Stepping into Magic: an actor's journey…

"Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them" ~William Shakespeare

#MojadaMedeaOSF: Conversations & Celebrations

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The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Podcasts are now on iTunes!!!! Check out episode #6 for my conversation with OSF’s Associate Director of Communications: Eddie Wallace and Episode #7 with OSF resident playwright Luis Alfaro, Eddie Wallace and OSf Communications Manager Julie Cortez. There are also conversations with one of the lighting designers, OSF actor Kate Hurster (who I understudied in the role of Maid Marion in the Heart of Robin Hood in 2013,) the director of OSF’s “American Revolutions,” and the Director of Literary Development.

To listen to the podcasts on the OSF website click HERE.

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OSF Actor VIVIS and Me with a group of High School Drama Students from Modesto, CA

On Thursday, the 16th, we had an evening performance that was ELECTRIC! The audience was buzzing, laughing, gasping, and with us the the whole way. The theatre was vibrating from the first moment to the last. Some OSF company members that were in the audience let us know that there was a particular group of students that were completely absorbed in the story, singing along with the songs playing in the background and who were absolutely stunned and moved by the ending. On Friday morning, after a company meeting where the acting company was the FIRST to hear the 2018 season announcement, VIVIS (who brilliantly plays Tita in our show) and I were heading to check our mail and we ran into this group of students. They were from Modesto, California. Their eyes were huge, they were all talking at the same time about how incredible the show was the night before. They were waiting to attend a pre-show lecture on Shakespeare in Love before seeing the production. We hugged, talked about the show and took lots of selfies! We were each surrounded by a group and listened to their stories of their parent’s border crossings, how they related with the characters, their love of the performances and the overall experience with such a tragic tale. Finally, as they were being gathered to the pre show talk I took out my phone and took a group selfie. Later one of the students, Jose Carranza, wrote a beautifully inspired post on Instagram after his visit to OSF and we began a conversation:

  • _joslayI loved every single experience I had at @osfashland the actors and productions were truly amazing and inspirational! Never have I truly been amazed to the point of numbness and pure amazement. All these wonderful actors have inspired me to pursue my dreams and passions no matter what gets in my way! @alibumaye29 @danmolina22 @osfashland@sabinazunigavarela
    sabinazunigavarelaWhat a beautiful post! Thank you for your words, and YES! Follow those dreams, make them a reality and persist ALWAYS!!! 💖
    _joslay@sabinazunigavarela thank you so much! Your show and performance meant so much to me not only because the story paralleled my life so deeply, but also because it touched my soul in ways no show has ever done before! Thank you so much for being my true inspiration!
    sabinazunigavarela@_joslay gracias, your words mean the world! Stay in touch okay?☺️
  • _joslay@sabinazunigavarela of course! One day I hope I’m blessed to perform along side you! 💖

In both Henry IV, Part One and Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, he was able to see himself. He watched actors that looked like him, talked like him, up on stage and was reassured that he is on the right path. And who knows, a few years down the line we may end up on a stage together… It’s a small world and when we are able to take time and look at each other and have a conversation we can begin to bridge divides, find common ground and create a space for healing.

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Morning Coffee Conversation with Luis Alfaro, OSF Actor Nancy Rodriguez and Me with the Latino Network group  Unid@s

Today  conversation about  w/Luis Alfaro, Nancy Rodriguez, Sabina Zuniga Varela! Portland Latino Network UNID@S – at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

On Saturday, March 18th, I had the pleasure of participating in a morning conversation with Luis Alfaro, OSF actor Nancy Rodriguez and the participants of The Latino Network group Unid@s. This was a group of 17 powerhouse Latino Non-Profit leaders throughout the state of Oregon. We were lead by Luis in introducing ourselves along with sharing where we saw ourselves in 5 years. Everyone was so open and honest with their dreams and hopes, worries and fears, there was a lot of encouragement and laughter, moments of reflection and questions. The group saw Julius Caesar the night before and were scheduled to see our show that evening. Nancy and I shared our personal journeys towards becoming professional actors and Luis facilitated the conversation with questions. I loved hearing Nancy share about the connections she made between Shakespearian language and Spanish when talking with a group of students. The Unid@s group recognized the complexity and poetic nature between the two languages as well. We touched on representation, how we as actors aim to find the truest facets of authenticity when preparing a role. It was eye opening to sit in this circle and share, just talk, make connection and conversation. After the show we were invited back to the same room for a meal, some wine and an informal talk back. The emotions were high, personal stories were shared, individuals gave their impressions of what “popped” for them in the production. It was striking to hear from our youngest cast member, Jahnangel “J.J.” Jimenez share what is going through his mind as an actor in the final moments of the play. We didn’t have to say goodby because the majority of the group are out of Portland and Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles was just announced as part of the 2017-18 season at Portland Center Stage in partnership with OSF. So hopefully this conversation will continue in the fall…

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On Sunday the 19th I took a 5:40am flight to Los Angles to attend the closing matinee of my love’s play: God Looked Away @ The Pasadena Playhouse. I had a connection in Salt Lake City and was a nervous wreck because we were grounded for 2 hours due to a mechanical malfunction on the plane. By the time I landed at LAX I had just enough time to catch a LYFT, put makeup on, some heels and earrings. I arrived at the theatre 2 minutes before curtain! The show was incredible, so moving and painful to watch the struggle between two artists trying to connect after years of living together and now facing the present turning into memory…Miles’ character “Baby” brings the show to an end with a heartbreaking monologue, his emotion was raw, delicate and pained. It took me a long time to get up from my seat after curtain call. I knew that he left a piece of himself on that stage and that this production has added such dimension to his personal journey and craft as an artist. I could not have been prouder to witness that moment…

His family was there (Mom, Dad, Brothers, Aunts and Uncle) and afterwards the green room was filled with hugs, tears, selfies and congratulations. We attended the closing night party and the cast and crew went through the inevitable bittersweet actions of saying “thank you,” “I will miss you..” & “until next time…” We celebrated with his family at our favorite Pasadena diner: Dupar’s later that night. We toasted to the success of Miles’ run and rang in my birthday with a slice of Pecan Pie and a live version of The Beatle’s song “Birthday” sung by Mile’s dad Rich and his brother Mike!

