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Capital Fringe Preview 2014: ‘La Llorona’- An interview with Playwright Amanda Zeitler

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Thee Candidates Graduate Theatre Company presents a production of Amanda Zeitler’s La Llorona in this year’s Capital Fringe festival. The play recently won the Wichita State University National Playwriting Contest and will receive an additional production there this November. La Llorona  is loosely based on the widespread North and South American folk tale of the same name.

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Most variations of the legend are about a woman who drowns her children to be with the man she loves only for him to spurn her. The woman goes mad with rage and regret, kills herself, and finds that she can’t enter heaven without her dead children accompanying her. To this day, La Llorona (which translates to “the weeping woman”) haunts the Earth in search of her children, crying their names and even sometimes kidnapping other kids (particularly ones who disobey their parents, if you believe the folks who stand to benefit from scaring the bejesus out of little kids).

Playwright Amanda Zeitler riffs on the “weeping woman” folk tale by placing it in a modern context. A woman named Marina Renaldo is accused of drowning her children. Andy Walker, her court-appointed attorney, is concealing a pregnancy from her husband. As the action unravels, Andy peels away the layers of Marina’s case and is forced to wrestle with concepts of justice, purpose, and motherhood.

La Llorona dramaturg Robert Montenegro sat down with Amanda Zeitler to discuss the play and her first foray into self-production.

Robert Montenegro: Tell me about the first time you heard the “La Llorona” legend and why you chose it as the foundation of this play.

Amanda Zeitler: Well, the first time I heard the story was actually when I was 8-years-old so the idea of adapting it came much later. After I graduated college and was getting ready to do the graduate school thing I was out camping with some friends (most of whom were Hispanic) and – naturally — ghost stories came up and one of the guys told the “La Llorona” story.

At that adult point in my life, rather than being scared about the prospect of being “dragged to my watery fucking grave” (as Marina would put it), I was mostly confused about the logic – what is it about abandonment that makes someone want to drown their kids? How does that make sense as revenge? The kids didn’t do anything.

So I basically wanted to explore what could possibly motivate someone to do that.

Cool – How about the decision to frame those thoughts in a legal setting?

I don’t know if there was a specific reason I wanted to examine from the legal perspective. Part of that probably came out of the fact that I was working for an attorney’s office at the time.

Take me through the development of your characters and their relationships.

I hooked onto Marina and Andy’s characters right away but the third character kept changing. I originally wanted to have flashbacks with Marina’s daughter, Elise, in scenes breaking up the jail visits. But I thought that would give away the ending too fast.

Jude came out of basically an experiment – I was trying to learn more about Andy so I wrote a scene about what her life at home was like, and that included Jude. And then I really just enjoyed writing about their incredibly messed up relationship and it started to take over aspects of the play and changed the trajectory to an extent. I guess “enjoyed” is a weird word in this context, isn’t it?

Never! It’s the great delight of playwrights to put their characters through misery.

True I suppose! Better them then us! But yeah adding that scene suddenly made the play a lot more about Andy than Marina, who at first was my “la llorona.” But if you really watch Andy, I think you can make the argument that they both fit the character

Considering the ways the play has changed, do you still see the story you intended to write or have you discovered a new direction with new themes?

Is it cheating to see both?

Of course not. What’s something you started out writing that you lost and what’s something you discovered in the midst?

I still got to keep my big twist reveal (which I won’t mention here) but it was a smaller part of the story before. The story became more about two women instead of one. I think I was able to hang on to the gist and the themes that I originally set out with, but I ended up tapping into a lot of other things. I started out trying to answer the question “Why would someone murder their own children?” And instead ended up answering (or exploring if not answering) other questions:

“What is murder?”

“What is woman’s place in the 21st century – at home or in the office and can she REALLY do both?”

“How does motherhood change a person? How does it change their relationships?”

Also I discovered just how universal folktales can be and how they can inform and apply to everyone’s daily lives. I hope that all makes sense when people see the show

Did any other plays or playwrights influence your process or style for this play? How does La Llorona compare to other stuff you’ve written?

I think it’s a lot darker than anything I’ve ever written before. I mean, I don’t hold back when it comes to writing dark things but this one takes the cake I think.

