BWW Interview: Prolific Director Jon Lawrence Rivera Leads ANNA Into THE TROPICS
Los Angeles Theatre Community staple, director Jon Lawrence Rivera will be previewing his latest directorial Open Fist project ANNA IN THE TROPICS April 26, 2019 at the Atwater Village Theatre, even before his previous directorial Playwrights' Arena's SOUTHERNMOST closes (also at the Atwater Village Theatre). Jon managed to squeeze some time for me between his masterful juggling of his two productions.
Thank you for making the time for this interview, Jon! When did you first become aware of Nilo Cruz' Pulitzer Prize-winning ANNA IN THE TROPICS?
Around the time it won the Pulitzer in 2003.
How soon after did you decide you wanted to direct it?
As soon as I read it over 15 years ago.
Would you describe the process you took in acquiring the rights to direct ANNA? (a simple phone call, handshake, your agent contacts his agent)
It was an email from Open Fist Artistic Director, Martha Demson, that began this journey for me. She wrote that she has an exciting idea, and if I could contact her as soon as possible. We spoke on the phone that morning, and she told me her company would like to do ANNA IN THE TROPICS, and she wanted to know my availability and interest. I was immediately interested. The availability was bit more tricky to maneuver, as I was in rehearsal for a show that would overlap for the first two weeks of ANNA rehearsals. Once the scheduling aligned, Martha acquired the rights.
What aspects of a script entices you to want to direct it?
I am always drawn to immigrant stories. As an immigrant myself, I find stories about coming to America and creating life here anew especially enticing. I want those stories told. This play deals with Cuban immigrants who came to Tampa, Florida in the early 1920s, not necessarily to embrace the American way, but to bring their culture and traditions here. It is one of the central conflicts in the play. Do we keep traditions or embrace the new world?
You founded Playwrights' Arena back in 1992 and have had a steady output of your directorial projects. You must have a large stable of actors to choose from in casting your productions, yes?
Yes. I have been blessed because I wanted Playwrights' Arena to be as diverse as possible as early as the 1990s. So I picked plays that truly reflected our city and cast them with mainly actors of color that mirror our population.
Have you worked with any of the TROPICS cast or creatives before?
I have worked with two of the actors before - Javi Mulero in the workshop of OEDIPUS L REY at the Getty Villas and Byron Quiros in several readings. The designers are mostly long time collaborators of mine, except for the sound designer who is new to me.
Aside from matching the specifics of the character one is trying out for, what qualities of an auditionee do you look for in whittling down your callback lists?
Fearlessness and flexibility. I like actors who take chances. I want them to make big choices and able to adapt other choices on a dime. Sometimes, in casting, I ask them to use opposite motivations to see if they can break the one they brought to the audition.
What would you advise an eager auditionee to do to prep for an audition for you?
I will always want to see their first take on the character. I do not give any notes or ideas before they give me their first audition. Then, based on what they bring to the room, I empower them to try a different tactic. This is a trick. Sometimes this new way might not align with the character or the scene, but it shows me that the actor will take direction, however ridiculous it may be. Or at least try. I never cast any actor who does not change his first audition to the adjusted one.
What are your pet peeves at audition sessions?
Actors playing it safe and playing scenes like it's a movie. I don't understand why an actor will come and stand literally two feet in front of me and softly say the words to convey intimacy in the scene. Even in a 99-seat theater, they would have to cover that intimate moment and be seen/felt by everyone in the room. I just don't get it.
You received your early theatrical schooling in Sydney, Australia. Was attending Los Angeles City College culture shock to you? Or not that different?
Yikes, you've done your homework. I finished high school in Sydney and tried to enter the prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Arts. I didn't get in because they said I sounded "American." So I joined the Ensemble Theatre Acting Program which was a remarkable training. The program included tap dancing, fencing, and speech. I was preparing to be an actor. I even acted as a South Pacific native in Somerset Maugham's RAIN with Judy Davis in the lead. It was a great year, until we got approval to come to the U.S. and left. When I came here, the culture shock for me was that everyone I met was an actor. It intimidated me, so I shifted my focus and went to the film program at LACC. I asked acting students from the theater department to be in my films, and, in exchange, they would ask me to direct them in their scenes. I found that directing plays was more rewarding and exciting than directing films. So I shifted my focus and joined the acting program. I was always impatient, so I left in 1984 to produce and direct my first play. It just snowballed from there.
What were some highlights of your 1981 stint with Up With People?
Oh, goodness! Where are you getting all this information? My year in Up With People gave me so much confidence. I was floating around, undecided what to do when I came to Los Angeles in 1979. During my year with UWP, we traveled to 70 U.S. cities, and more than 35 European cities (including performing the halftime at Super Bowl XVI). My exposure to all cultures and people really opened my eyes to the world, as we stayed with host families, not in hotels. I met some of my best friends in the program, who remain friends to this day. In fact, two of my UWP friends sit on my board at Playwrights' Arena. I do credit UWP with enlightening me to the path I am in now.
Do you ever miss singing or performing onstage? Or are you quite satisfied watching your directorial efforts unveil from offstage?
Ask any actor I've directed... they see me sing and perform during my notes sessions, LOL. Frankly, I do not miss the performance aspect of the show. It was stressful. This is why I have such great respect for all actors. They are out there giving so much of themselves without showing their anxiety. I love guiding actors to performances that push them a bit and helping them be secure in the choices we have made.
How would you compare your impression of the Los Angeles theatre community back when you founded Playwrights' Arena to its current state?
I think it was simpler and easier way back then. The rules were simple, the rents were affordable, and audiences weren't addicted to Netflix and 160-character tweets. It was also less diverse and equitable before. I think we are getting a little better in representing everyone on our stages. I see small steps in that direction, although I cringe at productions with an all-white cast set in New York or Los Angeles. Do these producers/directors not look outside their windows?
What accomplishments of Playwrights' Arena are you most proud of?
This is always the hardest question for me to answer. It's like claiming one of your children as your favorite. I will say that I have been most proud of productions that were not easy to birth because of either financial or artistic challenges like THE HOTEL PLAY (which was performed site-specifically at the Radisson Hotel near USC), BLOODLETTING, which had a rocky start but gained critical acclaim and moved to the Kirk Douglas Theatre as part of BLOCK PARTY, HELEN at the Getty Villa, and BLACK DAWN - our first production that moved from a 35-seat theater on Pico Boulevard to an Equity theater (The Ivar) in the mid-1990s.
Thank you again, Jon! I look forward to spending some time in your TROPICS!
All the best to you, Gil.
For ticket availability and show schedule through June 8, 2019; log onto www.openfist.org