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Paul Hidalgo Durand (February 24, 1962 – December 22, 1992) was a promising playwright author of the musical "Echo Park".
At age 17, Paul Hidalgo left the family. "I felt like I had a lot of obstacles," he remembered. "All that abuse as a child. . . . But the problem became finding my identity at age 17, while being on your own and being gay and getting lost. And I got lost." He considered a career as a professional dancer, adding "Durand" to his family name. He danced in the film "Grease II" and television series "Fame." But live theater was more compelling so he auditioned for the Latino Theatre Lab under Amy Gonzalez at Los Angeles Actors Theatre in Hollywood. There he began writing sketches and, most significantly, met LAAT consulting director Alan Mandell. "I could not be writing what I am now if it wasn't for Alan," Hidalgo-Durand said. "That was my start. Alan insisted that I go back to school. I went to UCLA and I learned how to read classics and learned about history. Alan said, 'You can break all the rules as long as you know what the rules are.' I didn't know them." Hidalgo-Durand's real education began. Mandell invited him to work on various LAAT productions. When LAAT became Los Angeles Theatre Center, he assisted director Reza Abdoh on "Minimata." In the summer of 1987, the apprentice writer found a new mentor at the annual Padua Playwright's Festival: Maria Irene Fornes. The Cuban-born New Yorker's writing workshop helped immeasurably. Fornes also secured him a scholarship to her course at Off-Broadway's INTAR theater. For eight months, Hidalgo-Durand attended the Fornes workshop in Manhattan.
After his residency, while working again in Los Angeles at Padua he
received a phone call from an administrator at New York University's musical
theater program. Despite never having received a bachelor's degree, at age 26
Hidalgo-Durand was awarded the prestigious Oscar Hammerstein Fellowship: all
tuition paid plus a stipend to the only graduate musical theater program in
So Hidalgo-Durand found himself back in New York in 1988, lauded by envious fellow graduate students as the golden boy from California.
"I got there in September." Hidalgo-Durand said. "I was in class and I got a sore throat. It had been going on for a couple of weeks and it was the first week in October. And it got so bad that I couldn't swallow. The school nurse got really scared and called an ambulance and said, 'We have to get you into the hospital, you're bleeding from your throat.' " Hidalgo-Durand was admitted to New York University Medical Center. He had a viral condition that needed to be attended to and would have to remain in the hospital. He thought he'd be there overnight, but it turned into six weeks. Initially there were no rooms available, so he was given a bed in a hallway. "I lay in the hallway for four days. I didn't have a room. I didn't have a phone. I didn't have a doctor. People had to roam the hallways to find me. "Questions started coming about'. AIDS. They did more tests and more tests. But my blood count was too unbalanced to give accurate readings." He hoped it was just an infection—until late one Friday night in the fifth week. "The doctor stepped just inside the door to my room that night and said, 'Oh, you have AIDS.' He added that he was going on vacation for two weeks, but another doctor would take care of me. And I sat there by myself in the room and it was pretty scary." But the next doctor who came into his room was Dr. Robert Press, clinical assistant professor of medicine in the infectious diseases division, NYU Medical Center, whom later New York Magazine listed among Manhattan's outstanding physicians. "Paul asked me how long he had," Press remembered. "Two years? I told him he probably had longer and should plan on at least five years." "He came to my side and took care of me and pulled me through," Hidalgo-Durand said. "If he hadn't been there, I wouldn't have made it through that year." Later, Hidalgo-Durand would express his gratitude by dedicating "Echo Park" to Press.
But at the time of that initial diagnosis, playwriting was his last thought. Upon his release after six weeks in the hospital, he plunged into depression, drugs and liquor. "I was suicidal," he said. "I had three overdoses, my stomach had to be pumped twice. I slept for days. Somehow I started to drag myself to school. Then I'd get home and pop sleeping pills. I was addicted at one point. Finally, I was verbally abusing everyone—my doctor, my lover—everyone." Then there were no more calls from concerned friends. He had succeeded in burning his bridges, in isolating himself. The scene was set for a last torch song, the final curtain: his "successful" suicide. "I was in my apartment and by myself and they had all agreed they weren't going to save me anymore," he said. "And it was really scary, because I could really do it!! For the first time in the three months since his hospitalization, Hidalgo-Durand opened one of his notebooks. He hadn't written a word in all that time, but that night, on the verge of suicide, Hidalgo-Durand's shaking hands turned the pages of a notebook he'd kept the previous summer during a Padua Playwrights Festival work-shop. He read: "She bites me." "Where?" "Here and here. See, the chunks are missing. Big chunks right out of my side." Hidalgo-Durand read on, amazed. The character in the sketch was describing an ambiguous, invisible, lethal invader. His subconscious must have known what was attacking his body well before the diagnosis. "It's really weird to get in front of the mirror and just see the changes," Hidalgo-Durand said. "It's like you're not looking at yourself anymore. You're looking at something that's just taking over. You fight. But you can only fight what you see. It's like Vietnam. They're attacking you from places you can't expect. Then the question is, 'Should we be here?' Maybe I shouldn't be here." But the power of language to unveil the hidden world captivated him. Hidalgo-Durand had to write. "The next day I dragged myself to school, hung over from the pills, and threw myself into writing."
