Q&A: ‘Yerma in the Desert’ Playwright Oliver Mayer & Co-Director Marlene Forte

Jean Murillo as Yerma and Paul Tully as Victor in "Yerma in the Desert." Photo by Luis Kelly-Duarte.

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Alhambra , CA United States

Yerma in the Desert, which is Oliver Mayer’s adaptation of Frederico García Lorca’s 1934 play Yerma, centers on a janitor at an elite university who wants desperately to have a baby, but her husband, focused on becoming a security officer rather than a janitor, shies away from her touch. Mayer, a professor of dramatic writing and Associate Dean at USC’s School of Dramatic Arts, and his wife Marlene Forte, an actress who co-directed this play with Edgar Landa, talk about their processes. Co-produced by Urban Theatre Movement and Greenway Arts Alliance, Yerma in the Desert runs at Greenway Court Theatre until Dec. 16.

Oliver, what are the advantages of writing an adaptation rather than an “original” play about the janitorial and security staff at a university? What about the original “Yerma” made you want to retell it in the backdrop of Trump’s America?

Oliver Mayer: Connecting our American present to Lorca’s Spain of 80 years ago was easier than I had imagined. Despite all the obvious differences between the times, it’s still just as hard to find balance in a love relationship — particularly when the lovers differ on bringing a child into the world. Gossip is also just as pervasive now as then, and can twist people into choices that can harm them. I simply added the economics and political fears of our Trumpian reality (which I believe are doing considerable damage to intimacy, romance and family) and stirred the pot a bit. But I picked this play to adapt because I’m a bit in love with Yerma. Her passion and pride are towering, and she is as worthy of a tragedy as Hamlet any day.

On infertility and infidelity–in Lorca’s days and now–what are the similarities and differences? Were there challenges in updating these issues for “Yerma in the Desert?”

OM: The subject of infidelity has certainly changed in the interim. But because our culture is more used to people fooling around, Yerma’s moral stand against it stands out more. Honor is not a word that gets used much in this moment, and that is precisely why I am so interested in Yerma’s use of it. She may seem invisible and insignificant because of her menial job, but she has more scruples than most of us. It really stands out in the age of Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore. As for infertility, I felt glad to be able to update the issue. The original play used magic and faith to give Yerma hope for a child. Now, reproductive advancements are a kind of magic that has changed our lives forever. But Yerma is old school, and as intelligent as she may be, she is also adamantine when it comes to making babies. It’s a fatal flaw.

Why does Yerma insist on having a baby only in the traditional way, when that’s unviable for her?

OM: This insistence on making a baby in the traditional way is crucial to understanding what Yerma really wants. I think that as much as she wants a child, she wants simple basic loving intimacy with her husband more. When Professor Stallworthy shows her how to circumvent the problem with technology, Yerma turns away. So to my mind, that proves it’s not the baby itself that she wants but rather the love between partners that makes a baby. This is a woman starving for human touch.

Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of Greenway Arts Alliance Pierson Blaetz said, “When we started Greenway, Oliver Mayer was the talk of the town with his powerful play Blade to the Heat. It took us twenty years to get his talent on the Greenway stage but it was well worth the wait.”

Urban Theatre Movement is the inaugural recipient of Greenway Arts Alliance’s Greenway Residency Program which supports an established L.A. theater company that lacks a permanent home. As the first playwright to be working with the inaugural resident theater company at Greenway, what has your writing process been like?

OM: I am honored to bring Urban Theatre Movement and the Greenway Court Theatre Alliance together with Yerma in the Desert. This play was written expressly for UTM, and hopefully reflects our historical epoch from DACA to The Wall to the question of what it means to be an American anymore. I believe that this play connects our shared view of the world we live in as well as where the battle lines are drawn. These actors deserve to be on the main stage in a major city, playing custodians and security officers, speaking in their own languages, fighting and loving and raging, with no apologies for who they are. We believe that this play has something to say about our city that people need to hear and see.

Marlene, as this is your directorial debut for a full-length play, was there any particular approach you took in directing Yerma in the Desert?

Marlene Forte: I am an actor by trade. So I approached it like an actor. I basically played all the roles in my head, and then guided the actors towards that! [Laughs] I’m really glad I had [co-director] Edgar on this journey with me. Edgar has directed me before and he is really good with the bigger picture, [while] I approached it from the inside out, characters first.

What was a highlight of this process?

MF: The highlight for me was watching these young actors, not necessarily young in age, but in experience, and really seeing them flourish. It was and still is the best part.

Were there any challenges in directing Yerma in the Desert?

MF: Well, I’m not sure I would have done it without Edgar. [Laughs] I am very confident in my acting skills but directing is another beast. I was a bit nervous all the way till opening night.

What was unique about working with UTM or working in a residency with Greenway Arts Alliance?

MF: Well, I have worked with UTM before in Oliver’s Blood Match. That is also where I worked with Edgar as a director. Oliver and I have become members of UTM so they are not new to us. But having a home to work in, a theater that supports the group, has been great.

Oliver and Marlene, have university janitorial and security employees and university students seen this play yet, and if so, what have their reactions been?

OM: This is a piece of fiction, first and foremost. But from what we have seen so far, audience members with ties to our local universities have been extremely supportive and positive about the play and what it’s trying to say. We wanted the characters to be grounded in work experience and specific jobs, the kind that are essential but not always visible, and lack status — at least among some of us. Lorca and I made it a point to give Yerma her due. I challenge anyone to denigrate the quality, passion or high standards of her work. In her way, she is a queen.

MF: I’m not sure if any janitorial or security employees have seen the play, but the audiences seem to really like it and relate to it. I think we all take for granted the nameless people who clean up after us. Not too much thought goes into these people, but the truth is that we are a more civilized planet because of them. And these people have hopes and dreams and families. I hope the students that do come are a bit nicer to the janitorial and security people in their lives.

What kind of audience members most need to see this now?

OM: We strive for a crossover audience, here in L.A. and hopefully in future productions. The best audiences look like a cross-town bus, with people of different backgrounds and classes sharing intimate space for short periods, acknowledging each other’s rights and standpoints. We love that people of color can see themselves on stage with our play, but we want everyone to recognize this story. It is just as important to us that our lead roles are inhabited by people you might not expect to see on stage, not simply by nature of color or ethnicity, but based on body type, sexual identity, and other expectations learned from Hollywood. We think this company of actors is fundamentally beautiful, and we want to show this beauty off to the world.

MF: Everyone should see this — every adult I know — especially in the current climate we live in, where people are feeling left behind, at the bottom of the totem pole. We need to come together now, more than ever. You need to see the person standing next to you; the person who just picked up your garbage; the police officer that patrols your streets while you sleep; the woman who cleans the toilet in your place of business.

World Premiere of “Yerma in the Desert”
By Oliver Mayer
Co-directed by Marlene Forte and Edgar Landa

Featuring Jean Murillo, Anthony Bryce Graham, Brenda Banda, Essence Brown, Marilyn Fitoria, Chris Gavilanes, Meghan Lewis, Gisla Stringer, Paul Tully, Spencer Weitzel

Presented by Greenway Arts Alliance & Urban Theatre Movement

Performance Times: Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., until Dec. 16.
Venue: Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A.
Tickets: $15-$40; www.GreenwayCourtTheatre.org/Yerma; (323) 673-0544

Alhambra Source readers get a $5 discount with the code GROUP5.

Interviews were condensed and edited. This article is cross-published in HuffPost.

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