Fertile Ground Portland

A Festival of New Works Blog

A Very Special Episode of “Claire’s Playwright Interviews” January 12, 2011


In Which Fertile Ground Blogger Claire Willett Subjects Herself and Her Writing Partner To Her Series of Playwright Interview Questions, and Reinforces Traditional Gender Roles By Color-Coding Their Answers Pink and Blue, Although Really, If You’ve Ever Met Either Of Them, You’d Be Able To Tell Whose Was Whose Purely By Length.

NAMES: Gilberto Martin del Campo & Claire Willett

PROJECT: That Was the River, This Is the Sea

That Was the River, This Is the Sea plays at 6 pm Monday, January 24th – Thursday, January 27th, and 7 p.m. Friday, January 28th at The Art Department (417 SE 11th Avenue).  Tickets are $12 (cash-only Monday).  Friday is a joint event with Candace Bouchard and Christian Squires of Oregon Ballet Theatre ($20 cash at door for both shows).  More info here. [Please note that the Art Department’s address has changed and is INCORRECT in the festival program and website listings.  The SE 11th address is correct, not the SE 9th address.]


Claire Willett is a three-time Fertile Ground Festival playwright; her play Upon Waking was produced in the 2009 Fertile Ground Festival, and her play How the Light Gets In was produced last year, where Portland theatre guru Mead Hunter called it “a sassy psychological breakthrough story that deftly avoided the usual traps of sentiment and sententiae, and showed us that Claire is very much a writer to watch.” Claire has a B.A. in Theatre from Whitman College, where she was voted “Best Student Director” in 2003, and where her first play Requiem: God Breathing took 3rd Prize and was the top faculty pick in the 2002 student-written One Act Play Contest.  She has also directed for a short play festival at Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, and directed the Irish premiere of Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project in Galway.  An arts grantwriter and development consultant, Claire has worked for nonprofits all over Portland, from Artists Rep to Hand2Mouth. She is the Grants Manager for Oregon Ballet Theatre.

Gilberto Martin del Campo is a film, television and stage actor. A graduate of the Portland Actors’ Conservatory, he has been working in Portland for the last five years at companies such as Artists Repertory Theatre, Miracle Theatre/El Teatro Milagro, Northwest Children’s Theatre, Northwest Classic Greek Theatre, Oregon Children’s Theatre, Portland Actors’ Conservatory and Stark Raving Theatre, among others.  Favorite roles include Don Quixote in El Quijote (Miracle Theatre), Orpheus in Eurydice (Artists Repertory Theatre), and D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (Lakewood Theatre Company).  He recently played King Florestan in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s The Sleeping Beauty, choreographed by Christopher Stowell.  He has worked on nearly a dozen films in Portland over the last few years, and appeared on TNT in December playing a featured role on the season finale of Leverage.


1. A Writer I Admire Is . . .

Margery Allingham

Truman Capote

2. My Writing Style Can Be Described As . . .

Nora Ephron Meets the last page of The Great Gatsby

The sandbox Meets the gutter

3. The Portland Theatre Company I’d Most Love To See This Show Produced By Is . . .



4. The Celebrity I Would Most Like To See Star In This Play On Broadway Is . . .

Zooey Deschanel

Jimmy Smits

5. A Portland Artist I Admire Is . . .

Christopher Stowell

Trish Egan

6. I Am Terrified Of . . .

Snakes.  Also falling.  And anything touching my wrists.  And sleeping in a first-floor room without curtains on the windows.  And that part in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty where Maleficent’s eyes appear in the fire.

Not seeing my family again

7. I Am Obsessed With . . .



8. The Book Currently On My Nightstand Is . . .

Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman, which I bought for Gilberto for Christmas but decided to keep instead.  Nobody tell him.

Ulysses by James Joyce

9. Three Adjectives That Describe This Play Are . . .

Intimate, Dreamlike, Honest

Deep, Funny, Moving

10. In the Indie Art-House Biographical Film Of My Life, I Should Be Played By . . .

Queen Latifah

George C. Scott


1) Tell us about your Fertile Ground Festival play.

