Daria Miyeko Marinelli: Finding the Edge Between Playwriting and Figure Skating

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Daria Miyeko Marinelli’s plays include “The One You Feed,” “We are Samurai,” “I’d Rather Not Say,” “Done,” and “Untameable.” Her work has been staged and developed at The Flea, Jimmy’s No 43, St. Paul’s Hall, 133rd Street Art Center, Access Theatre, Alchemical Theatre Laboratory, WOW Café Theatre, Standard Toy Kraft, Venus Theatre, Espacio Arévalo (Buenos Aires), The Arts Center (Carborro, NC), Production Workshop (PVD), Rites and Reason Theatre (PVD), and the McCormack Family Theatre (PVD).

She founded Marrow’s Edge, a theater collective dedicated to the creation of boundary-pushing new work, and now serves as the Artistic Director of The Unsoft War, a theatre company dedicated to making affordable, accessible, innovative work.

In the midst of her busy schedule juggling figure skating and theater making, Daria offered generous time for us to sit down and dive into her path as a playwright, and her vision for sustainable well-being as a multi-faceted human being.

Did you grow up wanting to be a writer?

I’ve always been writing. I started skating around three or four and remember Tara Lipinski winning a ton of competitions. I told my mom, “I want to go to the Olympics so I can write an autobiography.” She was like, “You can probably write an autobiography without going to the Olympics.” I didn’t realize writing was a “career path,” and I say that in quotations because I still don’t think playwrights can make a living writing plays.

Right, most artists I know are poly-hyphenates.

Totally. I went to college thinking I would double major in history and theater. I didn’t like the history department as much and realized literary arts was a major. I thought if it was a major then it was definitely a career path, and I became a theater/literary arts major. By senior year, I got the self-confidence to produce some of my work. It was the theater classes and workshops that made me realize this was the intersection where I really excelled.

It sounds like making a living was an early concern for you.

Not at 13, but definitely in college. I’m going through all my childhood stuff right now because my mom is moving. I looked through my art from AP Studio Art and wondered, “Why didn’t I do this? I was a pretty good visual artist.” I had the thought as a high school student that I didn’t want to be a visual artist because I didn’t know how they made a living, which is funny because it’s not like I know how playwrights make a living now. I think we can only handle so much discomfort of risk-reward, and for me the pleasure of writing plays is worth the risk of not necessarily knowing how to make it work.

And you were figure skating at the same time?

Yes, and around junior or senior year of high school, my dad said, “You can be an artist. You can major in theater, but you need to figure out how to pay the bills.” He said I could teach figure skating so I went to and graduated from college with that in mind. I started teaching at the rinks I grew up skating at, found the ones that had a large volume of clients, and narrowed it down.

When did you stop competing?

13 or 14? My parents said they asked if I wanted to do skating or art and that I said art, which I have no recollection of, but sounds about right, all things considered. I competed and at some point stopped doing as well as I wanted, so I stopped wanting to compete. If you’re training to be competitive, you’re skating five or six days a week, two to four hours a day. You have lessons every time you’re on the ice, ideally. Maybe my parents would have sold the farm for it, but I don’t think it was the thing I was to be doing. I also don’t think I had that inherent talent that some kids had. I was good enough because I showed up to the rink.

I switched to being a test track skater. There are merit tests you can take. I finished the Moves in the Field track and got my gold medal, as they say. I’m one ice dance away from getting my gold medal in Ice Dance, which is something I’m training for right now.

Was it difficult to give up the competitive track for art?

I was always doing both, but because I didn’t increase my hours at the rink, I didn’t stay competitive. I’d come home in the summers during college, train, and pass an ice dance or two. I stayed pretty active in my skating life for a long time.Which to say, it wasn’t difficult doing both. The difficult thing would have to been continuing to amp up and stay competitive while pursuing another passion.

What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about writing?

I was just thinking about this and I don’t really know, which is a crazy answer. I like getting things done. When you write and think it’s really good; that’s pleasurable. When you send your work to someone you really love and admire, and they tell you it’s good; that’s also nice. It’s also nice to get rejections sometimes and not be devastated, because it means I’m not looking for external validation as much as I think I am. I feel I’m really good at connecting people, community building, and putting words together. I actually like producing the work because it’s a very tangible way to make theater.