Monday morning March 20th was my BIRTHDAY & The First Day of Spring!!!

We began the day with breakfast at Euro Pane with the Central Valley family before they headed back to Visalia. They had ONE cream puff left, and it was MINE! At 2:30, around the time I was born I had a great birthday phone call with my parents. It’s always hard to be away from them on special occasions, but just hearing their voice makes it bearable. I then headed to the DMV to renew my drivers license, which expired on my BD,  while Miles’ went to the theatre to clean out his dressing room. When he returned he surprised me with a beautiful arrangement of Orchids, Freesia and Wax flowers along with the softest, sweetest stuffed pup, whom I promptly named “Percy” (inspired by Persephone, who returns every year on the first day of spring!) We then headed to the Blue Bar at the Hotel Constance  and he treated me to Birthday appetizers: Fanny Bay Oysters, Short Rib Quesadillas and Rose. (Fun Fact, considering we have a woman developer in our play: The seven-story Hotel Constance was built in 1926 by Constance V. Perry, a prominent local businesswoman. At the time, Pasadena was one of the country’s top resort destinations for wealthy Easterners who came there to escape cold weather.) We then went home to rest, both being exhausted, me from traveling and he from closing an emotionally draining show, both from the celebrating. But at 11:30pm we decided to hit one final favorite spot to round out the evening: Amigo’s, where you can find the BEST margaritas. ( I recommend the Skinny Cadillac, there is no extra sugar or mix, just lime juice, tequila and a float of Grand Marnier…!)  We crave their garlic shrimp and chile verde on the regular. They even gave me a tequila birthday shot, complete with a candle sticking out of the lime! The night came to a close with the two of us Pisces cuddled up in our Pasadena living room watching  Finding Dory on Netflix, such a sweet movie… “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…”

The next morning I had to board a plane back to Ashland, Birthday flowers and Persy in my satchel. Tears in our eyes we said “see you SOON,” since Miles’ will be making the drive up later this week….! I know he has to be in LA for auditions, work and to tend to our Pasadena home, but I am so grateful that he is going to make the trip up here to experience this magic little theatre town, and so that we can finally be in the same place for more than a few days at a time…When I arrived home I had two care packages waiting for me, from Mom and Dad and my Tia Frances and Comadre Vivian. The gifts were so sweet, perfect and made me feel extra special and connected, their words brought comfort to my heart and a smile to my face.

It was a whirlwind of a weekend, so much energy, dialogue, artistry, love and celebration. A weekend like this reminds me how important communication is. Even the smallest amount of words shared on FB, a text, a phone call, a letter, a “how are you?,” a hug, an “are you ok?”… can change the world for someone. Taking the time to expose ourselves to conversation, to ask questions, to share stories, to celebrate, to listen and observe is a type of self care that we all need a lot more of these days… So today, take a moment and find time to communicate with someone, anyone… give a little piece of yourself and you will be amazed at what you get back…

Here is an incredible story I just came across that reveals the power of communication:

Zimbabwe’s public health system, like other sectors, has been hit by a financial crisis.

With a population of around 16 million, doctors say there are only 12 public health psychiatrists in the whole country.

Now, a group of grandmothers is using what they call ‘friendship benches’ to help thousands of people suffering from mental health problems in the country.

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The Friendship Bench Can Help Chase The Blues Away

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How grandmothers help fight depression in Zimbabwe

HAPPY SPRING EVERYONE AND THANK YOU FOR ALL OF THE BIRTHDAY LOVE!

 

 

 

#MojadaMedeaOSF: WE ARE HERE…

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February 26th, 2017 we opened Mojada: A Medea in Los Angles  by Luis Alfaro, Directed by Juliette Carillo, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The matinee crowd was electric, when Luis Alfaro introduced himself in the recorded curtain speech the theatre erupted in cheers that continued until Luis himself stood up. Then the cheers and yells continued. The young actor who plays my son, JJ Jimenez, myself and VIVIS, who plays Tita were standing at places, our ears ringing with the noise of the crowd. The lights dimmed, our cue light went off and I stepped onto the stage for the third time as Luis Alfaro’s Medea.

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Jahnangel “JJ” Jimenez as Acan and Sabina Zuniga Varela as Medea    Photo by Jenny Grahm

I started this blog in 2012 along with my first equity show: Bruja @ The Magic Theatre, directed by Loretta Greco. This was the first incarnation of what is now Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles. In 2015 I portrayed Medea in a production at the Getty Villa co-produced with The Theatre @ Boston Court. And now we are off and running at the top of the season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where all four of the first shows of the 2017 season feature Latinx leads! WE ARE HERE!

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Armado Duran as Caesar in Julius Caesar; Sabina Zuniga Varela as Medea in Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles; Daniel Molina as Hal in Henry IV Part One & Jamie Ann Romero as Viola in Shakespeare in Love.

This past Saturday we had a matinee that was filled to the brim with High School students from the East Coast, Sacramento and Santa Barbara. After the show our Stage Manager hosted a dynamic talk back with the audience. When the post show ended I talked at length with several of the audience members, students and teachers. The conversations went beyond “congratulations” and “good jobs” and quickly dove into questions, stories and discussions…

