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LA Stage Times

Alvarez’s Dallas Non-Stop Examines a Filipino Fixation on America

by Dale Reynolds | November 15, 2013
 Anne Yatco, Nardeep Khurmi, Kennedy Kabasares, Sandy Yu and Angel Star Felix in "Dallas Non-Stop." Photo courtesy of Playwrights' Arena.

Anne Yatco, Nardeep Khurmi, Kennedy Kabasares,
Sandy Yu and Angel Star Felix in “Dallas Non-Stop.” Photo courtesy of Playwrights’ Arena.

Like most Filipino Americans, playwright Boni P. Alvarez has been thinking a lot about Typhoon Haiyan in the past week.

“My grandmother and her immediate family are in Manila, so they’re okay,” he reports. “But I do have an aunt from the rural provinces whose house collapsed; she’s okay, but we haven’t heard anything more about my other relatives.  Lines of communication are limited, which is devastating to us.  You want to do something, but there’s nothing much to do but pray and donate to relief organizations.

“My parents are a reminder that everyone who comes here leaves many friends and family behind.  And it’s so hard to get there.  So while the impulse is to do something, the fact that it’s such a long distance from here leaves you feeling hopeless and impotent to help.”

On the other hand, that long distance between the two countries hasn’t prevented many Filipinos from feeling very close to the United States and Americans and very interested in American culture. That’s true of the Filipino characters in Alvarez’s latest play, Dallas Non-Stop, which opens Saturday at the Atwater Village Theatre, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera for Playwrights’ Arena.

A view of Southfork from Manila

Dallas Non-Stop is a riff on American pop culture, set in Manila a couple of years ago.  “Dallas was and is an iconic American TV show.  When I was watching it, in its heyday, I wondered how non-American audiences would react to seeing it.  Was that my people’s main view of America, this big slice of Americana, along with Dynasty and Flamingo Road?”

Boni B. Alvarez

Boni B. Alvarez

In his play, a late-20s Filipina, Girlie, adores Dallas and is desperate to immigrate to the United States, especially to Texas.  For Alvarez, Dallas was quintessential Texas:  big oil, big money, big hair.  “The fantasy element was appealing to me.  It was real when she relates how in her [poor] village, only one family had a VCR machine, and videos of Dallas and the rest, sent by relatives in the US, were shown to the other villagers at three pesos a head.  And that was their weekly dose of an American ideal — a world that was years delayed, not watched in real time, being influenced by television.

“I modeled Girlie after Victoria Principal’s role [in Dallas], Pamela, who was the outsider on the show:  from poverty, sexy, marrying-up to Bobby [the character played by Patrick Duffy], which causes strife between the brothers [Bobby and J.R., who was played by Larry Hagman].”

Girlie is also an outsider, with suspicions about her being a golddigger, when it comes to American Brad, her new boss.  But what, really, is the American dream she desires?  “The problem is, there’s no pamphlet on that dream that America prints up and hands out to people abroad.  So this version is being marketed to people like Girlie, who has grown up knowing about the elusive American Dream, and for her and others Dallas is it — her road map to her future — and Brad is the guy who owns the keys to the American Dream Door.”

Of course Filipino immigrants to America often learn that real life doesn’t match the glory of the dream. But Alvarez says that “most Filipinos believe that it’s better to struggle here in America rather than back home.  It’s an ongoing promotion, this American Dream, which never seems to go away, in spite of how many people don’t achieve it.”

Alvarez, who is gay, admits that he couldn’t not write a gay character — “In spite of this huge Catholic overlay,” he notes, “Filipinos are accepting of gay people.” In Dallas Non-Stop, the gay Rodrigo is not only “fun,” but “he’s also a strong challenge for Girlie, who wants this new position of supervisor of the outsourcing office, and they butt heads in an aggressive way.  So she uses sex to try and solidify her chances for the job.”

When asked about American racism, Alvarez comes up with an idea not often suggested:  “Sometimes the racism isn’t overt, but is a given, when we are treated almost as an invisible people.  When people think of ‘Asian-Americans,’ they generally don’t think Filipino, in part because our culture is quite a bit different from the Japanese, or Chinese, or Vietnamese.

