Staging plays with something to say
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If he hadn’t become a theater director and teacher, Tlaloc Rivas figures he’d be writing political speeches. In fact, he came to theater through politics, embracing the art for its capacity to illuminate problems and inspire change.
In the 20 years since, Rivas has established a reputation as a champion of new plays and a creative interpreter of classic works. He joined the University of Iowa Department of Theatre Arts as an assistant professor last fall after working professionally in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and other cities.
Rivas recently spoke to Iowa Now about plays, politics, and his most recent project—the reading of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop that’s a centerpiece of this week’s MLK Celebration of Human Rights.
How did you first encounter theater, and what prompted you to make it your work?
I did not attend a theatrical production until I was in my twenties, in the early 1990s. I was living in California during a wave of hostilities against Latinos, and felt a purely political response was no longer viable.
Inspired by El Teatro Campesino—a Chicano theatre troupe that emerged in the 1960s and early ‘70s—I gathered a group of classmates to put on political one-act plays in protest against California’s Proposition 187. We didn’t set out to create a theater company, but when our work proved really successful, we formed the nonprofit Chicano TheatreWorks.
I shifted my undergraduate emphasis to theater and decided to pursue directing as my craft. Along with the DIY aspect of starting a company, I worked for Shakespeare Santa Cruz, which is based at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I got a lot of great training and mentoring and sort of had the best of both worlds.
What makes theater suited to exploring social and political questions?
The craft and study of theater is essentially a study of the human condition. We can ask questions bravely through art to tell stories and give voice to the voiceless. In that respect I think theater performed live before an audience can be a very powerful thing. The Greeks knew this, and much hasn’t changed in the last 2,000-plus years.
Do you think plays that examine contemporary problems can expand the audience for theater?
I have very personal theories about this, but if you aren’t telling the stories of America that reflect that diversity of this country, I don’t think you’re serving the best interests of what we do as artists.
Regional theater across the United States often choose to present a handful of the same plays that have been successful in New York, London, or elsewhere. Theaters don’t always actively seek out new voices and new work. I think it’s important to understand that the diversity of this country is changing, and unless our stories reflect that, we’re going to find that theater may become less valuable as a place to learn more about ourselves.
You talk about developing new work—what sort of new plays get your attention?
This is not to sound flip, but it’s work that’s really truthful, with a voice that has something to say now, in this moment. When that comes across for me on the page or on stage, it’s exciting. I’m really trying to find plays that push the boundaries of storytelling from a linear structure to wonderfully visceral theatrical works that excite the senses.
Presenting The Mountaintop
Tlaloc Rivas and colleagues will present a staged reading of Katori Hall’s acclaimed play 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26, at E.C. Mabie Theatre in the UI Theatre Building.
A panel discussion titled "From 'I Have a Dream' to 'The Mountaintop': Dr. King's Vision of Equality" will follow. Participants include UI faculty members Richard Turner, Lena Hill, Janette Taylor, and Bridget Tsemo, with Rivas moderating.
The Mountaintop imagines a conversation between King and a hotel maid at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, just after King delivered his famed “Mountaintop” speech. He was assassinated the next morning.
You’ve been instrumental in staging this week’s reading of The Mountaintop by Katori Hall. How did that come about?
Katori is a friend and colleague from New York. As soon as I landed in Iowa, I started looking for opportunities to present her work here for the first time.
I had heard about the MLK celebration and on a whim asked my chair, Alan MacVey, about staging a reading of The Mountaintop, which has been lauded across the country and overseas. The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences was excited by prospect of presenting this really interesting work that imagines the last night of Dr. King’s life, a play that offers a very complex portrait of the man rather than the legend.
It’s special because this year is the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. We’re tying that speech to King’s “Mountaintop” speech with a panel discussion that explores his rhetoric, poetry, and the journey depicted in his words.
You’ve staged a lot of classic works, too, from Shakespeare to 20th century American playwrights. How do you approach established plays?
I like to approach the classic plays as new plays, and new plays as classic works. With classic work, it’s really easy to fall into people’s idea of a traditional production. That doesn’t mean I set out to do a radical reinvention, but I seek to find my own interpretation.
I keep a journal of every play I work on, and I treat my relationship with the play like a new one where I’m constantly writing down notes. I look back on those initial thoughts as instinctual points on the map that I want to be able to convey in the production. I want it to be like finding a manuscript abandoned in a trunk in an attic, not making any assumptions about the work or its place in the canon per se.
Is there a particular production you’re most proud of?
One of my fondest directing experiences was a play called El Paso Blue by Octavio Solis. I directed it in graduate school, and it was my professional debut when I was running a theater company in Philadelphia. It was a collaboration not just with the playwright, but with a musician named Michael Hawkeye Herman, who grew up in Iowa.
It was a 90 minute riff on Helen by Euripedes set in El Paso, Texas, about a newly released convict hunting down his wife, who’s run off with his father. The play is kind of relentless, funny, and absurd, examining the deep fault lines between Mexican-American identity and assimilation.
The playwright’s poetry along with Hawkeye’s mixture of blues, roadhouse, Tex Mex, and country music deeply informed the production. That experience was a template for kind of deep artistic collaboration. It remains one of my favorites.
Was Iowa on your radar prior to exploring a faculty position?
My wife is a dramaturg, and she had come here as a guest artist a few times to work with playwrights in the New Play Festival. She always spoke really highly of UI and the work she saw here. When I was directing professionally in New York and elsewhere, I would constantly run into UI graduates and was certainly very impressed with them and their training.
So, I was interested in the UI, being one of the oldest and most respected programs in the country. When the faculty position came up, I was really excited.
Are there particular projects you’d like to develop here?
I bring an advocacy for new work and for plays from diverse voices including women and writers of color. But I also bring a really strong grounding in American theater from throughout the 20th century, and a passion for theater for social change and civic engagement.
One of my last projects was The New World in St. Louis, a play for and completed by a neighborhood called Cherokee Street. It was an adaptation of The Tempest, and it premiered last spring. It was a wonderful success.
That’s part of what I’m interested in, but I’ve been spending my first year getting to know the students here and learning from the wonderful colleagues I have in this department. Everyone has been very welcoming.