Name: Beto O’Byrne
Hometown: White Oak, TX
Current Town: Brooklyn, NY
La Cooperativa of NYC Latina/o Theatre Artists
Latina/o Theatre Commons Steering Committee
Lincoln Center Director’s Lab
National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures
New York Theatre Workshop 2050 Fellowship Program
Stella Adler Studio of Acting
Theater Communications Group
University of Southern California’s Dramatic Writing Program
Q: How do you self-identify?
A: For what I think you are asking about, the most accurate self-identification for me is Tejano, though when I say that in Brooklyn, it tends to be misunderstood. So mostly, these days I say that I identify as a mixed-Latino of Mexican and Irish heritage from the complicated state of Tejas.
I also identify in the following ways: punk rocker, radical socialist, cajun chef, Mexican American War history buff, guitarist, professional wrestling enthusiast, USC Trojan, reluctant anarchist, mariachi wannabe, staunch defender of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and cat enthusiast (get it?), college football apologist, metalhead, photographer, and accidental collection of perfectly aligned atoms to make up the totality of me.
Oh yeah, and I make theatre. Almost forgot that one. 🙂
Q: Tell me about The Golden Drum Year.
A: The Golden Drum Year is a play that is a part of a larger artistic endeavor that Radical Evolution is working on called The Second Decade Project, a 10-year, multi-genre exploration into creativity, modernity, memory, and collaboration.
The play began as 365 poems that I wrote, one every day from January 4th, 2011 through January 4th, 2012, and through a series of collaborative devising workshops, we developed the staging of a story that fundamentally asks the question, “What is the value of one year in a life?” We then utilized the poetry, along with music and video designs, to develop a script and project that told the story of six people as they live out one year in their lives, the “big events” that define who we are as a person and the small events that happen to us even if we aren’t paying attention to them, and the way that we value the precious few moments of existence.
The first production of the play took place last October at The Performance Project @ University Settlement in downtown Manhattan. I was very proud of the work that was done, and humbled by the immense talent and team of individuals who made it so successful. We definitely want to do it again and hopefully in another city as well.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I currently have three scripts in the works.
Loving and Loving is Radical Evolution’s next creation. It is inspired by the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial black/white couple who were exiled from their home in rural Virginia for the crime of being married. The subsequent 10-year legal battle that followed resulted in the US Supreme Court case that removed bans on interracial marriage in our country. The show uses this story, and a blend of interview text, found historical materials, and theatrical dialogue, to explore the complexity of the mixed-identity body and how we see our place in a world that wants us to be more easily defined. For me, this is one the most critical stories of the era that hasn’t been given its due (as well as a fundamental story for mixed people and our social legitimacy) and we are hard at work prepping the project for production in time for the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in 2017.
I am also working on a new collaboration between Radical Evolution and El Teatro Campesino to build a new piece about Los San Patricos, a battalion of (mostly) Irish immigrants to the U.S. during the Mexican American War, who ended up defecting to join the Mexican Army. It’s an amazing story and one that I am compelled to explore as a US-born citizen of Mexican and Irish descent. I will be working on both this project and Loving as part of my 2050 Fellowship at New York Theatre Workshop.
Finally, I am the current playwright-in-residence at the Stella Adler School of Acting, where I am currently designing a new play that will utilize devising techniques to explore the complexity of homelessness, specifically here in NYC, an epidemic that has reached catastrophic proportions in our community. This project is very much in its nascent phases, but I am very excited about my collaborative partners, the potential of the product, and and the chance to get to further develop my writing skills in the context of devised theatre with the support of such a great institution.
Q: What have been the defining moments of your journey as a playwright?
A: I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and I always loved stories, either in books, onstage, or on the screen, so I can never really clearly state when that spark happened because for me, it has always been there.
