by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
Karen Zacarías' Destiny of Desire takes the stage this September as Arena Stage's first production in the Women's Voices Theater Festival. One of Arena's inaugural Resident Playwrights at Arena Stage, Karen is also a core founder of the Latino Theatre Commons and the founder of D.C.'s Young Playwrights’ Theater. In addition to the world premiere of Destiny of Desire, the 2016 season will see world premieres of her plays Native Gardens at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park; Oliverio: A Brazilian Twist at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; Ella Enchanted: The Musical at First Stage and Into the Beautiful North at Milagro Theater. Over lunch during rehearsals, we discussed her inspiration behind the play, her love of telenovelas, and what Destiny means to her.
What was your inspiration behind writing Destiny of Desire?
So often, when a Latino dramatist writes a serious play, the jargon critics use to describe certain dramatic moments is “telenovela.” That always seems a way of dismissing high-caliber work. Destiny of Desire is an act of rebellion, it is an act of heritage, an act of joy in trying to write the best telenovela I could. Most telenovela’s last six months to a year. Could I pack a year's worth of story into two hours? Plus add live music and original songs? I wanted to take something that's been created for television and transport it into a wildly theatrical experience on stage. And also give work to all these talented Latino theater artists that don't get to be on stage as often as they should. Destiny of Desire is an aesthetic, artistic, and political endeavor. It was also a challenge to myself and to others on every level—and it's been one of the most joyful experiences writing this play.
Under José Luis Valenzuela’s direction, the theatrical aesthetic that we're bringing to this is going to feel like we took a populist art and brought it to high art. It's not a parody, it's not a satire. It's an homage to the telenovela. It's playful and fun. It'll be very engaging. Which is the power of a telenovela. It grabs you and doesn't let you go. It's the lover that won't let you walk out of the door. Telenovelas can be that bad-boy boyfriend. And part of it is because it's a fantasy. Will anybody love that hard and that passionately? It's why Twilight was huge. Kids got tired of being disaffected and getting their emotions through the internet. There's something about watching a very twisted, crazy love triangle where people love each other with such high stakes that grabs the imagination. You want your life to have that much meaning. Nobody wants to live a soap opera but the intensity of that feeling can be cathartic to watch.
How did the play start for you? Was it a character, or a particular scene, or the setting?
I had the idea four years ago and I must have started seven different versions of the play but none of them grabbed traction. The stakes weren't high enough. It wasn't juicy enough. And then I woke up in the middle of the night and realized—this is Brechtian! It needed to be both Aristotelian theater and Brechtian theater. The moment I had the idea that it was a theater troupe putting on a telenovela as if it was Greek drama, suddenly the whole thing opened up for me. When I found the dramaturgical language of the play, that allowed the plot to come soaring in. There are a lot of twists and turns in the play that I didn't see coming as I was writing. The play started revealing itself to me. That was really fun. After four years of stopping and starting I wrote the first draft in two weeks and we had a workshop and suddenly things moved really quickly.
What attracts you to telenovelas and what would you want our audiences to know about them before seeing Destiny of Desire?
What I find interesting about telenovelas is the ambivalence you feel at first. But you watch one scene and before you know it, you're hooked. As you stay longer you find yourself pulled in. Destiny plays with that energy. It starts out as funny, heightened situations, but by the end you care deeply about the fate of these characters.
Telenovelas are very sneaky. Because they're not cynical. They approach life with these strong heartfelt emotions. People equate them to soap operas but that's not really correct. They’re more like mini-series. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. You know there will be resolution. It might not be the resolution you want but these are not families you're going to be living with for 30 years. In six months the telenovela will be over, in one year the telenovela will be over. And while it's on—if it's a good one—you know not to call people because everyone's watching it. It's a huge touchstone. And it's a way of connecting those of us who have moved to home countries and of having a dialogue. Like sports are a form of dialogue in a community, telenovelas connect people in the same way. And the last episodes (known as chapters), the whole country is engrossed.
We have certain iconic telenovelas in the United States. Dallas is one. Falcon Crest is one. There’s always a strong female protagonist in telenovelas—Revenge, Scandal, Broadway Empire. All of these shows have these archetypal story lines dealing with the big emotions like revenge, love, regret, redemption, family. Family and love stories—those are at the heart of all telenovelas. And that's why I think any culture can relate to them. Everybody at some point in their life has had a heightened moment that feels like it's out of a soap opera. Or knows of somebody who's been in that kind of moment. There are a lot of human strengths and weaknesses that are celebrated in the art form.
