Every month or so, playwright Boni B. Alvarez and I have a kiki (Queer dictionary moment: kiki = chit-chat, coffee, shoot the…you understand). We meet up to talk shop, dream, scheme, and generally relish each other's company. Fresh off the opening of Boni's new play Nicky, you know I was eager for this month's talk. And I thought I'd invite your guys, our lovely Better Lemons readers, to the party.
Roger Q. Mason (RQM): I'll never forget how we met. It was 2009.
Boni B. Alvarez (BBA): Yes, it was my play Ruby, Tragically Rotund. My first production – with Playwrights' Arena at Los Angeles Theatre Center, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
RQM: I remember seeing that play and being wowed by the theatricality of the piece, the originality of the writing and the singularity of perspective. Until then, I had not yet seen a Filipino-American play on stage.
BBA: The funny thing is I don't think of it as a Filipino-American play. I mean, obviously, it is. I am Filipino-American and there are a lot of Filipino and Filipino-American characters in it, but the inspiration actually came from reading a Maria Irene Fornes play. I think it was Mud and then I just envisioned a fat girl in a pig pen and that brewed in my head for about a year. I had always wanted to write a fat play, or a play of size. And what came out was Ruby, Tragically Rotund.
RQM: Did you start that play while you were at the USC's MFA?
BBA: Yes, it was my thesis play and Jon Rivera saw the reading and committed to it pretty quickly. We developed it and shopped it around. I graduated in 2007 and the production was in 2009.
RQM: That's sort of a fairy tale ending to the MFA experience. So many people bemoan the year after the MFA. You are broken of old habits by the MFA and then you are re-broken by the rejections that come thereafter, especially in that first year out because you're new, people don't know your work yet, and you're trying to establish those relationships. Some people thrive after that first year or so and others don't - they move on from the business. How was it for you coming out of the MFA and having a production right away?
BBA: You have something to look forward to. You know you're getting produced, but it also is a double-edged sword. It was two and a half years after graduation. The play wasn't reviewed as well as I thought it would be, yet audiences really loved it. It was a pretty sold-out run with a couple of extensions. It's kind of disappointing when you don't get that second production of a play when you hoped it would.
RQM: How's your new show Nicky going?
BBA: Really great!
RQM: What's it about?
BBA: It's an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Ivanov.
RQM: Uh oh! Folks better watch out. Boni is taking on the canon.
BBA: It's what I deem as the problem play. It was Chekhov's first play which he labeled a comedy. Contemporary audiences would be like, “Where's the laughter supposed to be?”
RQM: It's Dantean comedy: a journey from a low play to a high place.
BBA: Right! And I keep to the Russian origin. The lead is Russian-American. But the play is definitely inclusive of places and cultures of the world that we live in now. That's usually my goal as a writer. If the play isn't all Filipino, it usually will have a little bit of everyone in it.
RQM: You really inspire me. My mom is Filipino, so I identify as Filipino American. For many years, I didn't know what to say about that aspect of my identity in my work. I just kept coming to your plays and seeing your vigilance in exploring it on the page. You look at the Filipino experience in the US and globally. The East always has one eye on the West.
BBA: The American dream is always at the forefront of my plays. In some works, it's more obvious than others. It's a testament to the career that I've chosen. It's a dream - an elusive dream: to be a playwright who works enough to sustain an existence on playwriting alone.
RQM: So whenever we hang out, we often talk about The Business. No, I'm not asking for your trade secrets in public, but really though, how do you keep working?
BBA: I get really excited by a story. But, once that inspiration hits, it's not like you can just immediately sit down and write that story. You have to let that inspiration live through you and bubble up - what the story is and who the characters will be. Usually it'll be 6 months to a year in between that first strike of inspiration and the first word I commit to the page. At that point, it's boiling to come out of me. I get inspired by the people I work with: directors, actors, companies. I know that times are tough. With the whole 99-seat debacle that's happening in Los Angeles, it's probably wiser for a writer to sit at home and write two-handers and one man shows. But all of a sudden, Nicky has 14 characters. My next play has 9. I've just written a three-act 11-character World War II epic play set in the Philippines. I'm not shying away from the bigness, how grand or how large things need to be. I meet more and more actors. I want to work with people and have things for them to be in. I think that is a big inspiration.
RQM: Process - let's discuss. For me, my writerly coming of age journey has entailed announcing to myself and others that I'm not a “traditional” playwright. A lot of my writing happens through improvisation and experimentation in the room. The work is interdisciplinary too - there's music, there's movement, it's like opera but at a slimmer ticket price. A friend has called what I do librettism. I'm a librettist for performance experiences. Knowing that about myself was a huge relief. What about you? What are your writing conditions like?
