Dramaturg talks with playwright and director of Mainstage season's first production
Wednesday, September 25, 2013

When asked by the Brooklyn Rail’s Marcus Gardley about the beginning stages of her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes answered, “When I wrote Water by the Spoonful, I knew that it was going to be about recovery, and that it was going to be about an online chat room and the real world and the online world. I knew it was going to be big and messy.”

Water by the Spoonful will kick off the University of Iowa Department of Theatre Arts’ 2013-14 Mainstage season. The play will open at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10, in David Thayer Theatre of the UI Theatre Building. (More details about the performances, including ticket prices, can be found at the end of this article.)

Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Water by the Spoonful tells the story of Iraq war veteran Elliot Ortiz as he struggles to find his place in the world, while being haunted by ghosts of his past. (This is the second play in Hudes’ Elliot trilogy, based on her own cousin Elliot’s journey as a Marine in Iraq.) Upon the death of a family member, Elliot finds his world colliding with the world of his birth mother as she moderates an online chat room for recovering addicts like herself. As families splinter and collide online and face-to-face, Hudes masterfully draws patterns of genuine warmth, forgiveness, and redemption.

Madison Colquette, dramaturg for the UI performances, spoke with the playwright and with the director of the UI shows, Tlaloc Rivas, about the captivating stories found within Water by the Spoonful.

Colquette: Tlaloc, what interested you about this play? What was the initial spark and why did you feel that the Department of Theatre Arts needed to do this play now?

tlaloc rivas portrait
Tlaloc Rivas

Rivas: I am an unabashed fan of Quiara Alegría Hudes. She writes the kind of plays I want to direct. Tender. Passionate. Fierce. Humorous. Her plays take on her themes and subjects with such detail and deftness that we are thoroughly entertained even as she pricks our conscience.

I chose Water by the Spoonful to direct for a number of reasons. First, it is a play that gives its audiences a complete, complex emotional experience, as well as being entertaining. And from “behind the scenes,” it is a knockout of a play. Water by the Spoonful is both epic and intimate—a huge challenge for the actors in our theatre arts program, for me, and for our creative team of designers.

Colquette: What is Elliot’s struggle with returning home after so many years? What is the adjustment that has to happen—and, I imagine, continues to happen—to put your life back together after being at war? Does he struggle with his identity as a community member? As a Puerto Rican-American?

Quiara Alegría Hudes portrait
Quiara Alegría Hudes

Hudes: Water by the Spoonful is a coming of age story and is inherently about [Elliot’s] identity. What kind of man will Elliot choose to become? What parts of the life he has been handed and the life he has chosen will he take with him into adulthood? And does he have the strength, the resolve, the ability to even make such things a choice, or is his future self already determined by his experiences in combat and by the things he cannot “unsee.”

Rivas: There’s never a timetable for recovering from trauma. Everybody handles it differently. Of course there are some who can move forward step-by-step and recover some stability, normalcy, and support in their lives, but it remains a difficult road. Some wear their scars on their sleeves. For others, it is buried deep and locked away for no one else to access. Re-entry is the process that a veteran goes through when they are trying to acclimate to society, or are being reintroduced to their families or the work force. This is never easy. Elliot, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is caught in a kind of stillness after coming home; he is bruised in so many different ways, being pulled apart in different directions.

As Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland, Elliot and his sister Yaz struggle with the responsibility of maintaining familial and cultural bonds that have been crippled by drugs, poverty, and lack of security within their own communities. Yaz may feel these struggles even more than her brother does. Philadelphia, like many U.S. cities, remains deeply segregated by ethnicity and class. How can a person maintain a sense of self-worth when you’re barely getting by each day?

Colquette: Quiara, are the characters Haikumom, Orangutan, and Chutes & Ladders creating an alternate home in this online world? Does existing in the online world make connection easier for these characters? And does it hinder their abilities to connect with others in “real life?”

Hudes: Some conversations are easier to have when not looking people in the eye. But it goes beyond this. One of the beautiful things about the Internet is that it doesn't limit our notion of community to be geographic. Geographic communities are obviously central to our life, but of course where one is born, or where one can afford to live creates personal limitations.

The Internet is a place where like-minded people can connect, with very few resources, and also with some element of privacy. This allows for a connection that can be very deep. Our news likes to cover press stories about all the damage that online anonymity creates, but the flip side is of course that there are great benefits to connecting, and in the case of this play, such connections can even turn lives around.

Colquette: The use of jazz is intrinsic to the play, an essential undertone to the story. How does the dissonance of jazz music correlate to the dissonance we experience in relationships?

Hudes: Perhaps because of my musical background, perhaps because of something more intrinsic to me, I have always seen things in contrast. Dissonance and resolution is an example of this. Too much harmony, there is no challenge; there is no grit or fire in the belly. Complacency sets in. Too much dissonance, and it's as though we're depriving ourselves of the fundamental joy of music. I don't know that this is necessarily limited to connecting to those that are different than us. It can be as immediate as dealing with the conflicting desires in our own heart, the contradictions of our impulses and intellects, our ambitions and our realities. For complicated relationships one need look no further than their relationship with self.

On the chat room, people find solace by connecting with others who continue to struggle with inner contradiction, with inner difference. They relate to each other for this struggle, it's what binds them. Dissonance and resolution are always at odds, within.

Rivas: Although I am not a scholar of music, I know that dissonance has played an important role in the evolution of jazz. The music of John Coltrane and his experimentation led to a new way of expressing and reflecting the dissonance occurring in American society. Quiara is a composer as well as a playwright, and she knows this principle of dissonance well. Quiara has stated that this play was inspired by Coltrane’s music. The way his music moves is reflected in how these characters engage with one another.

Dissonance extends into our personal relationships. We all hit some rough patches and experience some imperfect harmony in our relationships, as hard as we try to reach stability and order. Perpetual chaos is unsustainable. But relationships, like music, dance, and theatre, must embrace the contradictions of human condition in order to convey the truth. Like a little salt in a sweet dish, we hope the contrast and dissonance in our production will increase the power of the whole.


Water by the Spoonful
Written by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Directed by Tlaloc Rivas
(mature themes—viewer discretion is advised)

8 p.m. Oct. 10-12 and 16-19
2 p.m. Oct. 13 and 20
David Thayer Theatre, UI Theatre Building


  • $5 for UI students (with valid ID)
  • $10 for college students/youth
  • $12 for seniors (65+)
  • $17 for nonstudents

Tickets are available through the Hancher Box Office at 319-335-1160 or 800-426-2437 or by visiting the Hancher website.

Individuals with disabilities are encouraged to attend all UI-sponsored events. If you are a person with a disability who requires an accommodation in order to participate in this program, contact the Hancher Box Office in advance at 319-335-1158.

Water by the Spoonful is presented by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service Inc., New York.