BWW Interview: Karen Zacarías on Writing, Passion for Theatre, and the World Premiere of Her Play INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH, at Milagro Theatre

This spring, Portland's Milagro Theatre, whose mission since 1985 has been to provide "extraordinary Latino theatre, culture, and arts education experiences for the enrichment of all communities" is presenting the world premiere of its first commissioned play, INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH: AN ADVENTUROUS QUEST, by Karen Zacarías, based on the novel by Luis Alberto Urrea. In advance of the opening, I sat down with Zacarías to learn about her life, the play, and what she thinks about the Portland theatre scene.

The day of the interview happened to be Zacarías's birthday, and I mean it in the best way possible when I say she's 47 going on 7. She has none of the jaded aloofness that too often goes along with being an adult. Instead, she has one of the most authentic from-the-soul smiles I've ever seen, and an aura of positive energy that vibrates at a very high frequency. It's easier to picture her in a ball pit or a bouncy castle than sitting at a desk typing on a computer.

This energy has fueled an amazing amount of work. Zacarías has written more than 20 shows, including plays, musicals, and two ballets. Her plays have been produced around the country and she's won a ton of awards. She founded the non-profit company Young Playwrights' Theatre, which teaches playwriting in public schools and won the White House's 2010 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. She also has three kids and speaks four languages.

Hoping to learn the secret of time control, I asked her how she does it all. "My house is messy," she laughed. "But it's about embracing being messy. Art is messy. It's not about being perfect, but about being truthful. It's about being willing to fail, to try new things, to push yourself."

"And also realizing that writing is a craft." She's had writer's block and been through years when she thought she would never write again. But, she said, "even when your desire isn't there, you have to push forward and find the love for it again." She also described herself as "a good Girl Scout." If she says she's going to write a play, she gets it done. "You don't break promises."

(Okay, so it's not exactly time control. But if you're looking for a personal guiding philosophy, "embrace being messy and don't break promises" seem like pretty good words to live by.)

This is Zacarías's first time physically at Milagro, though she's worked with Olga Sanchez and Daniel Jáquez and the company has produced several of her plays. She chose to take on the project of adapting Urrea's INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH because the book is "human, humane, and unique" and because it presents a story we don't often see on stage. "I think the story is so important because you don't think of immigration being a comedy. A lot of Latino plays can become issue plays. I was interested in exploring the characters - you don't think of rock and rollers and goth kids being Mexican. The play keeps surprising you. The normal narrative is not the only one that's explored, because it's not the only one there is."

She was drawn to the story of a 19-year-old Latina protagonist who wants to change the world. "The idea that everyone is a protagonist in their own life is hard to think about. Theatre can be very evocative in that way, which is why it's important to have theatre from different perspectives. This may be a play about people who are marginalized, but that doesn't mean they're not the stars of their own show. This is an American story, and putting it on the mainstage shows we're part of the American fabric."

I suggested that this unusual, comedic immigration story might have a heightened meaning now compared to in 2010 when the book was written, because of the current debates about immigration taking place in national politics. Zacarías commented: "Plays are literature performed in three dimensions. A good play -- whether comedy or drama -- can answer questions, and answer them differently at different times. A play is an interpretive art. So you can put an angle on it that makes you feel like it was written exactly for this moment."

One aspect of this play that she's particular excited about is the play's ensemble-based nature. The book has about 75 characters, which Zacarías cut down to 35, all played by eight actors. "[This kind of work] reminds people that theatre is people, not special effects."

Zacarías has had her work produced on some of the country's biggest and most prestigious stages, including D.C.'s Arena Stage and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. So, to finish up, I asked her how the Portland experience compares.

"What's completely the same is the passion the artists have for doing it right. This play is perfectly cast. I was shocked that a small city like Portland would have exactly the right people to play these parts." (Go, PDX!) She also noted the importance of passion and commitment. "If the actor thinks it's just a job, it loses some of it's joy. All of the actors here are doing it because they love it. This is why we do this theatre." (Speaking as an audience member, it's also why we go.)

Following its run at Milagro, INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH will continue its rolling world premiere with productions in San Diego (where much of the play is set), Berkeley, and then Chicago. Obviously, you should catch it here, so when it really takes off, you can say you knew it when.

INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH runs through May 28. More info and tickets:

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From This Author Krista Garver