Diana Burbano: I had a play development opp yesterday with a bunch of people that I love, and it was like they ripped my heart out of my chest and threw it on the floor and then jumped up and down on it a little bit, so I just want to put that on the table. I'm really raw about the whole playwriting thing, but I think that's okay because that's what we want to talk about, right? It's such a big topic. What was this year like for you? Jennie?
Jennie Webb: Right this moment, not feeling raw so much as panicky because I have to get a draft of a new play done by Saturday! But you know, one of the things that’s happened to my life in the pandemic as a playwright is, even though I'm not like a jump-to-it, panicky person in general, I've gotten a little more “slow down and it will be okay!” Because it will be okay; it has to be okay, right?
Before the pandemic, I was kind of a one-thing-at-a-time person. I never understood people who had different projects they were working on simultaneously. I was like, "Uh, how can you do that?" And now I need to do that, which is really interesting. So I'm finding new ways of working, new ways into the material. And I'm having a great time meeting new artists because of our hated best friend called Zoom. It's been interesting, with a lot of positive along with the heartbreak. But it's really changed my perspective in a lot of ways as a writer: working on new plays and working with other writers.
Diana Burbano: Mm-hmm. What about you, Thelma?
Thelma V. de Castro: It was a really busy time. I think people felt the pressure to do something, and then many people called on other people to do something. One of those groups was Logan Squared Productions, here in San Diego. That's Hannah Logan and Ron Logan. They came up with Theatre Is the Cure pretty quickly when the pandemic first started. Diana, I believe you wrote a piece for them, and Jennie, too. They got playwrights from around the world to write monologues based on prompts. Actors memorized the monologues and then worked with directors via Zoom. The performances were broadcast live. It was challenging because they were putting up sets of monologues every week. The San Diego Union-Tribune named it the Best Pandemic-Related Project in the 2020 Theatre Year in Review. I think a lot of artists were trying to stay busy and creative and also make opportunities for other people to stay creative. I've really benefited from that. I've enjoyed the connections, too, like participating in the Dramatists Guild’s End of Play. That really pushed me to work on my full-length play, which I haven't finished yet, but still, you feel this community of everybody raising the bar. Keep writing, keep going, keep doing something.
Diana Burbano: Nice, thank you. What about you, Luis?
Luis Alfaro: Yeah, I loved End of Play; I had a great time with it. It was a new way of defining community for us, right? As we talk about going online, I was thinking a lot about how the world did open up to us. I really agree with Jennie; in some way you shift to the world… I feel like the pandemic, in some way, was a kind of trial that taught me something about myself. I learned a lot about myself.
I learned a lot about being a loner. I live alone, and that was a particular challenge. The first three months were, I think, about anxiety and depression, and I didn't really acknowledge it or recognize it, because it's not something I had ever had in my life. But yeah, look at me, in this dark Zoom room… this is the space where I connect with people. So, all of a sudden, your isolation becomes a way out into the world.
Also, I was thinking about the Zoom room, and I was thinking about how we did readings and workshops, and how I saw a million shows, and I think that I missed the nuance of the physical body on stage. When I write a play, I see an entire person on stage, the depth of space, filling space, right? And I was thinking, “Wow, I didn't realize that was the thing I really missed. And I don't know if it's human contact so much, as right now we're all beautiful heads. Look at us. We're like all these floating heads, which is beautiful, but we don't see the entire context of who we are, right?
Diana Burbano: Yes. I had that experience. I taught at Portland Actors Conservatory all year, and all I saw were their heads. Then they actually got to perform on stage, and I couldn't believe the difference in height! I couldn't believe it. It's just such a strange disconnect from the people that I'd worked with so intensely for such a long time.
Luis Alfaro: Yeah, I think the body on stage makes a big difference, and I think that if we were to think about how the season went, we might've missed bodies, but what we inherited or what we got in full beautiful display was language. Does anybody else feel that? I really feel that strongly.
