La Historia as Theatre: Interview with Playwright, Carmen Rivera

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Carmen Rivera is a Puerto Rican writer in New York who holds an MA in Playwriting and Latin American Theatre from New York University. Her OBIE-Award winning play La Gringa, just celebrated its’ 20th year anniversary in repertory at Repertorio Español. It is now the longest running Spanish language play in Off-Broadway history. Her Off-Broadway productions include: La Lupe: My Life, My Destiny (2002 ACE Award – Best Production); Julia de Burgos: Child of Water; To Catch The Lightning (1997 Nomination ACE Award – Best Production); The Next Stop (INTAR / Repertorio  Español); Under The Mango Tree (INTAR).

Carmen is a Founding Member and Co-Executive Director of E.P.P. (Educational Play Productions), which brings plays that deal with social issues into the public schools. She is also a Teacher Artist with Manhattan Theatre Club, Arts Connections and Teachers and Writers.

BA: Your play about the life of Julia de Burgos has been performed across the Puerto Rican Diaspora, especially during last year’s centennial of her birth. Where did the idea come from?

CR: I’ve always liked historical plays. I love history and cultural figures. I was commissioned to write a play about Julia de Burgos back in 1997 by the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. I was excited and honored to write about Julia. When I first started I felt paralyzed. She is such a massive figure. I think it took me six months to figure her out. I needed to find her fears, her loves, her dreams – her humanity. I finally found that woman. She was a woman that would do something 1,000% percent. She loved her lover, being married, and trying to be housewife, loving her child

BA: Your other more recent play is about Rafael Trujillo. He is so different from Julia de Burgos. Why him?

CR: I had been working on with a producer, years ago, on some other projects. He mentioned that he wanted to make a play about Trujillo. Unfortunately we never started the project because the producer passed away. Since I did my graduate thesis on dictatorships and theatre, I’m attracted to the themes of violence and oppression. I worked on it for five years and it was finally picked up.

BA: How do you feel about your play La Gringa celebrating its 18th anniversary?

CR: Oh it a bendicion. I feel great and now that the play’s published now and new generations are discovering it. It’s humbling and overwhelming at the same time.

BA: Do you think the feeling of being both and neither Puerto Rican and “American” ever goes away or is resolved, themes explored in La Gringa?

CR: For me, at least, it has changed over the years. It doesn’t affect me as much. I know I am my own person and I know my culture. It is a culture that is multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. I know I can call both places home. Even someone like Julia [de Burgos] went through the same thing. She had to accept that duality within herself. She was trying to reconcile the married woman and mother with the artist. She had to figure out how to become her own person.

BA: Do you think exploring the experience of the Puerto Rican Diaspora is important?

CR: Yes it is important. We are adding to the narrative. It’s a new chapter in our experience. We are also taking back our narrative. There are so many negative messages coming from society and the media. Society is telling you who you are. It is telling you who is significant and who is not. People internalize these messages. By exploring our experience, we are redefining culture. We are affirming and declaring who we are.

BA: How or when did you know you wanted to be a writer/ playwright?

CR: I knew it since I was a kid. I didn’t know I was creating plays but I was. I would watch television shows and write a part for myself in the show. My favorite show was Lost in Space. I would design the clothing and the scenarios. When I was older, I took a writing class. The teacher looked at my work and told me that I should be a writer. He met with me and I slowly developed a collection of short stories. After that, I took a detour and worked in corporate America for three years. I didn’t like it but I saved money and got up the courage to become a writer. I would take free writing classes at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. I took a playwriting class and it just made so much sense. I loved it. I took classes in all aspects of theater and learned how to be a better-rounded playwright.

BA: What does your family think about your craft and your plays?

CR: Well, they didn’t like it at first. They were worried about how I was going to survive. It took them awhile to come around but they like it now. They’ve been able to see that I’ve never really been materialistic and this makes me happy. They are so loving and supportive. They all came to the Trujillo play.

BA: What is it like having a husband that is also a playwright?

CR: It’s great. We were friends before we even started dating. So we’re very supportive of each other, especially if one of us is on a deadline. We totally get it and hold down the fort if the other one is busy or away. Of course we have a regular husband and wife relationship. It can be tough if we’re both under pressure. We might get snappy if we have productions going on at the same time. But we try to not have things get too deep. We actually just celebrated our 20th anniversary last year.

BA: You write a lot. How do you balance the call to write and life in general?

CR: It can be tough. Sometimes there isn’t a balance and things inevitably fall by the wayside. The nature of my freelance work can be hard. There’s freedom in freelance work but freedom isn’t free. There are mostly good days and a few bad ones. Sometimes I don’t see my mom for months a time, and when I realize it I think that’s not good. A month could feel like a day in this life.

BA: If you could live anywhere, that’s not New York City, where would you live?

CR: It would definitely be Rome. I went there for the first time when I was 24-years-old. I went on a tour with my mom and I felt like I had lived there before. When we had a free day, we walked around and I knew where everything was. We didn’t get lost, not once. I also went there with my husband for our honeymoon.

BA: What is your idea of the perfect day?
CR: It would be being at the beach, like in Puerto Rico. I just love beaches and the water. I love sailing too. If I could be at the beach with my Candido and my family – that would be perfection.

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