Play: Swimming While Drowning
Playwright: Emilio Rodriguez
- Staged Reading at the Latinx Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Latina/o Work (July 2015)
- Workshop with Teatro del Pueblo (May 2016)
- World Premiere with Milagro (February 2017)
Overview: Two teenage boys in an LGBT homeless shelter in Detroit search for the home they’ve always wanted through anything they can hold on to including poetry, music, and root beer floats. As the story unfolds, we learn about the challenges of these two boys who are still looking for the love that their families took away from them. Culture, language, and discovery collide in a coming of age story that was deemed “heartbreakingly funny.”
The following questions were collectively written by Dr. Trevor Boffone’s Introduction to LGBTQ Studies course in Fall 2016 at the University of Houston. After students performed a staged reading of Swimming While Drowning, Emilio Rodriguez skyped into class to answer questions about the play and discuss his work as a playwright, giving students the opportunity to engage with a contemporary playwright.
Q: Can you tell us more about your time volunteering in LGBTQ shelters and resource centers?
A: I volunteered with an LGBTQ shelter in Detroit in 2016 and an LGBT youth resource center in Detroit in 2015. I also volunteered this year at an LGBT youth resource center in Portland during my rewriting process for Swimming While Drowning. Additionally, I volunteered at a children’s home and a covenant house in which there were some LGBTQ identified youth. My work revolved around teaching theatre and supervising youth entertainment activities.
Q: Where did you find inspiration for Angelo and Mila? Were they based off of people you knew?
A: Mila and Angelo are both a combination of several people: students from the LGBT shelters and youth resource centers, students from a children’s home I taught theatre at, students I taught in the public schools, and friends I had growing up. I also put a little bit of myself in both characters.
Q: What thought processes went into Angelo and Mila’s characters? Was there a clear cut plan or was there a feeling to each character that helped you flesh them out?
A: It sounds weird to say this, but they just started speaking to me. I was in tech for a production as an actor and there was a lot of downtime. I began putting dialogue ideas into my phone. It started with the idea of a guarded youth named Mila. I liked the idea of a masculine boy having a name that is considered by society to be more feminine. Once he explained his name, the characters just kept growing from there and I continued to write a little more each day.
Q: What parts of yourself do you see in Angelo and Mila?
A: In both Angelo and Mila, I see myself with the idea of not fitting in. I was an outsider growing up for several reasons and for me, the homeless shelter is an authentic, actual experience but it is also a metaphor for feeling outside of the norm and feeling without a place—hence the idea of homelessness. Because I am a poet first, I try to think of my plays as a metaphor. Poets don’t have to write about zombies to take a metaphorical look at society. As Lauryn Hill once said, “Fantasy is what they want, but reality is what they need.” So some of the aspects of the play are literally based on my life (such as Mila’s birth certificate typo…I was born in Germany and there aren’t a lot of kids named Emilio there) and some of the aspects are a metaphor for my life (the homeless shelter representing the feeling of being an outsider).
Q: Tell us more about the creative process of writing Swimming While Drowning.
A: For me, Swimming While Drowning has been more about rewriting than writing. I’ve written so many different drafts. I’ve taken out characters, I’ve written flashbacks and epilogues that were later cut. I even cut poems and raps from the play and changed archs, plot points, and experiences of the characters. I feel I learn something more about the characters with each reading, workshop or production. When I first started with the readings, people would ask character questions and I would say, “I have no idea. I hope we figure it out in this room.” Now, Angelo and Mila are real people to me. The play is about survival and the idea that “nobody but nobody can make it out here alone” (a line from one of my favorite movies, Poetic Justice). So in short, I found the characters through rewrites and readings and I think it’s essential for more companies to do readings and more actors and directors to be excited about being curators and developers of new work.
I also wanted to write authentic teenagers who are flawed and learning just like I was when I was 15. So not everything they say is something I agree with, but I do think the controversial moments create discourse for the audience. When we hear something “upsetting” or “problematic” we can ask “What situations would someone have to be in to say that? What experiences have they had that differ from mine?” That’s how empathy is created and that’s what theatre is for. And I think that allows us to reflect on how our experiences and education shape our beliefs. Ignorance is tolerance waiting on knowledge. I hear people giving up on others with differing opinions and I think that’s because we don’t see them as people. We see an idea. I hope that my characters, in all my plays, can challenge my own ideas and also put a person to an idea that one may or may not agree with.
Q: Why is there no closure in the play? Why did you choose to end the play in this way?
A: I liked the feedback from Dr. Boffone’s class and did add a little more closure to the play during my rewrite process in Portland but hopefully there is still a sense of ambiguity. For me, the ambiguity invites the audience to write their own ending and decide for themselves what happened and why. It also authentically portrays the lack of closure I experienced when youth would leave the shelters I was teaching at. Often the staff was not allowed to answer why the youth left and sometimes they honestly wouldn’t know why or had simple answers like, “He went home.”
