David Valdes Greenwood on transgender teenagers, mermaids, parenting, writing, and THE MERMAID HOUR

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Seven plays will get their very first readings as part of this year’s *EST/Sloan First Light Festival. THE MERMAID HOUR by David Valdes Greenwood will be read on Thursday, November 20 at 7:00 PM. The play brings us inside the lives of working class parents Bird and Pilar as they cope with raising their eleven-year-old transgender daughter, Vi. We had questions.

What path led you to write THE MERMAID HOUR?

When my college roommate began living her public life as the woman she knew herself to be, she shared stories about her childhood that I had never heard in twenty-five years of our friendship. That prompted me to write plays I think of as siblings, THE MERMAID HOUR, a drama looking at the experience of parents, and Raggedy And, a comedy about a woman staking claim to her own identity.

While the central character in THE MERMAID HOUR is Vi, the transgender eleven-year-old, the play seems just as much about what her parents are going through in wrestling with decisions about how to raise and care for Vi properly. What do you want audiences to take away from the play?

Actually, I now think of the parents as the protagonists. Vi’s behaviors and needs are the catalyst, but the play over time evolved into a portrait of what it means to be a loving, wise parent in the face of such huge cultural and medical questions. I’m hoping what audiences take away is how hard it is to ever know what the “right” thing means when you are a parent making decisions about a life that is not your own.  

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2832","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"700","style":"line-height: 1.538em; width: 260px; height: 370px; margin: 10px; float: right;","title":"Four of Water, the Mermaid from Angel Tarot Cards by Doreen Virtue and Radleigh Valentine ","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"492"}}]]One of the most moving moments in THE MERMAID HOUR occurs when Vi uses her iPad to record a YouTube video about how she identifies with mermaids. Is the mermaid a common metaphor for transgender people?

There is no universal symbolism for any group, but I kept running into a fascination with mermaids in the blogs, videos, and articles about/by transgender kids, especially girls. The mermaid is resonant because it is so magical and transformative.

In your book Homo Domesticus (2009) you chronicle the courtship that led to your same-sex marriage and your experiences raising a child together. How did your experiences as a parent inform the writing of THE MERMAID HOUR?

Because parenthood is a round-the-clock job, you kind of never stop thinking about it. In writing this, I brought a lot of my daughter’s spitfire, highly-emotional temperament to Vi. I don’t make Vi an angelic, acted-upon kid — I want her to seem like the real kids I’m surrounded by in my community, kids who don’t know how many buttons they’re pushing, and who trust that their parents will still always do right by them.

Were there aspects of your childhood you drew on in creating the characters of Vi and her friend Jacob?

Sex play! The idea that kids want to know more about sex and try things out with their friends is both terrifying to parents and yet inescapable. Vi and Jacob have a conversation that sounds like one I had with my best friend in his bedroom at twelve.

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Absolutely. Her innate glow and her parents’ support of her life inform the happiest moments and scenes of most ease between the family members in the piece. I saw a lot of kids on film and read a lot of parents’ stories, including Jesse Green’s sobering article, “S/he,” in New York magazine, which added other colors and revealed some of the tougher elements, and inspired a dramatic scene late in the play.

Gender dysphoria or gender identity disorder are the technical terms for what Vi is experiencing. You mercifully avoid such technical jargon in the play but in the conversations between the parents and Dr. Eggleston you do introduce some of the current research on this phenomenon. What kind of research did you do to write the play?

I read what felt like endless articles and essays about the latest approaches to treatment, how that has evolved in the past ten years, how diagnosis works, and the current theories around the neuroscience on the topic. In the end, I learned a lot but cut almost all of that material, keeping only what seems most commonly shared by the parents, who had become the focus of the play.  

The Internet plays a significant role in your play, both as the provider of perhaps too much information to the parents and as an uncontrollable distributor of viral media. Do you think the Internet is making it more difficult or easier to raise children like Vi? Or any children?

I think there is a way in which it is a great boon for children like Vi and for her parents. But for her and all children, the ease of access to outlets for sharing personal information makes it easy to ignore or forget the risks and complications that can also arise.

Has your play changed much during the EST/Sloan play development process?

From the first pitch to the first draft, the title, the conceit, and even some of the characters all changed. From that draft to this one, the structure changed somewhat as did the overall trajectory, and it became vastly less muddy, with the play much more clearly tracking the parents’ journey.

Have you written any other plays that deal with science or medicine?

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When did you know you were going to be a playwright?

My freshman year of college I started writing little plays for students to do, and then I petitioned for a playwriting course my school didn’t offer. By the time I was a senior, I wrote a play for my thesis and had my first full production, and I just assumed I’d keep going. It’s been a twisty road since!

According to your “Plays” webpage you have four other plays that are currently in production or development. How do you manage such a prolific output?

If I’m not writing, I feel a little crazy. Part of what works to keep me sane and keep my career alive is just continually writing, because the lead time is so long. There are deadly dry spells in production, times when no play is going up anywhere, but you can’t ever tell when someone is going to look at your work. This year has led to four different plays in four different theatres, with the youngest play (this one) only a year old, while the oldest play was six years old by the time it went up. Write, write, write, submit, submit, submit — it’s the little engine mantra for playwrights.

What’s next for David Valdes Greenwood?

I just finished a new play, Vow Keepers (or, Meet the Kids), about an older couple from the future who time travel back into the hotel room of a young couple on their wedding day to talk them out of it — think Dr. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And I’m starting research for a play about paladares in Cuba in the age of renewed American tourism.

*The First Light Festival is a month-long series of workshop productions and readings that is part of the play development process of The EST/Sloan Project, a joint venture of the Sloan Foundation and the Ensemble Studio Theatre. 


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