Universal Stories, Specific Choices

by Elena Araoz

in Diversity & Inclusion,National Conference

Post image for Universal Stories, Specific Choices

(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)

TCG Online Conference Salon: Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc–Latina/o American Theatre Artists

JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.

ELENA ARAOZ: I work both as a director of theatre and opera and as an actor. As a director I am interested simply in great stories and try to resist narrowing down my style or aesthetic whenever I am asked for that elevator pitch. My greatest interests are textually challenging new plays, choreography-heavy physical theatre, scripts with a great sense of humor, and immense theatricality mixed with mundane truthful detail.

JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?

EA: My father is from Peru, and I feel very aligned with his country and heritage. My mother is of French-Canadian descent, but I’ve never had much of a connection to our family in Canada and I don’t speak French. In other words, I visit Canada for vacation and I visit Peru to see family.

My father is an immigrant and worked extremely hard to provide for his family here in the U.S. (as did my mother) and provide for his family back in Peru. Because of the prejudice he experienced here (I suppose because of his dark skin and thick accent), he wanted his children to speak English exceptionally well and without any foreign dialect. I grew up surrounded by great attention to words and textual analysis. So on one hand, I identify as a very well-educated American who can socialize in any highbrow situation. And on the other hand, I identify as the daughter of a man who lived through extreme poverty in Peru and I do things very differently than my contemporaries.

The love of language that my family instilled in me led me to theatre. As an actor, I crave the challenge of classical texts. As a director, I love developing new plays and working out their puzzle pieces. I believe that staging develops from the rhythm of the text; characters choose each word and each silence very specifically, and when the actors intimately understand their characters’ language, then a play will almost stage itself.

My Latino family’s love of dance, music and theatricality influence my aesthetic. Around our dinner table it would not be abnormal for someone to recite a poem before eating, for everyone to sing a song before dessert, and for a dance party to end the night.

The combination of all of who I am makes me mix bold theatrical dance-like staging with the most subtle and truthful use of language.

JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?

EA: Though I hate to imagine that I’ve gained an opportunity because of my ethnicity and not because of my talent, I cannot help but think that my unique name and ethnic look have afforded me some opportunities.

I do not believe that doors have been closed to me because I am Latino. I can certainly get frustrated as an actor when I am not called in to audition for the “quirky girl-next-door” roles because that is secret code for “blonde.” (Having grown up in a Connecticut suburb, I really understand “quirky girl-next-door.”) But that kind of frustration is part of any actor’s life, and certainly there have been roles open to me for which the blonde girl would never be called.

This industry does not have much imagination when it comes to the range of work it believes an artist can do. I think that stems from the fact that theatre is a representational form. We want an audience to immediately recognize who a character “is” as soon as he or she walks on stage. So in order for a Latina to be cast as the “quirky girl-next-door,” we may need to get to a place in our society where an audience can see that Latina walk on stage and think “Yes, that’s the genuine American quirky girl-next-door just like the one I knew growing up.”

Ironically enough, because of my ethnic but not-too-ethnic look, I am what is considered in casting language as pan-ethnic or ethnically-ambiguous. So I have enjoyed the benefit of playing numerous Native American roles, all types of Middle Eastern roles and even Indian roles – on stage, in film and TV and, believe it or not, in commercial voice over. So when Latinos get upset about non-Latinos playing their roles, I wonder about how actors of other ethnicities must feel that so many of their roles are being played by Latinos.

Because of my unique background and training, I have had the great opportunity to direct plays which explore issues important to Latinos and I have been asked to work on bilingual Spanish and English plays. But those are certainly not the only plays on which I want to work and I would hate for my ethnicity to pigeonhole me. Perhaps being Latino has gotten me in the door with certain theatres when they want to diversify, but I hope that the product I create has proved my viability as a regular and prolific contributor to the American Theatre

JL: Do we need racial, ethnic and gender based culturally specific theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?

EA: I am grateful for the culturally specific theatre companies that have paved the way for this conversation. The handful of Latino theatres in this country have provided an artistic home for Latino and Spanish-speaking artists to write and produce plays without the weight of traditional white American “values” to please and appease. These theatre companies have allowed actors to work without worrying about their native dialects, producers to draw in Latino audiences and perhaps most importantly, Latino playwrights to write what is interesting and urgent to them and not just what traditional American regional theatres are looking for from them – which I would bluntly describe as didactic issue plays that make white American audiences feel that they are good citizens because they have witnessed a story about the Latino struggle. Many of the Latino playwrights that I have grown up admiring and the plays that I have cherished have come out of Latino theatre companies where the writers were afforded the opportunity to write a great story which happens to have Latino characters as opposed to a play showing us Latinos.

