Name: Matthew Paul Olmos
Hometown: South Pasadena, CA
Current Town: Los Angeles/New York
Affiliations: New Dramatists, Center Theatre Group, Echo Theater Company, Ensemble Studio Theatre, The Lark, New York Theatre Workshop, Playwrights Union
Q: How do you self-identify?
A: Mexican American. Also as a New Yorker, but still a Californian all the way through.
Q: Tell me about your Presidential Plays.
A: Last November, 2016, I was in New York when New Dramatists had a playwright cancel last minute for their Play Time Development Program, so I jumped at the opportunity and met with the Artistic Director Emily Morse to discuss two possible projects to develop, one of which was to start from scratch a project for which I had nothing more than research. Emily kindly nudged me towards that scarier option. So, with nothing written, I cast two of my favorite collaborators, JJ Perez and Juan Villa, and was lucky enough to get a director who I’d always wanted to work with, Nicole Watson; and we all began work on “Untitled JFK Assassination Play (now titled the shooters of an american president). The play explored two of the ‘actual assassins’ from November 22nd, 1963 meeting in an undisclosed hideout just moments after the killing. While I didn’t know what the content of the play would be, I wanted to discuss how we can pedestal or vilify our presidents, and how our political beliefs can so easily turn to the radical if our political atmosphere is polarized enough. But I was completely nervous that I wouldn’t find a storyline that could carry a whole play and that two characters in a single location would be undramatic.
And then November 8th, 2016 happened.
And the morning after that man was elected, our connection to the material reached a new urgency, as I found myself writing from a place of reaction to what had just happened in our presidential election. Our rehearsal room now doubled as a safe space to cope with what was happening in our country; this story of two men so abhorrent to President Kennedy was eerily relatable in a new way. It was the fastest I’d ever written a new play. I am so proud of the play it has become since then, but will always remain a time capsule to that frightening time in our country.
That project led me directly to the next play, as the very early investigative reporting on Trump’s connection to Russia and the seemingly obvious cover-up had so many parallels to Nixon. So I dove into Watergate research and began a play currently titled broken hearted by a corrupted white house; which focuses on E. Howard Hunt and his wife Dorothy, as they are tossed aside by the very government they had been asked to break the law for. My hope is to explore what patriotism asks for and what exactly our country asks back. I developed this project through The Lark in NYC.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I’ve recently begun a devised piece, currently titled American Nationalism Project, with director Luke Harlan and designer Nick Benacerraf, which we began developing through New York Theatre Workshop’s Adelphi Residency; it explores how patriotism can turn to exceptionalism. I’m also working on a play about school integration, titled three girls never learnt the way home, which I recently developed at Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Black Swan Lab. Then, I’m finishing up the 3rd play in the so go the ghosts of méxico cycle, which will be produced in Dallas at Undermain Theatre in 2018-19.
And I’m gearing up to start a new piece as part of Center Theatre Group’s LA Writers’ Workshop, in which I’ll collaborate with composer April Guthrie on a play with music exploring the personal side to the alt-right.
Q: What have been the defining moments of your journey as a playwright?
A: I remember walking in the East Village in 2009, on my way to an Easter brunch with some friends, when I saw a voicemail and a missed call from a Los Angeles number. It was a message from Sundance Theatre Program’s Philip Himberg. So I quickly called him back and he told me he’d read my play i put the fear of méxico in’em and I can still remember the daze as he told me how I was receiving a Sundance Fellowship with support from Time Warner. After years of mostly rejection from theaters and playwriting opportunities, effin’Sundance of all places was recognizing my work. I could hardly contain myself and almost cried out of happiness on the street. And for the next couple weeks, I would listen and re-listen to that voicemail from Philip, I would replay that morning’s walk. Since then Sundance has been enormously supportive of me in so many ways, but I can still recall pinpoint those waves of amazement that rushed through my stomach and I hope that first memory never fades.
Q: Who have been your playwriting mentors and heroes?
A: I was mentored under Rogelio Martinez for two years at INTAR, through their H.P.R.L. program, and was so lucky to be working alongside amazing playwrights Mando Alvarado, Maria Alexandria Beech, Mariana Carreño King, Jason Ramirez, Cyn Canel-Rossi, and Andrea Thome. It was there that I learned how much it means to write surrounded by a true community; it reminded me of what family feels like. Through the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to learn up’close from masters like Migdalia Cruz, Luis Alfaro, and Octavio Solis, to follow the inspiring works of Young Jean Lee, Samuel Hunter, and Marcus Gardley; and I am forever changed at being mentored by Ruth Maleczech and Terry O’Reilly through my two years in residence at Mabou Mines; to this day I still carry with me and use the wisdom I was given there; Ruth was a captivating genius and I feel blessed to have been guided by her.
Q: What advice do you have for Latin@ playwrights at the beginning of their career?
A: Something I wish I had learned a bit sooner in my career was how to balance building up your trusted collaborators, but at the same time work with artists whom you don’t know, who are perhaps further along in their career. You will learn so much about your own work and process from being in the room with artists who push you to that next level.
So, for most projects now, I will strategically have some of my ‘crew,’ who get my work and understand my process, but I also include some folks I don’t know, but whose work I greatly admire. And even if somebody you want to work with seems out of your league, just ask; you never know. There are actors and directors whom I didn’t even think would respond to my email, but next thing I know we’re at the table together discussing my work and asking questions of it that I hadn’t even considered.
Oh, and it likely won’t sink in until your mid-to-late 30s, but there is no money in playwriting, like seriously, so start thinking about how you’re going to navigate that.
Q: What else should we know about you?
A: For years, I’ve been trying to gather up the courage to work on a stand-up act, either for myself or for somebody else to perform. Some of my writing heroes are actually folks like Richard Lewis, George Carlin, or Chris Rock. I just find stand-up such a relevant medium, I so wish I was a part of it.
***For more on Matthew Paul Olmos, see:
- Matthew Paul Olmos’ Personal Website
- Matthew Paul Olmos’ Wikipedia Page
- Matthew Paul Olmos’s profile at New Dramatists
- Read Matthew Paul Olmos’ plays at New Play Exchange
- Read Matthew Paul Olmos’ plays at Samuel French
- Read Matthew Paul Olmos’ work at The Brooklyn Rail