Playwrights' Center Associate Artistic Director Hayley Finn recently connected with Core Writer matthew paul olmos on his upcoming play the broken'hearts of a corrupted white house.
Hayley: This play circles events from the Watergate scandal, but you’ve adopted an unusual and exciting perspective. How did you find this material, and this story? And why do you want to tell it?
matthew: I love reading political history. I have always been interested in the JFK assassination and fantasized about writing something about it. Right before the 2016 election, I started a piece imagining two of the actual assassins meeting and having a conversation. It was very odd because as we were going through that election I was in a theater working on this piece called the shooters of an american president exploring what it means for people to go so far into their enthusiasm for what they feel about their county that it allows them to go to the dark side of something, to just do something terrible.
I had always been interested in the idea of corruption, where it starts and how it starts. So I started looking into Watergate because I find the Nixon era fascinating. But again, I didn’t want to write a Watergate play. What is there to say? But Howard Hunt’s story got into me. Because he was being used as sort of a pawn, but he saw himself as being much bigger. I started writing about the actual break-in and thinking about the people who are not the higher-ups, who are the people who are being used. But I was still not sure where I was going with this. Then I discovered these stories about his wife. There’s very little history about her. Most Watergate books don’t even mention her. I finally found a self-published book by her son. It’s fascinating because you get an insight into who she was, what she believed in, and why she started to feel that her husband was doing something that shouldn’t be done.
Before I knew it the play that I had been writing started changing. It was much more interesting to center a woman and someone who was saying early on, “They’re going in a direction that they are not going to come back from and it’s not going to be good for this country.” Even though she was a lifelong Republican, she saw things weren’t good. It’s a natural story: not only what happens to her but also that she’s along for the ride of Watergate trying to pull this person back. Right now we are watching people have such allegiance to party as opposed to any sort of humanity. I feel she was very early in seeing there’s a line we can’t cross, and if we do we are not going to stop crossing it.
Hayley: When I picked up this play I thought, “it’s a Watergate play” and then it was exciting to realize it’s really about this woman. I love the way that you wove in her perspective and told the whole story through her lens. It felt almost expressionistic at moments. How did that stylistic quality come to be as you developed the play?
matthew: It was tough because there are instances where she was involved in the story line of Watergate, but she wasn’t there for a lot of things that I needed to tell. At a certain point I started writing this other version of her in Hunt’s mind, so there are almost two of her in the play—one is an imagined character. I sort of do this naturally—take a historic event and my version goes into a heightened reality, because I am less interested in the history of it and more interested in what it means. As I develop the play, I am going to continue to figure out how to make her present when she wasn’t actually present for a lot of this.
Hayley: This play feels eerily resonant to a lot of events since 2016. As you have been developing it, how has the contemporary moment affected your writing?
matthew: As I was writing it, the Mueller stuff was coming out, so I thought, I hope this play gets done soon because it’s happening again now! A lot of the research was present day research, thinking about how people will push that line of what they shouldn’t do.
And there is that fear as a writer that people will move on, that fear of: what is the point of this play now? Does it still have resonance or reason to be onstage? But I find most things that I have written about, even if it is not the hot button topic of the day, as it might have been at a specific time, it’s sadly always still there. There is going to be some version of it popping up—it won’t be the person that I am referencing in the piece, but it’s something that we will probably never deal with, it’s just part of our reality, which in my case makes the play relevant. But since I research a lot, I also feel astounded: how can we have all these books showing us what happened and what became because of these events, and we still continue to do these same things?
Hayley: You have two other plays that have been nominated for the Venturous Theater Fellowship here at the Center, which is really exciting. Could you tell us about those pieces?
matthew: I grew up in Los Angeles but I spent most of my career in New York. During the pandemic I came back to LA and started getting into neighborhoods and communities that I grew up around, a lot of Mexican and Mexican-American communities. Before I knew it, I was writing these plays inspired by Los Angeles.
that drive through monterey is my mother’s story before she was a mother and before she met my father, which I didn’t know about till I was in my 30s. I found a marriage certificate with a name that I didn’t recognize. She was in her 60s, and she tells this story that I had never heard before, of her being married before my dad. As she tells the story, she can’t get through it without tears. I had never even seen that side of my mother. It is a very personal story about a love she had that was very different from how the rest of her life turned out.
And the other, a home what howls, is rooted in the displacement of mostly Mexican Americans from Chavez Ravine, which is where Dodger Stadium is. It is inspired by a family that stayed and tried to not get displaced, but they were dragged out of their home by the police. It’s about how we make way for progress, and how people don’t think about what happens to let progress happen. Everyone loves Dodger Stadium and then you realize there were three large communities living there happily and they were all just tossed out.
Hayley: What are you chasing right now artistically? Whether certain ideas or themes or a certain style of writing, I’m curious what’s motivating you.
matthew: I was out at Oregon Shakespeare Festival with Luis Alfaro a couple years ago. We were reading my play and afterward—he is so interesting dramaturgically—all he said was, “This play is bigger, matthew; it’s a bigger than you’re letting it be.” Sometimes I am so concerned about pacing and timing and taking too long; I feel good when it’s an hour and a half and I get nervous when it’s over, or getting close to, two hours. What he said stuck with me. I wonder if I was not letting things get bigger because I was worried about how marketable they are.
My favorite play I’m working on right now (Immorality May Well Be Imagined) was around 250-pages, so a three-and-a-half-hour play. But I was secretly excited because I was actually letting it be what it needs to be. It’s looking at the early history of segregation in the Mexican community and the building of a Mexicans-only school. There is something about the scope of it; a big, historical, but imagined piece. Making it shorter would be a disservice to it.
Hayley: That’s great that you’re able to just let the work breathe and take up the space that it needs to take up. That’s beautiful.