A big room for a big conversation – that’s the only way to describe the interview I had with playwright Carlos Murillo, and Nick O'Leary, alongside Kate Drummond, MFA student, at Hutchinson Hall on November 30, 2023. Initially, the room appeared empty, but it gradually filled with a delightful blend of wonder, comfort, and laughter—A kind of joy that is only comparable to a warm hug.
This coming winter quarter, The University of Washington School of Drama is gearing up for its upcoming play titled “A Thick Description of Harry Smith (Vol. 1),” directed by Nick O’Leary, a UW Drama graduate student pursuing an MFA. The play is scheduled to run from January 19 to 28, 2024. This play marks the second part of a trilogy of plays and has been published in The Javier Plays. A proto-psychedelic medicine show, “A Thick Description of Harry Smith (Vol. 1),” takes a wild ride through the life, work, and times of filmmaker, musicologist, painter, anthropologist, collector, occultist, and fabulist, Harry Everett Smith. Best known for editing the seminal Anthology of American Folk Music, Smith's peculiar life is an emblem of American bohemian life in the 20th Century.
It is often rare that a playwright is still around when a play is being presented. However, the story for this upcoming play is different. During the initial read-through rehearsal, playwright, Carlos Murillo, was able to join the cast – and so it would be a huge, missed opportunity to not sit down and get a thick description of Carlos Murillo.
A cultural journey
Murillo is a Playwright based in Chicago where he teaches theater at DePaul University. However, Seattle is not a foreign land for him. “One of the very first plays I ever wrote was done here in Seattle, and I’m very excited to be back here,” he said.
Murillo grew up in the suburbs of New York but spent some of his childhood bouncing around Latin America. His Puerto Rican mother and Colombian father immigrated to the United States back in the 50s, where they met each other on an elevator at the Bank of America where they both worked. They planted their roots on the Lower East Side of New York City where they started a family.
Despite having a somewhat comfortable life, Murillo shared his experiences about living in different communities, “I grew up in odd circumstances where the particular neighborhood we lived in was all mostly Italian and Polish, and so they were always skeptical of us as the only Latino family.”
His life in Latin America also made him see the economic differences between countries that affect many people, “living in a city like Bogota, you're confronted day-to-day with real poverty… it’s visible here in the United States, but you can also avoid them [impoverished areas] completely if you like. And then when we came back to the United States… It was very clear that we were one of the only living families there [suburbs] and never quite felt we belonged…Like in my feet, I’m straddling two different worlds.”
“So, that's been a defining aspect of my journey as an artist. I feel like a lot of my plays are quite distinct from each other, but at their core, there's this element of doubleness. It's something I believe you encounter as either an immigrant or a child of an immigrant. I don't necessarily write directly about that. But it's certainly part of what I'm drawn to."
Now, outside of the drama of being a playwright, Murillo is hoping to spend more time with his family. “I love going on road trips. I am happiest when I'm in a car somewhere, lost in America and it's something that I've kind of tried to instill in my kids from very early on. We try to see the underbelly of America.”
“I’m also kind of obsessed with maps and that kind of thing. And then the other thing that always surprises people is I'm a big fan of Formula One racing… I've been into this since I was like 5.”
What is a “thick Description”?
As described by Murillio, a thick description is “how we look at a particular culture or a particular phenomenon through various lenses rather than a single lens. Sort of like a layer cake, so it's a way of describing given reality in all of its dimensions and depth. And that is supposed to bring you closer to something true about it.”
Illustrating him as an “archetypal trickster”, Murillo shared who Harry Smith was for him, “[Harry Smith] Self-created and built a kind of mythology around himself ... his art, his research [and] persona is all kinds of part of a continuum, right? I'm an artist, but I sort of separate that from my family life and from other aspects of my life. And Harry Smith is like this walking work of art where all of these elements of his life are all part of one thing and part of it.”
This is only the second time that this play is being presented, the first being in New York City, and so one can argue that there isn't much to go off from, Murillo talked about what challenges performers might encounter during the play, “It doesn't look a whole lot like other plays in terms of exposition and relationships. It's more of a document of an event. And so, I think for actors who are more used to being conventional, they might look at it like, how do I perform this? So, there's a lot of questions that I think can be daunting for anybody working on it.”
But the learning is not one-sided, during the reading Murillo shared some enlightenment about his work, “There's been a lot of light bulb moments where ‘oh, this is actually funny. And this is actually really strange…’ I've just learned a lot too.”
A play as a Prism
In the art space, there’s always the discussion about the meaning of art – what does it add to society, and like many artists, Murillo dabbled with this concept as well.
“Years ago, I was doing a play at this theater company in New York. I got very depressed after one of the shows because I had no idea what the audience was taking away from this.”
“Then I was talking to another playwright, and he told me that the play is kind of like a prism that you put between the audience and the performers. The performers and the text are sending a certain light out, but you can't really control what they’re seeing.”
What’s behind the thick description?
“I always figure out what I'm trying to say after I'm done. The act of writing it is trying to figure out what it is you're trying to say,” Murillo explained when asked about his intention when writing the play.
“There's a really fantastic band called Big Star in 1970. Barely sold anything, but then in the 1980s, there were all these bands that knew that music and kind of shaped the whole sound that emerged out of this in the 80s and 90s. I'm always interested in them and how these little things kind of slither into people's consciousness through a kind of back door. As opposed to what we see in TV and pop culture. I love Taylor Swift. I think she's awesome, right? But are there other, invisible things that change the culture or impact the culture as much as she would?”
Message to aspiring playwrights
“It's obvious, just write and write and write, you know… and don't wait for people to do your work. I mean the very first play I wrote I deliberated ‘Should I wait for someone else to produce it, or should I take the reins and bring it to life myself?’ And back then, it was a little bit easier because it was cheaper, but you know, working in little, tiny basement theaters in New York during the mid-90s was kind of a starting point for me, a kind of community of other writers. I've always found it valuable to be around other writers because it is very lonely. It is a solo endeavor. And so, when you have a community of folks around you that are supportive and know what you're up to, that's great.”
By Juan Jocom
December 12, 2023
School of Drama