The Playwright who finally finds her way

July 17, 2012

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When you listen to Adelina Treviño Bradshaw speak so eloquently about her meandering path away from Chicago and the theater, and her hopeful return, you can just hear the hiss of the radiator in the background or the L train rumbling past the Irving Park Brown line stop. What you can't hear is her inability to sit still. (“If you’ve noticed, I’ve been playing with everything,” she tells me in the middle of our conversation. “I’ve taken off an earring to play with it.”) That’s a pattern in her life: Since graduating from Columbia College in 2007, Bradshaw's been moving. She moved to New York, then home to Texas and finally back to Chicago again. She just finished up a Literary Fellowship at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and as such, the 26-year-old sees life as a playwright and dramaturg (someone, for those not in the know, who helps research and develop plays ) slightly differently than her peers -- for one thing, she really understands the value of health benefits. But that universal desire for benefits doesn’t mean much, when weighed against Bradshaw's passion for her work.

Born into (musical) theater

My parents’ very first date was at a theater so they tried to take us when they could. We didn’t have that much money so it wasn’t like an everyday occurrence, but we did go. And my dad, he loves musical theater. And so he had all these records with these musicals, and to this day I haven’t seen all of them but I remember just putting them on and dancing in the middle of the living room. …

The first show I saw was Cats, and he took us to that and I was like 5. And I remember watching it and going, ‘Grown-ups can do this?’

Toby from The West Wing

I got into Loyola Chicago. I went in there as a poli-sci major, and I think I probably had watched too many episodes of The West Wing or something like that, and had this idea of growing up and becoming Toby or something like that. (laughs) I was there for a year and in the second semester I took a theater design class and I was just like, 'Well who are you kidding?' I’d done theater for so long before then and to just give it up was like making me kind of miserable. And so I decided that I wanted to stay in Chicago … and so I was looking around and I found Columbia and I went in there as actually a costume-design major, oddly enough. And then ended up falling into play-writing programs.

A meandering path

I graduated in December 2007. … And then I got a job in a box office just because I realized I need a job. I got a job and I got a roommate.

But I was getting antsy. … I wanted to see more. And so I decided I was going to move … I wasn’t sure what the next step should be? And so I just kind of tried to do the grown-up thing. You know, have a job, pay your bills. I don’t know if it’s grown-up to say ‘grown-up thing.’

So I just moved out to New York. And I did nothing about theater when I was there. I was doing the survival thing. I mean I wrote, but that’s about as far as it got.

It was just, it was hard. … And I’d also moved two weeks before the stock market crashed in 2008. And anybody who was in New York in 2008 kind of like, there was like this big shadow, this big cloud over everything, because you’d pass bars, and they’re like ‘Show us your pink slips and drink for free all night!’ and things like that. But then I was lucky enough to get a job at the Intrepid… which is an aircraft carrier turned museum.

… I just felt like the city was wearing me out. It just made me angry. I  just couldn’t deal with it anymore. People say leave New York before it makes you a hardened person. And I left. …
I moved back to Dallas. It wasn’t really an option to do anything but to go back to Dallas. Because I needed a safety net and there was a safety net there … it was this idea that I was going to get back on track. Like, living in New York was just about staying with my head above water and I felt like people kept on pushing it down and so I was like, in Dallas, I can figure out if this is going to become a priority.

I started sending out a play that I felt pretty strongly about … and by December it had gotten shortlisted for a contest in New York at Repertorio de Espanol. And they actually did a staged reading of it in New York, so I got to go back like not even a year later, and I felt like, triumphant. Because I was having a staged reading. … And it felt like, well, this was a success, coming back. And restarting.

One of the awesome things about working in an admin building is that you get real benefits, and they don’t really understand how awesome that is; they’re still on their parents insurance. I’m not.

I don’t know if it was my own prejudices … but there’s a level of like, well, it’s hard to be a writer, period. Not just a playwright, a writer. It’s hard to get things published, it’s hard to make any money out of it. It is a lot of work, and a lot of people aren’t successful. And then you can say the same thing about theater. And then you combine theater and writing and it just seems like this big vast hole of like, you will not be successful at this because only such a small percentage of people are successful … I don’t really know when it changed, and I don’t know that it did necessarily change. I just decided it was worth it. I think that was the change. I’ve decided it’s worth it.

… I’ve been out of college for awhile and I couldn’t afford to do something for free. The thing is, with literary apprenticeships or internships or whatever you want to call them, is that they’re not available in a lot of theaters, and then there’s even fewer that are going to pay you. I just noticed that a lot of people who are successful have done these before. And so I applied to about 17 all across the country, this is the only one in Chicago.

Sitting in the slingshot

I don’t feel relaxed, but I feel like as opposed to before, even when I was living in Dallas, I felt a little bit behind. And now I feel like I’m actually like on the slingshot, you know? … But it’s just being pulled back and it hasn’t been let go yet and so… it’s like the first step, is what it feels like. And so there’s a level of nervousness that comes with that, like it’s one of those things where if someone is willing to give you this, you feel like you can’t be complacent after this because this is so important. And you are so lucky to be here.

I would say that I think I don’t necessarily want to be famous. I want to have my plays produced. One of the reasons I love this apprenticeship so much in the literary department is because I want to be a literary manager of a theater. Partly because I love the job; reading plays all day is great … to actually get paid to read plays is pretty sweet. But also, I kind of like the stability. And I think that has something to do with I am 26, and I had a job that I had awesome benefits at. And now I don’t have that. (laughs) Most of the other apprentices are younger than me, they’re fresh out of college. When I say, 'One of the awesome things about working in an admin building is that you get real benefits,' and they don’t really understand how awesome that is; they’re still on their parents' insurance. I’m not. (laughs)

Being able to write, being able to dramaturg, but also being able to, to be in a position where you have your own safety net, that is definitely what I would consider success.

The transcript above features an extended version of the interview. Explore more stories from Chicago's Hungry Artists.

Music buttons: "Las Golondrinas" by Jose Garcia and "If You're Feeling Sinister" by Belle and Sebastian.