Here’s the latest installment of the director-to-director interview series…
Meet Tlaloc Rivas
Hometown: Tijuana, Baja California
Raised in: Escondido, CA and then Watsonville, CA
Current city: St. Louis, MO
Occupation: Assistant Professor of Directing & Performance, University of Missouri-St. Louis
Profession: Stage Director (www.tlalocrivas.com)
In the early 1990s, there was a wave of hostility against Latinos in particular, where I felt that a purely political solution was no longer viable. From Proposition 187 back then to SB 1070 today, Latinos and immigrants have marginalized and persecuted by the very country that claims to welcome those “yearning to breathe free.” As an immigrant and a Chicano I belong to both those families. And I wanted to say and do something about what I was thinking and feeling at the time …
Meryl Streep described theatre and the roles she chose as a way to “give a voice to the voiceless.” I embraced that – and embarked on a journey which gave voice to my protests and concerns. During my undergraduate years I switched from history and politics towards acting, and later on to directing.
When I started, there weren’t as many Latino (much less Chicano) directors as there are now. In some ways, it’s better than it was twenty years ago, and despite the fact that Latinos are now the largest minority group in the United States, we have some distance still to go before people in the profession like myself are satisfied. I have to admit, this is a subject I don’t spend too much time thinking about or discussing only because I feel that by doing so, I only work myself up and get distracted from actually doing the work that will eventually open doors for myself and other artists from underrepresented groups.
That being said, I used to say that I directed plays in order to make sense of the world around me, but the world sometimes confounds sense. So today, I say I direct plays to make contact: with audiences, with collaborators, with myself. I understand that the development of my career and the number of doors that open for me is commensurate with the quality of work and the degree of professionalism I offer, and that my best work will open the doors and jump-start the careers of others who will one day take the baton and run with it.
2) Did you receive academic and/or practical training in directing? And how has (not) having this formal education/training shaped your directing career?
My training came from a couple different worlds early on:
I was trained as an actor and stage manager before making the shift to directing. My study of acting at UC Santa Cruz was grounded in the American Method, Shakespeare & Verse, and Asian Performance Techniques (including Indian dance, Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku, Javanese Puppetry, etc.). Widely diverse stuff from brilliant, hippie instructors who were certified under Meisner, Boal, Linklater, etc. directly.
Later on, I founded a theater company called Chicano Theatreworks with no blueprint other than a mission statement and lots of “ganas” (to steal a phrase from ‘Stand & Deliver’). We staged guerilla-style theater: one-act protest plays, agit-prop skits, site-specific performances, etc. That was my on-the-job training. Thoughtful process, quick execution. Brecht, Valdez and Boal were my inspiration.
None of my friends at the time had ‘formal’ training’; at best, they had taken an acting class or two. And yet, we displayed more unbridled talent and energy than most professional companies. We built a light-board from scratch and lights using floodlamps and coffee cans. We raised money, built costumes, wrote our own press material, went out into communities and offered workshops to disadvantaged teens. We did it all. From this experience I know exactly what everyone is doing at any given time during all phases of production – because in those early days, I had my hands in it all.
So when I decided to go to grad school for directing, I really wanted to synthesize my own sense of collaborate practice with the craft itself. When I arrived at the University of Washington’s Professional Directors Training Program, I was a tabula rasa. I was mentored by M. Burke Walker (founder of The Empty Space in Seattle), Valerie Curtis-Newton (now Head of Directing at UW) and Jose Carrasquillo (Artistic Director of The Group Theatre), who hired me as an Artistic Associate while I was still in grad school. All of them gave me tremendous, incalculable support, both professional and academically. I directed a show every 10-12 weeks, while also curating a new play reading series at The Group. I didn’t sleep for 3 years; I immersed myself non-stop in directing, dramaturgy and ensemble-creation. I graduated with a degree, a new job running a theater in Philadelphia and an ulcer (which later healed, thankfully).
So, I had the best of these worlds: D.I.Y. theater, academic training, and professional mentorship. But I had to work hard, make a lot of sacrifices and overcome the deliberate indifference of others in order to make my
work noticed. I can count the working professional Chicano directors in the U.S. in one hand, and those are the odds I face every day.
3) Which director (or other theatre artist) (dead or alive) has had the greatest impact on you as a director?
Luis Valdez (whom I interned under at El Teatro Campesino) is and always will be an inspiration. Peter Brook (“The Man Who” at BAM was the 1st of many productions that I still carry indelible memories of); Mary Zimmerman (I was fortunate to see her stunning but unwieldly “S/M” in Chicago); Ingmar Bergman (both stage and screen). Tony Taccone (whom I’ve assisted) is crackerjack genius. Mark Wing-Davey, Richard E.T. White, Sharon Ott, Ivo Van Hove and George C. Wolfe have all directed individual shows that have kicked my ass and in return, I’ve wanted to kick theirs.
