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Q&A: Christie Vela

A conversation with the director about inclusion, theater that's too safe, and the themes of Guadalupe in the Guest Room, opening at WaterTower Theatre.



published Friday, February 22, 2019

Photo: Evan Michael Woods
Leticia Magaña stars in Guadalupe in the Guest Room at WaterTower Theatre

 

Addison — In one way or another, multi-talented Christie Vela has been making theater in the D-FW area (with occasional treks to Providence, RI’s long-running Trinity Repertory Company) since the late 1990s. As an actor, she’s performed on almost too many area stages to count. Vela is a company member with Kitchen Dog Theater, and was one of the original nine actors invited to join the Dallas Theater Center’s resident acting company (now the Diane and Hal Brierly RAC) when artistic director Kevin Moriarty put it together a decade ago. Vela had roles in DTC’s God of Carnage, Medea, Sense & Sensibility, The Book Club Play and many other shows—and was one of the company’s Master Acting Teachers.

Over time, Vela has developed into one of the area’s top directors as well, with credits ranging from Straight White Men and Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again at Second Thought Theatre; Titus Andronicus with Shakespeare Dallas; Don’t Dress for Dinner at Stage West; and Paper Flowers and The Pillowman at Kitchen Dog. Next up, she’ll be directing Real Woman Have Curves for DTC this spring.

Vela had a long-running involvement with the innovative Our Endeavors Theatre Collective, where she co-wrote one of the company’s signature pieces, 2005’s The Last One-Nighter on the Death Trail Starring the Disappointment Players—a 1930s vaudeville saga revived last year at Theatre Three. In addition to her acting/directing projects, Vela also teaches up-and-coming performers at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

But at the moment she’s to be found at WaterTower Theatre, busy putting last-minute touches on Guadalupe in the Guest Room, a comedy-drama by young Mexican-American playwright Tony Meneses that critics have called “warm and endearing,” “powerful,” and a “treasure.”

WTT’s regional premiere of the play—which begins previews on Friday, Feb. 22, opens Monday, Feb. 25, and closes March 17also marks Vela’s directorial debut with the company. The cast features Andrews W. Cope, David Lugo, Leticia Magaña, and Gabrielle Reyes. 

TheaterJones talked to Vela about Guadalupe just before one of the show’s final rehearsals—and the conversation led into some interesting side-roads.

A schedule for WaterTower's Intersections programming follows this interview.

 

TheaterJones: I probably know you more as a director these past few years, though I’ve seen you onstage at both Kitchen Dog and the DTC—and as a blues-singing Dulcinea in the Don Quixote riff (Brenda Withers’ The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote) that Amphibian Stage produced a few seasons back—offbeat and fun!

You get around, both as an actor and director—and this is your first time directing for WaterTower Theatre. What appealed to you about Guadalupe in the Guest Room?

Photo: Cameron Cobb Photography
Christie Vela

Christie Vela: I was in Providence [Rhode Island] directing Native Gardens at Trinity Rep when Joanie [Schultz, WTT’s artistic director at the time] called me up. She and I had been looking for something to work on together, and she called to say ‘This play came across my desk, I really like it, but I don’t know enough Spanish. I need a Spanish-speaker to read it and see if it’s good, or off the mark in some way.’

And I fell in love with the script. It doesn’t have a whole lot of Spanish in it, but the way the playwright handles translation and language barriers in the play was really, really interesting. His device was something I hadn’t seen done before, truly clever. It’s a play about grief and communication—or non-communication, you know.

 

Tony Meneses said Guadalupe came from some thoughts he had about how it must be to live in a world where you don’t speak the language—but broadening that out, to be in a world where you don’t have a voice.

I love that Guadalupe is an older woman from Mexico. I am sixth-generation Texan, so I’m very American. I come from South Texas, deep in that culture in a way that’s different from someone who is here first-generation from Mexico. So I have a particular place of privilege…and the ability to see that yes, it’s true that in this country, my country, we love Mexican culture, Mexican food, but for the most part the people remain under the radar, kind of invisible. So they are voiceless. There’s such a diversity of how many generations people have been here. 

And I loved it that she’s an older woman who is the lead of a play, which doesn’t happen that often.  That was so charming to me. I’m now considered ‘older’ myself, and how wonderful that the playwright sees this woman, who would usually be in a supporting role, an afterthought in movies and plays, and puts her at the center of the story—and then gives her romance, too. I thought it was beautiful.

 

The play sounds funny and heart-tugging—are there dark moments or edges to it that may surprise the audience?

If there are edges in the play, they relate to the daughter’s death—it’s only been a month, and her loss is still very, very present to them [her mother Guadalupe and her husband Steve].  She is very present, in fact. It’s the thing that is silently there when you’re trying to live your day, but then something reminds you, and pulls you down. And you have to start that climb again, depending on where you are in the process. I certainly think it’s something audiences will relate to—we’ve all lost people we love.

 

It isn’t dark, it’s a real-life thing.

Yes, exactly. The play is built for you to have a great time, and laugh, and then suddenly you’re back with those characters and what they’re going through.

 

I like Meneses’ idea of adding a telenovela thread to the plot—maybe to lighten the mood, maybe to take the play out of the apartment where these two people are grieving. Anyway, it must make things interesting—for one thing, it lets a couple of the cast members double as very different characters.

That has been so much fun. I grew up watching telenovelas with my mom and grandmom, and it’s made even more fun because I have a group of fearless actors willing to just go there. At times actors don’t want to do anything that might seem like bad acting—but they’ve been having fun winking at the audience a bit and enjoying the challenge of switching from playing a very sincere, naturalistic character, and then jumping into the telenovela world where all bets are off.

