Announcer: This is Why We Write. A podcast of Lesley University. Each week we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing and the writing life.
Janet Pocorobba: Hello and welcome. My name is Janet Pocorobba. I am a teacher here at Lesley. I work in the MFA program in creative writing. We are talking today to a graduate of our program. Fabiola Decius. She is a graduate of our writing stage and screen program. Fabiola has gone on from our program to do lots of interesting things. She's had her plays produced in Boston. She has become a notable mentor with young people, with youth, teaching youth playwriting. I want to welcome Fabiola to the show.
Fabiola Decius: Thanks, Janet. Thanks for having me.
Janet: Thanks for coming. You came right from school you said, right? [laughs]
Fabiola: I did. I teach in Boston Public School. I teach theater. I just came directly from there to do this.
Janet: Wow. I definitely want to talk to you. It's interesting what you're doing with the students in the schools. What year did you graduate?
Fabiola: I graduated in 2015.
Janet: Three years ago, already. You've been on the other side for quite a while.
Fabiola: Quite a while, yes.
Janet: Excellent. Excellent. Maybe tell us a little bit about how you got to Lesley, to the MFA program.
Fabiola: I graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 2010. While I was there, I studied psychology and creative writing. I knew I wanted to come back to creative writing eventually, but I also wanted some real-world experience. I ended up working in property management, and I decided that I wanted to apply to school and I wanted to stay local because I also wanted to keep my full-time job. I heard from a few friends that there are low residency programs. I wanted to look into playwriting. Surprisingly enough, I saw that Lesley had playwriting and screenwriting. I applied and then I got in, which was really exciting.
Fabiola: I was able to work full-time and pursue my MFA.
Janet: That sounds like a lot.
Fabiola: It was a lot, but it was something I was passionate about. Even though I was working, I was able to do my writing, which was fun to me so that wasn't a burden.
Janet: You said you did creative writing and psychology, right? As undergrad?
Fabiola: Yes, as undergrad.
Janet: Did the psychology help you?
Fabiola: I think it does in terms of when I'm doing characters and character traits. Sometimes figuring out their personalities. That sort of thing helps me because I have to be in my head for all of the characters. If I have a script for five people, I'm trying to think of personality traits from five people. Some of the stuff that I did in my background with psychology helps with that.
Janet: When you're writing a play like that and you have five characters, and you're making these people up, right?
Fabiola: Yes. [laughs]
Janet: They're totally fictional or--
Fabiola: Some of them are fictional and some of them, of course, are loosely based off of people around me. My friends and family know that-
Fabiola: -sometimes depending on things that they do, I'll have character traits, lines of dialogue that they might say a lot. I'll do that. Some of it is fictional and some of them, it's inspired by real people. [laughs]
Janet: Are any of them inspired by any parts of you?
Fabiola: Yes. Actually, my thesis play while here, was a play called Fighting Forgiveness. It was about a young lady who was searching for love. She was raised by a single parent which is inspired by my true story. Then her basically trying to find her estranged father and invite him to the wedding. Some of the character traits were based off of me for the main character, and then the mother character. Some of them were loosely based off of my mom, but of course, you embellish a little. You don't want everything to be super accurate. I was nervous when I had a staged reading of it because I invited her. I was like, "Some of this is about us and a little bit is embellished a little." She was very enthusiastic.
Janet: Was she?
Janet: That's nice.
Fabiola: That is nice [chuckles] because I was super nervous. I was like, "Aah." She enjoyed it, I enjoyed it.
Janet: Nice thing, she inspired you to write that so I suppose in the end--
Fabiola: She did. She's like, "When are you going to get it produced?" I'm like--
I left it alone for a while. It was my thesis play. Because some of it is personal, I had to distance myself from it. Eventually, the goal is to go back to it.
Janet: To get some distance. First of all, the degree is playwriting and screenwriting. You've done both.
