Name: Elaine Romero
Hometown: Laguna Niguel/San Juan Capistrano, CA
Current Town: Tucson, AZ
Affiliations: Arizona Theatre Company, Chicago Dramatists (Resident Playwright), University of Arizona
Q: How do you self-identify?
A: Latinx, Latina/o, Mexican, Mexican-American, American, Chicana, etc. . . I use all these terms.
Q: Tell me about Title IX.
A: I’m all in with Title IX for a many reasons. I push myself structurally in the play with a huge leap in time and content between acts. Even the protagonist is a different protagonist. The risks I take in the play are paying off and I’m excited about the responses I’m getting to my early draft. I have shown it three places. That’s it. What I have, I developed with Meghan Beals and Lauren Shouse at Chicago Dramatists. I funnel all my plays through there now, and without them, I would not be where I am.
Title IX is the third in a trilogy of plays set on the U.S./Mexican border that have to do with Latina educators. Each play tackles a primary social issue, and most of them a secondary one. The trilogy begins with Wetback and Mother of Exiles. When I began Wetback, I experienced push back because people weren’t sure an immigrant could be murdered in a hate crime. Increased anti-immigrant rhetoric, and incidents that have happened since I started the piece, such as the murder of Luis Ramirez, have persuaded my colleagues that the play nails something quite true. It became an unwitting prognosticator of sorts, something I had hoped it would never be. Next, I wrote Mother of Exiles on commission for Cornell University within days of Sandy Hook. I had heard it floated shortly after the shooting that Arizona lawmakers in Maricopa County were suggesting the state arm teachers. I was living in Chicago at the time, and I found myself lending my soul back to my former border home and running with inevitable what-if question of such a proposition. Mother of Exiles reaches far beyond being a play about guns as it also looks race and class on the border. I forge all of my plays that happen to tackle social issues through character. The characters grapple with the direct impact of a so-called social issue of the day. Mother of Exiles is in rehearsal for a university production at the University of Arizona where I teach. UA students are getting the full Elaine Romero experience and the rewrites are flying. Our production limitations pushed me into a wonderful reconceiving of one of the characters last night that I believe will take the play to new places. In fact, the play will never be the same.
To write Title IX, I received an NEA grant with the Arizona Theatre Company. I am their Playwright-in-Residence. I can’t express what it means to me as a playwright to have commissions. I am extremely grateful for each one of them. They never get old. They are glowing pebbles in the dark that light my path. Recent commissions of Title IX, Modern Slave (Ford’s Theatre), and A Work of Art (Goodman Theatre), all of which have given me freedom to write my own work, have given me what I need to write thoughtfully and mindfully with an end and a theatre in sight. When a theatre tells you, “I imagine you here,” you imagine your play there. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
With Title IX, I was drawn to exploring sexual harassment over time. What has changed over 40 years and what hasn’t? I focus on a family and the play takes a decades-long leap into the second act. This structure really gave me the freedom to look at the issue in a different way. I found myself having to get honest with what kind of progress our country had made and what kind of progress still lies ahead. As I was drafting the play, we joked that it might become irrelevant because Hillary Clinton would probably be president soon and this idea of gender discrimination might seem irrelevant to some. The disastrous results of the election fortified me to continue to work on the play and to further excavate the subtle issues of sexism over time. It is not an easy subject to live in, and as I delve further into it, I find myself experiencing all the feels. It brings up so many uncomfortable spaces inside of me and in our greater society. I have to work on it in pieces. Suffice it to say, it hurts my body to write this play.
Title IX will be developed during a residency at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference in 2017. Title IX will be presented on July 19 and 20.
The significance of having a trilogy is finally hitting me. I have reserved the professional world premiere of all three and I think, ultimately, that will protect the plays to remain in conversation with each other while maintaining their own unique lives. I didn’t realize what it would mean to take on the writing of two different trilogies at once until I got into the thick of it. (I am two plays into a trilogy called The U.S. at War). I’m glad I didn’t know what I was getting into with my work. I would have scared myself out of this undertaking. But for me, I had to be honest with myself that as I wrote each new play, they were somehow sisters to the play before them. It was these familial relationships between pieces, and my awareness of taking on certain subjects, over time, that persuaded me to more deliberately look at the relationships between pieces.
The first two plays of The U.S. at War, Graveyard of Empires and A Work of Art, recently premiered in Chicago. That was a dream come true. Graveyard of Empires looks at our current wars and follows the story of a software engineer who developed drone warfare who loses his son in a friendly-fire drone incident. It premiered at 16th Street Theatre. Ann Filmer has that new play mojo and I loved our production. We were Jeff Recommended, which meant a lot to me to launch that trilogy. A Work of Art is set in 1979 and was inspired by the loss of my uncle in Vietnam. It follows a sister who loses her brother in the war and her inability to shed the loss. The play was commissioned and developed at the Goodman Theatre and produced at Chicago Dramatists in association with the Goodman Theatre where I worked closely with Tanya Palmer. The play was directed by Henry Godinez who is an Artistic Associate at the Goodman. His work with me on the play and our work at Chicago Dramatists really brought the play to new levels.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I’m working on further development of Title IX and Modern Slave. The latter follows a Latinx woman who finds a note in her coat from an enslaved worker in China and goes on a quest to set him free. She ends up on this fantastical journey that reveals the nature of freedom. I love this play. It has it’s own voice and is not part of one of these trilogy. I know!!! Modern Slave will receive a staged reading as part of the 2017 Seven Devils Conference.
