Welcome to our interview series with the current rockin MFA playwrights, leading up to Seabury Quinn! This year the interview series will be a little different since different pairs of writers interviewed eachother! These pairs of writers were chosen by the head of the program to be “writing partners” and give each other feedback on each others plays throughout the spring semester.
This interview is questions for Trip by second year playwright, Cristina Luzarraga. Trip Venturella is a first year playwright and wrote the play “Shahid” which will be presented Saturday, April 22nd at 1:00pm!! Also watch out for all of the other interviews with our other writers!
Cristina Luzarraga: Your play for festival “Shahid” chronicles the life of Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali. What drew you to his work and inspired you to write this play?
Trip Venturella: I fell in love with his work while in Kashmir right after college. The occupation and militancy caused a huge amount of suffering among Kashmiris, and Agha Shahid Ali became a voice for them through his poetry. Working with a human rights organization there, and reading the way he responded to some of the history I was learning, re-framed the way I thought about art in conflict areas. Furthermore, he wrote some of his best work at a time of great personal suffering. I was intrigued by how he was able to write such powerful poetry in the face of all of that. He also went through a few transformations as an artist in his last two books, The Country Without a Post Office and Rooms are Never Finished. His poetry became more personal, more political, and more formal all at once. I was interested in his evolution as an artist, and the way that that evolution was driven by his experiences.
Cristina: “Shahid” is a drama about grief and war. But you also write broad comedies with intriguing titles like “Killer Maples: The Musical.” How do you navigate between these different modes of writing? Also, are maple trees the enemy?
Trip: I try to let the distinction between comedic and dramatic/tragic stay in service of the material, but I’m definitely drawn to comedy. With “Shahid” I wanted to challenge myself by writing something that didn’t involve any fart jokes, hilarious mishaps, or puns. Or killer maples. So some of the devices I usually use to keep the audience interested didn’t necessarily apply when writing it. I had to use other tools. I also wanted to write a language play, and I tend to lean heavily on language in drama, which pushes it into more lyric forms. When you’re working with lyricism the other challenge becomes maintaining clarity. You don’t want the actors to get bogged down by the things that they’re saying, and you don’t want the audience to feel like they’re watching an audiobook, or even worse, a poetry slam.
I think, for me, the distinction really comes down to how you deliver the “payoff,” in other words what you want the audience to realize after a certain scene, or turn of phrase, or whatever. Comedy, I think, tries to achieve it through incongruity and play, whereas drama uses more irony and foreshadowing. But the distinction is really between, I don’t know, a Bordeaux and a California Merlot: they’re both pressed from the same grape.
Are maple trees the enemy? It may seem that way at first, but after an hour of song and dance, we learn that perhaps those who seem like enemies at first are in fact our friends, and the greatest struggle of all is with ourselves.
Cristina: You often employ wordplay in your work, and “Shahid” is a play about a poet. Why is drama your chosen medium, and not say, poetry or cryptic crossword puzzles?
Trip: I think it’s a power trip for me to have people walking around onstage doing what my words tell them to do – I’m not going to lie, that’s a huge part of it. I’ve always loved language, but more specifically, I’ve always loved language spoken aloud. Getting my language out into the world is a huge motivator.
Plays are also lots of fun to write! When I stumble on something I want to write, I tend to think in dialogue and dramatic situations. When I do write poems, I’m usually making an effort to explore a part of myself or an emotion that I don’t entirely understand, something that isn’t familiar, the self that keeps himself hidden. The self that walks around every day, wears dirty socks because he’s lazy, swears when he can’t find parking: that part of myself generates dramatic situations more-or-less spontaneously. I’ll start chuckling like a maniac in the middle of the day, then go off to my room and start scribbling down dialogue. Finally, I like theatre people! Poets tend to be quiet, private people. I’m a loud, social person. I like working with actors, directors, and designers. So, if I want to keep working with them, I have to keep writing plays! I’ve never considered crossword puzzles! Sending my resume to the NYT right now: 1 across, 6 letters, first letter ‘H,’ “Jobseeker’s plea.”
Cristina: In your play “Shahid,” the poet journeys through the underworld to deliver an important letter. What’s the longest trek you’ve ever made? And, per Dante, who’s in the lowest ring of hell?
Trip: The longest trek is usually from my bed to my alarm clock every morning. Ha! That was a joke and I’m hilarious. I’ve done a lot of long through-hikes, one of the best was Mt. Rainier last summer. I also did a huge hike when I was a junior in college through Sikkim. I was studying a type of Buddhist monastic dance, so I visited a few monasteries along a pilgrimage route. I’m sorry to say I didn’t attain enlightenment. However, I think that restlessness is something I’ve taken into the play (and a lot of my work), as Shahid’s movement from grief to reconciliation is imagined as a journey a la Dante.
Who’s in the lowest ring of hell? Now, that can be interpreted two different ways: who’s the Devil, but also who are the betrayers. I don’t know the answer to either of those – I guess we’ll have to wait to see if Michael Flynn testifies.
Cristina: You’re a good ole boy from New England. I’m a mean ole girl from New Jersey with anti-Boston prejudices. This isn’t a divide on the scale of India and Pakistan, but still, how might we bridge this cultural chasm?
Trip: We can’t. Go Sox. Free Brady.
Now that Trip is your new early career playwright crushhh, go see his play!
SHAHID by Trip Venturella 1:00 pm, Saturday April 22nd, Elizabeth Baker Theater, Kantner Hall What are artists responsible for in the face of violence? Shahid imagines the life of Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali as he struggles with two losses – that of his homeland, and that of his mother – among the myths and stories of a poetic Kashmir. How do you balance stories of your people, with the stories of your own?
More about Trip
Trip Venturella is a graduate of Colby College with a degree in Religious Studies. He has worked with Colby College’s Theater and Dance Department, the human rights group ANHAD: Kashmir, Delhi University in New Delhi, Floating Space Theatre Company in Sri Lanka, and many, many groups in the Boston area. He has done field work on Chams Dance in Sikkim and studied Chhau Dance in Delhi. He currently serves as the Development and Outreach Director of Apollinaire Theatre Company in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where he has overseen the conception of, fundraising for, and buildout of the Riseman Family Theatre and the Chelsea Blackbox Theatre, as well as the production of three years of Apollinaire in the Park: a free, outdoor, bilingual summer theatre production. His original musical “Killer Maples: The Musical!,” a collaboration with the composer Andres Ramos, was produced by Yelling Man Theatre in June of 2016.