BWW Interview: Acclaimed Playwright Luis Alfaro of OEDIPUS EL REY at Magic Theatre Talks about His Path & the Role of the Artist in Creating Change
San Francisco's Magic Theatre is currently presenting the 10th Anniversary Legacy Revival of Luis Alfaro's Oedipus el Rey (see BroadwayWorld review here). It has subsequently had many productions across the U.S., including a particularly well-received one at New York's Public Theater in 2017. Mr. Alfaro is a Chicano writer/performer known for his work in poetry, theatre, short stories, performance and journalism. He is also a producer/director who spent ten years at the Mark Taper Forum as Associate Producer, Director of New Play Development and co-director of the Latino Theatre Initiative. His numerous accolades include a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, popularly known as a "genius grant." He is featured in over 25 anthologies, has an award-winning spoken word CD, and was nominated for a local Emmy Award for his short film, "Chicanismo." Currently a member of New Dramatists and an Associate Artist at Playwrights Arena in Los Angeles, Mr. Alfaro also teaches at the University of Southern California and California Institute of the Arts.
The following interview was conducted via email.
As a Chicano kid growing up in LA, could you ever have imagined yourself as a playwright?
No, not at all. But in truth, writing is a calling. My parents would have been thrilled to see me have a religious calling, like a priest or brother, so I think I met them half way. Growing up in the Pico/Union barrio of downtown Los Angeles in the 1970's was to be born into abject poverty and violence. And even that fed into telling stories and finding ways of surviving. I can see now that I was always a playwright, I just didn't know or have the language for it then.
What was your path toward finding a place for yourself in the theater?
Well, I was a poet first and then a performance artist, so by the time I came to the theatre, I had a lot of training, not in theatre, but in language and investigating the body. In some ways, this made me unique as an emerging theatre artist. I also grew up going to theatre as a kid. I don't know why, but I knew I should go, and I would collect bottles and cans to recycle for money. I would use the money to buy tickets. My mom would drive me everywhere in Los Angeles to see shows. She would sit in the car with the rest of the family waiting for me. My parents never thought they could go in, but they insisted that I should go. I saw a ton of stuff; theatre, dance, music and foreign films.
Did you have any special mentors or guides along the way?
My entire career has been made in mentorship. It's the ancient tradition of our craft that fuels me the most. I am always in the mentor process. When I was a kid, C. Bernard Jackson at the Inner-City Cultural Center in my old Pico/Union neighborhood took me off the streets and gave me free movement and voice classes. Post High School, Scott Kelman of the Wallenboyd Theatre in L.A.'s Skid Row introduced me to The Living Theatre, the oldest experimental theatre in the country and its exercises. Maria Irene Fornes, the great Cuban-American playwright, was probably the most influential to my work. She didn't just teach me playwriting, she helped me imagine a life in the theatre. So did Paula Vogel and Mac Wellman, among others. It's one of the reasons why I teach, helping to usher in the next generation of writers into the field. Teaching is a form of practice and politics.
Who were your heroes?
Well, I am still in the 'are' stage. I have everyday heroes. I think of my best friend, my mother, as a hero. When I was a kid, I think I was twelve, I read a book called 'The Long Loneliness', the autobiography of Dorothy Day, a wealthy socialite who took a vow of poverty and started the Catholic Worker soup kitchens in the 1930's. It had a tremendous impact on my precocious self and started me on a journey of thinking of art as a way of creating social change. I find making art is a way of making community and making community is a way of making social change. All art is in some way political, because at its core it involves imagination and change. One of the greatest, and most difficult aspects of making plays is having to change. Each new play and production require a tremendous amount of adjusting. Perhaps, it's the only thing that art asks of us - to change.
Some years ago, you were the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, which is something most artists can only dream of. What has the lasting impact of that been for you?