4) In your personal library, what is the most indispensable text on the craft of directing? Or, alternately, have books/practical guides proven unhelpful?
Over the years, I’ve kept my own journal for directing, with notes after each production. I jot down what worked, what didn’t, what I could’ve communicated better, etc. I’m a task-master when it comes to my own work and very critical of myself. It may turn into a book one day, who knows?
My text preferences lean towards the theoretical, rather than the practical.
“Pensamiento Serpentino” – a poem by Luis Valdez – is both a cultural and personal cornerstone for me. “Theatre of the Oppressed” and “Brecht on Theatre” may have had the most impact for me; these are certainly the texts I recommend for any aspiring director. And although “Backwards & Forwards” is a classic on script analysis, it is a must-read for directing as well. More recently, I’ve found Katie Mitchell’s “The Craft of the Director” very insightful, and I’m in the middle of reading a new book called “Ghost Light: An Introduction to Dramaturgy” by Michael Mark Chemers (a former classmate of mine at the UW School of Drama) in the hopes it may prove useful in the classroom.
5) Defend/Describe the importance of ‘the director’ in contemporary theatre. (Has the director’s place/status changed in the time you have been directing?)
No one asked nor told me to become an artist. In fact, I was discouraged by many instructors, professionals and friends not to pursue theater. What they didn’t understand (because of their sense of privilege, or ignorance), was that I came to directing out of a sense of civic and social responsibility. It came from the building coalitions through democratic and community-building practices I was exposed to through my family.
When I was a child, my father founded a night-school for immigrant, migrant farm workers, and I often joined him to tutor students in English and American Civics. And it wasn’t just because I wanted to be with my dad; I understood the importance of being part of something that wasn’t just about me, but about our responsibility to assist those who wanted a better future, who desired to become citizens and, in return, pay it forward to create a more diverse society. To me, the theater has always been about using creativity as a applicable tool for relationship building – through dialogue, partnership, and examining ourselves as part of a greater whole. I mean, isn’t that what the Greeks did? Notice I did not use the term, “theater for social change” – for many in our profession scoff at the term. Call it what you will. I was called to action. And directing became the path.
Directors, at least the good ones, should be consummate collaborators. That is our role. Our task is to bring out the best in everyone in our communities, our society, and in the rehearsal room. People believe we have all the power in the room; we don’t. We’re only as good as the friends, neighbors and collaborators around us.
6) How would you characterize/describe your own directing style?
I believe the play, the collaboration and the venue determines 95% of the style of any particular project. The last 5% is my experience, process, quirks, (unconscious) signatures and some go-to techniques. So unless you’re going to write my biography and see each of my productions, my style won’t be noticeable, nor should it relevant. I prefer my hand to be unseen.
That being said, I strive for simplicity and theatricality.
7) To block or not to block, that is the question. Do you block before rehearsals begin, in the midst of rehearsals, or not at all, and why?
During the conceptual stage, I sketch the entire show, no matter what size, style or genre it is. It helps bring a lot of imagination to my process, whether or not it all winds up getting used. By sketch I mean just that: tracing transitions, French scenes, significant moments in the play or anticipating large numbers of actors in a given scene. Sometimes with a play that is unorthodox in structure I collaborate with my designers on scene-by-scene storyboard. However, I leave a lot of room for the actor to fill everything in between with their actions, movements, results, etc.
It also depends on who I’m working with. With professionally trained actors, I feel more at ease with improvising blocking in the rehearsal room. But in a college setting or with a group with varying degrees of experience, I do a little more preparation, with the caveat that I expect the actors to come to rehearsal prepared with ideas of their own. I am well versed in movement and composition, but I dislike feeling like a traffic cop. There is always more important work to do in room, i.e. What forces are at work that motivate the blocking. When a director gets hung up on the blocking, they’re really avoiding something else; procrastinating in order to avoid dealing with the real problems of a play. There exceptions to the above: I have worked with some amazing actors who initially prefer for you to explain precisely where you want them to go and only then do they begin to trust the process – but all that really means is that I’ve INSPIRED them (and the characters they’re playing) to MOVE.
8) What quirks, habits, rituals, etc. (if any) inform your directing process?
Arriving early to every rehearsal.
Being present every single moment.
Maintaining positive energy in the room.
At my most difficult moments, my thoughts turn to my loved ones and they carry me the rest of the way.
Acknowledging that what I do is a responsibility, not a privilege; and never taking what I do for granted. Our profession is an honorable one, and I try to live up to that every day.
