• Cristee Cook

New play 'Swimming While Drowning' by Emilio Rodriguez opens this week at Cara Mia Theatre Co.

Swimming While Drowning by Emilio Rodriguez will have its Dallas debut this week at Cara Mia Theatre Co. The play fearlessly explores the resilience of gay and transgender teens, and the story is told through the relationship of two characters who meet at a shelter for LGBTQ youth.

Emilio Rodriguez began writing Swimming While Drowning in 2013, and had the opportunity to workshop the play through several staged readings. Now, five productions later, Rodriguez has adapted the play specifically for Dallas and the production at Cara Mia Theatre Co.

I was invited to sit down with Director Jorge B. Merced and Playwright Emilio Rodriguez to discuss the themes in the play, how the play has been adapted for Dallas audiences, and the process of using art as a catalyst for difficult conversations, human connection, and inclusion.

J Davis-Jones as Mila and Dominic Pecikonis as Angelo in Swimming While Drowning by Emilio Rogriguez | Photo: Cara Mia Theatre Co.

What inspired you to write the play?

Emilio: In 2011, I walked by an LGBT shelter with a couple of friends of mine, not realizing it was an LGBT shelter. We just saw flags outside and thought it was a cool space and maybe a place to hang out. So I googled it later and then realized it was an LGBT shelter. I had never heard of that before. I didn't even know they existed. So, that's when I started doing research on the epidemic that is LGBT shelters. There are no shelters can accommodate as many LGBT youth that live in the area that need the shelter. There are always a shortage of beds. They're always booked. So that sort of became an impetus for me to just put that information out there - through the lens of two fictional characters who were living in the shelters. Which is based off of my experiences with people I've met who have lived in the shelters, and from volunteering at these places.

Did the play change as you developed it through staged readings and different productions?

Emilio: The play actually started out as a four character play and through the readings, a lot of audience feedback was: "Oh, I really liked the scenes between the two teenagers. There is this intense humanity in these two characters." So, hearing that over and over again, I thought maybe that's where this story is. So, now it's a two person play. That came through because of the staged readings.

Jorge, how did you get involved with Cara Mia and come to direct the play here in Dallas?

Jorge: My relationship with this production came out of a connection with Cara Mia. I met the team from Cara Mia about three years ago. We were doing a festival in Los Angeles...we were presenting our show there, with my company, Pregones + Puerto Rican Traveling Theater.... and as it happens with us theater people, when the shows are over, we hang out. We'd go to the bar, and sing together, and hang out. We kind of established a bond that stayed throughout these past three years. And David Lozano, the Artistic Director of Cara Mia, was looking for a project for me to direct. And he called me one day and said, "Hey, I found the project for you....I really think this is the project for you." ...and I stayed up all night reading it and I called him right away. I said, "I have to do this show, I have to do this." The script just moved me like nothing has moved me in a long time.

What was it about the play that inspired you so much?

Jorge: The beautiful thing about the world that Emilio created is not only the language in the play, but the subject matter is urgent.

I noticed in the marketing for the play that while this is a new play that has never been produced in Dallas, the play has been adapted for a Dallas audience. What changes did you make to the play for the production at Cara Mia?

Jorge: Yes. I suggested to David - what if we make one of the characters in this play be a Trans man? And David immediately said, "That’s never been done. I don't think that's ever been done in Dallas."

Emilio: Yeah, I thought it was a great idea. I started out as a poet before I was a playwright, so I'm blanking on the name, but there's a French poet who has a quote that says a poem is never finished, only abandoned. And, I feel that playwriting is the same thing. Like a play is never finished. If it's done, it's because you've abandoned it and you've let it go. But if it's still important to you and still resonates with you, I feel there's always an opportunity to go back and look at how can this be even more current - or how would it resonate more based on what's going on now? So, that's been my question with every time it's been done. This time I think that spark - the inclusion of having a character who is Trans - has been really powerful, and even more forward than I've ever been able to think with the play.

Jorge: Emilio came in and he adapted the show with us here in Dallas and he's been amazing to work with. And then we went through the audition process. I wanted to make sure that it was a Dallas-based company with Dallas artists. We found two incredible actors from Dallas, and they fought for the parts because they believe like us that we need to talk about this, not just in Dallas, but nationwide - we have to have these conversations. This play really goes right to the center of humanity and life and what we are all about.

Without giving anything away, what do you hope that audiences will take away from the story in the play? Jorge: To know that Emilio is a poet, I wanted to honor that aspect of the play. So, it's not just the text, but it's also the individual that created this world. For this production we honored the poetry of it by not being literal. It's based on a metaphor because that's what the poems and the suggestions that Emilio gave us. So our staging is not literal at all. You're not going to see a shelter. You're going to see the poetry of the playwright's theme. It's a raft or a barge where these two individuals are trying to survive. And the waters underneath are the ones that he mentions in his title.

We need to talk about this is. These are our sons and our daughters who are out there trying to understand: how do we connect with society? These voices are not heard in this way. So, I'm hoping to provide an opportunity for people to ask those questions of themselves - whether it's in a political context or whether it is in a more personal context. Whether it's more family or if it's about how do we make sure that resources are there for these youth to have what they need? To understand how they can contribute to society in a way that it's meaningful for them, and not this constant fight for acceptance and survival.

I'm hoping that the people who see this play will participate in this conversation. [Cara Mia Theatre Co.] is boldly taking a very courageous step to say, we are a Latino theatre company talking about things that urgently need to be talked about. It's immensely important that we have these kinds of interactions and conversations. I want to be in Dallas telling the story because this is where it belongs right now. And that's what this production means to me. It's not just the subject matter and what we're talking about, but also the art.

How has being a part of this production changed you? What do you think you will take away form it going forward?

Jorge: One takeaway I have is the fierce tenderness that it takes to bear your soul in a way that people can come into it and not destroy you, but also partake of a process that enlightens us. That's my takeaway from this. The courage of all the artists that have stepped up and said, "I want to work on this production because it's essential and it matters to me." That's very tender. All of us saying we are the ones who can entice our colleagues and our communities and our families to talk about things that are very difficult to talk about in a way that is nonthreatening, but is welcoming and inclusive. And the tenderness that it takes for you to go to a family member and say, "can we have a conversation about something?"

What inspires you to keep going - to keep swimming - to keep creating art?

Emilio: I'm inspired by everyday people. Any interactions I have can be an impetus for a play. I am also a teaching artist too, so I work a lot with youth and I think they're really inspiring because they have such a different view of the world and where we can go. And being around young people helps me continue to think more and more forward. And I think that inspires the art and inspires me to keep going.


Swimming While Drowning by Emilio Rodriguez opens at Cara Mia Theatre Co. on November 30th and runs through December 15th. Performances are Thursdays - Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 2:30 pm at the Latino Cultural Center, 2600 Live Oak, Dallas. Please note due to strong language and a brief moment of intimacy, the play is recommended for ages 15+. For tickets, visit caramiatheatre.org or call the Box Office at 214-516-0706. Performances are in English.

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