I can’t think of an “established” writer that influenced this particular work, but I will admit I was watching a lot of Law and Order at the time so the melodramatic courtroom impulse was a bit hard to fight. I think what influenced me most were the fellow playwrights in my workshop at the time. Matthew Buckley Smith in particular asked some of the hardest questions – every time I brought in pages I felt like he had some question about “how realistic is this?” “how could this character not realize that happening right under his nose when in other scenes he is so observant?”

Lots of things that at the time felt nit-picky and caused TONS of re-writes but in the end helped make it a better script.

Oh I think I had read some Pinter recently too because the original drafts of the first few scenes had about a million pauses. I have since cut as many pauses as possible.

What sort of research did you do to help you write about lawyers and jail and the entire criminal justice world?

It turns out not enough – my poor dramaturg has been slaving away for weeks correcting my mistakes on pre-trial procedures.

But as I said earlier, I spent many years working as a receptionist and administrative assistant at various legal offices so I had a general knowledge about how due process works and what sorts of motions and pleadings might need to be filed.

I skimmed through the CUA Law Library once to find copies of police reports to try to get the wording on Andy’s documents right. And again, watched waaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyy too much Law and Order.

Hey, it gets the job done! We’ll switch gears here — tell me about balancing the duties of playwright with producer. How is that experience? What have you learned?

Oy. Well it’s been interesting. Turns out there is a lot more to producing than I ever imagined. Thank God, Lelia TahaBurt, my director, has some production experience or I would probably be lost without her. I wish I had allowed myself more time to commit to producer-y things. I feel like sometimes I have dropped the ball because I am also keeping my personal life afloat with 2 jobs. And doing re-writes on the script, on top of all that, has been a big challenge.

I am pleased with the edits that have happened in the room but wish I could have taken more time to just be a writer, rather than a writer/producer.

But all that said, I have really enjoyed it. I like being able to organize things and call the shots on my own project.

How about the experience of working with so many of your school associates in a semi-professional setting? Your two leading ladies – Teresa Catherine (Andy) & Briana Manente (Marina) are both MFA students at Catholic like yourself. 

It’s been great. There is an advantage to it in that I already know what they are capable of so I felt I could trust them implicitly from the get go, which is hard to do when you are working with a lot of unknowns. Also we all know each other’s styles of working already, as well as general social and work schedules so it’s easy to communicate. We didn’t have to spend time at the beginning of the process getting to know each other’s habits and pet peeves.

Amanda Zeitler.

Amanda Zeitler.

Finally, what do you expect audiences to get from this production? What message is there for them to absorb?

On a really basic level I am hoping that audiences are simply emotionally moved because it’s a rough play. But I also hope they think about the stories and folktales that surround their lives and look at how maybe those tales affect the way they live. And most importantly I hope they get a sense that people are not always who they seem to be – behind every disturbing news story or piece of gossip we hear, there is a real human tragedy going on that affects so many people. And those people who we think of as the “villains” probably have their own personal tragedy.

I hope it gives them a chance to reflect on the pieces of information that we don’t hear in the news – who are those people really? What drives them? And who are the people around them? Who are we to judge them? What is justice? Who deserves it? Do we really live in a broken system? Are Andy’s ideals naive? Or can we make this system work?

Lots of food for thought.

Anything else you’d like to add for the end of the interview?

Come see the show! It’s gonna’ great!

Not much besides that really.

Terrific. Thank you.

La Llorona by Amanda Zeitler is presented by Thee Candidates Graduate Theatre Company as part of the 2014 Capital Fringe Festival.

Featuring Teresa Catherine, Briana Manente, and Ben Calman. Directed by Lelia Tahaburt.

 Fort Fringe – The Bedroom-612 L Street NW, in Washington, DC 

Sunday, July 13 @ 1:45 pm
Friday, July 18 @ 6:30 pm
Saturday, July 19 @ 8:30 pm
Friday, July 25 @ 6:30 pm
Sunday, July 27 @ 1:45 pm

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PURCHASE TICKETS HERE, OR CALL (866) 811-4111.

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