Playwright Sofia Alvarez: From Page to Stage
Playwright Sofia Alvarez
I wrote my first play in fourth grade and have wanted to be a playwright ever since. In high school, I wrote and directed a play inspired by the poetry of Sylvia Plath and went on to study literature and theatre at Bennington College. My first professional play, Between Us Chickens, was produced here at South Coast Rep in 2011 while I was a playwriting fellow at Juilliard. Since then, I have made my living writing plays, TV shows and movies. I also teach screenwriting at NYU. I recently wrote the screenplay adaptation of Jenny Han’s best selling young adult novel, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before; it will premiere on Netflix this summer. Amos & Boris is an adaptation of one of my favorite children’s books. Theatre and books are my two great loves and I am thrilled to have established a career that combines them both.
Sofia Alvarez is a playwright and screenwriter, whose work has been produced and read at prominent theatre companies around the country. Her play, Between Us Chickens, premiered at South Coast Repertory in 2011. Here, she answers a few questions for us about adapting the children’s classic Amos & Boris into a musical for young audiences.
Did you read Amos & Boris as a child? What inspired you to adapt this story into a play?
Sadly, I never read Amos & Boris as a child. I discovered the book while I was working as a nanny in graduate school. Of all the books I read to my charge, Amos & Boris was one that, no matter how many times we went through it, I never got sick of it (nor did he!). I thought it was so beautiful, emotional and moving that it would make a great musical. I inquired about the rights, and six years later, here we are!
What were your favorite books growing up? Are there other children’s books you would like to adapt into a play?
My favorite children’s book was this very dark Wilhelm Grimm story called Dear Mili. It was illustrated by Maurice Sendak and I just loved it. Like Amos & Boris, it is also about death and mortality, although I don’t think I realized how much so when I was a child.
I’d never written theatre for a young audience before Amos & Boris, and I really enjoyed it. Dan [Roland Tierney] and I are already talking about other possible adaptations we could tackle. I love From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler and think that could make an interesting stage piece. There is another book I remember loving in elementary school called Hannah is a Palindrome about a girl whose family buys a hotel. I searched for this book online for months before discovering the title had been changed to Welcome to Grand View, Hannah. I recently bought that for a reread, so who knows. But I think more theatre for young audiences shows are definitely in my future.
What was your path to becoming a playwright?
I have been writing for as long as I can remember. Both of my parents are writers, so I always knew that was a career option, and I loved performing in the Christmas musicals my Catholic parochial school put on every year, so I guess that’s how I got the idea I could be a playwright. The first play I ever wrote was a spoof on Snow White called Pretty Princess and the Seven Cockatoos. I was in fourth grade and the idea was for me and my friends to rehearse the play at recess and then perform it for our class. I wrote and directed a play about Sylvia Plath called Blue Hours for my senior project in high school and then went to Bennington College, where I studied literature and theatre. After college, I worked in the Blue Man Group costume shop and as an assistant in the theatre department at CAA, a big talent agency. That job was great because I got to see dozens of plays I never would have been able to afford on my own. The whole time, I kept writing and directing on my own time and applied to everything I could that had an open submission policy. This paid off as I eventually left to attend the Royal Court Young Writer’s Program in London and then Juilliard.
What is the difference between writing a play for children and a play aimed at adults?
When I am writing for adults, I really just try to keep myself interested and the same was true for this project. It was important to me not to try and write down to a younger audience. Based on why I like the original Amos & Boris and also Dear Mili and the other books I was drawn to as a child, kids are interested in some pretty intense subjects. I figured I would write the script how I wanted to write it, and if there was a problem, someone would tell me. Ideally, we have made a play that both kids and adults will respond to, which was always the goal.
The real difference between this show and my other projects is simply that this is a musical and thus a collaboration with my composer, Daniel Roland Tierney. Writing with a collaborator was very different than how I usually tackle a play. But I think Dan and I were lucky in that neither of us had written a musical before, so we got to create our own way of doing it. I remember at the start of this whole process I asked Dan how he used to write songs with his band. He told me that he would write various pieces of music and then send them to their singer and lyricist who would sing over the ones he responded to, creating the lyrics as he went. I had no prior experience as a lyricist to compare, so I suggested we just work that way as well and that's actually how Dan and I wrote the first drafts of many of the songs that ended up in the show: him writing a piece of music, emailing it to me, me singing over it and sending it back.
Learn more about Amos & Boris and buy tickets.