Playwright Karen Zacarías Gives Young People a Voice in "Ella Enchanted"

Beth Fhaner
 | Oct 18, 2017
Karen Zacarias

Playwright Karen Zacarías.

Debora Wicks La Puma

​Deborah Wicks La Puma.

Playwright Karen Zacarías has written 10 musicals for young audiences with her frequent collaborator, composer Deborah Wicks La Puma. Zacarías also has written and adapted several other award-winning plays and collaborated on librettos for ballets. Recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts as the most-produced Latina playwright in the country, Zacarías has also taught playwriting at Georgetown University and is the founder of Young Playwrights’ Theatre, an award-winning theatre company that has taught more than 75,000 children to write plays. Born in Mexico, Zacarías now makes her home in Washington, D.C., with her husband and three kids. We recently caught-up with the prolific playwright to chat about the modern Cinderella story, Ella Enchanted: The Musical.  

How do you write a musical? Can you tell us a bit about your creative process with composer Deborah Wicks La Puma?
Writing a musical is fun....but it all starts with the story. I first write the script and find the beginning, middle and end of the narrative. As I’m writing the play​, I find the heightened moments that could become songs and scribble down lyrics and ideas. Then Debbie and I sit down with those first lyrics and ideas and work together to create a song that will both advance the story and work as a song. Debbie and I talk about what kind of music we think the song will be​—a waltz, or hip-hop or ballad—and go back and forth.

Ella Enchanted’s theme of girl power is timeless and certainly resonates in today’s culture. What important themes did you want to convey to young theatregoers in this modern Cinderella story?
At its core, Ella Enchanted is about a young person realizing that she has a voice...and that she can make choices. Kids have a lot less power than adults, but that does not mean they don’t have values and opinions, and they don’t have the right to have a say.

As the founder of the Young Playwrights’ Theater (YPT) in Washington, D.C., what are you most proud of regarding the arts program and what it has accomplished?
I love that YPT makes every kid realize that their story is theirs and worthy. I love how YPT encourages kids to actively find their voice and listen to the voices of others. I love how writing makes kids figure out what’s really important to them; it makes kids think about the motivations of many characters and realize their own goals and values.

You’re also a core founder of Latinx Theatre Commons.
The idea behind the Latinx Theater Commons is very celebratory—to remind people through great artistic work that the stories of people of Hispanic Heritage are also part of the American Experience, both unique and universal, and deserve to be part of the mainstage.  

What do you enjoy the most about writing musicals for a young audience?
I love writing with one of my very best friends. Debbie and I went to college together and have known each other for a long time. We challenge each other to become better artists...and we learn to compromise and grow. I love writing plays that give kids (including mine) the tools to navigate this crazy, wonderful and sometimes scary world in which we live.

You grew up in a house full of poetry lovers. How does that influence your work as a playwright?
Writing a poem on a napkin was the dessert after dinner! I grew up knowing that words are very powerful, beautiful things. People who can articulate clearly the complexity of how they feel are much more likely to get what they need. 

What can audiences expect when they attend Ella Enchanted?
To have a very fun time with funny fairy godmothers and icky ogres and fabulous songs. To want to read or re-read the book (our musical is closer to the book than the movie); and to never think of the classic Cinderella in the same way again.

What’s next for you?
I’m writing some new plays and writing a new song for Destiny of Desire, which is going to Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I’m creating workshops. And driving my kids places, because like a lot of adults, I have more than one vocation. I’m a playwright, teacher and a parent.

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