When Leo takes his American girlfriend Rose to Mexico for his sister’s wedding, she is ecstatic to meet his family for the first time. But she finds herself in the middle of a family conflict when Leo’s cousin Javier skips the wedding. Leo and Javier have not spoken in years, though nobody can tell her why. Determined to mend the rift and get answers, Rose digs relentlessly into Leo’s family history. But what she finds may change their relationship – and their lives – forever. As Leo’s past and his future are drawn inexorably towards each other, a Greek chorus of Mexican aunts and uncles guide the audience on a journey through two countries and into the furthest reaches of the human heart. This world premiere staged reading is a bilingual, multimedia collaboration by Claire Willett and Gilberto Martin del Campo.

2) How did this story come about?  What inspired it?

It was originally a short story that I had to lay out after experiencing a very emotional trip home.  It’s a play that deals with loss – of  a loved one dying, from a breakup, of your own self – and finding, either by chance or instinct of survival, your way back into being part of a brighter life.

I’ll pick up where he left off.  (And then go on much, much longer . . . )

Gilberto and I met a jillion years ago when he was in Take Me Out at Artists Rep, and we reconnected last January when he auditioned for, and subsequently played the lead in, my last Fertile Ground project, a play called How the Light Gets In.  We liked working together a lot, and he liked the way I write, so after the show ended he came to me with this short story/memoir piece, and asked if I would read it and give him some feedback.  Cut to one year (one long, semi-exhausting year of extremely hard work) later, and that five-page story is now a 100-page play.

What I really love about it is how universal the story is; our families are so different from each other, but we can both relate to this family, to these characters and what they go through and what happens to them.  And sometimes, as we worked, the things that really leaped out at me as being full of emotional resonance were different from the things that really hit home with Gilberto; for example, the character of Gabriela, who becomes in so many ways the emotional anchor of the story, was only mentioned in the initial short story in passing.  She was there in the background, but she wasn’t a character.  But when I first read the story, she leaped off the page to me, and I felt a tremendous sense of obligation to do justice to the real-life girl she was based on, to tell her story right.

Turning a 5-page nonfiction piece into a full-length fictional drama was tricky but exciting.  We had to take the characters and their relationships to new places that stretched them beyond the real-life people who inspired them. And there were a few times when we had different opinions about how a certain part of the story should come together – including some moments where the real-life basis for the story was actually LESS believable than fiction.  Like, the real story was based on a trip Gilberto took home to see his family for both his sister’s wedding and his grandmother’s funeral.  But when I read it I told him, “No one is going to buy that both of those things happened back-to-back.  We have to pick.  Wedding or funeral.  Not both.”  I was convinced it would feel way too clichéd, too Lifetime-Movie-of-the-Week, too the-circle-of-life-continues . . . even though it was really true. But in the end, I feel like the characters we created are wonderful, flawed, interesting, engaging people that audiences will enjoy getting to know and spending time with.  I think it’s a beautiful story, and it was such an honor for me to get to help turn that beautiful story into a play.

3) Talk about your writing process.  (How do you write?  When do you write?  What gets you writing?)

I write when I’m with my partner [Claire]; she brings structure and sense to the entanglement of emotions and ideas.  We sort them out together and find a logical, emotional way to tell the story.

I write best late at night, with some background noise, and horizontally.  In college I wrote my thesis papers sprawled on the living room floor on my stomach, with Friends on the TV behind me.  I don’t know why this is true, but it is.  I hate chairs.  Also mornings.  This was occasionally problematic working with Gilberto, because he’s the exact opposite – in bed early and up early.  So we had to compromise.  Normally what seemed to work best would be to get together and talk through whatever scene we were working on until we both knew what we wanted to say, and then sometimes we would split up and write stuff and send it to each other, while other times we would sit there with our laptops and hash it out until we had something we both liked.

