Part 1 of an interview with playwright Catherine Filloux on her writing and the story that inspired her latest work, Selma 65.
When did you start writing for theatre and how did you develop your voice?
Catherine Filloux: I began as an actress (and a very bad actress) but I feel that I learned so much about playwriting by actually being an actor and knowing what it’s like when the lights go down, in front of an audience. I knew I was attracted to feelings, to the heart, and that I wanted to write from a place of emotion…
In terms of my voice, I was the child of a mother from French Algeria and a father from Guéret, in rural France. So my parents spoke French and I grew up speaking French as my first language, but in a kind of a schizophrenic landscape. This was in San Diego so I was really a floater. I was somebody who existed in a world that might be represented as a kind of a diaspora of cultures. In addition to the ones I mentioned there was also the Mexican border very close to where we lived, which was a clear indication of economic inequity. At a young age I think I was pretty clear that I felt something was very wrong [with this inequity] and I had empathy for finding ways to work with that sort of injustice. I used to write a lot of poetry when I was young and then I just really channeled the writing into plays, and my voice developed in terms of the themes of being the outsider and of an immigrant’s perspective, and then of course I came to writing about human rights.
How do you choose what to write about?
CF: I choose the subject that I must write about, that I’m burning to write and that feels the most urgent at the time if it’s up to me to decide. I’ve also written three libretti for opera and in those cases they were works-for-hire where I was given a subject and a composer so in those cases I did not choose. But in all three cases they were subject matters that were very dear to my heart and all three composers were inspiring talents with remarkable integrity (Jason Kao Hwang, Him Sophy and John Glover.) Generally, I choose what I write based on a type of historical urgency and what I personally think is the most important story for me to tell at the time.
When did you first hear about Viola Liuzzo, the woman whose story inspired Selma ’65?
This story was brought to me by the actress, Marietta Hedges, who commissioned the play. She approached me about writing a one-woman play for her and I very much wanted to; I love Marietta. In addition to being an actress she’s also an activist and we share similarities. She told me about Viola Liuzzo and I was amazed by what happened to her. I began to do research about Viola and also about Tommy Rowe because he’s so key to this story and the day that I decided Marietta would play Viola and Tommy was a really exciting day for me
What influenced that decision?
CF: I just loved the idea that these two people’s lives were converging, that they were so utterly different and yet had striking commonalities. They were of course different genders, which excites me to have an actress who will be able to play that. Also, what is it going to be like when she changes from one [character] to the other? There’s spacing between [scenes] that is also part of the rhythm of the piece and I think that could be very exciting theatrically. What are we going to do to make it fluid and beautiful as Marietta goes from being a 60’s housewife to a kind of “bouncer-looking” not only FBI informant but also [a person] posing as a Ku Klux Klan member. So there are all these layers. [The woman who is going to do the costumes is Suttirat Larlarb–a Thai American costume designer who did the costumes for Slumdog Millionaire and for the London Olympics. We worked together in 2004 on my play Eyes of the Heart. Also Suttirat went to Yale with our director Eleanor Holdridge.]
And we have this convention of the hood. When Tommy Rowe testified in front of the Senate Committee much later, he wore, by choice, a strange hood that he made himself, which was not dissimilar to a Ku Klux Klan hood. He said he wanted to protect his identity because he was in the Witness Protection Program.
Moore on Viola Liuzzo and Tommy Rowe and the process of Selma ’65 in part 2 of the interview next week. Stay tuned.