DETAINED director NANCY ROBILLARD (L) and playwright ROSE-MARY HARRINGTON take a few questions from UP’s artistic director James Bosley about this timely new play.
JAMES: Rose-Mary, what drew you to this story?
ROSE-MARY: I was compelled to write Detained in 2008 after I learned of the plight of asylum seeking families who were being incarcerated in a former penitentiary in Texas. Children along with their parents were treated as criminals. The families fled persecution and violence and threats in their home countries seeking refuge in the United States of America. When they were apprehended at the border they were shipped to Hutto, a privately-run family detention center in Texas. In Hutto they were stripped of belongings, men and women were separated, and children over seven years old confined to their own cells. Hutto was run like a prison—with counts, laser trip wires, and meager mental and physical stimulation for the children. Even stuffed toys were banned. As Captain Viv, one of the facilitators laments, “America is better than this.” I hope this play serves as a voice for those who do not have a voice. I never imagined how topical immigration would become ten years from the inception of Detained.
JAMES: Nancy, what was your first impression when you initially read the play?
NANCY: When I read the play for the first time, I realized that I had a knot in my chest the entire time I was reading it. That was a good thing—it meant I’d been deeply moved by it. I felt for the characters and the situation they are in—being in detention, their futures uncertain. Some have been there a long time, with no end in sight. I wanted to be part of telling their story.
JAMES: Rose-Mary, we’ve had a lot of back and forth on the script, including a staged reading, since you sent it to us three years ago. Was there a moment during that process that really helped clarify the story for you? Was there a moment that was especially painful?
ROSE-MARY: From the staged reading in 2016 it became apparent that I needed to develop a central character. This became Maria, a teen caught in the crossfire of immigration. She is smart, endearing, and recognizable as any kid struggling with adolescence, and with her relationship with her mother. Maria now gives the play focus and cohesiveness. The moment that was especially painful to write, and now to witness in rehearsal, is at the conclusion of the play. It is heart-breaking to watch a teen so despondent due to the suffocating circumstance she finds herself in this play.
JAMES: What draws you to doing new plays?
NANCY: Working with the playwright is a privilege and a luxury. It is great to be able to ask the writer. “Is this what you meant here?” Rose-Mary lives in South Carolina and flew up here to be with us for the first week of rehearsal. The cast and I spent that week with her sitting around a table, reading and analyzing scenes. She made script changes every day based on what she learned from the rehearsals. As we are staging the play, we continue to discover things about the script—what is working and what is not. Rose-Mary has joined us sometimes by Skype or Face-Time so that she can watch rehearsals and continue to make adjustments in the text. At times a writer is inspired to re-write because of something specific an actor or director has done. Other times it happens simply because we have put the play up on its feet. The writer can see it and say. “Now I know how to fix the ending.” (It is almost always the ending.) So we really learn what is working and what is not. Then we bring in the audience and learn about the play from them. It is thrilling to be part of that process, and I truly appreciate UP Theater for giving us the opportunity. It is no small feat for a theater company to produce new plays, and UP does it beautifully.