Jennie Webb: Yeah, I feel working online is a different way of looking at the work. I mean, I feel like this is sort of a “time out,” kind of like growing and feeding ourselves in a different way, and moving forward we can look back and say, "Ah, okay. Now we've learned different things."
But talking about bodies, did you go see Playwrights’ Arena’s March, staged in the LGBT Center parking structure? It was in October, and I was driving down Santa Monica Boulevard in my car crying because I had taken that road so many times and I hadn't done it in six months, and it was like, "This is the most beautiful thing, these bodies out there!" Even though it was technically a bit wonky with speakers and all that kind of stuff… just, yeah, the live interaction. Obviously, we've all said this over and over again, but it will be interesting now that we can go on to the next thing. I'm teaching a workshop right now, and the end of it is a reading in late June or the beginning of July, and I'm like, maybe we can do it in my living room! Whoa, what will that be like? It's very exciting, just the thought of it.
Diana Burbano: It's interesting that you say that about the text, because I have to confess with these Zoom offerings, I turn the video off and I just listen. And most of the time, most plays, I love them that way. I see the show in my mind’s eye and I'm really happy. There's something about the flatness of Zoom that is hard to get comfortable with. And I have acted in a lot of plays online! But trying to connect with somebody on Zoom is so freaking weird. But it does make you really appreciate the beauty and vitality of language.
Thelma V. de Castro: I'm working on the TAG Project, which is going to take place in August, and it's set at the mouth of the San Diego River. My producer at Playwrights Project was thinking, let’s do it live, because people would want to be there at the site. But I didn't envision it that way. I really feel this is a pandemic project. We’re in this weird transition, and I'm making the choice to make the performances be live readings of the scripts on Zoom, because I want the focus to be on the writing, not the video editing. So that's the dilemma for all of us now as we're moving out of the pandemic. What did we gain from the Zoom plays and what did we lose? What do we want to keep? New Village Arts used technology to connect playwrights and people isolated in skilled nursing facilities in Saving Stories. My Co-Ambassador Aleta Barthell was a producer/playwright. Zoom makes theatre more accessible for some people.
Luis Alfaro: Yeah, I agree.
Diana Burbano: And for other writers, too. Yeah?
Luis Alfaro: I was just going to say, my appreciation of Audible, which I had never had really liked. All of a sudden the radio play became a really interesting way of working. I had an experience three weeks ago where I went to a reading, they said it was a webinar, so I was in my bed, fully naked, and very happy. And then I got on, and it was like, "Oh my God, it's on Zoom," and they were like, "Everybody turn on your cameras." So there was a moment where I thought, I'm just going to listen to this, obviously, without the video on, but it was very beautiful just to hear language again. I think maybe we got very sensitive to how words impact and how we can do things as playwrights that we haven't done before. So I'm all with Thelma in that world. I really feel like there's a kind of work that we did this year that was different than maybe another year.
Jennie Webb: L.A. Theatre Works is doing new stuff and re-releasing recordings, and all of a sudden, it’s like, "Oh yeah, just listening is legitimate!" Some of my plays have been done as radio plays over the past year and that’s also been very cool.
Luis Alfaro: I was thinking about how there was also the proliferation of Writers' Group in Los Angeles. How many writers' groups are happening all of a sudden, and I think that's the gift of this in a way, too.
Diana Burbano: Yes, it is. That's one of the things that we were able to do at Breath of Fire down in Santa Ana. We got a Zoom account and said, "Let's just gather people and see if anybody wants to write in a room with us so that we're not so lonely." We had a beautiful collaboration on our Covid Monologues, and that brought us into a community with many people across the country. These friendships became super intense with writers and actors that I've never met in person.
And there was Dear ONE: Love & Longing in Mid-Century Queer America, a radio play that Josh Gershick did at San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre as part of its AmeriQueer Audio Play Series. It was beautiful, touching, heartbreaking. There was a video element to it, but it was all about the words, and that was really the beginning of my thinking, "Yeah, during the pandemic the important part is going to be listening to people's stories."
