Name: Maria Alexandria (“Alex”) Beech
Hometown: Anaco, Estado Anzoategui, Venezuela
Current Town: New York City
Affiliations: Columbia and NYU, MFA’s in Playwriting and Musical Theater Writing
Q: How do you self-identify?
A: Latina, Venezuelan-American
Q: Tell me about your latest play, Cherries.
A: It’s about an undocumented landscaper in Brownsville, Texas who plays the lottery. He lives with his high school sweetheart and works for her brother. The play is a love letter to my friend Juan, an undocumented painter whom I met while working with undocumented immigrants in Mississippi after Katrina. And it’s a love letter to my friends in Louisiana, where I grew up.
Since my mother lives with me, we watch Univision news every day, and the stories we hear are heartbreaking. Mom grew up in Latin American poverty…pobreza…which is its own fucking thing. As a child, she was brutalized for taking a banana from the kitchen when she was hungry. And she was always hungry. Her mother had a little shack where she sold sugarcane. She was a single mom before it was hip. Then Mom married dad and her life changed. Having grown up in a South American town, we knew everybody. The guy who owns the oil wells and the guy who lives in a windowless tin house but still grows a garden. My parents helped the poor in my town so I was always immersed in their stories. Mothers who couldn’t afford to raise their kids so they dropped them off at our doorstep. There was an orphanage behind my house, and my guess was that these kids were orphaned because of poverty and not because their parents died. Poverty is crushing in Latin America. Yes, there are hungry people in the US. But I grew up around kids whose feet were misshapen because their shoes had never been removed. Their toes curled in. And they were hungry. Some of them had never touched money. Through my mother, I connected to their dreams that grew like weeds through sidewalk cracks, and also to epic losses. Where you have nothing but the clothes you’re wearing, and even that can be taken away. (When I complain about living in a studio apartment, Mom reminds me that there are large families living in the same-sized space. To her, even two people sharing a bed is abundance.)
While not all my plays are about poverty (because the extremely wealthy who caused the world’s colossal messes also interest me), the backdrop of poverty informs my writing. The world needs to hear that story, the story of need, of desperate hunger, of what a human being has to say when there’s nothing but words as the means. One reason a lot of art is limited today is because we’re not hearing enough from artists who live at the brink of death, who understand the direct consequences of terrible government policies, who breathe near the line of risk…we see drama but it’s not life. Life is death. It’s that simple. What humans do to survive. Showing up at a college protest doesn’t teach you that. Living in a poverty-stricken country or area does.
A heartbreaking American story right now is the journey of The Dreamer. Can you fucking imagine being brought here as a child, as I was, only to be told that you have to return to your country because you’re not “legal?” Even though English is your best language, your friends, the mall where you shop, the movie theater, your school, everything about your life…is here. The story of The Dreamer interests me. Dreamers understand life and death. They understand risk. They’re here. But they could be gone tomorrow, to a land they don’t know and that doesn’t know them. That often doesn’t want them and that could possibly kill them. It’s fucking heartbreaking and it’s a story all of us should tell. It’s happening as I type this.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: My TV pilot, TeleMAMAS, is becoming a web series. TeleMAMAS is based on my surreal experience pitching shows to a major network. The reaction so far to the script has been extremely positive though I haven’t shown it to a lot of industry people. But a friend read it and said, fuck it, I want to produce this. She raised some money and that’s where we’re at. We have a good director and a team, we’re going to cast it soon, and then we’ll giggle our way through 6-8 episodes. Life is so fucking sad that I write funny. It’s almost an astronomical loop.
Also, I’m writing a musical with Adam Ben-David entitled Rockovery. And I wrote a musical with my best friend Karl St. Lucy entitled CLASS which I love. That’s why I wrote the title in capital letters. CLASS. It’s based on an experience I had one summer at Tulane. I signed up for Sex and Sexism with my favorite professor who was dying from a brain tumor. I was the only student in the class who knew. Since I was out of my fucking mind and partying every night with the Greeks in the class, I learned that they were plotting to use her cancer to get an A in the class. (I was getting an A the old-fashioned way.) To honor the beautiful gifts that professor gave us during the last months of her life, and to document the horrible privileged garbage that made her suffer for it, I wrote CLASS. Someone please develop us. You won’t regret it.
Besides theater, I spend way too much time on Twitter.
Q: What have been the defining moments of your journey as a playwright?
- Getting drunk with Irene Fornes in Mexico, where I learned to write plays under her. (I visit her at her nursing home and you should come with me…)
- Telling Katori Hall in an undergrad class at Columbia that she was going to be famous.
- Graduating cum laude from Columbia after spending two years recovering at eating disorders centers.
- Pissing off bankers while printing my plays at Lehman Brothers, where I worked as an emerging markets analyst and strategist (my plays, Breaking Walls, What are you Doing Here, and BONDS, are about that time).
