Interview: Q&A with VEIL’D Playwright, Monet Hurst-Mendoza
"Adventurous theater in Astoria"

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Interview: Q&A with VEIL’D Playwright, Monet Hurst-Mendoza

In this interview with Veil’d playwright Monet Hurst-Mendoza, she talks with APAC about how she got her start in theatre, Veil’d‘s production history and what inspired her to write it, as well as the proper procedure for paper plane preparation (say that five times fast)!

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Hi, Monet. I appreciate you taking some time off from your very busy schedule to chat about Veil’d with me. Can I start by asking you a bit about your personal background? How did you get your start as a playwright, and what has it taken to get you to this particular time and place with Veil’d?

I am originally from Pasadena, CA (a suburb of Los Angeles, known for The Rose Bowl/Rose Parade). I trained as a musical theatre performer for about 10 years before switching over to playwriting while at Marymount Manhattan College, where Veilʼd began as my undergraduate playwriting thesis. This is my first world-premiere, so this play has been in development for quite some time. I started writing plays in college, so I had a lot of support from my professors there, who were also working playwrights. It also helped that I was going to school in New York, so I had access to new plays constantly. I would read plays and go see all genres of theatre as often as I could – which I highly recommend taking advantage of if you have a student ID. From there, I could get a feel for different companies and learn about opportunities they had for emerging writers. I held internships at Women’s Project (now WP Theater), NYMF, and The Dramatists Guild and built relationships with those organizations and the individuals that I worked with. Basically, I forged a community for myself. Then, out of college, I started applying for every fellowship or lab opportunities. Veil’d in particular has been developed with support from the amazing folks at Rising Circle Theater Collective, The Kupferberg Center for the Arts, |the claque|, WP Theater, and the Time Warner Foundation. Their belief in me and this play, along with the team at APAC, have made this world-premiere possible.

Are there any particular playwrights or other writers/creators who inform your work and what you choose to focus on as a playwright?

Oh, tons! Migdalia Cruz, Tennessee Williams, Sarah Kane, Nilo Cruz, Naomi Iizuka, Young Jean Lee, Sarah Ruhl, Sheila Callaghan, Katori Hall, Paula Vogel, Lynn Nottage, Jose Rivera, Suzan-Lori Parks, Mac Wellman, Dominique Morisseau Rollin Jones, Samuel Beckett, Charles Mee, Jules Feiffer, Jean-Paul Sartre, Erin Courtney, Madeleine George, JT Rogers…. and then there are my fellow playwriting contemporaries that inspire me daily with the work they’re doing. I could go on forever with names! Seriously, hit me up and I will give you all the names ever.

Everything about this production, from the characters to the setting to the motifs you’re using, feels very personal while also being very relatable regardless of one’s individual background. Can I ask what inspired you to start telling this particular story rather than other stories that might be bouncing around in your head?

In 2008, I read a series of interviews American feminist author and journalist Naomi Wallace conducted with Afghani women about their burqas. There were both women who were thoroughly opposed to wearing burqas, and women who saw the burqa as a symbol of protection and empowerment. I thought the latter was an interesting viewpoint that I, as an American woman, had never been exposed to. Shortly after reading these interviews, I was visiting my niece in California. As a toddler she was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), a condition on the Autism Spectrum. Symptoms can include a range of complications, including difficulty socializing with others, repetitive behaviors, and heightened sensitivities to certain stimuli. When my niece was very young, she told me that it felt “like fire” when I brushed against her arm; that phrase became the impetus for this play. I remember feeling gut-punched at the prospect of never being able to hold her. Thankfully, with time, her extreme sensitivity to touch faded and she now gives the best hugs ever (when she wants to, that is – she’s 13 now, so I have to really work for them). When I’m with her, I find myself looking at the world with new eyes because she sees everything so differently; everything about nature is precious to her and sheʼs always asking questions without provocation. It makes me wonder how we, as adults, lose the raw, honest instincts we have as children. I wanted to explore these themes in Veilʼd, so much of Dima and the Mansour Family is inspired by this time in my life.

This question is practically a cliché, but how much of Monet is in these characters? They feel so real while not necessarily being biographical.

I think there are elements of the playwright in every play they write – it’s hard to completely disassociate from your characters and their given circumstances when you are the person creating it all. So, yes, there is a lot of me in this play.

Two of your characters are teenagers, or young adults — what is it about this time in one’s life that felt right for the development of these characters, and this play?

I write teenagers as protagonists in many of my plays. Even as a young kid, I remember gravitating toward the “teen” shows on TV – I was obsessed with “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”, “Dawson’s Creek”, and “Roswell”. That threshold between childhood and adolescence is exciting to me because it’s all about discovery, questioning, and making formative choices that impact the rest of your life.