In six months he wrote three I full-length plays. That Padua sketch became "The Trailer Park of Dreams," its first draft written in a single 30-hour marathon. His second play, "Common Pursuit," and third, "Rooms for Rent," also described mysterious, alien forces. But in none did AIDS make an overt appearance. His style wasn't sociological dramas like "As Is" or "The Raft of the Medusa." He belonged firmly in the contemporary Latin American tradition of magical realism, what Hidalgo-Durand described as "surreal-- just south of real." And then for his thesis production he embarked on the most ambitious task of all: writing the book and lyrics for "Echo Park." Hidalgo-Durand's concept was to focus on a young Mexican-American girl who believes the only way to realize her dreams is to escape her Echo Park neighborhood. "She doesn't realize the value of where she lives," Hidalgo-Durand said, "that you can take somewhere like that and turn it around for you. My culture and background and family are what's helping me in my writing, now. I rejected it for a long time, like my heroine, but it's only when I embrace it that I can really write."
Impressed by his first draft, the Elisabeth Marton Agency in New York signed him to a theatrical contract, fully aware he was infected with AIDS-related diseases. And they were virulent diseases. Kaposi's sarcoma. Blood clots. Spots appeared on his lungs. Lymph nodes in his groin became malignant, but soon responded to chemotherapy. But the cure became worse than the disease when it made him too sick to write. While working on "Echo Park," he sometimes chose not to undergo the chemotherapy. The writing came first. Mel Marvin, composer of the musicals "Tintypes" and "Elmer Gantry," was the producing director at the musical theater program of NYU during Hidalgo-Durand's thesis year. He decided to personally supervise "Echo Park." "Paul was unbelievable all year," Marvin said. "I've just never encountered anybody in that situation who seems to be so focused. I would go up to his hospital room and he'd be writing in bed, and just really, really ill, and he would pull it together and be completely focused on his piece. I would come home just blown away by his ability to function under stress and death."
To finish "Echo Park," Hidalgo-Durand ignored his body's ravages. His leg grew so swollen that he had to prop it on a chair during rehearsals. He refused to see Press, his doctor, because "I knew the moment I went in (to the hospital) I wouldn't come out." Instead, he took painkillers and worked. His family and many friends flew out from Los Angeles for the thesis presentation of "Echo Park." Press attended as well. "The next day," he says, "my family had returned to L.A. and I looked around and said, 'Well, I guess it's time to go to the doctor.' " But he'd waited too long. There were no beds available at NYU. He was in the first stages of pneumonia. He was quickly admitted to St. Mark Hospital's emergency room—the prototype for Paddy Chayefsky's "Hospital" script—and spent the next four weeks in the hospital. "I'd caused more damage to my body than necessary," he said. "But if I'd gone in earlier, I wouldn't have rewritten the show and couldn't have seen it and the whole year would have been a waste. In a lot of ways, 'Echo Park' pulled me through."
During the Taper rehearsals, Hidalgo-Durand sat crouched over his laptop, rewriting while his eight-member cast labored under Mel Marvin's exacting eye. "You're not taking care of yourself," Mar-vin gently scolded when his playwright coughed. Hidalgo-Durand merely sighed, "When I get back to New York I'll see Doctor Bob." Word spred fast through the Los Angeles Latino community of artists. Actress Ivonne Coll, who portrayed the heroine's mother, said "Latino actors are all very excited and surprised that the Taper is doing this. Paul writes with an honorability. There is no ghetto language, no ghetto stereotypes, no 'bato' or 'ese.' His is a real barrio." On Martin Luther King Day, Hidalgo-Durand forgot all his aches and pains. For the presentation, his mentor Irene Fomes flew in from San Diego to attend. His friend Reza Abdoh flew in from New York, where he was preparing his latest work. His agent Tonda Marton attended. So did Alan Mandell.
"Echo Park" debuted on January 1992. Hidalgo-Durand died on December 1992.
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