Hometown: Rocky Point, NY
This week I got to talk to another familiar playwright to me: Catia Cunha. She is one of the eight 2012 Young Playwrights Inc. National Competition winners. All of the winners will be joining us next month for our annual Young Playwrights Conference in New York City. In Catia’s winning play, Legs (formerly named The Last M&M), the connections between love, admiration, and sacrifice are explored through the relationship between a man and a woman.
When did you start writing plays and why?
Okay, so I was in ninth grade, and I was taking a class at a local college and we had to write a 10-minute play for it, and at the same time I was in a production of You Can’t Take It With You [by George Kaufman and Moss Hart]—I was playing the mother, who is also a playwright—so the combination of the two… When I started writing the play for that class I was really nervous about it, and then I got into it and I was really excited about writing it. And then I heard about [Young Playwrights Inc.] from there, and I was passionately in love with it… I wrote Legs in a workshop with Thomas Bradshaw when he came to visit [Mount Holyoke] my first year here. The prompt he gave us was to write a love story marked by cruelty and try to make it still something that people could connect to. And I think from there I was thinking: could the cruelty be perceived as cruelty by other people but within the relationship itself not actually be a cruelty?
I can totally see that. Does Tom know that this play won?
I keep meaning to write to him.
I am sure he would be thrilled to know that the writing exercise was so fruitful! There is an…experiential aspect to it that makes me not want to give too much away, because some of the people reading this interview will be attending your reading in January. What do you tell people when they ask you about the play?
I call it “the centipede play” (laughing). I tell them that it’s the one with bugs in it.
All right, and maybe we will leave that up to our readers to reconcile how that fits into “a love story marked by cruelty”… Let’s talk about these two characters in your play: He and She. Why did you choose “He” and “She” instead of, for example, “Ralph” and “Gertrude”?
In my writing classes the naming of the characters is relatively unimportant to me, and I usually don’t have them named until I am done with the project and then I go back and I think, “well, that could fit”. I have actually stopped using recognizable character names for my plays, and I think He and She was also an abstraction so they are meant to be this typical love story, but that plays out in an atypical way. So, by naming them something so abstract it’s my way of looking at that typical love story and saying that there are so many ways that it doesn’t play out the same way.
When you look at the other plays that you have written, in what ways is this play similar to those and in what ways is it different?
A lot of my plays are about relationships between people—specifically between a man and a woman, and I think what is different about this play is that it is not a cynical view of love. These people do really love each other, they just have a really odd way of showing it.
Can you share a time when you have collaborated with someone on a play?
I am proposing one of my plays to the Mount Holyoke College student theater organization right now. So I am working with three other people: someone who is going to direct it, and then a stage manager, and a producer…And that has been a really good experience so far because I have worked with the director before—not on my own plays—but she has a really good sense of what’s important about my work and we are able to give each other really good feedback.
Now this is just a hypothetical: If you could collaborate with anyone or just talk with anyone in the theater world, who would be on your wish-list?
Um, oh man. I would love to meet Caryl Churchill…
And what would you say to her?
I would just stare at her…
…or what would you want her to say to you?
I guess I would want to know how she—I think one of the most influential things on my writing is that opening monologue in her play The Striker. It’s so much wordplay and so much stringing together these different…some of them are clichés…like she says things like “king-sized” and you think she’s going to say “candy bar” and then she says something like “English royalty,” and it’s just like everything fits together and it’s so jumbled but when you see it in the larger context of the entire plot of the play it’s just so brilliant…and then within that [she] has things that rhyme and sound similar but are completely different meanings than what she is trying to get to in the sentence…I try to do the same kind of wordplay in my plays and I don’t always…
So the language of your plays is something that she’s influenced. Do you have any other writers whose work has inspired you?
Actually I have been thinking a lot about [the aerial theater piece], Fuerza Bruta lately. I’m really interested in theater with less of traditional aspects. [In Fuerza Bruta there aren’t a lot of] things that usually make theater like [conventional] lights and sound and having the proscenium stage…They make you move around and there’s water on the stage.
Yeah, it’s a very different experience being an audience member in that kind of theater. It is sort of the anti “unwrap-your-candies-and-sit-quietly” convention. In the collaboration you are currently working on at school are you producing Legs or another one of your plays?
I’m doing another one of my plays. It’s called Blank Space, and it’s about people and their connections to each other even if they are not in the same space. Specifically, a lot of the characters are lonely so they make these characters up in their heads but the characters that they are making up also exist in other spaces…It’s very, I think, avant-garde, which would make sense because I was taking this theater history class while I was writing it where we were learning about futurism and the avant-garde movement and it was very inspirational.
Would you say that a lot of your work would fall under the category avant-garde?
I think probably a lot of it does but this one was the most intentionally avant-garde.
Where does Legs fit into this spectrum?
I think it was an uninformed attempt at avant-garde, and I think that the stage directions are more avant-garde than the actual dialogue. I wanted to leave it up to various interpretations, so [for example] there is a stage direction: “They love each other, whatever that means.” I kind of meant this ritualistic kind of movement between the characters that is not really recognizable as a symbol of affection, but is that.
And also, it’s a brief play—a lot of plays that I have read of yours tend to be these… bursts. The one that you are doing at school now, is that longer?
Yeah, it’s a three-act.
But it is also a lot of really short scenes and there is a larger story but it is cut through with almost vaudeville-esque aspects.
I just have one more question for you: What color is your hair now?
It’s purple, but it’s going to not be purple when I am there.
Do you know what it IS going to be when you are here?
I am going to probably make it blond again…(laughing) I am trying to grow it out so I can have “Bieber hair.” I miss having my hair in front of my eyes.
I can’t wait to see you and your blond “Bieber hair” in January, and introduce you to the rest of the writers!
Catia Cunha will be joining seven other playwrights at the 2013 Young Playwrights Conference in New York City, January 9-17. This year we will be inviting members of the Young Playwrights family (like you!) to the readings of these talented young writers.
The deadline for writers in the United States aged 18 and under to submit a play to our 2013 competition is January 2nd.
Elizabeth Bojsza, Literary Manager