There is some imagery in Veil’d that, by its nature, is going to provoke some strong feelings among people who see the play. Can you elaborate on what you might hope the audience will feel and how that might change over the course of 100 minutes? Have there been pitfalls or challenges you have had to deal with in treating the subject of burqas with sensitivity?

The burqa has different meanings for many women who wear it. I think as Americans we have a tendency to only associate this garment with violence, oppression, and fear without really knowing much about its history or cultural significance. It is my hope that audience members will approach this play with an open mind and an open heart to allow for an alternate perspective that is both positive and meaningful.

You have made the interesting choice to give Veil’d a very fairy-tale feeling and have incorporated some whimsical, even magical-realist narrative techniques and characters. How did you arrive at this artistic choice?

I have always been inspired by the fairy tales, folklore, and myths. I love the dichotomy that exists within a world that appears similar to our own, but is also imbued by magic and governed by the fantastical. As a child, I was raised on Disney and it would be a complete fabrication to say that movies like Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast did not affect me (I was definitely that year’s Disney Princess for Halloween as a child, and growing up in Southern California, Disneyland was my favorite place). But, I also had a deep love of Grimm’s fairy tales and the darkness, loss, and danger that was intertwined with self-discovery and maturity. The Rapunzel story paralleled naturally to the plot of Veil’d from the play’s inception: the tower, the loving parents plagued by a supernatural “curse”, the princess and her prince charming. But, unlike most fairy tales, it was important for me to see people of color and women with agency in these fantastical worlds because I never saw those stories as a child. I hope that modern storytelling will continue to be inclusive and empowering so that children of all races and genders will be able to see themselves reflected on stage and screen.

When it comes to your collaborators, can you elaborate on how exactly you came to work so closely with Pirronne Yousefzadeh and Dev Bondarin/APAC? Was there anything in particular that drew you to work with Astoria Performing Arts Center? Could you see yourself working with APAC on future projects?

Dev sent me an email a few months ago out of the blue asking to read Veil’d because she found the play on the New Play Exchange via National New Play Network (NNPN). I sent her the play but didn’t expect to hear from her again because you don’t often get production opportunities from email solicitations. So, you can imagine my surprise and excitement when Dev emailed me over the summer and asked if I would be interested in having the world-premiere of Veil’d at APAC. Once it was official, I reached out to Pirronne. She and I had known each other for years and worked as producing partners at Rising Circle Theater Collective, but had never had the opportunity to work together as collaborators in this capacity. It’s been wonderful to dive into this piece with Pirronne – she’s been such a joy to work with, and best of all, she really understands this play, which makes rehearsal a joy. APAC, Dev, and Pirronne have been such advocates for me and my work as an emerging artist – I would love to work with them again!

Are you usually afforded the opportunity to be so involved in the day-to-day process of putting one of your plays together? What has the rehearsal experience been like for you? How would you describe the give-and-take between you and the director and you and the cast and creative team?

I love being in the rehearsal room because the actors are pivotal to my writing process. I have to see and hear how they work with the material, so often times, my heaviest rewriting happens smack in the middle of a rehearsal process for a workshop or production. The creative team and the director are also essential pieces of the creative process – their ideas often inform certain dramaturgical notes or images that become part of the play. It truly is a collaborative effort.

Being afforded any opportunity to develop your work is a gift. But, it’s often hard to get those opportunities because there are so many talented writers out there looking to showcase their work, but we are all competing for the same spots in the development circuit. That’s why organizations like APAC that embrace the exhilarating risk of producing emerging artists is so important. We need more organizations to be this daring.

Considering the contentious times, is there anything you would want the audience to take away from Veil’d that they could apply to their own lives, or that could bring them some kind of comfort or understanding?

Being a playwright —especially in this current climate— is a privilege; I believe that as artists we have a responsibility to share narratives that we often don’t hear about or expect. When you subvert the status quo and reveal the truth in universality, you can spark change — and that is why plays like Veil’d are important. As much as this play is about first love, friendship, and self-actualization, it also examines what it means to be an “American”; this has always been at the heart of this play, but I think the current administration’s policies have perhaps made it even more poignant. During our rehearsal process, Pirronne and I emphasized the importance of upholding the narrative of a Middle Eastern family that was not rooted in fear, judgment, or alienation. The Mansour family is just like any other you might encounter—grappling with questions of parenting and identity as they work to create the stability and happiness we as Americans promote and strive for. If the American dream is meant to belong to all, then it is our responsibility to set places at the table for everyone.

Once Veil’d wraps up its run (and we can all take a good nap), do you have plans for Veil’d or for your other work in the near future?

I hope that APAC starts the trend of producing this play! I’d love to see this production done in other parts of the country, and maybe one day, even internationally.

Any final words on Veil’d and this experience before I let you get back to work?

Folding many paper airplanes without proper caffeination can lead to paper cuts – always be prepared and proceed with caution.

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