Writer, producer, performer Justin Sayre's episodic camp extravaganza Ravenswood Manor closes this coming weekend after a very successful run at Celebration Theatre. Between episode rehearsals, I buzzed with Justin to spill some tea on the show, it's origins, the production process, and more. Catch the last week of Ravenswood because they are ending with a BANG, honey!
Roger Q. Mason (RQM): Justin, you are a riot! What you've done beautifully is successfully shown audiences the breadth and depth of authentic camp (in the best way). Tell me about the origins of Ravenswood Manor.
Justin Sayre (JS): I wanted to write a long-form play for a while, and I was searching for something Camp. I'm very dedicated to Camp. I think it's the cornerstone of Queer art, and I really thought it was time to take the leap. For a long time, my best friend, whom I've pitched every project I've ever written, had always told me of my similarity in thought and practice to Charles Ludlam. It took me a little while to catch up. I thought doing something episodically would be helpful since I had been writing for Television for a couple of years. I loved Dark Shadows, and thought a gothic setting would be perfect for Camp. Then the ideas just started flowing. I did a first reading of the first six episodes at Joe's Pub at the Public Theatre with an incredible cast that included Jeff Hiller, Nathan Lee Graham, Jenn Harris and many more. It was so fun, I just wanted to keep doing it. Now I've had another chance. I'm already looking forward to the next.
(RQM): You are writer, performer, and producer on this project. As a fellow multi-disciplinary artist, I'd love to learn more about your process from page to stage.
(JS): Well, that's very broad! I started as an actor, so I have to see it. I don't write a lot of stage directions in my plays unless the lines need it to make sense. I like to find rhythms and space in the room. The stuff I know and want, I write in. But I love problem-solving. So much of my creation is about problem-solving. I also like using the theatre for what it is. You can't do CGI or crazy special effects in the theatre, or at least it's very hard to do them well. I like to create theatre magic, which is more about imagination and human stagecraft. I like making things in front of people and making the audience an active participant in the process of making the show, even if it's just imagining the scenery. I like the collaboration of making in the room. So I always want to work with the best. That's why the actors I strive for are always so brilliant. I don't like to micromanage. I like to facilitate flight.
(RQM): Serialized theatre is an exciting and rigorous beast. It relies on the magic of a killer script, fantastic, adventuresome actors, and grounded, inspired directors. What's it been like building this piece in the room with your team? On the afternoon I saw the show, you were readying for rehearsal of the next episode right after taking well-deserved bows from the work just presented.
(JS): I should say, that we go in with the script, and I would say 98% is on the page. I am a firm believer in doing my work. But I've also been trained not to be precious about a joke. If one doesn't work, we'll find another. What I'm always first listening for is, does the story track and does it all make good dramatic sense. I would be disingenuous to say that the show lives all on the page. I'm working with some of the most brilliant and insightful comedic actors in the country, to not let them form a joke to themselves or to add a little aside, that comes from their character, would be folly. But we all begin with the page, and then it's play. We've often said backstage that we're working so terribly hard, a new play each week for 6 weeks, but we're all so happy doing it. We all have our bits, we all have our weeks to shine and we all generally and genuinely like each other. It's a brilliant process.
Angela Cristantello as Claire the witch and Leslie-Ann Huff as Debbie the witch in Ravenswood Manor. Photo by Bryan Carpender.
(RQM): This show feels very much like work I've seen in New York. I love that it is happening and being received well here in LA. How do we continue challenging and engaging our Angeleno theatre audiences?
(JS): I think there is great theatre going on out here, and I think LA is only ready for more. Ravenswood feels like New York because I still feel like I'm in New York and come out of that sensibility. I think the thing that needs to happen in LA, is that we all, artists and audiences, need to create a culture of going to the theatre. Of making things the MUST SEE event in LA. We need to make the reality of the theatre here a bigger deal, simply because there's already great work going on.
(RQM): After the final episode of Ravenwood, what's next for you?
(JS): I am working on a few TV projects, but I am headed out of LA for a bit to go and work on my newest book. My show The GAyBC's has been turned into a book that will be released by Chronicle Books in 2020. I'm also going to New York next week to do a show at Joe's Pub and celebrate my 10 years in Cabaret. After that, two new plays this year and the second season of Ravenswood Manor. You know a few things, just to keep me off the street.
Featured photo: Justin-Sayre - Photo by Matthew Dean Stewart
At the beginning of the run, I sat down with Jonathan at the foot of the set's bed and chit-chatted about the play, traditional and non-traditional roads to a life in the theatre, and the liberating power of teaching a craft to one's own self.