BBA: So after an idea boils up, I start writing. I've been fortunate enough to be in a lot of writers groups with various theatres in Los Angeles so I have an avenue in which to write it in, a forum that has a structure to it with deadlines. Usually, I've been working on three or four plays at the same time, juggling between the projects. Now, I have to be more focused. There's usually a project I'm writing from scratch and then there's something I'm revising either for a production or a reading.
RQM: How do you compartmentalize the plays so they don't sound the same?
BBA: Sometimes they do sound the same. But, you know what, audiences aren't watching them at the same time. It's okay. I mean everyone has a trademark. I say that in jest, but also not.
RQM: What is Boni Alvarez's trademark?
BBA: Oh lord, I leave that up to the audiences, to the future. Maybe my trademark is that I've been emerging. It's been 10 years since I got out of the USC Dramatic Writing program and I feel like I am finally hitting a stride and that now most of my efforts are going towards storytelling and playwriting of some sort.
RQM: You are a career playwright. We can say that. We are going to say that.
BBA: Yes, okay. It's important to own it. I am a career playwright.
RQM: So 10 years…Is that about right? That seems to be the timeframe. I remember reading in the New York Times years ago when August: Osage County first came out that Tracy Letts was considered then an “emerging playwright.” I found that quite laughable at the time, considering the man had been working for years. But I guess emerging takes on many definitions and phases - even within the context of one person's career. You can be emerging in some new aspect or developing some new skill set to add to your tool box, and in that sense, you're emerging.
BBA: I'm emerging on the national level, to bigger theatres - getting on their radar through literary departments or other artists. It's an uphill climb being a playwright in LA. We live in the shadow of “the industry” - television and film. And it's hard to get the proper street cred as a playwright coming out of LA.
RQM: But yet you've stayed. So what keeps you here?
BBA: I lived in New York. I'm from the San Francisco Bay Area. My agents told me to move to LA. I never wanted to. There's a NorCal/SoCal thing and an East Coast/West Coast thing and I even had stuff in storage in New York while I was in school at USC.
BBA: I had every intention of moving back. But I found a tremendous community here. There's a humungous theatre scene here - so many talented practitioners of theatre.
RQM: How do plays that have developed here make it to the national scene?
BBA: You have to submit to everything. It detracts from your writing time, but it is writing, it's part of the process. They all ask for some kind of statement of purpose. Those statements help as a check-in for what you are doing, what you are working on. When you have to do a statement about your play, you have to think about why you are writing it. You have to be selective, too. I applied to this one thing year after year. I was a finalist one year. I didn't get it, but there was a private email from someone on the selection committee that said, “I'm a big fan of your work. I know it can seem like you are sending your script out into this empty black hole. You probably don't know if anyone is even reading it. It is being read, it is being appreciated. But it's not always recognized by the entire committee.”
RQM: Oh, the politics of readership.
BBA: There's politics in every committee. And so many points of view. If you are a director, you will judge a work from a director's point of view, what plays you'd like to take a stab at or if you're a producer, there are circumstances you have to take into account in selecting plays. You can't escape the baggage of who you are or your position. But you should also read it outside of that perspective as well.
RQM: And we can't be phased by any of that. We have to write our truth.
BBA: Right! You will write what you will write. And, hopefully, your champion reader will find it. I've been very lucky to have met a lot of generous people.
RQM: This is the people business.
BBA: And it's not just about the work. Are people going to want to work with you? Kindness is so undervalued and underrated. Just being nice - not pure as snow - but someone that people want to have in their presence and work with. For Nicky, we had over 200 submissions. We saw almost 100 people and I'm always amazed - wow they want to be part of my play. They want to be part of something I created.
RQM: And let's be real, some of them are coming specifically because it's YOU, Boni.
BBA: Yes, I realize that and I'm humbled. Some of my plays are mostly Filipino and I have fans who are not necessarily of the ethnicities of the characters I write for.
RQM: You know, according to Anthony Bourdain, we are in vogue. If restaurant trends are harbingers of larger cultural movements, Filipino-Americas are the new thing.
BBA: And we need to get ready to step into our light - the Filipinos of the world. Capitalize on the moment.
RQM: It is a really exciting moment to be a Filipino-American who tells stories.
BBA: I've got a question for you: as an Asian American playwright, do you feel a responsibility to include Filipinos or Filipino culture or African American culture in your work?