9) What style/type of work do you find most compelling to direct? If you have an area of specialization, what are the unique challenges/needs of directing this kind of work?
I like projects that are always little outside my comfort range. I don’t believe in repeating myself. I rarely direct plays I may have seen productions of (I have an irrational superstition about that). I don’t think there are very many professions that demand that you come at each project like a beginner. I prefer being dropped into the deep end and learning to swim at the beginning of each process.
New work is always challenging, and fun. There should be more of it. I relish the opportunity to work with writers on their plays in whichever stage their plays are at.
I yearn to direct the epic, several-hour production of play or series of plays; doesn’t matter is if it’s contemporary or classic. I hope that there will be the right place and time for that to happen.
10) What is your fondest directing experience/memory?
I’m very fond of “El Paso Blue” by Octavio Solis; I directed it in graduate school and it was my professional debut in Philadelphia for its East Coast premiere. Both involved a wonderful collaboration with acclaimed blues musician Michael “Hawkeye” Herman, who won the Barrymore Award for Original Music. If you don’t know the play, it’s 90-minute bluesical riff on Euripedes’ “Helen” set in and around El Paso, TX, about a newly released ex-convict hunting down his wife who has run off with his father. It is relentless, funny, and absurd with deep faultlines of Mexican/American themes of identity and assimilation. Octavio’s poetry, along with Hawkeye’s mixture of blues, roadhouse, Tex-Mex and country music, deeply informed both productions. That experience continues to serve as my template for an ideal, artistic collaboration.
11) What is the most challenging work you have directed to date? Why?
I had a very particular challenge in directing “The Crucible” at Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor, ME, in that at our first rehearsal, I was meeting the entire cast for the VERY FIRST TIME. Because of logistics and lack of funding, the theater could not bring me up for auditions and casting. So there I was that first night, hearing the play for the first time with 24 complete strangers, who were also meeting me for the first time. It was like, “Here’s your cast, your creative team and your play. GO.” It was surreal and it felt like I was directing on my heels for those first few days, but over the course of several weeks, we all bonded and became very close. It was extremely memorable for the fact that it was the year George W. Bush was re-elected to office and the play suddenly took on a particular resonance, which audiences responded to quite emotionally. It was also very intense that here I was in New England doing a play about a very significant historical event that many folks were well-versed in. For me, there was also a sense of longing and loneliness being so far from home, and I wondered often whether this sense of isolation also existed in the early-American colonies. I’m sure some of that emotional world found its way into the production.
12) What advice would you give to a young or aspiring director?
DO A DIRECTOR’S CLEAN SWEEP:
Does your profession inspire you?
Are you confident of your communication skills with playwrights, designers, actors, producers, dramaturgs, technicians, etc.? Do you work on those skills when necessary?
Do you fully enjoy the rehearsal process?
Do you have clear career goals and a strategy for pursuing them on a daily basis?
Do you have a presence on the World Wide Web (i.e. your own website)?
Are you pursuing a directing career completely by choice, because it brings you joy personally and professionally? Knowing that the odds are against you in many respects, do you accept the challenges fully?
Do you know and can you articulate the image/message you want to convey as a director?
Are you proud to tell people you are a director?
Do you have a resume that represents you perfectly?
Do you have a list of the champions in your life, education and career who, no matter what, will support, advocate and endorse you on a moment’s notice?
Do you keep a record-keeping system of all your meetings and interviews, tax-deductable expenses and correspondence?
Do you support your colleagues by attending shows, donating your time/money or volunteering your assistance when possible?
Are you willing to accept the mindset that there is no US vs THEM in this industry? Will you endeavor to grow and discover the best ways to work together with your current and future colleagues?
If you can do most (if not all) of this things from here on out, you will do well…
13) What is your current directing project?
This spring I directed CABALLOS MUERTOS by Law Chavez at the University of New Mexico, for the Words Afire Festival 2011 (Albuquerque, NM). The playwright has since received the 2011 KCACTF National Latino Playwriting Award.
At present, I’m directing the St. Louis premiere of BECKY’S NEW CAR by Steven Dietz for Insight Theatre Company. The production goes up June 9-19, 2011 (St. Louis, MO)
I’m currently in pre-production for THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS by Caridad Svich, based on the novel by Isabel Allende. Our production will open in October 2011 at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center (St. Louis, MO)
I was recently tapped as the inaugural director for SHAKESPEARE IN THE STREETS, a new program initiated by the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis, which will collaborate with the community of the Cherokee Street neighborhood as well as professional artists to work side-by-side to mount a site-specific production of either an adaptation or an original work inspired by one of Shakespeare’s plays. (April-May, 2012).