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Interview: Tina D'Elia of OVERLOOKED LATINAS at The Marsh Uses Her Love of Screwball Comedy to Create a 'Queer Telenovela Farce of the Century'

D'Elia's funny & illuminating solo show runs in San Francisco October 6-29 on Thursdays & Saturdays

Interview: Tina D'Elia of OVERLOOKED LATINAS at The Marsh Uses Her Love of Screwball Comedy to Create a 'Queer Telenovela Farce of the Century'
Writer/Performer Tina D'Elia of Overlooked Latinas at The Marsh San Francisco
(photo by Lisa Keating Photography)

Following on her past successes at The Marsh San Francisco, writer/performer Tina D'Elia is returning there with her fourth solo show, Overlooked Latinas. Her new "queer telenovela farce of the century" follows two queer Latinx best friends collaborating on a television pilot that highlights legendary Latinx movie stars during the McCarthy era. Overlooked Latinas was developed by David Ford and directed by Mary Guzmán, D'Elia's longtime creative partner. The two have teamed up since 2005 on projects that explore racist, sexist, and homophobic mainstream culture through the lens of queer Latinx screwball comedy and film noir.

D'Elia is a mixed-race Latina lesbian/queer identified feminist artist who has enjoyed quite a wide-ranging career. Her award-winning solo show The Rita Hayworth of this Generation garnered Best of Fringe and Best of Sold Out Shows at the 2015 San Francisco Fringe Festival. Lucha, a short film that she co-wrote with award-winning film director Maria Breaux won The Audience Award at Frameline33 and was nominated for the prestigious Iris Prize in the UK. Her screen acting credits include the feature films The Pursuit of Happyness, Knife Fight and Guitar Man, and the television series Trauma, Sense8 and Dyke Central. In addition, D'Elia is a much in-demand acting instructor and casting director.

I spoke with D'Elia by phone last week from her home in San Francisco. We talked about her love of old movies and passion for unearthing the little-known histories of Latinx film stars, her approach to collaborating with David Ford and Mary Guzmán, and how she ventured into the field of casting. D'Elia is a blast to chat with, and one of those creative individuals who always seems to have about ten different potential answers to any question. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Tell me about Overlooked Latinas. As its writer and performer, how would you describe the piece?

I would describe it as a screwball comedy/queer telenovela farce in which the heroes are two Latinx, Puerto-Rican/Italian queer best friends super-excited to pitch their TV show about Latinx stars of the past, particularly stars that were impacted during the McCarthy era in a white Hollywood world. Though the homage to the Latinx stars of the past is more of a drama, I really wanted to bring some hope, some levity, even if that comes in the form of fiction. Angel and Carla, the best friends, are fictional, but the historical actors are real. I've taken things from my research and given my own sort of spin on the past.

Your work often has a screwball comedy sensibility and references film stars from Hollywood's golden age. Where does your love of old movies come from?

Well, as a child in the early 70s, first it was old movies we could watch on TV with my parents. My dad, in particular, loved the Marx Brothers and hence I later became the Latina lesbian Groucho Marx and did a solo show in which I portrayed Groucho. And I loved these old movie star actresses like Katharine Hepburn as a kid. Then my parents wanted to top out the TV, so the only options were theatre and going to see films in the movie theater. Unless I babysat, and then I got to watch TV.

Eventually we got a VHS (so we were a little slow!), and I was watching the same movies over and over again. My siblings, especially my brother, were memorizing Marx Brothers jokes and I was memorizing scenes from The Philadelphia Story and just pulling a lot from old-time Hollywood. My mother, who's mixed-race Mexican, grew up from a small child in Cali, Colombia. I grew up in this mixed-race home and we were influenced by the South American culture of dancing and singing. My uncle made puppets and my dad sometimes played the piano and my mom had done the maracas. That was just part of my growing up. So there's artists in the family and this is something we did for fun. Then in fourth grade, I stole a little bit from Groucho and a little bit from Tom Lehrer, and put together some puppet shows and entertained the kids in school. Somehow it all went over great. I don't know if they had any idea what I was doing or what I was talking about.

This is where my influences came from. Thank goodness for my parents, because we still have a similar sense of humor that they passed on to me and my siblings. So there was a way in which as a child I got this, I understood things sort of intellectually, politically, culturally. What I was missing was really trying to reconnect to my identity. Oftentimes it's so accessible to find all the white stars. That's what we've seen for decades and what's sort of been held up. Like even during the blacklist in Hollywood we heard more about how it impacted white folks in the industry than we did folks of color. We did hear about Lena Horne and Langston Hughes, but we didn't necessarily know that Dolores del Rio was on that list.

But if one is in a mixed-race household or grew up with the influence of like the golden age of cinema in Mexico, we have to look for it. It certainly is more accessible now. You can find more films in Spanish and English, you can find Ramon Navarro and Dolores del Rio on YouTube. And I've found the brilliant work of Lupe Vélez. I would have never known how remarkably funny she was and that her imitations were so good. I would have loved to have seen that as a kid, so that's what was influencing me to weave it into my solo shows. I didn't have certain things growing up that I want to pass on and want the next generations to know.