Q: What gave you the idea to include poetry and spoken word throughout the play?
A: I started out as a poet. Since the age of five I was writing bad poems like “I tied my shoe/the sky is blue/I like eyes and I have two.” My fourth grade teacher actually gave me a writing award for that kind of junk. (I know, I was shocked too).
In college, I never felt like I fit in at the Drama department, but I loved being around the poets and spoken word artists and going to open mics with them. I missed my time hanging out with these friends because they are the most authentic, genuine people I have ever met. They actually came to more of my shows then my theatre friends (and I did some BAD shows in college).
I started revisiting old poems from college when I felt homesick in Detroit. More so to remember the time I spent with my friends going to open mics at midnight on Tuesdays in downtown LA.
I remember seeing this line “You took the rhythm out of me” in an old journal of mine. I put it in the notes section of my phone and when I started writing Swimming While Drowning, I realized that both boys were taking the rhythm out of each other, metaphorically, so I decided to look at that poem. Originally it was just going to be a poem in the liner notes of the play but then the character of Angelo spoke to me… it was his poem. And then his journey to becoming a poet mirrored my journey to becoming a playwright and it “fit in.” I realized that Angelo and I would learn together in the process best if he were a poet.
Q: How did you overcome the rejection you faced in Los Angeles?
A: For those who don’t know, in Los Angeles, I was told that my look wasn’t right for theatre…actually, twice (Once by a stage manager who was relaying the message from the director and once by a teacher in college). After the one from the theatre company, I drove home feeling devastated. I had already switched majors from music to theatre in college and thought that theatre was supposed to be my new career path but not if I was too “weird looking”. I later saw an ad for John Leguizamo’s play which would eventually become Ghetto Klown (I believe it had another title when I saw it in San Diego and when I saw it again in LA…I also watched the HBO recording of the Broadway production on my parents’ TV over Christmas…I LOVE that show). After seeing his show, I was inspired to write my own plays just like him. I signed up for a playwriting class and began writing some bad plays that I’ll never show anyone. But I fell in love with writing and somewhere (from some distant cloud), my fourth grade teacher was smiling, saying “I told you so”.
Q: Can you tell us more about Black and Brown Theatre?
A: My friend Sam White and I started Black and Brown Theatre in the summer of 2016 to address inequity issues in Detroit area theatre. Though the city of Detroit is 84% Black and is surrounded by two predominately Arab cities and one predominately Latinx city, this data is not reflected on the Detroit area stages which continue to cast almost exclusively white actors in plays written by white playwrights and directed by white directors. Sam and I grew tired of feeling frustrated about it and decided to take action. We started with a showcase and started a database for headshots and resumes of actors of color in the area that we could share with directors and artistic directors in Southeast Michigan. Though some artistic directors have ignored our emails (we expected that), we have seen a direct correlation with actors of color getting hired by other theatre companies because of the database and our showcase. We hope to do more productions in the future, but ultimately, our goal is that all Michigan theatres will hire directors, actors, designers, stage managers, playwrights and all other theatre artists of color and thus Black and Brown Theatre won’t be needed anymore.
Q: What other projects are you working on?
A: I’m currently working on a play loosely based on a true story about a tranquilized pregnant sea lion who started caring for another sea lion’s baby. It’s called Blood Moon Baby and I have a couple readings coming up. I also have a ten minute play I wrote for a Not My President’s Day festival about Harambe that I want to extend. I don’t know why but animals are becoming my focus as of late (It can’t have anything to do with me finally seeing Zootopia… can it?)
***For more on Swimming While Drowning, see:
- Emilio Rodriguez – 50 Playwrights Project
- “Cafecito: Emilio Rodriguez” – Maria Enriquez (Café Onda/HowlRound)
- “Responding to LGBTQ Homelessness in Emilio Rodriguez’s Swimming While Drowning” – Trevor Boffone (Café Onda/HowlRound)
- Swimming While Drowning Study Guide (Spanish Version)
- “Left-Coaster Turned Mitten-Stater: A Rising Star In Theater World” – Amy J. Parrent (Pride Source)
- “Theatre Nova’s Spin is a hopeful antidote to Orlando tragedy” – David Kiley (Encore MI)
- YouTube clip of José Martinez as Angelo performing a featured rap in Spin
- Interview with Michel Castillo and Blake Stone about the Milagro production
- Swimming While Drowning Podcast with Blake Stone, Michel Castillo & Francisco Garcia – Adventures in Artslandia With Susannah Mars (artslandia Magazine)