THE BOSTON COURTERLY Interview with Playwright Luis Alfaro

Each quarter we bring you a Q & A with a featured playwright or theatre professional currently at work with The Theatre @ Boston Court. These conversations are meant to shine a light on the playwright’s work and the Boston Court process, as well as provoke further discussion on the state of theatre today.

Luis Alfaro

For this inaugural issue, we chatted with Los Angeles-based playwright Luis Alfaro about his new play Oedipus El Rey, which kicks off The Theatre @ Boston Court’s 2010 Season and is presented as part of an NNPN Rolling World Premiere with The Magic Theatre in San Francisco and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, DC.

BOSTON COURTERLY: Oedipus El Rey is presented as a shared world premiere.
How will you utilize this unique situation in the development of the play?

LUIS ALFARO: I love the idea that a world premiere can happen in three different
places! It’s the reality of the economy and the world having its impact on the
theatre. Our business as artists in the theatre is collaboration, so this idea works
well for us. Each theatre (Pasadena, San Francisco and Washington DC) all seem to
have a different take on the play. I am one of those writers who respond well to
collaborators. I feel strongly about who I work with because I really listen to what
they have to say. I also love writing for actors specifically. I listen to the way they use
language and I try to incorporate that into the text. I look at their bodies and I want
my text to help them move! I want them to be the most successful they can with the
material, so why not help make it part of the uniqueness they bring to their craft? I
used to work in the field of HIV/AIDS awareness, and one of the largest grants that I
administered was the result of many non-profits coming together to apply for
Federal money they wouldn’t have qualified for on their own. I always remember the
experience and joy of learning about others through my own work. Each dramaturg
on the project so far has brought a wonderful piece of information into the process.
Especially helpful has been Mary Hart, a scholar on the Greeks up at the Getty Villa
in Malibu and Father Greg Boyle, who runs a gang prevention center in Los Angeles
called Homeboy Industries. I really appreciate being informed. Whenever I start a
new project I want to feel like a clean slate, I want to be the least informed person
in the room, and soak up all the ideas as if I am hearing them for the first time. I
don’t like repeating experiences – life is too short – how can this new play be like
the first play I have ever written – what do I need to tell this story?

BC: What did you see in the original Oedipus that inspired a Los Angeles setting?
LA: Well, a tale of a young man who acts in hubris as a way of avoiding his destiny
or fate. Being a teacher, I can tell you that I meet an Oedipus every semester! I was
so taken with the idea that the Gods have already decided what our destiny is that
only one so young and full of life could challenge such a decision. I was thinking a
lot about the translation of the play today. I had written an Electra, my version is
called Electricidad, a few years ago that focused on the idea of how the notion of
revenge destroys those around us, but mostly inside us. This time I was thinking a
lot about where the new kings might be and the thought of prison entered my mind
– alternate societies that exist in our time but with very old rituals and ideas about
fate. The young king goes up for parole and he goes to the last great city – Los
Angeles, at the edge of the ocean, the edge of the world, on the rim, a city with over
1000 spoken languages, a perfect place to find your kingdom, don’t you think? I
love the Greek plays. They transcend time and they lend themselves to the issues of
today, which are classically the same.

BC: As a writer, you have worked in television and as a spoken word artist. Why
keep coming back to plays?

LA: I love the theatre. It’s where my alchemy happens – this collision between
passion/desire and skill/technique. It’s such an ancient form. I have always felt that
I am part of a larger continuum, a legacy of writers who have gone before me and
will go after. I contribute the story of today, and hopefully it speaks to the issues
that matter most to us today. I was always so lonely as a writer. I started in poetry,
then performance, with stops in journalism, short stories and criticism along the
way. By the time I came to the theatre, I longed to be in a room with other artists,
sharing our work. The theatre gives you both the opportunity for meditation and
collaboration in the same form. Film and television could not live without writers,
but it is not their form – it’s a director’s medium. Writers are not valued, truly
valued, like they are in theatre.

BC: In the past few years, we have seen a number of theatres cut back on play
development. How have you created new opportunities for the development of your
own work?

LA: Well, I am a bit different than most artists. Twenty-five years ago I promised
myself that I would make my living as an artist and that is what I have done. I teach
as an artist. I do community work as an artist. I create a great deal of theatre with
people who have no idea what theatre is. I write a lot. I perform a lot. I help make
our field more interesting and excellent. This year I even did a book review for the
L.A. Times. I sit on a lot of panels. I approach my life and work solely through the
lens of an artist. I am always imagining how I might take a story and make it a work
of art. My most exciting projects come from places I have never experienced. I have
a film that I wrote with a partner, a film director, who took a year to show me the
French method of writing screenplays. Classical structures and understanding the
emotional and psychological impact of images. I have a new respect for Tarkovsky,
Bunuel and Bergman. Right after we sold our screenplay to Lionsgate, I rented an
Eric Rohmer film and just wept! The sad demise of New Play Development is a
reflection of the culture in general – no investment in the next generation. A lack of
belief in young people. It makes me so sad. I came into my own as an artist through
mentorship and investment. I keep reminding theatres that it is not about the play
that young exciting writer is working on today – it’s the Pulitzer Prize winner six
plays down the line! But no one wants to make that kind of investment anymore.
Young artists have to be the inventors of their own journeys. I was first mentored by
C.Bernard Jackson at the Inner City Cultural Center in downtown Los Angeles, then
by Scott Kelman at Pipeline on Skid Row and then Maria Irene Fornes, who taught
me so very much, including how to respect my work, and handed me over to Paula
Vogel, who handed me over to Mac Wellman, who handed me over to Len Jenkin,
and on and on and on. See, there’s that continuum at play. The building of a
community through artists both established and emerging. I was an emerging artist
for over twenty years. It’s not easy work, especially if you like to experiment, or
expose to light that which has been in the dark for so long. It might be scary to
look under the scab or scar, but it’s necessary. I mentor a young artist every year.
This year it has been the Assistant Director on this production, Nathan Singh, a
young Indian artist of great potential and passion. We talk about plays, we share
ideas, we eat meals together and talk about the joys and difficulties of how to do
this work.He’s my friend, my colleague and he is the future. I had something to do
with that. How fulfilling.

BC: What excites you about working with The Theatre @ Boston Court?
LA: For me, ultimately, the theatre is about community. A building is just a building.
I have learned you can do theatre anywhere. It’s the quality of the people inside the
building that matter. Jessica (Kubzansky, Co-Artistic Director of The Theatre @
Boston Court) I have known for such a long time. There is a lot of colleagueship here
and ultimately it’s the spirit of collaboration and the collision of ideas that make a
creative tension happen. Jon Rivera has done almost all of my plays. I trust him and
a lot of these actors I know intimately through other plays of mine. The new actors I
have just met seemed to be the kind of people one wants to be in the room making
art with. They are playful, creative and culturally alive. That’s super important.
First thing is passion. Second is intellectual curiosity. Hopefully it is attached
to talent! For my sake, I hope it is!

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