‘Secrets; Love,’ a New Play by Summer Dawn Hortillosa Premieres at Downtown Urban Theater Festival

A tight knit Filipino community is devastated by a kidnapping in Summer Dawn Hortillosa’s new play Secrets; Love. Hortillosa is an up-and-coming playwright who won the 2007 New Jersey Young Playwrights Contest and Governor’s Award in Arts Education. The production opens March 22 at the Monroe Center for the Arts in Hoboken. It’s a big move for a playwright who is known for one-act comedies, short stories, and monologues. JCI spoke to Hortillosa about her new play, crimes of passion, and Nancy Drew.

JCI: Congratulations. Monroe Center for the Arts is sponsoring your play Secrets; Love, which is part of the Downtown Urban Theater Festival. How’s that been for you?

Summer Dawn Hortillosa: It’s been amazing. I first learned about Downtown Urban Theater Festival when I was doing research on Jersey City playwright Reginald Gaines for a Jersey Journal article about his high school workshops in the city. It sounded really awesome and I can’t believe my play actually got in. It’s super exciting!

JCI: For those unfamiliar with the Downtown Urban Theater Festival, what is it, and why is it important?

SDH: The festival will be celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and is a nonprofit program run by Arcos Communications. They believe that strong plays start with strong playwriting. They give a lot of playwrights a platform to show their work and they help you develop your play for the stage by giving you various tools. They help with promotion, pay for Actors Equity members in each play’s cast, point you to places that provide props or rehearsal space, etc. They’ve been a huge part of the process and I’m psyched to work with them and be featured alongside so many talented playwrights.

JCI: There is a fine line between kidnapping and love. How did you approach Secrets; Love?

SDH: Well the kidnapping, to be honest, is not really the main action of the play. The events that precede and succeed the disappearance of two of our characters are what reveal the nature of love, how we express it and what we value most about it. There are many lighter moments in the show, but overall, it’s a very dark play and may take audiences to places they’d be afraid to brave alone.

It was based off a court case that a former coworker had to serve jury duty for. I’m not sure if he wasn’t supposed to tell me or not, but he shared the case’s details, which inspired the play. In the case, a man spent three years on the run after he let jealousy get the best of him, destroying the lives of his family and his best friend’s. I can’t say much more without revealing too much. I have no problem telling people what it’s about, but I know some like to be surprised.

JCI: In a manner of speaking, Secrets; Love is a true crime story, inspired by real events. For the past few years, you have earned your keep as a beat writer for the Jersey Journal. I am interested if there is an overlap between your day and night job. Does writing for newspapers influence your fiction writing?

SDH: I started writing this particular story before I started working as a journalist in any capacity at all, but working for the paper helped me get to know Hudson County and bring elements of the community into my work – the way the characters speak, the way they dress, the way they think. And I’ve always had a taste for mystery/crime – I used to read classics like Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew and I was part of McNair’s mock trial team for four years. That came in handy while writing the courtroom scene in Secrets; Love – it was weird writing a closing argument for a prosecutor since I [used to play a] defense attorney, but I still knew basically what to do.

JCI: Jersey City is your home. If you had to ascribe an aesthetic to the city, what would it be, and why?

SDH: It has so many different neighborhoods and each one feels so different. I’ve lived in different parts and I’ve loved them all – the Hill has faux ‘burb-y houses but is right next to the urban grit of Newark Ave. The Heights is the heart of middle class Jersey City where everyone knows each other. West Side is buzzing with diversity but is so residential and quiet sometimes that it is just the epitome of CHILLtown. Jersey City’s aesthetic is its lack of one, unified look – urban and suburban, rich and poor, old and new, rundown and renovated, culturally diverse but dotted with clannish neighborhoods. There are few other places in the US where you can taste a bit from every walk of life the way you can here.

JCI: How was it that you were drawn to the theater? Can you put a date to this? Did you read a lot as a kid?

SDH: I always loved creative writing and have been writing stories ever since I can remember. I started reading at two and spent most of my childhood in the public library by my home in Colorado. I was homeschooled for first and sixth grades and basically spent both of those years reading voraciously.

JCI: How does homeschool compare to public school?

SDH: I’m very independent and self-motivated so in my case, it was a great way to learn. My mom April is super intelligent and didn’t need a strict curriculum to teach me anything. Sure, she bought me a couple schoolbooks, but the best lessons came from her just taking me to the library or watching “Dateline” with me. She’s been educating me since I was born – would you believe, I knew about the basic concept of artificial insemination at four? Well, ok, I just knew sperm from men and eggs from women make babies and that sperm can be frozen and later implanted.

As a teen and adult, I’ve been way too busy to really read, but I enjoy it. I just love the places books can take you. It didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t just want to go on these wonderful journeys. I wanted to be a travel agent, a pilot – even better, a creator of new worlds.

In my short stories, I focus less on imagery and dialogue. My writing focuses on moods, thoughts and intangible adjectives. One of the things I do best is profiles – written portraits. I write only about the most important moments that show people’s most prominent qualities. Why would you write about anything but what matters most?

Theater lets me explore the same small moments but amplifies them and forces me to move plot through dialogue. It’s unlike any other medium – it’s word-heavy like books but capable of action. It’s action-packed like movies, but cannot be stopped, re-angled or edited. It makes you think out of the box, as if you were creating a universe with unique laws, but allows you to make that universe real.

