The work of award-winning playwright Catherine Filloux runs the gamut of emotion and experience, from the abject horrors of the Cambodian massacres to the delicate complexities of personal identity. Filloux teaches the Playwright’s Workshop this semester. I recently sat down with her to discuss both the history of her own highly political work and her experiences working with a new generation of aspiring playwrights.

Matt Connolly: How did you come to teach the Playwright’s Workshop this semester?

Catherine Filloux: I know [Theatre Department Chair] Gay Smith from the O’Neill. I had one of my plays staged there, around 1996 I think it was. And I have just loved Gay ever since then. She had talked about this for years, but I’m often traveling during part of the spring semester. This year, it finally worked out.

MC: How did you go about thinking about the class, and what you wanted to do with it?

CF: I have taught a lot a lot of playwriting workshops, at Ohio State University, Bennington, and other places. I wanted to try something new this time, so I used some exercises that were somewhat different than the times before. I was interested particularly in having a component of reading plays within the class, so we have an exercise where each playwright reads a certain play and then performs a scene from that play. But in the end, it all comes down to writing a play, working on the re-writing process, which I think is one of the most important parts of the playwriting process. My goal is to provide a safe space for the playwrights and a forum for critique.

MC: What kinds of plays do the playwrights read?

CF: Well, I’ve done something where I’ve combined playwrights that are no longer living with living playwrights… I know all the living playwrights, so the students can e-mail them with a question, which you obviously can’t do with Moliere and Chekhov. I mean, I guess you could try, and see what happens (laughs).

MC: What has surprised you about your students?

CF: I am thrilled at the level of political activism I have seen. The level of intelligence and sensitivity of the students in the class is striking. And it sounds like an ad for Wesleyan, but it really is how I feel. They’re incredibly diligent students who listen to each other, do the work, and seem very, very self-directed.

MC: Now that you’re halfway through the semester, is there anything your students aren’t doing that you’d like to see them do more of? Or, are there things your students are doing that you’d like to see them do more of?

CF: We’re in the part of the process where I’m hoping for re-writes, and I hope there’s a sense that things [in their plays] can change in an unexpected direction, that something can surprise the writer as well as the rest of the class. I’m not saying they haven’t been doing this before, but this re-writing is the next evolution in the class. So far, it’s been going really well.

MC: Getting to your work, for a moment. Many of your plays contain very explicit political content, and you also do work with Theatre Without Borders [a group of artists who work to exchange theatrical ideas with other artists around the world]. What do you feel is the most effective way that theater can enact change politically or make people more engaged politically?

CF: I think theater as a form provides a community aspect that is very rare in today’s society, in that people come together to see an event that will be different each night. It’s very different for a film for that reason. With theater, you get the energy of having live actors, and some kind of ritualistic aspect to it, in that it is replayed every night. This kind of an experience I think is not really happening anywhere else in our society. It also depends very much on language. [Theater makes us] sit in a place and listen and be affected by a political play, or a play that deals with issues that we do not know a lot about, or about another place in the world, or about a conflict that our society has or has not dealt with. I think it provides the seeds for some kind of re-thinking, for some kind of change.

MC: On a couple of your plays, you collaborated with people who have experienced the events you write about. Specifically, I’m thinking of your writings on psychosomatic blindness [Her 1996 play, “Eyes of the Heart,” which deals with the lives of Cambodian women experiencing psychosomatic blindness after witnessing the massacres perpetrated by the Khmer Rogue regime]. What are some of the challenges and issues when you’re creating theater that are based upon the lives of people, and also working with those people to create it?

CF: I started writing about Cambodia in the late 1980s, and I’ve written about it a lot since. The difficulty with that particular subject is that each genocide has its own particularity and also its generalities. The context of Cambodia, historically, is extremely complicated…so one of the issues that comes into play is understanding a complicated historical situation, which defies categorization. Longevity is something that is extremely necessary in writing about these kinds of topics and I feel like as I’ve learned more and more, I can bring more truth to it. So, that would be the challenge, to constantly be engaged in reading, oral history, cultural exploration, and then also being able to see something in a more general way. But one of the things I’m really interested in is the emotional aspect of things. Even though my plays deal with ideas, I’m not interested in the analytical aspects of a subject as much as I am with the emotional aspects of it. That requires a personal investment in stories. That’s the way I naturally work. Those are the results I feel are most exciting.

MC: Have you ever written a play and felt you had to step back because the emotional attachment became too complicated?

CF: I wrote a play about my own personal story. My father is from continental France and my mother is from North Africa. She’s French-Algerian. I was raised in San Diego. The play is called “Three Continents” and it’s about a woman, namely myself, who is having difficulty understanding her roots and trying to find herself in the larger contexts of these three continents. It marked the point of me becoming a better playwright, but to write that play, the cost was fairly large. It was maybe the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life, and the reason was because it asked me to look at my own personal connection to identity in a way that made me come to terms with my own family, and who ultimately I was and who I could become. It sounds kind of grandiose, but these things formed the core of what I had never done. One example is that my father had sailed a catamaran to come to this country, and he had written a book. I had never read that book. So I set out to read that book, and it was extremely emotional. My most recent play, which is called “Killing the Boss,” is a personal story about my trips to Cambodia. It’s basically myself, a playwright, who buys a gun and tries to assassinate the prime minister of an anonymous country. It asks what you do when you try to change things and you’ve been exposed to a high threshold of atrocity and you have to face certain facts that things have not changed, have not gotten better.

MC: Are there any current issues that you have yet to write about that you want to write about?

CF: Yes, I would like to write about the war in Iraq. I would like to write my next play possibly about the recent rape case, where soldiers raped a young woman and killed her family. I’m not sure in what way yet, if it would be a realistic retelling or not.

MC: It seems that we live in a time that is about media and the image. What do you think draws people our age to the theater where they could more easily put up a five-minute video on You Tube?

CF: Actually, I gave my class an assignment, asking them to write about why anyone would want to write for the theater and also about experiences that have changed them in the theater. I saw in their answers this idea that theater provides a kind of community, an experience that is different from film and television. It is not repeatable. It has a kind of magical, spiritual quality to it. That would lead me to believe that this part of theater, which has always existed, continues today. Also, there are specific experiences that have shaped them. One of them was the production of “Peer Gynt.” Some talked about their experience working on it as one of their most meaningful theatrical experiences. I also had a student writing about seeing “Peer Gynt.” Apparently, there are still people who love the theater.

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