April 23, 2021
Texas Performing Arts + Fusebox Resident artist Rudy Ramirez is an Austin-based director, writer, performer and teaching artist specializing in the development of new work. They are an Associate Artistic Director at The VORTEX Theatre and the founding artistic director of Avante Theatre Project, a company dedicated to producing new and avant-garde Latinx performance. Ramirez has worked with numerous theatre companies in Austin and around the country, has won 6 B. Iden Payne Awards and an Austin Critics Table Award as a director, and was named Best Director in the Austin Chronicle Readers’ Poll in 2017.
For their residency, Ramirez, along with writers Victor Cazares (American (tele)Visions), Krysta Gonzales (Más Cara) and Jesús I. Valles ((Un)Documents) are developing The Ruining Lorca Trilogy, which reimagines playwright Federico García Lorca’s iconic plays La Casa de Bernarda Alba (The House of Bernarda Alba), Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding), and Yerma (Yerma) as three pop-culture-infused comedies that revel in our contemporary tragedies, contradictions, and survival. Lorca was a queer Spaniard who survived a pandemic but lost his life to fascism. Ramirez, Cazares, Gonzales, and Valles are four queer Mexicans living through their own pandemic and a confrontation with rising facism nearly a century later, and on a quest to refract their own experiences and cultural touchpoints through his life and work.
Recently Fusebox Co-Artistic Directors Ron Berry and Anna Gallagher-Ross spoke to Ramirez about their inspirations for the project, and their playful process adapting Lorca’s work virtually, and across geography.
Ron Berry: What a fun name for a project! Can you tell us a little bit about the origin story?
Rudy Ramirez: So this started on a bus (specifically the 10 bus) heading North. I was taking the bus for work and then Jesús got on and so we, of course, started talking—I can’t remember how it came up—and we started making jokes about doing Mexican adaptations of [Federico García] Lorca plays. And we thought about renaming them Quinces de Sangre, as in Quinceaneras de Sangre, and La Tamalada de Bernarda Alba, and Jesús came up with a great last line: “My daughter died a size 8, she’ll be buried a size 8!”
It was amazing, and that idea, it really stuck with me a lot, especially as I watched The Rude Mechs doing their “Fixing Shakespeare” series. They’re taking the lesser-known Shakespeare plays that are not usually done in this day and age and saying, “How can we update them and make them relevant?” Their Fixing Troilus & Cressida, is my favorite thing that I’ve seen of theirs. I love it so much.
RB: It’s fun!
RR: And so I thought, these plays of Lorca’s, as you know, they’re not the lesser knowns. They are the three most well-known of Lorca’s plays, and in some ways are not representative of what he did as an experimental artist: they are the most mainstream-y of his works, I think. I have encountered Blood Wedding, I’d encountered The House of Bernarda Alba, I’d never read Yerma before, although I’d seen an adaptation of it. And as I thought to myself, “I would love to just take that idea [of adaptation] and run with it!”, so when Fusebox approached me about this residency I was like, “Oh now is the time!” I always saw these as being like really sort of Fusebox-ready shows that would be just very wild, very fun, and very… very “free and wild” takes on these classic dramas.
AGR: And so, what’s the process of “ruining”? Like, how do you go about “ruining” a play?
RR: I think you start the “ruining” by saying that nothing is sacred. Nothing about these plays is going to be held up as inviolable in the text. And I will say, I think that one of the reasons why I was thinking about this was that Victor Cazares asked, “Is anyone reading them in Spanish?” and I realized I’m not, but I really should. And so I started reading Blood Wedding and I was really struck by how much more colloquial it is in Spanish than in translation. I think that there is this idea often when Lorca is done in non-Spanish speaking countries that it’s almost like Chekhov, like “Oh we’ve imported this high art,” and it’s presented with a Merchant-Ivory kind of take on it, you know? But I reading these plays in Spanish felt familiar. They sound like people in my family, not like people from another time or another place.
And so I got these three playwrights together: Jesús I. Valles and Krysta Gonzales who I’ve worked with before, and Victor Cazares, who I’d been wanting to work with. I think that they’re all three really amazing writers who have that approach of really saying, let’s laugh at what is sacred, let’s take it apart, while still using the sacred to reach for these deep profound truths that may have shifted over the years but are still part of our consciousness.