JCI: When did you first start writing plays?

SDH: I’ve always loved watching plays but never thought much about writing them. I started by doing scripts for skits in class – I was usually cornered because I was a good creative writer with a good grasp of humor. When someone suggested I try writing a one-act play for [the Playwright’s Theater of New Jersey’s] contest, I gave it a shot just for kicks and fell in love. I wrote the play in November 2006 and my play was produced May 2007.

JCI: Was there one play you saw (or read) that inspired you to become a playwright?

SDH: No, not really, sorry! Ha ha.

JCI: Who are your dramatic influences?

SDH: I’ve mostly studied things on the more classical side like Shakespeare (I don’t think there’s any playwright who doesn’t idolize him). I also love Oscar Wilde, Henrik Ibsen and a few others. I’m actually terribly undereducated as far as actually reading other playwrights’ work but I’m trying to read more and more.

JCI: What attracts you to Wilde and Ibsen?

SDH: Being funny takes intelligence and Wilde makes that so wonderfully obvious. He has so many good lines that stand strong on their own – he’s just so quotable – but they don’t make his work stilted or heavy. They keep up a good flow throughout his work. As for Ibsen, he strikes the perfect balance between asking a question in a poetic, symbolic, artistic way and telling a real, emotional, human story.

JCI: How many passes does it take to create perfect dialogue?

SDH: That’s an interesting question. When writing a scene, I generally have an idea of where the characters need to go in terms of their desires, emotions and such and where the plot also needs to go. As I write, the words just sort of come to me and I hear everything in my head. If I break down the process, I probably switch between the characters in my mind, put myself in their place, and figure out what I would say – keeping in mind that character’s specific traits and speaking style of course. But it all happens so fast that I barely notice.

I write the play through and then as I begin editing the play as a whole, I will fix lines if they sound unnatural or the rhythms don’t sound right. Also, if there are inconsistencies in the plot or someone’s character removing or adding a few lines is usually all it takes. Sometimes you have to add entire scenes (I had to add a prologue and a flashback to Secrets; Love to define two characters’ relationship when I realized it wasn’t discussed enough) or flip things around, though. In general, my lines stay more or less the same through the editing process.

JCI: What sort of writing routine do you have?

SDH: I work best when I’m adapting something, most often a short story I’ve written. Short stories are the easiest for me to write because the idea snaps into my head, I type away for a bit and bam – it’s done. I get bored easily so spending a great amount of time tweaking an idea, picking plot points and finally getting around to writing everything down sometimes wears away at me. Sometimes I stop being excited about a project and never finish it.

Anyhow, I usually write plays by looking at short stories I’ve written or, if I don’t have a story, a general plot outline. I’ll also try to figure out who my characters are through and through before I begin writing.

Then I sit at my computer until the perfect opening scene comes to mind and once I have that, usually everything else will just come together – which is sort of how I work as a journalist, too. Sometimes the hardest part is coming up with a good lead – after that, everything else is easy.

I see the play in my head like a movie or as if it were being staged and write what comes to mind. I write fast and usually only do one-acts so it will take me maybe a couple days to finish and then I begin the editing process. I’ll read it over a couple times on the computer and make changes, then wait for a week or two to wipe my mind clean. Then I’ll go over it again, make more changes and maybe even print it out to really sit down, write notes on the script, etc.

Then I have a couple friends read my work to get feedback, make adjustments if necessary, and I’m done!

JCI: Are you a computer person or a pad-and-pencil person?

SDH: Pad-and-pencil for planning, outlines, etc. and a computer for actual writing.

JCI: In addition to your work as a playwright, you also write short stories. Fantasy and magical thinking are themes that appear in several of your stories, such as Senses. What is it about the fantasy theme that intrigues you so?

SDH: I love having these crazy characters who live in their heads. I’m really into writing about thoughts and the way people perceive things, so it’s super fun to indulge in something fantastical, impossible or ridiculous. I used to have a really over-active imagination – I never believed what I fantasized about, but I loved thinking there were these monsters (standard vampire and werewolf, not-so-standard spiderwoman and toilet monster) who were super scary but still my friends. Except the toilet monster, I guess. I remember I’d flush the toilet then run and hide under my bed covers until the “woossssssshh” sound the toilet makes as the tank refills would stop – because that was the sound the monster made, of course.

I just write about magical things because it’s a nice escape from all the dark, serious stuff real life constantly throws at us. Also, I just write better about funny or poignant, bittersweet sort of stuff. I’ve tried serious, dramatic stuff but my previous attempts just didn’t hold my interest or seem good enough to me. I can write about dark, melodramatic stuff, though – and Secrets; Love is my first successful dramatic play because it’s exactly that, dark and super dramatic.

INFORMATION:

Performance dates are March 22—24 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 for the Friends and Family Show on March 22, and $15 for March 23 and 24. Students and seniors are $10 with ID.

Secrets; Love will also be part of the Downtown Urban Theater Festival in New York City on March 28th. Tickets are available through HERE.org.

Brendan Carroll

an artist and a writer. In 2006, he cofounded Agitators Collective, which creates site-related installations in urban locales that have fallen into neglect or dereliction. He has exhibited his work at a number of museums and galleries in New York and New Jersey, and his work has been featured in several periodicals, including The New York Times, Village Voice, Art Fag City and Time Out New York. Find him online at brendanscottcarroll.com.