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The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona playwright José Rivera. Photo by Lela Edgar.

Finding Moments of Magic

The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona follows a woman desperate to make contact with her twin, who is recently gone from this world, and the man who decides to help her. A love story and hero’s journey quest by turn, this play grapples with the quintessentially human question of what happens to us after death. A week into rehearsals on this world premiere, I sat down with playwright José Rivera to talk about the origins of this otherworldly story and the ways that magic finds its way into his work.

What sparked the idea for this play?

José Rivera: About ten years ago, I was looking through Harper’s Magazine. They had printed a contract from a company in Minneapolis whose service was to connect people who are dying with people who want to send a message to the other side. I instantly knew it was a play but I didn’t have characters or a story for quite some time. Unfortunately, I had two deaths in the family a couple years ago and that helped crystallize all the things I was thinking about in terms of mortality and speculating on what death would feel like. So, the personal event married this concept, and suddenly there’s a play.

When you first came across the concept, did it seem like more of an oddity or did it resonate with you?

JR: It was definitely an oddity. I thought, “who in the world would want to create something like this?” Later on, Maren was one of the first characters I created because I had to understand the kind of person who would have this idea of a business model. But I did think it seemed like this company was fulfilling a need that we all have, in a way. It made sense to me.

Do you often find that something in the real world will give you a new idea for a piece of writing?

JR: Usually, yeah. A long time ago, I was driving through L.A. and I saw a pregnant hitchhiker in the rain on the side of the street, and that became Cloud Tectonics. I had an uncle who died homeless in San Diego of a heroin overdose, and that eventually became Marisol. My divorce, in a way, became References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot. So, there’s always a deeply personal inspiration for the plays.

So much of your work has magical realism. Why do you think you gravitate toward that style?

JR: Allan Havis, a playwright who teaches down in La Jolla, calls my style “mad realism.” I like “mad realism.” I grew up with a mother who wanted to be a nun and we had pictures of angels all over the house. My grandparents told ghost stories. Seeing magic in the world just felt like how you perceive life. I didn’t know anything about magic realism, really, until I started reading One Hundred Years of Solitude in college and suddenly everything that I grew up with was there on the page — the same love stories, stories of obsession, stories of interacting with spirits. What nailed it was seeing Sam Shepard’s work in the late seventies. Buried Child is also magic realism. I asked myself as a young writer, “what can I contribute that isn’t already being done by a hundred other writers?” And I said, “I’m going to see if I can translate the magical stories of my childhood and my culture into theater.”

How do you find the balance between what’s real and what’s magical in your plays?

JR: For me, “magic” is just another way to explore the metaphors for the psychological state of the characters. Think of Chagall’s painting The Kiss, which depicts two people kissing and floating. Obviously we don’t float in life, but the float is a metaphor for their feelings. It’s the same thing in magic realism. There’s a great scene in One Hundred Years of Solitude where one of the sons is shot in front of a firing squad and his blood falls to the ground, travels across the floor, goes outside, down the street, up the stairs, around the corner and ends up at his mother’s feet. It’s this beautiful metaphor for their connection, a literal representation of that connection. The magic of a play is only really valid if it’s connected to the psychology of the characters and the reality of the moment. You ask yourself, “what is the theatrical metaphor that would make this come alive in a resonant and deep way that hits you as hard as possible?” That’s where the magic flourish would happen.

When did you know you wanted to be a playwright?

JR: I knew really, really, really early. I wrote several plays in high school, and one of them was produced. In college, I wrote a play a year, which I produced and directed. For a while, I also wanted to be an actor and I didn’t want to be a half-assed writer or a half-assed actor, and I thought I had to make a firm choice. So, around the time I was 22, I decided that I would be a writer full-time.

With Dante’s Inferno being an inspiration for the piece, do you think people need any context going into the play?

JR: If anybody knows Dante’s Inferno, it will certainly resonate on another level for them, but you don’t need to know it. It’s quite different, because Dante was dealing with sin, and in his world, the worst sin you could commit is treason against the king or God. So, the center of hell is the devil chewing on Judas Iscariot. For me, it’s far more interesting to talk about karma and what you can do to balance your karma. And I assume everyone thinks about death and what it will be like. Do we stay the same? Do we still have a personality? Can we communicate? There’s a built-in sense of wonder and questioning about death and the other side that I think the audience will bring with them.

This play deals with serious subject matter, but manages to do so in a fantastical — sometimes even whimsical — way. When you’re working on a new piece, do you have a sense of the tone early on or does the subject matter lead you there?

JR: Character comes first, for me. I’m trying to populate the world of the play and think about the kinds of people we would find there, and that will tell me the tone. But I like a lot of humor even in my darkest plays. We need the relief of it.

You live in New York now but were an Angeleno for many years — is there a particular resonance to this play premiering in this city?

JR: This is a big play, so it’s great to have it on a big stage — literally big, but also, emotionally, this is a big place. When I lived here, I saw Geffen productions and I always dreamed of working here. So, it’s a nice homecoming in that way. This particular play is very personal, much more personal than I’ve written in a long time. So, feeling like I’m in a theater that’s taking care of the play is really nice. And I have so many friends here who will hopefully come, and those reunions will be really nice too.

Switching gears a bit, how do you balance writing for film, television, and theater?

JR: It’s a constant juggling act. I have no control over it. I’m often working on multiple projects, mostly because you never know when something’s going to come up, especially in TV and film. I love film and I love television, but I will write theater for the pure love of it and I won’t write film and TV just for the love of it. And when I’m really moved to explore personal issues, I will write a play.

What is it about theater that you feel lends itself more to those topics?

JR: My theater writing comes from the storytelling traditions in my family. When my grandparents, who were illiterate, lived with us, they told stories around the kitchen table. Oral storytelling is primal and organic to me, so theater is too. I’ve never taken a playwriting class. I didn’t go to graduate school. When something has to be personal and I don’t want to worry about artifice so I can get to the essence of a story, theater seems the most natural way.

Is there something you wish someone had said to you as a young writer that you’d like to say to young playwrights starting out today?

JR: Don’t be in a hurry. Accept a certain loss of control — which is not necessarily a bad thing. Be faithful to the people who believe in you. It’s a cliché, but I wish someone had said, “always be true to yourself.” Always know your strengths, know your limitations. Be honest about your taste. And I wish someone had taught me how to work in the rehearsal room — how to speak with a director and cast, how to look at a floor plan, those kinds of things. The collaborative part of theater took me some time to understand.

Is there a character in the play with whom you most identify?

JR: I think my favorite character in the play is Lisandra, because she’s trying very hard but it’s very hard for her to try. She’s not a people person but she’s stuck with people, and she approaches it with humor but sometimes loses her temper. Sometimes I identify with Manny, with his whimsical but grounded sense of reality. I’ve been Noelle. I’ve been Orlando. In my life, I’ve been almost everybody in this play.

By Rachel Wiegardt-Egel

For tickets and showtimes, please visit geffenplayhouse.org/nikkicorona or call our Box Office at 310.208.5454 (open daily, 7:00 a.m. — 6:00 p.m.).

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