Diane Rodriguez, an OBIE award winner, co-founder of El Teatro de la Esperanza and Latins Anonymous, and leading actress for the seminal Chicano Theatre Group and El Teatro Campesino. Currently she is a producer and director at Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles and an Artistic Associate of Cornerstone Theater Company. Diane is in Chicago directing a play that she wrote for Teatro Luna, Living Large in a Mini Kind of Way. I don’t know how she does it… We chatted, and she explained:
M: How was the play “Living Large in a Mini Kind of Way” born?
D: The idea came from my family. Two very distant cousins came to the United States to work. They both had the same name and we differentiated them by calling one big and the other one little. Over the course of a few years they started working in the states more and more. One morning my uncle was at a CVS or a Walgreens and he saw one of the distant cousins in line at the counter. She wore a cafeteria outfit and when she turned around he saw the name batch affixed to her uniform and it read the name of my deceased aunt, who was twenty years older than this woman. The distant cousin had been using the deceased aunt’s identity to get work. It was a big deal within the family and she eventually stopped using the name. But that little incident was the impetus for the play. In addition, the passing of my father, which was ten years ago, and I, watching my mother rebuilt her life after his death. Those two incidents as I put them together, created this play; which is a comedy with drama. The play is about two women who are trying to survive who are overwhelmed. One overwhelmed with her new life of being a widow, now becoming an independent woman and the other realizing that she’s living in a world where she is not being looked at as a whole. This being true for so many recent arrivals that arrive undocumented to the United States; which scenario plays out for these two women – together, who managed to create a new life for themselves. The story is told through the lens of two sisters: Big Maria and Little Maria, who are recent arrivals and Lily and her sister Nelly, who, in the play, have been here for many years and who are established Mexican-American. That is how the play arrived.
M: How do you manage Writing, Performing, Acting and Directing?
D: My anchor job is being a producer and I work at a very large regional theater in Los Angeles called Center Theater Group. What Center Theater Group has done for me is – it’s given me a home and has allowed me to use that as a base so that I am able to continue to be creative artistically outside of that theater. I wish more theaters would have artists as full-time employees. What this does is give you an advantage because you don’t have to worry about simultaneously making a living and growing artistically. My artistic projects are not in conflict because it all fits together as a whole; plus I don’t sleep very much. As for acting, it can be challenging and exhausting. However, when I am directing I am not so stressed, and I absolutely love it; and writing, I don’t stress out too much about that either. When I write and direct, I am most happy. However, I feel that to continue to have a career, I need to act. When you are on stage, you are better recognized. Its future insurance.
M: Does a sense of ownership play a part in deciding to direct rather than act in a play?
D: No. It’s being able to complete a peace that is all your own; like a painting! It’s about having the total vision of what you want and also about being a fully realized artist. That’s what makes me want to write and direct a play. I am working on a play that finalizes next year; “Pitch Like a Girl” and as of now, I don’t feel I want to direct this one. Not every play I write, do I want to direct.
M: “Every life is a story,” as the phrase goes. What story can you share with me that helped mold you in the successful multi-faceted Latina that you are?
D: In the mid-70’s there was a big teatro movement; I had just finished school and I remember attending a theater conference in San Jose, CA, where I was raised. I saw “El Teatro Campesino” perform the play, “La Gran Carpa de los Rasquachis” and it was the most brilliant thing I had ever seen. The play affected me more than any play I had ever seen in my whole entire life. It spoke volumes of what it is to be a Chicano in this country and the responsibility of being an activist. Joining “El Teatro Campesino” was the pivotal moment for me. Subsequently, after joining, we toured that show throughout Europe. “La Gran Carpa de los Rasquachis” was an artistically world-class play.
M: What was the story line in “La Gran Carpa de los Rasquachis?”
D: The character of Jesus Pelado “Rasquachis” comes to the United States to find work. He has all these children born in the United States and none of them relate to him. Basically, the story of most immigrants who come to the United States and try to make “good” and their children take on completely different paths notwithstanding their roots. As so, was the story of “Rasquachis” and it entailed how he dealt with those emotional challenges. The story was told in physical movement form to the sound of a Corrido. The play toured 120 cities in Europe and received heightened attention; it was evident that it was a play that ALL immigrants identified with. I have carried with me that defining momentous story ever since.
M: What’s your advice to our youth who are obviously talented and are derailing into negative paths, and how important are the arts for these kids, especially Latino kids?
D: Incredibly important! These kids need more access to it. Anyone can do it. If you have a place to gather and a few of your friends, all you need is a story. A child can tell and re-enact a story very easily. What this does is it gives children relevance and a sense of importance as well as value and integrity that will help him/her in life. When I hear of government cutting artistic programs from our schools, I think it’s just shameful that in this evolutionary time, dark-aged mentalities in regards to the arts still exist. It must change, and yesterday isn’t’ fast enough.
M: What inspires you as a Latina woman?
D: Other Latina women and not famous ones! My mother and her cousin both of whom I visit with often are great for my writing. I love to listen to Toña (cousin) who’s very expressive. I always recall their stories and the colorful way in which they were told. That’s what I write about, the people in my life.
M: When did you fall in love with the arts?
D: The arts have always been around me. My father was a singer, my mother was a pianist. I would, as a child, imitate my father directing the choir. My cousins joined the theater (Teatro Campesino) in the 60’s. We all had a hand in it as a family and thereby inevitable that I would as well.
M: You’ve won an OBIE award, tell me about that?
D: Yes only one other Latina has ever won one – and we were room aids! Her name is Vila Mendoza and we called our house the OBIE HOUSE. The play was a great experience and a lot of fun. The award was for playing 24 characters in a 5-hour long play. It was an amazing show with brilliant actors, and when you co-act with brilliant actors, they definitely raise the bar. What made the award more rewarding was that we all received one…
M: Is it difficult for a woman to have the position you have? Do you experience professional hurtles along the way? And finally; Is it a man’s world, really?
D: Yes to all those questions. I think I am very unique in my craft, I am holding the highest position in this country working for a regional theater in Los Angeles. The theater that I work at has a 60-million dollar budget and it is one of the three top theaters in the country and I am well compensated for what I do. But I struggle to find a way to stay at the table. Although mainstream theater is becoming more diverse, yes. The leadership is not yet there. People work with who they know and trust and while my value is understood, at times they don’t know what to do with me. Consequently, I take the lead in creativity, funding and the like. Therefore, I am in a position where I constantly have to be a “big-idea-person” and create my niche in a rising market. I’ve been in the business almost twenty-years and I do love the challenge. Finally, as part of my activism, I open doors and I am there representing and it’s beneficial for my career. At the end of it all, it’s been a great two-way street and although the struggle has been worth it, the responsibilities and expectations do weigh in on you daily. I say, “Be very good at what you do and be very thorough.”
M: Anything else you would like to add?
D: Yes. I am very excited and proud of Teatro Luna and what they are accomplishing and I look forward to witnessing their growth. The key and operative word here is “mentor.” Working with these women gives me a sense of community and in turn I can share my experiences with them and support them in their journey. As a Latina Theater Group they are well on their way.
M: Well noted. Thank you for your time.
D: It was a pleasure…