We all read the three plays together, and spent a whole weekend just going through them and talking about them. And Jesús, Krysta, and Victor are all either entirely from El Paso/Juarez, or have spent large portions of their lives there, so this kind of became an El Paso trilogy. And we all said ”Alright, what are the ways that we see these plays still having echoes today?”Jesús and Victor talked about seeing a production of Bernarda Alba when they were in high school, because they’ve know each other that long, and how struck they were by it and how the audience responded. We shared a lot of personal stories. I mean for Bernarda Alba, even though we started [reimagining it as] a tamalada, we also really started talking about Mexican pizza places, you know? Like we were looking up menus and there’s a pizza that’s called Llorona and it’s all the spicy things on it. I also made the egregious error of talking about a breakup and they were just like, “We’re jumping on that!” That’s in here now!” Victor brilliantly put it this way, “We are four queer, Mexican American artists trying to survive a pandemic and trying to survive the rise of fascism in our country. Lorca is a queer, Spanish artist who did survive a pandemic but did not survive the rise of fascism in his country.” So we are thinking about what we have to say to each other across the decades.
AGR: Wow, that’s amazing.
RR: Yeah, I think so. I like it.
AGR: And so Rudy, what is your role in this process?
RR: I am basically the director and head dramaturg who’s working with these three writers to say: “How are these three variations? How are they an inclusive unit? How can I direct the process?” In our last set of conversations I asked “What is the next thing that you need us to be spending time on in our next rehearsal? And there were different answers. Some said, “Well I’d really love to go through like plot-by-plot bead with this play.” And another said, “I really want to talk about relationships, and bring in a guest to discuss Black Texan identity.” It has been about saying, “How do I make sure that the people are in the same room, that they’re talking to each other and that we have our North star of ruining these plays.” We want to bring out the comedy and absurdity in them. But at the same time, we are thinking about what’s powerful about them that can survive that ruination? You know? Like with Jesús and Llermo. We originally thought it would be funny if it was called “Yrma” because “I have my Aunt Yrma, my Tia Yrma.” But it became “Llermo” because he and I started talking about being fat in the gay community, particularly fat and Mexican, and how there’s all these pressures of thinness, and we were asking, what if the play was about not the desire of this woman to have a baby, but what if it’s about this desire for thinness and beauty, and what that means in terms of whiteness and masculinity? What does it mean about hunger and desire? And that is, of course, the one that has got my breakup story in it. I’m hoping to be the person who helps bring out these stories and also unify them together into something that we could produce as a trilogy in rep somewhere. People could come and see them and be like, “Oh wow this is such a great variety of perspectives that nevertheless have given me a full experience.”
RB: I love the way that you’re thinking about ruining as a way of having a relationship with the writer; with the material. It’s like, when you’re getting to know someone and then you kind of realize that you can actually start joking with them, like “Oh yeah! Actually we can like totally goof around in this way, we can rib each other!” and it’s so freeing and fun.
AGR: Could you tell us a little bit more about your collaborators?
RR: Absolutely. So chronologically, Krysta I go back to Sleeping Beauty at The Vortex. I was the assistant director on that show and she was in the cast. And you know, we really hit it off. Then I started working with her on Sing Muse!, which was a devised project I did at The Vortex, and she was Terpsichore, the Muse of Dance, and we really bonded a lot over that show. Then I met Jesús when they were doing a poem for this production called Fat: The Play. They got up there, covered in red glitter, and did this amazing performance poetry piece. I just loved it so much. And then I saw them in Aye, No! with Theatro Vivo, and it was a small role, it was like one scene, they were playing a curandero who was not really a curandero. It was just this random guy that these people were like, “Alright pretend to be a curandero for this scene.” So they started praying to Santa Beyoncé and Santa Claus and it was incredible and so afterwards I said, “Listen my name is Rudy Ramirez. I’d love to work with you, I think you’re really amazing and I’ve got this project about Emma Goldman I think would be amazing to work on with.”
