Dallas — This Friday, the Dallas Theater Center opens Oedipus el Rey, Luis Alfaro's adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus the King, in the Studio Theatre at the Wyly Theatre at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. This is a tremendously important moment for the Dallas/Fort Worth theater community in general and the Latino community in particular.
With an all-Latino/a cast and assistant director David Gutierrez, this production places Latino talent, some of whom are local, on center stage. Seating is limited and 23 performances are already sold out. There are standby ticket prices for this production, which has been in previews since Jan. 16.
Teresa Marrero talked with the play's director, Kevin Moriarty, the Artistic Director of the Dallas Theater Center; and also with the playwright, Luis Alfaro, a MacArthur Genius award winner. The interviews were conducted separately, but have been blended together for this Q&A.
Moriarty discusses his choice to produce the Chicano playwright’s take on the great tragedy; and Alfaro shares the why of Oedipus as inspiration for a contemporary Latino adaptation of a Greek classical tragedy, and shares some personal thoughts about his work.
TheaterJones: Hi Luis, maybe you can tell our Dallas-Fort Worth audience a little bit about you. How did you get into this line of work, anyway?
Luis Alfaro: I grew up in the poorest and most violent neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles. I knew that telling stories was going to be my way out. I wrote an essay in fourth grade about a killing on my block. My teacher sent me to the principal and I was suspended and my mother had to take me to a therapist. Both of my parents were part of the United Farmworker movement and my father used to say that we must bring to light, that which is in the dark. So I thought, as a ridiculous fourth grader, that I was being silenced and decided that I must never stop writing. I read a book in the fifth grade called The Long Loneliness about Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker soup kitchens and I realized that I could be an artist and a citizen. I used to be a poet and someone saw a reading I did and told the playwright Maria Irene Fornés about me and she invited me to study with her. It changed my life. I love poetry, but the alchemy of my work seems to happen in theatre. For the last 15 years I have married my professional with my community work and this is how I make art all over the United States.
What was your inspiration for Oedipus el Rey?
LA: Oedipus is pretty much beat-for-beat an adaptation of Oedipus the King, but what I have done is modernize the story and placed it in California [Los Angeles]. I was very upset to read about the high recidivism rate across the country; California has the highest in the nation. So, why do so many men who get out of prison immediately go right back when they are released? Part of it for me was this idea of whether we have any role in our destiny, if we can change our future and our fate. Why is it important to revisit the ancient Greeks? For me the Greeks offer morality tales, theatre teaches us ways to learn how to live our lives. How do we live as a society? How do we live as a culture? These plays ask questions that we are left to answer. Can you forgive; can you change your destiny? Why is it important to have an ensemble tell this story? The ensemble represents the community. I love how the community shows up in Greek plays, and I love bringing the community to a play. So, in a way, those people on stage represent us. They are asking themselves the questions that we ask ourselves.
Why this play, Kevin? What was it about it that drew you to it? Have you seen it produced elsewhere before, if so, where?
Kevin Moriarty: I first read an earlier draft of the script several years ago and instantly fell in love with it. I was immediately drawn to its bold theatricality, stunning rhythms, complicated characters and the power of the questions it demands of the audience about how our destinies are determined. A year later I had the opportunity to see a production of the play at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago. I loved that production and was moved by how powerfully it spoke to everyone in the audience that day.
Luis, what is your process when it comes to inserting ambient reality —for instance, the high number of Latino prisoners in this case—and creating a work of art based on a Greek classic, such as Oedipus? I mean, why Oedipus the King and not Seven Against Thebes or Antigone, for instance? What was it about Oedipus the King that struck you as so relevant and vital still today?
LA: I feel that what happens to me with adaptation is that I first try to see how it is relevant to today and how this is the most modern story I have ever read. When that happens, the scene per scene work is actually kind of fun. I just pull the past straight into the present. I do a lot of research, like maybe even for a year before I begin to write, and in this case, I met an Oedipus through a gang prevention organization called Homeboy Industries, run by Father Greg Boyle. This was a young man who had been in prison for the majority of his life. We talked a lot about fate and destiny and his role in his own incarceration. I saw him as I wrote the play and imagined the story of this play in his own life.
Kevin, what were some of the biggest challenges in directing and/or in designing this production?
KM: The play has many fast-paced scenes, intermixed with a coro. The location-hopping and the fast transitions of the coro into characters demands a fluidity in the staging, and Luis’ language is so rich that I knew I needed a visual world that was sparse, so the words and characters could be the focus. Since the frame of the play is a prison, we decided to create the sensation of being in a prison—though not a literal representation. We did this be creating a highly restricted, tight, enclosed space with the smallest playing area I’ve ever seen for a seven- actor play. Instead of elaborate set and lighting cues, we have stripped the visual production down to its bones. There are no technicians in the performance space. The actors manipulate the lighting instruments and light board themselves. There are no recorded sound effects, rather the actors whistle, sing and contribute to the aural design of the show through their voices and bodies. The small space allows the acting to be incredibly nuanced and forces the audience to experience the story in a charged, intense, immediate way.
