Hispanic Heritage Month ‘23 - A Conversation with Actress, Playwright, and Filmmaker Puy Navarro
Born in Spain, Puy Navarro (‘01) has forged a career that extends beyond acting to encompass writing and filmmaking. With plays premiering around the globe and in multiple languages, Navarro perfectly encompasses the idea of “The Academy Abroad.”
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re now living in Spain? Tell me what your “origin story” is?
I'm originally from Spain, and I went to New York City to study acting. But before that, I was studying engineering. So, all my life I did math, chemistry, physics, and technical drawing… And I dropped everything for theater. I was in Japan for a year playing professionally as an actress at a theme park. I went to Cuba to do physical theater, and then I went to New York. I auditioned for The Academy and was accepted and went there.
You’re just about the quintessential multi-hyphenated artist. How is it balancing all these projects and different methods of work?
Living in New York City and being a foreigner is tough. You have to embrace things and embrace many, many different tribes. For a time, I was working at the Spanish Repertory Theater, where I was able to do the classics in my own language, but I was also in a physical theatre company, Holderness Theatre Company doing viewpoints. Just after graduation, I did an intensive with Shakespeare and Company.
But being in New York and not being American can be hard. I had paperwork for a year after graduation. I had a lawyer who kept getting me one more year, one more year, one more year, until they passed away. I found other lawyers who then left me undocumented. So, for four years, I could not leave the country. In those four years, I thought, “I might as well enjoy this.” I could work as a babysitter or doing this or that…but eventually I started to produce my own plays.
At one point I did a one-woman show written by a famous Spanish filmmaker…he gave me the rights for this monologue and I did it in New York. From there I started bringing plays from Spain and we would translate them into English. In repertory, we did a few days of the play in Spanish and a few days in English. We hired actors who could speak both languages. We took a play to Puerto Rico, we did another play at the United Nations, Life Is A Dream, and we took that to Spain. So, it was insane and fabulous. And we lost a lot of money [Laughs]. But we were always working on our passion.
You speak about this work with such passion and idealism. Where does that come from?
I definitely learned that at The Academy. We’re not mercenaries…we’re actors. What we do is represent stories to the community, to people. Everybody knows what’s important there. It was this famous British actress (Vanessa Redgrave) that gave this very political speech. She said that as artists, we need to speak to the problems that are happening in our society. I started my work going down that trail. The first play that I did at the United Nations had to do with disappearing people in Argentina…these people, these artists and writers disappeared because they didn’t agree with the politicians. I did that with questions in mind: “Can we talk about it? Can we bring out the tough issues?”
These are heavy topics. I’m always looking for the humor in a scene or play…where’s the funny? So with your work, where do you put the funny?
For example, in Else & Henry, the protagonist is dying, there’s blood and vomit, and she’s asked “How do you feel?” She responds to this with “I feel like a wet chicken that’s been rolling in its own vomit.” [Laughs]. It always gets a laugh…and she needs to laugh at that point otherwise you’d shoot yourself! Right? It’s like, in Shakespeare, they so often crack a joke at the worst moment. So always…I am putting some humor into the play because otherwise we can’t take it.
At the same time, what I wanted with that first scene was for people to be uncomfortable, to want to leave the theatre, but not be able to. The second scene goes back 20 years, when the two characters meet when they’re young. You get to see how they were…that love at first sight.
How much of you is in this?
As P.D. James said “all fiction is largely autobiographical.” There are always parts of me in my work. When I was directing the play that I wrote and could listen closely to all the words the characters say, and I would notice, “oh this character is saying all these things I used to do when I was a little girl”.
When I write, I begin always with my own experience. Then I bring in the imagination to fill in the parts of the story or the characters that are different from me or my experience. Which is what I do as an actress when I approach a role. First, I connect with the parts that are similar to my own experience, then I fill in the rest with imagination. And there is always room for some magic to happen.
Why do you do this work?
During that time when I couldn’t leave the country, I had an acting teacher of mine say to me something that I’ll never forget, “You came here to be an actress…go out and do it,” he said. That’s exactly it. It’s what I was meant to do and why I’m here today. It wasn’t so much about producing…it’s always been about acting. So, I started working with all these companies and tried to make it.
And you certainly have. Final question for you is, what’s next and where can people find you?
I’m trying to produce Else and Henry, my play in Spain. The book just came out in a bilingual edition…I’ll probably be knocking on some doors in the UK and in New York. Maybe I’ll see if I can do something with The Academy too, something with students. This is the play I directed in Argentina last year, we were there for two seasons. Previously I had directed it in Valencia, my hometown. Now, I’m hoping to direct it in New York. Some friends are hoping to bring it to Puerto Rico, and maybe I could bring it out to LA, too. Fingers crossed.
A lot of my life and work is available online, of course.
Puy Navarro kindly provided The Academy Pages with the following links to her work:
An Argentine newspaper discussing Else and Henry here.
Zanahorias, a play produced by and starring Navarro, that played in Puerto Rico, is available here.
Else and Henry in Valencia here.