10 Questions with Playwright Thelma Virata de Castro

International Support Women Artists Now/SWAN Day is fast approaching and the SWAN Day Calendar is filling up with some incredible events. One of these events is The Fire In Me by San Diego-based playwright Thelma Virata de Castro. This week, Statera’s Director of Operations Sarah Greenman, also a playwright, caught up with Thelma to learn more about her writing process, deadlines, puzzles, and the creation of The Fire In Me.


Sarah Greenman: I always like to hear how playwrights become playwrights. How did you become a writer?

Thelma Virata de Castro: I’ve always been involved with stories and make-believe, which led me to theatre. I took drama in junior high and acted in Shakespearean plays in high school. I didn’t major in theatre in college because I thought English Literature was more practical. (Ha, ha, ha!) But in my last quarter I took a playwriting class and the form just clicked for me. I love dialogue and hearing the voices in my head. It’s such fun to have actors perform your work.

 SG: When you have an idea for a play, how do you proceed? Do you research, take notes, plunge right in? 

 TVD: I do a lot of percolating before I write. I brainstorm ideas and write a scene outline in a notebook or journal. I love when a play requires research because it’s a great way to delay writing. Writing the play in script form on the computer is the biggest leap for me and involves the most procrastinating. For my interview based projects, I interview someone and look for the kernel that will translate into a play.

 SG: Tell us about your writing routine? How do you schedule yourself? Or are you like me - a loose stop-and-go writer? 

TVD: The image that comes to mind is my cat being dragged into the carrier to go to the vet. The idea stage is great! I’m napping in the sun, stretching. I’m at one with the universe. Then when it’s time to face the deadline I have to throw myself in the carrier backward with my nails scratching against the plastic. I don’t yowl but it’s a struggle. I’ve submitted a play at 11:59 PM when the deadline was 12:00 AM. I set my own deadlines for my current project on the team calendar and I’ve consistently missed them. I’m missing two deadlines as we speak. Meow.

 SG: When you are working, are there other art forms you go to for inspiration? For instance, I love to listen to music while I write. 

 TVD: I don’t do anything else while I’m writing, but I’ve discovered a couple of unrelated things that help. I completed a 750 piece puzzle recently and it felt so satisfying! I think somehow it supported my creativity. And nature. It’s like a pill. One dose of nature and I see clearly again.

Thelma Virata de Castro (Photo by Jamie Clifford)

Thelma Virata de Castro (Photo by Jamie Clifford)

SD: What aspect of playwrighting is most difficult for you? 

TVD: I feel like I’m in confession. The actual writing is the hardest part. Once it’s done, yeah! But then you have to do rewrites or start on the next project. I must love it, though, because I’ve been doing it for a long time.

 SG: Mentorship is at the core of StateraArts' mission. Can you tell us about your mentors and how they shaped you? 

TVD: This question blows my mind. Of course mentorship is a solution to gender parity in the arts! As a woman, as an artist of color, as the child of immigrants, and as a mother, I’ve accepted struggle as inevitable. I’ve rejected possibilities and accepted limitations for myself. I have not had a formal mentor, but early in my career there was an organization that said yes to me: Hedgebrook. Hedgebrook is a literary nonprofit that offers women and trans writers space and time to write. Hedgebrook told me that my voice mattered. I founded San Diego Playwrights, an all-volunteer playwright network, in that same spirit of generosity and support.

 SG: Your most recent play, The Fire In Me is featured on the SWAN Day Calendar and will have workshop productions this March in San Diego, CA. It explores domestic violence in the Filipino community. How did this work come about? What was the inspiration?

TVD: I worked on an earlier project with Asian Story Theater that was based on interviews with the Filipino community. A man I know asked me to interview him and I was surprised that he shared a story about domestic abuse in his family. I wrote a short script based on his experience, and asked Anne Bautista, a lawyer for Access Inc., to participate in a talkback. She helps immigrant survivors of domestic violence gain their citizenship. A few months later I enrolled in Anne’s FIRE advocacy program, in which women learn about domestic violence, grant writing, and public speaking. We were asked to come up with projects to bring back to our communities, and I partnered with Access Inc. and Asian Story Theater to produce The Fire in Me. The project won grants from California Humanities and The San Diego Foundation.

 SG: Can you tell us about the title, "The Fire In Me"? 

TVD: There are many meanings to the title. I interviewed diverse community members who are connected to the issue of domestic violence, including survivors. One young woman didn’t tell anyone about her high school boyfriend’s abuse. When she broke up with him, her mother thought it was good because he didn’t match the “fire” in her. The young woman thought that was ironic, since her mother had never seen the boyfriend’s anger. Fire also refers to Access Inc.’s FIRE advocacy program. The protagonist also watches a fictional Filipino soap opera in the play that’s entitled “The Fire in Me”. The soap opera layer was a way to add humor, exaggerate traditional gender roles, and provide some distance to the audience as they engage in the exploration of this serious subject. Plus there’s a cameo of the goddess of fire.

 SG: There will be talkbacks after each reading. As a playwright, why are talkbacks important to you? And why are they important for your audience? 

TVD: Theatre is about connection! And this piece is written with the community and for the community. We had a preview reading for the interviewees in order for them to share feedback. People have taken risks to share intimate and painful experiences of their lives with me. I want to honor their stories and respect their truth. The talkbacks after the March performances are important for the audience because domestic violence is an issue that affects all of us.

 SG: What was the best piece of advice you ever got about being an artist or writer?

TVD: One of Natalie Goldberg’s writing rules is “You are free to write the worst junk in America.” I love that. It takes the pressure off.


Thelma Virata de Castro is a San Diego based playwright. Her plays have been produced by San Diego Asian American Repertory Theatre, Asian Story Theater, San Diego International Fringe Festival and others. She is a Hedgebrook alumna and was a participating writer at A Room of Her Own Foundation (AROHO) retreat. Her work is collected in the Asian American Women Playwrights Archive at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She works as Community Projects Coordinator for Playwrights Project, and is the founder of San Diego Playwrights.


The Fire In Me by Thelma Virata De Castro

March 2 @ 2pm at Skyline Hills Library in San Diego

March 10 @ 2pm at Central Library in San Diego

March 16 @ 2pm at Scripps Miramar Ranch Library in San Diego

The Fire In Me is featured on the SWAN Day Calendar. Learn more at www.thefireinme2019.com or on Facebook.


As part of our ongoing efforts to create gender balance in the arts, StateraArts puts the spotlight on women artists every March and April through Support Women Artists Now/SWAN Day. SWAN Day, now in its 12th year, is an annual international celebration of women’s creativity and gender parity activism. Learn how you can get involved at www.stateraarts.org/swan-day.