by Thelma Virata de Castro, Playwright
My sister gave me this card. Instead of writing me a note, she just gave me the blank card. Now of course, I love cats, but the message rang true. What I need is all around me.
I am a homebody. To me there’s never enough time to stop, sit on my couch, and think. But I am a creature of the world too. When I started working on the “The Fire in Me”, I knew I’d have to go out and interview people, be interviewed, and engage the community. And then there’s life. I work and teach part-time with Playwrights Project, coordinate programs for San Diego Playwrights, and have a busy family life. This post is all about the places I went and what was all around me through the course of this project.
During an information meeting about The San Diego Foundation Creative Catalyst Fellowship in 2013, the applicants in the room were supposed to ask themselves: What does an artist like me need? A trip to New York? A new computer? Retreats and conferences have been lasting influences in my life. At Hedgebrook and AROHO (A Room of Her Own Foundation), I was given time and space to write, and I connected with other women writers. We continue to follow and support each other’s journeys, sometimes reuniting at conferences, such as those held by the Dramatists Guild and AWP—Association of Writers and Writing Programs. So when I was awarded a Creative Catalyst Fellowship in 2018, my wish was to travel.
But sometimes plans don’t go as expected. I applied to Mesa Refuge in Point Reyes Station to write the first draft of my play, but I wasn’t accepted. Sigh. And uh-oh. I had to squeeze in writing time between work and other responsibilities. So instead of a retreat, I attended two conferences. One was at the beginning of the project and gave me material I used in the play. The second was after the March 2019 performances and allowed me time to connect ideas and reflect.
The United State of Women Summit
At The United State of Women Summit in Los Angeles, May 5-6, 2018, Tarana Burke quoted poet June Jordan: We are the ones we have been waiting for (Video link at 1:15:10). The Summit was an intersectional gathering of women and allies working for gender equality. The character Chris in “The Fire in Me” tells Lark, the protagonist, that they attended the Summit and they reference speakers—Tarana Burke on self-care, and Matt McGorry on why men should fight domestic violence. I learned about the importance of sexual education to prevent domestic violence from Diana Rhodes, Director of Public Policy for Advocates for Youth. Michelle Obama was interviewed, so of course, she had to be in the play. Lark’s mother practices the “mom face” that Obama demonstrates in her interview (17:44) to encourage kids to talk to their parents.
With thousands of other writers, I attended the AWP—Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Portland, Oregon, March 27-30, 2019. It is the largest literary conference in North America.
In his keynote speech, Colson Whitehead compared writing to making fried chicken: If you stick with something over time, you get better at it . . . Most art is a slow cook. I attended panels on topics ranging from mental illness in children’s literature to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in theatre (presented by Dramatists Guild). A writer in prison read an essay live via a phone call. Jonestown survivors talked about the importance of owning and writing their own stories. Dr. Melissa Coss Aquino, a friend I met at the AROHO retreat in 2015, spoke about writing done in crisis and writing that heals. Having just interviewed survivors, her words resonated: Sometimes our histories stand guard over our hearts.
Coffee Shops, Campuses, and Churches
Writing a play based on interviews meant that I spent a lot of time meeting people at coffee shops. When I met with community leader Patrick Ambrosio, we discussed domestic violence in the LGBTQ+ community. He brought up the resources available on college campuses and at The Center. Other interviewees referenced campus resources as well. I visited The Pride Center at SDSU and the Women’s Resource Center, which were right next door to each other. From the all-gender bathrooms, to lactation rooms and clothing closets, these centers provided thoughtful resources for diverse needs.
Religion played a central role in the relationships of most of the survivors I spoke with. As stated by the character Chris in the play, religion can be a source of great comfort and/or pain. Out of all of my interviews, I felt the most nervous before my meeting with the first of three Catholic priests I spoke with. I was surprised to learn that I had several misconceptions about the Catholic faith. Although some of the survivors believed otherwise, Catholicism states that a man and a woman are equals in marriage. Although some survivors stay in a marriage because they don’t want to divorce, the priests all said that the Catholic faith does not want people to stay in abusive marriages. The campus resource centers and Catholic churches have opposing views on many issues, but they were united in their support for victims of domestic violence.
The Beach and the Field
One of my children is a surfer and the other is a football player. I spend a lot of time at the beach and the practice field. Like many mothers, I multitask. I sit in my car or on a park bench and make phone calls or interview people.
Nature was a source of healing in the play. The ocean couldn’t help but infiltrate, specifically in the final scene at the tidepools at Ocean Beach. The tide always comes back, Chris says.
Football practice got me outdoors. I take walks for exercise, but it’s also time taken to think and create. Still, I didn’t miss the irony of working on a play about domestic violence as my family was involved in this sport. One of my interviewees called football “controlled violence”.
We had capacity audiences due to attendance by community college, university, and even some high school students. I am thankful for the support of educators. I enjoyed visiting classrooms and discussing writing and the process of creating the play. Funding from California Humanities, The San Diego Foundation, and the sponsorship of the San Diego Public Library made the performances free and accessible.
We Are All Wanderers On This Earth
I’m happy to be home and to have the time to finally write this post, yet I’m appreciative of the many opportunities this project has given me to talk to people and travel.
The character Chris says: There’s a beauty in sadness. In football, there’s a chant where the team stands in a circle and one player shouts, “Who got my back?” All the other players respond, “I got yo’ back.” Although the play shared stories of trauma, it was beautiful to have the community come together to acknowledge and support the survivors all around us. I certainly traveled to painful places in this journey, but the trust and willingness of the survivors to share their stories allowed me to grow. I am grateful for their truth.
This post began with a card and ends with a card. I bought it for myself a few years back. It’s still blank inside.
We are all wanderers on this earth.
Our hearts are full of wonder
and our souls are deep with dreams.