- Going back and finishing my MFA with the swan Ann Bogart and cranky Eduardo Machado. Eduardo helped me get fellowships, including one which mostly entailed papering for shows, filing, and picking up cigarette butts at the Cherry Lane. But they produced my play Breaking Walls and yeah, they paid for part of my MFA. Angelina Fiordellisi is a rock goddess. Another fellowship was from the Shubert Organization, then run by Gerald Schoenfeld. Gerry became my mentor during my MFA, and I’ll probably cry writing this: he was like a dad who bugged me about my career, gave me countless tickets to Broadway shows at Shubert houses, and doted over me. He made sure the NYPD inspected my apartment after a death threat came through my Venezuelan politics blog; he always asked if I was eating and sleeping. He was a pivotal influence in my life and such a heart. Fuck everyone who says mean things about him.
- I was invited to be in the Dorothy Strelsin New American Writers Group at Primary Stages. During those years, I wrote a bunch of good plays, worked with the best stage actors in New York (Frances Sternhagen, Maria Tucci, Lynn Cohen, Matt Saldival, Mandy Gonzalez, and so many others), as well as great directors like my frequent collaborator Michelle Bossy. I also wrote with some of the best playwrights who became friends. (Matt Olmos, Tommy Smith, Katori Hall a short while before Mountaintop would elevate her to the stratosphere.).
- My production at the Cherry Lane was a highlight because a lot was donated: rehearsal space from a church, costumes from mom, set pieces from the Cherry Lane and from a cast member. I was able to pay the director and actors a little money. It confirmed that you don’t need half a million dollars to produce a play. Just a little time and a lot of courage…heart. Also, we got a nice review from Bloomberg News even though I wasn’t expecting anyone to notice us.
- Two productions at the Planet Connections Festivity displayed the generosity of actors, the passion that theater artists bring to the work, often at theaters with no air conditioning in the middle of summer. That was my first big ole “Best Script” Award.
- My most pivotal moment was receiving the Aspen Visionary Playwrights Award which was given to me by Jeremy Irons at a fancy Park Avenue apartment. I gave a dorky speech that included the words, “in a faraway galaxy” which I wrote on the fly, but what I wanted to say was OH MY GOD…JEREMY IRONS. Anyway, that award was a Primary Stages/Aspen Theater Masters thing, and it sent me to The Aspen Ideas Festival where I was included in the Scholars Program with future leaders like Lauren Bush. At one cocktail party, I chastised Charlie Rose for failing to mention Latin America in a talk he moderated about THE WORLD. He became flushed and explained that he didn’t prepare his interviews. What came of that award was my play Infinity Pond, based on a talk I heard on surrogacy in India by a Harvard bio-ethicist.
- My play Infinity Pond brought me the most pleasurable adventures. I was invited to the Palm Beach Theater Festival and the Perry Mansfield Theater Festival with it. It’s a four character play about an extravagantly wealthy American couple who decides to hire a surrogate in Anand, India. To develop the play, we traveled with our casts so I fell in love with everyone. And with the backdrop of Palm Beach sunsets and the Rockies, it was serious love. I still cry over it.
- My MFA at NYU was an unexpected gift. I got an email asking if I was interested and I applied because there was a full-scholarship on the table. It was two years of hard work and more hard work. Musical theater writing is a skill-driven art. It’s one of the few that need to be taught, and that program has tremendous artists like Mel Marvin (my thesis advisor), Michael John LaChiusa who is Michael John LaChiusa, Rob Hartmann, Deborah DeBrevoort, Mindi Dickstein, Jonathan Bernstein, Martin Epstein, Polly Penn, and well, everyone. It’s the only MFA in musical theater writing so a lot of important people work there. It was a beautiful experience.
- Workshopping my musical CLASS with Karl at Hope College had many sublime moments. We had a dream cast, we learned about the piece, and Karl turned me on Keyboard Cat because there was nothing to do in Holland. At the end, we cried so that was good. And I learned that it’s a myth that you’re fined $50 if you pick a tulip in Holland. These are important facts to know.
- Besides writing plays, I also translate the plays of others. Translating The Cook, by Eduardo Machado, made me travel through the linguistic history of Cuban Spanish, and anyone who knows me can tell you that traveling through history is my favorite thing. Leaving the now and becoming a detective. Recently, Two River Theatre produced my translation, Ropes, of Barbara Colio’s Cuerdas. I learned and grew A LOT as an artist. The production was beautiful. Red Bank has epic sunrises and Two River is nice to artists. Great experience, all around.
- For New York Madness, I wrote a play for my mother and Valentina Corbella, an actor and family friend who is over fifty years younger than mom. They played the same character at different ages. Mom doesn’t speak English and she’s terrified of speaking in public. (She’s even embarrassed to sign anything so this was a big and beautiful deal.) I wrote it so her lines were very basic and afterwards, she blessed the entire cast. It was an enchanted experience.
