Dallas — Teresa Marrero proposed a set of questions to the cast members of FUR, the Teatro Dallas production of one of award-winning playwright Migdalia Cruz’s most well-known plays. Under the direction of Colombian-born Sorany Gutiérrez, now the new artistic director at TD, the cast members include Lindsay Hayward (Citrona, a hirsute woman), Isaiah Cazares (Michael, who buys Citrona and keeps her in a cage, albeit a large cage), and Courtney Mentzel (Nena, Citrona’s caretaker). This is an unusual story of love that questions our notions beauty and the beast. Under Gutiérrez’s direction it goes beyond these binaries. Gutierrez’s responses were translated from Spanish by Marrero and approved by her.
Teresa Marrero has been attending some rehearsals in order to closely follow the process of character-building for this ephemeral work that was originally published in her first co-edited anthology (with Obie winner Caridad Svich), Out of the Fringe, Contemporary Latina/o Theater and Performance (NYC, Theater Communications Group, 2000). Marrero and another UNT professor, Dr. Priscilla Ybarra, were commissioned by the Latinx Theatre Common’s El Fuego Project to document this production. They are in the process of writing a blog for the LTC webpage and also a full academic article for publication in a forthcoming EL Fuego anthology, co-edited by the two project leaders, Dr. Irma Mayorga (Dartmouth) and U. of Oregon doctoral candidate and emerita director of Portland’s Milagro Theatre, Olga Sánchez Saltveit.
TheaterJones: Sorany, what drew you to this play?
Gutiérrez (director): The story attracted me in the first place. It seemed to me a very contemporary love story, albeit a sickly one. It was different and fascinating, with many possible readings and interpretations. I love the creative process that emerges with stories that bring up numerous questions, and this piece is one of them. In second place, I was fascinated by the idea of collaborating with a playwright that is still producing work, and furthermore that she is woman, and a Latina artist in the U.S.
For the actors, what drew you to audition for this play and role?
Cazares (Michael): There were several factors that drew me to audition for Migdalia Cruz’s FUR at Teatro Dallas. The first attraction, in all sincerity, had to do with nostalgia. In my early years in New York City, I had a wonderful opportunity to work with Migdalia Cruz on a new play of hers called SALT, for the Actor’s Studio Free Theatre on Theatre Row. It was a produced by Arthur Penn and directed by Loretta Greco who went on to become the McCarter Theatre’s Artistic Director for some time. Migdalia Cruz’s plays are these archetypal landscapes that appeal to my love of magic surrealism with a brutally real texture of human experiences that attract me. Migdalia’s frightening, poetic, and viscerally captivating stories of humanity are amazing challenges for actors. The second was a desire to work with Teatro Dallas after a 20plus year absence from this city. Cora Cardona cast me as a young actor in the late 80s in a traveling school show about teenage gang life. I’d always admired the powerful theatre Cora had and has produced in Dallas during its tenure in the local arts scene. Lastly, it was the dimensionality of the character of Michael that drew me to audition for FUR. Roles that challenge my natural rhythms, emotional and physical range are always the most difficult and attractive to portray. Cruz has written a complex male role that is caught between his childhood dissonance and male dysphoria and in search for redemptive love. Don’t we all just want to be happy?
Hayward (Citrona): I stumbled upon FUR by accident in early 2018 and read Cruz’s script in one sitting. Such a savage retelling of an age-old fable. Something crude yet strangely beautiful. And the role of Citrona offers the opportunity to inhabit a smorgasbord of human emotions. All while being viewed as “inhuman.” A paradox not often available to female actors. When Teatro Dallas announced the show, my original thought was “There’s a risk.” At first, I wasn’t sure if someone like me should even audition for the play. Ultimately though, it all came back to the idea of chance. Actors should always strive to ‘raise the stakes’ as it were. So I took the risk, and am so glad I did.
Mentzel (Nena): I was encouraged by a friend to audition and after reading the script, I could tell that FUR was a show and role that terrified and excited me all at the same time. I knew it would push and challenge me as an actor and artist and thus, I was eager to audition. I also found it very interesting that the script and themes in the show continue to resonate in our current culture and climate. This show was written in the late 90s' and while that is not that long ago, it also could have easily been written this year.
How would you describe your own process of character building?
Hayward: My character work varies based on the piece or production. Often the lone commonality is how tedious others would find my process. I once worked on a production with this sign on the rehearsal hall: “Rehearsal isn’t for learning your part. It’s for learning your fellow actor’s parts. And your preparation, commitment, and dedication to real communication is your gift for the entire show.” I liked that.
Mentzel: In regards to my own process, I tend to approach a character by first reading the play and gathering all the information that is found within the text. This information usually comes from the character description, what my character says about herself in the text, and what the other characters in the play say about her. From there and throughout the rehearsal process, I trust my natural instincts of who I believe this character to be and combine that with the director's vision and my fellow actor's vision of their character and their relationship to me. I absolutely love the "table-work" part of the process where we sit down and discuss who our character is, what happens between all three characters in the play, how we feel about each other, and truly flesh out every single detail. Taking the time during a process to talk about our characters and moments is so helpful especially in a complex play like FUR.
