Call Answered: Catherine Filloux Interview: How To Eat An Orange

off-broadway play playwright theatre writer May 15, 2024
Call Me Adam Title Page. Call Me Adam logo is on the left side. Catherine Filloux's headshot is on the right side. In the top center of the page is an orange circle with jagged edges that says Featured Interview. Between our photos it says How To Eat An Orange. Below the title and in between our names there is an auburn circle that says www.callmeadam.com

When I received the press release for Playwright Catherine Filloux's new play, How To Eat An Orange, based on the title alone, I knew I had to speak with her.

Upon reading the description of the play, I became more invested in wanting to feature Catherine because this show had a fascinating plot. 

How to Eat an Orange is a one-person play about the visual artist and activist Claudia Bernardi growing up in Argentina under the military junta, and her subsequent work digging up the past. A sensuous braiding of desaparecidos’ stories through the lens of a survivor.

Histories are woven together in a kaleidoscopic play that depicts how both families and justice may be reconfigured. We time travel, subverting and countering realities. This theatre piece is a fight for excavation, the archeology of a lifetime--of lifetimes.

In this interview, Catherine answered my call to reveal:
  • How she became a playwright
  • Where her courage comes from
  • How a salad helped weave her history to her play's subject
  • How she eats an orange
  • So much more

Connect with Catherine: Website, Facebook, Instagram

How to Eat an Orange will play at the Downstairs Theatre at La Mama in NYC from May 30-June 16, 2024. Click here for tickets! 

Actress Paula Pizzi (Left) and Playwright Catherine Filloux (Right)
La Mama Theatre NYC, Photo Credit: Karen Oughtred

1. Who or what inspired you to become a playwright? Being a bad actress inspired me significantly. One of my first roles was Merricat in We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson when I was in high school. I loved the theatre. And I studied acting in France when I received my French Baccalureate in Philosophy in Toulon. As a bilingual person I loved Samuel Beckett, who wrote one of my favorite plays Endgame in French. I love actors, who can do what I cannot, and I write for them--I have worked with many extraordinary ones including the one in HOW TO EAT AN ORANGE, Paula Pizzi.

It’s hard to explain through ordinary words how much I love the theatre. And part of that alchemy, which is my playwriting, is to change the world. I feel that my plays have done that and are doing that. I have also been inspired by tragedy; there was a tragedy that occurred in my family, which for me has a Shakespearean dimension, where a person is broken forever and has to be put back together. I always believe that my next play will achieve a more humane world and I’m excited about my next one which includes something that I just mentioned here! Stay tuned.

2. For the past three decades you have been traveling to conflict areas writing plays that address human rights. When you first started, did you originally set out to travel the world to write plays, or were you on a trip that inspired you to write? No, I did not set out to travel to Cambodia, for example, or Iraq, or South Sudan, or Northern Ireland. I only went to Cambodia ten years after I began to work with Cambodian women refugees at St. Rita’s Refugee Center in the Bronx in New York. I have always traveled to conflict areas because of my writing and because of a community of people with whom I am already working. U.S. complicity in terms of human rights violations is at the core of why I write about conflict areas.

3. I am not sure I could ever travel to a conflict area like you do. Where do you think your courage or strength comes from? Thank you for the compliment. I think my courage comes from my mother saying the word “Courage” to me, which is the same word in French as it is in English, spoken with an accent. And she said it with a loving gesture of her hand. My father’s family was in the Resistance in France, my grandfather fought in World War I and World War II and survived. The privilege of working in the theatre coupled with learning from so many survivors are where my courage and strength come from.

4. Your new play, How To Eat An Orange, is about visual artist and activist Claudia Bernardi growing up in Argentina under the military junta is about to premiere at La Mama in NYC. How did you meet Claudia on your trip and what was it about her story that made you want to write a play about it? I met Claudia when I was invited to be the Henry Smith Artist in Residence at Belfast’s Woodvale Cambrai Community Centre and Holy Cross/Wheatfield Primary Schools, by Pauline Ross from the Playhouse in Derry~Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Pauline arranged for Claudia and me to live together on a street called Malone Road in Belfast, and Claudia and I embarked on doing an arts and peace building project on Ardoyne Road. This road is the location of Holy Cross Girls Primary School, a Catholic school in a primarily Protestant neighborhood that became a focal point of violence between members of the two religions. Directly across the street is Wheatfield Primary School, which is attended by local Protestants from Upper Ardoyne and the nearby Shankill Road.

Claudia created a mural with the children from Holy Cross and Wheatfield and I created a soundscape with the children speaking about their notions of peace and Belfast life.

Great question: Please come see the play to understand what it was about her story that made me want to write a play. That’s why I wrote the play to answer that exact question.