The MacArthur Fellowship was very instrumental in my life, and I am so grateful for it. It came at a time when I was experimenting with my work a lot. I didn't keep the money. I gave a lot of it away. What I needed was access, and it definitely provided that. I met a lot of people that were working at the top of their fields, and they were so generous, they taught me how to work, give meaning and to honor process. We also started a group called Los Macarturos, conceived by author Sandra Cisneros, which consists of all the Latinx MacArthur Fellows. We have met in community settings and come together to create opportunities for our fields. This past year I was awarded a Ford Foundation Art of Change, USA Artist and PEN Center Master Playwright Fellowships. I have to say that all of them allowed me the enormous learning of meeting artists from many different disciplines. That has been essential to my work. I see it in the writing.
As a working playwright, what is the best part of your job?
Collaboration is everything. It is the joy of the work. The opportunity to come together to make a collective work of art. We are also making family and learning how to meet in an aesthetic. I love how a director interprets, and how actors channel and translate you. It is very humbling to offer a play and have other artists, especially those in production, like designers, take it and make a world of it.
Are there any aspects of your work that you find more challenging than others?
The art of writing is re-writing and although essential, it is never easy for me. I know it makes a better play, but because it's technical work it can be challenging. I am listening to the words, the language in actors' mouths and their thinking, and I can tell when I need changes, but the inspiration does not always come. I am often inspired by actors and I fall in love with them, so I write towards their strengths and gifts. Sometimes, it is merely about logic and making sense of the poetry in my head and how it translates that can be hard to articulate.
What was the impetus for writing "Oedipus El Rey"?
It was my second Greek, after my Electra adaptation, 'Electricidad'. I read a statistic that stated that more than half of all young men in California who get out of a State prison, will return at least once during their lifetimes. The recidivism rates. I also went to visit Father Greg Boyle, the founder of the gang prevention center, Homeboy Industries. He allowed me to interview a man just out of prison, after sixteen years, who had been in the SHU (Solitary Holding Unit). It was a revelatory meeting. Another community intervention that inspired and made the play!
What has it been like for you to revisit this work a decade after its original success at the Magic?
Lucky for me, last year I had a celebrated production Off-Broadway at The Public Theater, so it was definitely in my system. Loretta Greco, the director, and I had been having a conversation of which version we were going to use, so I had been reading it over and over again. Coming back to The Magic and spending a very productive first week of rehearsals with the company was very helpful and super inspiring. To be able to rewrite for this new generation of artists was exciting.
Do any specific moments in the play surprise you or resonate differently in 2019?
For me, I am always taken by audiences who are surprised by the play's actions. There are still a lot of people who have never read the Greek myth, less and less we teach the ancient texts in school. I grew up in urban Los Angeles and never read these texts until I was an adult. The prison population may have 'stabilized' after government reform, but it is still overcrowded and lacking in transition for these citizens of our country.
Given the current political climate, as a queer, Chicano artist, how do you think you can have the greatest impact?
We are essential members of the community. We translate, interpret and channel our communities hopes and dreams through our stories. We help create new ways forward through the extraordinary act of dreaming and imagining our future. We creatively think of new models and that is why we are good leaders. We see the world differently. I think artists are always in the avant-garde because they are constantly thinking and dealing with change. That is why we are essential in the culture right now. Boy, do we need change!
What are you working on next?
I always have something else on the desk. I just started a piece about seminaries in California during the Strand-Fest at A.C.T. in San Francisco. I have a lovely first draft of a Mother Courage called 'Mama on the Row' which I workshopped at the Mark Taper Forum.
It's clear from your work to date that it is important to you to give back to the community. What advice would you give to aspiring playwrights?
Tell your truth, which is the truth. Your language, your story has its own rules and form. We are all citizen artists, and your role in the community is essential. Theatre is a collaborative form, so finding joy in each other is important. I come from the school of Yes. Say yes to creating work, but also discipline, to art, to respect and writing every day. Even if it's just a haiku or a ten-line scene. Say yes!
"Oedipus El Rey" runs through Sunday, June 23rd at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Bldg. D, 3rd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94123. Tickets and further information available at www.MagicTheatre.org or by calling (415) 441-8822.
Photo provided by Mr. Alfaro.