Making New Theater From Other Artists’ Unfinished Business

Elizabeth Doss offers a bold finish to a play left unfinished by Federico García Lorca

Federico García Lorca in the 1930s.

Austin playwright Elizabeth Doss is fond of messing with history.

Last year, Doss re-told the story of 17th Spanish nun Catalina de Eraus who dressed as a man and traveled the New World. In 2016’s “Poor Herman,” Doss explored the life of her great-great-great grandfather and “Moby Dick” author Herman Melville, training a lens on Melville’s literary failures.

Now, along with theater collective Paper Chairs, Doss debuts “The Audience,” an inventive adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s “El Público,” a play left unfinished by the Spanish writer who was assassinated by fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War.

Doss’s “The Audience” opens July 26 at Austin Playhouse and runs through Aug. 11. We asked Doss for insight on García Lorca’s unusual and unfinished play, and about her re-imagining of it.

Sightlines:”El Público, or “”The Audience,” has been called “the most wildly inventive play Federico García Lorca wrote.” Why this 1930 play now?
Elizabeth Doss: Paper Chairs loves to make work out of other artists’ unfinished business. So, when we read “El Público,” naturally the play ignited our creative engine. García Lorca’s wild words do not behave or function like a traditional drama. In fact, he referred to “El Público” as “a poem on its feet” and thought it was unstageable. This is what drew us in. “El Publico’s” impossibilities gave us the artistic freedom to create an adaptation based on our individual responses to the work instead of feeling compelled to present a faithful production of a “well-made” drama.

We were struck by the way “El Público” leads with theme and a surrealist style instead of a plot like most traditional plays tend to do. García Lorca’s original text explores repressed homoeroticism, the sexual objectification of women and philosophical queries about why the theatre exists. We took these scenarios that García Lorca began and gave them more shape and structure based on our perception of his intent and through a contemporary lens.

“El Público’s” themes address repression that people all over the world still experience today. In the years leading up to Guerra Civil in Spain, propaganda campaigns as well as violent oppression ran roughshod throughout the young republic until the democratically elected government was overthrown by a military coup which led to 35 years of dictatorship under Franco. At the onset of the war, thousands of Spaniards were murdered for politically opposing the Nationalists or for simply being deemed disreputable characters. García Lorca was essentially apolitical but his fame as an artist and poet as well as his homosexuality all led to his murder outside his hometown of Granada in 1936. We feel that this history is still very relevant to our current political climate and culture.

S: What little was ever published of “El Público” is radically incomplete. What did you add or adapt?
ED: As many thematical elements of “El Público” seemed to foreshadow Lorca’s murder and the rise of Franco’s authoritarian regime, we decided to use these facts to inform our fiction. We made the lead character of El Público, the Theatre Director, into a version of García Lorca and set the our production inside the prison where García Lorca was held awaiting his execution.

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We also pared down the huge number of characters García Lorca originally wrote and created intentional doubling in our the casting so the different characters in our version reflect two sides of one coin.

I will also note that we did honor the slapstick surrealist style that García Lorca originally employed. Our adaptation in no way resembles a well-made drama. It lives in the landscape of García Lorca’s shameless imagination. We simply tried to tighten the structure around the aspects of the play that felt were most resonant in 2018.

S: Your work often riffs on/reconsiders history — whether it’s your own family connection to Herman Melville or the story of 17th nun Catalina de Erauso? Where does that fascination come from? Does history need to be re-written, or at least re-considered?
ED: I think our view of history is constantly being reshaped by the moment in which we live. History is not static or a finished chronology of past events. Instead, it is a living breathing beast we wrestle with every day. I do believe our experience of history is largely subjective and the stories that touch us personally become the past that haunts us. For example, I used to live outside of Granada, Spain and I saw firsthand the legacy left behind by the decades of Franco’s dictatorship. Many older people in my village experienced malnutrition and starvation during their formative years. My Spanish friends talked about how closed off their world was. Not only were people afraid to express their own opinions, they lived in fear of overhearing something they shouldn’t. The aftermath of this anti-artist, anti-intellectual culture has endured in Spain over 40 years after Franco’s death in 1975.

Elizabeth Doss’s “Catalina de Erauso,” produced by Paper Chair. Photo: Leon Alesi.

Ultimately, I think the past serves a frame for the present moment. It gives context and insight into our current human struggles. With a resurgence of nationalist movements and neofascism across the globe today, the life and death of people like García Lorca should be unearthed and investigated.

S: Like so many Austin performing arts groups, Paper Chairs is venue-challenged. The company recently spent a season at the Ctr for Maximum Building Potential. Now it’s in Austin Playhouse. What’s next? And what are you up against trying to find a venue?
ED: The folks at Austin Playhouse were extremely generous toward us in offering us space this summer. Paper chairs loves to work in a site-specific mode and CMPBS really served our two productions last year, “Catalina de Erauso” and “The Repentance of St Joan.” Similarly, Austin Playhouse is a perfect venue for “The Audience.” The repurposing of Highland Mall into an ACC campus speaks to living breathing nature of the past. And since the theatre itself is set up as a traditional proscenium, it offers our version of “The Audience” a contemporary setting akin to the kind theatre Lorca intended to reimagine.

Our upcoming season will include an adaptation of Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz’s play, “The Divine Narcissus,” which will again allow us explore a particular character and moment in history. We’re also going to present a new play, “Everything You Want to Be” by Kate Atwell which be directed by Dustin Wills at the Ground Floor Theatre in September 2019.

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