AN INTERVIEW WITH PLAYWRIGHT LUIS ALFARO ABOUT ST. JUDE, A PLAY FIRST LIVED ON FACEBOOK.
BY FANNY GARCIA
Luis Alfaro is a performance artist, writer, theater director, social justice activist, and professor at the School of Dramatic Arts at the University of Southern California. I first met him when he directed a workshop production of my play The Rosalila for East LA Rep. We’ve remained friends and eventually our friendship transitioned into Facebook, where we’ve been able to keep each other and all our other friends informed of our goings-on.
As I scroll through his Facebook timeline to write this story, I notice that Alfaro’s first Facebook posts were short, maybe a paragraph, or two. Usually it was about his job as a professor, or about Bruja, a Chicano adaptation of the Greek play Medea or about his time at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where he worked on a play by Tanya Saracho. Doing multiple things at once is typical of Luis Alfaro. If you know him, you know that he is never idle; the man is always working on something.
Which is why short updates were probably not communicating enough, so Alfaro started posting photographs of his friends, students, and theater colleagues often wearing funky sunglasses or hats and making funny faces. His Facebook wall soon turned into a gallery exhibit in which he featured some of the most talented emerging and established artists in the U.S, all of them, his friends. It was as if subconsciously, he was testing out this new form of communication. He was trying to make art out of social media, trying to find a meaningful purpose for it.
In 2012, his posts became longer and more intense. Alfaro’s father became seriously ill and in November of that same year, he passed away. Alfaro took to social media to express his sorrow by writing longer narratives about his father’s death and its aftermath. The audience that had followed his short, witty Facebook updates, and online photo exhibit now shared in his grief as well. The friend’s comments that once expressed laughter over a silly post became condolences. Some people also shared their own experiences with loss.
Nine months after his father passed away, Luis Alfaro was at the Ojai Playwrights Conference shaping what would eventually become St. Jude, a play that resulted out of his artistic need to express his life through art.
I met with Luis Alfaro at South Coast Repertory where the play was just finishing its second stage production since it first premiered at the 2013 Radar L.A. Festival. We discussed how his play went from social media to the stage and how real life is imitating his online presence. The Facebook Likes and Comments became a long line of audience members who wanted to share with him their experiences of grief after each performance of St. Jude.
Is it fair to say that your play was created on Facebook?
Yes, that is where it started; it’s basically a Facebook performance, if you think about it. I remember the first time that I posted was about the chair at the hospital and how it turns into a little bed and just how weird that was and immediately getting like sixty-five comments from people saying things like “I’ve been there” or “I know what you’re talking about” and all that helpful information. Some people even shared their stories of being at the same hospital where my father was staying. I think what happened was that I was trying to chronicle it so that I could make sense of it for myself, as a writer because that’s what we do, we put it down on paper. Then I realized how many people were going on the journey with me.
Was anyone’s comment particularly poignant for you?
Yes, this lovely man left a comment. He was a roadie, a Salvadoreño. Around the same time my Dad passed away, Arturo and his wife were a car accident. A drunk driver hit them, and his wife passed away. We’d been having this amazing conversation…all through Facebook…and the first time I met him in person was when he came to see St. Jude at the Kirk Douglas, and that was so intense because the first thing he gave me was his wife’s funeral card. This meeting occurred because of the writings I’ve been posting on Facebook. He said, “I didn’t realize until you wrote it how much of that I was going through and how I needed to process it.”
The Facebook friends, fans and even family that have read your updates have sort of been with you on this journey for the past two years or so, what do they say about the play?
My family has not seen it. It’s too soon for them. But that’s okay, they understand that this is for me. It’s how I am grieving.
As for the play, each staging of this play has been different. At South Coast Rep, I included the audience by having them read a section of the play during the show. There was a woman here last night from Orange County and she said it was so weird reading it [at the theater] because she remembered reading it on Facebook! And I thought, Wow! That’s like full circle. To have a play that started as a literary performance of sorts on social media to a stage performance. There is something very beautiful about that and something beautiful in the sharing and the emotional connection with the audience. We keep the lights up so I can really see everybody and get them to participate in the play.
Did you scroll through your past Facebook posts for material for the play?
[Laughs] No, you know, everyone thinks I’m on Facebook all the time and I’m actually only on for like half an hour because you know what I do? I write something in word and then I copy it and post it and I don’t stay on Facebook. Just throw it on there. I try to include an image and then I get off and then what happens is I get these little dings that say so and so saw it. And then the next day I’ll look to see who’s responded and I’ll read a bunch of responses. But in a strange way you’re kind of throwing something up against the wall and it feels live and you’re watching where it lands. I love that.
When we took it to Ojai, we looked at them all as connective tissue. I printed them all up and then Bob Eagan and I sat down at Ojai and went through them.
What was it like the first time you read the play as a script?
The first time I read it, we had strung it all together, I literally cried when we read the whole thing. I don’t think I’m a very sentimental or weepy person but I was just crying through the whole thing and reliving it. Bob was so kind. He just sat through it all and when it was over I just thought, Wow! I didn’t realize how much emotion was in there.
What do you like about the “art” of Facebook posting?