Luis, some writers say they write for actors, others say it is the structure of the piece, etc. How would you describe your way of creating plays?
LA: I love adapting, I write an equal number of original plays. Sometimes I am inspired by a story, sometimes by a character but mostly I work in community, inspired by people and their stories. I always work with community members when I am creating my work. I usually have a rough draft when I go into rehearsal and then I write for the actor, because I love collaborating with actors, they help me tell the story and I want to write in their rhythm in their passion. I try to do something new each time. This last season I had five world premieres—I know, I am exhausted—and each one was so different. I wrote a Mexican Medea, a Strindberg adaptation, a play for youth, a one-man show about grief and a Calderón de la Barca modernization about painting.
This play is very much set in Los Angeles. How do you think this element will translate to Dallas, Kevin?
KM: Most great plays draw inspiration from a very specific location for its inspiration—think of New Orleans in A Streetcar Named Desire, for instance. It’s of vital importance for the director, cast and designers to immerse themselves in the world of the play, but if we’ve done our work thoroughly, the audience should be able to fully engage with the play without having to first visit Kern County or L.A. or the other locations of the play.
Luis, this play has been received very well in numerous parts of the country (Chicago, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco), but this is the first time to be produced in Texas, in Dallas to be specific. Do you think that audience reception varies according to geographic location? If so, how?
LA: Yes, each city is its own unique expression. I hope the story is universal enough to meet the uniqueness of Dallas. I don’t imagine that the audience might know the specifics of this piece, but that they might relate to the feelings, in the end that is what we share, emotions. In San Francisco people were very interested in the tragedy of what happens to our youth. In Chicago, there was a lot of emphasis on this being a love story. The greatest tragic love story you might experience. I love when each city can make a story theirs. It means we translate, like the Greeks, across time and space.
Kevin, what do you want audiences to walk away with from this production?
KM: Do we have the power to determine our own destinies? Is this equally true for all of us? The statistics about recidivism strongly imply that for many, their lifelong fate is determined the moment they first enter the penal system. Similarly, there are people whose fate is determined by their religious beliefs, their community’s ways, or the family into which they’re born. Understanding how the choices we make are deeply determined by the systems we perpetuate politically, economically and religiously can allow us to then ask if this is the way things should be, and, if not, determine how to make a change.
Luis, what kind of experience do you want the audience to have?
LA: Well, I try not to dictate what the audience gets out of it. My job as a playwright is to ask the questions but not to answer them. I think it is the audience’s job to answer the question that the play poses or proposes. I’m always hoping that the audience is upset. By upset I mean we can be agitated in a good way and we can be agitated in a bad way. But hopefully by upset we can maybe have some catharsis, an emotional reaction to the artwork, maybe even want to do something about the story we experience. Maybe that is a little heady, but I always think that when I go to the theater, I go to learn to be a better person. I go to understand something about humanity, about myself, about the world around me because it poses questions. And great theater does that.
Kevin, what’s next at DTC in terms of Latino/a themed works?
KM: As one of the leading theaters in Texas, we are very conscious that it is imperative for us to welcome, collaborate with and nurture artists, staff, board members and audiences who reflect the diversity of the community in which we live. This includes a commitment to including Latino voices on our stage, in our audience and throughout our organization. For instance, we are in the midst of a multiyear effort to produce work by Latino playwrights. Last year we produced The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kris Diaz, and this year Oedipus el Rey by Luis Alfaro. In April, when we announce our next season, there will be at least one Latino playwright’s work represented. We have also commissioned Kris to write two new plays for us for production in a future season, we have welcomed Daniel Duque-Estrada, a Latino actor, as the newest member of our Brierley Resident Acting Company, and we are in the midst of creating a new theatrical piece in collaboration with Cara Mía Theatre, which David Lozano will direct in a coming season and which he and Lee Trull are writing together.
Luis, any words of advice to the audience?
LA: A play is a living thing, an organism that breathes on stage. My advice to the audience is to engage, it’s the last of the living sports. So in the same way that you go to a basketball game and get all of those cathartic feelings, I hope that is what happens in the theatre, I hope the audiences come ready to play with the play.
» Teresa Marrero is Associate Professor of Latin American and Latino/a Theater at the University of North Texas
» Here's a video from Dallas Theater Center with interviews with the actors and designers about the way the Studio Theatre space is used for this production: