Melinda Lopez Takes the Stage at Boston College Melinda Lopez, an acclaimed playwright and actress, exudes enthusiasm in her discussions with BC students

S

itting with her students around a big table in a theatre classroom in Rubinstein Hall, Melinda Lopez effortlessly guides the discussion with her students. Students eagerly joined in the conversation, elaborating and reflecting on themes that Lopez expertly selects.

Despite her easy-going disposition, Lopez’s accolades are far from trivial. An acclaimed playwright and actress, Lopez has won multiple awards, including the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Award in Dramatic Writing and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence in 2019. Additionally, the day of Oct. 29, 2016 was named after her as “Melinda Lopez Day” by Mayor Marty Walsh, BC ’09. 

Lopez is currently serving as the Rev. J. Donald Monan, S.J., Professor in Theatre Arts at Boston College for the 2019-20 academic year. The Monan Professorship was established in 2007 in honor of Monan—the late University Chancellor and president—and allows the BC theatre department to bring in celebrated artists in the field to teach as a visiting professor for an academic year.

Lopez got her big break as Kate in Taming of the Shrew in her early 20s, an outdoor production in Greater Boston put on by  Shakespeare and Company, which is based in Lenox, Mass. Lopez had apprenticed with Shakespeare and Company for multiple years, but her role as Kate was the first major role she had performed professionally for such a large audience.

“When you’re a young actor, you do a lot of minor roles and minor characters,” Lopez said. “But carrying a major role like that really told me what kind of endurance and stamina you need, and how seriously you need to take your job.”

Lopez has been the playwright-in-residence for the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston for the last six years, a position that she feels immensely privileged to hold, citing the amount of faith and value an institution places in an artist’s work to offer a residency position.

Her responsibilities as playwright-in-residence include planning the season’s show list to represent the artistic vision of the theatre, as well creating her own work. During her residency, Lopez wrote six new plays: some solo shows, some huge historical dramas, and others intensely political.

“I still feel like when I write plays, I’m solving problems the way he would solve complicated mathematical problems,” Lopez said. “Even though we were doing different things, we were using similar processes, which was imagining and thinking, and then sometimes also sitting at a desk and working hard.”

G

rowing up with parents who immigrated from Massachusetts to Cuba, Lopez often felt like she was part of two different worlds. At home, her parents maintained a traditional, Spanish-speaking Cuban home, while she also had a typical Massachusetts, English-speaking public school education—a bilingual upbringing that she believes helped her understand that there’s a bigger would outside her suburban setting.

Lopez credits her family for her strong values and a curiosity for the world. Her father, a mathematician and scientist, encouraged her to learn as much as she could about the world, all while teaching her the importance of work ethic.

“I still feel like when I write plays, I’m solving problems the way he would solve complicated mathematical problems,” Lopez said. “Even though we were doing different things, we were using similar processes, which was imagining and thinking, and then sometimes also sitting at a desk and working hard.”

Lopez’s first introduction to theatre was in first grade, when she landed a special role in a Halloween play as the only jack-o’-lantern onstage when everyone else was just a pumpkin. Her interest in theatre became more serious, however, after she fell in love with a production of Hamlet that her high school English teacher took her to see.

Lopez earned an undergraduate degree in English and drama at Dartmouth, and later a masters at Boston University in playwriting. She took an eight-year hiatus from formal schooling in between her two degrees, a decision she recommends to all students because she believes real-world experience has a significant influence on an individual’s worldview.

Lopez highlighted how she gained valuable experience by apprenticing with established companies like Shakespeare and Company after her bachelor’s degree. In the process, Lopez worked on developing her abilities as an actress and playwright, often taking part-time and temporary jobs that allowed her flexibility in the interim.

Her one-woman show, Mala, is still on tour, set to head to California next year. The show is a personal account of her own experience at the end of her mother’s life and seeks to address mortality and familial relationships, asking questions about what it means to be a good child and how the relationship dynamic between parent and child changes when the former provider now needs to be provided for.

A prolific writer, Lopez is always most proud of the piece she is currently working on. Her current work in progress is about the Mariel boatlift in the ’80s, during which around 125,000 Cuban refugees came to the United States over the course of one summer and changed the conversation around immigration. Given the urgency of the subject matter, Lopez hopes her play can add to the dialogue surrounding immigration and encourage people to view the issue in a different light.

Two of Lopez’s friends, Sheri Wilner and Maurice Emmanuel Parent, were the Monan Professors in 2016 and 2017, respectively, and had raved to Lopez about their experiences at BC. Admiring BC’s institutional merit and receiving positive encouragement from her friends, the decision to take on the role was a no-brainer when the BC theatre department reached out about the position.

“She teaches classes that feature women both as playwrights and as protagonists, and so kind of getting more gender equality in theatre, which has been a big issue in our field for a long time.”

C

rystal Tiala, chair of the theatre department at BC, explained that the Monan Professor must have a level of distinction, as well as serve a needed role in the theatre department that year⁠. The department receives nominations from anyone on the theatre department faculty and reaches out to potential candidates—the final decision has to be approved by University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J. 

Lopez stood out to BC because of her distinction as a playwright: Her numerous awards and the wide-ranging success of her plays with productions all over the U.S. easily set the stage for her candidacy. 

