"I [learned] about her in my undergrad here at the Univerisity of Texas," says playwright Elizabeth Doss. "I took a conquest literature class and that's where I learned about Catalina de Erauso. And from that day ... I think it must have been thirteen, fourteen years ago -- I knew I was going to write a play about this crazy, wild, derelict, Don Quixote of a woman."
The historical Catalina de Erauso was born at the end of the 16th century in Spain.
"In Spanish society at that time, they often would give their daughters to the convent to be raised," Doss says. "And at 14, either somebody needed to want to marry you or you had to be a nun. And so Catalina didn't want to get married and she didn't want to be a nun. So she broke out of the convent and disguised herself as a man."
De Erauso later "made her way to the new world and then fought for the Spanish army in Chilé and Peru and became a conquistadora, and eventually killed her own brother in a duel," Doss continues. "She wrote an autobiography and I've adapted her autobiography into a wild, wacky, strange play."
Doss was fascinated by de Erauso and remained so for many years largely because of the complexities and contradictions in her story. "She's equal parts kind of heroic and monstrous," Doss says. "She's like a hero for feminists, right? And then a monster colonizer to indigenous people. So how do you deal with a character like that?"
"It sounds very serious, but it's also funny. It's almost too funny!" Doss goes on, trying to make clear that her complicated play (which features de Erauso's story as a play-within-a-play performed by clowns) is a comedy at heart.
For actress Alexis Scott, playing Catalina is a rewarding challenge. "For me, it's very much a survivor's story," she says. "Playing Catalina is as complicated as it sounds... although for me as an actor, my job is always to find the humanity in monsters."
Catalina de Erauso is also the first production in paper chairs' new residency at the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, where they've build a new theater space on the campus of the sustainable design firm.