Q&A with Talvin Wilks

Illustrator: Taylor Daniels

Illustrator: Taylor Daniels

The University of Minnesota’s latest theater production of José Rivera’s “Marisol” follows the story of a woman whose guardian angel has left to strike war on a tired, elderly God. Without this protection, she is left to fend for herself in an apocalyptic world plagued with skinheads, grave disparity, and a moonless sky. In the current climate of our campus, many have reported feeling a similar sense of lost protection and a fear for what is to come. This production’s director, Talvin Wilks, sees college theater as not merely a form of entertainment, but “a laboratory of ideas.” In this particularly timely production of “Marisol,” Wilks pushed boundaries to challenge and provoke ideas amid an electric time in history.

I had the unique experience of reading “Marisol” before the election and seeing your production of the play post-election. Because of this, it was hard to tease apart whether it was seeing it on stage or experiencing the story in a different climate that made the twisted reality feel more plausible. Did the feeling of the play vary for you before and after the election?

Interestingly enough, not so much for me because I had been investigating those elements and really thinking about the play in the context of this particular moment, so it felt like it was a fulfillment of those ideas. It wasn’t a before-and-after, it was a culmination.

What did your investigations find?

There were some pertinent connections about the economy and the type of unrest from when the play was written to now. The play was written early ‘90s, so the skinhead movement was on the rise, which was connected with a sort of disenfranchisement. This was also the time of the LA riots. The social and political unrest in correlation with the time now was always a part of how we were understanding the play.

What are some of the responses that have stuck with you from audience members?

The feedback has been just how timely the play was. People really felt the significance of the correlation between the political climate of the time. People were seeing these issues and thinking hard about them. They approached it from all kinds of frameworks. There was a shift in the audience pre- and post-election, which I think is exciting for a play written that long ago to have that kind of resonance later.

After the show, you had set up a whiteboard for people to write their takeaways from the show. What would you have written? What’s your takeaway?

I wanted the play to make people think and interrogate this notion of how do we address issues of disenfranchisement in society. What happens when you’re on the outside of the authority, the power structure—where do you find hope?  When you may see yourself being the downtrodden, where do you find hope? Marisol was on that kind of journey. She was on this quest. She had to face those archetypal conflicts as all the side characters engaged her in a moral questioning. She had to find the balance of her truth, coming from a life where she didn’t have to think about those things. That feeling of “Wake up!” comes into a kind of consciousness. That’s what the play tries to represent, no matter where your politics lie.

After seeing the production, I felt emotionally exhausted—like I had been living this horrific reality myself. What was morale like throughout the cast and crew during rehearsals and performances?

It’s a fascinating thing because it takes six weeks to get to the actual performance. The experience is spread out. Everyone felt like they had a complete journey because they went through whole arc of the story. It was a sort of cathartic relief, they actually had an experience of catharsis, and more than an audience could because those moments are so fast in the span of a play. They were exhausted. I put them through a homeless and Nazi extended improvisation that lasted twenty-five minutes—really profound experience, prompting questions of how do you carry that much hatred or anguish or pain? How do you understand it as an actor? How do you convey it to an audience so it has the impact it’s meant to have? They invested a lot in making that come across with integrity.

How did you all cope with this exhaustion and create it into a catharsis?

We often talked about particularly supporting the characters who were doing dangerous things in a holistic way. We have to help the psyche of that character who has to step into that kind of energy. There was a lot of appreciation for stepping into a character who is evil or violent or dangerous. We worked hard to take care of everyone who had to go to those places. We had to break down each scene, beat-to-beat, so it was in the body and understood as an action. There is care in the way these are executed so everyone feels safe and a respect for the seriousness of the moment. They really acknowledged each other for what they achieved.

That seriousness and respect for each other and the play was evident on stage.

Overall, the production was greatly appreciated and valued, even if people had to wrestle with that meaning. They had to acknowledge that enthusiasm for the production and the piece itself, even though it was particularly challenging. That’s what good theater is. It’s meant to provoke and challenge and hopefully to move.