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…
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 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
* 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)
* 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…