Benjamin Benne Discusses His Latest Work, "Fantasma"

Theater Studies has brought acclaimed playwright Benjamin Benne to campus as its Visiting Artist for fall 2021. His two-week residency begins with the early creative stages of his new play Fantasma, commissioned by the South Coast Repertory Theatre, and culminates with a New Works Lab stage reading on September 10 at 5:00pm in the Rubenstein Arts Center Gallery. He’s joined by his collaborator Cat Rodríguez, who serves the dual roles of dramaturg and director. Students will participate in a week-long workshop with Benjamin and Cat, where they’ll prepare the first pages for the public reading. 

Where did your interest in storytelling begin?

I remember always having an interest in storytelling and really enjoyed the process of writing and illustrating the stories I created. In fifth grade, I wrote a short story about two penguins who were chased by an orca whale—complete with illustrations. My teacher submitted the work to a county-wide contest, where I placed in the competition. 

In high school, I was involved in theater and was drawn to the ways bodies performed in the space, I realized I really wanted to direct rather than act, and the directing gave me a better understanding of playwriting. 

Benne images
Images and photos collected for "Fantasma," including a photo of his grandmother, Rosenda (top row, center), and his grandfather, Arcadio (top row, right).
What is your writing process like?

Before I start to write, I collage—a lot. I’ll use photos and images from my personal collection, images found online, or illustrations recreated from my memories. These pieces are assigned a language and relationship to each other, and eventually build a world that is a reference and inspiration for the play. The collage becomes like a flow chart documenting the memories and how they fit into the work. 

Where did your inspiration for Fantasma come from?

This play most resembles my personal life, so the inspiration comes from actual events. Fantasma focuses on three generations of a Guatemalan family coming together over Christmas Eve to prepare chuchitos, a traditional dish of masa wrapped in corn husks that is often prepared during the holiday. They’re similar to Mexican tamales. 

My grandmother and mother are both from Guatemala, and a few years ago, they showed my cousins, sibling, and I how to prepare chuchitos. It was the two older generations teaching the youngest, and first to be born in the United States, the family recipe that had never been written down. This event—this storytelling— is what the play centers around. 

From this family gathering, I was able to introduce deeper themes and contemporary issues into the play. There are three generations with three different views of the United States, and over the course of the meal, the characters discuss Guatemala and the political influences it has on the U.S., as well as the U.S. imperialism in Guatemala, as well as immigration, affluence, and whiteness.