(Updated 8/4/2019: Vitullo’s new work, Two Big Black Bags, which part of this interview concerns, has a workshop performance this week at ACT Theatre, August 9-11. See info here. Two-thirds of dates are sold out, but organizers anticipate some availability at the door.)
Julieta Vitullo is a Seattle-based bilingual writer born and raised in Argentina. She holds a Ph.D. in Spanish and an M.A. in English from Rutgers. She published a book on the fictions of the Falklands War, and is the protagonist and co-script writer of the award-winning film The Exact Shape of the Islands. Now a familiar presence in the Seattle-area theatre scene, Vitullo is an Associate Playwright at Parley, and the Literary Manager of eSe Teatro.
Vitullo’s new play, Two Big Black Bags, is a road-play about an Argentine veteran who wakes up to a big surprise: two big black bags, full of money, in his living room. Two Big Black Bags will have a reading on April 1 as part of this year’s Multicultural Playwrights Festival, Represent!, followed by a workshop production at ACT (part of the ACTLab series) on August 9-11.
Ahead of her new play’s Represent! Festival reading, Vitullo talked with eSe Teatro Artistic Director Rose Cano about the genre shift into writing for the stage, the unique challenges (and freedoms) in bilingual playwriting, and the inspiration behind her latest work.
Interview content is condensed and edited for clarity.
You’re an experienced writer, but are relatively new to playwriting. Tell us about the shift and this new genre for you.
I’ve always been a short story writer and I’ve also written a lot of nonfiction, but I’ve only been writing plays for about two years. A couple of years ago I finished my first novel, in Spanish, and was feeling a bit isolated. I was living in a small town in the woods, and wasn’t feeling connected to a community of readers and writers. I looked into writing classes, thinking that would allow me to exchange my writing with someone. I wasn’t thinking specifically about playwriting, but Freehold popped up in my search and the idea seemed intriguing, so I gave it a shot.
I commuted to Seattle by car and foot ferry, two hours each way, every Sunday night for three months, to take Elizabeth Heffron’s Playwriting I. It was so worth it. I learned a ton about a genre I knew little about. I’ve always loved going to the theatre, and studied some playwrights in college as part of my degree in literature, but I had no playwriting tools up to that point.
Being a short story writer helped me get into short plays right away. Short story isn’t a forgiving genre, and you need to know where you are going. There has to be a substantive idea or a compelling image to start with; otherwise, there’s no story. I feel the same way about short plays. After dipping my toe in, I started taking classes with Rebecca Tourino Collinsworth (Artistic Director of Parley) at her Salvo studio, and I wrote my first full-length play, About Marilyn. Rebecca is so brilliant and supportive, and the group was great, so at that point I was hooked. I wanted to write plays.
Did you make a conscious decision to write in English? How does it feel different to you than writing in Spanish?
I started writing in English as a necessity. The first day I was traveling to Freehold to Elizabeth’s class I thought, wait a minute, what language am I going to write in? I had no choice but to do the exercises in English so my classmates could understand. It felt so weird! I had written many papers in English, but not a single sentence of creative writing. I felt insecure at first, but then I found freedom in this newness. Everything was novel to me, the language, the genre, so I guess I had nothing to compare myself with and zero expectations. It was liberating.
I realized that in order to write plays, you need to be tuned into the way people speak, even if you are not writing a contemporary piece. Come to think of it, writing plays in Spanish while I’m immersed in a culture that’s pretty much monolingual would actually be a challenge.
I’ve been exposed to English since I moved to the U.S. at age 25, and although my skills are near-native, you can tell I’m not native as soon as I open my mouth. I feel quite confident writing in English but there’s still an element of foreignness and that’s exciting, like when I use a word that doesn’t quite exist in Spanish — for example, homesick or serendipity. But sometimes I’m not sure how to pronounce something, so I don’t know how it will be said by a character. Or I don’t know how to explain something stupidly simple — verbs of motion, for example, often trip me up. This makes writing in English more laborious, but also more rewarding. I still write in Spanish, but now I’m starting to feel that’s strange, too. This comes with being an immigrant. You are a bit in limbo, neither here nor there, and never fully comfortable anywhere.
I still write in Spanish, but now I’m starting to feel that’s strange, too. This comes with being an immigrant. You are a bit in limbo, neither here nor there, and never fully comfortable anywhere.
How would you define bilingual theatre, and how has it played out in your work?
For me, it all connects back to your questions regarding my incursion into a new genre and language. When I first started experimenting, most of what I wanted to write about related to a Spanish-speaking culture. It felt odd to have characters who would normally speak Spanish speak English instead, as if that weren’t a big deal. Language for me is too tied up in culture and history for that not to be a big deal. I wanted to write a play about Columbus and a museum in Spain, but I couldn’t have my characters speak English without it feeling contrived. So I came up with tricks to make it work.
