Interview: Playwright Matthew Paul Olmos UNDERNEATH & All Around LOS ANGELES

Echo Theater Company's next production UNDERNEATH THE FREEWAYS OF LOS ANGELES will live-stream April 2 for sixteen Zoom performances

By: Apr. 01, 2021

Interview: Playwright Matthew Paul Olmos UNDERNEATH & All Around LOS ANGELES

The Echo Theater Company's next production UNDERNEATH THE FREEWAYS OF LOS ANGELES will live-stream April 2 for sixteen Zoom performances. Written by playwright Matthew Paul Olmos, this interactive murder mystery experience has been inspired by historical events centering in and around the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Michael Alvarez directs the cast of Mia Ando, Morgan Danielle Day, Amy K. Harmon, Gloria Ines, Roland Ruiz and Darrett Sanders.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Matthew!

You've set your play UNDERNEATH THE FREEWAYS OF LOS ANGELES in Boyle Heights where you grew up. Has Boyle Heights changed much since your youth?

While I was born in Montebello, it was actually my family who grew up in and around Boyle Heights. So, I've mostly experienced the changes through my mother's eyes, as she would often drive us through different parts of the neighborhood and talk about what used to be. I remember distinctly learning about Brooklyn Avenue and the Jewish community which used to be so present, I remember driving past what was Belvedere Junior High, where they gave my mother a pair of shoes when she didn't have any. So, when I think about change, my mind goes to how much my family's history is there and how they've since moved to different parts of L.A.

When your friends and family see UNDERNEATH, would they recognize any qualities of themselves in any of your seven characters?

Actually, Efren is a character who shows up in a lot of my work. He's based on my Auntie Maggie's longtime boyfriend and seems to represent a machismo or recklessness in men, but he's also a character whom audiences often make assumptions about, and then find out he has a real empathy beneath his volatile behaviors.

What would your three-line pitch of UNDERNEATH be?

An interactive murder investigation set against the backdrop of the Golden State Freeway being run through the Boyle Heights community. Audiences move from room-to-room questioning suspects in the case, while at the same time engaging in a conversation about what community means versus progress.

Have you worked with any of the UNDERNEATH cast or creatives before?

Interview: Playwright Matthew Paul Olmos UNDERNEATH & All Around LOS ANGELES This is my first time working the cast and creative team, which is a blessing as I'm trying to get more acquainted with the Los Angeles theater community. As a playwright who is originally from L.A., but spent most of my career in New York, I often feel like a bit of an outsider in L.A. theater.

How much tweaking did you make to adapt UNDERNEATH from live theatre to virtual Zooming?

This process actually began with Echo's Artistic Director Chris Fields calling me up and asking if I'd be interested in creating some sort of virtual, interactive experience where the audience would be investigating a crime. So, I started with that in mind, but I had to think of ways to make it my own. And then, of all the ideas I proposed, Chris naturally gravitated to the one which was actually really personal for me.

Do you see a live theatre version of UNDERNEATH in the post-pandemic future?

As we've been rehearsing, I've totally been imagining it in a live setting.
I can see the audience moving to different spaces in the theater to talk with different suspects, then having a main room where they can compare notes and theories about the case. I think it'd be unique in that it's not just a murder investigation, but a social and political discussion as well.

How much hands-on involvement did you have in the pre-production of UNDERNEATH?

I've been involved since the beginning; from myself, Chris and producer Alana Dietze speaking dramaturgically about the script as I was developing it, to bringing the director Michael Alvarez on board, to the badass cast. And since we have this unpredictable element of an interactive audience coming in, we've all been brainstorming together how to orchestrate everything.

At what point does your script become set in stone? After the very first table read? After a premiere's dress rehearsal?

I learn and rewrite a lot when I'm in the room with the director and cast. It's actually maybe my favorite part of writing, to be in the room with everyone and figuring things out on the fly. It's just such a different experience to be writing on my own, to actually watching the characters in three dimensions. So, the script is never set until we've had that time together.

