by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
José Luis Valenzuela joins Arena Stage for the first time with Destiny of Desire. The Artistic Director of the Latino Theater Company (LTC) and the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC), JoséLuis is also the head of the MFA directing program at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film & Television. An award-winning theater director, visionary, and advocate for Chicano/Latino theater, he created the Latino Theatre Lab, the Latino Theater Initiative, and serves on the national steering committee of the Latina/o Theatre Commons where he produced the historic national Latina/o theater festival Encuentro. Just before going into tech rehearsals, we caught up with José Luis for a conversation about destiny, powerful women, and Latino theater. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
What attracted you to direct Destiny of Desire?
Karen Zacarías asked me to direct her play and I read the script and I thought, “I can do something with this, something interesting.” I like the style of the play-within-a-play. Karen’s characters are always very dignified and I like that in Latino plays. She’s very proud of her Mexican heritage and that’s reflected in her playwriting.
When you direct overseas you direct whatever projects come your way that attract you, but when you direct in the States, you direct primarily Latino plays. Why is that?
I am very aware of the audience when I direct plays. I am not directing for myself. I want to create an impact in the audience. I want the audience to get something out of it, in an emotional way or on an intellectual level. I'm a Latino director. The theaters in the States will only call me in if it is a Latino play. It didn't start out as my choice.
When I moved here from Mexico I was shocked at the perception of what people thought I should be because I was Mexican. They thought I was supposed to be stupid or be ashamed of who I was. But, that wasn’t me. This was in the early 70’s in the middle of the Chicano movement in California. I have always been an activist. It became my life to work for a good cause so I became involved with a theater troupe that was doing political theater and from then on it became about changing the stereotype.
You’ve said that Destiny of Desire is about women deciding their own destiny. How so?
It is about women deciding their own destiny, taking it into their own hands. The women all make major decisions in the play, about what their life is going to be, and they succeed. The women succeed much more than the men. The men become the object. The women are the initiators.
I want to talk about Karen's play-within-a-play structure. With the offstage world being the theatre troupe and the onstage world as the telenovela that they're performing, how does that communal environment affect the action of the play?
It’s great. We chose to use Brechtian elements from his “Epic Theater,” because Telenovelas are Aristotelian in the way they're constructed. Karen creates this theater troupe that is taking a telenovela on tour. But, then what is the role of the theater troupe within the play? The difference in the epic theater is that it is about how man can defy his destiny. So it’s very fitting for our play. The audience has to be aware that that’s going on. That's the intellectual part of the play, the rest of the emotional part of the play is the story. We have to figure out how the troupe begins to change the action of the play to satisfy their own lives. You have to break the action at an emotional peak so the audience has time to reflect on the title and its relationship to the scene. Telenovelas do it in a very interesting way. They are more titillating. They stop in the middle of the action and in an emotional moment so you think about what is going to happen next. It’s fascinating. It’s more complicated than one would think.
Do you believe in destiny and if yes, what does destiny mean to you?
I do believe in destiny, but I think destiny means you have the possibility to change it.
What three words would you use to describe the play?
Enchanting. Provocative. Fun.
What would your telenovela character name be?
It would be something like Miguel Alejandro. I would be a good guy. But rich. The rich rancher with a heart of gold.