Supporting creative work by women
Elena Araoz‘s latest directing project is Alligator by Hilary Bettis (interviewed by Works by Women HERE), currently on stage in New York through a collaboration of New Georges and The Sol Project. Araoz has had other New York productions–Dipika Guha’s The Mechanics of Love, devised piece She-She-She and Octavio Solís’ Prospect– this year. Araoz is a New York Theatre Workshop Usual Suspect, a Time Warner Foundation Fellow Alum of the Director’s Lab at Women’s Project Theatre (2012-2014), a New Georges’ Affiliated Artist and Audrey Resident, and a recipient of the Dr. David Farrar Opera Stage Director Grant.
She spoke with Works by Women about what drew her to Alligator, what directors need and The Sol Project.
WORKS BY WOMEN: What drew you to Alligator? When did you know that you had to direct it?
ELENA ARAOZ: I knew I had to direct Alligator the moment I read it six years ago. Hilary and I were paired for a workshop of the play at the Great Plains Theatre Conference, and I was enamored with its grit, grime, and stark truths. In Alligator, as in all of her plays, Hilary displays her startling ability to topple traditional American stories and characters. She makes us reconsider the “types” we have been taught, and re-investigate, with adult eyes, the oppressive lessons that we have absorbed.
In college, I was a student of evolutionary biology, and the subject is still a strong interest of mine. I was so excited to delve into the philosophy of this play, named for a creature that has remained almost mythical and monstrous in the American psyche. The play asks, “Will our animal instincts emerge when we are fighting for our very existence?” Through the gators in her story, Hilary shows us the vulnerability in our own humanity.
WBW: Tell me about working on the play.
EA: Being in rehearsals during the presidential election made working on this play feel more important than ever. If there has ever been a moment to teach empathy, it is now, and I can’t help but think that we, as Americans, have lost our ability to empathize with other human beings. Because I live in a liberal, progressive and sometimes naive theatre community here in New York City, I especially want to explore, in front of that community, poverty and its effects on parts and peoples of this country.
I am interested in theatre that tells the stories of people struggling through extreme circumstances. I’m interested in the bad choices people make when trying to survive, in what some might call “bad people doing bad things.” Because if I can get to the primal truth of why characters make bad choices, then maybe we, as an audience walking in those characters’ shoes, might find a moment of understanding, of caring, of empathy. Maybe we’d learn that in other circumstances, we might make those bad choices, too. I mean, isn’t that why Shakespearean soliloquies are so exciting? Because when a character debates the pros and cons of a choice, we, as audience, are implicated? Shakespeare’s characters use us as their conscience. We help them make a decision, and more often than not, they pick the “bad” choice – the choice that causes more problems.
In modern plays, most writers are working with more efficient dialogue than this, and characters making poor choices rarely have the opportunity to fully explain their rationale. Characters like Hilary’s, who hold all their cards very close, may not even be willing to admit their motivations to themselves. It’s exciting for me, as a director, to help unmask the truth of these characters, their situations, and why they make the choices that they make.
Also, Alligator mostly features teenage characters, and we have cast young actors in those roles. I am completely enamored by how brave, ruthless and risk-taking these young people can be. They inspire me, and make me want to attack my work with such selfless abandon as they do.
Alligator featuring Lindsay Rico and Dakota Granados | Photo Credit: Heather Phelps-Lipton
WBW: Alligator is being produced as a collaboration of The Sol Project and New Georges. Both organizations have great missions to nurture and support innovative theater by Latino/a playwrights and women theater makers, respectively. What has it been like to create this piece, especially since you are a founding member of The Sol Project?
EA: Alligator clearly shows that Latino stories are not limited to particular subject matter. Latino stories are everyone’s stories. The very definition of Latino is a loose one. It is an ethnicity, not a race, and even different U.S. government agencies do not agree on who is Latino. So how can we ever pigeonhole what a Latino story is? Alligator offers a daring, kaleidoscopic portrayal of Latinidad and Americanism, and was a bold choice for The Sol Project’s debut production. I could not be more proud of Artistic Director Jacob Padrón and my fellow Sol Project founding artistic collective, Claudia Acosta, Adriana Gaviria, David Mendizábal, Kyoung Park and Laurie Woolery, for choosing this play.
WBW: Speaking of support, what is working for directors? What do directors need in today’s theatrical landscape to continue developing their skills and aesthetics.
EA: Directors need productions. A director’s work is both aural and visual, and while a reading is a wonderful place to cultivate the scoring of a script, it’s only in production that directors can manifest the visual storytelling of a play. This is the backbone of a director’s work,\ and I really believe that you can only learn directing by doing.
I also think more directors should become part of acting companies, training and rehearsing alongside actors. I love watching the work of great directors who have acted in the past, or who still act. I see so much truth and life in their work.
WBW: The Sol Project has added other theaters–Rattlestick, Women’s Project, The Public Theater, etc– as presenting partners in NYC. What is the goal for presenting Latina/o work across the country?
EA: The Sol Project’s goal is to create a body of work by Latino writers, which will become part of a new American canon. We want to include Latino writers as equal participants in, and contributors to, mainstream theatre here in the U.S. By partnering with such established Off-Broadway theaters, we are giving greater visibility to Latino artists. We hope to create a synergy within our theatre ecosystem, which will encourage more theaters to develop and continue relationships with Latino artists. After productions in NYC, regional theaters will partner with us to present these works throughout the country, giving further illumination to these voices.
Alligator featuring Talene Monahon and Bobby Moreno | Photo Credit: Heather Phelps-Lipton
WBW: When did you first fall in love with theater and/or storytelling? How has that impacted your trajectory?
EA: Reading and making up stories were very important parts of my childhood, and I think it just stuck. My parents cared very much that I was a strong writer, and they are the ones that cultivated my love of language (even if if felt like torture sometimes). My husband Justin Townsend, who is a lighting designer, continuously makes me a better visual artist. The people that I am closest to have had a strong impact on my work.
But I find that I am constantly redefining what kinds of work I want to do, and what kinds of theatre I am inspired by. I’m always re-falling in love with theatre – sometimes after long periods when I feel like it will never make a difference. For example, I just saw Penny Arcade’s Longing Lasts Longer at St. Ann’s, and was absolutely blown away. I immediately wrote to Virginia Grise and said, “Let’s get going, right now, on the one woman show you wrote and will perform.” We need what these women have to say. We need more stark truth pieces that theorize about a new world order.
The world around me is changing. I am changing. So the work I do, and even the forms I want to work in, will change from year to year. I want to do work that speaks specifically to the time of my life and the state of the community in which I’m making it.
WBW: What’s your dream project to work on?
EA: I’m about to go into a workshop with Kara Lee Corthron (interviewed by Works by Women HERE) on her masterpiece, Welcome to Fear City – so that’s a dream already in the making!
A few others: I want to make political monologues with Virginia Grise. I want to direct most of Handel’s operas, many of Ghelderode’s plays, Maria Irene Fornes’ Mud. More Moliere. I’m enamored with Benjamin Benne, a writer to whom I’ve been recently introduced. I want to work on plays with unique senses of humor. Plays with live music. Visual dance-theatre pieces which rely less on language, or have no language at all. Theatre that makes us challenge our assumptions. Theatre with impossible stage directions that give me a puzzle to work out.
WBW: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
EA: Wonder Woman is a woman who always wonders where she is.
Alligator runs through December 18th at The Jeffrey & Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 West 53rd Street, NYC). For tickets and information, visit New Georges website.