Music is her Muse: Quiara Alegría Hudes and her Path to the Pulitzer
Quiara Alegría Hudes writes from the music in her bones. Her work, which delves deeply into notions about family ties, war, love, joy, and despair are all exemplary excavations into the mind of a poet-musician-playwright whose craftsmanship is as profound as her skill for lyricism and whose passion for writing is as infectious as her radiant laughter. For her, writing is as sacred and serious as surgery. She talks about her process with as much clarity as she talks about her product, and one can’t help but feel like they are in the presence of a wise teacher and an old friend. Yet it is her love for music that shapes most of her work. She is a musician with a pen.
I set down with Hudes over brunch in Harlem on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, weeks after she won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her searing, deeply moving play Water By the Spoonful. The second part of a familial trilogy, Water by the Spoonful, details the life of an Iraq war veteran named Eliot who is struggling with life back home, and the parallel story of four people who connect via an online chatroom for recovering drug addicts. I saw the play at Hartford Stage where it premiered in October of last year and I was so floored by it that I could not get out of my seat long after the actors took their bows and the audience exited the theater. I was exhilarated by how innovative the play was and by how human, fragile, and yet fearless the characters were. I wanted to pick Hudes’s brain at brunch. I wanted to know what her secrets were, how she arrived at such a revelation at the end, and what drives her as a writer. The following are excerpts from that conversation.
Marcus Gardley (Rail): What was the first play you ever wrote, your first production?
Quiara Alegría Hudes: My first play was called My Best Friend Died. I just wrote it. I didn’t even know that I didn’t know how to write a play. I wrote it and it was a play. I was writing plays, poems a lot. It was produced in 8th grade and it was about my best friend dying.
Rail: What did it feel like for the first time, when you heard your play read aloud? How did that make you feel?
Hudes: I felt like a genius. [Laughter.] Because you’re sitting down, and they are saying things much better than you thought possible. And you’re thinking: I had no idea what I wrote down was so good. You know, there is chatter about how the Pulitzer committee read the play and didn’t see it, and that was a bit controversial, but the cool thing about being a playwright is that you get to be a chameleon. And a play exists in two ways, it exists as a piece of writing and as a performance. And both are valid.
Rail: So when did you realize that you were a writer and that you wanted to write plays?
Hudes: I don’t ever remember not writing one thing or another. I wrote as a hobby at first. And then I guess it became a sort of therapy, I wrote to deal with things like loneliness. Then there was a time as an undergrad that I stopped writing—text, that is. Instead I was writing music (scores and lyrics), and I realized that I was missing something. Something was not clicking into place. Then one day my mother said, “Quiara, you miss writing. You wrote every day of your life.” I was not self-conscious about it is the thing. It just came natural. It was just something that I did.
Rail: Yes, that’s fascinating. I find that writing or the profession of being a writer (for many writers) it is something that chooses you. I don’t ever remember growing up thinking, “Oh, I’m going to be a writer.” It fell in my lap, much like stories do. And speaking of stories that fall into one’s lap, how did your play Water By the Spoonful come to be? Did you set out knowing that you were going to write a trilogy?
Hudes: No, not at all. I wrote the first play, Eliot: A Soldier’s Fugue. Then I wrote In the Heights, followed by 26 Miles. After writing the last two, the work that felt the most original and exciting to me to write was Eliot. I wanted to live in that writing world a little more. I had a good time writing that piece. It was different. I thought, “I’m the only writer who could have written that.” What I found out was that I couldn’t go back, couldn’t retrace my footsteps. I wanted to do something new. So how do you do that? You can’t retread, you must move forward. So I thought about working with music in the same way but using a different type of music so that I would be experiencing the same type of process writing-wise but would be moving forward with a new play. And so I thought about jazz. At the same time my cousin Eliot had some pretty incredible stuff happening in his life. And I thought I wanted to continue with this story and use jazz as a musical background. He has a really neat story. Some of it was too good to be true and at that point I knew I wanted it to be a trilogy and I wanted to use three different musical worlds to place each play in. For Eliot I used western music, which is Bach; and for Water by the Spoonful I used jazz; so for the third, which is called The Happiest Song Plays Last, I am using global music, which for me is folk music. Puerto Rican folk music and in this case jibaro and guitar and voice.
Rail: Does music come naturally to you?
