In the months leading up to our 2013 Main Stage season, I will once again be profiling the fertile minds behind the season’s productions—American Night, Romeo and Juliet, Lady Windermere’s Fan, and A Winter’s Tale—in our e-newsletters. For the inaugural installment of the year, I spoke with Richard Montoya, founding member of the legendary performance trio known as Culture Clash, which began in San Francisco’s Mission District in 1984. He collaborated with them and with Jo Bonney to write American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, developed as part of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “American Revolutions” program (the same program that developed Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone’s Ghost Light). When it ran at OSF, it resulted in their first-ever extension performances; when it opens our 2013 season in May, it will only be its fifth-ever production.
What follows is the full transcript of my email interview with Richard. To sign up for our email newsletter, click here.
Stefanie Kalem: When and how were you attracted to writing for performance, with Culture Clash and as a solo writer? Did you have a formative experience with theater as a kid, or did it happen more organically?
Richard Montoya: It happened organically as a child—my folks were involved with the United Farm Workers Union and close to César Chávez, and there was a Farm Workers’ theater at that time that was used as a great tool for organizing workers, pulling them directly from the fields to join a fledgling union. This was done with song and earthy humor and satire and absurd comedia styles; all of that is very much in my tool box to this day—theater for a purpose beyond entertaining. I like entertaining, don’t get me wrong, but the theater of those times was urgent: The sheriff and the Teamsters could be rolling down the street so there was that need to be nimble, mobile, swift—make your point, get a laugh, sing a song, and move on. This is American Night.
SK: What made you first decide to sit down and write a play on your own, without your regular collaborators?
RM: I started writing solo out of need. I was tired of missing deadlines or getting three schedules together. Writing for one is hard enough; three crazy guys through the years, near impossible. Like in a boy band, there are dynamics—we started out as a committed collective like the Cheese Board in Berkeley but found eventually that one guy was better at sauce, another guy could make the dough. And so I enjoyed the hours and solitude and relative peace of writing solo. But it really took flight in the year following 9/11. We were mid-commission at Arena Stage with Molly Smith (for Anthems: Culture Clash in the District) and the tragedy happens; six days after September 11, 2001, I am on a plane to DC to finish the commission which completely changed at that moment. I sat at LAX with a grief counselor on his way to walk a family through the Pentagon. We talked for 11 hours nonstop at the airport bar. I wrote feverishly—I was never a super patriotic person, but when the counselor took his American flag lapel pin off his jacket and put it on mine and told me I was a war correspondent with a greater responsibility, my life changed: I didn’t suddenly go around saluting flags but I knew what is what like to be a writer in America. And I wasn’t in the boy band anymore. Anthems: Culture Clash in the District was my first solo outing.
SK: How will the American Night that Cal Shakes produces differ from the original production at OSF? Or more recent productions at Yale Rep and elsewhere?
RM: It is always very fun and essential to write specifics for a region, I believe. The Bay Area version for Cal Shakes is already a riot for me—I know, or I like to think I know the East Bay fairly well. The difference between LA and the Bay is vast, and so is New Haven; Orinda sounds very Spanish to me and romantic and I love all that confusion and clashing of Alta-California and how un-Spanish Walnut Creek and Dublin sound!
I also relish the things that bind us; our country is getting smaller. I remember a “thank you” note from a lovely couple following a show at Yale Rep, and it said come visit us anytime in Newtown CT. It tears me up to look at it now but it draws me in at the same time and allows me to feel that tragedy is ever more present, not just a far-off news item and pundits yelling on CNN. I think a lot of Americans felt that way. And so this huge country can be a small town, too.
These are the things I think that are difficult for a recently arrived immigrant to feel and know, but I want our American Night hero Juan José to know that, while America can be a violent place, here—as is Mexico—there are more reasons to stay and become a citizen and contribute and make a place better as our grandparents and those before them did.
My hardest job sometimes is explaining to my Salvadoran house keeper (yes, I have one, too!) that after the Korean Conflict my dad and his comrades took their GI Bills and went to art school at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and that action changed our family’s life. I am still riding the wind from that decision. And that a country does that for those who serve—not a bad idea, my housekeeper thinks!
SK: What’d the latest on your film directorial debut, SF Noir? And how did it come to pass that you’d direct a film adaptation of Water & Power?
RM: I participated in four films in 2012: My own picture Water & Power, based on my play of the same name; Chavez with Mexican director Diego Luna about the life of my childhood hero; The Other Barrio, based on a short story from Alejandro Murgilla, the Poet Laureate of SF; and something else I film this week in LA. W&P is my baby and I am super proud of it—it took years of Sundance Lab time, which I am grateful for, and it will be ready in early spring 2013.
SK: What inspires you right now? Any particular music, current events, people, et cetera?
RM: Work inspires me. I have four play script deadlines this week and I am on vacation! Campo Santo inspires me and it’s why I am writing a very intimate new work for them inspired by the life and loss of their guiding spirit, Luis Saguar. I was riding in the back of a shuttle van a few months back, traipsing thru the Santa Cruz mountains near Watsonville with Lynn Nottage and Amy Freed, and I thought, man these chicks inspire me! We’re all conspiring on a play about food for your old friends at Berkeley Rep and the Ground Floor Project; that whole thing just had me buzzing for months, and I am thinking jeez, I am writing a play with Lynn and she is curious about me and it’s just a bunch of nerds bouncing around the organic farms and migrant camps of NorCal doing our work. Also on the bus was a newcomer named Octavio Solis, but I spent my time with the ladies! They inspire to no end…
SK: If you could have written any play in history, what do you wish it could have been?
RM: American Night put me in touch with a deep regard for history—American history, sure, but actually all things old. What did West Texas in 1918 really look like, smell like, feel like? I have to drive there and feel it and sit with it and stand with it and ask permission to use it; I stand at graves and say little prayers or sing songs or leave bottles of cold Coca-Cola and this is my way of thanking and borrowing. What I often drive away with is my mind loaded with richness and an understanding that the early America was a multicultural camp with characters armed to the teeth… Oh, westward ho, indeed, carefully and swift as night.
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