Name: Tlaloc Rivas
Hometown: Tijuana, B.C. Mexico
Current Town(s): Iowa City IA / Pittsburgh PA
Affiliations: Co-Founder of the Latina/o/x Theatre Commons; Assistant Professor of Theatre, The University of Iowa; Associate Artist, Boundless Theatre Company, NYC; Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s Patriot Program; Usual Suspect, New York Theatre Workshop; Member, Dramatists Guild; Associate Member of Stage Directors and Choreographers; Member, National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures
Q: How do you self-identify?
A: Chicano—with Indigenous, Black, and Sephardic lineage which I’m currently unearthing.
Q: Tell me about Johanna: Facing Forward.
A: In 2008, Johanna Orozco, a young Puerto Rican/Guatemalan-American teenager living in Cleveland, survived a point-blank shotgun blast to her head by her ex-boyfriend. The play documents her recovery with the help of her extended family, a committed medical team, and a new friend in journalist Rachel Dissell. But her most difficult choice, which many victims of domestic violence face, is whether or not to face her attacker in court. Her startling choice of testimony is what makes her journey from victim to survivor one of the most moving stories ever told. After her assailant is sentenced, Johanna’s advocacy helps close loopholes in her state’s laws to protect and support other young people facing intimate-partner violence. Johanna: Facing Forward was inspired by the investigative journalism of Rachel Dissell and photography by Gus Chan in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the personal writings of Johanna Orozco (now Orozco-Fraser). All three individuals endorsed the creation of this play, supported its development, and attended its world premiere at the Cleveland Public Theatre in the Spring of 2015. The play continued its development with a residency and production at The University of Kansas in the Fall of 2015. The play received 2nd Place in the MetLife Nuestras Voces Playwrights Competition, and will have a reading at Repertorio Espanol on June 21, 2016 directed by Mariana Carreño King.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I’m co-directing (with Megan Monaghan Rivas) the U.S. premiere of Peribanez by Lope de Vega for Quantum Theatre in Pittsburgh (August 2016). I’m also directing the New England premiere of Abigail/1702 by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.
In terms of playwriting, I’m under commission from Su Teatro (Denver), Cara Mia Theatre (Dallas) and Borderlands Theatre (Tucson)—with support from a Creation Fund Award from the National Performance Network to write a new play based on the life of civil rights activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzáles (who is also my godfather). I have a ten-minute play called Byzantine being produced by Teatro Nuevo in St. Louis this Summer. I just finished a 1st draft full-length play, Divisidero, and just finished an outline for a TYA play/musical based on the Young Lords in NYC (no title yet). I have ideas/outlines for about ½ dozen other works that I’m dying to find the time to write.
Q: What have been the defining moments of your journey as a playwright?
A: I’ve always been a voracious reader and writer. I created sketches with my neighborhood friends and I would record/replay them on my father’s cassette player (which was about the size of a small suitcase—remember those?) I contemplated and began a path towards becoming a political speech writer – but while I was in college turned to theatre when I saw its potential for social change.
I would argue that my defining moments as a playwright did not come from plays, but from rhetoric. Political speeches, philosophical treatises, biographies. Lectures from Howard Zinn, Angela Davis, and Gloria Steinem at UC Santa Cruz. Readings from Adrienne Rich, Cherrie Moraga, and Lucille Clifton.
Q: Who have been your playwriting mentors and heroes?
A: I hate to say this, but this is true: I’ve haven’t really had playwriting mentors. The biggest reason for this is that for the majority of my career, I’ve identified primarily as a director. I’ve worked on hundreds of new plays at every stage of development. I’ve translated, adapted, and written plays on my own without commission. At this stage of my life, I don’t have the time/money to pursue a playwriting MFA, but I’m happy to take short workshops and retreats (if I get paid to do so). I’ve had life experiences, professional observations, and hands-on work in the craft of new play development.
The concept of ‘heroes’ is also very complicated to me. I’m not a fan of putting people on pedestals—and I’ve never met anyone comfortable with that label. My family, my spouse and #TeamRivax are my everyday heroes. I’d prefer to say that I stand on the shoulders of giants: Luis Valdez, Edit Villarreal, Jose Rivera, August Wilson, Maria Irene Fornes, Octavio Solis, Luis Alfaro, Nilo Cruz, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Anne Garcia-Romero—that should be plenty for you to read/know about.
Q: What advice do you have for Latin@ playwrights at the beginning of their career?
A: Writing is a call to action. It is the most powerful thing in the universe you can do at this moment, in this time. So if you have something to say, say it now with all of your blood, guts and soul. At the same time, take this quote from Junot Diaz to heart: “The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.”
It’s impossible to strive for perfection. Write with heart first. Then look it over again with your mind. Look to close friends and colleagues to look at your work—ask them for what they “see” in your work, not what they don’t see. Avoid listening to feedback that starts with, “It would’ve been better if…”—that’s the worst kind of dramaturgy. Also, be skeptical of perspectives from the dominant culture – which is what Western theatre is all about. Don’t feel like you have to alter or change your perspective in order to give comfort or gain acceptance from others. There is a difference when potential colleagues show true investment in YOU as an artist, and those who try to make you compromise your vision. Learn to trust your intuition in those situations.
Q: What else should we know about you?
A: Since I was child, I’ve always been a storyteller. And although they didn’t realize it, my family and those closest to us were also storytellers. I heard these stories not only when I played in the streets of Tijuana with my cousins, but also by sitting under the kitchen table, listening to my aunts and uncles recount their stories of sorrows and rejoicings. In fact, scratch any Mexicano and you’ll find a storyteller under their skin. Even when we had nothing in terms of money or possessions, we had something more valuable than any treasure: our stories.
Becoming a theater practitioner, first as an actor, then as a director, and now as writer, has been a natural progression of becoming a storyteller. With every theatrical endeavor I try to give voice to the voiceless, and to connect the characters, metaphors and ideas that populate my plays to collaborators and audiences alike.
In addition to being all of the above, I identify as a “citizen-artist.” I aim to create meaningful work for myself and simultaneously to effect change. In the heart, mind, soul, or all three. I don’t just try to create work in a space; I try to live within that space’s story. And it is my responsibility to figure out through what happens to me and what my response is, what the story will become aurally, visually and viscerally.
So I hope all of this give you some semblance of who I am. It feels like I’ve been doing this for a long time, but it also feels like I’m just getting started in this playwriting thing. So be a little patient—I know and don’t know what I’m doing. But in the end, all that matters are the ideas and the words on the page that will one day go from my heart to the page to the ears of audiences.
***For more on Tlaloc Rivas, see:
- Tlaloc Rivas’s Personal Website
- “Directing Diverse Worlds: An Interview with Tlaloc Rivas” – Elaine Romero (Café Onda/HowlRound)
- “What Happened When Critics Failed to Review My Latino Play?” – Tlaloc Rivas (Café Onda/HowlRound)
- “101 Plays by The New Americans, or on Latinidad” – Tlaloc Rivas (Café Onda/HowlRound)
- “Tlaloc’s 101 F*ck Yeah Plays” – Tlaloc Rivas (Halycon Theatre Blog)
- Tlaloc Rivas on Off and On: A New York Theatre Podcast (Bernardo Cubría)
- Tlaloc Rivas on New Play Exchange