From Caracas to London: Staying Connected with ‘Wanted a Pillbox…’

The Out of the Wings festival 2022 opens on 19 July with Daniel Dannery’s Wanted a Pillbox, Ended up with a Plastic Bag, translated and directed by Mary Ann Vargas.  In advance of rehearsals, Mary Ann and Daniel, in London and Caracas respectively, chatted over WhatsApp audio – apt for a play about social media – to discuss the inspiration for the play and the process of its translation for London audiences.

MAV: What made you write Wanted a Pillbox?

DD: Hey, so, the process of writing the play comes with its own little story. An actor friend of mine contacted me in, I think it was 2017, and asked me to write a play for her. She was really keen that it should be about social media. Honestly, social media for me was a topic that…  It interested me but also, personally, I’ve always had quite a fraught relationship with, to put it one way. So, I remember meeting up for a brief chat, and we started a conversation. She commented on her relationship with social media, how it made her feel really anxious, and stressed. It caused a lot of… well, anxiety, in her.

When I start writing a play, I tend to begin by doing a lot of research. So in the days following our conversation, I remember going into a bookshop called Lugar Común, which no longer exists in Venezuela. It went bankrupt during the economic debacle of Chavez’s last years in government… It was one of the many businesses that collapsed. This was 2016, 2017, the peak of a mass migratory exodus of Venezuelans leaving the country. This bookshop was one of many casualties of that time. It was here that I found a small book from Argentina, a thesis essay, published by an Argentine publisher. Back then, the owner must have bought a load of copies over from Argentina for commercial distribution.  But it would be the last book you would expect to find easily in Caracas, and I found it.

The book was an essay on Facebook. I bought it along with Liquid Life by Bauman. These two books became a huge source of inspiration for me; they became my fellow companions in the process of constructing what would be the skeleton of the piece; the skeletal argument of the piece.

So, because we were talking about social media [at the time of writing] I thought, okay, what would happen if we thought of the stage, theatrically speaking, as a social media network? Or as the embodiment of a coming together, a symbiosis of multiple social media networks dwelling in same space. And I guess, on a philosophical level, this is something the internet is suggesting, right? A multitude of attempts at living inhabiting one single space: the – world – wide – web.

Translator-director Mary Ann Vargas and writer Daniel Dannery

So, basically, that’s how the text began to develop, subdividing it according to social media sites:  Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tinder, YouTube… er, Google. I know Google is not a social media platform, but it’s the largest search platform on the internet, right? Definitely the biggest one at the moment. Google is a huge brand at the moment.  Before, it was Yahoo; and maybe that’ll change again in the future.

So, basically, as I began reading these texts.  So, all these disparate texts ended up in the structure I’d created; they became the play. I have also written plays for children, and I’ve researched all kinds of dramaturgies related to musical theatre; lots of musical theatre scores.  And I’ve always loved the idea of ‘play’ when we make theatre, all kinds of play. Having songs within a play – I love that idea, it really appeals to me, it’s such fun! And it ends up by being a very powerful tool for the final staging of a piece.  So there are hints in Wanted a Pillbox, invitations to think of song, in this case, songs dedicated to Facebook or Google.  So basically that’s how I wrote Wanted a Pillbox; at least that’s what I remember.

I wanted to ask you something now. When you reached out after reading the text, and said you were translating it into English. Obviously that moved me a great deal, I was so excited that somebody with your translating experience found interest in something I’d written. You must have seen some something good in it!  This leads me to ask you, what did you see in the play that compelled you to want to translate it. And then finally, did you come across any difficulties when you were translating it?

‘Wanted a Pillbox…’ opens the #OOTW22 festival, 19 July 2022

MAV: Thank you Daniel. First observation. I’m not a big-shot translator, I’m a woman of the theatre, so when something ‘sticks to me’, the first thing I think is, okay, so now how do I communicated this piece to the theatre-going audiences of where I’m living at the moment? I think I caught it [like a flu]! And I was immediately was compelled to share it here. It’s as simple as that really; it was visceral response.

Do you remember I began translating only 10 lines? I mean, that’s another story; somebody was interested in the piece and so on… The funny thing is, I must confess, beyond Facebook, beyond social media, my first response to the text was an energetic response. Reading it gave me energy, beyond its content, and that’s not something that happens to me very often.  For better and for worse, you know, I’m mindful of what plays are about, where they’re going, the worlds they belong to. None of this happened to me with Wanted a Pillbox. This text was like an energetic shock that hit me at the right moment perhaps; or maybe it was something I was really needing [at the time], but it was definitely an energetic response above all…  I’m not sure how else to explain it really. The text gave me energy.

And of course, we talk about the world of social media with all its black holes and dark places. But it also brings positive things, right? It also permits us to connect with others, cross borders… It allows us to go home, in that sense it was lovely meeting you too. And in the context of the pandemic. That’s a simple point, but the text for me became… Remember, when we commented on how when I began to work on the first ten pages, when I started translating to English, the play expanded linguistically, performatively, experientially, to a global phenomenon? As I’ve said, I imagined it in every language. And when you take that to the stage, And when you take that to the stage, all those performative languages expand what is being spoken.

And something beautiful you said too was, ‘What happens to Pastillero when you put it on the stage, a meeting of people physically, ultimately, I know you can perform online but ultimately, what pulls us to the stage is the meeting with other people, blood and bones, present in a moment and then it’s gone.’ And that’s exactly what I tried to explore when we put it in front of a public here [in London]. I know the play is really about disconnection, but the desire that one can’t find, but what happens when you translate that and put it on the stage, it’s probably the opposite:  a connection, a meeting, a way of being which reflects what we live through.

Caracas and London, July 2022

Transcribed and translated by Clea Martin Vargas

See Wanted a Pillbox, Ended up with a Plastic Bag on the opening night of the Out of the Wings festival 2022, at Omnibus Theatre, July 19.