What’s the secret to becoming a successful playwright? A chronic case of the artistic fidgets can help — or so you might conclude after speaking with Quiara Alegría Hudes.
“I’m a little restless as a writer,” the 36-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner admits, “so each new play has to bring new challenges for me — or I will get bored.”
That creative restlessness, in combination with a steadfast dedication to telling family stories, begot “Water by the Spoonful,” the 2012 Pulitzer-honored drama that on March 5 begins performances at the Studio Theatre. KJ Sanchez directs the play, an intimate yet globe-spanning portrait of recovery, lingering hurt, family bonds and improbable connections with strangers.
“Water” is a stand-alone piece. But it is also part of a trilogy, dubbed the Elliot Cycle after a recurrent figure: a Marine who, like Hudes, is of Puerto Rican heritage. (The character of Elliot is based on a cousin of Hudes’s.)
In “Water,” Elliot (played by Arturo Soria at Studio) is working at a Subway in Philadelphia as he deals with the emotional and physical injuries he received during a recent tour in Iraq. When a family crisis hits, and he finds his life intersecting with an online support group full of wisecracking recuperating drug addicts, Elliot has to depend more than ever on his cousin Yaz (Gisela Chípe), a music professor and jazz fan.
Yaz’s occupation is not an arbitrary detail: Music is both a theme and a structural principal for the Elliot trilogy. For instance, the cycle’s first play, “Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue” evokes the military careers of Elliot, his father and his grandfather, a J.S. Bach enthusiast. The play’s form recalls a Bach-style fugue, with poetic fragments of narration and dialogue answering, and contrasting with, each other. On the level of story, moreover, the call of the military “echoes from one generation to another” in a fuguelike manner, observes Abel Lopez, who directed “Elliot” for GALA Hispanic Theatre in 2007.
“Water” is the second play in the trilogy. The third is “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” which also features Elliot and Yaz and prominently showcases Puerto Rican folk music — an acoustic token of Elliot’s gradual psychological and emotional healing, according to Edward Torres, who directed the play’s world premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last year. “The more we can reconnect with who we are, the more we can face those demons and those fears,” Torres says.
Each of the plays uses a different musical genre to illuminate an aspect of human experience. In the bittersweet “Water,” the concepts of improvisation, soloing and, most important, dissonance — a phenomenon covered in a lecture Yaz gives on the music of John Coltrane — manifest themselves in the lives of the characters as well as in the shape of the script.
“There are a lot of monologues which I think of as solos,” Hudes says, speaking about “Water” in a phone interview from New York, where she lives with her husband and two children. “There are a lot of themes that kind of thread together by the end.”
But “thread together” doesn’t necessarily mean “harmonize.” While writing “Water,” she says, “I was really listening to a lot of late Coltrane, where he is pushing form. He’s not giving so many easy answers, and yet there’s a sense of kinesthetic movement.” Similarly, in the play, “I was really experimenting with ‘How far can I go?’ ” she says. “It’s a challenging play, but I hope that ultimately, like the later Coltrane stuff, it is rewarding, too.”
Hudes knows whereof she speaks: She has a BA in music from Yale, and for the first part of her life she aimed to be a musician. Raised in Philly speaking primarily English, but also Spanish, she started writing early on, dashing off the texts for musicals and even publishing her own magazine. But the scribbling was purely for fun. “It was like my version of playing Barbies or playing sports,” she says.
Her real focus was music: She studied piano avidly and went on to study composing at Yale. After graduating, she worked for a while as a musician in Philadelphia.
“It was what I had been training for all my life, but I found something wasn’t clicking into place, which seemed strange to me,” she recalls. “I was feeling restless. I wasn’t feeling settled. And my mom at that time pointed out to me, ‘Well, you’re not feeling satisfied because you’ve always been a writer!’”
Realizing that her mother was right, Hudes applied to playwriting graduate programs, submitting the librettos for musicals she had composed. She was accepted to the MFA playwriting program at Brown University.
Although she had changed fields, she didn’t feel she was starting from scratch. Music “prepared me for life as a writer,” she says. “There was no transition there. I knew how to be on my own and work at something meticulously, but also to find inspiration from larger sources — all these sort of things.”
A writing assignment she did early on at Brown became the basis for “Yemaya’s Belly,” her first play, which premiered in 2005 at Maine’s Portland Stage Company. An early version of “Elliot” ran at Miracle Theatre in Portland, Ore., later that year.
She went on to write the book for the musical “In the Heights,” which won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical (Lin-Manuel Miranda was the composer and lyricist). Her works also include “26 Miles,” which Sanchez directed at Round House Theatre in 2009, and the children’s musical “Barrio Grrrl!,” which premiered at the Kennedy Center Family Theater that same year.
Hudes says that by the time “Water” began to take shape in her mind, she was yearning to experiment again with form, as she had in the contrapuntal “Elliot.” Having written “a few plays that were much more traditional in their structure,” she says, “I was hungry to go in and make a little bit more of a mess again. I really missed that element. And so, in some ways, the trilogy came from that as much as anything. And the way I did that was to look at music as a way of thinking about the structure of the play.”
When it came to the content of “Water,” Hudes drew on interviews with members of her extended family. Some of the material her relatives shared was sensitive: The plotline about the online recovery group, for instance, owes a debt to cousins of hers who have struggled with addiction.
But her relatives trusted her to make respectful use of their stories. “I was very upfront with what my intentions were in the play,” Hudes says. “I’m not interested in airing any family skeletons. What I’m interested in is exploring the humanity behind the situations people find themselves in.”
“There are never good guys and bad guys in her plays,” says Sanchez. “Everyone makes terrible decisions and takes hurtful actions, and everyone deserves a second chance.”
Sanchez and other directors who have worked on the Elliot cycle also admire the way the musical motifs reverberate on the level of wording, character and plot. Working on “Water,” with its free-jazz theme, Sanchez said she was constantly reminded “to make sure each scene doesn’t end with a button and resolution,” because in the play, as in life, “there are no endings where everything is tied up in a perfect bow. It’s always visceral and messy.”
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Quiara Alegría Hudes. March 5-April 13 at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW, Washington. Tickets $39-$75. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.