Four interactions have stayed with me from that afternoon. First, a tall, thin African student in a beautiful red sweater introduced himself to me and began by saying “I am trying not to cry…” He then shared with me that his parents are from the Ivory Coast and the line that really stuck out to him was when Medea’s son tells her “Mom, speak English…” He began to cry and talk about how his family has struggled with assimilation. He pointed to his sternum and explained that this story had hit him at his core, and he was going to need time to process it. We hugged for a long time, both of us with tears of connection on our faces. After speaking to a few other students I noticed a young Asian woman who was being consoled by the young man from the Ivory Coast, she was crying. I walked up to her and asked if I could hug her, she quietly said yes and we too held each other full of emotion. I asked her name and she shared with me that she was here in the United States at a boarding school, from Hong Kong, with no family in this country. She was particularly curious about  how I, as an actor, deal with the emotions of my character of Medea. “Do her emotions become a part of you?” We talked about how healthy it is to cry, I mentioned some self-care I have discovered for this role is taking a shower right after I walk off the stage from curtain call. We recalled a line that Tita has in the play when she is recounting taking a shower after crossing the border: “I let the water run, and the tears follow.” Our tears turned to smiles as we snapped selfies and thanked each other for the communal experience.  Next, a young (I think caucasian student, but his Spanish pronunciation was excellent, so who knows what his beautiful background may be) man introduced himself and asked if he could chat with me about a few lingering questions he had. We had the OSF bricks to ourself for a few minutes and delved into a deep discussion about why Medea feels so stuck and scared in the United States. Why does she not let herself try and succeed like Hason? What is it that is holding her back? And of course WHY does she commit her final act…? He was so intrigued about her thoughts and trauma, about understanding why she was the way she was. Soon his classmates joined him and we said our goodbyes. As I was walking away a young Latinx student stopped me to introduce herself. She was from the school in Santa Barbara and was one of a group of students who wrote essays to qualify to go on the school trip to OSF. There were hundreds of students who wrote essays and she made the cut. She mentioned in particular that her essay focused on the fact that Luis Alfaro’s play was part of the season. We hugged and smiled, took a photo and I asked her to send me a copy of her essay.

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Twitter photo from Theatre @ Granite Bay One of the High School groups who saw all four shows this weekend at OSF!

Four students from vastly different backgrounds, bloodlines, cities and countries found themselves on common ground in a theatre on a Saturday afternoon. We connected with our personal lenses, our personal hiSTORIES, our emotions. This is the generation that has inherited the scars, wounds and genetic memory of this country and the countries of their ancestors. If we all dig deep enough we will find the immigrant story in our family tree. If we open up we can ask questions about hurt and sacrifice and struggle and journey. If we really want to we can find more to connect on rather than separate.

It is incredible to look at the journey this story has made from that first production in 2012 in San Francisco to today. In 2017 WE ARE HERE at OSF, reaching thousands with this story that now has an added weight of importance to it as our Divided United States struggles with the hurtful, harmful and negative attitudes towards immigrants and refugees. All of the work that is going on in the American Theatre, on our Film&TV sets, all of it must step up to enrich that diverse and dynamic mirror that we are working hard to reflect. Our work as artists requires us to say loud and proud: WE ARE HERE! So that our audiences can see themselves and they too can shout: WE ARE HERE!

As we celebrate the diversity that is on stage at OSF this season  we must also celebrate the diversity of those who are sitting in the audience, completing our storytelling circle. The many generations, the many languages, the many colors, the many emotions, the many travels…

WE ARE HERE… All of us from SOMEWHERE.

What is your immigrant story?

Videos on Mojada:A Medea in Los Angeles @ OSF:

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival presents “The Past is Always Present: Luis Alfaro as a Citizen Artist”A Festival Noon Conversation with Tiffany Ana López ((Director of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre at Arizona State University, Dramaturg for Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles by Luis Alfaro, and member of the National Latina/o Theater Alliance)

Snapshot: Melding the Modern & the Ancient Scenic and Costume Designer Christopher Acebo shares the inspiration behind the designs of this season’s production of Luis Alfaro’s MOJADA: A MEDEA IN LOS ANGELES. This powerful and timely production is playing in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Angus Bowmer Theatre through July 6, 2017.

Director & Playwright Interview: MOJADA: A MEDEA IN LOS ANGELES Playwright Luis Alfaro and director Juliette Carrillo discuss Alfaro’s play and its contemporary setting in Los Angeles among immigrants. MOJADA will be staged in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Angus Bowmer Theatre from February 19 through July 6

 

 

HerStory: After the results.

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Emma Esselstyn (center) joined thousands of demonstrators in Seattle.                     Karen Ducey/Getty Images

Her words are a collective yell in news feeds, comments, links, articles, texts, stories:

“Where can I sign up for Self Defense Classes?”

“I am not safe living here as an immigrant.”

“This is dangerous for us.”

“I can’t stop crying.”

“Heartbroken.”

Her daughters are confused and worried,

“The look on my daughter’s face was priceless.”

“My daughter was so upset.”

“My girl burst into tears.”

“I didn’t know how to tell her.”

“She doesn’t understand.”

Her youth from all walks of life are scared and in danger of being uprooted,

“Students hid under the bed this morning, in fear of deportation, and didn’t want to go to school.”

“What about my parents?”

Her protectors are taking to the streets and filling the air with their chants,

“How did this happen?”

“Not my President.”

“White Lash”

“I feel so much anger.”

“NO.”

“If you see something, say something.”

She hears our angst, watches our tears fall, grasps our clenched fists.

Her voice fills our hearts with hope, action, love,

“Popular vote…”

“The healing power of sisterhood.”

“Thank You.”

“I Love You.”

“18-24”

“The future is Female, it is You.”

“Don’t be Afraid, be Loud.”

“The sun will rise in the morning.”

“We will not mourn, we will organize.”

The pens have been taken up with more purpose,

the shoes are laced with stronger determination,

the voices are turned up with clear objectives,

the eyes are clear with a specific plan,

and the hearts are full with a beating drum to guide the FIGHT,

To guide the ACTIVISM,

To guide the MOVEMENT,

To guide the ART,

Her voice still reminds us:

The time is NOW

The Time has ALWAYS been NOW

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HerStory: Before the results…

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She is in me.

Within my connective tissue and cells are parts of Her.

The air I breathe was once taken in by another who didn’t have the rights I do today.

The air I exhale will be passed on to another who will change the world.

Her name is many, her face is millions, her dreams are for everyone.

I can feel a heartbeat to a song that was formed in the caves and treetops.

In my throat is a yell, a Grito, a scream that comes from Her.

The past/prestent/future fights & struggles cause my hands to clench at INJUSTICE.

Those same hands are guided to grasp on to the hands of my family, fill the pages of journals, type updates and status posts, feel the tree trunks, the prick of a thorn on a rose, touch the face of my love, strum the strings of my guitar, send text messages, chop food and prepare meals, hold the pages of a script and dance with the air…

Those same hands are HERS, and they are the hands that cast a vote at this moment in HERStory.

A vote that couldn’t be cast  a mere century ago.