About 10 years ago when I was an intern-turned-associate literary manager at Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles, I encountered the brilliant dramaturgical mind of Jacqueline Wright. What excites me about her work is that she is a writer and performer who constantly expands our minds as witnesses of the art-making experience. For her, like me, audiences are not just passive consumers of creative work - they are collaborators and, as collaborators, we writers make them work: we don't always tell stories that are linear, cause and effect, character psychology driven, - you name the normative convention often on view in the mainstream. Jacqueline's background in experimentalism makes her a nimble dramatist who weaves into and out of narrative structures, point of views, modalities of storytelling, and genres.
This is no exception in her provocative work Driving Wilde, currently playing at Theatre of NOTE in Hollywood. I caught the piece and engaged in a hearty conversation with Jacqueline afterwards amongst the seats which were just filled with enthusiastic patrons of the show. If you listen closely, you'll hear and feel the verve of the audience that exited the theatre a few moments prior, indubitably changed, challenged, and expanded by the experience they just received during Driving Wilde.
I would be remiss not to give you the tools to see this show yourself, for it is a must see. More information is available at TheatreOfNote.com
And now, Lights Change with my buddy Jacqueline and me:
Writer. Director. Producer. Actor. Activist. Mother. Jesse Bliss does it all. I first met Jesse when we were both taking a writing course at UCLA under the tutelage of famed writer/instructor Leon Martell. What impressed me about her was how she USED theatre as a vehicle of social transformation and civic action. The nexus of some of this work is her theatre company The Roots and Wings Project (RAW Project). Through March 10, RAW Project will be presenting an evening of song, dance and language called MATRIARCH centering on the complexities of mothers and motherhood.
For more information on this show, visit: facebook.com/events/2197437173856678
Roger Q. Mason (RQM): How did Matriarch begin?
Jesse Bliss (JB): I had come to a place in my life where I was at peace with being an artist over having a family. I had always wanted to be a mother, however the lifestyle of an artist and the choices I'd always made to put my work above all else, made it perfectly clear I could only be with a partner who understood my needs as an artist so that I could do both and do them each well. I realized that context may never exist and finally, after praying to the spirit of my child, released the idea of motherhood for this life unless the universe showed me otherwise, and came to peace with the fact that because of my deep commitment to my art, it may never happen that I'd find a partner who could understand how to have a cornerstone of equity while raising a family and creating work, all the while sharing the responsibilities of love and care for the child, household work, plus finances.
Low and behold I fell madly in love, seeming to have found this context much to my surprise. It all happened very fast. We had a big wedding. I'm remaining silent about the details, but what I will say is that the equity I'd firmly believed was there, was not. I'd been working as an artist literally up until I gave birth having directed my play TREE OF FIRE at The Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts. However, I had a very challenging pregnancy with many medical complications and thus a difficult birth. It left me needing to heal and recover. During that time, I was very much alone. I was more thrilled to be a mother than any role I'd ever been given in this life, however, my fantasy of partnership was shattered. In the countless hours of breastfeeding, I'd have pieces of paper and notebooks with pens lying around the house so if I was suddenly breastfeeding somewhere unable to move, there was accessible paper. I'd stare out the windows at my passing neighbors and up at the palm trees, loving my baby and having the epiphany of all epiphanies about womanhood, understanding it all differently and more clearly than ever before---women have historically been put in the home and our advancement into the workforce only doubled our work load. Here I was working full time running a theatre department at a private school plus teaching on the side at The Geffen while nursing all night and struggling to find places to pump in the day.
Nicole Mae Martin Photgrapher: Ivan Cordeiro
Seated in my living room, while breastfeeding: I got struck like lightening with both the title and idea at once. MATRIARCH would allow women to speak out about the oppression we've been living, allow me to work in an ensemble without having to be away from my baby for endless hours like in a traditional play, and bring light and awareness around the hidden truths of motherhood and the oppression of women.
The first writer I thought of was Patricia Zamorano. I'd played the lead in her play YOU DON'T KNOW ME. I wanted to know more about the story, particularly the dynamic about her and her mother. When I hit her up she let me know that she wasn't a mother and seemed surprised I'd considered her for this work. I reminded her that she'd become her mother's mother when her mother was severely burned (and later blinded) in a fire.
She was stunned and in turn found great healing in writing that riveting story. I began tapping other writers I knew had something profound to share and a perspective to offer that would alter perception and give piercing truth.
Our first reading was at a bar at Union Station. People were laughing and crying on both sides of the stage. Passersby were stopping, arrested by the work. It was then and there we collectively knew there was something very powerful that needed further life.
