunch and I physically can’t be there to write with Lee. We’ll talk in very clear terms, it’s not an exploratory writing session now so we’re clear about a character wants this and what he will try to do with another character.
LT: It sounds bizarre because there’s another element like that too where David may find something great and I have to go up to David and be the turd in the punchbowl and say “Hey. so that changes the story in this way.” And we either have to say “Cool, let’s change the story” or he says, “Right, we can’t change that.”
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director, performer and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. In her new bi-monthly Work in Progress column, she'll have conversations with playwrights, theatermakers, directors, designers, dramaturgs and others involved in the exciting process of realizing new work from page to stage as she explores new plays and musicals being developed/created by theaters of all budget sizes in North Texas.
Previous Works in Progress columns:
- Len Jenkin's Jonah at Undermain Theatre (April 15, 2016)
NEW WORK CURRENTLY ON LOCAL STAGES
- The Empress and the Pearl by diannetucker, presented by Theatre Three in its basement space, Theatre Too!, through May 1 OUR REVIEW
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- Len Jenkins' Jonah at Undermain Theatre in Deep Ellum OUR REVIEW
SELECT UPCOMING NEW WORK
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- De Troya, developmental readings of a new play by Caridad Svich, presented by Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth, May 15-16 OUR LISTING
- Kitchen Dog Theater's New Works Festival, featuring the National New Play Network Rolling World Premieres of Steve Yockey's The Thrush and the Woodpecker and Blackberry Winter, which will run in repertory, plus readings of new plays and PUP Fest with Junior Players, May 20-June 25 OUR LISTING