She was with me as I sat in my OB/GYN waiting room, interacting with a little girl filling out my ballot and darkening the circles.

She reminded me of our power.

She cannot be ignored.

Our power will not be ignored.

HERStory will continue to be told.

We are creators, we are magic, we are change makers and caretakers, we are Her.

OURStory is unfolding,

pages are being scripted,

stakes are high,

legacies are on the line,

challenges have been made,

help has been given,

forces have been joined,

breath is being held,

All eyes are on Our Divided United States.

Her voice whispers in my ears:

“The time is NOW.”

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You Never Can Tell: Closing

 

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Final look into the dressing room mirror, with my newly purchased costume jacket and belt from wardrobe!

Closing weekend: Friday morning I picked up Tia Angie from the Oakland airport, in from Denver to see the show! We lunched in Jack London Square at Lungomare, walked along the water and then checked her into her Berkeley hotel, The Rose Garden Inn (A great find!) Friday night, Miles arrived from an insane drive up the I-5 to celebrate with me for the weekend. Saturday afternoon Angie watched the Matinee, the cast had lunch in-between shows, Miles and our friend Linda watched the evening show in freezing Orinda weather and then we caught up over late night food and drinks at Eureka! in Berkeley. Sunday morning Angie, Miles and I had coffee before taking her to the airport and Sunday afternoon we closed with an incredible final show to a standing ovation with Miles and our friends George and Lisa in the audience. (At intermission Miles sent me a bouquet of handpicked roses!) We exited stage left, got out of costumes and joined in a champagne toast in the green room led by Artistic Director Eric Ting (Who is directing the next show on the Cal Shakes stage Othello, opening Sept. 14th!) Goodbyes, congrats, thank yous and hugs flit about from person to person, the dressing rooms were cleaned out, costume pieces were purchased and a few of us went to The Fourth Bore Tap Room and Grill for a final supper.

 

Monday morning I woke up and realized I had been going over all of my lines from the play in my dreams, I laid there for a few moments and just kept going over them, savoring the brilliant language, before gearing up to pack and hit the road. We cleaned out the little casita I was staying in and headed south to join our friends for a Labor Day BBQ in San Mateo then drove to Visalia for the night to break up the trip halfway. Tuesday afternoon we hit the road again, listened to the new De La Soul album (It’s fantastic!) and arrived back to LaLa land!

Today Miles is on set shooting part of an episode of his latest adventure (Stay Tuned!) and I am sitting on our balcony in Pasadena, listening to the Academy of Ancient Music radio on Pandora, looking at my Bay Area roses from Miles (They are still in full bloom!) sipping some coffee,  and writing this post. Images of the stage, my costumes, the music, the cast, the scenes keep swirling in my mind’s eye…

My mother wrote in an email this morning: “I know this can be a down time for you….but its also a time to rest and retrieve yourself back from the 19th century…Something does always seem to come up for you….even if it is just auditions…..hopefully you can detach, replenish and feel good about what you achieved with your work.”

She’s right. It’s always a tough transition to leave a show, to leave a cast, a stage and work of art that I have been immersed in for close to two months. Time and time again, we do this as theatre artists. We become a part of a family and then have to go through a separation. After each closing of a show our theatre family grows bigger and bigger and the world seems a little smaller. It is inevitable that I will cross paths with these beautiful artists again and I look forward to that day. I hold in my heart the dear memories of my time as Gloria, the challenging task of working through Shaw’s language and emotions, discovering the twists and turns of her story, revealing the love and labor through live theatre. I miss my cast-mates, the Bay Area weather, the walk up the hill to the theatre, the thrill of walking on stage each night, but I am home and I really missed home.

I no longer have to look at my love Miles through Skype or FaceTime. I can talk to our plants and the hummingbirds, our grapefruits are almost ripe, the Pasadena streets have been missing my footsteps and the LA theatre scene is bustling with shows to attend. I am filled with gratitude for the experience of my first George Bernard Shaw play, I am proud of my work and remain in awe of the extreme talent of the cast and crew of You Never Can Tell. The audiences were fantastic and Cal Shakes is an incredible company to work for! I am also blessed by all of the family and friends who came out to support our Shaw Show, thank you for making the trip!

Congratulations to ALL who were involved in this unforgettable production: Thank You from the bottom of my heart!

Until Next Time….

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Instagram post for our closing show by John R. Lewis

You Never Can Tell: Kissing

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“The lovely flowers embarrass me,
They make me regret I am not a bee –”
Two years ago he kissed me…

Today he sent me a rainbow in the form of roses, a flower that means so much to both of us…

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It was a kiss that changed the course of my path, as kisses should… We decided to embark on a future filled with unknowns and struggles, but more importantly brimming with nourishment and support. Since that day we first kissed our love has blossomed and deepened in ways I don’t think either of us could have predicted two years ago. And isn’t that the great thing about taking a chance? You never can tell…

In my current play my character, Gloria, has her first kiss with Valentine. Each night my scene partner, Matthew Baldiga, and I use the language of George Bernard Shaw to fall and fight in love. Throughout the course of the play Gloria struggles with her feelings which are at war with her head. Valentine follows his heart and freely showers her with affection. Who knows what happens to the two after the curtain falls…? I should like to think they live a life of adventure, work and love… However, I am a romantic…

gloria and valentine first kiss

Photo by Kevin Berne

Maybe they were similar to G.B.S. and his wife?

Shaw met his match in Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a fierce and strong woman, in 1896 the year our play takes place. Of Charlotte G.B.S. had shared “Instead of going to bed at ten, we go out and stroll about among the trees for a while…” and “Kissing in the evening among the trees was very pleasant…” It was a relationship filled with intellect and strong views, in a time when Women’s rights and political tensions were high. Both were members of Britain’s  Fabian Society (Founded in 1884 to be “at the forefront of developing political ideas and public policy on the left.) Beatrice Webb described Charlotte in her journal: “By temperament she is an anarchist – feeling any regulation or rule is intolerable – a tendency which has been exaggerated by her intolerable wealth. She is romantic but thinks herself cynical. She is a socialist and a radical, but not because she understands collectivist standpoint, but because she is by nature a rebel.” Theirs is a complicated and interesting story and I am currently reading more about them in my Shaw biography by Michael Holroyd…

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You never can tell with relationships… They are a delicate dance that require stamina, flexibility, understanding and conviction. All I know is that I am grateful for taking the leap and kissing a man who thrilled, and continues to enrich, my heart, mind and soul.

