Interview with "Fish Men" Playwright and New Yorker Cándido Tirado, Play Features WSP Chess Plaza "Hey Day," Healing After 9/11

Playwright Cándido Tirado

Earlier this week, WSP Blog featured a guest review of the Chicago-based play, “Fish Men,” currently running through Sunday at the Goodman Theatre. I spoke with playwright Cándido Tirado, a New Yorker, about the origins of “Fish Men,” his experiences at Washington Square Park, and whether the play will make its way to NYC. Tirado is a master chess player who has played at WSP. His recollections of the chess “hey day” at Washington Square are fascinating.

Q: I hear you are a master chess player. How did you learn to play chess?

It was 1973-1974, the Bobby Fischer era. Everyone was playing chess in my college; I said no, it’s too boring. I’m a contrarian by nature – if everyone’s doing it, I don’t want to do it. I came home to New York and my best friend had learned. I was drunk. My brother and my best friend tied me down to a chair and that’s how I learned. I understood the game immediately. It just spoke to me. I lost 25 games. When I won my first game, it was like the skies opened up and music came. It was an incredible feeling.

Q: What were your experiences at Washington Square Park? Did you know the players there?

Washington Square Park was great. A lot of great chess players – grand masters – would come down. You never knew who was going to be there. It was like going to a restaurant and Brad Pitt walks in. At that time, it was beautiful. There were good hustlers who are charismatic and it was a show. They were not only playing for money; it was more than a hustle – it was a show. People applauded at the end.

Chess Plaza ‘Back in the Day’ (circa 1990)

At one point, the park changed. There were card tables by the bathrooms. The drugs were sold there. The Parks Department closed the tables and the drug dealers came over by the chess tables. That’s what killed the whole chess familial activity that we had there. The grand masters stopped coming. Families stopped coming to watch. Every now and then a good player came but people started going to other places like Union Square.

Now they put a garden in the middle of it. Just because you put flowers in doesn’t mean the drug dealers are going to leave. The middle is where people used to talk. Now people walking right through. To do that, now you have to move nearer to the players.

Chess Plaza Now with Flower Bed in Center

Are the characters in the play based on people you met at WSP?

They are composites of different characteristics of people. The chess hustler and chess talk. People go to the park; we don’t know each other that deep. I’ve known people for 20 years and know nothing else about them.

What about the term “Fish Men?” Is that a term actually used by the players?

A fish is someone weaker than you. Someone you can make money from – a fish.

How did you get the idea to do as theater in the round?

In the park you walk right by the tables; I wanted to give that experience. That’s how you feel when you’re there [at the show].

How did the idea for the play come about?

I’ve been working on this play for 12 years. I’ve wanted to write a play about chess for a long time. I’d been looking for it. One day, I was walking with my friend who is a theoretical writer who lives in the East Village through Washington Square Park. Whenever I’m in the Village, I come to the park. We would talk for hours about theory. We had a long discussion – like 3 or 4 hours – walking through the park and the play comes to me like a wave. It just came to me.

The play is a hope for humanity. I talk about genocide in the play. One of the characters is Guatemalan and experienced the Guatemalan genocide. I was looking at the play, at [the idea of] fish. It took me 3 days to find link to the Mayans. There’s a big play off in the play and what that means – the concept of revenge. Even if you get revenge, what that does to you. Chess is the vehicle of the play; the other issues are the destination. Revenge, genocide, how to go on — is there hope for humanity? The smaller idea is how this individual deals with it. One character “92” is a holocaust survivor and 80 years old. He doesn’t play chess but he was a prodigy in Berlin. Chess allowed him to survive the concentration camp. There’s a connection between him and Rey, a younger man. It’s almost like a chess game [the interchange, relationship] between 92 and Rey.

How did the play evolve?

A play is always evolving; people give you ideas. In the rehearsal process, I rewrote a lot. Writing on a conscious and subconscious level. The chess choreography almost killed me. Having the actors learn chess – it’s like doing a musical with actors who are not dancers and singers. [How to express] a win, they have to learn that.

I know the history of chess back and forth. I had to read about genocide. I read a lot of books. I started getting depressed. Then 9/11 happened. When the second plane hit, I was downtown. I got hit by chards of glass. I got more depressed. But then 9/12 happened – the spiritual connection everybody had in New York. It was like the Phoenix rising. If the firemen needed food, they got food, too much food. Everybody was giving. Even on the trains, you felt this different energy. It was the spiritual outcome of the tragedy. That made the play positive – [that experience] the spiritual integration. It’s about us getting broken and coming back together and being able to understand what happens after tragedy. The play is about healing and the integration of the broken spirit.

[After that, the U.S.] went into revenge mode. That killed the spirit. It was anger – one note. It’s still there 10 years later. We could have collaborated with the rest of the world. They were there with us. Historically, that’s going to be one of the biggest regrets – 100, 200 years from now. We had a chance to heal the world.

How does the playing of the game of chess relate to these people’s difficult experiences? How does playing chess help them?

Chess has saved some of their lives. It got them from a bad place to a good place. They proved something to themselves. From the fish perspective, you want to beat the hustler. The fish wants to come on top of the hustler at least one time. Someone who beats you will always beat you. They try to beat you before you even sit down. The hustlers see the fish as an ATM. The fish needs to regain some personal dignity; some equilibrium. The fish they [the hustlers] have to hook so they come back for more. So the hustler will be nice and massage you after he beats the heck out of you.

Will “Fish Men” be coming to NYC?

I’m working with my agent to bring the play to theaters in New York. New Yorkers are going to relate to it in so many ways. You don’t know how badly I want this in New York. I wrote this play for New York.

There are characters with different ethnicities, like New York. The chess world is like that. In the theater world, some mainstream theaters, they don’t see that. They couldn’t believe these different ethnicities would come together. These people are composites. There’s Latino, Black, Russian, Jewish, Asian, WASP – from the hey day of the park, all those characters were there.

How does the audience learn in the play that the setting is Washington Square Park?

The characters say it; there are huge panels [surrounding the stage] that have iconic images of the park – the Arch, the top of the buildings -NYU, above the tree line showing the Church [Judson]. During the play, people hear dogs barking in the background from the dog run.

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Top Photo: Courtesy Goodman Theatre

Middle Photo: Daaim Shabazz via The Chess Drum Photo depicts “Russian Paul” waiting for a game while Ernest Colding (seated right) is in a test.

Bottom Photo: Cathryn