Playwright Of Passage

ATC Artist-In-Residence Elaine Romero Brings Stories And Communities To Life.

"I'M NOT JUST a playwright," insists Tucsonan Elaine Romero. That's an odd claim for someone who has written more than 30 plays, the two most recent of which are enjoying workshop productions by Arizona Theatre Company this spring. But that's her point--they're workshop productions, works in progress that shift, grow and contract as they are kneaded by directors and actors.

"I'm a theater person at heart," she says. "This workshop process is awesome, watching the play come alive in three dimensions, and doing major rewrites once I see what works and what doesn't work on the stage. Too many playwrights are out there doing things entirely in their heads because there's so much pressure to submit polished scripts, but this way, I can keep working on things until I get them right."

On May 24 and 25, ATC presented a small-scale version of Romero's Before Death Comes for the Archbishop, a sympathetic treatment of a 19th-century Taos priest who was vilified in Willa Cather's novel Death Comes for the Archbishop. Coming June 17 and 18 will be a workshop production of Romero's Secret Things, in which a "prodigal daughter turned hard-edged journalist returns home to investigate the Crypto-Jews of the Southwest, only to find the vastness of the region's Sephardic legacy, a vault of secret knowledge and the true meaning of love."

This is the culmination of Romero's two-year residency with ATC, funded by a $100,000 grant from the National Theatre Artist Residency Program, which is bankrolled by the Pew Charitable Trusts and administered by the national Theatre Communications Group.

During her ATC stint Romero has also helped the company create a workshop for emerging Latino and Native American playwrights and supervised ATC's annual National Hispanic Playwriting Contest.

During her first year and a half, Romero was most visible working on behalf of other people--getting more Latinos involved in ATC's mainstage productions, publicizing the contest and reading submissions, and nurturing Arizona playwrights with almost no experience, four of whose works received staged readings in February.

Samantha K. Wyer, ATC's associate artistic director, describes that as the "highest peak" of Romero's residency. "That was such wonderful, enriching, moving work with our community, getting these people into the theater to tell stories that were very important to them. Our resources and her skills brought together a wonderful program that we want to keep going in the years to come."

To hear Romero tell it, almost anybody can write a play. "I don't believe in talent," she declares brightly. "Once you have the interest, you just need to find access to your subconscious and open your heart, and then you can write."

For her two most recent plays, though, Romero needed to find access to scholars and open some library books. These plays are steeped in the history of New Mexico, and required weeks of research. Perhaps a bit of talent, too.

Before Death Comes for the Archbishop rehabilitates the reputation of Padre Antonio José Martínez, who entered the priesthood in the 1820s after his wife died in childbirth. In 1843 he printed an inflammatory pamphlet accusing the Taos area's gringo trappers of corrupting the Indians. He got into a series of political wrangles with the local Anglo landowners, and may have encouraged an uprising in which his main enemy, the Anglo governor, was killed. He also quarreled with the new Archbishop Lamy, imported from France to Europeanize local Catholic practices. For his trouble, Martínez was excommunicated.

Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop depicts Martínez as an unsavory character opposing the reforms of Lamy (she calls him Latour). For Cather, the locals were simple and superstitious, and Lamy was a noble reformer.

Romero's Martínez is a folk hero but no saint; he defends the local traditions and tries to be an honorable priest, but he also carries on an intense if short-lived affair with one of his parishioners. "This is not just a political diatribe; it's about the human heart," Romero says. "In classical tragedies, people are always overtaken by their passions, and that's what destroys them. Here, a person kills his passion, and that's what destroys him."

The result is part love story, part historical epic that flashes by cinematically, cutting quickly between short scenes. With a thread of magic realism running through the three-hour show, it's Henry V colliding with Angels in America somewhere north of Santa Fe.

Romero may cram too much into the show, but trimming many scenes would reduce complex characters to caricatures. Romero treats almost all her characters even-handedly. They are somewhat ignorant, selfish, confused, lust-addled, lonely--and idealistic. They aren't monsters; they are us.

"Elaine has a tremendous sense of human fragility," says Wyer. "She has so much tenderness for the world, and I think that's what makes her very special. There are plenty of writers who are very hard-edged, like David Mamet and Eric Bogosian, but Elaine is one of the few who's always trying to enlist love into the world. And embracing that in the year 2000 in our somewhat cynical society is pretty remarkable."

Wyer will direct the workshop production of Secret Things, which, unlike the other results of Romero's residency, will take place on the main stage of the Temple of Music and Art--with the audience on stage along with the actors. Romero admits to no frustration over not getting her work or the recent winners of the National Hispanic Playwriting Contest into an ATC season package. "Every play that wins our contest is considered for production," she says, "Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't, but there's a lot more to ATC than that series. And there's a real buzz about ATC around the country now; people are saying, 'Wow! ATC is really, sincerely interested in Latino work!' "

Wyer says that ATC hopes to find the money to continue Romero's residency. Until that happens, the playwright intends to spend the next few months shopping her plays around the country, putting the finishing touches on a new show for Invisible Theatre this fall, and getting something produced in New York next spring. Oh, yes--she also needs to get Secret Things into performable shape by June 17.

The play concerns a young woman finding her identity, and her soul mate, in the course of researching the Jews who fled Spanish persecution and blended into New Mexican society. The setting is contemporary, although the second act is set in an alternate reality in which Crypto-Judaism was never eradicated from the Southwest. "Of course, that could change in the next couple of weeks," Romero warns. "Right now Secret Things is a sphinx that I'm staring at. I hope in the next few weeks I'll be able to solve the riddle. I'm not sure what I think about these things until I write them down."

Arizona Theatre Company presents a workshop production of Elaine Romero's Secret Things at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, June 17 and 18, at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets cost $5. For more information, call 622-2823.

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