Kennedy Kabasares and Anne Yatco

Kennedy Kabasares and Anne Yatco

“We were colonized by Spain, who ruled for 300 years, leaving a different flavor than the rest of Asia [or Asia Minor]; it’s an island culture.”  Then, in 1899, after the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded the Philippines to the US, which ruled it until the Japanese took over in World War II.  After the war, the Philippines became an independent nation, but the American influence hardly vanished. And it “gave us an easier time to assimilate when we came over here.”  As proof, he contends that there are more Filipinos in California than anywhere else in the world, outside of the Islands themselves.

Filipino Americans make up the second largest Asian community in the United States, and one of the most assimilated. Alvarez points to the matriarchal nature of Philippine society and the inclination of Filipinas who immigrate to America to get to know co-workers and their families.

He’s upbeat on the subject of assimilation. “It’s all positive; they absorb the flavor of the various cultures that surround them.  We tend to be less insular, more apt to integrate with all the other cultures than just the dominant European ones.  We get along with Latinos here because they remind us of our culture back home.  My mom would make friends with the black women at work because they were familiar, and no one seems to have a beef with us Filipinos.”

Alvarez was born and raised in East Palo Alto. “My mom and dad were born in the Philippines, but immigrated here at different times — my mom in the 1960s and my dad a decade later.” His mother’s parents initially worked in the agricultural fields of Stockton, or as a maid in motels, “but when Silicon Valley began to bloom with internet companies, they moved there to work in electronic assembly, becoming middle-class.”  Meanwhile, back in the Philippines, Alvarez’s father gained a degree from FEATI University in Manila and then immigrated to the US, where he found employment as an electrical engineer..

Alvarez himself received an impressive education. He’s a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College (BA) , American Repertory Theatre/MXAT Institute at Harvard University (MFA), and USC (MFA).

Looking for a breakthrough play

Jim Kane and Sandy Yu

Jim Kane and Sandy Yu

As a playwright, Alvarez, who is somewhere in his “late 30s,” has had one previous successful production in Los Angeles: Ruby, Tragically Rotund (2009, Playwrights’ Arena at Los Angeles Theatre Center), also directed by Rivera.  His other plays, which have been workshopped or produced around the country include Dusty de los Santos, The Special Education of Miss Lorna Cambonga, Poke Back, and The Wall.

He says he is ready for the next step as a functioning (i.e., working for money) playwright.  When not writing, he works in a retail shop at the Grove — something to pay the bills and keep from going crazy.

Alvarez is of large girth, which influenced his writing of Ruby, Tragically Rotund at USC grad school, where he studied with respected playwrights Oliver Mayer, Luis Alfaro and Velina Hasu Houston .

“Most of my plays deal with Filipino issues, although my latest is about Mexican day laborers [The Wall], which has had some readings here and in Phoenix.  Since I understand that ‘writing is re-writing,’ I must go back and do some revising.”

Ruby received a mostly successful response from audiences and critics.  “I had great validation from the audience reaction.  Those who are or were heavy-set identified with the play, and it struck chords with non-rotund folks, too.”

In the play, sibling rivalry between rotund Ruby and her thin sister arises. Says Alvarez, “A woman who was skinny came up to me one night and admitted that her more charismatic sister, who was heavy, had forced her to live in her shadow.  To me, discovering that a secondary character [in the play] had influenced someone I never would have thought would be resentful, made me more respectful of how much our work can impact on others.”

Alvarez then “submitted [Ruby] nationally, but no second production of the play has ever materialized.  My hopes for my big debut fizzled.  But you just have to go back and keep writing.”

 Sandy Yu, Jim Kane, Anne Yatco, Nardeep Khurmi, Angel Star Felix and Kennedy Kabasares

Sandy Yu, Jim Kane, Anne Yatco, Nardeep Khurmi,
Angel Star Felix and Kennedy Kabasares

Dallas Non-Stop is to be his second full-length play produced.  He was invited to join the Skylight Theatre PlayLab Unit last year, under the leadership of Shem Bitterman, in its inaugural season.  “It’s a great chance to learn more about playwriting, as you write a play from scratch [Dusty de los Santos], and if accepted, you’re given a 10-performance run at their theater in Hollywood.  I received great feedback and now I can revise it.”