“We love the fact that she brings diversity,” Tiala said. “She teaches classes that feature women both as playwrights and as protagonists, and so kind of getting more gender equality in theatre, which has been a big issue in our field for a long time.”

Especially attractive to BC was the play Back the Night, a show that Lopez wrote before the 2016 Presidential Election and staged at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre at Boston University in 2016. It tells a story about sexual assault on a college campus. She is currently reworking the play to include updated themes and concepts. The theatre department is working with the Women’s Center and aims to host talkbacks, hoping the play will stir up important conversations in the student body.

Lopez doesn’t think, however, that her pieces always need revision. Although she always wants her work to speak to the community that produces it, Lopez recognizes the importance of letting go and trusting different directors and actors to interpret the text.

“I’m not the first person to talk about plays like they’re children, where you make them the best way you know how and hopefully you have created something that can stand on its own without your voice in that room,” she said. “And then you have to trust that they’re going to be okay.” 

Lopez’s subjects are often Latina women, echoing her commitment to bring more representation to the American stage. She especially tries to create complex, multidimensional characters to break out of the stereotype of Latin Americans often found in American media: one that portrays them as the either the rough, gang-member West Side Story type or the domestic worker, uneducated type. Having grown up with ambitious Latina women, Lopez wants to bring the people from her childhood to the greater American audience.

As both an actress and a playwright, Lopez describes the role of the actor as an interpreter, while the playwright gets more flexibility to create a world and ask questions for the audience to explore.

“As an actor, you’re picking up clues from the text—you’re getting ideas of the psychology of the character,” Lopez said. “You’re making choices that are truthful to you and how you interpret this character who does things in the play. A playwright has much more of a blank slate.”

While Lopez’s plays deal with heavy subject matter, like sexual assault and mortality, she finds it important to always add humor to the mix. She finds that plays not only have to explore important questions, but also must have the entertainment factor to really be successful. She recognizes that people are funny, and especially in crises, human beings bond through comedy.

“We have to bring levity to the darkest moments of our lives,” she said. “Otherwise, we couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I think humor is a defense mechanism, but it is also a way to welcome an audience in and say, ‘See, these people are just like you.’ You want to invite people on a journey that they might not otherwise go on.” 

Lopez finds her inspiration from her everyday life. Always listening, Lopez begins to create a character when she begins to hear them start talking in her head. Because plays are different from novels in that a character’s thoughts are less accessible, a character’s speech and actions are the only ways to express their motivations and beliefs.

Lopez takes note of people’s conversations and accents to use for her own characters. Sometimes drawing on her own experiences and stories she’s heard from her family, and other times creating characters when they come alive in her imagination, Lopez enjoys the process of being both a detective and a psychiatrist as she envisions the motivations and context behind her characters.

Lopez’s attention for others translates to the classroom—a warm and encouraging professor, Lopez brings her expertise and passion to BC through her Contemporary American Theatre class in the fall semester and Playwriting I in the spring.

 Her classes are intimate and conversational in a collaborative seminar style where the students do most of the talking and share ideas among each other. Her syllabus often focuses on bringing different voices to the classroom and exposing students to minority experiences through the plays that she chooses to teach, which feature experiences of people of different races, sexual orientations, and abilities. For example, Ironbound by Pulitzer-winning playwright Martyna Majok explores the experience of poor Polish immigrants trying to live out the American Dream, an ethnicity that Lopez notes is often forgotten in modern literature, with people of color usually at the forefront of the current immigration discussion.

“I always tell my students, ‘Your piece doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be yours.’”

L

opez’s passion and commitment to her art is infectious, and her students are inspired by the energy she exudes in the classroom.

“She was really considerate and passionate, and you can tell with her writing,” Raymond Norville, MCAS ’20 said. “That’s her field. That’s what she loves.”

Although Lopez enjoys her time in the classroom, she believes teaching and her creative process are completely different. For her, the creator and the critic are separate entities, and the strict analyses that classes focus on actually hinders her creative process.

“Art is created from the whole individual,” she said. “Sometimes in an early draft, you have to channel your physical memories, your emotional memories. It doesn’t help you to put it in a logical sense. Sometimes the point of a work of art is that it doesn’t hold intellectual sense. It holds an emotional core.”

Lopez encourages anyone who feels drawn to theatre to fully pursue their passion—experience from participation is the most important factor for success. She believes that every individual has a unique voice that deserves to be heard in the world, and if writing is the best medium for expression, practice and resilience are keys to fulfilment.

“Writing is a constant exercise in looking outward at the world and also looking inward,” Lopez said. “I always tell my students, ‘Your piece doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be yours.’”

Beyond engaging creatively in theatre, Lopez reminds students interested in theatre of other ways to get involved. Designing, fundraising, and marketing are other ways to become professionally engaged in theatre, and even just going to performances can help support the arts.

Most importantly, Lopez stresses the necessity of a support system around young artists and the ability to separate constructive criticism from simply malicious negativity.

“You have to surround yourself with people who believe in you and in your voice, and you have to listen to them,” Lopez said.

Featured Image Courtesy of Boston College

print

About Stephanie Liu