Fabiola: I've done both. That was something that I was at first a little hesitant about. I was like, "I want to do stage writing. That's all I want to do." The program has stage and screenwriting. I was like, "Aah." In undergrad, I took one screenwriting class, but the playwriting was primarily my focus. They said, "You need to do a little bit of both." I had different mentors that was here. I think my first semester, actually, I did it with Barry Brodsky, and I did screenwriting with him. I was like, "Because we have to do this and this is not my forte, let me do it first, get it out the way." [chuckles] I actually enjoyed it. I wrote a religious piece.
A lot of my plays are loosely based off of me. I'm a religious person. I had a religious piece for that. Then my second semester, I ended up doing the Fighting Forgiveness play, which ended up being one of my thesis plays. I did that with Kate Snodgrass. Then third semester, I wanted-- You only had to do screenwriting or stage writing at least once. Then you could do the other three because there's four semesters. You could do the other three if you wanted to focus on it. I enjoyed screenwriting in first semester so much that I actually did it again at third semester with Jamie Brandli. Then my final semester, I wrote another play called Man of the House. That was with Sinan Unel.
Janet: You wrote a lot. It sounds like in that program.
Fabiola: In the program were two full-length plays, two screenplays, and probably half a dozen 10-minute plays.
Janet: That must have been nice to leave the program with a bunch of things that you could take out into the world. What's the process for you as a playwright? What do you do, because you need a lot of people to realize your work? It's not just a person writing in a room.
Fabiola: For the first portion, it's very much independent with me writing in the room. Then, of course, you have these ideas in your head. You're reading all the characters, but it doesn't do it justice. That's when the stage readings come into play. I had different workshops with different theater companies. I've had friends that are actors who have volunteered their services to read the plays and allow me to hear it on its feet. That way that could help with revising the script.
In the beginning, it's very much independent. The theater is very collaborative in the sense that you have actors and directors and dramaturges. I've been lucky enough in Boston. It's a really big theater hub that I've been making connections while at Lesley and then since Lesley. I'm just continuing to work with people in that sense.
Janet: You got a couple of staged reading full-length plays, right?
Fabiola: Yes, I've had one here, of course, which my thesis Fighting Forgiveness. Then I had one called Man of the House, which was also written here. That was at the Roslindale Public Library. Then I was a Company One Play Lab number in 2017. I wrote another full-length play there called Urgent Care. Although we may have a staged reading for the entire play, we did a workshop, which is similar to stuff we did here at Lesley. I got to hear sample pages. The pages that I thought were the most challenging and I wanted to hear it on its feet. I had some actors or other playwright colleagues read it so that I could hear it.
Janet: I want to ask about that. I want to talk a little bit more about your achievements. When you hear the play that you've written, and you've sat in a room alone with all those characters, what's your reaction? [chuckles]
Fabiola: It varies. It varies. Sometimes it's like, "Whoa, they nailed it." Then sometimes the way I envisioned hearing it, it doesn't really land. Then I know maybe my stage directions weren't clear enough because they didn't read it with enthusiasm that I wanted or some lines of dialogue just might sound a little weird when it's said and I might tweak it a little bit. More often than not, it's usually like, "Wow, that's amazing. That's exactly how I wanted it."
Janet: Oh, my God. That's good. [laughs] As far as full productions, you've had too many plays that have been produced.
Fabiola: I have.
Janet: What have you done?
Fabiola: The most recent one was one called Consent that was produced on the Boston Neighborhood Network. That one was one that I wrote actually within like two to three days prior to it being produced on TV.
Janet: Wow, by choice?
Fabiola: I had a little bit of a snafu with some actors last minute so then I-- just write a new thing, but something that was pressing for me is the whole #MeToo movement and Brett Kavanaugh. I wrote a play titled Consent and that was what was produced. Although it was the first time I heard it on its feet, it was produced and I was able to look at it and review it and I'm editing it, so the goal is to maybe submit it to different theater festivals and have it produced again.
Another one was in Texas early in January last year 2018, that one's called Final Verdict. It was actually one of the 10-minute plays I wrote here. It was based off of the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman case. It was an interracial couple who basically watched a racially charged court case and they weren't happy with the verdicts. The verdict brings to light some issues that they have between themselves and in society as a whole and in the end they break up. [laughs]
Janet: I feel like I have seen that play. Did you see that at Lesley?
Fabiola: Most likely because it was read here.
Janet: I feel like that was very familiar. Are you an activist, would you say or just with your writing?
Fabiola: With my writing.
Janet: You’ve got a lot of material that is very important to you.
Fabiola: It helps me in terms of grappling with certain issues, I feel like it releases some tension that I might be feeling, is therapeutic for me. Hopefully people who see it or hear it's therapeutic for them as well.
Janet: You find it when you're writing about something that is really charged like that or is a very volatile social issue, are there any special challenges like when you're writing about that that you have to think about or is it easier or harder?
Fabiola: I try to balance things out like in terms of different issues. I, of course, stand on certain issues one particular way, but then other people may not. I try not to just be too focused on one opinion only, I balance it out. Maybe I'll have two characters. One is really left wing and one is really right wing and then they both give their ideas for why they feel that way so that at the end of the play no one's feeling like, "Okay, her play was strictly based on this."
Janet: That sounds challenging to the writer?
Fabiola: It does.
Janet: Having all these different mindsets and characters reminds me of George Shaw who did a lot of that just a lot of political stuff in his work and he tried to show all the roles. I think it's helpful for us as an audience too to see various mindsets and not demonize because we really have to see everybody as human and to understand. It does sound like a challenge, so this is some stuff that you've been doing since the MFA. I want to switch gears into your teaching because not everybody becomes a teacher and becomes driven to teach the craft, but you are. Did you know that about yourself?
Fabiola: I've always wanted to work with youth and that was part of why I studied psychology because I wanted to be a child psychologist. While I was at Bryn Mawr college I took intro to creative writing course and I fell in love, so then I just started doing that and then ended up getting both degrees. I got into property management but then I coordinated an after-school program, so I was working with youth then and then when I got the MFA I was like, "I want to teach theater and playwriting to youth." I didn't really experience live theater until college.
Movie theaters, yes definitely went there, but live theater, we read Shakespeare in high school and all the classical stuff but I never really got to experience contemporary playwrights until I got to college. Over the last few years, I've just been ruminating with the idea of what it would look like if I were to help cultivate the next writers and teach them about playwriting, teach them about contemporary playwrights at a young age so that when they get to high school they're not just focused on the Shakespeare. Shakespeare is not for everyone. It's a difficult language, the wording is-- it's not the typical vernacular that you hear.
When you expose them to the theater with that, some of them are just like, "That's not for me." I wanted them to be able to see, "Yes, you can do the Shakespeare but then again you could do some classical contemporary playwright." August R. Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, things like that, Paula Vogel. So,that was why I decided I wanted to use my passion for working with youth and then now merge it with my passion for writing and then put them together and see what I can do.
Janet: How do they respond when they see plays or start reading them?
Fabiola: There's some that come to it with an open mind and they're like, "Yes, this is really cool, this is awesome." Some of them you got to work with them in the process of writing it. They're not really on board but then when you have them read their plays out loud or they hear it read out loud, it's a different experience, like those are my words that I'm now hearing someone else recite and that's a really great feeling.
Janet: They're writing their own plays as well?
Fabiola: Yes. Usually, that's what I do, I usually give from 10-minute play samples to read but then I'm like, "I want you to focus on writing your own stories." I tried not to censor them, so I'm like "What do you want to write about? If you want to write about single parent because that's what you've grown up, in a single parent household, write about that. If you want to write about sports because you love basketball, write about that. Whatever is the thing that itches you, put that on paper and see what comes out."
Janet: Tell me about the grant that you received, was it last year?
Fabiola: It was last year. Last year I received a grant through the New England Foundation for the Arts, it's called the Creative Study Grant. They gave me some funding and I funded a program called Teens WRITE, the acronym write W-R-I-T-E is for writing, reading, and investigating theater everywhere. Over the course of three months-- yes, unique right?