Playwrights’ Arena and Skylight, which operate on Actors’ Equity’s 99-seat plan, champion LA-based playwrights, more than most of the larger Equity-contract companies. But Center Theatre Group invited Alvarez into its writers group after seeing Ruby.  “I was there a year; it was a major learning curve for me.  But the most important part of the process that you really learn from is a production, listening to actors recite your words.  It’s not like the olden days, when playwrights were produced more often, with more actor- and director-time.  You have to hear it out loud.”  His play about witches [“aswang”] in the Philippines, Blood Letting, is to be workshopped this December at Skylight.

His many communities

Although he was born in America, Alvarez says he finds community with artists who were born in the Philippines, such as Rivera.  But he also has the luxury of being a part of other larger communities, such as the USC theater community and the LGBT community.  Currently single, he laughs off the notion of being lonely as a single gay man, let alone bitter.  And love in his life?  He quickly notes, “I find love in my work.”  But he is obsessed with watching tennis and eating quality foods.  “I’m a foodie — love fried chicken and dim sum.  And when I travel, which isn’t often enough anymore, I try new foods.”

Alvarez acknowledges how much his family influences his work.  “Because the culture is so matriarchal, there tends to be a large female presence in my work.  And the culture is so very ‘dramatic.’  If you were to just transcribe real conversations between the women, it would be borderline-awful dialogue, as there’s no filter to it.  Still, I always look for the subtext in the dialogue, and my Catholic background definitely colors my writing.”

Sandy Yu

Sandy Yu

Although more than a thousand dialects are spoken in the Philippines, with Tagalog the main national language, in the 20th Century English became the primary unifying language.  And all things American are still the norm in their pop culture:  “On my last trip there, I was amazed at how prevalent American culture is.  Lady Gaga and Joe Jonas were performing there.  And they’re obsessed with our American Idol TV show, especially when Jessica Sanchez, who is half-Filipina, advanced in the competition.”

So is Brad, the tall pink-man, the Ugly American?  “No, he’s willing to absorb the local culture, but because he happens to figure into Girlie’s Dallas fantasy, he falls into her trap, intentionally or not.”

Alvarez remains tremendously grateful for the opportunities open to him, but on some level, “Girlie reflects my own desire to be a working playwright, which I don’t believe can happen soon, as I don’t know any newer playwrights who make their living solely on their plays. But it is what I want, dream or not.”

Meanwhile, perhaps his own efforts as a playwright can also help relieve the post-Haiyan suffering in the Philippines just a little. The producers say that all proceeds from tonight’s preview will go to Philippine relief efforts.

Dallas Non-Stop, Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, LA 90039. Opens Saturday. Sat and Mon 8 pm; Sun 3 pm (except Mon Nov 18 and Dec 2 at 6 pm). Tickets: $25. 800-838-3006.

**All Dallas Non-Stop production photos courtesy of Playwrights’ Arena.

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LA Stage Times

Jacobson Blends His Day and Night Jobs in Chalk Rep’s Gallery Secrets

by Amy Tofte | September 19, 2013
Katherine Sigismund and Joel J. Gelman in "Skin and Bones." Photo by Halei Parker.

Katherine Sigismund and Joel J. Gelman in “Skin and Bones” at the Natural History Museum. Photo by Halei Parker.

Tom Jacobson is arguably LA’s most prolific living playwright, with close to 80 productions of his full-length plays produced nationwide, most of them premiering in Southern California. He also has penned short projects such as A Vast Hoard, which he wrote as part of Chalk Rep’s upcoming Gallery Secrets — a collection of four plays, by four playwrights, set in four different time periods. Secrets opens Saturday at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles in Exposition Park.

Jacobson has a lot to be happy about and he’s not afraid to show it. Affable, outgoing and curious, he’s an active member of the Lutheran Church of the Master in West LA, which not only inspired his Cherry Orchard adaptation, The Orange Grove, but which also served as the venue for that play’s site-specific production in 2005. “We just have so much fun at my church,” he says. He has choir rehearsal later.

He’s a fan of many great playwrights: Shakespeare, Moliere, Tennessee Williams, Kushner and Carol Churchill — “Cloud Nine changed my life,” Jacobson says.

He could likely succeed at a number of professions. He looks perfectly comfortable in a slate-gray suit and tie, his feet propped up in an office of dark wood with walls dedicated to books. He could be a law professor — a very cool one — or any professor.

