The Ms. Q&A: Award-Winning Playwright Catherine Filloux Takes on Femicide, Trauma, War, Immigration and More

“I have always had an affinity for underdogs and their stories,” writer Catherine Filloux told Ms.

Cambodian artist Chath pierSath (left) and Catherine Filloux (second from left) in Cambodia at the Royal University of Fine Arts. (X)

Several years ago, award-winning playwright and librettist Catherine Filloux’s work was described as existing at the intersection of horror and grief. A self-described change-maker, Filloux’s writing delves into the many ways that human rights are abrogated by gender-based, racial and economic violence.

At the same time, there’s ample hope in Filloux’s work. A co-founder of the now 20-year-old Theatre Without Borders and a facilitator of the writing group Lamp Lifeboat Ladder—a global refugee resettlement program that supports survivors of torture, sexual violence and trauma—her vision reminds us of our power to act, both collectively and as individuals.

Filloux’s themes are wide-ranging and have included both domestic and international issues—mass incarceration, immigration, the horrors of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, honor killings, civil rights, violence against women, and the ways political disagreements impact families—and have earned honors, including a 2015 Planet Activist Award, a 2017 Otto Rene Castillo Award for Political Theater, a 2019 Barry Lopez Fellowship in Ethics and Community, and a 2022 Grawemeyer Award for Opera.

Filloux spoke to Ms. reporter Eleanor J. Bader about her work.

Filloux at the opening of The Beauty Inside in Iraq—a one-act play about a young girl in southeastern Turkey who becomes the target of an honor killing. (Courtesy)

Eleanor J. Bader: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get interested in playwriting and storytelling?

Catherine Filloux: My two grandmothers got me started. My family lived in San Diego, Calif.; my dad’s family was in France, and my mom’s in Algeria. I visited them every summer. 

My paternal grandmother, Marguerite, was particularly influential. She lived in the center of France, in a backwater town called Guéret, in the least well-thought-of region of the country. Both she and my grandfather were teachers.

Grandmother Marguerite would read books to me in French, my first language. One series was called “Francois the Hunchback.” The stories were dark, but I bonded with my grandmother over language and the love of words. These were novels, but they were written like plays, and I felt great sympathy for the characters. My grandmother guided me on my literary explorations, and she had a dramatic flair that was contagious.

I also knew my maternal grandparents. Grandmother Marie Louise was joyous, life-affirming and unlike the people in Gueret. At the same time, her household was volatile, and the family engaged in a kind of histrionics that was both comedic and dramatic—like theater—and my grandfather liked to dress up and wear costumes.

Seeing both sets of grandparents each summer was a huge contrast to my life in southern California. I think this contrast made me prone to imagination. And maybe it was the Francois stories, but I have always had an affinity for underdogs and their stories.

Filloux on an international writing program tour in South Sudan. (Courtesy)

Bader: Did you start as a playwright?

Filloux: No. As a child, I wrote poetry, and before I wrote plays, I explored acting. I was in several high school productions and loved everything about the theater. My first role was as the Fortune Teller in Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth.” Unfortunately, I was a bad actress, so I eventually realized that if I wanted to stay in the theater, I’d have to switch gears.

I wrote my first play, “Visiting Hours” when I was 18; it was produced at the University of California-San Diego, where I did my undergraduate studies. I later got my master’s in fine arts at New York University, where I studied dramatic writing.

I can honestly say that playwriting saved my life. It’s a very specific genre. After I realized I was not going to succeed as an actress, playwriting gave me my voice. At the time, I did not realize how rare it was—and still is—for plays written by women to be performed on a main stage. Despite this, I’ve done the work and have been successful. Playwriting gave me a way to create a life for myself. I love that storytelling is a craft that I can get better at and that it involves collaboration while also allowing me to be in the driver’s seat. It gives me a way to share stories that are compelling to me.

As a writer, whether of a play or of an opera, I want to focus on the largely male dictators who allow trauma and genocide to exist and flourish. I can’t let this go.

Catherine Filloux

Bader: How do you choose the topics you write about? 

Filloux: I follow the urgency of the material, and that guides me. Each topic I explore draws me to the next.

For example, following global violence against women led me to explore post-traumatic stress disorder. Genocide in Cambodia led me to Raphael Lemkin [1900-1959], a Polish Jewish attorney who coined the term genocide and launched the campaign to establish the Genocide Convention—this international treaty codified genocide as a crime. Exploring the denial of voting rights led me to mass incarceration. 

I constantly move from the micro to the macro.

Bader: Tell me how you came to write about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

Filloux: I started with the stories of Cambodian refugees who were living in California and suffered from a form of psychosomatic blindness. My play, “Eyes of the Heart,” was produced in 2004. I received an Asian Cultural Council Artist’s Residency Grant, which enabled me to travel to Cambodia. I was there for three months and created a play produced and performed in Khmer by Cambodian artists. 

 Bader: You’ve also visited other war zones.

Filloux: Several years ago, I met a human rights attorney, Jayne E. Fleming, who came to see one of my plays, and afterward, we talked about asylum cases. Inspired, I created a play, “Luz,” about femicide and did research in Guatemala and Haiti. I have also traveled to Northern Iraq, South Sudan, Bosnia and Northern Ireland to do research for other plays.

Years later, Jayne told me about Lamp Lifeboat Ladder (LLL), her pro bono program with the law firm Reed Smith. LLL provides a pathway for survivors who have been forced to flee their homelands, to resettle in Canada. She asked me to facilitate a writing group for LLL, and I met survivors awaiting the resolution of their asylum applications. 

Twenty-seven writers from seven countries created the first writing project, called the “Dreams Journal.” We met in person and then on Zoom. The group calls itself Tomorrow’s Hope: Modern Creativity. We gather every two weeks online and work in four languages in different time zones. Their writing includes narrative nonfiction, poetry, as well as fiction. My dream is to find new publishing outlets for these amazing writers.

Playwriting gave me my voice. At the time, I did not realize how rare it was—and still is—for plays written by women to be performed on a main stage.

Catherine Filloux

Bader: What’s your role? Are you a writing teacher?

Filloux: I’m the facilitator. I edit for clarity and to remove repetition, but I don’t otherwise touch the content of the work. I also do translation and interpretation for those who speak and write in French. We work with others from the LLL team who do Farsi and Arabic translation and interpretation. 

Bader: Tell me about the ways your writing segues into advocacy for people whose human rights have been denied.

Filloux: I aim to be a support for people who’ve experienced trauma and now have PTSD, but I feel that my responsibility goes beyond this. As a writer, whether of a play or of an opera, I want to focus on the largely male dictators who allow trauma and genocide to exist and flourish. I can’t let this go. We have a responsibility to call this out, to denounce it. 

I stay in touch with several Cambodians who oppose the repression. My friend, Theary Seng, has been in prison there for over a year. I want to tell her story. I want Americans to know about Mu Sochua, another Cambodian human rights activist who is now living in exile.

I am also working to promote a Cambodian actress for the Gilder/Coigney International Theatre Award. During Pol Pot’s genocidal reign, 80 to 90 percent of the country’s artists died. We can’t forget them, and we need to honor the survivors who are keeping Cambodian theater alive.  

Bader: What’s on your current writing docket?

Filloux: I have a one-woman play that will open off-Broadway at New York City’s La MaMa Theatre in the spring of 2024. It’s about an Argentinian visual artist and activist, Claudia Bernardi, who is now living in the U.S. I don’t want to give too much away. Still, I can tell you that it’s the story of how a person can survive astonishing circumstances.

I’m also finishing a second play about two sisters, one of whom is a Trump supporter. The other is not. It’s not yet scheduled for production but is called “White Savior” and focuses on how we come to know one another. I’m also writing an opera about climate change.

Up next:

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Eleanor J. Bader is a freelance journalist from Brooklyn, N.Y., who writes for Truthout, Lilith, the LA Review of Books, RainTaxi, The Indypendent, New Pages, and The Progressive. She tweets at @eleanorjbader1 .