So Jesús and I worked on that, and then I cast both Krysta and Jesús in El Nogalar, the Tanya Saracho play, and we worked on that together. Then through Jesús and also through the Teatro Vivo Latinx New Play Festival, I met Victor. Victor wrote this incredible play American (tele)Visions that was going to be produced by New York Theatre Workshop, and then the pandemic hit so hopefully it’s still on the docket, and it was about this family, and they were, I can’t remember if it was Target or Walmart, stuck in this store and bringing in all these incredible references from all these different plays. At one point there was this hilarious parody of Angels in America happening. That is very much Victor’s style, to throw in all these different things into his writing. I’ve been at readings of Victor’s work and I just can’t stop laughing. There’s this raucous energy that are in those plays. And then again, Jesús and Victor have known each other since they were like in high school together. and they have become really amazing theatre artists. It’s really great because there’s definitely a feeling of camaraderie whenever we’re working together and support for one another.
RB: I feel like that is also reflected in the work. When there’s a real sense of camaraderie amongst the team and the artist, that that lives on in the work. You can see it and feel it. I feel it just in the way that you’re talking about it.
AGR: Absolutely. It’s a challenge doing a residency during a pandemic. How has it been for you as artists collaborating inside this moment?
RR: In some ways it’s made us think more easily about collaboration and allowed us to work across geography. Krista is in LA, Victor in Portland, and I’m here in Austin. I think Jesús is already on their way to Rhode Island, soon I’m going to be in Massachusetts. But through all this we’re still able to collaborate together online and work with other artists and partners who are in different places as well. We want this to be a live performance with a live audience, but in the meantime we are documenting our process online through these live virtual public workshops. This documentation, in some ways, will be like a fourth piece.
AGR: I love that you’re thinking about it as the fourth piece in…what do you say, quad…?
RR: Tetralogy, I think?
RR: Yeah, we want to document these online sessions, but also when we finally get in the room in person, we want to be documenting that as well, and creating a fourth piece that’s going to be part the marketing of this project, but also part of its dramaturgy. Kind of the “Ghost Piece”… like the haunting piece around all of them.
AGR: Do you think it could potentially even play a role in the live performance at some point?
RR: I‘m very curious as to how we think about developing connective tissue. Right now I want to… I don’t want to put the writers at any kind of boxes but I’m interested to see, as folks start writing and developing and particularly feeding off of one another’s ideas, what are points where these connections might become explicit?
AGR: You are writing, or staging yourselves coming to terms with these texts. It’s really interesting.
RR: Yeah! That’s been really cool! I don’t think I reckoned with the plays as much before this. And certainly, I had never read Yerma but then fell in love with it when I read it. I was so amazed by this play in which, you know, at the end there’s this woman and she’s been wanting to have a baby, wanting to have a baby, wanting to have a baby, and her husband says, “Yerma, I never wanted a baby. I just wanted you. I loved you,” and in any other play that’s the beautiful poignant ending, In this play she kills him! She’s like “how dare you?” For her this baby is, in this weird way, about her independence and about her having something that’s entirely her own. In reading it I thought, “I’ve never encountered a play like this before.” That makes these moves… in such unexpected ways. It made me think: what does it mean to write in this world where love is subservient to something else that’s always been attached to love? It’s been intriguing to prep for Blood Wedding. I’ve been watching a lot of sort of classic revenge movies and recommending them to Krysta. I used my HBO Max subscription and I watched Lady Snowblood and then I watched The Bride Wore Black on this like Russian YouTube channel, because Blood Wedding is about these old family vendettas and these two men who kill each other, and it is about their jealousy…or is it? And with Quinces de Sangre, Krysta is translating it into a female-centric world. She’s asking, “How do we portray women seeking revenge? How do we portray female violence? What excites us about it, what interests us about it?” Like also with Llermo…Jesús and I pretty much agreed that Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds as a mother daughter relationship have to be in Llermo somehow. Like we don’t know how yet but we know it’s there.
AGR: I love all the different cultural references you’re weaving into this, that inspire the writing.
RR: Exactly, exactly. I’m like the sous chef. They are the chefs. I’m here just to cut up all of the vegetables! And then I get to watch them make whatever they want with them.
Rudy Ramirez is one of four artists/collectives participating in the inaugural Performing Arts Residency launched by Fusebox Festival and Texas Performing Arts. The first of its kind in Austin, the residency program is geared towards adventurous Austin-based artists who are pushing the boundaries of performance and on the cusp of new projects, as well as furthering the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the local performing arts community. This interview is the fourth in a series of conversations we call “In Process,” with resident artists about their creation process.