The Playwright’s Room: Blake Bonilla
BY Robbie Armstrong, March 17, 2021
This week, Playwriting student Blake Bonilla sat down with us in The Playwright’s Room. Bonilla is a Filipinx-Costa Rican-American playwright from Lakewood, CA. He earned a BA in English (Creative Writing) from California State University, Long Beach. He made his professional stage debut in a reading of Alice Tuan’s Cock’s Crow at East West Players last year. His plays reflect his views on gender and sexuality, with a hint of violence to keep the heart beating. A lifelong musician, he has begun his path as a budding composer for musical theater. In his play, The Best of Intentions, developed at the David Henry Hwang Writers Institute, he asks the question “Is one’s inner truth pure or can it only damage others?”
Tell me about your first time in Theatre.
Blake Bonilla: I started out as an actor in school. That’s the main direction I approached theatre from. I’m originally from southern California and took acting classes there. Theatre really took off for me when one of my acting teachers became my first theatre mentor. I realized then that theatre doesn’t have to be corny and tacky but romantic and freeing. The hugeness and importance of theatre was clear to me at a young age and through acting, my first venture into theatre, I discovered the timelessness of human experience.
As an actor, what made you transition to writing?
BB: I always liked writing in college. I had this habit of sitting in my room and thinking about things obsessively. I spend a lot of time thinking about theatre and having an opinion and a point of view on plays. As an undergrad I wrote poetry and short stories. I might do that again but it was never as exciting as writing theatre. I love the dynamics of theatre and the collaboration and complexity. I went to this little community college and we’d do a summer theatre festival alongside a team of mentors. It made me realize that there is a world and a life in theatre. After that, I tracked down playwrights I respected on the west coast and had them mentor me and my writing.
What play did you submit to Columbia?
BB: I submitted a play that I eventually named The Best Of Intentions. It’s about a bunch of interns that work at a publishing company. There’s a case of gender discrimination at the company and one of the interns is having an affair with an assistant editor. It was coming from a place of trying to reconcile with equity in a space where words are important. It was definitely a play about words and it asked the question “What is equitable in language?”
You mentioned being a musician, I’d love to know how that influences your writing.
BB: I’m a classically trained pianist. I’ve been writing since I was seven. One of my aspirations is to write a proper musical. I’m most excited to adapt musical theatre to these new times. Musical theatre has always been the most expensive and the most commercial form of theatre which often makes it inaccessible. I want to find ways around that with contemporary music, maybe experimental or electronic music. Being a musician, I know what constitutes music and all the basic building blocks so I want to write the book, music, and lyrics to the show. Right now I like the idea of the musical emanating from me as the sole writer.
What kind of artwork and experiences influence your work?
BB: What inspires me most are the pieces of art that challenge how I think about myself and my world. Angels in America is formative for me. I’d love to write something that is of that level of complexity. I am often inspired by film, music, and theatre that has teeth. Art that is a little dark and willing to transgress a bit. There’s this interview from Jeremy O’Harris and he said something along the lines of “Why is it so hard to make theatre that has teeth now?” I love Yorgos Lanthimos’s films. I like work that has a lot to say in terms of theme and content but also structure.
Why did you pick Columbia for your MFA?
BB: [Associate Professor & Playwriting Concentration Head] David Henry Hwang and [Associate Professor] Lynn Nottage were big influencers for me. They are both playwrights who have had a career that has maintained relevance while evolving and progressing. That evolution was important to me when selecting mentors. I wanted to be in New York as well because I wanted to be in a theatre capital.
What’s a lesson you’ve learned from your time at Columbia so far?
BB: I feel really lucky and blessed to be at Columbia. I really loved the class that [Adjunct Professor] Robert O’Hara taught. Every week we’d write a ten minute play based on his really provocative prompts. Whether or not a person liked the prompt, everyone had a strong reaction to it. I learned to trust my gut.
What are some of your favorite plays?
BB: I love plays that give me permission to be outrageous and audacious like Alice Tuan’s Ajax (Por Nobody). It’s so overtly sexual and violent in a Greco-Roman kind of way. I should be excommunicated from the theatre for saying this but I just read A Raisin In The Sun for the first time today. You can tell that Lorraine Hainsbery has a watchmaker's patience with her work.
What are you working on next?
BB: I’m working on a couple of full length plays right now. One of those plays is about a satanic cult. I’m interested in the idea of community in that play. The other is inspired by my interest as a mixed race person growing up. I’m also looking to buy cheap musical instruments so I can begin playing more.