Without culturally specific theatres, Latinos might not be a part of the mainstream American theatre at all. But do we need new ones? I do not believe that we should marginalize ourselves further by creating more culturally specific theatres. Yes, I think we can band together to celebrate ourselves and our individual cultures, but it should not come from a place of “it’s us against them.” If the goal is to be more represented on the mainstream American stage, then let’s figure out how to get there.

I believe that the stages of the American theatre should look like America. I believe that a director of a play which includes Latino characters should do everything he or she can to find Latino artists. (I find it plain laziness when theatres complain that there are no good Latino actors in their region. Seeing as a huge percentage of the American population is Latino, those actors are absolutely out there. They just need to be courted and perhaps trained in the vocabulary that we American theatre artists like to throw around in rehearsal.)

A play engages an audience when its ideas are universal, and the more specific the choices, the more universal the story. Certainly a play about a Latino family, for example, if the conflict is written and portrayed with a level of sophisticated and truthful specificity, can have any member of the audience, no matter which ethnicity, see their own family on stage. The artistic benefit of Latinos portraying Latinos is the greater level of specificity and cultural understanding they can provide. But can a playwright write honest characters of a different race? Absolutely. Can an actor play a different ethnicity? Of course. But the social benefit of Latino stories told by Latinos is that the audience sits in the same room with that “other” and shares a discourse.

JL: What is the current state of Latino/a Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)

EA: Many cities with a large Latino population have live performance made by and for the benefit of their Latino and Spanish speaking population – plays, concerts, dance performance, you name it. And then there are Latinos who belong to the more mainstream theatre community that has traditionally served a white audience. And there are growing pains for us. We want so badly to feel valued in our industry. We scream and yell and pound our fists about being included, but we really need to ask ourselves, “Why do they need us? Why are our voices so vital to the American theatre?”

I find it ironic that people get so up in arms about cultural specificity in casting and hiring when in our culture it is not acceptable and often not even legal to talk about race. For example, I just directed a play that called for three Mexican characters – a family from Oaxaca. I wanted Mexican actors, specifically from the southern regions of Mexico who could pass for the indigenous look that I believe these characters would have. However, when directors are auditioning actors, we legally cannot ask them where they are from or what their accent is or where they were born – just like I cannot ask them how old they are or what their sexual orientation is. And in the end, I don’t really care about any of that personal history, but I strive to get specific with the details – with the dialects, the look and the sensitivity to the political and social structures that a play is discussing. So in the end, after days of auditions and callbacks, I thought I had found the most perfect Mexican cast – they all looked it, sounded it, understood these characters intimately, and had played numerous Mexican characters in the past – and they were absolutely outstanding actors. It turns out the three actors were Australian of Latin descent, Puerto Rican and French!

So on one hand, minorities have fought for race not to be an issue or even a topic of discussion in our hiring and firing. And on another, if that conversation is not had, how do we make ourselves known?

I’m not excusing directors who have cast against type – who have a Latin character and do not take the time and energy to cast it as a Latino. But even in the most thorough of searches, we may get it wrong.

JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?

EA: So many of our country’s regional theatres seem to reserve one slot per season for their “minority” play. This slot is often filled with an issue play – a play about race rather than race being present alongside the conflict. In terms of Latino issues, I notice that these plays might often be about immigration, gang violence, gorilla warfare or border issues. Certainly these are extremely important and timely discussions for our cities and American communities to actively participate in and there is no better place to discuss these issues than in the theatre. But does this limited portrayal somehow keep the American perception of Latinos stuck within a very small spectrum? And if Latino plays have to compete with plays from other minority groups for that one slot per season, then the chances of an audience seeing non-stereotypical representations of Latinos becomes even slimmer.

Who are these minority issue plays for – for the Latinos we hope will come to the theatre or for a white audience that wants to applaud itself for taking part in such conversation? And where are the other plays, the ones that dramatize the other aspects of Latino life, which are very often the exact same aspects of white American life?