Janet: I like the everywhere part.
Fabiola: Over the course of three months, I worked with a group of-- I had about six playwrights and we met weekly at the Hyde Park branch of the Boston public library that was one of our community partners. I read plays with them, I had them exposed to different people in the arts, so director, actor, there was a costume designer that came in, there was the sound designer that came in, they met with a dramaturge to figure out what that role is.
I didn't want them just to focus on the playwright because there's so many avenues in which you can be involved in theater. My forte is playwriting but maybe yours might be directing or someone else might be acting, so I wanted to expose them to all of that. Then we wrote 10-minute plays, then they casted them. We held auditions for local teens in the Boston area and we had about 16 that participated. The playwrights' directed their own play, then we produce them and put on a 10-minute play festival at Riverside Theater Works, which is also in Hyde Park. The reason I chose Hyde Park in because I was raised in the Hyde Park area so I want to give back to that area.
Janet: Had anything ever been done like that there?
Fabiola: No and they're actually still-- they're like, "You know what, we want you to do more." I have actually gotten more involved with it. Riverside Theater Works was very helpful, the Hyde Park Library was very helpful and I started working with the Hyde, Park Board of Trade while there because I was like, "I need help finding youth,” and I was just trying to connect with people and I needed to market. I'm like, "I'm going to put some flyers in your restaurants or in your storefronts, are you able to allow me to do that?"
I got really acquainted with a lot of businesses in the Hyde Park area and they're like, "You attracted a lot of youth and just a lot of people in general because the show was a real huge success." There was a print out in the Hyde Park newspaper bullets. One of the youth who participated, she lives in Norwood so there was an article spread in the Norwood Record newspaper and then those teens additionally had an opportunity to get their play produced on Boston Neighborhood Network as well. Then, in addition, to having their play produced at Riverside Theater Works, one of them named Amir Ahmad he had his play produced on TV, which was really exciting for him. Thirteen years old and he could say, I've been produced on TV.
Janet: My goodness. I mean it is such a communal undertaking and there's all the roles, all the people and then doing that for your community, which was so, it sounds so grateful so supportive of you and the kids.
Fabiola: Yes, they were. It was really eye-opening for me as well because as a playwright, sometimes I submit my work to festivals and I see it produced, the 10-minute plays, but I'm not behind the scenes. I don't necessarily take on the undertaking of being the director or being in rehearsals for the actors, but when I was doing this program with teens, I was doing everything so much so that the day of the show, thankfully I got a videographer so the students were able to get copies of their play.
I was behind the scenes with headphones and mic. I'm like, "Where's your prop? Do this, do that." I didn't even necessarily get to see the show until afterward when I watched the video footage. I was very hands on and behind the scene and it made me appreciate theater so much more because I usually just write and then I go see the show, but taking that approach in being involved in every aspect was beneficial. I'm like, "I can do much more now."
Janet: Yes. Expanded you too. I mean, that's the thing, right? We give and then it comes back to us. Gosh, many things I want to ask you. I mean, it does seem like you did kind of become a child psychologist.
In a way, but like your medium-- Of play, therapy is-- it's the play, it's the job.
Fabiola: That an interesting perspective.
Janet: Yes. I just have two questions. One thing I'm curious to know is, what do you think drama can do, say for these kids, that say, just reading a book can't do?
Fabiola: Well, usually when I have them reading plays and doing drama, it's on your feet. I'm like, "Don't sit in your chair because when you're in the chair, you have the tendency to get comfortable." I'm like, "Get on your feet. I need you to actually act things out, be more expressive." I mean, you could potentially do that while sitting in a chair, but most of the time you lay back a little bit. You're not doing as much, you're not putting as much effort. With drama, I know I'm usually just on your feet.
Do this in the way that you think it would need to be done to get people's energy. I want you to project and things like that. I think that is what differentiates drama as opposed to if you're reading something from just a book.