Happy Kiss-A-versary My Love!

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Lyrics from one of my favorite songs about kissing by Louis Armstrong!

KIND OF BLUE: 57 years later & My Jazz SOLmate…

Just this afternoon a Facebook friend posted that the incredible Jazz Album “Kind of Blue,” by Miles Davis had been released on this day, August 17th 1959. This album is a huge part of the soundtrack of my life. I first heard it while in the womb, as my mother tells me. She had a lot of Jazz records (Billie Holiday, Wynton Marsalis, Chuck Mangione, Miles…) and I can remember really far back hearing the sounds of the trumpets, piano, bass… the voices… Jazz is my all time favorite genre. If I was stranded on a deserted beach, this is my album of choice. As I write this post I am tapping the keys to this recording…

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Whenever I happen to catch a live Jazz group and there is a trumpet player I request my favorite track, #3: Blue in Green. I know it’s a tough request, and rarely is it possible to capture what Miles had laid down that day back in March of 1959. However,  I do remember a trumpet player in Long Beach who got the closest… Most Jazz groups jump at the chance to play track #1: So What or #2: Freddie Freeloader

I met my Jazz soulmate in the alley behind my downtown Albuquerque apartment back in the early 2000’s. He was a scrappy orange tomcat I rescued after his twin sister had died and animal control was about to take him away. He was a skinny little thing, scared with bright yellow eyes like the sun: I named him SOL. When ever I put on Jazz he would perk up and listen, but it was when I put on Miles Davis that he really dug it. He would meow along to Davis’ trumpet for as long as the song lasted. Coltrane’s sax and Montgomery’s guitar didn’t inspire him as much but sometime Billie’s voice could produce the same effect…

Only 4 short years after we found each other, Sol became extremely ill and I had to make the hard decision to put him to sleep. It was a late night in November, I called my dear friend Malika and asked if she could drive me and my gato to the vet. I was inconsolable, holding him in my arms, in his favorite towel and Malika said a blessing over me and my little family, which included Luna my other gato. (Malika later adopted Luna and they are still living happily together!) She asked if there was any music we should play while driving to the vet and I immediately grabbed my “Kind of Blue” album. We drove to the 24 hour pet hospital and were admitted into a small, dimly lit room. Every one was speaking in hushed voices, calming and reassuring. Sol was in my arms, relaxed as if he knew it was for the best. I held him close, talking to him, singing to him and petting his slender sick body… He slipped away peacefully, my tears wetting his orange fur… As we exited the vet’s office I glanced up at the muted television and low and behold a Miles Davis special was playing… As I watched the thin trumpeter in his iconic pose I knew Sol was telling me he was okay…

For the 50th anniversary of this album, in 2009, NPR released an interview on morning edition: Between Takes: The ‘Kind Of Blue’ Sessions. In this story you can hear Miles Davis talking with the artists to perfect a recording and learn more about the studio session that produced the masterpiece. Turns out Miles like to kiss the musicians on the ear!

The album was recorded in two sessions, the first on March 2 (Tracks 1-3) , 1959 and the second on April 22, 1959 (Tracks 4-5, an alternate track 6 was added later) The quintet included: tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb and, of course, trumpeter Miles Davis. In Bill Evan’s liner notes, Improvisation in Jazz by Bill Evans he addresses the improvisational element of the recording of this album: “Group improvisation is a further challenge. Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result. This most difficult problem, I think, is beautifully met and solved on this recording.”

This album reminds me of a theatrical performance, the artists combining their individual skills to bring to life a story, a concept a complete work. It’s nothing short of magic…Just last year a 60 minute documentary was released about this album with various musicians talking about the profound impact of this work of art. It’s a great look into that influential time period in Jazz history and all of the elements that brought this record into our world: “Kind of Blue-Miles Davis Documentary”.

While living here in the Bay area I have been listening to KCSM 91.1 on my rental car radio. Jazz soothes and excites my soul, it speaks to something deep inside and continues to score my days as an artist. Just as we memorize lyrics to our favorite songs, quotes from our favorite movies, I have each note of this album memorized. Sometimes I tap out the piano, or scat the horns, or thump out the bass and drum solos. It is a perfect album from beginning to end, taking you through all the different qualities of emotion. During an acting exercise in grad school we were asked to bring in a song that captured our idea of love, mine was “Blue in Green.”

Happy Release day KIND OF BLUE, thank you for being my comfort soul food and a little slice of heaven on earth…

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You Never Can Tell: Openings…

 

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Opening Night flowers from my Mom & Dad, a tradition that never fails to surprise me!

On Saturday August 13th, under a half moon, the resident owl hooting backstage, with a full house, we celebrated the Opening Night of George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell on the gorgeous outdoor Cal Shakes stage in Orinda, CA. Just before our first previews we faced a difficult occurrence when a fellow cast member was injured and an understudy had to go on. The phrase “You Never Can Tell,” has definitely become a big part of our vocabulary and now has taken on a whole new meaning for us after an intense and productive tech week and three previews. The actor who was hurt plays 3 different roles in our show and is a crucial element to the story. Our fabulous assistant director, LeeAnn Dowd, filled in for his meticulously specific Act 1 roles and a young local actor, Lucas, took on his difficult language heavy Act 2 role. Lucas went on Wednesday night with book in hand, then Thursday he did an incredible job off book and Friday night our actor returned with a cane, healed and hungry to get back to work. His first audience was our third and when he walked off stage that night he was so wide-eyed with how thrilling and informative it was to share our crazy tilted story with the patrons. We were ecstatic to have him back, and so grateful to LeeAnn and Lucas for their heroics.

