The Writer's Block: Playwright Migdalia Cruz
Updated: Nov 10, 2021
Welcome to The Writer’s Block, a new feature where we hang out with writers and talk about the art of storytelling. Our interview was recorded, transcribed, and gently edited for ease of reading.
TR is pleased to feature playwright Migdalia Cruz for the first installment of The Writer’s Block. Migdalia is an award-winning playwright who has written more than sixty plays, operas, screenplays, and musicals. Her work has been produced across the U.S. and abroad.
As we celebrate the women in Westchester this month, it’s only fitting that we should highlight this wonderful woman playwright, a Nuyorican currently residing in Westchester. Welcome Migdalia Cruz.
Thank you so much for being our first interview for Theatre Revolution’s Writer’s Block. I’m thrilled to get a chance to speak with you. To start our conversation, I’m always interested in how and when playwrights discovered they were playwrights. In children’s theatre programs, there is such focus on acting and producing a show and very little on the writing. When did you figure it out?
MC: I wrote my first play when I was six. I came to it by seeing the only theatre that came to me: Puppet shows. They were brought to public schools in the Bronx in the 60’s. That’s how I learned about drama. And then I wrote a puppet show about the civil rights movement.
MC: I was destined to be a social activist from a very early age, growing up during the civil rights movement. The play was called something like, “Birth of a Man Means Death to the Klan”. My Daddy and I made puppets, the black people were Spalding balls and the white people, the Klan, were Kleenex tissues. The whole play was about this man who was condemned to death and about to be lynched. He asked for a last cigarette and then asked for a light. When he got the light, he lit the Klan on fire. So that was my first play.
TR: Amazing. You were 6.
Yes, but I developed my sensibility and themes of things I like to write about, when I was about 8. My best friend was raped and murdered and thrown off the roof of our building. My parents didn’t allow me to go to the funeral, they didn’t think it was proper for children to see death that closely. Of course, children know more than anyone. So, I decided I would start writing things down. I felt like things were going to be forgotten. I had the sense that if I didn’t speak for my community no one would. And I felt like that’s where the words came from. From exploring these kinds of tragedies and the stuff that was happening in my neighborhood in the South Bronx at the time, the fires and the gang violence. It also began my preoccupation with the theme of mourning. I felt like there were things that needed to be paid attention to, respected, and honored and then also mourned. One of the ways to mourn something is to remember it happened.
After I got two degrees in playwriting, I felt like I still didn’t know how to write a real play… whatever that is. I started studying with María Irene Fornés which happened after grad school. With Irene I learned how to tell the truth of who I was and where I came from. I had this idea that writers were supposed to write about things like science fiction, things really outside of their immediate world. I wasn't looking at all the things that happened in my world. Irene helped me to remember to remember. She showed me what truly I had to offer as a writer which was my real story and my true story, and the story of where I came from and who I came from.
TR: How did you connect with Irene?
MC: She ran a workshop at INTAR, New York City [https://intartheatre.org/] which was a professional playwriting group, you had to apply and submit a play. I ended up studying with her between 1984 off and on until 1991. It really helped me to find my voice. That was the place where I felt like I really became a writer or really became a playwright. I was always a writer.
Yes. I feel like with most writers, and specifically playwrights, there’s a point where you start to feel legitimate. It’s interesting that it’s the connection with Irene that did it.
MC: Everyone’s journey of course is different. Some people need those degrees and really need to learn that kind of structure. What I needed to do is something different, which was about accessing memory and learning how to use sense memory exercises or thoughts to inspire my plays and ground them in a place that was real.
TR: It's interesting, before I started really diving into your work, the adjectives I found about your style were, “supernatural”, “poetry”, “violence” and “the Bronx”. Those words kept popping up and what I'm really enjoying in reading your work is there's something different. The violence is grounded in humanity and memory. There are these connections between the families even with all this horror surrounding them that’s so touching and identifiable. I also read about ritual and prayer and the supernatural that is part of your process.
I've started a practice of calling my ancestors into my writing. It's like paying homage and how I bring my memories into my work. I think about the past, and it has to be an imagined past, my family history isn't all written down. They came from poor impoverished people who weren’t entitled to history or poetry. I work hard to bring that forward because I feel like everyone’s entitled to poetry. I write poetic realism. I don't feel that the supernatural is so supernatural. I feel like it’s part of the natural world and you either see it and embrace it or you don't.