Janet: I mean, it sounds like you make it accessible.
Fabiola: Yes, I try.
Janet: Although reading plays can be tough. I know that I can have difficulty reading plays sometimes because I have to add so much. Like all I see is words, the characters speaking. I get a little stage direction but I kind of have to think, "What does she look like and what's your face like in this scene?" You really need much imagination. I wonder if that's something that they really get from it too and get to act it out. Like you said you have them really adding a lot.
Fabiola: Definitely, because usually, with plays, those are things that are not necessarily meant to be read. They are meant to be performed. Even when I had them reading scripts, I'm like, “I want you to perform this reading because plays are not meant to be read.” They're meant to be seen. That I think is what makes it a little bit different.
Janet: Yes. They're engaged with their bodies, with everything, their voices, their bodies, their minds. They're very present, it sounds like and with each other. I mean that must be interesting to watch.
Fabiola: That too. I always tell the students, "Make sure you have energy and because your colleagues, they're feeding off of your energy. If you're reading a line of dialogue and you're flat, the energy for the next person, it's probably going to just be flat and then your audience is going to be bored. You need to have energy because that carries through to everybody else's role."
Janet: Wow. I mean that's quite a lesson too. I mean, in terms of accountability, we want people to see, "Well, what I'm doing right here really matters. I have to do my part." I mean, it sounds like just a great way for them to learn all kinds of personal skills, getting along, pulling your way--
Janet: Teamwork? [crosstalk]
Fabiola: Especially with youth.
Janet: No, that leads to the other question. Because it is teamwork and everybody's so intricately involved. Have you had any challenges?
Fabiola: I have definitely had challenges. I mean, especially working with teens, it's a time where you're going through hormones, then you just like you're a kid developing, and maturing emotionally, you're just dealing with the lot. There are days where we're like, "I'm excited we're going to read this play." They're just looking at me like, "Okay, I'm just not in the mood today. I'm not feeling this today." That has been one of the challenges.
Even with that, I'm like, "Okay, you may not be in the mood to necessarily be reading a role today, but I want you to sit at this desk and free write and tell me what see happening, what you envision happening so that you could be participating in some way, shape, or form." You can't just, "I don't want to do this." Because in the real world you can't do that. You can't show up to a job and tell your supervisor, I don't feel like doing it today.
Janet: Yes, I know, if only we could.
Fabiola: I try to make them think in that way. I'm like, "I'm preparing you for the future as well. Yes, this is theater. Yes, this is playwriting, but I'm trying to teach you life skills as well."
Janet: Yes, so you're a doctor. [laughs] Doctor Fabiola. Yes, I mean it's all combined, isn't it? Excellent. When you were a student, you had several different mentors that you loved I'm sure, I'm sure you learn things from and now you're in that role. You're the mentor. These students may be looking to you and saying, "Oh my God, there's Decius, I want to find out." What does that feel like for you?
Fabiola: You know what? It feels surreal and there are times where I'm just like, I still don't necessarily feel like I'm in that role yet, because I'm still learning as well. Yes. I'm a mentor to them and maybe they see me as that, but I'm still reaching out to my mentors as well from time to time. I think of it as I'm a mentor, mentee, I'm playing both roles, but in terms of dealing with them and what they perceive, of course, there are times where I'm like, am I doing the right thing? Am I encouraging them in the right way? Am I reassuring them? You don't want to be too hard on them with their writing.
I've noticed that I have an MFA and I've had to take a step back and say, "Okay, I'm the one with the MFA, not them." The writing that I would do, all the grammatical skills that I would put into my playwriting, I can't expect someone who is 13, 14 years old to do the same thing. I know I've been really cognizant on that and making sure that they hold me accountable. If you feel I'm being too tough on you, let me know. If there's a way I'm posing the question that you don't understand, let me know. If you need me to clarify something, let me know.
Janet: I like when you said too that you're still learning. I think when you become a teacher there can be that sense of like, I have to know everything. When I first started teaching I was like, "Well, I can't not know something. I better know everything." Of course it's just ridiculous, you can't.
