Name: Israel López Reyes
Hometown: Los Angeles
Current Town: Los Angeles
Affiliations: Like gang affiliation? Why? You guys gonna jump me?
BA in English, Southern Methodist University, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences
MFA in Acting, UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television
My club soccer team, the southland company, and all the mysterious paisas of the universe
Q: How do you self-identify?
A: I’m Mexican. You can call me Chicano too. I grew up in South Central Los Angeles and neighboring places like South Gate and Huntington Park but I’ve noticed the term Chicano isn’t really used out there. I was raised in communities that were primarily Black and Salvadoran and when asked most of us would just straight up say “I’m Mexican” in order to assert ourselves. You can call me whatever you’d like but you have take me out to dinner or buy me a drink before I respond fully to this intimate question.
Q: Tell me about Karina Played Pachanga Music (the dallas slasher marathon).
A: The story follows a young woman on the night her older brother is kidnapped. It takes place in West Dallas and it involves a rooster, Whataburger, and a serial killer but the play is ultimately about the real and true terror of poverty. How poverty affects young people, and how much closer their bodies are to violence when they find themselves living on the fringe; in this case young Latina/os and Black individuals in Dallas. The play is also very funny and asks a pair of questions on faith.
I started writing the play when I was living in Texas and working with the homeless in West Dallas and Oak Cliff through Trinity River Mission and CitySquare Dallas. At the time I was also working at the African-American Museum of Dallas and that influenced the characters I decided to keep in the piece. I developed the play with the Latina/o Theatre Alliance Los Angeles Writer’s Circle (2013-2014) culminating in a reading at the Nest Festival at the LATC in early 2015. This past summer I was invited by Luis Alfaro to develop the play further as part of the Black Swan Lab at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I’m looking to do a stage reading of my play The Tarantula that centers on young people who build carnival rides based out of a warehouse in Glendale, California. I’m not sure it’ll ever be produced because there is real labor needed on stage; throughout the play a giant metallic carnival ride (the tarantula) is built by the actors. It’s heavy and complicated and absolutely necessary but I’m hoping if not here then maybe it’ll be staged in another country. That carnival gig was actually the first job I had out of graduate school; it sucked and it was pure misery but I got a play out of it so it was worth it I guess. You know anybody that wants to do a reading of a play like that?
I also teach in Watts and I’m currently on the reading committee for a local playwright’s festival. It’s a small group and we have a ton of plays to get through so that keeps me busy. Besides that, I’m an actor and this is Los Angeles so I have an agent and I audition around town for theater, film, and television and you know I’m on that hustle too.
Q: What have been the defining moments of your journey as a playwright?
A: Most of them have nothing to do with playwriting and the most defining moment in my journey as a playwright and artist is having grown up with a single mother.
I don’t come from a family of artists and I came into the theater fairly late around my community college years; but both my parents always had a great sensibility for art. My father is shy around strangers but has a tremendous sense of humor and a big heart that allows him to get away with almost anything. He’s sort of a divine rascal that never really found his footing in this country and because his work always involved such hard labor, his sense of humor is dark and wicked and hysterical. It’s a tool for survival and something I try to use in my writing all the time. That humor is common for a lot of my Mexican family. We laugh at shit that can be shocking to most Americans. My mother had aspirations to become an architect. Later on she fell in love with service to young people and went back to college to earn a degree and become an educator, but she never stopped drawing. We grew up poor but always managed to look sharp probably because deep down my mom has always been a tremendous designer. I got into this thing late but the spirit of artistry was always there and I mention these things about my folks because it’s a mantra of mine to do what I can with as little as I can. There are several forms of artistry but the work that personally strikes me the most is always work full of simplicity and taste. I don’t necessarily write that way, but I wish I could. Some of the best things I’ve seen and been exposed to were in grad school at UCLA. Theater that required almost nothing on stage and was filled with humanity and devastation—Peter Brook and Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord’s The Suit, Setagaya Public Theater and Complicité’s Shun-kin; the Kabuki marathon I got to see when I visited Japan, the clown and acrobat shows I watched back in México. The work had a great amount of artistry, global appeal, unpredictability and something that most others sometimes lack- discipline, skill, clear storytelling and most importantly imagination.