Gloria By The Sea

My character “Gloria” looks out to the sea as the cast of You Never Can Tell sings and brings the lights down for intermission. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

The day of opening night began with errands and house cleaning to welcome my love Miles for the weekend, he was on the road from LA and heading straight to the theatre for curtain. We had rehearsal in the afternoon to clean up and tighten a few things, everyone’s spirits were high and filled with anticipation. When I walked into our dressing room flowers had arrived from my parents, sending opening night wishes and love. Just before dinner break our director, the incredible Lisa Peterson, gathered us in a circle on the stage, a ritual we started in the rehearsal room. With a huge smile she filled our hearts with encouraging words and led us in our final cheer: “You Never Can Tell!”

Miles kept me updated on his progress on the road and I showered and finished opening night thank you cards. Finally, it was an hour before curtain and I began the process of styling my hair, applying makeup, getting into my corset and costume, practicing my Ukulele and feeling the butterflies flit and fly around in my belly. Miles arrived at 7:45 and ten minutes later we were called to places. It was a warm clear night, the sun set as the first act flew by and intermission showed up so suddenly! We closed the show to joyous applause and headed to the green room for a toast and photos. Cal Shakes hosted an after party where Miles and I chatted with friends old and new. We ended the night with a wonderfully crafted Manhattan and Old Fashioned at Prizefighter in Emeryville.

Since Miles and I met, two years ago in the Bay Area, he has made every opening night of my performances (From Dallas to Los Angeles to Cincinnati back to LA and now in the Bay!)  Having him by my side increases my gratitude for being on this journey. While I was in Tech for the opening of this show, Miles opened a thrilling production he had been rehearsing for several weeks. Director Robert Allan Ackerman and playwright Dotson Rader have been on their own journey with a play about Tennessee Williams titled God Looked Away starring Al Pacino and Judith Light ! After a few readings Miles joined the creative team to play opposite Pacino as “Baby,” Tennessee’s lover of 14 years. The project opened a fully staged workshop production for invited audiences in a West Hollywood theatre and my love Miles shined like the star that he is! Sadly I wasn’t able to attend, since I was in tech, but I swear I could feel the positive vibrations that his performance had on that town all the way up here in the Bay. Recently an article by Michael Fairman was posted online and beautifully captured the past few weeks in Miles’ career which has been blossoming and growing as I always knew it would. So even though it has been hard being away from one another, we are hard at work, and when he arrived for my opening night weekend we celebrated both of our accomplishments!

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The Cast and Crew of God Looked Away at Macha Theatre in West Hollywood.        Seated from left to right: Robert Allan Ackerman, Al Pachino and Dotson Rader, behind them: Judith Light and Miles to the right!

Sunday after opening we had our first matinee, the play takes on a little different tone in the full natural light against the golden hills, there are no blackouts and you can see the entire house of audience members. It was a strong show with a sense of calm, Miles was in the audience again and I could see his perfect smile from the stage. When the show was over we had a brief talk back led by Cal Shakes resident dramaturg Philippa Kelly. (Check out her fascinating blog posts about our production HERE.) After sharing a little about each of our characters, our process and the adaptation of Shaw’s classic to California, the final question was from some siblings who had come to the theatre for their very first play and wanted to know more about acting!  We jumped at the chance to encourage them to get involved with Cal Shakes and any other opportunities they could find, eager to recruit more members to our wonderful world of storytelling. We said our goodbyes and well wishes for a happy day off, Miles hugged my cast and crew, now new members of our theatre family and we headed back home to get ready for a romantic and celebratory night out!

One of our favorite places is The Brazen Head in San Francisco, I found this neighborhood gem back in 2012 when working at The Magic theatre and have returned ever since. We got dolled up, crossed the Bay bridge, ready for a big meal in the city and a visit with one of our favorite bartenders: Jimmy. Sitting in the dimly lit corner we shared a glass of champagne and toasted to the moment: being together back in the bay and our theatrical/artistic successes. Our meal was to die for! French onion soup and a burrata caprese salad to start, followed by a filet mignon and shrimp scampi with a bottle of Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon. Jimmy came over and sat with us for a bit after dinner and we talked about the life of an artist, he was a recording musician for many years. We discussed the drive to succeed, the hardships in love and life and he encouraged us to keep going and aiming high. (And he just about died when he found out Miles had been in one of his favorite shows, NCIS: LA, with one of his favorite actresses: Daniela Ruha!) It was a luxurious ending to the weekend and the perfect place to celebrate….

Monday morning we found a new favorite place for brunch in Berkeley: Aunt Mary’s Cafe! We feasted on pancakes, a chorizo scramble, collard greens, cheddar cheese grits and biscuits with sage gravy. We were so excited to eat we didn’t even snap a photo! We ran a few errands, visited a dear mutual friend and their little 6 month old baby girl, and returned back for an early night in since Miles had to get on the road first thing Tuesday morning. As I type this post he is cruising south on I-5 back to LA to make to a general meeting with a casting director, followed by an audition and then dinner with his theatre family from God Looked Away, he is incredible… I am cleaning house, resting and gearing up for the start of another week of shows up in the beautiful Orinda hills, filled with gratitude and awe from this weekend. Curtain is at 7:30 tonight and this Friday I will have a big group of cousins in the audience! The work continues for both of us…

Gloria Vs. Father

“Gloria” and “Mr. Crampton” (Michael Torres) have a little father daughter discussion to try and work things out…! (Photo by Kevin Berne)

It was an ideal opening weekend! Having Miles in town, celebrating with the talented cast and crew at Cal Shakes, hearing Artistic Director Eric Ting remark on our process, meeting all the loved ones and theatre family/friends who came to support, the wonderful meals and now the exciting challenge of a full run ahead. My parents will be coming in a couple of weeks and Miles will return again. ( I can’t wait!!!) Until then, I have my days back, time to get back into the hot yoga studio, update my website, return emails and messages, wash dishes, continue binging Cheers on Netflix, catching classics on TCM and possibly visiting some museums and local attractions… (Bay Area folks any suggestions?)

On with the Shaw Show! I am excited to share our story with more and more audience members in the weeks to come and hope they enjoy our delightfully strange world as much as we do…!

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You Never Can Tell: Beginnings…

photo.jpgLook at this cast! Aren’t they all gorgeous? I am sure many of you theatre artists reading this are connected to one or more of these fine folks, because that’s how it works doesn’t it? We are all part of a huge, loving, hard working, kick-ass family of beings who live to tell stories… And here we are beginning a new adventure!