Tom Jacobson

Tom Jacobson

But only playwriting is his “great passion and pleasure” — the one thing he would do, no matter what the paycheck. Unfortunately, many playwrights learn that paychecks, even small ones, are hard to come by. Jacobson earned his MFA in playwriting from UCLA in 1985 and — rather than head back to Chicago where he completed his undergraduate degree at Northwestern — he has stayed in Los Angeles. And unlike some playwrights who look to more lucrative writing jobs in order to support their playwriting, Jacobson has found a way to balance a successful career outside the theater that dovetails into his creative slant on life.

“I found after I graduated that I couldn’t write because I was anxious about money,” says Jacobson. “I was always wondering where the next temp job was going to be.”

That led Jacobson to the UCLA job board. He answered a posting for a secretary at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and after a year became a grant writer.  He continued to work his way up, eventually becoming LACMA’s director of development. Then, after 15 years at LACMA, in 2001 he was hired by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and in 2007 promoted to his current position as the senior vice president of advancement.

Jacobson not only became good at fundraising over the years, he kept writing plays — developing a sound process for finishing scripts while feeling inspired by the creative world surrounding him in his day jobs, first at LACMA and then the NHM.

He credits LACMA as the source of inspiration for his LA Weekly-awarded “best new play” Ouroboros (2004), packed with art history and characters inspired by fellow LACMA employees. And more recently, House of the Rising Son (2011) drew its inspiration from a particular entomologist at the NHM.

“Of course, I’m always trying to be better at fundraising,” says Jacobson. “But I’m always learning new things here. I’m really proud of the museum. And the things I do during my day job influence my writing and give me topics.”

It’s been a big year for the NHM. Several updates include the recently opened Nature Gardens, the revamp of the Dinosaur Hall and the new permanent exhibition Becoming Los Angeles. 2013 also marks the museum’s 100th anniversary with a $135 million fundraising campaign — its largest campaign to date. Jacobson has had less time to write than usual. The museum’s mission to “…inspire wonder, discovery and responsibility for our natural and cultural worlds” has been a priority for Jacobson this year.

Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

But because he’s at a museum he also describes as “audience-focused,” Jacobson rarely feels removed from a creative life or even storytelling while he’s at work. “What does the research matter,” Jacobson says of the museum’s collections, “if it doesn’t reach the public in some way that they can embrace and understand?” This could also describe how Jacobson hopes audiences might experience his plays. Known for writing dramas and comedies that challenge historical norms and ask audiences to re-think what they might understand about art, politics or the inter-personal relationships of family, Jacobson also hopes his plays wrangle subject matter in the best possible way to reach an audience.

Whether he is telling the museum’s story to a potential donor or experiencing a new exhibition about the origins of Los Angeles, Jacobson straddles his professional and creative worlds fluidly. What’s his secret to productivity in spite of his enormous professional responsibility?


“I’ve always had a day job for my entire writing career,” says Jacobson. “So I have to be really efficient with my time. The thing that’s easy to do — that you don’t need [long] blocks of time — is writing outlines.”

Much as a scientist gathers specimens or excavates a dig, Jacobson gathers ideas, notes and even snatches of dialogue for various ideas. He collects and organizes his ideas until he feels a critical mass has assembled with one particular story. That will (usually) be the story he will start to outline into a 10-12-page document for a full-length play.

“I aim the completion of my outline for a holiday weekend. A three-day weekend,” says Jacobson. “Then I have the pleasure of spending that first weekend getting the bulk of the play down because the structure is already done.”

Robert Mammana and Will Bradley in "The Twentieth-Century Way" at Boston Court. Photo by Brian Polak.

Robert Mammana and Will Bradley in “The Twentieth-Century Way” at Boston Court. Photo by Ed Krieger.

Jacobson has found this system not only efficient but also extraordinarily helpful in crystalizing his story ideas before committing valuable writing time to script pages. And, while there are still timeline variables depending on the play, the balance seems to be working.

Many of his plays — Bunbury (2005) The Twentieth-Century Way (2010) and The Chinese Massacre (2011) along with the previously mentioned Ouroboros, House of the Rising Son and The Orange Grove — have received awards and/or critical praise.

The Friendly Hour (2008), based on more than 70 years of meeting minutes of a 1934 ladies’ club in Beresford, South Dakota, was recently adapted into a short film which then served as inspiration for a feature film, Wild Prairie Rose (penned by a different writer). Principal photography wrapped over the summer. Jacobson credits many of these plays’ successes and longevity to his process.

