Meet The Artist: THE RIVER BRIDE Playwright Marisela Treviño Orta
AUTHOR: Erin Treat, Online Engagement Coordinator
Marisela Treviño Orta is an award-winning playwright in her third year of study at the Iowa Playwrights Workshop. Her plays include: American Triage, Braided Sorrow (2006 Chicano/Latino Literary Prize in Drama, 2009 Pen Center USA Literary Award in Drama), Ghost Limb (2017 Brava Theater world premiere), Heart Shaped Nebula (2015 Shotgun Players world premiere), and Woman on Fire (2016 Camino Real Productions world premiere). Currently, she is working on a cycle of fairy tales inspired by Latinx mythology, which includes The River Bride (2016 Oregon Shakespeare Festival world premiere), Wolf at the Door, and Alcira.
How did you begin writing for theatre?
I found my way to theatre quite haphazardly. Unlike many of my playwriting peers, I didn’t grow up going to theatre. But I did write from a very young age – short stories and fiction. In high school I found my way to poetry and was a poet for about 10 years. I left my home state of Texas for California when I enrolled at the University of San Francisco to get an MFA in Creative Writing. While at USF, I studied poetry and found my way to theatre.
My on-campus job at USF introduced me to a social justice theatre company made up of Latino immigrants who were working in the city’s Mission district. I joined as their Resident Poet and after a year of watching them collectively write plays, I decided to explore the genre.
My last semester in grad school I audited a playwriting class with the goal of writing my first full-length play. My instructor, playwright Christine Evans, encouraged me to submit to the 2005 Bay Area Playwrights Festival, and my play Braided Sorrow was accepted as part of the festival lineup. The Bay Area Playwrights Festival was what really put me onto the playwriting path. Theatre was such a welcoming community that encouraged and supported my early work. And unlike poetry, it’s not a solitary process. Instead, theatre is collaborative and allows for other artists to interpret my work, to bring their own creativity to set design, costumes, lighting, sound, and direction.
Can you talk a little bit about the development of this piece? What was your inspiration?
This is kind of a silly story. But the point is that inspiration come from anywhere. For me it was a TV show called River Monsters. It’s pretty dramatic for a show about a man fishing.
I was watching a marathon of River Monster episodes. And the producers – to make these re-runs more interesting – had decided to post fun facts at the bottom of the TV screen. While watching the episode about piranhas in the Amazon, there was an entire section on the river dolphins that live in the Amazon River. Then a bit of trivia flashed across the bottom of the TV screen – a brief mention about the Amazonian folklore that the river dolphins turn into handsome men.
It’s really fortuitous that I happened to look at the TV screen at that moment because I was folding laundry. I was already working on my play Wolf at the Door, and there just so happens to be a shapeshifting character in it. I had realized recently that Wolf at the Door was a fairy tale, and I had it in my head that I should write a trio of fairy tale plays. When I saw the information about the river dolphins transforming, I knew that was the seed of the next play.
After the initial spark of inspiration, I usually begin a play with gathering images. The photographer Toni Frissell and her work – especially her photos from Weeki Wachee, Florida – became a wonderful touchstone for the play.
The first draft I wrote pretty quickly. Though, at the beginning of the process I was very confused by the formal way the characters were speaking. That may sound odd – that the playwright was surprised by the way her own characters spoke. But for me, I focus on characters that begin to feel so real it’s like they take over and tell me what they’re doing and how they sound.
Originally, I had planned for Blemira to be the main character. But after the first scene with her sister Helena, I found myself drawn to the older sister. This shift meant re-imagining the boto (Amazon dolphin) as well. Traditionally, the boto is kind of a trickster. But in The River Bride he’s more like Hans Christian Andersen’s mermaid.
The River Bride had a first-look production in 2014 at AlterTheater, a university production at Santa Clara in 2015, and then its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2016.
Did the experience of getting it on its feet for the world premiere prompt you to make any changes to the script or reveal anything new to you?
Going into the world premiere, I knew I wanted to work on the younger sister Belmira. While I think she’ll always be a polarizing character, I wanted to make sure she was not the villain of the play. The River Bride is a cautionary tale about love – about letting fear and insecurity getting in the way of love.
During the world premiere rehearsal process, I rewrote one of the scenes at the end of the play that specifically addressed this issue. We dedicated an entire rehearsal day to working the scene in what I called the “Thunderdome” rehearsal – three versions of the scene were pitted against one another until it was clear which version best suited the narrative.
According to HowlRound, The River Bride is part of your “grim Latino fairy tale cycle,” along with Wolf at the Door and Alcira. What do these plays have in common? Where does The River Bride fall in the cycle?
The River Bride was the second play I started in the cycle, but the first one I finished. Wolf at the Door is the play that kicked off the cycle, and in fact when I began writing that play I had no idea that I was writing a fairy tale. I had set out to write a myth, but was perplexed by the play. I didn’t quite have a handle on it.
It was while watching Jim Henson’s The Storyteller that I realized Wolf at the Door was in fact a fairy tale. But when I say “fairy tale” I don’t mean the sanitized Disney versions. I’m drawing inspiration from much older and darker stories, like the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. Those stories were dark and often violent because they were helping children navigate a dangerous world. I think of the plays in my cycle as cautionary tales for adults to help us navigate our emotional lives.
The Western fairy tale canon also offers me a well-known structure and familiar tropes such as the use of the number three, tests of character, love at first sight, and transformations – in fact, currently all of the plays in the cycle have shapeshifting character.
That’s the fairy tale side of the cycle. But I call my plays grim Latino fairy tales because each play in my cycle is also inspired by a specific folklore or mythology from Latino culture. The River Bride is inspired by the folklore about the river dolphins, Wolf at the Door is inspired by Mesoamerican beliefs about the afterlife, and Alcira is inspired by Aztec mythology.
Do you have a favorite moment in The River Bride that you’d like to share (without giving away any spoilers, of course)?
My favorite moment came out of the world premiere rehearsal process – just something an actor improvised, but it so perfectly encapsulated the love story between Sr. and Sra. Costa. I’ve often enjoyed their love story – the example of a couple so very much in love after more than eighteen years together.
This isn’t really a spoiler – because I won’t tell you exactly when it happens – but I call it the “caveman moment.” Sr. Costa picks up Sra. Costa and carries her off. Only thing is, I can’t guarantee that it will be in every production – because each show will need to take into account whether actors can safely create this moment. We don’t want actors to throw out their back. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this moment can be a part of this particular production.
What does the future hold for you, in terms of readings and productions of your work? Are you currently working on any new plays?
I am currently in my final year at the Iowa Playwrights Workshop where I am getting my second MFA – this one in playwriting, obviously. This last year is pretty hectic – I’m teaching, I’m a student, I’m thinking about what’s next, and juggling outside projects as a professional playwright.
After I graduate I have a few projects lined up. One is the world premiere of Wolf at the Door, the next play in my fairy tale cycle. That production will be with New Jersey Rep. I’m really excited about that play. And I’m also working on an adaptation of a young adult novel for a children’s theatre and a commission inspired by the Bay Area which I used to call home.