BWW Interview: A Date with DESTINY: Talking with Playwright Karen Zacarías

The energy and passion emanating from Arena Stage resident playwright Karen Zacarías is evident immediately upon meeting, and bodes well for a conversation about a genre of storytelling known for its intensity. Zacarías' new play, DESTINY OF DESIRE, having its world premiere at Arena Stage this month, is inspired by, and crafted in the style of a telenovela, a Latin American style of televised series, and one of the first things I wanted Karen to do as we began our talk, was clarify just what was meant by the term "telenovela," as a storytelling genre.

Karen explained that, unlike a classic English-language soap opera, the story arc of a telenovela is considerably shorter, six months to a year, for example, and generally has a defined end. Telenovelas are shown in prime time, akin to an American miniseries or prime time serial drama, such as Dallas, Dynasty, or Scandal, to use Karen's examples.

Each telenovela is comprised of nightly episodes, known as "chapters," and everyone understands that each chapter is an event, meaning that it's understood among friends and family that you simply don't call anyone or interrupt while a chapter is airing. Unlike with classic American daytime dramas which were known for moving at a relatively glacial pace, if you miss a chapter in a telenovela, you will have missed significant action ("wait, where did that husband come from?" kind of action). An example of one that many Americans will be familiar with is "Yo soy Betty, la fea" on which the popular American comedy Ugly Betty was based.

Illustration by Nigel Buchanan

Zacarías describes how she became interested in creating DESTINY OF DESIRE: "telenovelas are a populace form of entertainment, and what intrigued me was the idea of taking this form of storytelling and marrying it with high art, as theater is thought of being." Important to understanding this genre, she says, is to understand that telenovelas are not farce, not cynical, not sarcastic. Instead they are known for big storylines, lots of action, archetypal characters with complexity, like those you'd find in Greek drama, for example. Emblematic of a telenovela is the greater freedom with which the Latin culture expresses feelings and emotion. Karen says "while the audience might be cynical, telenovelas are not; they believe that people love really strongly and people hate strongly too."

Because of the extended story arcs of telenovelas, and the fact that they are written and constructed for a small set, the biggest challenges, according to Karen, were "trying to pack a year's worth of story into two hours, and then stage it for a theatrical setting, while dealing with the full range of emotions and avoiding farcical storytelling. I started four or five times, and it was so much harder than I thought it would be. I finally found that using the idea of a Brecht-ian frame was the answer; that is making the characters part of an acting troupe going town to town putting on this play." DESTINY OF DESIRE went on a fast track when Molly Smith, Arena's Artistic Director, said to Karen, "let's put it up!" leading to the first draft of the script and first reading in September '14, and then less than a year to this current full production. One important consideration in the development timing, was how important the music was, Karen told Molly, describing it as an extra character in itself. Interestingly, the show's accomplished composer, Rosino Serrano, is in fact part of the cast as well.

I asked Karen about her favorite part in the development process of a play: "I love being in the room with the actors and director, and working on those small challenges, problem solving, hitting an obstacle and overcoming it. I used to hate obstacles, but now I enjoy them, and how the collaboration gives way to something deeper, how the best idea is a winner, and it's a good fit for me because it feeds the extrovert in me."

For her own part, Zacarías' life has been filled with the kind of twists and turns that make for an interesting story as well. Born in Mexico, a ten year old Karen and her family moved to the United States, because her father, Dr. Fernando Zacarías, was pursuing a PhD while working at the forefront of the AIDS epidemic in the early '80s with the Centers For Disease Control, and the World Health Organization, among others. "We thought we'd go back to Mexico; we weren't expecting to be immigrants to the United States," says Karen, "but my father's work with AIDS changed that."

Karen's undergraduate degree from Stanford University was in International Relations, and she worked in that field after graduation. But she'd loved writing since she was young and, as is often the case, it was a teacher who turned the key that unlocked the door to her future as a playwright (and a teacher herself!). Her short story professor in college had commented that her use of dialogue was excellent, reminding him of the work of Harold Pinter (a classic playwright). After making a point of finding out exactly who Harold Pinter was, she had an epiphany about why writing plays might suit her: "I got bored describing the room; I wanted to get to the action, so most of my stories had a great deal of dialogue." Later on came a play writing class, then a Masters in Creative Writing from Boston University, then some award-winning plays, founding the Young Playwrights' Theater program in DC, and then here we are in 2015, on the terrace of Arena Stage (at which Zacarías' earlier work, The Book Club Play was presented in 2011), talking about DESTINY OF DESIRE, which is timed to be part of DC's Women's Voices Festival, and Hispanic Heritage Month.

So what about the current emphasis on increasing diversity in the theater, both on and off stage? Why do we need to be concerned about representing a range of voices on stage?

"Coming to the theater humanizes people," reflects Karen, "Culture informs perspective, and the world is a complicated place. Telling the story on stage increases understanding. In DESTINY OF DESIRE, for example, we are exercising a different cultural aesthetic, a different idea of beauty, a theater style that speaks directly from the Latino perspective. Both the director, Jose Luis Valenzuela, and I specifically understood the focus in DESTINY on the elevation of the telenovela concept. One thing that happens when we don't encourage diversity, is that these amazingly trained actors keep getting relegated to small roles, as background rather than protagonists. There are eleven actors in the DESTINY cast, all Latino, some are trained opera singers, one is a civil engineer by day, and each is playing 2 characters (their primary character, and the character they portray in the play-within-the-play). Audiences need to see this."

But it's not just diversity in the production itself that's important, she goes on to say, it's about increasing diversity in the audience as well. "You can't imagine a color you've never seen. If you don't see yourself on stage, you won't learn what you can be. Who we see on stage, and whose stories we tell, speaks to who we value in society." Besides, she adds, "it's much more fun to watch a play with a diverse audience! People find different things funny, for example. We need a diversity of class, age, gender, background; and if stages don't reflect the world in its variety, theater won't attract its audience."

What does Karen want audiences to take away from their experience with DESTINY? "Well, it's a comedy, which makes it easier to talk about issues of class and gender, and the play touches on lots of things lightly but pervasively. I want people to see that it's an all Latino cast and artistic team putting together this art. I want them to be entertained, enlightened, want to take a risk again, and appreciate the beauty of this cultural aesthetic." She goes on to say that "theaters need to trust more that audiences do want more of a risk. Theater is not television, part of the value of theater is experiencing it live with other people in the room, hearing the laughs, the gasps and sharing it all."

You can share DESTINY OF DESIRE with fellow audience members now through October 18, 2015 at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater. For more information and tickets visit: http://www.arenastage.org/shows-tickets/the-season/productions/destiny-of-desire/

Above left: Elia Saldaña, Esperanza America and Nicholas Rodriguez Above: Elia Saldaña and Esperanza America

Photos by Tony Powell

More from Arena Stage:

KAREN ZACARÍAS (Playwright) has written award-winning plays including The Book Club Play, Legacy of Light, Mariela in the Desert, The Sins of Sor Juana, the adaptations of Just Like Us and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent and many more. She collaborated on the libretto for Sleepy Hollow and Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises for the Washington Ballet. The 2016 season will see world premieres of her plays Destiny of Desire at Arena Stage; Native Gardens at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park; Oliverio: A Brazilian Twist at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; Ella Enchanted: The Musical at First Stage and Into the Beautiful North at Milagro Theater. She is one of the inaugural resident playwrights at Arena Stage and is a core founder of the Latino Theatre Commons. She is the founder of Young Playwrights' Theater, an award-winning theater company that teaches playwriting in local public schools in Washington, D.C. Karen lives in D.C. with her husband and three children.


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