I was suddenly less alone and able to share space and time with potent artists and engage dialogue around the work. I found this entirely healing and necessary in a world where women are objectified and silenced. My baby was on my hip through it all as being with her has, and remains to be, my number one objective. I embody all things wild and completely domestic at once.
Ramy El-Etreby Photographer: Ivan Cordeiro
RQM: You've done the show many times within the last few years. How has the show grown and changed over the different iterations?
JB: It became clear we needed to include our male allies. Because someone is a woman does not make them an ally and because someone is a man doesn't make them an enemy.
So many women completely sign on to the poison of patriarchy and also there are men who are strong allies. For example, in the case of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her work didn't happen because of him, but she was able to navigate and break boundaries because he had her back and believed in her to such a degree that she was able to be an unstoppable force. He moved cities for her work. He sacrificed whenever necessary to ensure her rise.
This type of ally promotes our advancement and enforces our voices. Throughout history, oppression has been overcome by those being oppressed joining forces with allies to create a movement. Angela Davis' book WOMEN RACE & CLASS does a great job of exemplifying this point as does her entire body of life's work.
Women have only been legal citizens a short time, previously owned by men on paper through marriage. We've barely been allowed to vote or enter the work force or college and still make so much less than men, yet have the responsibility of the home and suffer enormous condemnation. Is there equity? Sure, it's somewhere, but it's hard to find. The voice of the ally is in Tamar Halpern's piece, GABRIEL, and brings so much to the overall message.
Tamika Simpkins Photographer: Ivan Cordeiro
MATRIARCH is much about the shaming of the feminine. All feminine energy has been subjected to shame. It can be embodied by a woman or a man and yet still experience the same level of condemnation, thus it became crystal clear that it enhances and emphasizes the work to include that voice. Your piece (Roger Q. Mason) embodies this and it is a critical aspect of the work. In his piece, AGE SEX LOCATION, the character is being shamed for his femininity by the very women he looks up to---his own mother! This shows how the feminine is degraded and humiliated in all shapes and forms…a critical point to explore on our journey to respect and equity…the very definition of the word feminism has *no* female implication. It refers to equity for all human beings.
Also, since the inception of MATRIARCH, I have become a single mother. This role is shrouded in stigma and has been an entirely new awakening, once again, about the roles women have been subjugated to in our quest for freedom and to live outside the walls of oppression. My new perspective has changed the way I see the value of this show and the role it plays in voicing what we don't usually hear, thus moving more toward justice.
Raised by a single mother myself who endured abusive relationships, it has been an awakening to trans-generational trauma and a strong desire to break the cycles. I have stepped into a role I never wanted and am determined to not only make it work, but to live in joy---something society has attempted to keep from women.
The Roots and Wings Project also has a program now in the women's prison California Institution for Women (CIW) in Chino. Those women are survivors of abuse and so many of them are in there because of Domestic Violence. They have gifted me so much and working with them is an honor. It has greatly enhanced my understanding of how the dynamics of patriarchy in the United States are costing women their lives both inside and outside the walls. I don't see the separation. My collaboration on MATRIARCH exists in both places. The women behind the walls are great keepers of knowledge and testaments to the strength of the human spirit. Their voices are stifled because their truth threatens the structure of patriarchy. We do this work out here for them as well. All artists on both sides of the walls are company members of The Roots and Wings Project and by bridging this gap we are helping people to understand the truth about who is in prison and why. Though I've been doing prison work for over 15 years, this is the first Roots and Wings Project program in a woman's prison. We are grateful for the support and collaboration from Poets and Writers and Luis Rodriguez and Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural.
It's been exciting rotating in new voices like Diane Rodriguez whose piece speaks to the story we *never* heard about: a proud and peaceful single mother with 5 kids and 5 kid's fathers and Dancers like Nicole Mae Martin (held the vision for popping and locking interlude for years for this show) whose piece explores Domestic Violence, a topic society doesn't understand that is not publicly expressed thus perpetuating. It's equally exciting continuing on the journey with the MATRIARCH OG's like the talented Sigrid Gilmer who has been running the show since "the get" with a piece about a dying mother and her last taboo advice to her children.
We did a short run of the piece in 2017 at Casa 0101 to much success. Though the venue is no longer being rented by them and we are running the show in the space again, we honor and appreciate the legacy of that space and all the incredible work that has been built in there by so many stellar artists.
Jesse Bliss. Photographer: Ivan Cordeiro
RQM: You make an appearance in the show. Tell us a little bit about Jesse Bliss the writer and performer.