What a treat to be back in the Bay Area, creating some magic in a room with these artists! At the Helm of our Shaw Ship is Lisa Peterson, who was recently named Berkeley Rep’s Associate Director! Her Shavian knowledge, fantastic laugh and sharp eyes keep all of us on our toes as she sculpts our world and our words… This is my first time performing a G.B.S. play and I couldn’t imagine doing it with anyone other than Lisa, and did I mention the jaw-dropping setting? The outdoor theatre in the golden Orinda hills and eucalyptus groves is a treat to the senses…

I’ve had many beginnings in The Bay Area… This sunny gray climate has influenced so much hunger and desire and excitement in my continued search for my role(s) as an artist in this world. Walking the streets of San Francisco, Mountain View, and now Oakland and Berkeley have informed my work and I have always been impressed with the tenacity and big heartedness of Bay Area artists, there is a truth that seeps from their every move…

My very first Equity gig was in San Francisco at The Magic Theatre, diving head first into Luis Alfaro’s adaptation of Medea with director Loretta Greco pushing me to the depths of the deep end, day after day. That show began my career as a professional Regional Theatre Actor. In fact, I was in rehearsals for that play when I self taped an audition that booked my first season at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Since then I have traveled to different states to tell stories, standing on various stages, forming lifelong bonds and connections. Two years ago this month, I met my love, Miles Gaston Villanueva in the Bay Area. We laid eyes on each other for the first time in a rehearsal room for the  TheatreWorks production of Water by The Spoonful. That show was the beginning of a creative and loving relationship with an incredible soul, a man who has challenged and loved me through our passion for art and who makes my heart smile…

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Sabina Zuniga Varela as “Yaz” and Miles Gaston Villanueva as “Elliot” in the 2014 Theatre Works production of Water By The Spoonful by Quiara Algeria Hudes. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

On July 26th our wonderful cast and crew celebrated Shaw’s 160th birthday with a potluck after rehearsal. The table was laden with homemade goodies and tasty treats. We sang happy birthday and toasted to the man whose words and thoughts we are beginning to taste and share…

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Happy Birthday! George Bernard Shaw                                                                                                   July 26th, 1856 – November 2nd, 1950 

Tomorrow we have our first run through!

We will begin to piece it all together using our words, bodies, hearts and breath on that rehearsal room floor as we struggle and swim through the four acts of You Never Can Tell. There are big ideas, quick wit, moments of giddiness, tension, desire, confusion and recognition. The language is fast and the thinking is deep. All three women in the play, a mother and her two daughters, are strong in their decisions, words and thoughts. It’s a thrill to begin to explore the complexity of my character Gloria, finding what reminds me of myself, what surprises me, what confuses. She is raised by a very progressive mother, Mrs. Clandon, and has been educated to challenge the norm at that time, as you can read in this exchange that happens in Act One:

McCOMAS. You hold to your old opinions still?

MRS. CLANDON. As firmly as ever.

McCOMAS. Bless me! And you are still ready to make speeches in public, in spite of your sex (Mrs. Clandon nods); to insist on a married woman’s right to her own separate property (she nods again); to champion Darwin’s view of the origin of species and John Stuart Mill’s essay on Liberty (nod); to read Huxley, Tyndall and George Eliot (three nods); and to demand University degrees, the opening of the professions, and the vote for women as well as men?

MRS. CLANDON (resolutely). Yes: I have not gone back one inch; and I have educated Gloria to take up my work where I left it.

While rehearsing this play I am drawing on the strong women that I have been exposed to and influenced by in my life: my mother Maria Varela, Gloria Steinem, Ella Baker, Sandra Cisneros, Winona LaDuke, Chavela VargasFrida Kahlo… the list goes on and on (Click on each name for videos to hear their words and see their faces.) Each of these women have challenged what was expected of them, they’ve created, they’ve fought, they’ve spoken up, they’ve resisted. Many of them have not stopped, they continue to shed light on issues at hand and persist in the struggle. They began and I must continue….

I thought of these strong women, and the women in our play, as I watched Hillary Rodham Clinton accept the nomination at the DNC this week. We are working on themes that are very timely with the historic nomination of the first woman as the presidential candidate for a major party in our country: Feminism, Marriage, The New Woman, Family, Convention, Relationships, Class, The Life-Force and Love. Regardless of any qualms with Hillary, this is a moment in history, or should I say Herstory…. (BTW, if you missed any of the DNC speeches check them out HERE on C-Span!)

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Center: Maria Varela Clockwise from top left: Frida Kahlo, Ella Baker, Chavela Vargas, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Winona LaDuke, Sandra Cisneros, Gloria Steinem.

George Bernard Shaw wrote his women well, after all his mother Bessie was quite intriguing and his childhood was a trip to say the least…. I am learning more about his mother and the beginnings of Shaw’s search for his calling in a highly recommended biography by Michael Holroyd: Bernard Shaw, Vol.1:18:56-1898-The Search for Love, I am hoping to finish it by the end of the run…

So, on the last day of this month we begin the head-first dive into the deep end of our play with our first run through. It’s absolutely terrifying and thrilling at the same time, this work we do. We are traveling through an abyss of stakes, cues, props, music, dancing, connecting, entrances, exits, all in the search for what we love: telling stories.

And next week, we begin Tech…

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March Madness

  
College basketball is everywhere, the men and women’s teams are suffering buzzer beating losses and relishing glorious triumphs. The sweetness, eliteness and final-ness of this annual season of stamina and survival bring these athletes to the top of their game. 

I first started playing basketball in third grade and continued through high school and played pick up games in college. There was almost a moment when I was going to try and play for The Lady Aces at a small school in Indiana… I believe that my years as an athlete, playing with a team, winning and loosing, was a fundamental part of my training as an artist. It was one of my first experiences in an ensemble, but back then I didn’t know what that meant, I just knew I was a part of a team….

Recently a fellow theatre artist asked her Facebook community to reflect on why we, as actors, find ensemble work important. She wanted to relay different stories and experiences with students. I reflected on an answer, wrote a comment on her post and then realized I had about three blog post drafts for the month of March just waiting to be finished….

