Llewellyn “Llewie” Nuñez has made stentorian theater appearances in each semester of her time at Oberlin College — and she’s not even a Theater major. Nuñez returns to Hall Auditorium as the title character in Associate Professor of Theater Paul Moser’s production of Lucia Mad, by Don Nigro, which follows the batty daughter of James Joyce as she falls for his protégé Samuel Beckett. She spoke about the dubious distinction between student and professional theater, working with Oberlin’s faculty and her approach to character development for a historical play.
Tell me about the first day of working on Lucia Mad. What did you see as the challenge?
When [Moser] was talking to me specifically at the very beginning of the process, a lot of our conversations centered around making this character relatable to the audience because she’s kind of a larger-than-life type of person. She was like that in real life; I mean, this is a real person. I’ve read a lot of biographical stuff on her and seen a lot of pictures and she was a card. Do people still say that, “a card?” [Laughs] In the play, [her peculiarities] are even more exaggerated for theater. So how do we make sure that audiences connect with her and root for her? That sort of emotional empathy is important for the audience’s investment.
I’ve heard you use the distinction “student” theater before. What’s the separation you see between that and professional theater?
I think for me it comes down to a lifestyle and a focus issue. Let me say that it’s awesome that we get to perform here, while also getting the academic benefits of going to a great college. I don’t think “student” theater is a bad thing and I don’t mean ever to be derogatory about it. But for me it’s the difference between waking up and prioritizing your theater responsibilities, versus waking up at 6 a.m. to finish a paper that’s due at 11, going to three classes, skipping dinner for a meeting, going to rehearsal and going home at midnight to start all your work for the next day. I think that students who do theater while also trying to juggle all that other stuff have a hard task in front of them when it comes to being able to focus on character development and the kind of immersive work that it takes to do justice to a role.
Actually, Oberlin is an example where people give a Herculean amount of time and energy to theater despite having all these other commitments. But I do think that in professional theater, that’s your job. Your work is theater and that’s where your focus is. I think the split focus required for student theater can be difficult. This is why Lucia Mad has been interesting, because I don’t have any split focus. Because it’s a Winter Term show, we rehearse for eight hours a day. It’s what it would be in the professional world, that level of immersion.
What makes Lucia relevant right now?
Lucia wants to love someone. She wants to be loved by someone. She wants attention and recognition from her parents. She wants to be her own person and not just the daughter of someone famous. These are all very basic desires. Her desires aren’t fantastic; she just reacts to them in incredibly interesting ways.
I first thought this play would be a kind of theatrical biopic, but when I read the script — and now that I’m a good ways into the process — I know that you don’t necessarily need to know about James Joyce or Samuel Beckett to enjoy this play. It’s about how love can suck you up and spit you out. It’s about memory and trauma and how things stick with you for a long time. These are bigger, more complicated issues than the historical narrative of someone’s life.
It also really tackles mental illness in a way that other stories shy away from. Our culture seems to fear that it would be messy and difficult to address mental differences, but I believe that we need to be more open about them.
I’ve read reviews that say, “I personally wished I knew more about Samuel Beckett and James Joyce.”
We did a lot of historical research about these people. It has informed a lot of our choices. Paul has been very knowledgeable about what was going on in Paris in the 1930s. The costumes are inspired by real pictures of these people.
Get yourself on Wikipedia and read a little blurb. That can’t hurt. It would help to know about who these people were. But I still think that the deeper understanding of this play functions regardless of the fact that it’s about these specific historical figures.
As the actress playing Lucia, what are some things not present in the play that you know about the character?
Before I got to campus for rehearsals, I read this massive biography of her that just came out recently. I looked at all these pictures of her. I did research on the different art movements and social movements in Paris in the 1930s. That was my first step. She’s a real person, so for my character development I used her real life.
I also did a lot of research on her diagnosis. At the time she was diagnosed as schizophrenic but I discovered through research that her modern day diagnosis would be rapid cycling schizoaffective bipolar disorder.
Also, because she was the daughter of this famous artist, she sort of became this living piece of art. She had to constantly compete with his writing for love and attention. When she knew that her father and his friends were watching her, she enjoyed both giving them what they wanted to see and also subverting their ideas. To play a character who’s occasionally playing herself — it’s very interesting.
Also she was a dancer, and considering that has been very helpful. It’s been really helpful to be very physically connected when I’m acting and doing character development. How does she move? How does she use her body language almost as much — if not more — than her words? I’ve been doing a lot of dancing outside of the show.
Lastly, every actor needs to personalize the events of the play through their own lived experience to access what the character is feeling. One really basic example is how Lucia is madly, madly in love with Samuel Beckett. I have felt desperation, and I have been in love and wanted to be loved. I can use that to understand and inhabit her.
Okay, let me stop now, before I give anything away!