Cazares: My process comes from my educational and training background. It starts with the text and then the layers of the weekly rehearsal process. Table reads, blocking, working scenes, to final stumble through to refine subtle emotional “moment to moment” work within scenes before getting to technical runs for opening week. My process begins with the playwright’s placement of direct and indirect clues to help build a tangible and relatable character. Our first read-throughs of the play help me take notes about what is said about my character through others in the world of the play, and how a character describes themselves. Auto description, and peripheral description are the first clues to building a rational and concrete character. I take in all of the details the playwright has given with setting descriptions through to the year a play was written. Any context clues and inferred clues are helpful to building a character that you find actions to embody in the acting of every scene. Reading the play three times before going into rehearsal mode helps to gather as many informational details as possible to start putting a character on its feet. The additional processes include the blocking of scenes with a discovery and understanding of where the character is in a given scene, circumstances, context of the overall structure of the story, and then what specific slice of story does each scene represent. I then try to ask and define how each scene my character is in defines the arch of the character’s journey in the play. The remaining challenges rest in a collaborative effort between director and myself to find clear actions and movements within scenes to live out on stage the wants and needs of each character as prescribed by the playwright. I work in collaboration with the director’s interpretation to balance telling the same story about the character I play. I ask questions about what is organic to the details of the play and what we create to add to the gaps that leave room for interpretation. We review and revisit problem areas by running scenes until both text and blocking are organic and solid.
Sorany, how would you describe your own process of directing and interaction with the actors? (Feel free to reference your Latin American background and training).
Gutiérrez: Each process of creation is a new learning experience. It should always begin with a precise question for me as well as for the actors and the creative team. The question with which I always begin is: Why do we do theater? The responses are always the best way I can recognize with whom I am working. It is also a way for me to reaffirm why I do what I do. It is clear that I love questions, I am also very much in favor that the actors be participants in finding the answers. Even though I may have my own answers ahead of time, I like to motivate the actors to have an active, creative role in the process. However, here I have found that sometimes the actors get confused because perhaps I do not fit in as a director within traditional U.S. standards. This is due to my background as an actor, since I have had the opportunity to study with many directors (Russian, European, and Latinos); I have retained the ones that have taught me to create and let go of the ones that only told me what I had to do onstage. This is what I try to relay to my actors. The process of creation for FUR in particular has been interesting because it is a fascinating text, full of beautiful language and very complex characters charged with symbolism. One of the first questions that I came up with for myself as director was: How can this piece be put into action? How can I connect the symbolic elements with real-life objects? I gave myself the task of finding various resources so that in each monologue, the actors had to connect with a concrete physical action, sound or visual aspect that went beyond the verbal language. So it was as we advanced page by page that we came to an understanding of the text, the characters, and the actions. In this way, the actors faced a new challenge for each scene. This process has been particularly fascinating because I have a very professional cast of actors, even though my process has not been easy for all of them.
For the actors, how would you describe the creative process of acting under Sorany as a director? (How is it similar or different from other experiences?)
Mentzel: On the first day of rehearsal, Sorany mentioned to us that she "loves to solve problems and answer questions,' and I think that is really inspiring coming from a director and especially helpful in a show like 'FUR' that has so many problems to solve and questions to answer. She continues to challenge and push us in every single rehearsal and cultivates a very collaborative environment where we as actors are free to ask questions and suggest solutions.
Cazares: Sorany’s creative process is one of problem solving. She’s articulated a directorial philosophy that a play is like a set of questions that require a set of solutions or responses. Most of Sorany’s process of table work or text analysis happened in tandem with blocking. We’ve been ironing out scene problems by reviewing scenes until they are working on several levels. One: blocking, two: rational with characters motivations and objectives, three: refining the intricate relationships between characters. The later at this point has to do with making sure that acting choices are fully justified by the blocking choices and actions played by each character in each scene. Sorany’s process is similar in that it has all of the normal rehearsal production layers, but she likes to combine the text work, character analysis, and blocking all in one to create a collaborative discussion environment of creative arbitration between the actor and director. Its “six or one half of the other” (I think that’s the idiom.) all in all it’s still a half dozen or the same components just a personal approach. She doesn’t like to dictate choices for the actor, but rather wants to hear how an actor would solve a problem based on their understanding of the scene and its demands. Her process has encouraged me to work a little faster than I am used to, but it’s like having a trainer that pushes you to have a great work out by working a total body experience at every session. In short, we did a few read-through of the play, started blocking, added scene work, and moved on to stumble-through to put all of the parts together which is pretty standard process.
Hayward: Sorany’s approach to such a distinctly different script is greatly appreciated. She uses the term “play” a lot within the rehearsal space which we certainly do! In many ways, her aesthetic is similar to such European-based directors as Tricycle Theatre’s Montse Gill and The RSC’s Andrew Jarvis. (I had the great honor of working with both of these artists while in London.) Her commitment to this piece is evident, and as a performer, I admire her dedication.
Sorany, what is your vision of the costume and set design?
With regards to the set, I love structures and objects that transform into something else. I don’t like purely decorative pieces for the space, but rather ones that may be used and play an active role. In FUR our stage design consists of only 4 elements: a cage, a set of stairs, a rectangular piece that will be used in various positions and at different moments to create a sense of a different space, and a window/projection screen. We will also have audio-visual elements and a surveillance camera which are not included in the original text but will assume an important part of the narration.
The costume design, particularly Citrona’s, is something that we have created hand in hand with Kristin Colaneri. It has been a total challenge to depart from traditional notions in order to represent a beast that is also beautiful, and yet she can also be androgynous. The post-apocalyptic notion that playwright Migdalia Cruz suggested in 1995 (when the play was written) may just be our actual, 2019 reality. So it is with this idea that we created the costumes for the other two characters, who use more neutral clothing, with a few accessories that contribute an extemporal look: current, futuristic and classical all at once.
Thank you, one and all. Wishing you the Spanish version of break a leg: ¡Mucha mierda!
» Teresa Marrero is professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is a member of the American Theater Critics Association and is on the Advisory board of the Latinx Theater Commons. She is coeditor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Trevor Boffone (U of Houston) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (May 2019, Northwestern University Press). Teresa.Marrero@unt.edu