Fabiola: Yes. Every day I learn something new and because playwriting is a lot about dialogue and the youth, sometimes their vernacular-- I like to think that I'm still young by reading some of your stuff. I'm like, "What does this mean? I don't know what this means", and I have to explain what it means.
Janet: Do you ever-- when you're with them in class, say to them, "I don't know."
Fabiola: I have. There are certain questions they'll ask and I'm like, "I'm not really sure." Right now I'm teaching theater and my background was more in playwriting, but I want them to learn all the avenues of theater. Different acting methods. I'm learning it as they're learning and they're asking questions and I'm like, "You know what? I don't know. I'll talk to one of my colleagues who was more well-rounded in acting techniques and then I'll get back to you." I think sometimes they actually appreciate that because they're like, "Wait, she doesn't know either. That doesn't make me feel so bad. Or she doesn't know it, she's human. She's still learning too."
Janet: If you give me one word to describe what you would hope that your work does with these kids, what do you want them to get out of it or what would you be happy that they got off of it?
Fabiola: I would say inspired. If I was to just use the one word, I would say I'm inspired. I would also say reflective because a lot of times, the things that they're writing about are things that are personal, or they have a connection to in a meaningful way. When they write it, I would hope that they're able to review it and process it and reflect on, "Why did I write it like that? Why did I say this?"
Janet: How do they deal with that, the reflective piece?
Fabiola: Some of them, they do really well. Some of them, similar to how I said earlier with the Fighting Forgiveness piece, because it was very personal I had to distance myself. Some of them when they've written things and they're doing reflections and it's too difficult, I'm like, "Because it's probably fresh." This is probably because it's a personal story that you're talking about.
Janet: That seems to be so helpful for them. Have they seen your work?
Fabiola: They have. I've shared the different websites. I'm not on Facebook, but I know Fade to Black Festival, which is the festival that produced my play Final Verdict. I told them, "You go follow Fade to Black Festival and look on there because then you can see Final Verdict." I told them about the Boston Neighborhood Network. We read samples of my work. I'm always transparent with them. I'll show them what the script looks like in terms of formatting and then I'll show them the video footage, "This is it on the page, and this is what looks like on the stage," so yes, they had some of my work.
Janet: That sounds so useful because I think with any kind of writing, it can seem like just it miraculously gets to the stage like it was supposed to be that way, or in a book. I think that you're showing them the process and being so transparent must have some effect on them, maybe in terms of demystifying art, demystifying this process. I think at its worst it can seem like, "Well, arts are way out there." It's something other people do but we all have creativity, right?
Janet: It's just we have to be led into it by a good mentor.
Fabiola: Which I hope I am.
Janet: It sounds like you are and child psychologist.
Janet: I think it sounds like they must become very empowered in their work and in their lives and maybe in their schooling. What you're doing, who knows what the effects are? Alright, this has been really wonderful talking to you. A playwriter, a screenwriter, teacher, mentor, grand winner, produced playwright, and I'd say, achiever, I don't know.
Fabiola: So many words.
Janet: Yes, I hope there are a lot of--
Fabiola: The list is continuing to build.
Janet: Yes, good. With the grants and kids. Good luck to you.
Fabiola: Thank you.
Janet: Keep us in the loop about what you're doing.
Fabiola: Absolutely. I always do.
Announcer: Thank you for listening to Why We Write. For more information on this podcast and our other episodes, head on over to www.lesley.edu/podcast. As always, we'd appreciate if you'd rate and review us on the podcast platform of your choice. Next week, we've got a great interview with YA author, Sara Farizan. Here's a clip from that interview.
Sarah: I have no trouble killing darlings. I don't think anything I've written is like, "We're going to carve this in stone." None of that. I don't care about any of that. I think when you set out to write something and you have it in your idea like, "Yes, this is the plot. This is the end." It's very humbling to be like, "No, it's not," and having to get rid of a lot of hours of time.