The last thing Elaine Romero wanted to do was start a new play.
She was already working on two, under commission, with deadlines. But one day, she got a call from her mother, an avid reader, who wanted to talk about the book she'd just finished. "I think I've found a character for you," she said. "But she's not a likable person. She killed her own brother in a duel."
Says Romero, "At that moment, I knew I was interested."
The character was Catalina de Erauso, a 17th-century Spanish nun who fled the convent, impersonated a man and lived la vida loca. If that description wasn't enough to pique Romero's interest, how could she resist the mere title of Catalina's autobiography: Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World?
Romero's script is about to receive not a full production, but a staged reading, as part of Borderlands Theater's Border Playwrights Program. It's called simply Catalina de Erauso, and the cast features Borderlands regulars Alida Gunn and Eva Tessler; Gunn doubles as director. It's taking place this Tuesday night, one week after an earlier reading in the series; if you didn't show up on April 29, you missed José Garcia Davis' Magdalena Cantata, a musical play (score by Rush Tulley) inspired by the persona of Mary Magdalene.
Looks like Borderlands is into the kinds of women who reformed right-wing polemicist David Brock would have called "a little nutty, a little slutty." Such are the labels attached to unconventional women even today.
Several books have been written about Catalina, but for this play, Romero stuck to the memoir and her own imagination.
"The memoir is very slim," Romero says. "She had an active life, and spent little time writing. I've tried to ignore all the other books and create my own character." There's plenty of latitude for that; Catalina's own account of her adventures is rife with ambiguity. "It's not clear in the memoir, but a couple of sentences suggest that she liked women," Romero points out, justifying one direction she takes her character. Romero likens her technique to one she employed in Before Death Comes for the Archbishop, seen here in an Arizona Theatre Company workshop production in 2000. "I went for catching a semblance of a time and a person, rather than trying to write history," she says.
Romero didn't have to load Catalina down with too many contemporary preoccupations to make this character, who lived from 1592 to 1650, relevant in the early-21st century. "It comes down to the question: Does a woman have to live as a man to be free?" she says. "Because of that, I thought of her as a transgendered character. Cross-gender things are so interesting--Shakespeare had a lot of fun with that."
Speaking of Shakespeare, Romero confesses that the language she uses in Catalina de Erauso is "quite challenging. These lines could be used as tongue-twisters for actors to practice before a performance. It's been fun to carve out the sentences."
Romero has had plenty else on her mind during the past year and a half. Besides writing and revising Catalina de Erauso over the course of several previous readings, Romero is working on a Kennedy Center commission titled Xochi: Jaguar Princess, and a play called Something Rare and Wonderful for Houston's Alley Theatre. Undocumented, a play about the border, is her recent contribution to a binational theater project; Barrio Hollywood, which Borderlands produced in 2003, has been picked up for publication by Samuel French.
As if that weren't enough, Romero has been splitting her time between Tucson and Los Angeles, where she has been involved in a TV-training program, cranking out television spec scripts and completing a pilot last spring.
Screenwriting is a siren song that has lured many a playwright to doom; Romero, happily, knows where her true home is. "I love the tightness of the world of a play," she says. "You really have to keep a grip on your story."
There's also the benefit of a playwright being able to connect directly with a live audience, something she's looking forward to in the Borderlands staged reading. "That's an essential component in developing a play," she says. "I need to feel the vibe of the audience, and know where they're interested and where they're not."
The Borderlands Theater Border Playwrights Program presents the staged reading of Elaine Romero's Catalina de Erauso this Tuesday, May 6, at 7 p.m., at the Historic Stone Avenue Jewish Heritage Center, 564 S. Stone Ave. There's a suggested donation of $7. Info may be had at 882-7406.