Welcome to the DGF Fellows Spotlight.
This series of interviews put the spotlight on individual DGF Fellows and invites you to take a behind-the-scenes look at our program.
The 2020-2021 class of fellows was asked a series of questions exploring where they’ve been, what they’re up to now, and what they hope for the future.
Please take your seats, unwrap your candies, and silence your cellphones as we put the spotlight on Regina Velázquez!
What was your first experience with theater?
My parents weren’t big theater-goers, which was more about economics and education than it was about their love for seeing live performances. I remember going to see a production of “South Pacific” at Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tennessee, when I was in elementary school. I’m not sure if my folks knew someone who was performing or if they’d been given tickets; I do know that I probably sang “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” for a month straight afterward. We had the soundtrack (vinyl) to “Fiddler on the Roof,” and I wore down the grooves on “Sunrise, Sunset,” but I never saw it live. We went to church a lot—I mean, a LOT—and there can be a hefty amount of pageantry there.
My brief acting phase was in 5th grade, when I was part of a very small troupe that performed a Cinderella-meets-Ugly-Duckling kind of play. The director, Miss Ginny, took one look at my frizzy hair and buck teeth and cast me as the ugly girl. She made me take off my glasses for the final scene to show that I had transformed into the beautiful princess. I could barely stumble my way over to the prince. On our road tour to another elementary school, my brother got sick and managed to roll his window down just in time to lose his Filet-O-Fish all down the side of Miss Ginny’s car, so I truly feel that karma played the last card.
In high school, I went on a field trip with my English class to a production of “Romeo and Juliet” at the University of Tennessee. I anticipated a fun bus trip and a boring play. But I was blown away by the performance. The stage was a series of white platforms at different levels. The guy who played Romeo was sexy and intriguing. The actors wore neon-colored spandex outfits (it was the ’80s) and some had football padding underneath, so when they fought, they hit each other hard, jumping from one platform to another. They ran and screamed and spat big loogies and kissed passionately and breathed loudly. I was fascinated that such an old play could have this tremendous energy. I think that moment transformed how I thought about theater. I realized it doesn’t have to be stuffy and dull, performed only for an audience of well-heeled elite. It can be raw and sweaty, and it can resonate with a broad audience—even a bunch of unsophisticated high schoolers.
When did you decide to become a writer? Is there a writer, show, or piece of writing that was particularly influential on your path?
I’ve always known that writing would be part of my career, although I originally aimed for advertising, thinking there would be more money down that road—but I decided I would rather my words make people feel something than make them want to buy something. Writing fiction for a living seemed like a dream to me for many years, even though I earned an M.A. in creative writing. I would write something and never send it out, or start something and never finish it. When I got into the publishing world as an editor, it felt nearly impossible to write on my own because so much of my creative energy went into my work. And editing typically pays so little that I often took on freelance work that I’d do on nights and weekends. Add in a couple of kids and some serious health scares, and I barely had anything left.
Fortunately, I got involved with the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Community Works playwriting intensive, and the wonderful support and encouragement from that experience really helped me turn my vision around. I’m working on whittling out distractions in my life and giving myself more space to work on creative pieces. Being a DGF Fellow is having an amazing impact on how I think about my writing. I’m not just screaming (or sobbing) into the void anymore; I’m finding opportunities to connect with people.
Many Southern Gothic writers have had an influence on me: Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner. I love the dark humor and the quirkiness of the characters, but mostly I admire the way they set up a facade—whether it’s of wealth, piety, politeness, or knowledge—and then break it all down.
Ultimately, though, my family—both the one I was born into and the one I married into—is full of great storytellers whose tales have impacted me on a daily basis. Everyone has great stories. They’re part of who we are.
How do you describe your work overall? What sets your work apart?
I can’t escape my Southern roots, no matter how hard I try. That element of politeness we equate with Southerners is almost always in my writing, but I do like to pick at it and show the less-than-savory realities that lie beneath the surface. At the same time, I’m not necessarily trying to tear down an entire group of people; these are people I love and respect, and though I might not agree with them, I can often understand where they’re coming from. I think one of my jobs as a writer is to help people from the rest of the country (world, too?) understand Southerners, fundamentalists, middle/red state America—even as I’m struggling to figure them out myself. I like to mix humor and drama thoroughly, I subscribe to painful honesty, and I love to surprise the audience with something completely unexpected.
Can you tell us a little bit about the work you’ve been developing as a Fellow?
I’m working on a play called “Space and Time” that’s semi-autobiographical. It’s about a woman, Hope, who’s visiting her parents on an annual pilgrimage from the Northeast to her hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, and finds them in a much more precarious state than she’d realized they were in. Her father is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and her mother’s physical health is declining. After observing a couple of incidents, she acknowledges that they need help, and she feels a sense of duty to move back to Tennessee and take care of them. But her marriage is on the rocks, so she also feels compelled to try and save it, which means staying in the Northeast.
Hope’s two children are on this trip with her. They’re at the age where they’re becoming aware of political and religious differences, and they have a lot of questions. Why is their grandmother so faithful to her church, even when it means condemning her family? Why doesn’t Hope stand up to her parents? How can you love someone even when you fundamentally disagree with them? How much crap should you take from another person in a relationship? I want the kids to ask the questions in a safe zone—their grandparents’ house—and invite the discussions that I think people should be having with each other right now.
What do you find most rewarding about your work as a writer?
Especially with this play, whenever someone reads or hears part of it and says, “That reminds me of my grandfather…” or, “When I was a kid, we also used to…,” I feel like I’ve succeeded. I love it when something I write inspires others to tell their own story. It’s like a chain reaction, and I believe it’s that kind of human connection, through stories and understanding, that writers can change the world.
Thank you, Regina, for contributing to the blog! You can stay up to date on Regina’s work by following @regina.l.velazquez on Instagram and @RegVelazquez on Twitter.