Edwin Sanchez DRA ’94 is a playwright, novelist, teacher, and mentor. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in the Bronx, he studied acting and writing in New York before being admitted to the Yale School of Drama. His plays have been produced across the country and in Russia, Switzerland, and Brazil. He has also written television scripts, and a novel awaiting publication. On top of that, he also teaches at the Einhorn School of Performing Arts at Primary Stages in New York City. His play Icarus goes up this week at the University Theater as the Dramat’s Spring Mainstage.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your time at Yale School of Drama?
A: YSD was interesting because I had never [gone to college], so getting in was kind of a surprise to me. And when I got the letter of acceptance I skidded because I was intimidated by the idea of going there. I was sure I would not know anything. My interview was pretty bizarre. They asked me what my favorite Shakespeare play was, and I said the one I read was good. There was sort of a pause, and I thought, “Okay.” But it was because of my writing that I got in. I was very fortunate because of the students that I was with. I bet I learned as much from the classmates as from my teachers there. And I had plays there that continue to have a life. So my time there was very fruitful for me.
Q: What made you want to apply, especially without an undergraduate background?
A: I wasn’t going to apply at all. I was in the Circle Reps Playwriting lab back in the day and the person who ran it was Byron Stitch, who was the playwriting chair at Yale at the time. The thing at the Circle Rep was that they had a reading every Monday, and I would always arrive late because of work, so my comment would invariably be, “The ending really works.” And at the big Christmas party, I thought for sure he was going to tell me if I couldn’t get there on time I shouldn’t do it because it’s not fair to other people. But instead he said, “Have you ever thought of applying to Yale?”
And I looked at him and said [sarcastically], “Yeah, every day.”
And he said, “No, no, you should.”
So I did. And when I got in it was really intimidating in the beginning. But I really came to love my time there.
Q: And where would you say these aspirations to be in theater, to become a writer, come from?
A: I had gone to New York when I was 21, when I first arrived, as an actor. I found that all the roles were for drug dealers, pimps or gang members. And I thought that was kind of limited. So I decided I wanted to write the characters I hadn’t seen. That’s when I started getting into writing. And I really fell in love with it. I had written a bit in Puerto Rico, but that was when it really took hold for me. And then I won a few awards, so that really set me on the path.
Q: You have a very diverse body of work, as you mentioned earlier, between short plays, plays, TV scripts, now a novel. Would say there is any overlap in these different areas? What are some of the differences? And how do you handle the bits of adversity that naturally arise with each style?
A: Well, the first time you do something different, whether you transition from playwriting, to TV, to film, your reaction is to panic. And then you relax. I remember I went to the Circle Reps film lab, and I would think, “I can’t do this or I can’t do that.” But every night they would play movies there, and they had the scripts to all the movies. And after a while I could actually see the pages of the scripts on the screen. And I could see how it happened. I got it. It’s about approaching it with the rules it has. You find where you can play with the rules, where you can bend them.
Q: Where would you say the inspiration for these stories comes from?
A: I got together with a group of dramatists and we were discussing this. What we came up with is that you have a final captive in your head. And little bits and pieces go in there. And then the trigger happens. And you think, okay, now I’m ready to write the play. When I prepared for “Boy With Shoes On,” the trigger was when I read an article in the New York Times about a teenage boy who lived in a single room with his whole family — like five people living in one room. And they asked him where he would want to go to be alone, and that blows my mind. Every play has a trigger. Every play is different.
Q: As a teacher, do you teach these kinds of ideas? And what difficulties do you confront?
A: The most important thing for me when I teach writing is that a) I want the room to be a safe place that you can try something that may not work and that’s okay. And b) it’s my opinion. You have to come in with something you’re passionate about, you want to tell this idea. One thing I also tell my students is you never bring in more than ten pages. I always tell them, in case you get off on the wrong track, you start going down the wrong road, you can always turn back. You haven’t committed this entire journey to one direction and after it all you find that’s not where you wanted to go. And sometimes all you need to do is five minutes, and then you step away. One thing I try to do is to take away the idea that you have to set aside an entire day to write. No! Sometimes you’re waiting in line and a couple of good lines hit you, and you think, “Oh! I want to remember those.”
Q: And what do you find most rewarding in your teaching?
A: I love it when students bring something in that takes you someplace else. That just bowls me over and I get so excited. And they’re all different voices. Every class has different people writing. And all at different levels of their writing. And different stories they want to tell. The fun part is when they get to tell it as honestly as they can. And then it becomes a joy.
Q: And do you see enthusiasm from the students?
A: Oh yeah, tremendous. I remember once a student came in and she had written scene after scene and knocked it out of the park, and we kept waiting for the next scene. And when she came in with another scene, she felt it didn’t work. And she looked to the group she said, “Oh well, they all can’t work.” And I treasure that. That she was that comfortable.
Q: Switching gears, can you tell us a bit about “Icarus”? What are some of the main issues the play deals with?
A: “Icarus” is really my take on “Beauty and the Beast”: when you feel unworthy of love, and two of the characters feel unworthy of love for different reasons. And it’s getting to that point when you allow that vulnerability. And that gives you a certain strength. So it’s really these two people who have nothing to do with each other who end up falling in love with each other, and it’s because they’re so different from each other.
Q: What are some of the challenges you had in writing it?
A: Well, it is a gorgeous production, and that’s why I was so struck when I saw it. Especially by how short some of the scenes are, like two lines. And I look at it and say that I applaud the audacity I had at writing them and also how well they did them. One of the great things I discovered as a writer was that, as a writer, I don’t have to worry about how it’s going to get done. I have a design team and a director and actors who are going to bring it to life. My job is to be as honest as I can on stage. I’m thrilled by the other eyes and the other hands that come into the production. My job is just to write the best play I can, then have everybody come in and add their art to it.
Q: And what would you say allows you to have your project and say, “Here’s my art, now you add what you need to it?” That’s a willingness you don’t see too often.
A: You have to feel like your work is being respected. If you let someone come in and take it apart … then you think they don’t respect the work. If you trust the people then it becomes a joyous experience. At rehearsal you want to be very respectful, and you want to be able to find things. But I want to respect when an actor is stuck in a scene and to see how they will do it. You don’t want to give them a mind reading, that’s insane. Respect their journey. What makes it weird is that as a playwright, you’ve already gone through the journey, and you want to see them go through their journey. They have a map, I don’t want to take their hand and walk them to it, you want them to get there on their own.
Q: And would you say you saw that level of respect and level of ownership from the people at Yale who have been putting on your show this week?
A: Oh god yes. I’ve been very pleased. I thought it was just so beautifully done. No hesitations whatsoever.