“So many people resist outlines,” says Jacobson. “But what they don’t understand is they make your life so much easier. And it means you are less likely to abandon something part way through because you know where it’s going.”

Jacobson has seen most of the premieres of his work at LA venues — Road Theatre, Circle X, Theatre@ Boston Court, Cornerstone, to name just a few. He’s looking forward to a collaboration with Son of Semele Ensemble, currently in the planning stages.

“This is the best place in the world to put on a play with no budget,” says Jacobson. “We have the best acting pool in the entire world. We have more theaters than any city in the country. We now have great directors. And, of course, the 99-seat theater plan that allows you to do a lot with a little.”

Chalk Rep might agree. As a theater company specializing in site-specific performances, Chalk first worked with Jacobson at last year’s similar collaboration (The Flash Festival) at the Page Museum, which is the La Brea tar pit-located satellite of the Natural History Museum. As happened last year, writers for this year’s Secrets were given a space within the museum, learned some details about the space and the artifacts contained therein, then wrote a short play utilizing the specific location of the museum. Completed plays were cast and rehearsed to create a full night of theater telling four distinct stories.

Jennifer Chang and Amy Ellenberger in last year's Flash Festival at the Natural History Museum

Jennifer Chang and Amy Ellenberger in Chalk Rep’s 2012 “Flash Festival” at the Page Museum

Last year’s Flash Festival was deemed a success by the artists and museum, alike. But this new take on the event offers some lessons learned to create a better theatrical experience for audiences. A smaller pool of four writers participates — Ruth McKee, Zakiyyah Alexander, Boni B. Alvarez and Jacobson — as opposed to last year’s 20 playwrights performing 20 different plays in rep. Jacobson believes this alone has helped focus the evening and provided some room for themes to echo from play to play.

“I’m also developing an aesthetic about site-specific work, which is Chalk’s specialty,” says Jacobson. “I think you really need to use the site as what it is.” He describes some of the pitfalls he’s seen in non-traditional performance spaces, where a play might be simply “set” in a gallery but not necessarily dependent on that space to exist. Jacobson is looking for a relationship between the space and the story.

“They’re all separate plays [in Secrets] but there are some themes that have popped up that the museum inspired,” says Jacobson. “All three plays are very much inspired by what’s in the space. All of them reference objects. I talked a lot to the group about the notion of collecting — collectors collecting, what’s the role of a museum in a city and in a culture.”

Each play runs simultaneously four times a night with an actor “guide” taking each audience from one gallery location to another. The production pace has been fast and furious with a performance space that is open to the public for the bulk of the day. And, although the programming is not family-friendly for young audiences (primarily due to language and adult content), Jacobson thinks these stories are an exciting way for both those who are familiar with the museum and those who have never been to experience the recent improvements.

“One thing I love about working at the museum,” says Jacobson, is that “I’m always learning new stuff. It’s also a place that is learning about itself and transforming itself.” But he also hopes that his work continues to tell good stories based on relationships as much as they draw on facts and philosophies.

“I think plays have to be emotional experiences because [when it’s] purely didactic you don’t remember it,” says Jacobson. “Mostly you want to kill yourself during the performance. But if you have a learning experience that’s coupled with an emotional experience, it will become part of your memory. And it’s a lesson that you’ll learn in your bones rather than just in your brain.”

Gallery Secrets, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 900 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles 90007. Opens Saturday. Sep 21, 22, 27, 29; Oct 5, 6, 11, 13. All performances at 7 pm. Tickets: $25/$20 NHM members). or 213-763-3499.



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LA Stage Times

Ruby, Tragically Rotund

by Janet Thielke | September 26, 2009

Playwrights’ Arena, in association with TDRZ Productions and the LATC, present the new “sexy comedy of plus sized proportions” by Boni B. Alvarez and directed by Jon Lawrence Riviera. Ruby, Tragically Rotund features Ellen D. Williams, Fran de Leon, Mark Pelina, Robert Almodovar, Mark Doerr, Alison De La Cruz, Regan Carrington, and Angel Felix.

Check out the photos from the now-playing show:

[nggallery id=23]

Photos by Ed Krieger