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Q&A: How an unfinished video game became a Zoom theater production about love and grief

Screenshot of Julie Piñero performing "Delejos" on Zoom.
(Julie Piñero)

In 2019, VR video game designer Jose Zambrano was the subject of a random attack in the New York borough of Brooklyn. He died four days later in the hospital. Zambrano was 26.

Now his partner, Julie Piñero, has written and is starring in a solo show that digs into her grief with the help of music, comedy and what she calls virtual reality (no equipment necessary). The play “Delejos,” which she produces on Zoom, has a growing audience thanks to social media buzz and critical praise.

Piñero, who recently extended the run of “Delejos” (tickets at delejos.net) to April 22, connected with The Times by Zoom for this conversation, which has been edited for length.

How did the idea for the play come about?

I technically started writing this when Jose was placed into a coma. I was telling him everything that was happening around him. I was writing down everything, because there were so many funny, beautiful moments that were unfolding around his hospital bed. It was all of his family, all of his friends from throughout his life, in the same room together. I wrote them down thinking I would tell him when he woke up.

It wasn’t until after he passed away that I decided to tell a story. We were dating, but we were also creative collaborators. So this piece is a continuation of that promise we made together to be doing comedy together, to be doing live music together and to also do VR together.

We had so much energy moving forward in those projects. When he passed away, he really left me with that energy, and also the energy of having just fallen in love. It’s that feeling of being at the top of the roller coaster with someone where you just have more plans than memories. As I started writing it, I realized it was my healing, it was me using the tools that I have, which is writing and comedy and music and this new world of virtual reality, where I could really explore what I was feeling in my grief.

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How did the vision change once you started?

At its start, I didn’t know what the project was, I was just writing. I was quarantined before the [COVID-19] quarantine started, just because I didn’t want to leave my house in grief.

But then once quarantine started, I saw everyone dealing with their own sense of grief, and everyone was isolated from each other. This idea of distance between each other became very real. Everyone had distance between someone they loved, and that’s when I turned to the piece he was writing called “Delejos,” which he created after his own experience of forced immigration from Venezuela. All of a sudden, it felt like maybe he had this piece of insight that could help not only me in my grief but also everyone in this moment of collective grieving. What he was providing with this game was a path to connect to something you love, but also to connect to hope in the face of tragedy, in the face of chaos. I decided to take a journey through his game in front of other people that are also faced with distance.

The VR is not really VR. You don’t need equipment, but you do need an open mind, because you’re creating the imagery through your words. Do you think pandemic isolation has made people come to the show with that kind of openness?

I am pretty much baring my entire soul in front of people on Zoom. I think a lot of people enter this show knowing the tragedy that exists within it. And it requires taking a leap with me and trusting that I’m not going to leave them at the lowest point, because the story could end with the tragedy. But that’s not the story I’m telling. There’s a tragedy in the middle. But then there’s so much more that happens after that pulls people out of that. And that gives people hope.

The VR is introduced about a third of the way through the piece. And I think that is really kind of building on this leap that people are starting to take, where they’re starting to trust that maybe there’s something beyond the tragedy. The VR allows them to kind of build that world in their head. Literally close their eyes and imagine it.

The VR hasn’t worked for everyone. Some people are like, “I feel like I’m doing it wrong. I feel like I’m not tapping into what you’re saying.” And that’s totally understandable. But that’s also you standing in your own way.

A big theme in this piece is flow. It’s this idea of getting out of your own way and trusting what you’re being conducted to trust. By the end of the piece, everybody has experienced some degree of flow, and the piece ends on this high note. You have let go [and] trusted me when I lead you out of tragedy.

Flow is a theme of your relationship with Jose. It’s a theme in your show. What is flow?

When I met Jose, it came up so early. I remember he had the book called “Flow” [by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi]. Flow is a concept that explains the state you’re in. Once you’re so creatively immersed in an activity, your ego falls away. And you become this vessel for something bigger that’s happening through you.

When I met Jose, I was at a time in my life where I was really second guessing all of my own creative decisions and feeding on my own self-doubt. Flow was just at the center of everything he did, and he always seemed to figure out how to find it. And he found it with me. By the end of this piece, I make a point of having found it with him. And finding it with him is kind of the basis of my relationship with him now that he’s not here, not with us anymore. When I’m creating, I’m tapping into not only his energy but the trust of creating with something bigger than just me. The trust of being led by some sort of higher power.

How did you create this production? How was it different from the writing process?

It’s funny, because both feel like they exist inside very small boxes. When I think about how I was writing this, it was a very small experience of digging really deep into myself to try to pull out what I was feeling and what everything meant.

