tatiana de la tierra
San Antonio in August was sweltering while I was there for the Macondo Writers’ Workshop in 2008. Every night, after gnashing words with other writers and sweating it out in poetry workshops, I ended up at some restaurant, shoveling gorditas, chiles rellenos, chalupas, enchiladas and queso flameado down my throat. My stomach was still full when I landed in LAX after the weeklong workshop was over. A friend picked me up at the airport and we raced to Plaza de la Raza in Lincoln Park.
We had a mission: The Panza Monologues. Performed and co-written by San Antonio native Virginia Grise, this fleshy offshoot of The Vagina Monologues pulled at the chords of my gut. It embodied what I love most on stage—solo performance, body parts, personal and political repercussions, social commentary, and humor, all in one. It was so fulfilling that, after the show, my friend and I went to King Taco in honor of our panzas.
Virginia Grise is an artist I like to keep my eye on. A writer, performer and director who lives in Los Angeles, she’s got grit, talent and poetry in her soul. With a MFA in Writing for Performance from the California Institute of the Arts and a series of awards under her panza, Grise is living the playwright’s life. Current works in progress include the plays rasgos asiaticos and Making Myth. She’s also collaborating with Ricardo A. Bracho on a theatrical piece, The Mexican as Told by Us Mexicans.
But the buzz for the moment is blu, her first play. A poetic urban reality check set in a barrio in the U.S., blu is having a premier run at Company of Angels in Los Angeles. Directed by Laurie Carlos, the play features actors Diana Delacruz, Romi Dias, Luis Galindo, Phillip Garcia, Alexandra Jimenez, and Xavi Moreno. The storyline involves a family with an imprisoned father headed by a lesbian couple. Gemini, the daughter, anchors herself on the rooftop to imagine another world.
In blu, the sky takes center stage. Helicopters hover above, providing an unsettling soundtrack. The sky turns black again, not blue or hazy with smog. It’s a black that allows the moon and stars to emerge with their infinite possibilities for the future and the mythic past.
I asked Virginia Grise a few questions about her writing life and blu for La Bloga.
tierra: I saw The Panza Monologues, a bit of rasgos asiaticos, and blu. What’s it like for you to go from a solo performance of The Panza Monologues to a full production of blu? Do you have a preference?
Grise: The Panza Monologues was like a theatre boot camp. Being directed by Irma Mayorga (co-writer and director) taught me a lot about theatre – including narrative structure, the rhythm of a work, how to hold an audience’s attention - not to mention the things I learned about performing and my own body. I really enjoy performing and would like to do more of it. I do think that acting and performing (having done both) are different muscles. I think the thing that I prefer is the thing that I am doing at the moment. When I am doing solo work I am completely committed to it. When I am putting up a play I am completely committed to the play. So I don’t think I have transitioned out of solo work – I’m just not working on a solo show right now.
There are certain things that I am obsessed with as a writer, things that re-appear in my work including the Panza Monologues but I certainly hope that my work looks different – that each piece is radically different from the other. rasgos asiaticos though a play doesn’t look like blu and my current play Making Myth doesn’t look like either of the prior works. Each piece of writing reflects a different set of questions I am asking myself aesthetically, politically and theoretically.
tierra: blu began as a series of poems that you wrote while you were a middle school teacher in San Antonio. Why did you decide to transform these into a play?
Grise: I heard different voices in the poems. They weren’t singular. I felt it was important that the poetry be embodied, not voices but people. Threading the stories of six people to create a single narrative was a structural challenge for me as a writer but I try to let the writing dictate form and this story wanted to be a play.
tierra: The poems that you originally wrote as the basis of blu were set in San Antonio. In your mind’s eye, do you see the play set in San Antonio, or in Boyle Heights?
Grise: It is set in the barrio in the United States of America. People from Tejas think it’s San Antonio, people from California think it’s Los Angeles. There are specific references to both places throughout the script. I was interested in the elements of similarity between the places and how the State, institutional violence, war, poverty, and desire manifest themselves in the barrio.
tierra: You had staged readings of blu in several places, including Austin, Los Angeles, and New York. What’s it like for you, as a playwright, to experience these different levels of development of your work?
Grise: I learn a lot through readings, through hearing the work. Many writers get frustrated with readings but there becomes a point in the process where I have difficulty rewriting without hearing it, without watching it in the body. The reading I did at the New York Theatre Workshop directed by Carl Hancock Rux and the workshop production at CalArts directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera really helped shaped the published version of the script.
tierra: Anything you want to divulge about your practice as a writer?
Grise: I don’t follow a routine really. I’m slow. I hold onto things for a long time before I let them go. I often write in response to something – in reaction to something I witness or experience. My home is clean when I am writing – a mess when I am directing or in production. Not sure what that means but it’s true.
tierra: You live in Los Angeles, yet you rarely drive a car. What’s that like? How does this affect your creativity?
Grise: I do have a car but stay out of it as much as possible. I do take public transportation when I can – the bus, the metro, the train and I in fact prefer it. I think it forces you to pay more attention to what is around you – to notice the worlds you travel a little more.
tierra: One word that speaks to where you are now as a writer: