Interview: Ellen Struve Writes EPIC New Play for Great Plains Theatre Conference

By: May. 28, 2019

Interview: Ellen Struve Writes EPIC New Play for Great Plains Theatre Conference

Ellen Struve, respected Omaha playwright, has written an "epic" play for the 14th annual Great Plains Theatre Conference. Her play called EPIC will take place in the Metropolitan Community College/ South Omaha Campus in ITC room 120 on May 29, 30, and 31 at 7:30 pm.

EPIC blends ancient Mayan stories with the lives of muralists in South Omaha in a creative way using shadow puppets, live and recorded music, and a diverse cast drawn from the community. Directed by Michael John Garcés with translations by Lucia Francisco and Marina Rosado, EPIC promises the unexpected.

This is what Ellen had to say about EPIC and the creative process.

What gave you the idea to write EPIC?

Great Plains Theatre Conference commissioned me to write a play for their Neighborhood Tapestry which is a series of commissioned work. Last year Denise Chapman's play was part of that project. Both local and national playwrights tell the stories of Nebraska. It's exciting to add a new chapter. For everybody I interviewed, this is their story. This is a very Nebraska story.

I was commissioned to write about South Omaha. I didn't grow up in South Omaha, and I really thought about this. "Am I the right writer for this?" I was friends with several visual artists. But I was very attracted to the murals there. I had been volunteering in the Maya community and I knew Luis Marcos and his organization (Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim) prior to getting the commission. It's such a giving and wonderful organization in the city that a lot of people are not aware of.

I went to Cornerstone Theater in Los Angeles and did their training because I knew that Michael John Garcés, Cornerstone's Artistic Director, would be my director for the show. The way they create work is to create a fictional narrative from story circles, using people's stories that they contribute. We hosted three story circles from three different groups. One is a collective visual artist from South Omaha (Abstract Mindz). Another is the South Omaha Mural Project with more established artists. Their work really contributes to the beauty of our city. In our story circles, we asked people what they think of where they live. What do they want people to know.

I had a meeting with Luis Marcos (Executive Director of Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim). I asked him if he could see anything, what would he want to see. He said maybe an adaptation of the Popol Vuh, which is the sacred book of the Maya. At first I took a deep breath. (laughs) That sounded like a big project! I had a little trepidation. My role in this is to write and facilitate a play that people can see themselves in and wish to see. So, I said yes! And I couldn't be more grateful to him for suggesting that. Honestly, it's such a beautiful piece of literature. It's such a beautiful treasure of the world.

Tell me more about the Popol Vuh.

This sacred book of the Maya is an epic poem that tells the story of creation from the Maya point of view. It dates back to 300 BC. The Maya risked their lives to put this down in writing. The Spanish would have murdered them for it. I've tried to collect as many translations as I could and work from them all. My favorite is by Michael Bazzett, a poet. His is the first English translation written by a poet. It was on the New York Times Top Ten List for Poetry. I talked to Michael about themes in the Popol Vuh and the way in which it approached the world. Michael's book is gorgeous. I also really enjoyed other word-for-word translations. There's a lot to find there. Since I was creating my own adaptation, I just needed a lot of different inspiration.

How large is the Maya community here?

You know our largest immigrant population right now is from Guatemala. Because of the genocide and the persecution of the Maya in Guatemala that spurred immigration we have a decent sized Maya population here.

Is EPIC a series of stories or does it have a central plot?

It has a central plot. There are three young artists who are tasked with creating a new mural. They have gotten permission to do this mural and they don't know what to do, so they solicit ideas from the community. They create a mural of the Popol Vuh. This is woven throughout the play. You can see the ways the muralists struggle with various family problems. One of the muralists has an uncle who is immigrating here from Guatemala. One of the muralists has some tension between him and his father about being an artist. And they have some tension with one another as anyone engaged in community art can be. You see how the stories of the Popol Vuh reflect and how the contemporary stories comment on one another. How do we create a community? That is really the center of the play. How do we create a world where we are all together?

Tell me about the mural that is in the play.

The mural in the play will be created by Lynn Jeffries puppet work, but there is a real Maya mural going up right now. The South Omaha Mural Project decided to do a Maya mural as a result of our story circles. Hugo Zamorano, who is playing the role of mentor in the play, is a muralist with South Omaha Mural Project. Hugo is a very accomplished visual artist and is trying acting for the first time. He's a fearless and brave artist who wanted to challenge himself with an art form he had never participated in. His mural is Del Pasado al Futuro. Right now, I can see artists working on the Maya mural in the same square as Hugo's mural in Plaza la Raza.

I noticed some really interesting musical instruments. There is a wooden frog, a large wooden wishbone encased with wooden circlets, and additional odd percussion pieces. How will you incorporate these?

It's a live scored play. In addition to a sound recorded score, Mark Bruckner plays live.

Will your actors be wearing any native dress?

One of narrators, Reyna Marina Pedro Mateo will wear her chenej traditional clothing from Guatemala. It's important culturally, and beautiful. Guatemalan tapestry is such fabulous fabric. The ancient world of the Popol Vuh though, is all told through shadow puppets. Everybody is wearing contemporary clothes.

What is special about creating this work blending the ancient Maya world and contemporary South Omaha?

It's been so much fun to work with Michael Garcés and Lynn Jeffries. It has been so rewarding and delightful to be doing the work of creating a community and to have a cast and crew becoming a community. The joy of being able to share that with people who are both familiar and unfamiliar with this world is really exciting. I spent nine months learning Q'anjob'al to better understand Maya culture. Language is an important way to understand people's thought. It's a beautiful language. For people who speak Q'anjob'al, they'll have the experience of hearing people speaking it on stage (though the bulk of the play is in English). It's a beautiful part of the process as well. Catie Zaleski, who plays the English narrator is our representative of English. And I'm so grateful to work with Marina Rosado, who plays our Spanish narrator. It's so much fun to see our Q'anjob'al speakers getting tips on English. And English speakers getting tips on their Q'anjob'al and Spanish lines. And our Spanish speakers getting tips on their Q'anjob'al. And English speakers getting tips on their Spanish from our Spanish speakers. What a rich and fun way to exchange in a meaningful way our cultures!

EPIC will be open to the public and free of charge. See EPIC and then go see the fantastic murals available in our city.

(Check out this link to find out more:


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