I love spectacle, but I always wonder how can I create spectacle out of nothing? The idea first came out of necessity for me and it’s still the way I have to work but now I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is my own opinion sure, and I enjoy all kinds of theater, but I’ve always felt that simplicity is where true artistry really lies. How can I create these robust images using only imagination and with no extra material? In a lot of ways it’s our responsibility to use magic and conjure things on stage. It’s why I love Shakespeare so much; the spectacle is in the language and how it affects the ear. It’s one of the reasons why he was so brilliant, and it’s why he’s still very much a model for my written work. August Wilson and María Irene Fornés have that quality as well. As an actor, I always think how can I make my voice, body and text the main attraction and move the story forward? How can I develop taste in my choices as an actor and as a writer and strip everything else away? I started writing because I couldn’t find work as an actor. I write for actors and try my best to create spectacle with language and character in order to make something other actors will really want to chew on and let fly. Acting for me has always been just that- athleticism and intelligence and the total emotional impact that lies in between. I like to use that sentiment in my writing, which at least right now usually centers around the human body and people living in invisible circumstances either in South Central Los Angeles or West Dallas, or some place adjacent to LA that nobody thinks is sexy enough to write about- places like Lynwood and Paramount, Vernon City and Cudahy. How do I elevate the experience of these individuals to another level with my work, with spirit and with rigor in the rehearsal room?
Defining moments? There was a period of my life when I lived in the state of Guanajuato, México. My young parents sent me to attend Catholic school and I lived with my grandma in a pueblo named Yuriria. It’s a very small town that until recently was overtaken by cell phones and the Internets, but people would still ride horses, herd sheep, sweep the floor out front and say hello when you walked by. You’d get around on bicycles and still hear people mutter – “I should go…it’s getting dark.” There’s a lake there that was created by a meteor in years past. The water is surrounded by pomegranate trees and people consistently say that aliens and the Virgin Mary appeared there and that duendes (small goblin-like creatures) live in the nearby caves and come out at night to trick and misdirect the locals. There isn’t a whole lot of electric light so you can tilt your head and see the stars at night and the ghost stories there feel real because death is more real; because there is a silence and darkness in the area you can feel on your skin, and the stories of phantoms are laced with a dark religious fear that’s not necessarily denied by anyone, but mostly there is an overwhelming poverty and hunger in the region. It’s something you only really understand when you live somewhere outside of this country and growing up it had a definitive impact on me because it’s where my family comes from.
When I was a kid I would buy a Jumex and a torta and walk to school to take classes with the sisters over at the cathedral that was a giant edifice that had been built in the 16th century and smelled like old blankets and indigenous stones. I’m pretty sure one of the young nuns had a big crush on me and that was weird and slightly confusing but I remember everyone was amazed that this American kid was in their class and they’d ask me things like “up north you eat breakfast and have fun every day don’t you?” and I would respond and say “Not really. I’m not sure I want to go back.” Down there I’d look over my shoulder and there would be boys just like me spitting fire, shining shoes for pesos and in really bad shape. I’d feel terrible and think how can I change this? It was good for me to get out of Los Angeles and gain perspective. Everyone wants to be here because of Hollywood but I’ve always had this love/hate relationship with the city. Mostly because I grew up in the part of LA that isn’t on the postcard; and many times the collective dreams of making it in “the industry” overshadow the actual working-class people of Los Angeles. People like us—my family that gave up the toughness and warmth of a rural environment for the severity and manipulative spirit of an urban one.
When I was a kid, everything in my LA was abandoned concrete, racial tension and chain-link fence and I needed the rural life. I enjoyed going to school in that little town in Guanajuato and having solitude and for some time I seriously considered going into the seminary. Being Catholic is different when you’re in a small town in México and you want to help people. I wanted my life to just be reading and writing and giving back to the poor and being out in the country, maybe watching a film on the weekend at the movie house. But then I came back to the US and religion wasn’t as attractive in this context; I was the new kid at school and a total loner and bullied as a result of that. I went to four different high schools because of fights (when you’re a loner people always fuck with you) and I hated everything. Eventually, I found a small tribe. I finally landed and started a band (I play drums) and threw myself entirely into books and music. I was still underage, but playing music in random clubs and bars around town helped me gain the muscle of generating ones own work and really putting yourself out there. Some nights you’d feel real hot playing some packed club in Silverlake with all these good-looking people hanging out enjoying your tunes and the next day you’d be playing some piss-stained dive bar in Bellflower with only one drunk old man sitting there yelling “YOU GUYS ARE ALRIGHT!” between sets. I’d pack up my drums and just keep going. It was a big lesson. I miss playing music, there’s not enough time for a band nowadays, and the thought of me being a priest makes me laugh, I’m pretty sure I’m at the point of no return, but in truth I like to think my work is always in service to others. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do and what I hope my work is able to accomplish in the artistic field.
