#WritersOnWriting 7: Elaine Avila

I am lucky enough to live in a really wonderful place. Not only am I literally steps from the seawall, and I am close enough to my son’s school and my own work to walk to them, but my building houses a lovely little community, many of whom are as delightfully artsy as I am.

Although she no longer lives in our community, I met Elaine Avila a few years back when she and her husband Bill (an awesome Jazz musician), and their daughter Arlina (or “Ballerina” as my son used to call her) moved into our building. Elaine got a teaching opportunity down in the states, and moved away for a while, but she’s now back in the city and plying her trade as a playwright.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Elaine Avila.

1. I am…. Elaine Avila.

 2. Author of…  plays. I’ve been branching out into non-fiction, poetry, fiction, screenplays. I just completed my first t.v. pilot. That’s an exciting challenge, to set up a potential 10-100 hours of stories in 1 hour.

3. The first thing I ever wrote was… 

In elementary school, my friends and I would record cassette tapes of weird radio plays, make up puppet shows, “walk each other home” all night long, so we could hear another installment of the stories we were making up. We couldn’t stop laughing.  One of these childhood friends, Yasmin Shah, who is now a wonderful singer/songwriter in Paris, France met my daughter recently, heard her laugh, and then said, “Oh my god. She’s one of us.”

4. I knew I wanted to be a writer when…

I grew up next door to a poet, who was going through a divorce. I sent her little poems through her mailbox slot on the way home from school, hoping to cheer her up. Instead, she cheered me on. She typed up all my poems and put them in a giant card for me on my tenth birthday, with a big blank book. She said not to be afraid, or think the book was ‘too nice’ to write in it. I made up a story about a group of passengers shipwrecked on an imaginary island, complete with maps.

Writing is a very intimate, personal act, like slipping little poems through a magical mailbox slot. It also is like being shipwrecked on an imaginary island, and you have to make some sort of map to start. It is enormously important to cheer writers on.

5. My first writing success was…. 

I don’t think in terms of success and failure. I think about finding artistic homes, or about setting challenges for myself and achieving them.  Plays are like children to me. They all have their unique personalities and their own destinies, usually far beyond what I could imagine for them.

For example, one of my short plays, La Frontera/The Border, was recently performed in New York City, by three different companies, in a garden, on a rooftop, and in the streets, staged by the incredible, visceral director Heidi Carlsen. In Bushwick, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, one of the actresses opened the play on top of a building and rappelled her way down the fire escape. (Click here to see it.)

Director Amiel Gladstone staged the opening scene of my play based on the true story of a woman conquistador, Lieutenant Nun, on the ocean. One of my favorite scenes from that production was staged in a tunnel. That wonderful cast, holding candles, would whisper rumours all around the audience as they walked by. At the end of the play, Jenny Young, who played the lead, stood in a glorious sunset, the Olympic Peninsula behind her. She let a letter go and it was caught and tossed by the wind. Theatre SKAM of Victoria produced the play two years in a row, it won awards from the Victoria Critics Circle, and was published in Canadian Theatre Review. But what moved me most was getting a letter from a young woman who had just come out to her parents as a lesbian and then they all went to see my play. They were surprised my play was about one of the few openly gay women in history. My play ended up meaning so much to her. This is why I write. One of my colleagues and former teachers, Erik Ehn, wrote a beautiful blurb about my writing for the back cover of my collected plays. He wrote we are members of a “ family we’re all on a mission to cohere.”

After a reading of my play, At Water’s Edge, a man came up to me, with tears in his eyes, saying the play really spoke to him. I was a bit sheepish. I said, yes, it gets really sad, I’m Portuguese, and we have something called ‘fado,’ we believe in expressing great sadness. He said I had done my countrymen and women proud.  I was honored he shared his sorrow with me. There is a lot of heartbreak in that play. It premiered in Vancouver, directed by Thrasso Petras, and is currently having readings in Chicago, Dallas and Philadelphia as part of an amazing project devised by playwright Caridad Svich and producing Artistic Director Dominic D’Andrea called 30/30, check it out here. This is an amazing initiative—I interview Caridad about it here.

My plays have taken me all sorts of terrific places: Quality: the Shoe Play  (in Spanish, it is called Zapatos!) has been staged throughout Panama on six different occasions, including at the National Theatre.  Director Kathleen Weiss staged this play in a Canadian shoe designer’s shop (Tracey Neuls) in Marylebone Lane in London England, at Gravity Pope in Edmonton, and by Tricklock Theatre Company in New Mexico. Collaborating with Kate is one of the treasures of my life.

6. Who were your influences? 

I don’t think of influence, I think of inspiration, community, and rivers. We are all on a river. Artists inspire us, and we, in turn, give our students/the next generation, the best of what we have learned. It flows, on and on.

I read contemporary writers, to keep up with the incredible field of playwrights. I’m surprised how few people do this. It is cheap! All you need is a library card or to be willing to spend a few bucks on the book.

In Canada, I’m reading/inspired by Marcus Youssef, Lucia Frangione, Carmen Aguirre, Yvette Nolan, and Chris Gatchalian.

In the U.S., it is Jose Rivera, Luis Alfaro, Elaine Romero, Anne Garcia-Romero, Caridad Svich, Alice Tuan, Sigrid Gilmer, Brian Bauman.

In my non-fiction reading, I am inspired by Randy Gener, Caridad Svich, Wade Davis, Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Molly Ivins.

From 2001-2004, I received the Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theater Projects (ASK) and Calarts Scholarships to get my MFA in Writing for Performance, at California Institute of the Arts. I worked closely with Suzan-Lori Parks, Erik Ehn, Alice Tuan, Brian Freeman. Then I went on to run my own MFA Playwriting program at the University of New Mexico, from 2007-2012. I got to work with wonderful graduate writers there, who have gone on to win many national playwriting awards. I especially enjoyed working with Latino/a and Native writers, as those cultures are strong in the Southwest.

7. Describe your writing process.

I write every moment I can. I try to have good habits, but I write, with or without them. I like writing in a bar over a beer, or on an empty stomach after too much coffee. I like writing after yoga and smoothies and meditation. I love that Toni Morrison, the author of The Bluest Eye, said when she was writing as a mother, her baby threw up on her writing and she decided to write around the puke. I have a piece about this on my website.

I am currently an Associate at Vancouver’s PTC. (Playwrights Theatre Centre). I am enormously inspired by Heidi Taylor, their Executive Director, and Kathleen Flaherty, their Dramaturge. Heidi talks about time signatures, and how they can shift, about how writers are depressingly bad at articulating their needs. I suppose we were thinking we were being flexible.  At the PTC, they have a program called “Write Space” where you can apply for something you actually need—whether it is office space or a retreat.  I was awarded a one week Joe Creek Residency in Roberts Creek, BC, where The Only Animal, an amazing theatre company run by Kendra Fanconi and Eric Rhys Miller, have a house nestled in the woods, near the ocean.

This helped me get more specific about what my plays need. In a playwright’s life, there are many cycles, from having lots of productions all at once to staring at the wall. For example, my current project is asking me to make the space to dream. I’m playing with more gestation, and more guts.

8. What does success as a writer look like to you?

As I mentioned, I don’t much like the idea of success and failure. I don’t think either concept does me, or anyone I know much good.

If you really want me to define ‘success’ I would say it is getting up in the morning and writing. It is getting up in the middle of the night and making a note on a story idea. It is stopping on your day off to write an inspiration in a notebook. It is to love life so much that you want to cherish it in a mini time capsule as it goes flying by. Writing gives us all the space to reflect.

But that implies that you are a ‘failure’ if you don’t get to the page.  Suzan-Lori Parks once told me the story of a busy mother-writer who bows to her yoga mat, and/or to her writing if she can’t get to it. She forgives herself, and her life, and doesn’t get caught up in the frustration. I do the same thing, on crazy days. I do a little bow to my writing.

Jane Austen, Action Figure at Stage Lab in Edmonton Thrasso Petras as Mr. Darcy, Melissa Thingelstad as Jane Austen Director: Kathleen Weiss (photo: Josiah Heimstra)
Jane Austen, Action Figure at Stage Lab in Edmonton
Thrasso Petras as Mr. Darcy, Melissa Thingelstad as Jane Austen
Director: Kathleen Weiss (photo: Josiah Heimstra)

9. What does the future look like? What are you working on? 

I recently published Jane Austen, Action Figure and other Plays with one of my favorite presses in the world, NoPassport, founded by marvelous playwright Caridad Svich, now available on Canadian, U.S., and U.K. amazon, the Vancouver Public Library, and at the Playwrights Guild of Canada.

I’m working on the next collection. Thanks to the PTC, my new plays are focused on my Portuguese, Azorean heritage. I give a big nod to the PTC for designing a program where writers focus on a ‘big idea’ for three years. It has changed my life. I’m already having experiences far beyond my imagining. I have a grant from the BC Arts Council to write Lost and Found in Fado, about a woman finding her roots in Portuguese music in Lisbon. She gets in delicious trouble in the back alleys of the music, hanging with drag Queens called “Amalianas,” and those who protested the fascist government, much to the distress of her family. My play Café A Brasileira just won the first ever Disquiet International Short Play Competition. It is the only Portuguese playwriting competition I have ever come across. I am so excited to be heading to Lisbon for two weeks this summer for the staged reading.

10. Which famous writer would you like to write your biography?

Lucia Frangione. Lisa Cooke Ravensbergen. We are all playwrights, mothers, and live in Vancouver. They explore their heritage through their work. They are sexy, funny, wild, thoughtful, deep writers. They remind me of the possibilities.

You can find out more information about Elaine via her website, elaineavila.com. You can find her on Twitter @ObrigadaAvila.




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Rebecca Coleman

Social Media Marketing Strategist, Blogger, Author, Teacher, Trainer. Passionate foodie, mom to Michael, fueled by Americanos. I love my bike. Soon-to-be cookbook author. Localvore with a wanderlust.

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