Interview: Playwright Matthew Paul Olmos UNDERNEATH & All Around LOS ANGELES UNDERNEATH isn't your first play at Echo Theater. How and when did you first connect with Echo?

In 2017, Jennifer Chambers invited me to be part of the Echo's Playwrights Lab along with crazy amazing playwrights like Boni Alvarez, Bekah Brunstetter, Michael O. Batistick, Jonathan Caren, Tom Jacobson, Mary Laws, Janine Nabers, Daria Polatin, and Eric Sanders. I used the Lab to develop my play, the shooters of an american president, which imagined two of JFK's assassins meeting up in an abandoned room in Dallas. It was then given a staged reading that year as part of Echo's LABFest; directed by Echo Associate Artistic Director Ahmed Best, and featuring the badass cast of Bernardo Cubria and Felix Solis.

Your list of fellowships, residencies and playwriting awards is most impressive. Does any particular one honor stand out to you? The very first one? The one from an institution you've always revered?

I had never really seen a play until I was a senior in college, and so I felt completely out of the loop when I was moving into playwriting. But I remember reading Sam Shepard's BURIED CHILD and something about it felt like home to me. So, years later, to have effin' Sam Shepard not only read my work, but to select me for an opportunity at La MaMa, etc. was kinda mind-blowing. It still feels surreal.

The Sundance Institute has also been such an artistic home for me, and I can vividly remember standing in the East Village and getting that first phone call from Philip Himberg to let me know my play, i put the fear of méxico in'em, was receiving a Sundance fellowship. I remember my whole body was shaking; it still makes me grin just thinking about it.

You teach at The School of Drama at New School University and the Dramatists Guild Institute. What is the one writing edict that you stress in all of your lessons?
It's actually something one of my early mentors, Rogelio Martinez, taught me. That, we as theater artists create half of the play on stage, and the other half is created in the imaginations of the audience.

Interview: Playwright Matthew Paul Olmos UNDERNEATH & All Around LOS ANGELES What gives you more gratification: Writing a new scene in the privacy of your home? Or seeing a light bulb moment in one of your students?

While I am continually inspired by seeing my students discover something in their voice or craft, it is almost indescribable the feeling when I stumble upon a breakthrough in one of my plays.

What progress have you seen in Latinx theatre since you began your writing career?

A ton has changed during my career. I remember seeking out Latinx-focused theaters because I felt like, 'I guess this is where I belong.'
But when the Latinx Theatre Commons made it their mission to create a "national movement to transform the narrative of the American theatre," I felt like I was being connected to Latinx artists and organizations from all over and that we together were going to rip open where we belonged.
I'm in awe of what LTC has accomplished and look forward to how the landscape continues to grow.

How is your impending production of three girls never learnt the way home at Colorado College coming along?

It's particularly exciting for me because the play deals with three high school girls who are being bussed to a more affluent district; so, to have students who are close to that age in the production really teaches me a lot about the characters.

What else is in the future for Matthew Paul Olmos?

I'm currently part of The Geffen Playhouse's Writers Room, working on play which is inspired by Samantha Power's The Education of an Idealist and explores what leadership looks like during a public health crisis. I'm also part of Under Construction at The Road and MADlab at Moving Arts.

I'm also beginning to focus on film and just finished adapting my play that drive thru monterey into a feature.

How do you see live theatre re-opening up again?

My production in Colorado is actually socially-distanced and in-person, so I feel like we're around the corner from being together again. And then hearing that The Public is going to have their Shakespeare in the Park this summer, I feel like the fall is a real possibility.

Thank you again, Matthew! I look forward to solving the murders in your UNDERNEATH THE FREEWAYS OF LOS ANGELES.

For viewing tickets to one of the sixteen virtual performances of UNDERNEATH THE FREEWAYS OF LOS ANGELES April 2 through April 26, 2021; log onto



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