It’s been a busy year for Los Angeles playwright Luis Alfaro. His solo performance of St. Jude (Center Theatre Group) just wrapped at the Kirk Douglas. Mojada, his Medea adaptation, premiered at Victory Gardens in Chicago. Painting in Red was part of a reading series presented by Playwrights’ Arena (Los Angeles). Alleluia the Road will premiere next month with California Shakespeare and Campo Santo (San Francisco). He’s playwright-in-residence for Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
This week he adds Aesop in Rancho Cucamonga with MainStreet Theatre Company at the Lewis Family Playhouse in, yes, Rancho Cucamonga — a new collaboration of an original work and MainStreet’s first commissioned work for young audiences.
The Path to a Commission
As MainStreet producer Mireya Hepner began planning the theater’s 2013 season, she was determined to finally create a commissioned work for the Rancho audience. According to Hepner, funding a commissioned work has always been a hope for the theater, which is dedicated to producing “high-quality theatrical productions especially for children and families.”
“But our regular budgets could never make that happen,” says Hepner. “So I began looking at guidelines from the [James] Irvine Foundation, and they were looking for projects by California artists and adaptations, which is what we do.”
Hepner approached director Robert Castro (a Southern California native) about a possible collaboration with Alfaro, creating a staged version of Aesop’s fables specifically for MainStreet and a Southern California audience. Alfaro and Castro last worked together on Ladybird, another play for young audiences, at La Jolla Playhouse in 2002. The team was set, the grant application submitted, and it resulted in $40,000 in funding to support the two-year project.
Hepner is excited. “All of our shows here are very theatrical and meaningful,” she says. “It was never going to be the Aesop’s fables you remember from third grade. It’s really deep and beautiful. And I was particularly interested in Luis’ singular voice.”
An award-winning playwright and a 1997 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Foundation Fellowship, Alfaro is known for his adaptations and socially-conscious plays that sometimes embed the playwright within the community for which he is writing. His work has been performed around the country while Alfaro lives in Los Angeles (his hometown) writing, performing and serving on faculty at USC.
Once the grant was secured, the two-year journey for Aesop was broken up into a development/planning year and a creative/production year, which has added actors and designers to the team. This has been a longer creative process than MainStreet had previously experienced and, in a perfect world, Hepner would work this way more often.
“I don’t just do budgets,” says Hepner. “I bring people together to create beautiful stories. But because our timelines are always so fast, there isn’t usually time for me to be this involved.”
In the planning year, Castro suggested the play truly reflect its Rancho audience by being physically set in Rancho. Alfaro, who has made a career creating community-centered plays, embraced the idea. After his own research and background work, Alfaro was immersed in the Rancho community to influence the direction and flavor of the script. Hepner continued to play a key role.
“I’m very hands-on as a producer,” says Hepner, “but for this one, because it was so collaborative, all of us — designers, actors, Robert, Luis — we’ve all been very involved.”
Castro adds the Rancho community itself to that list of collaborators. Originally from San Diego, Castro currently lives in New York, making frequent trips to the West Coast for projects and teaching. He serves on the faculty at UC San Diego. He first met Alfaro as part of a mentoring program at the Mark Taper Forum before directing Ladybird at La Jolla in 2002. Castro says he still identifies as a Californian and, through the MainStreet process on this project, “we’ve all become honorary citizens of Rancho Cucamonga.”
Alfaro shares Castro’s passion for Southern California.
“I think I’m very Los Angeleno because I love driving,” says Alfaro, “and I’m also always out in the city. I love the city.” A self-proclaimed “coffee shop” writer, Alfaro was intrigued by the Aesop project as a way to engage himself with the Rancho community, sometimes setting up his laptop to write pages at a local Starbucks when it opened at 4:30 am.
Once the production was cast, Alfaro began tailoring the script to the individual actors and attending rehearsals whenever possible in order to makes changes or write new scenes. Castro, knee-deep in the rehearsal room, describes an organic process with the performers.
“It’s so ripe with possibility at every turn,” says Castro. “So lots of surprises and revelations occurred in the rehearsal room. [Alfaro] is inspired by us and we’re inspired by him.”
Alfaro feels bolstered by both Hepner and Castro. His previous work with Castro provides what he describes as a “complete trust in the process,” developing ideas with the actors that will improve the script and the story. He also finds Hepner’s insights valuable.
“She’s really been the dramaturg,” says Alfaro. “She also has a say in the text. And I really appreciate it. I think she knows that audience better than all of us.”
Hepner took the lead in setting up museum dates and interviews between Alfaro and local Native Americans and other community groups, giving the playwright insight and access to their stories and traditions.
As they enter tech week, Castro admits the time has come to make final decisions and put an end to explorations and re-writes.
“Of course, we’d love more time to investigate and have more experience with the actors in really creating some wonderful things,” says Castro. “But the schedule is such that we have a final deadline. We have to be more ruthless now and pick and choose ideas.”