Why was it important to you to have an all Latino cast?
We have so many great theater actors that aren't given the opportunity to play different characters. Our cast is so talented. We have Broadway singers, we have two opera singers, we have two engineers, Cástulo Guerra, who plays Armando Castillo, went to medical school. The idea that continues to shock me is that people are surprised when Latin Americans have a deep education and culture and appreciation of the arts. It's not the image that’s put forward. GALA Hispanic Theater and Teatro Luna are the only companies consistently putting Latinos on stage and doing universal stories that involve Latinos.
It was important because it’s something that happens so rarely in the theater. American audiences will see something with a very different aesthetic and plot than most of the other plays that are being offered. It will feel different and sound different. And it's so nice to get something exciting and new. It's playing with every expectation – from the casting, to the storytelling, to the music. I hope people will come and be deeply entertained but also understand that there are so many messages about gender, class, and race that are being said about many things at the same time.
How does the play-within-the-play structure you've created affect the action of the play?
The play-within-the-play is examining what the telenovela does to the people who watch it. And what changing the storylines opens up for other actors. If a Latino actor is always relegated to playing the maid or the chauffeur or the gardener, why don't we go deeper into that story? Who are the secondary characters and who are the primary? It's also thematic of the whole play—trying to change your Destiny. Actors start changing the script and that affects the plot which affects the whole community.
The structure is playing with the idea that every decision that happens on stage in the story affects everybody off stage. And vice versa. There's a ripple effect. It's also a celebration of theater. You get something by watching a live play. I love theater. You can get story everywhere. But you cannot get that feeling of being a part of a community the same way as you can in the theater. So this may be an homage to telenovelas, but it's also a love letter to the theater.
Did you always hear live music in the writing?
Always.In telenovelas music is really important. There's always a song that's a love song. Music is really the 12th character in the play. It helps ratchet up the tension, it helps bring the subtext to the foreground. Having a live grand piano adds a classical quality, this contemporary story has roots in classical storytelling. We're using all the talents of the actors—their voices, their dance backgrounds, the instruments they play. Nobody else will build this play the same way. It will look and feel very different someplace else. It really depends on what everyone brings to the table. We're building it together.
What is your favorite telenovela?
When I was a little girl in Mexico there was a telenovela called Viviana which involved this girl running on the beach and every time my sister and I would go to the beach we would run down it and sing the title song. We just loved it. Then when I was a little older there was a telenovela with Eric Estrada in Spanish called Dos mujeres, un camino (Two Women, One Road) because he was a truck driver and he had women on both coasts. Of course Dallas and Dynasty. Scandal's a great telenovela. Jane the Virgin's playful about the telenovela genre. Teresa several years ago starred Salma Hayek and that was an interesting one because she was bad. She was a conniving woman and it was a little like Breaking Bad in that you saw a good person become worse and worse. She was the protagonist and she was so beautiful and sexy and she delivered a great performance. The last two years there were two telenovelas that captured my family's attention. One was Triumph of Love with William Levy. And then What Life Took Away From Me—What Life Stole From Me—was this telenovela that started last year that was supposed to last six months but it was so wildly loved because the casting was so good, the energy between the actors was so hot, that they added six more months.
What does Destiny mean to you?
Destiny is different than Fate. Destiny is what your life can be if you realize your potential, if you believe in your potential and you go for it. Destiny is not something that happens to you. It's something you have to strive for. Unlike Fate which is something that's sealed and locked, Destiny is fluid and can evolve. Who you were and who you can become is within your grasp but it also requires some kind of faith in the community.
Seeing this cast and who came together feels like Destiny. I met José Luis when we started the Latino Theater Commons, but I didn't really know him and so that he and I would work together and he would bring his family into the cast. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It does feel like Destiny. Fate puts you down. But Destiny has aspirations. Destiny has hope.
What three words would you use to describe the play?
Surprising. Evocative. Sensual.
What would be your telenovela character name?
I would take my grandmother's name, Herlinda Maria. And my grandmother had a telenovela life so I think she'd be very pleased. It can never be too much. Too much is not enough!
Photo: Karen Zacarías by Beverly Lord, Satsun Photography. Molly Smith, director José Luis Valenzuela, and playwright Karen Zacarias with the Destiny of Desire cast, courtesy of Arena Stage.