I love the immediacy of it. I love it when you can give it some craft, technique, and be brief because it’s also Facebook. I’ll write it on Microsoft Word and then very quickly I’ll delete, delete. I cut paragraphs out, before I post it. It has to be quick, fast, and not thought out. I’m writing my tenure application right now and I’m working with Amy Bender, great short story writer and she told me, “there’s something too thought out about what you’re doing, there’s something labored” about what your putting down on paper. What a great thing for a writer to say to you. Together we made a list of what I wanted to say. We were at the Farmer’s Market, she left me at the table, and I wrote up something quickly based on the list. And that’s really what I wanted to say. I was just trying to make it too important or make it sound more interesting. Make yourself sound smarter when you are already smart and interesting. Sometimes you have to get out of the way of your own writing. Sometimes you just need to get out of there and not spend so much time on it.
So today, I had to write something emotional about the matinee performance, I sat down at my prop table on stage and I wrote. I posted on Facebook immediately after it happened. I had a nice metaphor in there and I posted it quick with a picture. Didn’t think too much about it. Just posted it. As a writer I sometimes I feel like you want to give yourself a little distance from the work.
Do you think you started composing this play and performing it too quickly after your father’s passing?
Between you and me, yes. I think it was a mistake to do it this quickly. I did the workshop at Ojai, and then someone else saw it and booked me at Radar L.A. It happened fast. In retrospect, I think [my grief] is still too raw. I don’t even remember the whole run at the Kirk Douglas. I was so in the darkness. But something happened that taught me a lesson that is now allowing me to be more open and conscious. [During the Radar L.A. run] I walked out onto the lobby because someone told me there were all these people waiting to talk to me. I go out and there were friends but there were also many strangers who would line up. They would say to me, “My husband just died” or “My wife just died” and “I went through this too” and I realized I was doing an hour and fifteen minutes in the lobby. That time was like the second act of the show. I was meeting the audience and hearing their story. It was important because you’ve uncorked something in other people’s grief or their thoughts about grief. I felt it was my job in some way or my responsibility to at least acknowledge it.
How did hearing all these other stories of grief affect you?
It really was filling me up. I would drive home exhausted. I usually only sleep like five hours, I don’t sleep much at all. But back then I would go to bed at 11pm and wake up at 10 am the next day. I was so tired. It was like I was taking on everyone else’s stuff. It was a good lesson because part of me does not want to have those moments but already I have had such provocative experiences. It’s become really important to just listen, to take it in. I think it’s the moment to do that but I also think it’s important not to do it forever.
Do you worry that you have not had enough solitude for your own grieving process?
I haven’t had much solitude since my father’s passing but I will say that it’s helping me to be present in the grief. I think for me, that is important, I could see how I could avoid being present. One of my MO’s with intimate partners was that I wasn’t present, you know. That was one of my problems, I wanted to be an artist, and I wanted to be free. But here I am and I’m being held to my authentic emotion. I think what I’m doing with this play is processing this experience. The emotion never hits me in the same place. I don’t understand why I get emotional.
Today, in the matinee, I could barely get through it, I really had to control myself and then last night’s show…I openly wept, it was really hard. It is so weird how it hits you. Grief hits you in waves and that is just part of the experience. In some way there is something very beautiful about it, and yes I am craving the silence.
You posted recently on Facebook that you went out to the garage in the middle of the night and just wept.
Yes, I could not believe it. In the middle of the night, but I knew that I needed the release. I’m also in my car a lot. When I go to Ashland, everybody laughs, but I don’t play any music. I clear my head and those ten hours are so accomplished. I laugh, I cry, I get so much done. It’s my down time.
How long do you think you’ll be driving your Dad’s “Soccer Mom” van?
I don’t know. This is the third it’s broken down since I [inherited] it. I’ve learned a lot about about my Dad because of the van. Latinos are so interconnected. Every time something happens to the it, I go to Gonzalo to fix it, and then for the exterior I have to go to this other guy named Chuy. So when the bumper got all messed up this last time, I went to Chuy and he charged me $20. It was like a $2000 job! The other day, the van was smoking, the transmission fluid was leaking and burning, and I couldn’t put it in gear and I had it towed to Gonzalo’s and he charged me $40. I told my brother I felt so guilty [about taking so little money for the repairs], and my brother said, “Oh no, Gonzalo is getting free carburetors and there’s a whole network. You don’t understand how Dad worked! When I took over the business (Alfaro’s Dad owned a carburetor shop in Fullerton), they all came to tell me how it was going to work from now on.”
The van represents for them, my father. They really take care of it. One day I went to this other guy and he cleaned the inside of it and when I asked him about it he said, “You have to keep the inside clean, it’s disrespectful to your Dad.” Now I keep a little bag to put all the trash in and I’m thinking, “What? This is not me! I’m turning into a Soccer Mom!” Not only did he tell me to keep it clean, but he cleaned it for me.
This is the legacy, this is the after. You know, I’ll let go of my Dad when I’m ready to let go of my Dad. The waves [of grief] are getting smaller and I do think I miss him a lot right now. My life is so tumultuous and I think he is the meditation. He is the quiet space.
Copyright 2014 by Fanny Garcia.