Playwright Karen Zacarías Returns to her Artistic Home

South Coast Repertory produces “Destiny of Desire,” an expectation-defying musical-comedy-drama
Karen Zacarias with director José Luis Valenzuela. Photo is Courtesy of South Coast Repertory.
Karen Zacarias with director José Luis Valenzuela. Photo is Courtesy of South Coast Repertory.

Zacarías is a prolific and award-winning playwright, whose shows are among the most produced in the country. Based in Washington, D.C., she’s written musicals, dramas, and plays for children; the Scholastic book version of her “Chasing George Washington” has a forward by First Lady Michelle Obama. Her works have been produced by leading theaters nationwide, among them South Coast Repertory, Arena Stage, Goodman Theater, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. We caught up with her by phone while she was at SCR, which is mounting her 2015 “Destiny of Desire,” a critique and celebration of the telenovela, the limited-run TV serials. This is an edited version of our conversation.

Welcome to Southern California! Have you worked with SCR before?Yes, I was part of the Hispanic Playwrights Project many years ago … that gave me my big professional start. I had a play here, “The Sins of Sor Juana” starring Elizabeth Peña, and then I had a commission for a play called “Mariela in the Desert” that went on to have a very strong, vibrant life. And then, in 2012, South Coast did one of my children’s plays called “Jane of the Jungle.” So, yes, South Coast feels like one of my homes, one of my artistic homes.

Your work spans genres. Talk about what it’s like to switch formats and how you apply your style to such a broad range of theater works.
First of all, I like not being put in a box. I think all of my plays are about breaking some kind of expectation or stereotype. It keeps my craft sharp—to go from making a comedy about book clubs to a serious Latino play about family, to doing a play about Einstein as a child with psychedelic music. So it’s a way of tapping into all different parts of my personality. I really enjoy tapping into different parts of who I am and reaching different audiences that way. I have three children, so I’m always very interested in making sure that all plays are engaging for adults and kids. The benefit is that grown-ups won’t ever tell you that they’re bored, but kids will, so I try to make sure that the plays, whether they’re for adults or kids or families, are as vibrant and engaging as possible. I think theater should feel like a very live experience.

What do you hope audiences here will take away from “Destiny of Desire”?
I think they’re going to have a terrific time. We did the play at Arena Stage, and the reaction from the audience was so visceral and joyful and exciting. It’s a play that takes stereotypes and puts them on their head. I think it’s really fun and sexy and engaging, and also thought-provoking at the same time. I think it’s really exciting that a major regional theater in California is putting a completely Latino play with 11 (Latino) actors on its main stage. And then this is going to Goodman Theatre in Chicago. It’s a very genre-bending play. It defies expectations, and people who saw it in D.C. came back two or three times to see it.

It must be challenging to address stereotypes in the play without perpetuating them. How do you strike that balance?
Well, it’s taking ownership of the telenovela (as a form). It’s unapologetic about it (the telenovela). It’s taking ownership of probably the most popular form of entertainment in the world today, and raising the stakes on it. I hope that after this, a critic (will) call a serious drama a telenovela, because hopefully this (“Destiny of Desire”) will be the touchstone. You’ll see (the word telenovela) all the time, if you go through the reviews of Latinos’ work. It’s funny, the critics never use the word telenovela (if) the work is all in English—they never use the word telenovela to describe (a non-Latino) play. It’s a very common way of putting down our (Latinos’) work. And I was tired of it. So for me it was kind of basta (enough).

Did you draw from any specific telenovelas?
I did a lot of research. I saw “Lo que la vida me robó,” “Teresa,” “Velvet,” which is a Spanish telenovela. I remembered telenovelas from my youth. Basically, everything that happens in one year in a telenovela, happens in less than two hours.

That’s great!
The amount of twists and turns that happen…but it is not a spoof. It really is more like a Greek drama, and we’re having a lot of fun with that. It’s not a silly spoof. It is a joyful and  powerful celebration, but it’s more in the vein of a Greek tragedy/comedy.

It seems like music plays an important role in many of your plays. Please talk about how you used music in this show.
“Destiny of Desire” is not a classical musical. It’s a play with music, so the music is very atmospheric, or it takes the place of a certain kind of monologue, or it’s to convey the passion of two lovers, versus some of my other plays where it’s all about moving the plot forward and all that.

Who created the music?
Rosino Serrano (an Academy Award-nominated composer). We have a grand piano onstage, where he plays the whole (time). People usually expect a Latino play to have a guitar, and not a grand piano, right? We’re trying to divert expectations and deliver more than people expect. We want Latinos to come to the show, and feel like, “Oh my God, that’s me, I’m being represented with dignity and honor and sophistication, and I feel like I’m part of this bigger family, and this is a big celebration.” And the play is so warm and all-encompassing. People of different ages, and different backgrounds, we all care about love, and we all care about our destiny, so the play really feels like community building inside the theater, the way the audience is a vital character in the play.

That makes sense.
We don’t need any more alienation, we need to come together!

My last question has two parts. You’re one of the most prolific Latina playwrights in the country. Part one: Would you be willing to share an obstacle you’ve encountered along the way?
Well, I found out this week that I’m not only one of the most produced Latina ones, but one of the most produced playwrights in the country. This year I was one of the top ten. American Theatre magazine came out with that. The challenge is, as a living playwright first of all, you have dead playwrights that are more famous than you. I compete against Molière, Edward Albee, and all of that. Second of all, is getting the idea (out) that a Latino story is an American story, and as much a part of American theater. That has been a big part of my work, and the idea that not every play that has Latinos has to be an issue play about immigration. We’re part of the normal fabric, and we have the same needs. It’s in the play that Latinos buy one in every four (Toyota) Corollas. We’re not this alien culture. We’re just part of the fabric of the United States. So getting regional theaters to take a chance on putting on both a new play and a play written by a Latina writer— because also women, only 24 percent of plays done in this country are done by women, so that’s another obstacle, right? Trying to (get those theaters to) think that a female-led play with a female writer at the helm will both critically do well and commercially do well on the main stage. So, that’s been the challenge. But over and over again, word of mouth, and things happen—people are hungry for these kinds of stories.

Okay, second part. What advice would you give to other women or minority women, in particular, trying to make their voices heard in the field?
Don’t try to sound like anybody else. (Find out) what’s unique about you, what will make your play different and vibrant, and (help) you discover what your voice is. And that means, you should see a lot of work, and learn from it, but be aware that you have a point of view and a perspective that you want to protect. Make sure you don’t tame your play so that it sounds like every other play because if you’re playing with structure and other things like that—trust your instincts, is something I would say. You don’t need to sound and look like everybody. That’s not what will make your play interesting.

Don’t give up, don’t be tough, but be resilient. And there’s a difference. Toughness is people who don’t let themselves feel, don’t let themselves learn from each experience. Resilience is: You learn, you grow, you fall apart. I tell my students that all the time. If you’re going to go into the arts, you have to be resilient. You don’t just harden yourself. You let each experience go through you, grow from it.

Directed by José Luis Valenzuela, “Destiny of Desire” opens Oct. 14 at South Coast Repertory’s Segerstrom Stage and continues through Nov. 13. For more information call 714-708-5555 or go to scr.org.

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