Looking at the other minority groups that have fought and are still fighting for representation and fairness in the American Theatre, they often went through these same growing pains. The pioneer plays were about being a minority. And as these groups begin to gain a seat at the table, their plays begin to include other conversations and as an audience we see a more three dimensional, truthful and human representation.

I’d like to see much more creative programing from theatres. I’d love to see plays from Latin America or written be Latinos in America that are just great stories that happen to have Latino characters and are void of stereotypical or didactic conversations. I’d love to see Latino actors cast as characters that are not designated for Latinos. Having people of color on stage and writing for the stage is political enough – let audiences see the depth and breadth of Latinos in American.

If theatres want to commit to diversity on stage, then we need more than one minority play per season. With only one play per year, we get a limited vantage point. Instead put a classical Spanish play next to a contemporary Latin American romance play next to an African American family play – then the mainstream American theatre can start to have a real conversation about inclusion and diversity.

I have been asked by some theatres to help find ways to bring Latino audiences into their theatre. They see that the Latino population is growing faster than any other in the country and they want to capitalize on that. I struggle to make these theatres understand that Latinos want to see their stories on stage, and those stories are not always about immigration, gang violence, gorilla warfare and border issues. Those theatres need to ask themselves “What do Latino audiences really want to see? They already have a wealth of art and richness in their culture, what are we trying to serve them that is unique?”

When I saw In the Heights I was appalled when the cast came out onto the stage after the show and one naïve young performer had the task of asking for donations to fund a program to “bring the arts to Latinos in New York City.” What an unfortunate choice of words. Certainly I want to support any fund that helps schools and programs give underprivileged Latinos the time, place and training to practice the arts. But the idea that those unfortunate poor Latinos don’t have arts of their own and we need to give them some is one of the very problems with the American theatre’s method to encourage Latinos to come to the theatre.

My hope for the American theatre is that it can invite Latinos to be a part of the conversation, both as artists and audiences, so that Latinos can share their unique and complex perspective, and that the American theatre can forget the idea that Latinos somehow need American theatre.

I believe that as theatre artists we have the potential to be civic leaders – we can start discussions within a local community and we can remind our communities what we think they might be forgetting to discuss. Certainly if Latinos are invisible in the American Theatre, then that means they are absent from the discussion.

Araoz_Elena1Elena Araoz is a stage director of theater and opera as well as an actress. As a director, she works internationally, Off-Broadway and at the LORT regional level. This season, Elena has directed Natalia Naman’s new play Lawnpeople at Cherry Lane Theatre and the world premiere of Mac Wellman’s Horrocks (and Toutatis too), which was presented at the New Museum after a workshop at New Dramatists. Upcoming, she will direct a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor for Opera North, Bekah Brunstetter’s Be a Good Little Widow at The Wild Project, and the world premiere of Mac Wellman’s Wu World Woo, co-produced by Omaha’s BlueBarn Theatre and the Great Plains Theatre Conference.

During the 2011-2012 season, Araoz made her debut with New York City Opera as Stage Director and Choreographer for Sir Jonathan Miller’s production of La traviata, which performed at the Gilman Opera House at BAM. In the same season, she also directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Prague Shakespeare Festival in the Czech Republic, Jaclyn Villano’s new play The Company We Keep for Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, Mac Wellman’s Muazzez at the Great Plains Theatre Conference, and the first workshop of Clinnesha Sibley’s new play Uprooted at TheatreSquared and Arkansas Rep.

She has developed and/or directed work by Naomi Wallace, Don DeLillo, Christopher Logue and has directed for such institutions as Brooklyn Philharmonic at BAM, Glimmerglass Opera, Northern Stage, Geva Theate Center, Nobel Bridge Theatre (Beijing), Pearl Theatre Company. Her operetta War Music performed around the country. Elena works regularly with Sir Jonathan Miller, most recently as Choreographer and Associate Director at Vancouver Opera.

New York acting credits include Amelia in House of Bernarda Alba (Pearl Theatre Company), Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (American Globe), and Diana in All’s Well That Ends Well (New York Classical Theatre). Regionally, Johnna in August: Osage County (Arden Theatre Company), Aouda in Around the World in 80 Days (Triad Stage), Lila Mahnaz in The Rant (InterAct Theatre) and multiple new play workshops at Geva Theatre Center and PlayPenn. Currently screening worldwide, she is featured in the award-winning green screen feature film Mars by Geoff Marslett.

Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com