In regards to defining moments in the theater – I remember sitting at the Mark Taper in 2007 or 2008 and watching Lydia by Octavio Solis. It was the first and only time I ever really saw myself on stage. I saw men like me on stage with sensitivity and nuance and the characters soared to heights I had never seen before in my life. There was no swag or attitude attached to these guys, they just were…and that was vulnerable, refreshing, and artful. I must admit it was selfish too though because as a struggling actor I finally saw literature I could potentially be cast in, but I was so happy and so upset I sat there and thought- “Who the hell wrote about me?” and I couldn’t stop crying. You know like when you’re grateful and blown away but sort of angry and confused you start shedding tears? It was such a great moment for me because Octavio’s work gave me the gift of permission and that broke me wide open. And the thing was I didn’t read it, I saw it, which is different and why we need to commit to producing our work on stage as much as possible and securing our actors more work. A lot more work. We still need more range in production. Many writers, particularly writers from marginalized backgrounds only need that seed of permission to break loose and ignite. The well of our experience is already there and it’s incredibly profound and evocative but we need to give ourselves permission. Octavio’s production really did that for me both as an actor and writer. I always thank him for that moment and his monumental effort in creating that piece and having it produced. What’s even better is years later we would meet in Dallas while I was acting in the Texas premiere of Se Llama Cristina at Kitchen Dog Theater, he came in to do rewrites and work with the actors and we became good friends.
This past year, under the guiding arm of the brilliant and generous Luis Alfaro, I was up in Ashland developing a play and I worked with Octavio again and four other incredible playwrights; Carmen Aguirre, Diana Burbano, Mathew Paul Olmos, and Janine Salinas. I learned a great deal from everyone and it’s always very cool hanging out with other writers. We are such lone wolves it’s nice when we connect. I had also worked with some OSF company members in Fresno as an actor back in 2009 and had been to Ashland a couple times before but this past summer was the first time I had been invited as a guest artist so it was special and made me feel like a champion.
Q: Who have been your playwriting mentors and heroes?
A: Several. Julian Acosta, who made me work with LAByrinth one summer and pushed me past community college dropout and into graduate school over-achiever. J Ed. Araiza, Jose Luis Valenzuela, Octavio Solis, and Luis Alfaro, who are rare individuals and whose shoulders I stand on. Marion Stoleson, this tough as nails white woman that dedicated her life to teaching Mexican kids in Los Angeles and used to make me recite speeches by Dr. King and who would take away my drumsticks when I was being a dick. Emmanuel Gillespie at the African-American Museum of Dallas who made me think about composition, light, and gave me an anchor in Texas. Francis Ford Coppola, who believed in me and taught me about framing, music, family and magic in storytelling and who would always ask me if I was hungry and had eaten anything. I’m not sure if I have real “mentors” but I’m lucky to have friends who have responded to my work positively. I’m fortunate to know people who don’t betray me with false hope and compliment but rather have always looked after me by being honest and challenging me to go deeper and continue investigating. Things are exciting in that right now I’m in a place where I’m working with giants whose dramatic literature I used to read in the lounge of Samuel French and the downtown LA library (because I couldn’t afford to buy the plays) some years back. It’s a wonderful place to be in; when you’re receiving opportunities to work with the people you’ve admired for so long and are collaborating and sharing a meal with them like colleagues. I’m very fortunate and grateful for that. Everyone has and wants to build their narrative in this field; I don’t have much but my narrative in the field and the artists I’ve had the chance to work with so far are really fucking cool.
I also very much admire the work by Goya. He’s definitely a hero. He painted some dark things, but it was because his life was full of uncertainty. He was deaf in both ears and that was especially terrifying during the time he was around. I’m especially interested in physical differences and the horror that comes with that. In poverty it seems that death is always chasing you. It’s no coincidence that these physical differences are prevalent in neighborhoods with a lower income. It’s really a matter of access to health and decent food but what develops and comes forth is a landscape of the body that is different from any other and a familiarity with danger that is more intimate and extends into a gnarly sense of humor and edge that a find perfect for the theater. This is universal but particularly resonant for people of color between the ages of twenty and thirty-five. That’s really who I write for. The audience that doesn’t usually show up at the theater but that we need and want in the theater. In addition to Goya I was turned on to Joe Orton some years ago, and I admire him a great deal both for his dark humor as well as his facility with language and his personal life.