That said, I don’t really like opening night. I don’t like watching my plays happen. I like the process up to when you finish giving the pep talk opening night, and if I could peace out until we close, that’d be great. Sometimes writing is agony, but I also think writing becomes a practice or a faith. I really believe in change and moving the world forward, and I’ve decided the way I’m best equipped to do that is by making theater. It’s not like people go to church all the time because they always like it, but you go because you believe in what it can do. So that’s why I write. The worst part is that moment before someone is about to open their mouth about your work, and you’re not sure if they got it. It’s that fear of someone you respect seeing your work, and they will have opinions about it that are not necessarily, “That was awesome.”

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What worries you the most about living the life of an artist?

[Pause] The thing artists stress about is money. I feel very grateful that I can teach skating and write. It allows me a certain flexibility and pays well, so finances have been okay. Some of it is luck as well in having skating. The thing that I have the most concerns about is missing the boat. You can keep doing the same thing but at some point doing that thing means you’ve actually missed the boat. I don’t know if you can know that until it’s a little too late. It’d be nice to have a “normal trajectory,” but even by saying this I know that’s not going to happen. What’s normal?

You want to know what path you’re leading.

Yes, and I don’t always know that I am, so that’s the worry. Frankly, my finances are set up to the point of having a kid. If I want a kid, I don’t know how that’s going to happen. For me, my work concern is about, will I make the big shifts by the time I’m 80? Or when is it too late, I’m too old, and no one’s going to listen to this crazy girl anyway?

You’re half Japanese, half Italian. Does it influence your work?

You learn certain attitudes and proclivities that are not the norm in a biracial household. I identify strongly as an artist of color. My politics and aesthetics align with the artist of color community, but more often than not, I think I spend my normal day being white and a woman. There are people who experience their race more heavily than I do, but I’ve spent a lot of time feeling like I was on the fringes in a class-based way. Racially, I can pass and have certain privileges, so my entry point is class.

It took me a long time to realize living an intersectional life can be very alien to some people.

Totally, the more layers you can see in a moment, the deeper your understanding can become.

What’s your challenge with self-care?

I think the challenge is self-care. [Laughs] Two months ago, I got rejected from Brown and Yale for grad school, I got waitlisted at another school, and my grandfather died all in the span of a week.

I’m so sorry to hear that.

It’s alright. He was 91 and had a really good ride. It’s not unique or unexpected. It’s just tragic. My friend asked me what I was doing for self-care and I was like, “What’s that?” When I think about self-care, it’s the moments where I have to take care of myself, because otherwise, the wheels are going to fall off. As I get older, I try not to let it get there as badly. I’m really into systems and I like to run a really organized life. Sometimes I verge on being inflexible and that’s not good.

But routine and structure is really helpful with anxiety.

Right, so the trick for me is to do continual self-care. Last fall, I produced “Untameable” and really opened the veins for that show. There were weeks when I was only sleeping four or five hours a day. The show ran through November, then I had Thanksgiving,two weeks to get applications together, and 10 days to get Christmas gifts. Then it was the holidays.

And you were like, what just happened?

Exactly! It was suddenly January and I was miserable and exhausted. I never want my life to be that insane again. You feel like you’re not in control of your life, so it’s really been about making structure and setting goals. I set two new patterns in April. One was doing a 12-hour fast. I’ll try not to eat from 11 to 11.

What’s the reason behind that?

Intermittent fasting is generally good for you. I wanted to find a healthy and sustainable way to lose weight, which included getting better about eating and nutrition.

That’s not entirely surprising since a huge part of self-care for athletes is taking care of your body.

Yes, but I’ve never been totally satisfied with my body. I just never learned how to eat and wasn’t in such an elite training mode that someone broke down proteins and fats and carbs in an understandable way. I was always exercising so I felt calories didn’t matter, but as we all know now, they do.

Do you feel different?

I do. Over the course of last year, I learned how to count calories and estimate food and this year, it’s been a process of learning how much of proteins and carbs I should eat. You don’t realize it as you go, but you learn small things and that slowly feeds into future success, with many moments of learning as well. Which is to say, many moments of not succeeding as one learns. So, granola is not a good nutritional choice for me because it has a lot of carbs and sugar. Dried fruit is not the healthy Godsend I thought it was. Those were things I thought were “healthy” and was eating way too much of in the name of health.

Part of this also comes from growing up concerned about money. I always finished my plate but because of that, I was actually eating too much. Though, bless my parents for always giving me good amounts of food. My 20’s have been relearning what is actually an appropriate amount of food for myself. I’m getting closer to figuring out how to manage my body and weight in a healthy way.