JB: My first lens is that of an actor. I have written literally my entire life, but as a young child, always envisioned becoming a professional actress and started doing radio commercial work and plays at a very young age. I moved to San Francisco at 20 years old and met my acting teacher, Linda Lowry, walking up the street near my place in the dangerous Tenderloin District. I trained very hard with her. She was a prodigy of Bobby Lewis who founded the Original Actor's Studio and he was a prodigy of Constantine Stanislavski. I was so incredibly frustrated by the lack of good material written for women and Linda saw the writer in me. She challenged me to write my own work. Thus was born my life as a playwright. However, I am a multidisciplinary artist, truly, and all parts equal my whole. Each is an integral part of my being. Performing makes me happy and keeps me connected to all aspects of the work and is something I am meant to do while in this life. I love directing, producing and writing just as much. I find acting makes me better at them all, eliciting my vulnerability, embodying a character and keeping me connected in a way I'm built for. There are works I never do step inside of as a performer and approach the work only as a director and producer.
Rose Portillo Photographer: Ivan Cordeiro
In the context of MATRIARCH, the piece I do is very important to me as it explores a mother being shamed in public by a passerby for breastfeeding which I, and many others, experienced not just once but often. It's so ludicrous to me and makes a critical point about where we are at the world in the treatment of women. It's an honor to perform the piece. I was afraid in this iteration it wouldn't connect for me now as I've got so many other critical matters on my mind and in my heart, but it does remain to be a piece that I find deeply important and stepping inside of MATRIARCH to perform is a gift I so deeply appreciate.
I have a background in women's theatre as a writer and performer. I came to Los Angeles with an all-female troupe out of New York City, The Angry Jellow Bubbles. At 21 years old I moved to New York City and it was my first exposure to a powerful, young female director and a group of very talented female writer/performers. It brought me so much healing. We did a lot of shows together on the East and West Coasts and in Europe. All 9 of us moved to LA then quickly disbanded, but that time together greatly influenced my artistry and opened me up to the capabilities of women as content creators. Being there was so little good work for women, it feels empowering to create my own---to write it then step inside to embody it. That has always been healing for me---to write work I believe in and physically embody it. I love telling other people's stories as a writer as well as an actor. There is a collective consciousness at work in this story telling.
I connected with Josefina Lopez when I first came to Los Angeles. She has been a dear friend, ally and inspiration. It felt good to connect with someone, so soon after arriving in LA with the Bubbles show, who was working in multiple contexts and capacities creating content as a woman.
Overall, I look forward to continuing my journey as a performer yet acknowledge fully that I am also a playwright, director and producer and that work is a critical part of my being and must be exercised in order to grow.
Cast Photo - Photographer: Ava Alamshah
RQM: Outside of your work in theatre, you are an educator, radio personality, and prison reform activist. What do you bring from your other lives in to the work you make for theatre?
JB: The immediate healing that theatre offers is life-saving and I experienced it as such on my own journey and am a conduit for helping it do the same for others in these mentioned contexts. The entertainment industry can be difficult and I find sometimes artists forget the healing power of the work or the core reasons why we do it. It's interesting going from a prison environment with men at Lancaster or women at CIW for example where the work literally allows them to come alive and breathe, to a public theatre where artists approach the work in a different way due to the structure of the entertainment industry. I find the best actors in the world are also the kindest, most empathic and I see in them the same traits as the people behind the walls. A criminal mind is a creative mind and the Prison Industrial Complex has been built by Patriarchy and greed.
Crowd Photographer: Ivan Cordeiro
RQM: One thing that has always excited me about you is your supreme belief in the transformative power of theatre in our everyday lives. What can theatre do to help us in tumultuous times like now?
JB: Theatre can allow us to overcome. The power of the human spirit is magnificent and ominous. We forget because that's the design. Oppression is there to keep us disconnected from each other and ourselves. When we examine a story, its' structure and the intricacies of a precious human life, we are called to an ancient an honorable task that takes us outside of time and into the realm of possibilities. It's the highest healing modality on the planet for it offers an unparalleled transcendence for both the artist and the audience. The silence is broken. We now know we are not alone. We can process what is otherwise impossible to digest. In this we can digest, calm and take proper action.
We are called into the universal realm and metaphysical forces become more apparent.
We stand on the backs of giants in this work and call forth the legacy when we commit to participating. Ancestors come around, we connect in a different way with each other dictated by measure of trust and love and in this we are more than the circumstances of our lives, more than the haters, more than the challenges. It brings our capabilities to light and ignite what is dormant, calling upon our power to voice truth, rise up, and take no prisoners.
The White Dress, my genre-bending gender queer coming of age play will receive a showcase in New York from November 2-5.