 

This is heading in a different direction, but I read something you wrote on social media recently, and especially because you have such a long history in North Texas theater, I wanted to ask you about it. You were talking about theater now being better than it was, but not ‘better’ enough, and worse in some surprising ways. We’re doing diverse casting, we’re making some progress in getting a more diverse group of people behind the scenes, too. And yet….

And yet, yeah.

 

Are we stuck, in a way? How do we move on from where we are now?

I don’t know if I’m the right person to talk about that; sometimes I get into these existential crises, you know. But I do feel like we’re in a better place. I feel like the leaders of our industry are finally going ‘Oh, yeah, I get it. People of color also buy toothpaste and paper towels.’

 

In other words, not every story is about ethnicity or race?

Yes, that’s right. Now I think it’s important that we involve people of color in the decision-making of what they want to see. Don’t assume that because you’ve put a certain play in a season, that’s it, you’ve embraced the Latin or black or Asian community. Don’t make assumptions that every story is a deprivation story.

Everyone wants to do In the Heights. I’m not interested in In the Heights, because I’m not from New York; I’m not Puerto Rican or Dominican. It’s a great story and I think I’d enjoy seeing it—but I’m not connected to it just because I’m Latina.

And that was something I loved about Guadalupe in the Guest Room. It’s a story everyone can relate to. It just happens that the main character is a Mexican woman…but people shouldn’t think ‘well, that’s the Latin play because Tony wrote it.’ It’s a play about grief, about moving on, about communicating—and the very real problem in the play is that these two people speak different languages. But you and I know that you can speak the same language and not be able to communicate.

 

Yes, they might, even if they both spoke English, still be unable to understand what the ‘other’ is going through. In your post, you wondered if theater, an art form with a long tradition of being ‘challenging, frightening, outcast’ work, could do its best work if it spent huge energy and time trying to follow ‘rules to please everyone.’

I’m so glad that the younger people in theater are speaking out and saying their piece, but I’m worried that we’re moving so far in the new direction that we have to walk on eggshells. Moving so far that we are discounting the worth of some classic plays—some not even that old—because they might offend somebody.

But theater should be dangerous. Theater is a trigger. Life is a trigger. Nobody is going to protect you from that. What better place to do it, to learn those things than a theater, which is supposed to be a safe place? That’s our job.

We’re making theater so safe for everybody…that it’s no longer safe, you know?

 

Do you think we need to move through this awkwardness until—I don’t know—until we’re all so comfortable and used to a very diverse community that new generations don’t even see it as a thing anymore? When I’m optimistic, I think that’s what will happen.

I have this conversation with my children all the time, who were brought up watching their parents in theater—and now are theater-makers themselves. And we have to agree to disagree: they tell me sometimes that something can’t be done now, that it isn’t relevant or it’s wrong. Mamet sometimes is problematic, and it’s controversial for me to say as a woman, but Mamet will never not be David Mamet.

 

Yes, I lived in Chicago in the Mamet heyday—and all those guys, those very male playwrights, were fabulous…and horrible.

Fabulous and horrible, yes! Isn’t that what theater should be? If theater isn’t fabulous and horrible, what are we doing?

 

 

 

Note: WaterTower Theatre Associate Artistic Director, Kelsey Leigh Ervi, has announced details for Guadalupe in the Guest Room INTERSECTIONS programming, with talk-backs and events following certain performances. The schedule is as follows:

 

Sunday, February 24 – Pay It Forward with Pay What You Can 

Proceeds from the PWYC performance of GUADALUPE IN THE GUEST ROOM will benefit Aberg Center for Literacy.

 

Thursday, February 28 – Conversation w/ Playwright Tony Meneses 

A post-show conversation with playwright Tony Meneses discussing his inspiration for GUADALUPE IN THE GUEST ROOM.

 

Friday, March 1 – Conversation w/ Playwright Tony Meneses 

A post-show conversation with playwright Tony Meneses discussing his inspiration for GUADALUPE IN THE GUEST ROOM.

 

Saturday, March 2 – Conversation w/ Playwright Tony Meneses 

A post-show conversation with playwright Tony Meneses discussing his inspiration for GUADALUPE IN THE GUEST ROOM.

 

Thursday, March 7 – Conversation w/ Director Christie Vela 

A post-show conversation with director Christie Vela discussing the creative process for GUADALUPE IN THE GUEST ROOM.

 

Thursday, March 14 – Conversation on the Power of Children’s Books 

A post-show conversation with local children’s book author Nancy Churnin discussing the power and importance of children’s books to help us better understand those different from us.

 

Friday, March 15 – Conversation w/ Local Playwrights 

A post-show conversation with local playwrights Franky Gonzalez, Janielle Kastner, and Jonathan Norton discussing how a city can inspire and influence their work.

 

Saturday, March 16 (8pm) – Conversation on the Value of Diverse Languages 

A post-show conversation on multi-lingual households and the value of diverse languages in America.

 

In addition to the above post-performance discussions and panels, WTT will host Conversations with the Artists, a post-show conversation with members of the cast of Guadalupe in the Guest Room on:

  • Wednesday, February 27
  • Sunday, March 3
  • Wednesday, March 6
  • Sunday, March 10
  • Wednesday, March 13
  • Sunday, March 17
 Thanks For Reading




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Q&A: Christie Vela
A conversation with the director about inclusion, theater that's too safe, and the themes of Guadalupe in the Guest Room, opening at WaterTower Theatre.
by Jan Farrington

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