In terms of goal-setting, there are a few things I need to do every day. I need to run my finances, write in my journal, write a page of dialogue, and meditate five minutes every morning. My goal is to write an hour a day so I’ve started using a timer. I’ll stop the timer if I need to look up, for example, how the water cycle works for a play. I’ll go on the Internet and then come back. The first two weeks, it was taking between 1.5 to 2.5 hours to actually get one hour of writing done. Now it’s better. Then the day starts.

My self-care is figuring out systems I can set up so they’re automatic. There’s a Chrome extension and app called Pocket that saves and downloads articles to iCloud, which then you can read offline. Instead of getting lost on the Internet, you can save it and read it on the subway. It’s great, except now I have 14,000 articles in Pocket. [Laughs]

How did you get into meditation?

My dad went to Catholic school, got his knuckles hit by nuns, and wasn’t keen to have that experience replicated for me. My mom is Presbyterian but didn’t practice much. I actually think a lot of my upbringing was very Buddhist. My parents met because he took classes at a studio where my mom worked, and meditation was a part of that community. They never pushed meditation on me, but they always felt it was helpful. Right now meditation is very en vogue and people are realizing it actually changes your brain. I think meditation is harder to fuck up because you are just sitting with yourself.

I find it hard because my mind is always 100 miles an hour.

Right. You have to be comfortable with failure. I set a timer for five minutes every day. Sometimes my brain is worrying for five minutes and sometimes it’s super Zen. It’s about developing the practice over the expectation. If you do it enough then it will get better.

What does it do for you?

It chills me out. If I do these seven arbitrary things every day and one of them is meditation, I feel well-equipped to start the day. If people say meditation is good for you, I feel I’m setting myself up towards success. Also, I feel good about my life when I have the luxury of time. The dream is to have an hour at the end of the day to read. The reality is that I don’t prioritize it, but we get to decide what to prioritize, which apparently is not taking that hour to read right now. What meditation reminds me is to make the time.

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When you went through that intensive period with “Untameable,” did it change your association or feelings about making theater?

It changed my acknowledgement of theater. The theme of doing “Untameable” was trying to do too much, too big, too fast. In the future I will hire more people, maybe build a bigger budget, but I never want to suffer that much for a show again. It’s not worth it, and when you suffer, the work also suffers.

What are your thoughts about the business models surrounding theater?

[Pause] I’m going to rant for a second.

Please.

I write immersive plays which question the theater-going experience, but I also want to change the face of Usonian theatre. Who comes to shows? Who do we see on stage as far as body type, look, orientation, race, and class? My theater company wants to change the who, what and how of Usonian theater. I think when you do that, you can change the economic landscape of theater as well.

PSA: Usonian means of and relating to the United States. American is actually a pretty problematic term as America actually includes Latin and South America, and Canada, and when we say that the U.S. is America, what are we saying about those already marginalized nations and cultures? Okay, I’m done.

The model that theater has adopted is the survivable model, but I also think it’s highly problematic. We can only afford to keep the show running if we charge $60 to $100 per seat, but if we do that, who are we training to see theater? It’s usually white, upper-middle class families who can do that. I love our community, but our demographic is based on who has thus far been trained to see theater, and that is people who can afford it. If you’re a working mom with two kids and a single-parent income, what you can offer your children is different than a privileged family with disposable income.

In my theater company, we’re figuring out ways to do educational outreach to have kids see theater at an earlier age. You have to take youth who aren’t seeing theater to the theater, and they have to see work that resonates with them. Then they will see there is space in this community for them to make this work. Baseball stadiums are filled with very rich people and people who aren’t rich, and they show up. So, I think theater can change. The way that we change, I think, is either through violence or ideas. If you get more people engaged in the arts, we’ll realize it is a viable way to affect communities and inspire youth, then the funding for it will change. If you see cracks in the boat, that also means you can help fix it, and that’s exciting.

Talk to me about your theater company The Unsoft War. What’s coming up?

We’re about to do a rebrand/pivot. I’m pretty sure we’re changing the name to THTR, which is theater without the vowels, which is to say we are changing the face of Usonian theater. It’s going to move from a theater company to a project incubator.