The work melds language, music, and movement to explore one Jonathan Howard's journey to embrace himself as a pansexual, gender non-conforming person of color. The piece is being directed and co-choreographed by Adin Walker. Amongst our mutual loves and affiliations, Adin and I are Princeton alums, aficionados of queer drama, and theatre-makers with backgrounds in dance.
What's been most interesting working with Adin has been the opportunity to think and write from an interdisciplinary place as a dramatist. Before I even re-wrote a word of the script, Adin shared with me dozens of podcasts, interviews, videos, and old-fashioned articles about gender and identity - many from the “I” perspective. Reading them, I was able to put faces and lived experiences to the ideas I was investigating through the play. In the end, reverence, patience, attention to detail, and empathy were some of the virtues reinforced in this re-write experience.
Now, The White Dress is in its final week of rehearsals. But before we fly into tech, I took some time to chat with Adin about the road to our New York debut.
Adin Walker, director and choreographer
Roger Q. Mason (RQM): What attracted you to this project?
Adin Walker (AW): I was first attracted to the project when I met you. Before I even read the script, you and I talked on the phone for a couple hours about art, our lives, queerness, our shared experience attending the same college – though our times there never overlapped – and training under some of the same teachers. I could feel your presence and warmth over the phone as if you were sitting beside me on my bed, rather than all the way on the other side of the country. Your values for theater-making and collaboration also really inspire me. In particular, your work embraces the liveness of theater, your work uplifts and spotlights the ensemble rather than a single and central figure, and you are an artist with a mission to bring people together in rooms to share, feel, and make activism-driven art.
RQM: Who are some of your inspirations for this piece - both as a director and co-choreographer?
AW: Every single person involved with this project has been an inspiration for this piece, and that has been very special. Pina Bausch, Solange Knowles, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Keone and Mari Madrid are a few of many artists who we look to for inspiration. We have also been listening to lots of the NANCY Podcast, re-reading Judith Butler, Nick Krieger, James Baldwin, and other writers and scholars.
RQM: One of the things that's excited me about writing the play is the chance to have characters vocalize their stage directions. How are you working that element of the script into your production?
AW: Each rehearsal for each scene begins with the actors reading the scene and choosing which stage directions they want to say in that moment. They might explore saying the stage direction if they feel like it pertains to their actions, if the description of an action offers an unspoken layer to an exchange with another character, or if they think the stage action described in the stage directions is witnessed from their point of view and the witnessing of the action motivates them to continue to stay in the room and engage with the other character(s.) We then rigorously go through and decide what we want to try when we move onto our feet, and then we just keep learning and playing!
RQM: I've heard there's a go go dancer and a DJ booth onstage. Please tell me more.
AW: Yes! The play is underscored by DJscapes – and I was interested in tapping into the heart beats of all the characters and how their heart beats sync, collide, and eventually move in different directions. Stanley Mathabane, who is playing Jon, is also professional DJ artist [SunSon] and it excited me to think about how Jon is intimately connected to music – that the DJscapes are grounded in his psychology and how he spins, mixes, and samples music is always coming from a place of emotional discovery and memory.
RQM: Why is it important for us to make queer theatre?
AW: I recently attended Diana Oh's brilliant [my lingerie play] at Rattlestick, and the performance begins with audience members writing on paper bags their answers to the question: “why do you create a safer and more courageous world for us all?” And I feel that that mission – to "create a safer and more courageous world for us all" – and its framing question – why are we doing this – is at the heart of making work that is unapologetically queer. “Queer” is a powerful word – its meanings are vast and represent different things to different people. The word continues to take on meanings with each new movement and generation. To me, the power of "queer" rests in its insistence on political and cultural LGBTQ+ visibility: we're here, we're queer. Queer art exposes, interrogates, and disentangles the mechanisms of our politics – the signifiers that aid the world in making sense of our bodies – to therefore distill a story, a character, a corner of a universe to our core truths. And the word itself, "queer," defies definition and parameters – everyone kinda has their own relationship to the word and what it signifies and sums up to that person. And I like to think that making queer art is about making art that cannot be defined...and in that space without the walls of definition, we can start to build that "safer and more courageous world for us all," that Diana Oh so powerfully inscribed onto our little queer hearts.
Every month or so, playwright Boni B. Alvarez and I have a kiki (Queer dictionary moment: kiki = chit-chat, coffee, shoot the…you understand). We meet up to talk shop, dream, scheme, and generally relish each other's company. Fresh off the opening of Boni's new play Nicky, you know I was eager for this month's talk. And I thought I'd invite your guys, our lovely Better Lemons readers, to the party.
Roger Q. Mason
Roger Q. Mason (RQM): I'll never forget how we met. It was 2009.
Boni B. Alvarez (BBA): Yes, it was my play Ruby, Tragically Rotund. My first production – with Playwrights' Arena at Los Angeles Theatre Center, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
RQM: I remember seeing that play and being wowed by the theatricality of the piece, the originality of the writing and the singularity of perspective. Until then, I had not yet seen a Filipino-American play on stage.
Boni B. Alvarez
BBA: The funny thing is I don't think of it as a Filipino-American play. I mean, obviously, it is. I am Filipino-American and there are a lot of Filipino and Filipino-American characters in it, but the inspiration actually came from reading a Maria Irene Fornes play. I think it was Mud and then I just envisioned a fat girl in a pig pen and that brewed in my head for about a year. I had always wanted to write a fat play, or a play of size. And what came out was Ruby, Tragically Rotund.
RQM: Did you start that play while you were at the USC's MFA?
BBA: Yes, it was my thesis play and Jon Rivera saw the reading and committed to it pretty quickly. We developed it and shopped it around. I graduated in 2007 and the production was in 2009.
RQM: That's sort of a fairy tale ending to the MFA experience. So many people bemoan the year after the MFA. You are broken of old habits by the MFA and then you are re-broken by the rejections that come thereafter, especially in that first year out because you're new, people don't know your work yet, and you're trying to establish those relationships. Some people thrive after that first year or so and others don't - they move on from the business. How was it for you coming out of the MFA and having a production right away?
BBA: You have something to look forward to. You know you're getting produced, but it also is a double-edged sword. It was two and a half years after graduation. The play wasn't reviewed as well as I thought it would be, yet audiences really loved it. It was a pretty sold-out run with a couple of extensions. It's kind of disappointing when you don't get that second production of a play when you hoped it would.
RQM: How's your new show Nicky going?
BBA: Really great!
RQM: What's it about?
BBA: It's an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Ivanov.
RQM: Uh oh! Folks better watch out. Boni is taking on the canon.
BBA: It's what I deem as the problem play. It was Chekhov's first play which he labeled a comedy. Contemporary audiences would be like, “Where's the laughter supposed to be?”
RQM: It's Dantean comedy: a journey from a low play to a high place.
BBA: Right! And I keep to the Russian origin. The lead is Russian-American. But the play is definitely inclusive of places and cultures of the world that we live in now. That's usually my goal as a writer. If the play isn't all Filipino, it usually will have a little bit of everyone in it.
RQM: You really inspire me. My mom is Filipino, so I identify as Filipino American. For many years, I didn't know what to say about that aspect of my identity in my work. I just kept coming to your plays and seeing your vigilance in exploring it on the page. You look at the Filipino experience in the US and globally. The East always has one eye on the West.
BBA: The American dream is always at the forefront of my plays. In some works, it's more obvious than others. It's a testament to the career that I've chosen. It's a dream - an elusive dream: to be a playwright who works enough to sustain an existence on playwriting alone.
RQM: So whenever we hang out, we often talk about The Business. No, I'm not asking for your trade secrets in public, but really though, how do you keep working?
BBA: I get really excited by a story. But, once that inspiration hits, it's not like you can just immediately sit down and write that story. You have to let that inspiration live through you and bubble up - what the story is and who the characters will be. Usually it'll be 6 months to a year in between that first strike of inspiration and the first word I commit to the page. At that point, it's boiling to come out of me. I get inspired by the people I work with: directors, actors, companies. I know that times are tough. With the whole 99-seat debacle that's happening in Los Angeles, it's probably wiser for a writer to sit at home and write two-handers and one man shows. But all of a sudden, Nicky has 14 characters. My next play has 9. I've just written a three-act 11-character World War II epic play set in the Philippines. I'm not shying away from the bigness, how grand or how large things need to be. I meet more and more actors. I want to work with people and have things for them to be in. I think that is a big inspiration.
RQM: Process - let's discuss. For me, my writerly coming of age journey has entailed announcing to myself and others that I'm not a “traditional” playwright. A lot of my writing happens through improvisation and experimentation in the room. The work is interdisciplinary too - there's music, there's movement, it's like opera but at a slimmer ticket price. A friend has called what I do librettism. I'm a librettist for performance experiences. Knowing that about myself was a huge relief. What about you? What are your writing conditions like?
BBA: So after an idea boils up, I start writing. I've been fortunate enough to be in a lot of writers groups with various theatres in Los Angeles so I have an avenue in which to write it in, a forum that has a structure to it with deadlines. Usually, I've been working on three or four plays at the same time, juggling between the projects. Now, I have to be more focused. There's usually a project I'm writing from scratch and then there's something I'm revising either for a production or a reading.
RQM: How do you compartmentalize the plays so they don't sound the same?
BBA: Sometimes they do sound the same. But, you know what, audiences aren't watching them at the same time. It's okay. I mean everyone has a trademark. I say that in jest, but also not.
RQM: What is Boni Alvarez's trademark?
BBA: Oh lord, I leave that up to the audiences, to the future. Maybe my trademark is that I've been emerging. It's been 10 years since I got out of the USC Dramatic Writing program and I feel like I am finally hitting a stride and that now most of my efforts are going towards storytelling and playwriting of some sort.
RQM: You are a career playwright. We can say that. We are going to say that.
BBA: Yes, okay. It's important to own it. I am a career playwright.
RQM: So 10 years…Is that about right? That seems to be the timeframe. I remember reading in the New York Times years ago when August: Osage County first came out that Tracy Letts was considered then an “emerging playwright.” I found that quite laughable at the time, considering the man had been working for years. But I guess emerging takes on many definitions and phases - even within the context of one person's career. You can be emerging in some new aspect or developing some new skill set to add to your tool box, and in that sense, you're emerging.
BBA: I'm emerging on the national level, to bigger theatres - getting on their radar through literary departments or other artists. It's an uphill climb being a playwright in LA. We live in the shadow of “the industry” - television and film. And it's hard to get the proper street cred as a playwright coming out of LA.
RQM: But yet you've stayed. So what keeps you here?
BBA: I lived in New York. I'm from the San Francisco Bay Area. My agents told me to move to LA. I never wanted to. There's a NorCal/SoCal thing and an East Coast/West Coast thing and I even had stuff in storage in New York while I was in school at USC.
BBA: I had every intention of moving back. But I found a tremendous community here. There's a humungous theatre scene here - so many talented practitioners of theatre.
RQM: How do plays that have developed here make it to the national scene?
BBA: You have to submit to everything. It detracts from your writing time, but it is writing, it's part of the process. They all ask for some kind of statement of purpose. Those statements help as a check-in for what you are doing, what you are working on. When you have to do a statement about your play, you have to think about why you are writing it. You have to be selective, too. I applied to this one thing year after year. I was a finalist one year. I didn't get it, but there was a private email from someone on the selection committee that said, “I'm a big fan of your work. I know it can seem like you are sending your script out into this empty black hole. You probably don't know if anyone is even reading it. It is being read, it is being appreciated. But it's not always recognized by the entire committee.”
RQM: Oh, the politics of readership.
BBA: There's politics in every committee. And so many points of view. If you are a director, you will judge a work from a director's point of view, what plays you'd like to take a stab at or if you're a producer, there are circumstances you have to take into account in selecting plays. You can't escape the baggage of who you are or your position. But you should also read it outside of that perspective as well.
RQM: And we can't be phased by any of that. We have to write our truth.
BBA: Right! You will write what you will write. And, hopefully, your champion reader will find it. I've been very lucky to have met a lot of generous people.
RQM: This is the people business.
BBA: And it's not just about the work. Are people going to want to work with you? Kindness is so undervalued and underrated. Just being nice - not pure as snow - but someone that people want to have in their presence and work with. For Nicky, we had over 200 submissions. We saw almost 100 people and I'm always amazed - wow they want to be part of my play. They want to be part of something I created.
RQM: And let's be real, some of them are coming specifically because it's YOU, Boni.
BBA: Yes, I realize that and I'm humbled. Some of my plays are mostly Filipino and I have fans who are not necessarily of the ethnicities of the characters I write for.
RQM: You know, according to Anthony Bourdain, we are in vogue. If restaurant trends are harbingers of larger cultural movements, Filipino-Americas are the new thing.
BBA: And we need to get ready to step into our light - the Filipinos of the world. Capitalize on the moment.
RQM: It is a really exciting moment to be a Filipino-American who tells stories.
BBA: I've got a question for you: as an Asian American playwright, do you feel a responsibility to include Filipinos or Filipino culture or African American culture in your work?
RQM: That comes back to my house and my home life. In many ways, my mother came to America to re-imagine herself outside of her Filipino life. Specifically, she came here to be a Western woman. That always bothered me growing up. She did not teach us any Tagalog growing up, amongst other things. My mother had a very difficult home life in the Philippines and she conflated her specific domestic situation with the Philippines as a whole. I had to come into my Filipino self on my own. I'd look on the internet and bombard her with purposefully mispronounced versions of useful Tagalog phrases like “I'm hungry” or “Good morning.” I made her correct me. Then, during the holidays, I went to my cousins' houses and it was like a different country. They served food from lace-doilied buffet tables; after the meal, the adults would sit around the television and give the kids space, and then the karaoke machine would come out. My aunt's house was decorated with a mixture of Chinese statuary and Filipino Catholic icons. I imagined that, were I born in a slightly different household, my world would be completed different. The Filipino world fascinated me, and I wanted to absorb everything I could from it.