However, most of my influence comes from novelists and poets. I was lucky to have transferred to SMU for my undergrad and major in English. We had a library of treasures and had authors come in every week to have discussions with us. There’s not a whole lot to do in Dallas so there are less distractions and Southern Methodist is such a beautiful campus it was always quite and the perfect place for reading. The department of English was very small, there were maybe seven or eight of us in my upper division courses, and I remember the invited authors coming in and all of them being intelligent and really strong and well built people with great voices and entirely direct. There was no pretense. They talked about craft and getting your work done and punching in letters to create words to create stories. Writing is a monumental effort and it is no wonder great writers are like mountains. SMU gave me a strong background in literature; medieval literature, contemporary work, dramatic work, Jane Austen, graphic novels, theological texts I mean they made us read all kinds of books. Some of my favorite writers and the stories I keep most dear are ones by Ana Castillo, Arturo Islas, Karen Tei Yamashita, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Edgardo Vega Yunque; the poetry and syntax of Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, and Simon Armitage. The short story collection Brownsville by Oscar Casares also left a huge impression on me. Most of my graduating class of sixteen went on to law school and advertising. I was the only knucklehead that continued the long dive into this crazy and wonderful world of storytelling and decided to get my MFA in Acting at UCLA. We talk a lot about story and structure in the theater and I understand why but I wish we could spend at least a minute or two thinking about language and how that affects the ear the eye and the human body.
Many heroes yes, but mostly all my teachers and the librarians of the world for sure. I teach over in Watts, and the kids I work with are my heroes most definitely.
Q: What advice do you have for Latin@ playwrights at the beginning of their career?
A: I know nothing and I’m still trying to figure out how to start my own career, but I would say more than anything…be generous and make work that is in service to others. Be willing to go from a large project to a small one, a famous one to an unknown one. Forget about the career. Build a life instead. Go to the cinema and sit there by yourself. Do it every weekend. Read as much as possible. Read everything. You can’t write or act great literature until you read great literature. Guillermo Arriaga says “write for your own species…how large or small the species is will be out of your hands.” Do that. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Say hello and have a conversation with the custodial staff at every theater you work in. Stay away from the cool factor. Don’t play anything too safe and risk everything but make sure to put the gem of that experience on paper. Work with people who are smarter than you and learn how to be still and take notes. Listen to your elders and hang out with younger people who will check you when you start losing touch with reality. Don’t talk shit about others because that’s lame. Let your work speak for itself because the work will always speak for itself. Keep a regular job and work with your hands. Writing is labor and craftsmanship not glasses of wine on a villa. Fight for that life. Be generous. Write for others. For god’s sake be positive and optimistic because negativity is a turn off amigos. Find joy in what you do because this will always be difficult. At some point you will earn the right to protect your work. Protect your work. Build a life. Be generous.
Q: What else should we know about you?
A: When I was living in Guanajuato my grandma asked me to bury a dead bird we had kept in a cage so I wrapped it in newspaper went out to the river bank and did the deed but I felt so bad for the animal and was so curious to see what it looked like under the Earth I dug it up two days later and the event of worms crawling through it’s wings and it’s eyes had a profound effect on me. I never forgot that day or that green-cheeked conure.
I love astronomy and I’m a certified scuba diver although my license will expire soon and I’m not sure I want to renew. Did you know that deep sea diving is the closest feeling you get to being on the moon or outer space? Isn’t that pleasing? The idea that you have to go underwater and within your own planet to receive a distant sensation you only find thousands of miles and light years away. That’s kinda cool right? I also run marathons and enjoy eating Thai food. I’m a Cancer and my favorite colors are dark blue and forest green. I’m a DJ too, so if you have a quinceañera/o/x, bar mitzvah or baptism coming up call me I’m your guy and I spin good records.
Thanks so much for the interview.
***For more on Israel López Reyes, see:
- “Latino Theater Alliance/Los Angeles Writers’ Circle” – Jorge Huerta, Tiffany Ana López, Chantal Rodriguez (Café Onda/HowlRound)
- Israel López Reyes’ Acting Reel