Unsoft War’s main programming is five artist-in-residence. I’ve committed to producing a play per artist over the next two or three years. These plays are dedicated to changing the who, what and how of Usonian theater. I also want to launch a producers’ network where we can connect, commiserate, and collaborate. By being a project incubator over a theater company, we’re committing to projects versus a season. We’ll do the work when it’s ready. I don’t want to hold people in development limbo, but I also think there’s a lot of good stuff to be made when you give it time and love. We’re doing Adin Lenahan‘s play called “To the Missing” this fall. He is fucking brilliant and funnier than I could ever be.

What additional skills besides writing do you need to oversee The Unsoft War?

I was talking to my good friend and dramaturg John Racioppo about this. I said to him, “If I would just sit in a room, write and not have to do this, I’d be a better writer!” He said, “Undoubtedly so, but you are too ambitious and Type-A to just do that.” The joke I make is if I didn’t decide to make an impact as a playwright, I would’ve been a life coach and personal organizer.

You would be amazing at that!

Those are things I’m naturally good at, and THTR lets me do things like project management. So it’s natural, but the romantic side of me wants to write and not just produce on the sidelines. This way, I get to do both.

What’s harder: sitting through your show or a really bad date?

[Laughs] The show is worse. A bad date ends faster. You can control a bad date. Moments where I relinquish control are good for me, but I hate them.

What did you learn about relationships through some of your early-20’s experiences?

I managed my life less back then. I also think I’ve gotten better control of my feelings…maybe? [Laughs]After doing this fellowship in Argentina and falling in love there, I was really devastated for a long time, so a part of me thought, “I’m never going to be that fucking sad again.” I loved in such a way that I gave too much of myself, which was unhealthy. I had to redefine myself. You were in a relationship for six years, but all of my relationships have ended in less than a year, usually due to circumstance. I also had to get over the whiplash of two relationships, and when you go from one to another, I don’t think you actually mourn the first relationship.

[Laughs] I think that’s called shingling.

Is that it? So, I was out in New York, no longer a fellowship girl, and I was very into being love-sad for a while. Who wants to learn the lesson that you don’t get someone just because you love them? There’s a great spoken word poet called Shane Koyczan, and he has a great line that is like, “My heart’s in a jar and I hand it to you. Can you open it?” And you say, “Not without breaking it.”

That’s a piercing image.

It said something about why I was single for so long. I wasn’t willing to get my heart broken. Also, I think it’s about self-love. A lot of my issues with guys were around physical attraction.

Well, you have to be physically attracted to the person you’re dating.

Right! But a lot of that had to do with my insecurities around my looks. As I’ve gotten closer to the kind of person I want to look like—and being more forgiving of my looks at the same time—I’ve become more forgiving of other people’s looks. Also, if you look better, maybe you attract people closer to what you want yourself (and them) to look like. I think that’s how it works? But anyway, when you’re less focused on looks, you see people better. You find good people and you date them. Be vulnerable and let people in. These are some things that I’ve learned so far. You will feel all the things, go to all the bars, stay up all night and kind of destroy yourself in different ways. But eventually you will be like, “I can’t do that anymore.”

“I know where this goes.” [Laughs]

I’ve done this. I don’t need to do it again. It’s okay. I think that’s called early-20’s? And now I’m figuring out late-20’s. Maybe. “Figuring out.”

[Laughs] Where do you picture yourself in 10 years?

At that point, I hope THTR is its own little empire. My goal is to put up one show per year. I want to be making a living by making theater; maybe I’m teaching somewhere. I’d love a romantic partner in my life. I may or may not have kids. I want to get on a plane at least once a month to do something somewhere else.

If you imagine the lowest lows in your life and you see someone else having similar struggles, what would you do or say?

[Pause] So I’m going to talk to myself.

I talk to myself all the time.

It’s the best. Knowing what I know now, I would ask, “What’s making you upset? What are you feeling? Is it reasonable?” So I’d get the lay of the land and then get into self-care. “Are you eating well? Are you sleeping enough? What do you need to feel better?” Usually what I need is to make a plan. If I’m getting over heartbreak, the best thing I can do is to figure out how to be happy with myself. If money wasn’t an issue, I would hire a nutrition coach. How can you gain knowledge so you start doing something that makes you like your life more? Sometimes it takes longer than you’d like, but just show up.

Show up, do the work, and assume the rest will follow. It usually does. If it hasn’t yet, keep showing up and doing the work. And be kind. That’s usually helpful too.

 

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