Luis Alfaro: I did a project with The Chalk Rep, which is a site-specific theatre here in LA, and it was so much fun. We started like six months ago, it's finally going up in June, but the thing that was great about it was that it's an audio tour, so the prompts were all sounds, which I thought was really great. So rather than focus on location or visual, you had to really focus on sounds, how sounds were making the connection.
Thelma V. de Castro: There's been an explosion of short work, so I'm concerned about my own attention span and everybody else's! I'm just really used to pieces being five minutes long, ten minutes long. One of the groups that has done these little five-minute play readings is the Hey Playwright! podcast, from here in San Diego. It’s put on by Mabelle Reynoso and Tori Rice. They've had a couple of virtual readings. One was about Valentine's; another was about Halloween. But again, they gave opportunities to playwrights to submit from around the world with just five-minute pieces, and they're really effective.
Luis Alfaro: Which brings up the issue of Charles McNulty's controversial editorial, right?
Diana Burbano: Yes, the great intermission controversy.
Luis Alfaro: Yeah, intermissions… what does that mean? I had a student who wrote a 142-page play, and the class was like, "Are you crazy? Now you're going to cut it down, right?" and I was like, "Hmm, I don't know if she needs to cut it down. I actually think that's what it is, 142 pages." I just received Sarah Shulman's book on Act Up, and it's like 714 pages and it perfectly makes sense, but that would be a 3-act play. This is interesting now, because when you go to a theatre, especially the big theatres, they want you to do 90 minutes. They want you in, they kind of want it out, they want that complete experience. When I was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival we craved intermissions because intermissions is how we make money, concessions, right, concessions, the gift shop, all those things. And so I just wonder if anybody thinks about that in their own work?
Jennie Webb: I generally have always written shorter full-lengths, but one of the last plays I wrote was with Rogue Artists Ensemble, and we were staging the reading and I realized, "Oh my God, I have to put an intermission in!" I had to write some new stuff and that turned out to be almost my favorite part of the play. That happened in spring of 2019, so I don't know how it will work when we go back into the theatres. I mean, we can predict what we'll want, what audiences will want, and what writers will want to write, but the thought of sitting in a theatre for two, three hours to watch The Kentucky Cycle right now? I would love that. Can you imagine watching Cider House Rules, having two intermissions, just spending all day in the theatre with other people and talking? I think that would be delightful. Right now I feel like after 70 minutes in a theatre and then having to leave, I would be, "No, no, no! More, more, more!"
Luis Alfaro: In a way we've learned to arc sooner, right? We've learned to arc quicker. I'm not sure that's better, and there is a joy in the old way of really ramping up, learning character, learning subtext.
Jennie Webb: I think we also spend so much time on Zoom. I've never looked at myself more in my life than I have this past year, and that's got to stop – saying faster, faster, faster, and we don't have the space to breathe and to settle. I think it will be very interesting what we crave and what shifts when we go into the theatre and sit down and find ourselves leaning forward and taking it all in.
Diana Burbano: Yes, yes.
Luis Alfaro: I was thinking about one of the plays that I saw on Zoom that I really enjoyed, even though I was conflicted with it, an echo production of Matthew Paul Olmos's play Underneath the Freeways of Los Angeles, which was actually an interactive murder mystery. The actor would come into the space for about nine minutes, and then you had to interrogate them, and it was like the most awkward – I was like, all of a sudden, "Oh my God, I should've dressed up." I was having so many issues – more than the actors were, right?
But there was a moment in the group that I was in, there was an elderly couple [in the audience], and the actor was trying to really get through the scene, and the woman made the actor stop. He was having the hardest time because he had so much information he had to tell you, but she was like, "No, no, no, you're going much too fast, because you think we're on your same rhythm and we're not." Isn't that an interesting concept?