But I would say the first moment when I said “This is something that I want to do for the rest of my life” is when I was first invited to work on La Pastorela in Austin, TX. I’ll always thank artist Alejandro Diaz for opening that door for me, and introducing me to one of the most influential artists for me, Rupert Reyes. As a mixed person who grew up in a largely white community, it was like a grito that had been dormant for 25 years suddenly came out of me, and I knew what I wanted to be as an artist for the first time in my life. I’ve been connected to Chicana/o Theatre and Latina/o theatre ever since and consider it my aesthetic home for all my work, regardless of subject matter or form.
Next I would say that attending graduate school at the University of Southern California was a major time in my career. At the time, I was working as a carpenter, assembling and repairing wooden shutters in an unairconditioned warehouse in Austin, TX when another amazing human being, Lenora Inez Brown, encouraged and helped facilitate a phone call with playwright and USC professor Oliver Mayer. Being from a small East Texas town, success as a professional artist was never exactly a clear path to travel, and the time and mentorship that I got during my time in Los Angeles was catalytic for me as a writer. While there is a good chance that I will be paying for those three and a half years for the rest of my life, I am hard-pressed to regret going. This is also because, in addition to my playwriting, it was also the time when I found my partner in life, art, and crime, Meropi Peponides, who convinced me to move to New York City with her after I completed my program.
Speaking of Meropi, my third moment was when Radical Evolution produced The Golden Drum Year. This was our first world premiere production. It was expensive as hell and we threw every resource we had available at it to make it happen. Meropi and I started Radical Evolution largely because, as artists who identify as mixed-race/ethnicity that want to explore more challenging and rigorous aesthetics, we feel there is no home for our voice in the field. We envision Radical Evolution to eventually becoming an artistic home for mixed artists and experimental artist of color and to seed the field of experimental and collaboratively created theatre with practitioners that celebrate the intersectionality of perspectives and aesthetics of the city around us. And just like how Alejandro, Rupert, Lenora, and Oliver opened doors for me, I hope that one day Radical Evolution can do the same for the next generation of artists.
Q: Who have been your playwriting mentors and heroes?
A: I have been privileged to have so many mentors and heroes in my life, that it would not do justice to them all to only name one or two. So I’ll keep the list to just playwrights, and not discuss all the amazing people who have guided me outside of the profession, with the exception of my father Jerry Wayne Smith, a talented musician and educator who taught me the true nature of artistic discipline, regardless of whether I was listening to him or not. Hint: I usually wasn’t.
Of those playwrights that have been a physical presence in my life I would name (in alpha):
Of those playwrights whose work made a profound impact on me, I would name (in alpha):
Amiri Baraka, Sam Beckett, Georg Büchner, Maria Irene Fornes, Adrienne Kennedy, Federico García Lorca, Cherrie Moraga, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Sam Shepard, Octavio Solis, Edna Walsh, and Oscar Wilde
Q: What advice do you have for Latin@ playwrights at the beginning of their career?
A: I am going to deconstruct and adapt a line from Vince Lombardi’s famous speech and say that I’ve never known a good playwright who didn’t write and write perfectly, then rewrite that perfection. And there is something about really good playwrights that makes them obsessed with being in rehearsals, whether they are required to be there or not – at least the ones I admire. Like many things in life, being a playwright is fundamentally about the work, and if you love the work, if you love being in the room working with other people and actively do so, if you sacrifice for it, to make space for the discipline of doing it, I believe you will find success.
And to do the same to Stephen King, fundamentally, playwrights who consistently write really great work tend to be writers who see as much theatre as possible. So see theatre that moves you, theatre that challenges you, and theatre that bores you to the point that, as a beautiful human being once told me, instead of focusing on the performance, you begin attempting to levitate in your chair.
You have to be an addict. You have to be obsessed. You have to be driven to the point of almost insanity. At least at the beginning. I have been told by my elders that it gets easier down the road.
***For more on Beto O’Byrne, see:
- Visit Beto O’Byrne’s Personal Website
- Radical Evolution
- “This is Our Year: The Understated Inclusivity of The Golden Drum Year” – Brett Aresco (Café Onda/HowlRound)