RQM: That comes back to my house and my home life. In many ways, my mother came to America to re-imagine herself outside of her Filipino life. Specifically, she came here to be a Western woman. That always bothered me growing up. She did not teach us any Tagalog growing up, amongst other things. My mother had a very difficult home life in the Philippines and she conflated her specific domestic situation with the Philippines as a whole. I had to come into my Filipino self on my own. I'd look on the internet and bombard her with purposefully mispronounced versions of useful Tagalog phrases like “I'm hungry” or “Good morning.” I made her correct me. Then, during the holidays, I went to my cousins' houses and it was like a different country. They served food from lace-doilied buffet tables; after the meal, the adults would sit around the television and give the kids space, and then the karaoke machine would come out. My aunt's house was decorated with a mixture of Chinese statuary and Filipino Catholic icons. I imagined that, were I born in a slightly different household, my world would be completed different. The Filipino world fascinated me, and I wanted to absorb everything I could from it.
BBA: Now this is fascinating.
RQM: I remember going to the Philippines in my 20s and being awed by the resilience, the vibrance, and the pliability of the culture. Here was a place that defined cultural fusion before the tastemakers started commenting on it. During that same trip, I went to Antipologos and looked down on Manila Bay. There was no middle class. It was ritzy Makati City on one side and the shanties on the other. That duality read like tortured poetry to me.
BBA: Well, the middle class of the Filipinos is not in the Philippines. They're all working abroad.
RQM: And also, the telecom industry is creating an emerging middle class there in the Philippines as well. That's another fascinating subculture. You discussed this in your play Dallas Non-Stop: a workforce that is trained to perform a version of self on the phone that is familiar and comfortable to the West. It's a kind of passing. Cultural passing. I am thousands of miles away but I know just what you need out of your hotel or your flight from Omaha to Detroit.
BBA: It's a type of global passing. You have Filipinos infiltrating the States, the UK, Japan, Israel, Australia. What's that show? There was a Filipino caregiver who won X Factor Israel.
RQM: Get out!
BBA: No, I'm not kidding you. Our people are all over.
RQM: Yes, we are! But, we digress. Back to your question, I've never really been able to speak to a monolithic identity, whether it's Filipino or Black American. On both sides of the family, my world is quite strange and unique so my work centers on speaking to that uniqueness as best and clearly as I can.
RQM: So, what have you got brewing next?
BBA: I have a reading of a new play, my WWII epic play Refuge for a Purple Heart as part of Echo Theater's Labfest in July. I have a played called Fixed, inspired by Calderon de la Barca's work.
RQM: Is this the lady boy play?
RQM: I am so excited right now!
BBA: It's about a family of lady boys who run a massage parlor in historic Filipinotown. This is going up at the Echo Theater in September.
RQM: This is literally putting a smile on my face right now. I am over here completely beaming. There is a play. About a house of lady boys. In September. In LA. Yasss!
BBA: The House of Malacanang.
RQM: Everybody needs to try and get into that house. Will there be tea?
BBA: Tea is always served, it might just be too strong for you.
RQM: Oh honey, yes! I just have a feeling. I can smell a smash hit from 4 months away.
BBA: You're a mess!
RQM: I always try to be.
BBA: You succeed, trust. So what's next with you?
RQM: My solo show The Duat is going up in July at Son of Semele Theatre. It's inspired by the shootings at UCLA which took place in the 1960s between differing black student groups on campus. This piece imagines a COINTELPRO informant's spiritual reckoning in the Egyptian afterlife. I feel really good about this piece - a great team and the script rewrites are coming together. Then I'm off to New York. My show The White Dress, the gender queer coming of age play, will be performed at the Araca Project in November. And then I'm filming a movie based upon my short play Softer, the gay slavery piece.
BBA: Look at you - so busy!
RQM: I'm doing what I Iove.
BBA: What is the picture of happiness in terms of your career?
RQM: What is it for you? I'll answer, but you go first.
BBA: Enough success to keep me writing plays. I'm at a point where I feel I need more productions. I mean, what playwright doesn't? But you can't just sit at home and write plays. You learn so much - the experience of being in rehearsal. Revising for production, really focused on the arrival of an audience. Audiences, they're a key element of the work.
RQM: The happiness for me comes in stages and waves. For the longest time, it was knowing what I was. And now that I know I write performance work with a foundation in playwriting, that happiness is fulfilled: I know who I am and what to do. But, as you know, happiness is addictive. So now I've got to get to the next happiness. Well, the next happiness is having a forum to do that work that's supported - my own theatre company, commissions, residencies. That's part of the happiness. The other aspect of the happiness is one that's always been there for me. I remember my first workshop production (and I'm saying that so you readers know the play is still available for world premiere rights). The play was Onion Creek, my Reconstruction-era Adam and Eve tale. At auditions, I remember seeing people in the hall trying their hearts out to come in the room and bring the strongest rendition of those sides. I saw firsthand that I was creating something larger than myself, something that people want to do.
BBA: It's a completely and utterly humbling experience.
RQM: Yes, and that's the happiness that sustains us.