Diana Burbano: Yes, wow.
Jennie Webb: And on Zoom you don't always have the audience. You have individual audiences when you do the little breakout rooms. One of the first things I saw online that made me very happy was Ghost Road’s workshop of their new piece, Super Duper, and in it, you were in an audience space with people you didn't know.
Luis Alfaro: Yeah, it's very social.
Diana Burbano: Did any of you see the Geffen's Bollywood Kitchen? I really was enchanted by it because they sent a box of spices and recipe cards and you were supposed to buy ingredients. I mean, it was kind of an involved thing for the audience to do. But you would turn on your laptop and the writer Sri Rao would talk to you and you would both cook while he told his stories of being an immigrant. So you had set up your laptop somewhere where you could cook and watch the show, and it had such fun Bollywood music, and it was really accessible. It was storytelling that was alive through cooking, and I thought, "This is the best. This is what this Zoom is for," because here I am, cooking Indian food that I've never cooked before, I'm experiencing something, I'm listening to this music that's wonderful, and then at the end we all danced. It was a joy! Except the thing that happens to me is as soon as it's done, I'm like, "Oh my God, I'm so depressed now."
I need my gossip. I need mi chisme. I'm kind of an introvert, actually, most of the time, but I love to be around that energy.
Thelma V. de Castro: Yeah. I think many people experienced that excitement and letdown, especially at the beginning of the pandemic when we first gathered virtually, like, "Yay, we're all together! We're all together!" Circle Circle dot dot had some readings, and we were all gathered online, we're typing in the chat, we're having a good time, and then when it ends…it's horrible. The isolation hits you. There’s no transition.
I took a class called Beyond the Proscenium through East West Players. That was exciting. "Hey, I'm in this class and I don't have to drive to LA!" It was the irony of being able to do anything creatively, like cooking lessons as theatre, moving outside the actual theatre, but during the pandemic you weren’t really doing anything; you're still in your room. So yeah, it's going to be weird. We’ll see how this creativity we have in our little spaces translates to the outside world.
Luis Alfaro: I'm hoping that in some way what's happening is that we all seem to be craving something bigger than ourselves this time, right? That we've learned a tremendous lesson about our individualism, and now we're going back into a kind of communal experience.
We are going to see maybe something like a version of a Greek theatre, like a simple platform, and then really interesting projection that just takes you wherever you need to go. I don't know if that's true or not, but I throw that out because I myself am yearning to see bodies move in space.
Jennie Webb: Or investing in alternative theatre spaces. I can't wait to see An Octoroon outside at the Fountain, which may be more of a traditional space since they're building a stage. But you know Katie Lindsay’s A Walk in My Neighborhood, which was a site-specific piece with audio narration, was so wonderful to experience.
One of the things that I think really helped me get through the pandemic was that I was involved in the first writers’ group, Under Construction, at The Road Theatre, with ten other incredible playwrights. We started out in October of 2019 writing new plays, and then of course shifted online, and then they gave us an opportunity to write Zoom plays, which was fascinating in itself. Then in January of this year, we had the online readings of plays which were not written for Zoom, and, of course, some people's plays transfer better.
Mine tend to be very theatrical, so I keep thinking, "Okay, use Zoom as tool, and as a dramatist, translate." Just like when you get feedback after a reading, you have to translate it, right? But with the Road, we hopefully will have the opportunity to have readings of these same plays live either this fall or next January. So it will be fascinating, going back to that play, having seen it on Zoom after starting it live, then seeing what happens when it's put on stage or maybe outside in a parking lot or wherever. We're all looking for ways to transition to what's next, right?
Diana Burbano: I know. I have a play that has been done on Zoom like four different times, but it's not written for Zoom. It's supposed to be very physical, and I'm grateful, obviously, that it was done, but I still don't know what the play actually is.
Luis Alfaro: Yeah.
Jennie Webb: Let it breathe.
