I could not tell you how many times I’ve seen and read Hamlet. Be it the National Theater’s production with Benedict Cumberbatch from 2015 or Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 production, I must have seen or read it dozens of times. I linger on the text, seek deeper meaning in every pronunciation of “to be or not to be.” Recently, though, I’ve not felt as satisfied after Fortinbras’ last line. I’m disappointed that Hamlet still hasn’t killed his uncle when he told his ghost-dad he would, that he wasn’t a little bit clearer with Ophelia to have saved her from herself.
Familiarity is a comfort, yet it leaves one wanting. Most theater-goers know how Cinderella will end, what Jack will find at the top of the beanstalk, that Romeo and Juliet won’t live to see the end of their familial difficulties. While it’s nice to be sure that there will or won’t be a happy ending, the repetition of old stories lacks novelty, intrigue, mystery. Thus, is the reason for the development of new plays, to invigorate the mind in new unknown places and situations.
The starting point for any new work is inspiration, a spark that creates a storyline, characters, scenes. For Marisela Traviño Orta, writer of NCT’s world premier play, Return to Sender, her theatrical concepts begin with the characters who will be living in her world. “For me,” she said, “plays often begin with an image or a character that has a very specific conflict they are encountering. I often know how a play ends and begins—specifically the opening and closing images.” Marisela added that she works to get to know her characters deeply, what their traits, their thoughts, their emotions are. They are the driving force of her works, as opposed to a preconceived outline. “Writing the play is an act of discovery and I love finding out where the story will go as I write.”
Return to Sender is adapted from a novel of the same title by Julia Alvarez. The topic of the play, which Orta calls “challenging and necessary,” deals with Mexican immigrants in the United States. It closely follows two families from near opposite sides of North America intertwined on a farm in Vermont, relying on one another and having the opportunity to see each other for who they truly are- human beings. Though Orta uses the plot of Alvarez’s story in her own work, she sees adapting the story as an exercise rather than an ownership. “The story does not belong to you, but to the novel’s author,” she said. “My job it to honor that story—make sure the spirit of that story feels intact on stage.” Orta feels present in the imagery of the play, rather than the invention. She finds herself in how the story which she read is told.
Production is an important step in the creation of new plays. One may read a line as many times over as they please without finding anything striking in it, but there’s a large difference between reading “no” and hearing it shouted at you. Marisela, when asked about challenges she and other playwrights face, began with the importance of production. “Plays need productions in order for a playwright to finish them. Not just one—multiple productions. You learn so much when you’re in the production process and that learning doesn’t stop when the show opens. I currently have a play that has had 3 productions this season and after each play opened, I’ve had a different epiphany about the play—learned something that I took to the next production. I think maybe—maybe—by the fourth production I will feel like I’ve almost finished the script.”
In conversing with Marisela, what intrigued me the most was her ideas on the purpose of a play. “I believe all art has purpose—it asks us to reflect,” she began. “I think plays absolutely do that, but theatre is also unique in that it asks us to experience the art with others. There are studies that have shown that when people sit together as an audience and watch a play in a darkened theatre, that their heartbeats and breath sync up. There aren’t many communal experiences that affect us like that and that I think that is the magic of theatre.” I completely agree with her. To me, there’s something truly unique about having action played out in front of you. There’s no screen to divide the actor from the audience. One could reach out and touch the characters in front of them as much as they can touch the people around them. What’s special about plays as an art from and as a literary genre is the connection which they force between the story and the on-lookers.
There is no step-by-step to developing and producing a play, as Orta pointed out. One may find inspiration in a novel and allow that to guide their work. One may have their play produced within a week of its creation, another may take years to see their work on stage. Some find themselves guided by their characters and some place their characters directly. Plays are, nevertheless, magical, as Marisela and I both agree on. “The actors are feet away from you. While TV and Film can use CGI, theatre has to create magic before your very eyes and I find that so much more moving and spectacular…theatre asks us to suspend our imaginations in a way that the other forms do not.”