July is when I actually took this piece to the space where it’s performed. And at that point, I was committed to making this a Zoom show. The beautiful thing about Zoom is that when people enter the show, their expectation is like, “I’m sick of Zoom. I’m jaded. I reluctantly use it to connect to people I love but it really doesn’t replicate the actual experience.” But my goal of this show is to completely subvert that, to create an experience that ends up being both intimate and immersive.

You can’t have more than one piece of audio playing without a mixer. You can’t have more than one stream of light coming in, which is what creates the spotlight effect. Those all became really inspiring things for me. And it was just a matter of sitting in front of the computer and being like, “All right, how are we going to flip everyone’s expectations of what this is going to be?” To create an experience that actually ends up being very intimate and connected.

What did you learn from exploring not only Jose’s background but also your background?

This show introduces the idea of distance as something that’s inherent to the identity of any Latinx in the U.S., whether you’re somebody [like me] born in the U.S. or somebody who had to leave home, which is Jose’s experience. I always kind of grew up with that feeling of “ni aquí, ni allá” [neither here nor there]. I always just assumed that was the end point, that I would kind of just always be confused about what Puerto Rico meant to me.

But Jose was a person actively exploring that with the creation of this game. He was exploring, “What does it mean for me to be someone who had to leave home so long ago, and be here and have to connect back to that idea of home and the people I left at home from afar?” He was exploring his grief. What I came to discover is that this distance — that is inherent to Latinidad in the U.S., that is grief, and we are a product of grief.

I go back and look at the baladas I listened to as a kid. Latin romantic ballads were some songs where love grows from pain. We have this edge; it’s been so far etched into our people of being products of grief in some capacity. It’s such a gift that we can get to continue to explore that grief and innovate off of that grief. Being here in the U.S., I can continue to build on what being Puerto Rican, born and raised here in the continental U.S., what that really means to me. That’s something that I learned from Jose that he was he was exploring his grief with the gusto of the game designer. Maybe if we all do that, then we start to uncover the nuances of our own identities. And kind of peel back what that really means.

There’s an emphasis on language in your story. When Jose said he loved you in English, you wondered what type of love he meant in Spanish.

Latinxs in the U.S. are so diverse, we come from so many different backgrounds, we come from different places, but the one thing we share is the Spanish language. Jose and I were able to share kind of knowing that “Te amo,” “Te quiero” and “Te adore” are different words for the same feeling. But for me, I always had a sense that I didn’t totally understand it, because I grew up speaking Spanish, but I lost it. And I never quite felt like I had a full grasp of the language.

The one thing we both do have that we bring from home are these little regional words. My mom grew up telling me that once I feel some spark, whether that’s in love or in magic or whatever, “Que te hace, que tilín” [roughly translated, “If it makes you feel an instinctual connection”]. And that’s how I recognize it. Tilín is like a word that comes specifically from Puerto Rico. And then for Jose, he had all these words that he would stitch across the front of his shirts, and one of them that really made an impact on me was “saperoco” [which translates roughly to “chaotic”].

Tilín is not a word that you’ll hear in Argentina. That is a word specific to me. And it’s how I connect to home. It’s how I connect to this identity I’ve built. Embedded in those little words that we bring from home are these bridges back to home.

Does performing this show take a toll?

Doing this piece is hard, but it’s always worth it. And the minute it becomes not worth it is when I’ll stop doing it. It’s worth it because I get to connect to him.

I perform this in a place that is not my home, so I drive out to perform it. I go into that place, I go into that space, and I tell that story. And then I leave. And I think that’s a really important thing, because the idea of creating a universe where I’m connected to him can really easily bleed out into the real world.

The other reason it’s worth doing it is that it connects me to this really raw feeling of hope that I think is really common to people once they’ve experienced tragedy or once they’ve experienced being at the edge of crisis. There’s this feeling of gratitude you have. Being able to do this piece and both connect to him and connect to that feeling of magic and be able to spread the vision he had. He was somebody that I was so excited to introduce to all of my people, and I didn’t have a chance to do that. So being able to spread how he saw the world is so exciting to me, because I get to live in that vision too.

Where is the show going?

I’m trying to feel it out. This is my grief. It’s very much still alive. It feels a little bit like a wound. I’m excited to keep sharing it but definitely keeping an eye on how it feels to do so.

If this becomes a show that gets performed in person, I’m excited about the possibility of shifting the framing a little bit to the experience of people being together as opposed to right now (people watching it from afar apart). Maybe the framing changes a little bit outside of a pandemic, who knows? There’s really a lot of possibilities, but I think priority right now is just seeing how it feels to share it. Like right now in this moment.


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