Overlooked Latinas was developed in collaboration with the Marsh's guru of solo performance, David Ford, and directed by Mary Guzmán. What's your process for working with the two of them? Are their roles completely separate?

I love working with both of them and we've figured out a way that the three of us work well together, even if we're not always in the same space. I started working with David Ford in 2011 on The Rita Hayworth of This Generation and I was already working with Mary Guzmán prior to that. So when I started working with David (who is legendary) I said, "How can I show my director the magic of what you do so that we can work together?" And David said, "Well, I really respect how the director wants to direct." What is key in my process with David and Mary is that David is the dramaturg, he does early development of the writing. David knows so many options for how a story can be told, and where it can go, that he can watch it with the director and see the performer and say, "Here are the ideas, here are the different options. How does that land? How does that sync in, Mary?" In this show, I really wanted to have audiences laughing throughout most of it, but I also knew I was bringing very serious moments as well. To me, because I revere comedy so much and it's in my bones and I relate to it so much, I know that it's about tightening the writing, tightening these little physical aspects.

What was beautiful over time is that David can really see where Mary finetunes. I could go back to David after a certain level of work I had done with Mary and say, "Look at this scene and see if we can take it to the next level." David, who's worked with so many directors as a dramaturg and developed so many solo performances, can tell where I'm going cause he's familiar with my work and my style, and he can tell where Mary helps direct me as well. So I feel like it's also about understanding everyone's nuances.

I highly recommend to other solo performers to consider bringing these people together and have them have a conversation about how to outline their roles so that everybody serves the solo performer and makes it really clear, so that it feels like I'm getting all this support from these people, and I'm not confused with their message.

I was fascinated to learn that you're also a casting director and have worked on shows like HBO's Looking. How did you get into casting?

I love being a casting director, coming from a very heartfelt lens of really wanting to be authentically diverse in all aspects. I'd wanted to do casting for many years, which I'd just been sitting with and really hadn't given myself permission to say out loud. But once I did, I had some conversations and got some really good advice. Because I had as an actor auditioned and booked some roles through Nina Henninger Casting, I humbly thought about how I was going to reach out to Nina. She became my mentor and taught me instrumentally so much about casting. I've always been part of the LGBTQIA+ community so that was an asset in working with Nina, and an asset, say, working on Looking as a casting associate. She was the casting director in San Francisco, I was already helping her run so many auditions, and I was learning over time when movies like Mavericks were coming up. I was helping her cast Contagion early on, and she reached out to me to do some work looking for BIPOC actors to audition for Sense8 so it was great that we had that relationship.

I worked kind of regularly with Nina for about six and a half years and then predominantly worked on my own. Nina still will refer work to me, and because the Bay Area is small I also feel blessed that a lot of casting directors refer each other to different jobs. I have cast voice overs and commercials, but I still predominantly cast features, shorts, staged readings, some theatre and web series, some are union some are non-union. I'm doing usually more of the theatrical stuff and less of the commercial stuff.

As an actor yourself, is it ever uncomfortable to find yourself in the role of "gatekeeper" for other actors, having control over who even gets seen for a part?

My job is to do my very best to bring as many people as possible forward to the director. Really it's about me trying to help prepare the actors and give them as much information as possible. Maybe they're nervous and it's me just saying "OK, prepare yourself." Some actors don't always get opportunities to audition, and I've given them an opportunity because I'm not just working with actors who are in unions or actors with agents. That's part of my responsibility as somebody who is putting myself out there as a queer casting director. I am trying to give emotional support to my community and say, "It may feel brand new, and that's okay. I totally believe in you. Give it a shot!" I feel like I'm trying to help lift up everyone involved and, yeah, sometimes I do have to give unfortunate news to actors and say, "You're fantastic, but the direction went in another way. That's what happens in this challenging industry. Keep going, keep showing up."

Circling back to something you said at the beginning of our conversation, where are you finding hope and joy in this crazy world these days?

I do still find magic in the movies, like I still buy my popcorn there. After seeing The Woman King on Saturday with my friends, which I loved, I did some research and now I want to do even more. It took me back to this place that I fell in love with as a kid, experiencing many things at once, seeing actors that we never see at the forefront of storytelling. I've now been telling my friends about all these movies that I want to see, particularly about Black women, that are coming out in October and December.

Of course, I love to perform, but when I'm not working and just having fun, I enjoy going to places like Glide and taking in the community and the singing. Tonight, I'm going to Monday Night Marsh so I can cheer on other performers. I'm really tapping into the joy of seeing a lot of the local stuff and I've been going to more plays recently, so that's been how I've found my levity.

---

Overlooked Latinas runs October 6-29, 2022 with performances at 7:30pm Thursdays and 7:30pm Saturdays at The Marsh San Francisco, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. For further information or to order tickets, visit www.themarsh.org.


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