So this is my March Madness post, containing reflections on three specific moments that all happen to have something to do with an ensemble…

THE WARRIORS 

 Sometimes I am not able to fully digest a theatrical moment until weeks after. What I experience sits with me, marinating, peaking up and reminding me of how fortunate I am to be a theatre artist right now at this moment. This month I was lucky to catch the 3 play repertory performances of the 2016 MFA class at my Alma Mater USC. Every graduating class completes this rite of passage and professionalism in the final semester of the program. The ensemble of actors rehearse and perform three plays for 5 weeks, alternating shows Wednesday-Sunday. It’s a rigorous schedule, testing the stamina and dedication of each artist. The year I graduated we had the delight of performing Chekov’s Three Sisters, Shakespeare’s 12th Night and a devised piece called Forget My Name. I had never been so tired and amped in all my life. We battled sickness, entertained the masses, stretched and sharpened our chops and we survived. Our tribe of nine killed it in all three plays and the term “I can do anything…” escaped our lips over and over…

This year these 14 fierce and hungry actors tackled a devised piece based on the Greek tale of The Oresteia, Brecht’s Three Penny Opera and Twilight L.A. Miles and I saw all three plays in one weekend beginning with The Oresteia and ending with a double header matinee performance of Three Penny and an evening show of Twilight L.A. 

To try and capture what each show delivered, how these words and artists brought me to the edge of my seat, I couldn’t do it justice and I don’t want to attempt to write a review of each piece. Rather, I want to reflect in stream of thought what still sticks with me weeks later, what images, sounds and feelings linger….

THE ORESTEIA: language and poetry, blooming and dying roses, thorns, dim lights highlighting cheekbones, a growl so deep it comes from the belly of Hades, shovel plunging, smiles surprising, the solo from The Dark Side of the Moon, Apollo glistening in want and hate, black lipstick smeared, bloodthirsty eyes, a boy growing up, bodies colliding, justice, pain, need, want, limbs, breath, silence…

THREE PENNY OPERA: piano keys, pink and red lace, smiles and knives, running and hiding, voices lifted in fury and love, blush and teeth, laughter, deep belly laughter… watching, listening, a wedding party, empty plates and gangs of rags, back and forth, cardboard chewing, jingling keys…

TWILIGHT L.A. Dancing with rage and pride and grace, deep bass in the seats, tags, stillness, tears, race, class, broken glass, pavement and blood, dark and light, right and wrong, then and now, a single hand from the front, then the back, history, story…

These artists are now heading into their LA/NYC showcase and I can’t wait to see what happens next! Their ensemble work made me jealous and giddy all at once…Keep an eye out on those stages and screens for these faces!

THE VOICES 

 The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has created a new project called Play On! Playwrights and dramaturgs are paired up to “translate” The Bard’s works into modern English. It’s been thought, by many of my friends and colleagues, as a controversial exploration. Some really like the idea, others not so much.  

This month I had the pleasure of participating in an early reading of Virginia Grise’s work on All’s Well That Ends Well. On International Women’s Day, of all days, a diverse and talented group of women were cast to read the first two acts of Virginia’s work then the final three acts of Shakespeare’s words. In just one day, in a few hours, an ensemble was formed to read, listen, learn and share. The conversation after the reading was so stimulating and eye opening that this play, which I had known little about, quickly has become a favorite. It was an invigorating day of work and artistry and the joy from the newly formed yet fleeting ensemble was palpable…

THE FAMILY What really is just sinking in, is the incredible honor of attending the Los Angeles Drama Critic’s Circle (LADCC) Awards ceremony this month. Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles was nominated for 6 awards!  

This was one of the most challenging plays I’ve been involved in, and it couldn’t have been possible without the ensemble. The material we were asked to wrestle with, the elements of our outdoor space, the weight of the significance this piece held, brought all those involved to a place filled with struggle and searching. 

The journey of this production began three years ago at The Magic Theatre. The first incarnation of Luis Alfaro’s adaptation of this ancient story was one that had Medea’s character steeped in the art of magic and healing, trying to make it in the Mission district area of San Francisco. Since then Luis took his story to Chicago and infused the play with the spirit of Pilsen. The story then arrived to Luis’ hometown of Los Angeles where he captured the soul of Boyle Heights to be represented on the marble floor of The Getty Villa outdoor theatre. There is always a ritualistic element to creating a theatrical piece, but this one was especially sacred. With the collaboration and passion of The Getty Villa and The Theatre @ Biston Court and with an extraordinary ensemble of artists we presented this classic story, rife with poetry, family, terror, love and flight… 

 And on March 14, 2016, at the Ann & Jerry Moss Theatre at New Roads School, sitting next to my love Miles (on his birthday!), his mother, our brilliant cast and team of producers, we were awarded 4 of our 6 nominations from the LADCC!  Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles by Luis Alfaro & Directed by Jessica Kubzansky 

WON:

* Writing Adaptation: Luis Alfaro

* Directing: Jessica Kubzansky 

* Lead Performance: Sabina Zuniga Varela

* Production: The Getty Villa & The Theatre @ Boston Court

(You can read the full list of Winners in the L.A. Times article)

NOMINATED:

* Sound Design: Bruno Louchouarn

* Ensemble: VIVIS, Marlene Forte, Justin Huen, Zilah Mendoza, Sabina Zuniga Varela, Quinn Marquez and Anthony Gonzalez 

  We are so proud of this moment in Latino Theatre, where we got to celebrate and be recognized, by the Los Angeles critics, for our story, our play, our blood, sweat and tears that was created by an all Latin@ cast and design team! (Playwright, Set, Lights, Sound, Costume, Props) 

 
Luis acceptance speech.

Sabina acceptance speech.

Best Production speech.

Many thanks to all of the warriors, the voices and the families I have met along the way, in my home town of New Mexico, California, Oregon, Colorado, Texas, New York, Ohio and beyond…. I couldn’t be where I am now if I didn’t meet all of you. I am a Theatre Artist, a Storyteller, and maybe most important an Ensemble Member, exploring the depths of humanity and wonder.
It’s been a grand month, a season of inspiration and resting and many many birthdays, including mine!   March brings the spring, the blossoms and brackets, the wind and the wins!

Let’s see what April has in store…  

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