BBA: Now this is fascinating.
RQM: I remember going to the Philippines in my 20s and being awed by the resilience, the vibrance, and the pliability of the culture. Here was a place that defined cultural fusion before the tastemakers started commenting on it. During that same trip, I went to Antipologos and looked down on Manila Bay. There was no middle class. It was ritzy Makati City on one side and the shanties on the other. That duality read like tortured poetry to me.
BBA: Well, the middle class of the Filipinos is not in the Philippines. They're all working abroad.
RQM: And also, the telecom industry is creating an emerging middle class there in the Philippines as well. That's another fascinating subculture. You discussed this in your play Dallas Non-Stop: a workforce that is trained to perform a version of self on the phone that is familiar and comfortable to the West. It's a kind of passing. Cultural passing. I am thousands of miles away but I know just what you need out of your hotel or your flight from Omaha to Detroit.
BBA: It's a type of global passing. You have Filipinos infiltrating the States, the UK, Japan, Israel, Australia. What's that show? There was a Filipino caregiver who won X Factor Israel.
RQM: Get out!
BBA: No, I'm not kidding you. Our people are all over.
RQM: Yes, we are! But, we digress. Back to your question, I've never really been able to speak to a monolithic identity, whether it's Filipino or Black American. On both sides of the family, my world is quite strange and unique so my work centers on speaking to that uniqueness as best and clearly as I can.
RQM: So, what have you got brewing next?
BBA: I have a reading of a new play, my WWII epic play Refuge for a Purple Heart as part of Echo Theater's Labfest in July. I have a played called Fixed, inspired by Calderon de la Barca's work.
RQM: Is this the lady boy play?
RQM: I am so excited right now!
BBA: It's about a family of lady boys who run a massage parlor in historic Filipinotown. This is going up at the Echo Theater in September.
RQM: This is literally putting a smile on my face right now. I am over here completely beaming. There is a play. About a house of lady boys. In September. In LA. Yasss!
BBA: The House of Malacanang.
RQM: Everybody needs to try and get into that house. Will there be tea?
BBA: Tea is always served, it might just be too strong for you.
RQM: Oh honey, yes! I just have a feeling. I can smell a smash hit from 4 months away.
BBA: You're a mess!
RQM: I always try to be.
BBA: You succeed, trust. So what's next with you?
RQM: My solo show The Duat is going up in July at Son of Semele Theatre. It's inspired by the shootings at UCLA which took place in the 1960s between differing black student groups on campus. This piece imagines a COINTELPRO informant's spiritual reckoning in the Egyptian afterlife. I feel really good about this piece - a great team and the script rewrites are coming together. Then I'm off to New York. My show The White Dress, the gender queer coming of age play, will be performed at the Araca Project in November. And then I'm filming a movie based upon my short play Softer, the gay slavery piece.
BBA: Look at you - so busy!
RQM: I'm doing what I Iove.
BBA: What is the picture of happiness in terms of your career?
RQM: What is it for you? I'll answer, but you go first.
BBA: Enough success to keep me writing plays. I'm at a point where I feel I need more productions. I mean, what playwright doesn't? But you can't just sit at home and write plays. You learn so much - the experience of being in rehearsal. Revising for production, really focused on the arrival of an audience. Audiences, they're a key element of the work.
RQM: The happiness for me comes in stages and waves. For the longest time, it was knowing what I was. And now that I know I write performance work with a foundation in playwriting, that happiness is fulfilled: I know who I am and what to do. But, as you know, happiness is addictive. So now I've got to get to the next happiness. Well, the next happiness is having a forum to do that work that's supported - my own theatre company, commissions, residencies. That's part of the happiness. The other aspect of the happiness is one that's always been there for me. I remember my first workshop production (and I'm saying that so you readers know the play is still available for world premiere rights). The play was Onion Creek, my Reconstruction-era Adam and Eve tale. At auditions, I remember seeing people in the hall trying their hearts out to come in the room and bring the strongest rendition of those sides. I saw firsthand that I was creating something larger than myself, something that people want to do.
BBA: It's a completely and utterly humbling experience.
RQM: Yes, and that's the happiness that sustains us.