Diana Burbano: I know. Since we're kind of coming towards the end of our talk, I would love to know, well, a couple of things. A lot of us lost productions, obviously, lost things that were ready to open. Are any of those coming back for any of you?
Luis Alfaro: I had a big production at Denver Center that's not happening, and I think it's not happening because, to be quite frank, they're coming back with Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, and they're booking to make money, so anything that was sort of smaller in nature is not coming back. And then I had a play, one of the productions of Oedipus el Rey, that got to last preview and then it didn't get to opening night in Philadelphia, and the company just doesn't have the money to remount and to go back that way.
I'm looking at it all as a kind of loss, and move on to what is new, and what can we do in a different way. So, I'm excited about coming back in person. You know, I have held on to two plays. One of them is a children's play that I really wanted to do, but I did not want to do it on Zoom. I think in some ways it's like, how do we move on from this moment?
Diana Burbano: Brian Eugenio Herrera, a professor that both of us know, has spoken about the lost Latinx season. I want to name that because there's a lot of mourning, I think, because it sure felt like a bunch of nuestra gente were getting productions. All of a sudden it was a lot of Latinx theatre, and then…
Luis Alfaro: For all people of color. For me, I am mourning the loss of the emerging writer, and I'm really, really trying my best in every relationship that I have to try to get the regional theatres to not forget the emerging writer. Where are those people that graduated this year, and how do we welcome them into the field, because these opportunities were not readily available for them? This is a big question.
Diana Burbano: Yes. That's a very good question, especially writers of color, because we have been doing a lot of work on EDI, and there's been a lot of talk and not a whole lot of action being done. I wouldn't have a career if people like you, Luis, and Octavio (Solis) and José (Cruz Gonzaléz) didn't reach back and pull me up, and it’s our responsibility to reach back and pull up other young writers. But now, all the doors are shutting for everybody. I mean, we talk a lot about doing our work and doing our own theatre, especially in LA, so what is the region's character? Where is the region going to go? What is going to happen for BIPOC theatre makers? The future is murkier than ever.
Thelma V. de Castro: There was a lot of conversation in San Diego after the murder of George Floyd. San Diego Rep, La Jolla Playhouse, and The Old Globe started a series called We Are Listening, in which they interview Black theatre artists. The Old Globe, even before the pandemic, gathered Black theatre artists in conversation in an affinity group, and the Black Artists Collective came out of that, and an evening in the Powers New Voices Festival. That group is continuing to evolve, and the Old Globe is a resource for them.
I've been helping to facilitate conversations with the Asian American/Pacific Islander artist community through the Globe. There is some movement to support artists of color. We shall see. There's a lot of talk right now. We artists need to determine what we want, but some organizations are reaching out.
Jennie Webb: And in Los Angeles, likewise, there's a lot of talk that’s on my radar from smaller theatres, some of whom may not exist as actual spaces anymore. I would hope that especially the white theatre makers can be more intentional and not say, "Oh no, we just chose the best plays and they happen to be blah, blah, blah." I want to hear: No, we are choosing playwrights of color. We are choosing women playwrights. We are instituting policies that let artists know what happens if they're sexually harassed. We are creating safe spaces even if the spaces aren't physical. Because, you know, theatre itself is a ridiculous, risky business, so we all have a responsibility to make spaces safe in every respect. And now with the connections that we have made over the past year, hopefully actions and decisions will be intentional, and we can all hold each other accountable in that way.
Luis Alfaro: The work is really hard; the process is hard. I think a lot about this. We are in the county of Los Angeles, where ten million people speak 224 different languages, but we only perform in one, usually. So, that just tells you how far we have to go. As I was getting ready for this, I checked once again to see what the numbers are, and the numbers in the regional theatres are very interesting. We have seven leading regional theatres in the region, which is extraordinary. It's a wealth of riches. They're all led by white men. Now, they're all wonderful men, they're all wonderful people, but they're all white men. That's an apartheid. So what are we going to do about that?