Aesop takes the familiar fables (think Tortoise and the Hare, the Ant and the Grasshopper) and places them in the retelling hands of a young bear who has come down from the foothills to escape a fire with her family, only to be left behind.
Alfaro describes the play itself as a “lifting of the corner of the Victoria Gardens Cultural Center” and revealing the fables as they relate to the local community. Key players include the ant, the lizard and the cactus, while key themes range from sorrow to survival. The entire play takes place at night.
Hepner believes this concept in and of itself has created something unique to her community that audiences will recognize.
“Because MainStreet is part of the Lewis Family Playhouse — which is owned by the city of Rancho Cucamonga — the city is very much a part of [the theater community],” says Hepner. “I’m very excited that the people who live here and work here will get to see something that’s really about them.”
Castro has also rediscovered the classic Aesop fables he thought he knew. He finds this version filled with timely insights and universal appeal.
“We’re thinking about those things happening in the world right now that [young people] need to think about or contemplate,” says Castro. “Maybe they’ll remember something [from Aesop] that might stay with them. Like these themes and wisdoms that we try to live our lives by, that we want [to acquire] to be citizens of the world.”
The actual poetic language of the script wasn’t fully developed until casting was complete. Alfaro knew his stories and primary characters, but the mechanics of dramatizing them began in the rehearsal room.
“When we started auditioning people it became clear to all of us that we’d make the bear — Aesop — a girl and that all the other characters would be played by men,” says Alfaro. “It became a kind of Greek chorus or Greek theater where the men serve as the ensemble and they all play all of the characters. They represent all the communities that she meets in her travels.”
Within each community, or group of characters, Alfaro has adopted a particular style of language from Mexican coro traditions to characters speaking group sentences together. Alfaro suspects these explorations alone will have a lasting impact on his future work as a writer.
“It’s opened up my life to telling something more complicated when you have to keep it really simple,” says Alfaro. “You have to keep subtext but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have all the other stuff. That’s what gives the play its power. I’m enjoying the challenge of becoming a lot more simple writer.”
Alfaro has found the research process, imperative to creating the play, has been influenced by a rugged, natural world coping alongside a modern community — where native herbs grow in the shadows of freeways and commercial real estate.
“We were guided through the history of Rancho Cucamonga in this process,” says Alfaro. “We are so fortunate and grateful to the community. We met with this Native American woman at Hot Dog on a Stick in the mall. Where else does something like that happen?”
Theater for Young Audiences
MainStreet has specialized in stage adaptations of children’s literature, with more than 20,000 students seeing its productions every year, as well as added public performances. Hepner estimates about 7,500 will see Aesop. And, while Castro will return to Europe in a few weeks to continue work on an opera, he finds the young audience aspect of Aesop an added bonus, bringing theater to future audiences and art makers.
“Young audiences have a special place in my heart,” says Castro. “I always see the potential of empowering them with the wonder and joy and the necessity of art in one’s life. And a transformative experience can happen with anything. So I shuttle between all kinds of projects. I don’t put any hierarchy on art-making, I think everyone should have access to it.”
This is Alfaro’s third play for young audiences — after Ladybird and Black Butterfly, Jaguar Girl, Piñata Woman and Other Superhero Girls, Like Me (Getty Center in 1999, East LA Rep in 1999 and 2007, Mark Taper Forum’s Taper Too at Actors’ Gang in 2000). He believes he’s learned some lessons about writing for modern youth who are Google-savvy and bombarded with story-telling from traditional media forms such as film and TV, as well as video games and shorter online forms.
“I completely approach it like an adult play and high art,” says Alfaro. “It’s not unlike a regular commission because the audience is not unlike the one you regularly perform for. I’m writing a play for adults that kids will really enjoy.”
Hepner hopes Aesop will become the first of more collaborations and commissions for MainStreet — a model both in its invigorating creative process and in the finished product for audiences.
“As anyone who runs a theater, we all want to do the first production of something wonderful,” says Hepner. “I would love to do more new plays, but it’s all about funding.”
Hepner is already looking for ways to re-create the Aesop collaboration experience. And if Alfaro is any indication of how the process works for playwrights, the pressure-cooker of creation within the fertile atmosphere of Rancho could be the true selling point.
“I like the thrill of it,” says Alfaro. “I wouldn’t have had the kind of career I’m having right now if I hadn’t taken a lot of risks…Writing at 4 am and having to turn in a scene at 9 am is kinda thrilling.”
Aesop in Rancho Cucamonga, Lewis Family Playhouse at Victoria Gardens Cultural Center, 12505 Cultural Center Drive, Rancho Cucamonga 91739. Opens Sunday. Sat 1 pm and 4 pm, Sun 1 pm. Through November 10. Tickets: $16/$18. www.lewisfamilyplayhouse.com. 909-477-2752.
**All Aesop in Rancho Cucamonga production photos by Ed Krieger.