I don't think it’s creepy to believe in ghosts. Shakespeare does. He wrote ghosts into Hamlet and Macbeth. Those lines blend for me between fiction and magic. People spend a lot of time trying to define things they don't understand as being creepy, or weird, or supernatural or whatever word you want to use that makes it sound outside of the norm. For me, and for most of the people I know and grew up with, that is the norm. It is the natural world. We just embrace it more than other people and that's cultural as well.
I was also brought up to never take the blessings that you have now for granted. All these things came from someplace else, or someone else’s sacrifice so take that moment…and it really is just a moment, to say, “OK. Thank you for that. Can you help me on this voyage of writing?”
I was working on an adaptation of The House of Bernarda Alba., Lorca’s masterpiece saying, “How am I going to enter this? How do I ease my way into his world without destroying it by doing some kind of ramshackle adaptation that came from nowhere?” Before I worked on that play, I would turn on the music I knew that he'd listen to when he was writing it. So I’d turn on some Bach, say a prayer to Lorca, and then I felt like, OK the room is sanctified.
Going to your writing desk should be like going to church, or going to temple, or going to a place of worship, where you keep your words and your history safe and sanctified. When you’re writing from a great sense of darkness, it's especially important to make sure that you, the writer, feel safe with the place where you're writing of, and from, and to, so that there's always a sense that you're in a sacred circle with your own characters and you do justice to them.
Which is something that Irene did in her workshop. We all had our own individual desks but they were in a circle and she was very strict about us always having the edges of our tables touch. She wanted you to feel the vibration of all the other writers in the room and create a safe space for everyone else because it’s not always just about you. Especially when you're writing in community and how do we create community of writers? That particular workshop was very special to me because, besides having Irene Fornés as the mentor and the leader, it felt like coming home. I was at home with myself, with my characters, with my community, with this very strong woman who took no shit from anyone and was brutally honest and would tell you exactly what she thought of your work at all times. It was sometimes hurtful but always helpful, learning how to listen to criticism and understanding where people are coming from, she taught me all these things that are so valuable.
TR: I love that idea of the corners of the desks touching. It’s so visceral.
She would be in the middle of leading an exercise and she would just get up and walk over to move tables together and make everybody move closer and closer. We were not gonna get away with not being in contact.
We were all so glad to be in community. We felt the force of our creative powers all in one place. We came from all different Latin-American countries and different parts of the U.S. Some people wrote in Spanish rather than English or in both languages or in Spanglish. All of that was welcome in Irene’s workshop and it was important because it felt like we were seen, and heard, and tangible.
How did she run the workshop? Was it group writing? Did she give prompts?
MC: Yes. Basically it's a sense memory workshop, like if you were taking an acting class with sense memory at The Actors Studio. She observed classes at The Actors Studio. She had this idea that these are the kind of exercises that writers should be doing because it grounds you in your body, grounds you in your memory, brings you to real things you understand and feel, smell and taste. You understand what light is in the room, and you understand the smells that are around you. That’s the power of sense memory exercises. When I was working with her she was sort of ad- libbing them as we went along, improvising them.
She also made us do physical exercises, like yoga, for 1/2 hour before the actual writing began so that the writers were too exhausted to fight themselves. You want to be able to sit quietly, you want to be able to have a focus in your mind and not be fidgeting, or going to run into the refrigerator, or make another cup of coffee or whatever it is. Most writers are really good at distracting themselves.
You understood that you were going somewhere special. It started with the physical. It began in the body and moved to the mind and then to your hands and pen and paper.
TR: So Macbeth, which came first? The podcast or the play?
MC: The play.
MC: Right, there were 36 writers commissioned to translate each of Shakespeare's plays into modern verse English without changing anything about place or time. It was about just really clarifying language and not losing the original poetry and keeping it in iambic pentameter.
We were trying to update the voyage so that it can be heard without having to be looked up in a lexicon, which everybody does. With Shakespeare, there's so many anachronisms. But in his time people knew all that stuff. They knew their own history, they knew his references, they understood his jokes. So I was commissioned to do Macbeth and then later Richard III.
I haven't seen your text for it but the witches in Macbeth, are they written as drag queens or was that a decision for the podcast?
