Grad student Pedro Eiras' leave hasn't exactly been time off
By Pedro Eiras | Friday, June 16, 2023
By Pedro Eiras
Friday, June 16, 2023
Editor's note: After completing the first year of the Department of Theater MFA program in dramaturgy, grad student Pedro Eiras spent the 2022-2023 school year on leave in his home country of Brazil to be there for the birth of his daughter and her first year of life. You'd be sorely mistaken, though, if you thought this was a year "off" for him.
Over the course of his leave, he developed two huge screenwriting projects: one is a 26-episode show about Brazilian history airing next year on Brazilian television (he wrote all 26!), and the other is a film script based on the life of a woman who opposed the Brazilian military dictatorship and was tortured for it, which is now in development.
Researching and writing both projects called upon his dramaturgical skills as well as his training as a writer.
"I’ve always known I wanted to tell stories, but it took me a long time to figure out how. ... I’m always interested in a thousand different things: literature, theater, TV, film… I started off as a journalist, telling story in a very straightforward way, and what I’ve come to figure out is that I love telling real stories," he said.
Eiras answered questions for us via email to tell us more about his projects.
Question: Can you tell me what the TV show you wrote is about?
Eiras: It’s called Histories of the Brazilian People, and it’s based on a series of books by a Brazilian historian named Mary del Priore. In it, she chronicles the daily lives of ordinary Brazilian people through the centuries, with a focus not on the big historical moments, but on how our people lived in between those. It spans a huge amount of time, starting with the Portuguese invasion in the 1500s going all the way to the first republic in Brazil in the early twentieth century.
What’s so interesting about the project is that it is a mixture of documentary and fiction. We interviewed dozens of scholars on varied historical topics, but each episode also contains a fictional monologue coming from a character of the time. So I was able to write pieces of fiction from the point of view of a dozen different people, from different centuries, with different occupations and life stories, and that was an incredibly challenging but rewarding task.
Question: How did you come to write the screenplay for the TV series? Was this an idea that came from you, or were you approached by producers?
Eiras: I was approached by a producer and director I had met a few years earlier. She knew I was taking a year off and asked if I’d be interested in working on this project.
Question: Can you talk a bit about the process?
Eiras: Since the series is based on existing books, the first stage was reading all 3 volumes, each with about 400 pages. After that, and in partnership with the director, researchers and producers, we started to select what we would approach in each episode. From there, I had to find the essence of what we wanted to say and explore it in the questions we would ask the specialists, based on biographies that were provided to me by the amazing researcher we had working on the project. It was really a collaborative effort, which, as a theater guy used to creating collectively, I really loved.
Question: What appealed to you about the project? Is the topic a particular interest of yours?
Eiras: I was immediately drawn to this show because of the opportunity it provided to work on both fiction and documentary, exploring several different areas of dramaturgy, journalist research, and screenwriting. But my absolute favorite part, and the thing that got me really excited, was to write the fictional monologues. I got a chance to do research and try to bring to life so many different people, many of them real people who lived centuries ago. It was an enormous responsibility, of course, particularly because many of these characters lived lives I could not possibly imagine. But that’s where the dramaturgy kicked in, and extensive research allowed me to better understand each of these people and give them voice in a way that felt authentic and responsible.
Question: Were you on set for any of the filming?
Eiras: No, unfortunately I wasn’t. The bad part of being a screenwriter is you usually don’t get to be in set as much, which differs from the work of a dramaturg, who is usually very involved in rehearsals and with actors. But I did get daily updates from the filming, including some incredible videos of the actors bringing the monologues to life.
Question: Do you expect it to be made available for folks in the US?
Eiras: Probably not, because it will air on a Brazilian TV channel only. But hopefully it can be licensed to a US channel in the future! Even though it is very much about Brazilian history, there are universal themes that everyone can be of interest to everyone!
Question: Tell me about your film project: what is it about, and how did you come to write it?
Eiras: It’s for a movie called If I Die, which tells the real story of a woman named Inês Etienne Romeu, who was the only survivor of a torture and murder center kept by the military government during the military dictatorship in Brazil. This torture center, known as the House of Death, is only a few miles away from the house in which I was born and raised here in Brazil, and I’ve long wanted to tell this story, because I think it is fundamental that more Brazilians know about Inês and the horrors she endured, in particular to fight a very dangerous recent rhetoric that paints the military dictatorship as non-violent and beneficial to Brazil. It was not. It was a horrendous dictatorship that took hundreds of lives and hurt thousands of others. So I wrote this screenplay in the hopes of telling this story so it is not forgotten. I also wrote it for my grandfather, who was arrested and tortured during the military dictatorship, because I don’t want anyone to ever forget how terrible that period was and how people suffer to this day because of the traumas endured on the hands of the military government.
Question: Can you tell me more about Rio2C, which was where you successfully pitched the film to producers — what is the conference like, and what was your pitch process like?
Rio2C, or Rio Creative Conference, is the largest Creative event in Latin America, and brings together, every year, thousands of directors, screenwriters, producers and creative people from all over the world. My project, “If I die,”, won a contest called Creative Journeys, and I was invited to attend the event and pitch my movie. Pitching is tricky, but again, my training as a dramaturg helped me to focus on the important aspects of the story and to tell my own personal connection to it. The process was very successful and it was due to a meeting I had at Rio2C that a production company optioned my script.
Question: We know you are at UMass as a dramaturg for theater, and yet during your leave you have done a lot of writing for TV and film — how are those two things related to each other? Are there tools or skills from dramaturgy that you use in screenwriting, and vice versa?
Eiras: The two things are so incredibly connected to me that it’s hard to even tell them apart. In both cases, as a dramaturg and as a screenwriter, the focus is on the story and on the characters, it’s on doing it justice, on making sure that you are telling a story that is compelling, but also that is historically accurate. Particularly since both projects I worked on dealt a lot with historical characters, the skills of a dramaturg (research with an eye towards story and characters) really paid off.
Question: You’re coming back to UMass next school year — do you anticipate bringing any of the work you’ve done during your time away into your graduate studies here?
Eiras: The movie project will still be very much in development while I continue my studies at UMass, so I’ll definitely still be thinking about that and maybe even bringing some of that into my classes. I also have an idea about a play set during the military dictatorship in Brazil that I hope to explore. As usual, I’ll probably be working on a dozen different things at once, dramaturgy, screenwriting, playwriting… it will be fun (and a bit scary)!
Question: Are you working on any theater projects?
Eiras: While all of this was happening, I continued to work on my playwriting. I wrote a full new play and have continued to work on The Other America, the piece I wrote for the Fringe Fest at UMass in 2022. I’ve been attending a few online reading groups in the US, particularly focused on Latinx writers, so I’ve been able to maintain a close connection to the theatrical experience in the US even while away on a year off. The UMass Theater Department is a source of continuing inspiration, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve had one of the most productive years of my life after attending a year of the MFA program at UMass. Being around creative people, and being around so much theater and art being done, inspired me to do more, even while away, and I can’t wait to see what the next two years (now back at UMass) will bring!