Interview with Callie Prendiville, playwright of The Mortician's Wife.
Q: Your great-grandmother, Ysabel Yriarte, was part of a ranching family in Brea long ago. Did she inspire the Ysabel character in your play? Did other ancestors of yours inspire any of the other characters?
A: Ysabel's family emigrated from a small town in the Basque region of Spain to North Orange County, where there was a sizable Basque population. The events of the play take place in North Orange County and involve Basque ranches, including the larger Bastanchury Ranch for which the road, park, etc, in Fullerton are named. In that same era on another side of my family, my great grandparents were Joe and Marjorie Perry, and Joe was a mortician (the family business) in Houston. During the Great Depression my grandmother, Marjorie, her twin sister Mary Ellen (M.E., pronounced “Emmy” for short) and their brothers and parents had to leave their home and move in above the mortuary when Joe lost the house in a poker game. When viewings and funerals were happening downstairs, my great grandparents would give the kids ice cream to keep them quiet. The kids desperately wanted a dog, but they could only have cats because the sound of a dog’s nails on the floor would disrupt the services below. Q: What motivated you to write The Mortician's Wife?
A: I was in my twenties when I first heard my grandmother very casually mention that event of her childhood, saying it was the only time she ever remembered her mother being truly upset. I had no idea that had happened. I wrote a short play of a husband telling his wife he lost their house in a poker game, and that's now the first scene of the play. When doing research for another play I was writing in 2015, I discovered the history of repatriations of Mexican Americans and Mexicans during this time period. I have lived in California my whole life, and had never learned about this in school. As I researched more, I learned that the very land my apartment in Fullerton sat on was the site of one of the worker camps forced to evacuate from the Bastanchury Ranch. I decided to move the mortuary from Houston to Orange County and let these events collide. I wrote the full length script during my son's naps during the COVID lockdown. Q: Who are your playwriting influences, and how did you become a playwright?
A: Lauren Gunderson, Sarah Ruhl, and Lynn Nottage are three of my favorite playwrights. In grad school I was fortunate enough to take a playwriting class with José Cruz González, who encouraged me to write and who has continued to be a mentor to me. I started writing plays for high school students to perform, including The Plummer Project, a play about local history in Fullerton that first introduced me to the repatriation history of our area. One of the plays I initially wrote for students I ended up developing and performing for Fringe Festivals and eventually that show, Blamed: An Established Fiction, was selected to play Off-Broadway at the Soho Playhouse. I've written shows for my company, The Electric Company Theatre, including The Leo Fender Project which told the life story of the Fullerton inventor for over a thousand elementary school students last spring. All of these shows have been created in collaboration with my husband and Co-Artistic Director Brian Johnson, and our friend and composer Wesley Chavez. Q: What would you like audiences to take away from your play?
A: None of the characters in this show are inherently good or bad, they are people doing the best they can with the hand they've been dealt, so to speak. I hope the audience feels some empathy for them, and some curiosity about themselves: What would you do in that situation? I don't think any of us can know, or judge others in the moment of grief or shock.
Callie Prendiville's original, new play THE MORTICIAN'S WIFE opens on August 10, 2023 at the OC-Centric New Play Festival.