MC: It’s written for them to be three powerful women of color. So I wanted to be fluid in the text. After I heard the podcast I thought, “that's perfect, that's sort of exactly what I wrote it for” but I didn't write it into the script. My whole idea about the translation of Macbeth is to create a new container for it, a new frame. And I felt like the witches were key and in some ways they are treated as the complete outsiders of the play. They were—bringing up that word supernatural again—people who “speak like women but appear to be men”. Shakespeare says it in the text. All of that scared him.
What are we scared of in the 21st century? I thought a lot about racial injustice. I thought about how when it comes to sexuality often, and especially Latinas, are treated like sex objects first and then people after. So there's a thing where you’re exoticized and desired but you're not allowed to be a CEO. So what is that about? I wanted to create a world where these are the women who are running it. Not just that they're predicting it, but that they're actually making it happen. Let them be the kingmakers. Let them be the people who are creating this world.
Lady Macbeth is not the evil goader that’s just pushing her husband over the edge. They are actually the perfect couple. They do what they do out of love. They do what they do because they are outsiders. And I really understood that because I've always been treated as an outsider as Nuyorican, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. You know, coming from poverty, the world's first reaction to you will always be you're not one of us. So I understand Lady and Lord Macbeth. They want to have a legacy. They want to be part of this power system that will not have them if they can't have children. I understood Lady Macbeth’s pain about not having a child, it means that it narrowed their chances to progress through their society. And I also had a miscarriage, so I thought I understood what that does to women in mourning and that bond that then forms between the childless couple.
So I felt I had a connection with the Lord and Lady. And I felt that it was important to have the Witches be strong and lead the story. Shakespeare borrowed some songs from Thomas Middleton. He did a lot of borrowing for the witches so that gave me permission to write original things too. I gave them new scenes and I wrote new couplets for them. I gave them original songs because I wanted them to be musical in this world. I wanted them to have a Dream Girls kind of power. I wanted them to just appear and be powerful and so undeniably fierce. So I played a lot with the witches.
I’m really enjoying that shift and I love them as drag queens.
MC: Oh the ones in the podcast are fantastic! Manila Luzon, Miss Peppermint, and Monét X Change. It was done during COVID so everyone had to tape themselves individually.
Where are you with creativity in the pandemic?
I got a commission from Clubbed Thumb right at the beginning of the pandemic. I had this big project to work on so that took a long time and I just finished the first draft this past August.
I had another commission from INTAR for a play that actually went up in Battery Park last November. We did this geo-located play, where you go to a spot and then you tune into an app on your smart phone and then the sound automatically comes up in that space as your walking through it. It’s fantastic. It was a play about the lives of the new kinds of saints, about essential workers, people who survived this pandemic and who didn’t. So there was a mailman, there was an EMT worker, there were all kinds of people. So that was fun and wild to do in the middle of a pandemic. I always had something to respond to which I was grateful for because I never felt really idle. I felt afraid. Afraid for the world.
And I also thought this is my topic: mourning. We’re all mourning in so many ways. The lives lost to COVID and all the social injustice deaths. The unrest that happened. And racial inequality reared its ugly head again. So it felt to me like a time of mourning and I found places where my writing could fit.
I just started a new musical about Nazi-occupied Paris. About the Hotel Ritz where all the artists went to live and there were Jews hiding in the cupboards so it’s a rich place to let my imagination go. Josephine Baker was there, and Hemingway. Amazing people like Coco Chanel and Herman Göring lived there. He was a cross dresser, by the way. He did a lot of that at his little suite at the Hotel Ritz. It’s an incredible collection of monsters and heroes. These resistance people, and bartenders who were spying, and it was a microcosm of what was happening with the world at this time. I’m just getting started on that.
TR: What amazing ground to cover! It’s a really important time for artists and creative people. And so similar to your play. You’re talking about the artists that were there.
MC: Yes, revisit the fascism then because it’s like the fascism now. It hasn’t changed. So how do we end fascism?
TR: When you discover that in your play, let us all know!
I don’t discover solutions; I present the problem and the history of it.
That’s important too.
So one of the things I loved when I was researching you and in all of your bios. In the text of the play is you use the word nurtured, a play was nurtured in a workshop. I just love it
Irene really nurtured me, without her I wouldn't be here today but I also wouldn't be here today without my parents who also nurtured me. I feel like you have to find those people that will feed you personally and in community.
Final words in the post interview conversation.
I feel seriously that writing is a calling. If you choose to do this, then you better have something to say. And you better say it correctly and you better feel it in your heart and in your viscera because no one else is going to feel it if you don’t.