How To Eat An Orange Poster

5. How do you feel your history and Claudia's history are woven together? Well, I’ve never been heralded for my culinary skills and the only meal I can really make are salads. For dinner Claudia was generous to recognize my limitations and to embrace my salad making. And Claudia has her own idiosyncrasies when it comes to salad dressing. Nonetheless, my history and Claudia’s were woven together in part by our dinners on Malone Road over salad and, yes, fruit.

Also, our histories were literally woven together through a mural that crossed the road and a soundscape with children from opposing sides of a road that blended through art and community.

Another wonderful question. Which is also very much answered by the play.

6. The play also has some component of time travel in it. If you could time travel to any point in history, where would you want to go? I would like to time travel to the point in history where human beings came into existence and I would like to know, through alchemy, the point in history where the human soul was created. I would like to be there to watch that. Alchemy is said to be the medieval forerunner of chemistry, based on the supposed transformation of matter. How did love come to be conceived within the human soul so that we love each other so much, and so that the feeling of love that I feel for humans became so powerful. My mother first taught me that, and my father. And I would like to be present at the point in history where that recipe for human love was created. In HOW TO EAT AN ORANGE there is a line that says, “I think I learned how…from my mother.”

7. What did you learn about yourself from writing How To Eat An Orange? I learned that when I write I am striving for a certain kind of fun. During rehearsals I look at words being transformed onstage to action by our brilliant director Elena Araoz and our fantastic actor Paula Pizzi and I laugh to myself. Laughter to me as a playwright erupts when I feel a connection between words and character and story. 

There are moments where my collaborators take the words, the thoughts, the emotions, the actions to another level that occurs in three-dimensional space which delights me. Like the fun I had when I listened to Claudia’s stories over salad and fruit at Malone Road. My family was born from what occurs around a table, that is where the stories are told; in my case the ribald Mediterranean blended with the stark stoic Creusois (center of France) peasantry.

Actress Paula Pizzi (Left) and Playwright Catherine Filloux (Right)
La Mama Theatre NYC, Photo Credit: Karen Oughtred

8. In addition to being a playwright, you are also a libberist for opera/musicals. Is your writing process different for a non-musical as compared to a musical? As a librettist I feel that my job on some level is to serve the music. I love composers, and I want to name the ones with whom I have produced operas and musicals because they are all so extraordinary: Jason Kao Hwang, Him Sophy, John Glover, Olga Neuwirth and Jimmy Roberts.

In a play I am in the drivers’ seat during the creation, and later I enter the collaborative process with my director, actors, designers, producers, but I alone create the play. With opera/musicals we create it together—every step of the way—and the process can be very long.

Plays take a long time too, granted. “Distilling” would be an operative word for the writing process for operas/musicals. And distilling happens in non-musicals too. And music is a great seducer. So, it’s also important to see, or hear, if the music is seducing you into making a mistake in your libretto or in your book, or lyrics. And then to find a way to solve it.

9. Since your play is called How To Eat An Orange, I have to ask, how do you eat an orange? Oh, Adam that would be like asking do Romeo and Juliet get married? It’s a spoiler alert moment. But strange things happen with what is eaten and not eaten in this play. Also, why is there so much citrus fruit in my plays? My mother lived in Misserghin, Oran where the Clementine was born! And my great grandmother was a peasant named Clementine!

10. What is something we didn't get to talk about during this interview that you'd like my audience to know about you? I am thinking of my friend Theary Seng who is in prison in Cambodia, a prisoner of conscience.

Catherine Filloux, Photo Credit: Vandy Rattana

More on Catherine Filloux:

For the past three decades French Algerian American award-winning playwright, librettist and activist Catherine Filloux has been traveling to conflict areas writing plays that address human rights. Filloux’s new play White Savior was nominated for The Venturous Play List and her many plays have been produced around the U.S. and internationally. Catherine’s world premieres at La MaMa include Luz, Selma ’65, which toured the U.S., and Kidnap Road.

She is the librettist for four produced operas, broadcast on Cambodian national TV, on Broadway on Demand, and selected for Opera News Critic’s Choice. Orlando won the 2022 Grawemeyer award--the first opera at the Vienna Staatsoper by a women composer/librettist team. Catherine’s new musical Welcome to the Big Dipper (composer Jimmy Roberts, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) premieres Off-Broadway this coming November at the York Theatre in New York City; a NAMT finalist.

Catherine has worked as a playwright in countries including Bosnia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Haiti, Iraq, Morocco, Northern Ireland; and in Sudan and South Sudan on an overseas reading tour with the University of Iowa's International Writing Program. Catherine received her French Baccalaureate in Philosophy with Honors in Toulon, France, and is the co-founder/co-director of Theatre Without Borders.

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