- A special mention to the Latina/o Theatre Commons which I was invited to attend years ago. I met Octavio Solis, and while it solidified my place as an outsider pretty much everywhere, I also fell in love with this idea of talking about injustice and theater. It’s a gorgeous and important community I fully support. The fact that so few Latinos are produced in the American theater speaks to the alarming shortsightedness of decision-makers, given the Latinos writing plays. We cannot think that because Lin-Manuel wrote two hit musicals and Quiara Hudes is produced around the country, Latinos have arrived. They’re the only two people who are usually produced.
Q: Who have been your playwriting mentors and heroes?
- Austin Flint at Columbia taught me that every playwright should receive nice feedback or no feedback. He also didn’t tell us what to change about our play. He was epic in an unassuming way. My classmates included Katori Hall, Amy Herzog, Janine Maguire, and Julia Stiles. Katori, Amy and I credit him with everything. When he died, all I thought was: fuck, we need to do something so the world knows it was him and not anyone who came after him. Because people like him never get the credit and he deserves it. It was Austin and not Columbia or Yale or any other institution. (Though he loved his Alma Mater, Yale.)
- Kelly Stuart taught me at Columbia. Kelly is a badass, capital B. She doesn’t give a fuck. She knows more about plays and Kurds and cops than anyone, and she’s no politician. The fact she teaches anywhere is a miracle. I fought her but I love her. She makes you read gorgeous, unproduced work and you write well under her. A bit of a magical unicorn who is also a photographer. I love her.
- Theresa Rebeck is a heart. She ran our TV writing class like a writers room so I was fired every week for asking dumb questions like: wait, didn’t the boar already barge in? (We wrote a LOST episode.) Then, she would re-hire me. After the class ended, she sent me a copy of her book, signed with a nice message. I’ve reached out to her when I’m frustrated with theater and she responds with epic emails that I want to save for my non-existent grandchildren. They’ll yield beaucoup bucks in some digital auction of the future. Theresa speaks her mind so what I learned from her is that entertainment is often as horrible as you imagine it and you still have to show up. She’s also sweet as hell. When I saw her at the inaugural Lily Awards, she gleamed and said: “I’m so glad you’re here. I asked them to please invite you.” Those were the days.
- I can’t write about Irene Fornes without crying on my keyboard but I’ll say she taught me to listen to characters, and to ONLY write down what they say. She also sucked as a secretary so when I’ve had administrative jobs, I think…Irene sucked at this, too.
- Primary Stages Artistic Director Andrew Leynse is a hero. There, I said it. He came to my little show and my Columbia thesis reading when Columbia held playwright readings in dank, scary places. Then he invited me to be in the Primary Stages group. He tried really hard to get my play Infinity Pond to go somewhere but the powers that be didn’t go for it. Andrew is a quiet soul with a lion’s heart. I’m blessed to call him and his wife Mary friends. Love.
- In the middle of the hell that is writing a musical, Michael John LaChiusa whispered to me: you’re an amazing writer. You can do this. I believe in you. He always says he believes in me and when someone like him says it, you almost believe it. He also treats you like an important human being just because you were born and you have a mother and that’s good enough for him. That’s HUGE.
- Deborah DeBrevoort taught me lyrics at Columbia and then became instrumental during my studies at NYU. Deb is a playwright’s playwright. She sends opportunities your way, always encourages you, elevates you, introduces you to new dimensions. She’s a fucking awesome playwriting professor who works miracles with students who have never written dialogue. A highlight was an evening in her home with a group of Iraqi female playwrights who had been brought to the US by the state department. Deb caught wind of the project and invited them to New York. I sat in her beautiful living room in Jersey and listened to their STORIES, through a translator. We ate, cried, ate, cried. Deb’s husband the epic Chuck Cooper was there.
- Julia Hansen brought me to Aspen and Palm Beach, fed me, gave me feedback; then she cried at the re-writes, she introduced me to a lot of people named Bunny. She’s a heart.
- Octavio Solis was my first mentor after Gerry died. Octavio is an unbelievably gorgeous soul. He’s hugely talented. He breathes creation and writes it in every letter and email, imbues it in every conversation. He’s also sweet, like the pears he now grows in Oregon. He’s humble, humble. The fact his feet touch the ground is why he elevates the rest of us. Once, he pasted a passage from my play into Facebook and touted me as a writer. I sat at home and cried. He also sent my play to a big lit manager who is now one of my champions. Her theater read three of my plays last year. He’s an artist whose heart I aspire to have. And he’s zero BS. Ask him if you can read his one page short stories and you’ll cry. Also, he snail mails. A true writer.