Every day I think about the third play of the war trilogy. I’d love a commission, a retreat house, a silent moment. I’m not convinced it’s a play that will be written at my office at the university. The play will complete the war trilogy and looks at the atomic bombs. My skin hurts every time I think about it.
Q: What have been the defining moments of your journey as a playwright?
A: As a young artist, I decided I would quit playwriting if I did not have a regional production by the time I was 30. When I turned 30, I had not had that production. I realized I did not have the heart to quit. Three years later, I was awarded (with the Arizona Theatre Company) a $100,000 grant to write two plays. I was told the award was based on my reputation. I read this today in the New York Times in a piece about Lynn Nottage and Paula Vogel seeing their first productions on Broadway. I cite them because when people from theatres talk to me about my plays, they often mention these two playwrights. Nottage says, “The two of us write history plays, and we write political plays, and I think that, why, perhaps, our journey has been a little different. The plays are unabashedly political and they’re about very difficult subject matters and they tend to be unafraid of the darkness. And I think that women writers are supposed to embrace the light.”
Q: Who have been your playwriting mentors and heroes?
A: I studied with Irene Fornes and that forever changed me as a playwright and a teacher. I would not have that easy access to myself if I had not met her. I believe in her method. I used to be such a heady writer, emotionally disassociated writer, and I found with her a way to work from within. My yoga mentor, Priscilla Potter, coupled with my training with Fornes, reconfigured my mind. In graduate school, I studied with Ted Shank and Ruby Cohn. They both showed me that writing was not born through theory, but had to come from a different place. I will always be grateful for those lessons.
Truth is, my colleagues are my heroes, my fellow Latinx playwrights and directors. We’ve created this landscape together. We’ve elbowed a space for ourselves, and each other, in the American theatre. I think only we know what it was like when we could barely get a crumb, and honestly, we had to just keep going. As folks come up the ranks, they might be shocked by the opportunities some of us have not had yet, but still, I believe the answer will always be through generosity and hard work. I write my plays over and over to get them right. I’ve used the lack of opportunity to become that much better a playwright. I will not suffer like those who were big hits with one play and did not have the years of craft to follow through. Latinx playwrights earn their stripes and their 10,000 hours through constantly writing. I have.
Q: What advice do you have for Latin@ playwrights at the beginning of their career?
A: Be a generous colleague. When given the opportunity, close the deal for another playwright. You will be asked more often to weigh in on the work of your colleagues than your own. Always be closing.
Love and admire others, but learn to hear and recognize your own voice. Learn to hear and recognize your own notes on your play. The answer to your play isn’t inside some famous playwright you admire, your professors, or your fellow students, it’s inside of you.
Q: What else should we know about you?
A: Through the Arizona Theatre Company’s National Latino Playwriting Award, I have been able to promote the work of my Latinx colleagues since 1998. We have a remarkable track record with the works we have launched. Our winners are almost always picked up by theatres. We have a Pulitzer finalist, many regional theatre productions, such as the Humana Festival, productions abroad, and many many publications. I mean, the statement that most winners get produced somewhere, when referring to Latinx plays feels as the Tibetan Buddhists say, “a golden halo.” The contest recognized many Latinx playwrights early career, such as Luis Alfaro and Karen Zacarías, and we’ve recognized these Latinx writers writing on a variety of themes. It has always been about supporting the writers. This commitment ensures that each year I read all the Latinx plays submitted to the contest. I have a strong sense of what is going on in our field. And because of that, I’m asked to adjudicate another two or three contests a year. For ATC, we have a great committee of readers by the way, so it’s not just me making the choices. The guidelines I’ve set with our Artistic Director, David Ira Goldstein, for the festival mimic what I’ve set for myself. Not all the plays will have Latinx characters, many will. They will all be Latinx because the author, or in my case me, happens to see the world from that perspective. In the end, everything is about the play.
***For more on Elaine Romero, see:
- Elaine Romero’s Personal Website
- Read Elaine Romero and Anne García-Romero’s Notes from the Field in Theatre Topics on the influence of Irene Fornes
- Read Anne García-Romero’s chapter on Elaine Romero in Contemporary Latina Playwrights and the Legacy of Maria Irene Fornes
- “Getting Down with Barrio Stories: Introduction” – Elaine Romero (Café Onda/HowlRound)
- “I Interview Playwrights Part 280: Elaine Romero” – Adam Symkowicz
- “Exposing the Storyteller Within” – La Monica Everett-Haynes (University of Arizona)
- Read Elaine Romero’s play