This project was a totally new experience for me as a writer.  I’ve never written with a partner before, and I had to stretch a lot.  Like, I hate when people read drafts before they’re finished.  HATE IT.  But Gilberto wanted to see everything the second we had words on paper.  So I had to get over a lot of my hangups about that.  I have to admit there was a tiny part of me that kept thinking, “Is this really going to work?”  Like, I’ve never been to Mexico, I don’t speak Spanish (well, I speak Sesame Street Spanish).  I had a lot of concerns about whether I could really do justice to somebody else’s story. But we have a really amazing partnership.  We both had moments where we were discouraged, but neither of us were ever discouraged at the same time, so one of us could always give the “Buck up, soldier” pep talk to the other one.  I was actually kind of surprised how well we complemented each other, both personally and as writers.

One of the interesting elements about my role in this process is that I was essentially being brought in to help write someone else’s story.  In the past, all the plays I’ve written have sprung from something that I felt really passionately about, and I really wanted to tell that particular story for a reason that had personal emotional significance to me.  I’ve never really adapted anything or worked with a partner, so the challenge for me was, how do I find my own emotional truth inside a story that I didn’t write and that has, on the surface, very little to do with me?  Plus I’d always sworn I would never write a relationship play.  I think they’re boring.  But Gilberto is such a beautiful writer, and there was so much going on below the surface of this story that I felt like it could become something really extraordinary.  And I really feel like it did.

Some people who have read the script, or who came to our first batch of table reads, have asked questions or proposed theories about what parts are Claire and what parts are Gilberto; but it’s not something you can split down the middle like that.  I mean, there are occasional lines here and there that sound more like his voice or my voice, but you can’t pull out a chunk and say, “Oh, he wrote that scene and she wrote that scene.”  It was a real partnership; it evolved through both of us working things out together, so it’s not 100% my voice or 100% his voice in any one place.  It’s hard to explain.  Usually if someone asks me to quantify it, what I tell them is that Gilberto’s the heart and I’m the head.  The emotional core of the story came from him; a lot of the process of shaping that core into a story that flowed and had a concrete structure came from me.  That’s not to say that Gilberto did no editing or that I had no emotional investment; it just means that it was a really organic meshing of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer with his, to create something that was bigger than both of us.

Oh my God, that’s so sappy.

4) What is the most exciting/inspiring piece of theatre you’ve seen in Portland?

There’s so much to choose from – every performance has so much to offer.  But I would say that I recently saw Everyone Who Looks Like You at Hand2Mouth, and that has stuck with me.

I was working at Artists Rep when they did Assassins and I think I saw it nine times.  Sweet frosted cupcakes, what a cast!  Wade McCollum, Sharonlee McLean, Isaac Lamb, Randall Stuart . . .   And I had SUCH a crush on Kirk Mouser after that show – not actual real-life Kirk Mouser (although he is a dear), but Kirk Mouser as John Wilkes Booth.  Which means I sort of indirectly had a crush on John Wilkes Booth.  Which is really not the kind of thing I should be admitting in public.

5) What are you up to these days when you’re not writing?

Swimming, swimming a lot.

Well, I just bought a house over the summer, so I spend a lot of time daydreaming about things like wrought-iron gates and hand-painted Italian wallpaper that I’ll never be able to afford on my nonprofit salary.  I watch a lot of cooking shows (I’m a tiny bit obsessed with Nigella Lawson.  Also the Chairman on Iron Chef).  I care more about celebrity gossip than is strictly healthy.  I spend a lot of time re-reading my stash of Agatha Christie mysteries, buying jewelry at Portland boutiques (Moxie and Redux are faves), and kicking around Alberta/Killingsworth.  I love going out for breakfast.  I love naps.  I love going out for breakfast and then coming home and taking a nap.  And I love coffee.  Like, I really, REALLY love coffee.


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