- John Eisner is a mentor. Last year, as we played tennis every morning at New York Stage and Film, he listened to me (he’s a tremendous listener) and gave me notes about my play. His big note was that I needed a second act. (Also the story of my life.) While I disagreed and hit the ball harder because I was pissed, he was right. John is one of the most important professionals in the theater because he cultivates playwrights the way a gardener cultivates the gardens a Versailles.
- Mom. Man, she believes in me. Our whole family thinks this thing is crazy, playwriting. But she hangs in there and celebrates every tiny success. My prayer is that she’s still around when something breaks. I want her to see it and take it in because her love is an investment in me.
- Dad, wherever he may be. He left the US to explore Latin America. He refused to wear ties, he ate as much as he wanted from buffets, he helped anyone who needed help. I still miss him.
Q: What advice do you have for Latin@ playwrights at the beginning of their career?
A: Get an MFA with lots of fellowships. Don’t drown in debt. Send your plays everywhere because your long-term champions are sometimes the junior people who read your play first. Be nice. Hug whoever believes in you, especially at the start; they’ll talk you off many a ledge. Apply for grants and awards but don’t fret when you don’t get them. There are a million reasons that people get awards that have nothing to do with your level of writing or talent. Be nice to everyone because you never know when someone will tell you a story that changes your life. If you speak Spanish, watch Univision. (Telemundo sucks, sorry, Telemundo.) Univision is staffed with the most courageous journalists in the country. They don’t give a fuck if they’re kicked off a campaign bus.
Write, write, write. Your writing will suck until it doesn’t. Or your story will be misshapen until it isn’t. The only way to improve is by writing. Don’t get distracted. Yes, it’s important to go to shows, to meet people, whatever, but what’s most important is what you’re doing with your computer. Everything else is a distraction. Pretend you live in rural Maine. Or that you’re me. Also, read plays and musicals. I improved by reading a lot of them. Listen to actors; they’re genius dramaturgs. Listen to dramaturgs. They’re truly as expert as they’re supposed to be. Hire them if you have money.
Don’t be obsessed with theater. I recently read that if the writing isn’t flowing, read other things. Be curious about science, the world. Writing a play should be a desperate act of expression, when your characters (dimensions of you) are bursting at the seam to speak. If that doesn’t happen, please accept that you have nothing to say for now. It’s okay. We get it.
Take time to get to know everyone who works with you. It’s important to learn to love people. That love is what carries us in a lonely industry filled with self-serving people. Your heart may be broken by your own people…and if that happens, you have to attach it to a little boat and watch your pain float away. Don’t be afraid to pull your play when something doesn’t feel right. Trust your feelings; they’re there for a purpose. Champion your colleagues. I love to talk to theaters about playwrights I love. It’s about building a future city together, not buildings.
Q: What else should we know about you?
A: I live with mom and we cry at how sad things are, Venezuela, the human condition. But we also laugh. Laughter is the sound of a heart breaking, maybe. We laugh a lot. A health scare in 2012 convinced me to stop sweating the small stuff. I don’t suffer fools easily, though I’m way more patient with fools than with assholes. I’m not good at theater politics but I LOVE people. I get a kick out of human beings, and I fight for justice. In the tradition of my dad’s family in Alabama, I fight racism more than any other social ill. We’re all the fucking same. Regarding other forms of bigotry, I analyze everything to see where I can contribute. I’m not Jewish but I’ve tried to call out the rising tide of anti-Semitism. The same for Islamophobia. Homophobia. The same with all issues. I think it’s important to know when being an ally is helpful and when it’s not helpful. I follow who is actively making a difference on Twitter to figure out where I can be helpful. My favorite thing is silliness. My fear is ending up homeless with mom. I’m flat broke right now…flat broke…so that’s on my mind a lot. I’ve had six figure salaries and I’ve had nothing, like right now. My goal is to make enough to pay for everything she wants and everything I need. I guess I chose the wrong form of writing to achieve that. Also, I’m single. I don’t know why that’s important but I’m okay being alone. I’ve learned that it’s better to be alone than with someone who makes you lonely. Also, I speak four languages, I’m one of the only people on earth who has interviewed Fidel Castro. I’ve also met other presidents. I’m obsessed with current events, I write poetry, and I love silence, maybe even more than music. My goal is to write a play with gifs as a backdrop. One final thing is that I pray and meditate. It’s a daily practice. I’ve been to hell so I know you don’t have to believe in anything to pray. But you do have to love. For today, I love life exactly as it is.
***For more on Maria Alexandria Beech, see:
- “I Interview Playwrights Part 252: Maria Alexandria Beech” – Adam Szymkowicz
- Sad Playwright Bio
- ‘We Exist’: A Poem by Maria Alexandria Beech (Latino Rebels)
- Maria Alexandria Beech on The Female Playwright Project
- Follow Maria Alexandria Beech on Twitter