Writing With Gilberto #1: How It All Started

WORKING TITLE: That Was the River, This Is the Sea


The first time I met Gilberto Del Campo, he came into my office at Artists Rep to tell me I had misspelled his name in the Take Me Out playbill.  I looked at this tall, dark, handsome actor that all the girls in the office had been swooning over for weeks, and I thought, “Great.  He thinks I’m racist and can’t spell Mexican names.  Now he’s never going to marry me.”

That was in the spring of 2005.  And if you had told Claire-From-Five-Years-Ago that a day would come when 90% of her texting would be to and from Gilberto, well, first she would probably say “What the hell is texting?” because she was not very tech-savvy in those days, but then she would tell you that you were out of your mind.  It was not an auspicious beginning, and we did not seem destined to be BFFs.

Gilberto is essentially my exact polar opposite in many, many ways.  He is tall, handsome and, as my mother once put it, “smoldering,” like someone who should play Heathcliff or star in a telenovela.  I am giggly and loud and have a giant Polish nose, and it would be charitable to call me “medium height.”  We’re both Catholic, but we wear it differently.  He needs a little bit of a kick in the ass sometimes to be sociable, while I make new friends in like ten seconds.  He’s more serious than I am; for example, right now he is reading Matterhorn, a book about the Vietnam War, while I am re-reading Right Ho, Jeeves! for the five hundredth time.  I’m from Portland (real Portland, grew-up-within-the-city-limits Portland, not I’m-saying-Portland-but-really-I-mean-Beaverton), and I see my family at least once or twice a week.  He’s from a small-town in Mexico and all his family still lives there.  He worked for years as a baker, so he’s by nature a morning person, whereas I don’t like to go to bed before 2 and am reliably 20 minutes late whenever we meet for coffee in the morning if he sets the time before 11 a.m.  He hates when people talk about his looks; when I’m dressed up and looking good, I shamelessly fish for compliments.  (“Tell me how cute I look!”)  In moments of extreme emotion, he cries and I laugh.  I’m the brain.  He’s the heart.  It’s an odd partnership, but it works.

Gilberto auditioned for my last play, How the Light Gets In, and my director Jessica and I were absolutely beside ourselves with delight when he came in to read, because he was magically perfect for the one crucial role where we had absolutely no idea who to cast.  As Brother Magnus, the good-looking and thoughtful Benedictine monk who befriends and counsels the troubled Molly, Gilberto was warm and funny and lovely and magnetic, and we all fell a little bit in love with him.  Magnus was secretly my favorite character, and Gilberto made him even better.  So when, a month or so after the show closed, he emailed me with a potential project idea, I was happy to help.  He had written a short story about a trip he had taken to Mexico to see his family, and he wanted help turning it into a play.  Quite frankly, because I liked him, I probably would have said yes even if the story was terrible.  But it turned out that he’s not just a terrific actor.  He can also write.  The story was fantastic.  The more we talked about it, the more excited I got.

So, here we are.  Writing a play.  Together.  18 pages and counting, and we both think it’s turning out pretty great.

This isn’t to say there haven’t been complications.  For one thing, he’s never written a play before, and I’ve never written with anyone.  It’s his story, and it’s a nonfiction piece about his family, so I feel an incredible obligation not to, like, make shit up that does a disservice to real living people.  I do feel, however, that at a certain point, in turning a 3 page short story into a full-length play, you have to kind of take some liberties, and he’s getting more comfortable letting me off the leash a little bit.  But we still do our best work when we’re in the room together and talking through it.  Which is troublesome, because we are like the two people with the world’s most ridiculous schedules.  Another challenge of this process has been trying to restrain everyone’s enthusiasm a little bit; he told his family about the play, and they were all really excited, which was great, and are working on pulling some strings with the cultural affairs office in their county to get funding for a production of it in Mexico.  Which is, you know, awesome.  Except we have like twelve pages written.  But everyone wants to see a finished play.  Which we do not have.  No pressure . . .

I’m very sensitive to the fact that this is Gilberto’s story.  His heart is in it to a completely different degree than mine.  It’s a strange feeling to have someone pour their heart out to you on paper, and then you go through and edit and move things around and say “I know, but structurally it works much better if he says that here instead of here.”  So weird.  I also know I’m one of those people who needs to forcibly prevent herself from completely taking over other people’s projects.  So I’ve been trying really hard to find ways for us both to be involved in the writing process together.  One of the things we tried, which actually worked really well, was kind of a he-said/she-said thing.  We took the main couple of the story – Leo and Rose – and picked a scene we had more or less outlined, and had discussed at length, but had not begun writing yet.  Then we sat on the couch in my living room with our coffee and wrote the scene together.  I wrote all of Rose’s lines, and he wrote Leo’s.  The catch?  We couldn’t talk to each other or communicate in any other way except through the character’s dialogue.  It was definitely a challenge.  Figuring out how to end it was the hardest part, actually; I kept writing “I’m wrapping up this conversation” lines and Gilberto would just ask a new question.  And there were a few times where he (Leo) would ask a question and I (Rose) would deflect it, and I could sense his (Gilberto’s) frustration.  It was really interesting.  What I liked best about it, though, was it gave me a whole new level of insight into how he viewed those characters, so it helped flesh out the picture in my head.

Tonight’s exercise was similar.  We’ve been talking about a couple different places to use a split-stage effect, where two scenes overlap; he worked on a letter Leo writes to Rose, which will be heard in voice-over while Rose is in a different part of the stage world, talking to her mother (which I wrote).  Then we swapped, read each other’s stuff, and I tackled the weighty task of smushing the two scenes into one so they flow.  Lest you think I’m doing all the work and letting Gilberto off the hook, you should know that every time we finish a scene he takes it home and translates the whole thing into Spanish.  (Note to self: if we’re doing a play in Mexico I’m really going to have to learn to speak Spanish.)
It’s interesting that, considering how different we are, our writing styles match very well.  Below are two lines from the script, one that I wrote and one that he wrote.  See if you can guess whose is whose.

A) My stomach turns and I feel like I’ve eaten something dead, unnatural, and it’s spoiling inside of me, drying me like salted fish in the sun.

B) There’s something beautiful and terrifying about the ocean at night.  When you’re walking along the shore and you can hear it out there – you can feel it pulling you but you can’t see it.  It’s just a blacker blackness than the sky.

No, I’m not going to tell you.  You’re just going to have to come see it.


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