And then you look at the Associate Artistic Directors. We have eight now, and it used to be we had none who were people of color, and now we have I think two who are POC. That's not good enough. That's not good enough for the representation of the region that we are in. We don't tell those stories because we don't see those stories, because the leadership of those institutions doesn’t represent those stories. They're great people, great leaders, but we have to change that. In order to diversify the theatre, we have to diversify it; it is that simple and that hard. I would say that we have to look at the Board of Directors.
Jennie Webb: Yes.
Luis Alfaro: Boards look a very specific way, and they don't include artists anymore, but they make artistic decisions often.
Jennie Webb: It's interesting. LA Female Playwrights Initiative, which is a group that I run, has been doing counts of Southern California LORT theatres in terms of gender parity for the past ten years. And women playwrights and directors are growing closer to 50 percent in the last full season we counted, which was 2019. But this year for the first time, and thank you to Jennifer Bobiwash, we got caught up and counted playwrights and directors of color in those same theatres and that percentage was down somewhere around 25 percent. So hopefully this is a “once you see you can't unsee” marker.
Diana Burbano: I think we have a lot of work to do, from who's choosing the plays and who's watching the plays, but also how do we get people of color and young people into the theatres and engaged. Because that's what's exciting about the theatre: young voices and multigenerational voices and all of us just speaking our truths. And you're absolutely right, it's got to break from the hegemony of the white male at the top of the pyramid, especially in LA. It's absurd. I can't even believe we're still doing this. There's no ceding of power, at least none that you would notice.
Luis Alfaro: Well, risk is hard, and we risk because we're coming out of a huge economic pandemic. I mean, look at the Ahmanson season; it's all white. And it's all exciting, it's all really exciting, I want to see every single one of those plays and musicals, but is that saying, then, that POC shows don’t make money? Because that’s not true. The big challenge is how do we finally, in post-pandemic, post-racial reckoning, say, "This is the risk we're going to take." And is it even a risk?
I had a very interesting conversation with a regional theatre, like a big one, and I said, "Why won't you just do a season of all women?" and they were sort of stumped. And I said, "Literally, East West Players could do a season of all Asian American female playwrights." I mean, female Asian American writing right now is so extraordinary. It is so extraordinary and so vibrant, and we're not capturing it as a movement. And I think it just takes one theatre to do a season of this work to say, "It's here. This is the norm. This is what's happening in the world," but I understand risk, I understand how hard it is for theatres, but are we coming back to make money, or are we coming back to make good on a promise of what this moment has taught us?
Jennie Webb: Exactly.
Diana Burbano: Yes.
Thelma V. de Castro: I know that the theatres in San Diego are undergoing their EDI trainings, and I know that they're uncomfortable.
They're working on it. It's a painful process for everybody involved, but I'm hopeful, too. Even at the level of the smaller theatres, people have been reaching out. That process can be very painful, as well, because not everybody has the training in how to talk to people. But there is movement.
Luis Alfaro: I think if we just expand the canon, if we just say to ourselves, "What is excellent? You know what, Jennie's excellent and why is Jennie not on bigger stages?" You could do that. Just say it and believe it.
Diana Burbano: Exactly.
Luis Alfaro: I've seen Twelfth Night eleven times. I don't want to see it one more time. The truth is, we've done it with Shakespeare; we've done it with every other major writer in the canon. Let us just assume that excellent stories live in every community. They live in every sort of way that we respond to the world. Let us celebrate it and let us just commit to it. Let's do that.
Jennie Webb: I'm down.
Diana Burbano: Me, too.
Well, this has been a wonderful conversation, everybody. I appreciate your willingness to come and chat. And I also want to say, I do feel hopeful! I am happy to know all of you as people that I collaborate with, and that I like very much. Moving forward with joy is a big theme for me at the moment, and I hope we can all do that.
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