Hudes: Yes, it does. My first thought is always what kind of music am I going to have in this play. And I base the world, the language of the play, on that type of music. I definitely wanted Water by the Spoonful to feel like the language was thick and gnarly because I feel like people online use language that is most surprising. And jazz is surprising; there is improvisation. I feel like the language in The Happiest Song Plays Last is definitely straightforward and conversational. And the folk music is akin in that way. It is honest, heartfelt. You know when I studied music at Yale—my instrument is piano—if I was writing something for a string quartet or a jazz band, I know what that feels like, but I don’t know how it affects people until I am in the room with them and can feel their heat. It’s the same with a play—music and plays operate the same. You don’t know what you have until you’re playing it before an audience.
Rail: It is clear that you think a lot about your plays before you sit down to write. You think about the music of the world, about the set or basic imagery. Do you even start with an outline?
Hudes: No, never. I end up spending too much money on journals if I write too much about the play beforehand. And I tend to get rid of a journal if there is a page inside that I don’t like. So I write on legal pads. My dad made me a writing desk—he is a carpenter. I keep my desk clean. I walk around my room, I pace a lot—that’s my process. I only know just enough to get me started, and then I write. I don’t know where it’s going until I write the first few scenes. After that, I can sit down and write the play. When I wrote Water by the Spoonful, I knew that it was going to be about recovery, and that it was going to be about an online chat room and the real world and the online world. I knew it was going to be big and messy. I knew
I wanted to have characters from different ethnicities.
I knew who some of the characters were but not all. I had no idea that they were going to be throwing ashes at the end. I had no idea that there was going to be a love story between the characters Orangutan and Chutes & Ladders. That was the best. I was so happy because I never wrote a love story, and that was so much fun to write—to watch them fall in love, then lose each other and fight about losing one another. If I write and I start to cry that usually is a good sign. I always have my cup of coffee, my little totem items that are around my desk—and of course music. I always have my music.
Rail: What about characters? How much do you think about them beforehand?
Hudes: It depends; every play is different. For Water by the Spoonful, I wrote all these characters from different backgrounds: An African-American, an Asian-American, a Latino, and a white guy—it was thrilling. I never felt more at home than writing this group of people. And I realized again, that I have to do that for The Happiest Song Plays Last. I knew I wanted to write from within the Latino community but also outside of it. And so like Water by the Spoonful, there are two worlds in this play. There is the world where Eliot is filming his movie, and then there is the world of North Philly. I have come to terms with the fact that I write dramas. I wish I could write comedies. Dear God! I play this game with myself. I’m like: Dear God, how dark can it get. And you know I get sad and miserable, but The Happiest Song is a little bit about joy. And the Puerto Rican folk music is a lot about joy. And there is a lot of joy in The Happiest Song even though it is quite dark. It was fun to be writing about joy.
Rail: It’s just a joy to be writing. I remember we talked about that last summer at the O’Neill. Do you think you have to love the art of writing, the every day practice of it? Or would you say it’s different for you, perhaps you have a love/hate relationship to writing?
Hudes: No, not at all. I love it. You have to. When I talk to young writers they always want to know how do you make it, how do you know if you are good enough, or how do you become a writer. And I’m like, figure out some way that you can live spending your life writing. And after two years you will know. If you don’t like waking up every day and writing, you will know. Writing is an incredible way to spend your day, and if you don’t love it, it’s not for you. You get to think so much. That’s such a pleasure.
Rail: And what are you working on now? I know you have two books that are being published by TCG, which is exciting. Do you have a new play that you are writing?
Hudes: I do. It’s called Daphne’s Dive. And this piece has a live musician. There is a live pianist. I really wanted that. In some ways, I am spoiling myself. I wrote it into the structure of the play. The piano sound comes from a neighbor who is practicing piano at his window. Daphne’s Dive is the first play that I’ve written where there is a unit set. It takes place all in one location. It’s just the bar. You create a stage with a bar. I wanted to write a play where the set is a character. And music is alive in the world. It is as present as any character. Before music was a part of the background, now it’s on stage.
Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Water by the Spoonful, the 2012 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, will be available from TCG Books on August 1, followed up with the release of her play Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue on August 15. These are the second and first plays of her trilogy. The third installment, The Happiest Song Plays Last, will receive its world premiere in spring 2013 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and will be published by TCG later that year. To purchase the books, visit www.tcg.org or pick up a copy at The Drama Book Shop (in NYC) or your own local bookstore. For more about Hudes, visit her website at www.quiara.com.
MARCUS GARDLEY is a poet-playwright who recently won the 2011 PEN Laura Pels award for Mid-Career Playwright. He is the 2011/2012 Aetna New Voices Playwright in residence at Hartford Stage and playwright in residence for Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. Gardley teaches playwriting at Brown University.