Theatrical Poetry: Director Malcolm Tulip discusses his U-M production of Federico García Lorca's "Yerma"



“Theater is poetry that gets up from the page and makes itself human. And when it does that, it talks and shouts, cries and despairs.”

--Federico García Lorca 

The plot of Yerma -- a story about a woman’s struggles with societal pressures to conceive -- isn’t what makes Lorca’s 1934 tragedy a must-see classic.

What gives it power are the songs, dance, heightened gesture, and visual elements -- the poetry. “Lorca called Yerma ‘a tragic poem in six paintings,’” notes Malcolm Tulip, director of the University of Michigan production running February 20-23 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.  

“Most people assume Yerma is the name of the protagonist, a woman who hasn’t been able to have a child," Tulip says, but the word means “barren” in Spanish and perhaps it isn’t a name at all. Perhaps it “describes this woman’s inner and outer worlds. Yerma here might be a naming of the woman's reluctance or inability to accept the seed of a man who she married out of duty. ... The landscape, like her womb, is uninhabited, possibly uninhabitable."

Scenic designer Vince Mountain, who has worked at experimental companies as well as regional theaters, opera companies, commercial theaters, television, and film, has often collaborated with Tulip. The two decided on a contemporary set that could become barren.

“There is just one piece of furniture on it, a chair, and 92 wooden pallets,” Tulip says. But he won’t say how the pallets are used. “What we do is treat the whole stage as we would paintings. The audience is reading things visually, through the composition and gestural language of the characters.” 

Tulip decided that he wanted to work with a cast of mostly women on something non-naturalistic, so he looked at different translations of Yerma. “I found an interesting one by a trans woman, Jo Clifford,” he says, suggesting that she might bring a sensitive eye to the text." Tulip says a question the play asks is, “Should a woman’s identity be linked to her willingness or ability to have children?” 

Lorca, who studied law and literature at the University of Granada from 1915, was more taken with music than literature. He wrote poetry and drew sketches before he came to writing puppet plays and plays, and he penned short fiction with titles like NocturneBallade, and Sonata that employed musical forms. His friends included filmmaker Luis Brunel and painter Salvador Dali, significant figures in the surrealist movement. (Dali designed sets for one of Lorca’s early plays.) As he developed into a major playwright, Lorca began to see theater as a medium for social action. His life was cut short at the age of 38 when Lorca was executed in 1936 by a firing squad of Franco’s soldiers for his political involvements, and perhaps for his homosexuality.  

Tulip incorporated some of Lorca’s poems and original dialogue in different parts of the play, spoken in Spanish, the language they were written in and the first language of some cast members. They are presented without surtitles. Maggie Shea, who is Tulip's assistant, studies Spanish, which has been useful in rehearsals.

The cast created a choral score. Henry Reynolds designed the supporting soundscape with student associate designers Matthew Boutte and Michael Halloran. 

Tulip studied dance and art at Goldsmiths, University of London and is a graduate of L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. He teaches physical theater and clowning as well as directing, acting, and devised theater. He could have staged dances himself, but Tulip brought in an MFA dance student from Costa Rica, Mario Vircha, to choreograph Yerma. Others on the artistic team are lighting designer Sam Weiser and costume designer Saawan Tiwari, both students.

The team has been working to bring Lorca’s poetry to life.  

Davi Napoleon is an Ann Arbor-based theater historian and freelance arts journalist.

“Yerma” runs from Thursday, February 8 to Sunday, February 11 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N University Ave., Ann Arbor. For tickets and further information, visit or the Facebook event page.