Studio’s 2020-2021 all-digital season culminates with Tender Age, a new work by playwright George Brant. George, who also wrote the solo play Grounded which was produced at Studio in 2014, is joined by Tender Age director Henry Godinez. In this interview with assistant director Annabel Heacock, George and Henry discuss the new play process and the ways that working on Tender Age has shifted since they last collaborated in 2019. .
Annabel: George, can you walk us through the process of how you came to this story? What helped you find your way into the world of Tender Age?
George: I believe this began when I came across an article about resignation syndrome in The New Yorker, which is a very disturbing phenomenon first seen in Sweden where refugee children fall into a coma-like state when they discover that their family is not going to be allowed to stay in the country. I started to think about what would happen if something similar were to happen here, within our immigration system. For a while I was thinking about merging this idea with the Dreamers program because those children have also been hanging on for a while, wondering when the question of their status will be resolved. I did take a stab at that approach, but didn’t quite find traction with it. But then when the last administration’s child separation policy kicked in, it felt like the best way to explore the idea of what would happen if this were to happen here in our country, and the play progressed from there.
Annabel: Henry, from your perspective as the director of the workshop at the O’Neill Theater Center and now Studio's filmed production of Tender Age, what have been the biggest shifts in the story since you started working with George?
Henry: Probably the biggest shift would have to be the original ending, which was radically different from this one. But I remember thinking how remarkable it was that a playwright of a solo piece could be that open, that the ending could change that drastically. It wasn’t like he took a month to do it, it was literally overnight.
As for how filming the piece has changed it, knowing that it is going to be performed without a live audience has actually in some ways enhanced the world of the play for me. We have this wonderful assistant director named Annabel and she was able to articulate some intuitive inclinations that I have about how to use the theatre, even though there is no audience in it—the idea that here is this watcher of children now in turn being watched. And the fact that they and the audience are not present reinforces the haunting quality of the play.
Annabel: Wonderful assistant director? I’ve never heard of her! Anyway, George, do you anticipate the play is going to change much from the beginning of rehearsal to when Studio audiences get to see it this July? What is your editing process like during rehearsals?
George: I do a lot of editing during rehearsals. At the O’Neill we only worked on the script for a week before it went up in front of an audience, so our time at Studio is its first true rehearsal process. We’re already discovering things, the script is still very much in motion. We have a wonderful cultural consultant with us named Jacqui [Guillen], and she is from the very town where the play takes place. It’s been a wonderful luxury to be able to have her input. Particularly in a solo play, every word is important, it’s this puzzle in which every word has to justify its presence even more than in a traditional play.
Henry: Well in Spanish, something as little as “por” and “para” has turned out to be quite significant.
George: Right, right. We’ve had some great debates over which Spanish word would be best used at any given moment.
Annabel: Henry, you spoke to this a little already, but how do you imagine directing this solo show to read as a filmed piece? Why is Martín telling this story now, and to whom is he telling it?
Henry: There are many moments where Martín is talking directly to the camera, which if it were a live production it would be to everyone in the audience. But for this version it’s really about playing with the audience and having the audience be this mythical presence rooted in Mayan and Aztec mythology—“el otro yo” (“the other me”)—the person we tend to be in conversation with, that inner voice. I embrace the ambiguity of whether this is the first time or the hundredth time that Martín has told this story. Will he ever tell it again? I don't know. I like the idea that people have that conversation after the show, that people would be divided or feel really passionate about one or the other.
Annabel: Given our ever-changing political climate and the fact that you haven't worked together on Tender Age since summer of 2019, what parts of the world and story of the play feel most relevant to you in spring of 2021?
Henry: Well, there are still children who are separated from their families in detention centers. But also, what I admire about the play is that it raises a very brave and often shirked conversation about how the Latino community deals with the issue of undocumented immigration. Our community is quite torn about this subject. Half of the border patrol are Latinos, the majority of them being Mexican-American. And then there’s the other half of the community that feels like this is a horrible injustice. So it’s a conversation without taking sides that I feel like we need to have. We need to acknowledge that it is a reality in our community.
George: The situation has generally changed for the better at the border, but there are hundreds of children who are still separated from their parents. As Americans, we are skilled at forgetting—my hope is that Tender Age will serve as both warning and testimony.