Owning the Road

DEC 18, 2018

An interview with Miss You Like Hell authors Quiara Alegría Hudes and Erin McKeown

Miss You Like Hell opened at La Jolla Playhouse in 2016 before a run at the Public Theater in 2018. The show will make its New England premiere this January at OBERON, in collaboration with Company ONE Theatre. Authors Quiara Alegría Hudes and Erin McKeown spoke to Gabriel Greene, La Jolla Playhouse’s Director of Artistic Development, about road trips and the creative journey leading to this new American musical.

Quiara, Miss You Like Hell shares the central premise of an earlier play of yours, 26 Miles—that of a mother/daughter cross-country road trip. What made you want to go back to that story?

QAH: The thing that drew me to 26 Miles was wanting to write a complicated mother/daughter story where the mother is not a cypher; she’s not a demon, and she’s not an angel. Tennessee Williams is one of my idols, but seeing his plays, you’re watching someone self-destruct in such uncomfortable ways. I wanted to create a different matriarch than that, one who is complicated and deeply flawed, but also kick-ass and exciting. I liked that about the play I had written, but I felt that I never quite nailed the broader context of the story. When Erin came on board and we started working on Miss You Like Hell, suddenly the world in which this mother/daughter situation came to life became much more gratifying.

How did your creative partnership start?

EM: Quiara wrote me an email through my website, which basically read, “I heard one of your records, and it sounds like what this musical could sound like. Do you want to talk about it?” She came to see a show of mine at Joe’s Pub [in New York], then we had lunch the next day—I remember it as a general, “who are you creatively” conversation. Then she gave me 26 Miles to read. Even before I wrote back to her to say “yes,” I’d already circled things in the script that felt like songs to me.

What is it about road trips that makes them such fertile dramatic ground for you?

QAH: For all of the headway that feminism has given to someone like myself, there’s still a sense of domesticity attached to womanhood, and especially for me as a wife and a mother. Women can’t own the road on their own terms. The road is one of the most fundamental American symbols: it’s the promise of expansion, of finding meaning; the promise of unattachment and discovery. I’m attracted to what happens when a woman leaves the domesticity that she’s supposed to stay with and goes unfettered towards expansion.

Erin, as a touring musician, I imagine you’ve put hundreds of thousands of miles on your van. Did that aspect of road trips resonate with you in the same way?

EM: If there’s any noble purpose for me on the road, it’s in being a transmitter or traveler; an old-fashioned minstrel, bringing the news or the vibe from one town to the next. But that’s what’s so great about this piece; whether or not I’ve framed my history that way for myself, I am a part of what Quiara is talking about: I have been a woman on the road for a long time, which is radically different from narratives we hear all the time.

There’s a contrast in the show between the realism of Olivia and Beatriz’s circumstances and their complicated relationship, and a sort of magic that comes into play when they meet people on the road. How did you land on that impulse?

QAH: The mother is a deeply spiritual person. We see her spirit world come alive at times. The daughter is an atheist, but she has a rich imaginary life, and we see that come to life, too. And then there are times where magic happens that is neither of those things—it’s just because life can be strange and surreal.

EM: I also think that the physical building blocks of the road-trip world—the road, the car, the sky—lend themselves to imagination in a particular way. I can walk into a rest stop, and it doesn’t feel real to me, you know? Nobody knows me, nobody’s even looking at me; I can feel invisible in those places. It’s such fertile ground for my imagination. It’s the same thing along the road: I’m staring at the same thing for hours, and so it makes complete sense to me that when I see a mountain in the distance, I can think, “That’s not a mountain…that’s a giant buffalo coming my way.” It’s not a recognizable space that I’m comfortable in, or that has a purpose I already know.

QAH: Time works differently, right? If the next thing you have to do in eight hours is make a pit stop, time expands. You have time for thoughts to cycle in and out. If you’re pulling the yarn of a thought, you have ample time to pull, and maybe the sweater is unraveled, and maybe the yarn leads to a new sweater, in your wandering imagination.

Creators of Miss You Like Hell Quiara Alegría Hudes and Erin McKeown.

Miss You Like Hell explores identity in a way that’s particularly inclusive and universal. More and more, we’re becoming aware that we are comprised of a multiplicity of identities, as opposed to a more stringent, binary way of thinking.

QAH: That’s the fun social engineering that comes with being a playwright: who are you going to put on stage and why? What reality are you going to express? One of the things that I love about creating a company like this is, it’s not clear what kind of play this is. It’s not a Latino play, it’s not a white play, it’s not a gay play, it’s not a straight play. I don’t think there’s one category or slot this piece fits in. I enjoy the purposeful mischief of that kind of social experiment.

EM: I like that idea of mischief, too. The world of this show feels like a reflection of what my inner world is like: turning things on their heads. It doesn’t feel abnormal to me.

Speaking of turning things on their heads, Erin, so much of your music resists a specific label or genre. It’s eclectic and inclusive in its own way, which feels like a fantastic match for a musical that deals with an expansive view of American-ness.

EM: I’ve always been that way. From the very first time I made something, I never felt compelled to make something exactly the same. I’ve always just opened the door and done whatever catches my ear. Besides, people don’t just listen to one kind of music. It’s always been frustrating for me that the music business markets to listeners in one way. For example, if you like Rhianna, they keep marketing Drake to you. Everyone I know likes a ton of different kinds of music.

QAH: I just interviewed someone for a play I’m working on and I asked, “What sort of music do you listen to?” He said, “Well, my two favorites are Big Pun and Ed Sheeran.” There you have it.

How has Miss You Like Hell evolved over the last couple of years?

EM: I feel like we’ve kept clarifying the relationship between Beatriz and Olivia. I will say, the one thing that has remained consistent is the desire to keep their relationship complicated—there is some sense that things have changed, but it remains complicated in a way that feels very real.

QAH: At the beginning of our writing process, gay marriage was being introduced on a state-by-state basis. Then, a few drafts in, it became federal—it’s in fifty states! What do we do now? This matters to our story. How do we tell that story? Immigration is a huge part of this story. Over the last few years, we kept having phone calls where we said, “the story’s not going to be relevant anymore. There’s going to be a change and families will stop being divided.” Ultimately that proved naïve.

But the piece tackles these thorny, highly-politicized ideas in a very human way.

EM: Well, people who are dealing with this in their life—it’s their life, it’s the backdrop for their life. I would also say, my experience so far is, if the art’s not good, the message is lost anyway, so we naturally focused on making the story the best told story it can be.

How do you hope Miss You Like Hell will affect your audiences?

EM: I mean, I know what I would want to feel when I leave any piece of theater, but I would not want to put that on anyone else, in terms of how they should feel. I like feeling like I saw a world that I don’t usually get to see, something that makes me want to—I don’t know—walk differently, talk differently, just be different in the world. But that’s just me.

QAH: Edward Albee died during our first week of rehearsals [at La Jolla]. He advocated for, and created, a theater that is willingly provocative and uncomfortable. To that I would add that if the audience hasn’t laughed and felt delight, we didn’t achieve all the colors we had hoped for.


Image Credits
Quiara Alegría Hudes and Erin McKeown. Photo: Tess Mayer

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