Finding Your Fellow Travelers: A Conversation With Quiara Alegría Hudes

So, I am ridiculously fortunate to be currently studying Playwriting for the second semester in a row with Quiara Alegría Hudes. She won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for her play Water by the Spoonful, wrote the book for In the Heights, and happens to be a truly lovely human being who writes the most beautiful and inspiring emails I have ever read in my life. But not only that, she and composer Erin McKeown recently hosted a reading from their new musical Miss You Like Hell at my school. Telling the story of an estranged mother and daughter’s road trip from Pennsylvania just before the mother’s final citizenship hearing in California, the musical was commissioned by La Jolla Playhouse and is about a year away from hitting the stage. I was eager to pick Ms. Hudes’ brain a bit about her thoughts on writing, musicals, and American stories.

Tell me a little about Miss You Like Hell. Why this story?

Well, it came from a bunch of places. I wanted to write a road trip musical. I did actually consciously think, “I want to write a mother-daughter story. I want to write a matriarch.” A difficult and thorny matriarch, but for a music theatre stage. That was one of the places it started. I was also thinking about immigration at the time, and how immigration really affects family structures in this country. So I thought, well let’s combine. What could have more American mythology wrapped up in it than the road trip story, with a new kind of family structure, a family in which the daughter is a citizen and the mother is not a citizen, and how that affects them? So I just kind of smacked those things together to see what would happen, and I found a composer who I felt brought a frisky and somewhat misbehaving American sensibility to her work.

You originally wrote this as a play. Why did you feel you had to return to it and put music to it?

You know, it’s funny. I always learn from seeing my work in performance, and I think one of the things I was rebelling against was having seen some overly literal productions of 26 Miles––which had video and showed when people were turning [while driving]––that really eliminated the element of imagination that I had always imagined would be central to the play, so I thought “Well, let the music do that.” Let the music give us the momentum for the trip. And I was a little dissatisfied with what I had done story-wise with the original. I wanted to write a story about different ethnicities joining in one family. But I didn’t feel that [in 26 Miles]. I felt that the divisions were almost so subtle that the audience, and even I, was not totally convinced of them. Whereas now, with everything that has been happening with immigration, I really thought, well, let’s make the division a little more literal. One is a citizen and one is not. So there’s all sorts of identity issues wrapped up in it, but then there’s all sorts of literal issues wrapped up in there too. And that felt like a real breakthrough for me to open up the story more.

Musical theatre is an American art form. Was there an element of choosing an American form for a new American story in your choice to make 26 Miles a musical?

You know, the way projects come to be is always somewhat organic and surprising for me. In all honesty, whenever we would be driving, one of the conversations that came up a lot was “If 26 Miles was a musical, this would be a really good song for this scene.” It was just something my family and I talked about in the car a lot. And then I got the idea about the new element of the story. Yeah, this is an American story. That’s what I’m always looking for, is American stories. And because that conversation always happened around music, it was just already a musical in my head.

What is your favorite thing about writing a play and your favorite thing about writing a musical?

My favorite thing about writing a play is what can also be most challenging about it, which is just the depth of emotional processing one needs to do – the emotional surprises that kind of lurk in one’s subconscious, and the artistic and emotional discoveries that one makes in the process of writing. I love how unpredictable a story becomes once it’s in the process of being told. With musical theatre there’s really two elements. One is with lyrics, lyrics are such a miniaturist’s puzzle that just getting that puzzle right can be such a joy because you have so few syllables to say something big. So it’s really the joy of solving the Sunday crossword in pen without erasing or something. But also the joy of really nailing it as a collaboration. It’s holding hands with someone to make something that is both of you and bigger than you, and there’s real pride in that, and joy.

Which shows/writers have had an influence on you, in regards to Miss You Like Hell, or otherwise?

I’m very influenced, essentially, by the first literature I read, so the books I read in middle school and high school. I’m always in conversation with those: Invisible Man, Flannery O’Connor, some of the Beat poets I read early: Allen Ginsberg. And then I always feel, when I’m writing, I’m always naturally in conversation with my contemporaries. I’m always responding to Sarah Ruhl’s plays, I’m always responding to Stephen Guirgis’ plays, I’m always grappling with Annie Baker and with Nilo [Cruz] because they’re writing too, and we’re all so different, but we’re all writing in the current moment. So of course the classics are always there lingering, and always there as points of reference when I get stuck or have questions about my own writing, but I think I write more consciously in conversation with my own contemporaries.

Do you ever feel the pressure to accomplish something with your work, or feel that you’re writing against your morals?

It’s a double-edged question because of course as a woman, as a Latino woman there certainly are outside influences saying, “you have an obligation to represent,” but at the end of the day, I just try to follow my instincts and write. I think my agent always gives me the best advice, which is at the end of the day, you just have to write what you’re very, very passionate about. And I’ve found that when I return to that questioning, my passions have lead me places that have shown light and honored responsibilities. I didn’t decide, “Oh, I’m going to write this play because I have a responsibility,” but in fact what I was passionate about lead to that place in a different sort of process.

Do you see any themes that you gravitate to in your own work?

Oh yeah definitely. I just kind of observe. And again I guess it’s just what I’m passionate about. I can’t think of a play of mine that doesn’t have a multi-generational component. I am drawn to multi-generational themes. I’m interested in women’s bodies, healing, and in kind of unspoken spirituality. Some of this is really obvious and some of this is really subtle. At one point I counted and I can’t remember what the count was, but I have created a lot of roles for actors of color and that’s just fucking awesome. That makes me really happy.

What are some words of wisdom someone has told you that you would like to impart to a new generation of writers and theatremakers?

I’ve had such great words of wisdom from so many teachers. My Aunt Linda, when she taught me piano, she always said “Light as a feather, free as a bird” and I think about that with writing all the time. When I walked into my composition teacher’s class, he would just take my pages, look at them, hand them back to me and say, “Good, now go do more.” And with Paula [Vogel], the thing she said time and again was “Find your fellow travelers.” Which is, find the artists you’ll be collaborating with for the rest of your life. And I’ve taken that literally to a certain extent, but I’ve also taken it kind of more spiritually and personally into my own writing room. What are the ideas I am loyal to and faithful to and want to be probing and digging into. What are the fellow travelers that are in my heart always, that are a part of my sensibility?

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