I think bilingual theatre needs to have a reason to be, a reason and a context essential to the story. When I wrote my second play, Iguazú, my protagonist was Argentine but her boyfriend was from the U.S. and didn’t speak Spanish, so that was easy because they could just speak English together. But then I wanted her to write in her diary and have dreams, and it felt unnatural for her not to do it in her mother tongue. So I came up with a plot to explain this: English had taken over her most intimate spaces a result of a traumatic event. Then when she spoke to her dad, I had no choice but to use Spanish and give a lot of context or have another character casually refer to what was said, so that the audience could follow. In a way, the language issue started to shape the story, and that makes sense because all my stories are about language and identity in one way or another.
I’m not saying you can’t have other types of bilingual theatre. This is very personal. For me, if two characters are in South America speaking to each other in English, there has to be a good reason to explain it. Otherwise, have them speak Spanish and find creative ways to bring your audience in. And by creative I mean something other than repeating in English what’s being said in Spanish.
I’ve heard the term “magical realism” used to describe some of the fantastical elements in your plays. What is the significance of magical realism in your work?
I come from a tradition where magic realism refers to a very specific place and period, or even more, a specific author, Gabriel García Márquez. So when I hear this term applied to theatre, I’m not sure what to make of it. But I sure take it as a compliment since I’m a García Márquez fan.
I think a general definition of the term is the intrusion of magical elements in the characters’ reality in such way that the characters perceive these elements as normal, or not unusual. By that definition, yes, I do that a lot in my plays and most of my writing. I don’t do this deliberately, but I don’t know how not to. Every time I have an idea, even if initially the idea is “realistic,” there’s an element of the unreal that comes to disturb that.
I see an incredible potential in those elements, especially in theatre. I think they can inform how we view reality and make it richer. Aren’t dreams real? Isn’t our imagination real? When in Two Big Black Bags James [the lead character] says his brain can’t rest because his mind won’t quiet down, his Grandmother tells him, “Your mind doesn’t stop at your brain.” Maybe I can find more truth in a story if I can freely push the boundaries of what we perceive as real. Maybe we need to recognize that our minds exist elsewhere, in places we can’t even locate.
Your new play, Two Big Black Bags, is about an Argentine veteran who wakes up to big bags of money in his living room. What was your inspiration for this play?
I’ve written a lot about the Malvinas/Falklands war as part of my work as an academic. I published a book and made a documentary based on a traumatic experience I had after one of my trips to the islands. This was 10 years ago, and I thought I was done with the topic, or at least I wanted to be. But your imagination does weird things and doesn’t always follow what you want. So a few months ago an idea popped into my head: a veteran of the Malvinas who is struggling with trauma and addiction awakes to two big black bags in his living room. I thought of this for days, trying to figure out the connection between the bags, which my imagination had filled with ten million dollars, and the trauma of the war.
I didn’t think I had anything else to say about that war and those islands, and yet there I was, writing my way into a play about the Malvinas. I felt a freedom I hadn’t experienced while dealing with the topic from a theoretical or autobiographical perspective. Suddenly, I had no restraints and was able to let go and do whatever I wanted.
Bonus question … It’s interesting that several of your works have arisen from a distinct, specific image you had, rather than something more conceptual or theoretical. What’s the image that’s sticking with you now?
Ten million dollars. The green and grey, the filthy odor of the bills. The sheer volume of that much money is overwhelming.
Two Big Black Bags will have a reading on 4/1, as part of the Represent! Multicultural Playwrights Festival held 3/31-4/3 at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in the Central District. Tickets are $9 per show or $25 for a full-festival pass, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms include both gender-neutral single-stall and gendered multi-stall; theatre is wheelchair accessible, with elevator access to all performance spaces.
Rose Cano is the co-founder and Artistic Director of eSe Teatro: Seattle Latinos Take Stage. Cano is a bilingual actor, playwright, director and lyricist, and a graduate of Cornish College of the Arts. Her plays Don Quixote & Sancho Panza: Homeless in Seattle and Bernie’s Apt. were produced in partnership with ACT Theatre. Recently, Cano directed and translated The Journey of the Saint by Cesar de Maria, produced with ACT Theatre; directed and translated both English and Spanish productions of MUD (BARRO) by María Irene Fornés; and translated Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue by Quiara Alegria Hudes. Her latest musical, Imaginary Opus (composed by David Nyberg) was produced in partnership with Sound Theatre Company. Cano is on the steering committee for Latinx Theatre Commons, a national movement.
NWT Producer & Editor Chase D. Anderson, who was a student in Elizabeth Heffron’s Playwriting I class at Freehold along with Vitullo and is familiar with her early and current work, also contributed questions.