Duende [is] a mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained. So, then, the duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: “The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.” Meaning, it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning, it’s in the veins: meaning, it’s of the most ancient culture of immediate creation…The great artists of Southern Spain, Gypsy or flamenco, singers dancers, musicians, know that emotion is impossible without the arrival of the duende…Duende is a power or a demon that cannot be summoned at will, but when it arrives its force is irresistible – for it is what drives a creation.
The Theory and Play of the Duende
By Federico García Lorca
More than 25 years ago Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth started writing a play. Originally called Giant Shadows, it began as a story about a daunting legacy and a young man who doesn’t want to get married because he feels he hasn’t suffered enough. Over the next two and a half decades, Giant Shadows, which eventually became Andy and the Shadows, went through countless drafts and workshops and readings in numerous cities across the country, and began to transform into something much deeper, much funnier, much more moving and lyrical. And the play that will receive its world premiere at Theater J only could have been created with the help of time, the collaborative spirit of director Daniella Topol, and a little bit of duende.
Roth’s semi-autobiographical play – “if you started quantifying numerically how much is real and how much is true, it comes to 63%,” Roth says facetiously – centers around Andy Glickstein and the weekend of his engagement to Sarah. The story is told through an older version of Andy at 50 looking back at a time when there were “Weddings & Worries. Horas & Hospitals,” as he declares in the opening monologue. But the play is far from a simple coming of age story, as Andy and his two sisters are haunted by their parents’ stories of their escape from Nazi Germany, each desperately yearning for a life to match the weight of those memories.
This weight placed on children of Holocaust survivors is one of the many things that initially drew Topol to the piece when Roth approached her to direct it more than a year ago. “There’s a real urgency to explore how the stories of the Holocaust impacts the second generation, how it impacts their view of genocide and suffering in the world,” says Topol. “But the play is also about what it takes to keep a family strong and healthy, and how a family carries its pains and its secrets. These are universal questions, and profoundly interesting to me.” “This is not a reverential play about the Holocaust,” Roth maintains. “It’s a play about growing up.”
The play itself has grown immensely, not only since the 1980s when Roth began writing, but even in the past 12 months since Theater J committed to producing it. “I’ve been rewriting every day since April of 2012,” says Roth, who has been present in almost every rehearsal of their four-week process. A feat almost unheard of in American theater today. A playwright in the room throughout the entire process “is so rare,” Topol explains. “And I think that’s [due to] budgets and time, but I think especially on a first production it becomes really important [for the playwright] to be able to shepherd the work and discover things as [they] go. Through this process I think Ari is learning how present their playwrights can be as they do new work at their theater in the future.” Roth wholeheartedly agrees. “The revelation of this process with Daniella is, if a writer can afford it, to keep them in the room,” declares Roth.
Andy and the Shadows is part of Theater J’s Locally Grown Festival, an initiative that celebrates DC’s playwriting community, and will include readings of plays by six local writers as well the World Premiere of Jacqueline E. Lawton’s The Hampton Years this May. And this revelation – the potential for intense collaboration throughout the rehearsal process – could have lasting effects on the Festival. “That could be a defining feature of Locally Grown,” Roth says. “That it’s about waking up every day and going to rehearsal for your play.”
This spirit of collaboration and intimate involvement with the rehearsal process gave Roth the time and space to hone his play, and as he wrote and labored so, too, does his main character. Throughout the play Andy struggles with his aspirations to become a filmmaker while living in the shadows not only of every great artist who came before him, but also of his own mother. “Andy has idolized his mother and her experiences of surviving the war through grit and gumption and guile and so much good fortune,” Roth explains. “He sees in her that flamenco type spirit…that rage and passion and fury and gentleness, and he wants to capture it so he can have it in his art as well.” Quite simply, Andy is searching for his duende.
And if duende is, indeed, “a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought” as Lorca asserts, then playwright and character have traveled similar paths. It is through his own struggle, the 25 years during which “I never stopped thinking about the play,” that Roth harnessed an irresistible force and discovered his own duende. For Andy and the Shadows truly surges up from the soles of the feet and moves us in unexpected ways.