Latina Rhythms

How The Spirit Moves Local Playwright Elaine Romero.

By Dave Irwin

WHAT I REALLY believe is that if we tell this universal human story that's very deep inside us, other people will identify with that," says playwright Elaine Romero. "I really believe writing is about exposing what is deep within. Other people identifying with that creates a sense of communion between the artist and the audience."

Romero sits with her eyes closed as she says this, as if trying to find something inside herself to help explain her own obsession with writing.

Review "Ever since I started reading, I started writing," the Tucson resident admits. She remembers her mother bringing home children's plays for her to read as a child. She recalls sitting in her bedroom reading the plays out loud, playing all the parts, as early as fourth grade.

Romero has had a lot of success with her chosen profession. She was recently named one of 15 recipients of a major National Theatre Artist Residency grant, from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Theatre Communications Group. The $100,000 grant, awarded through Arizona Theatre Company, will make Romero an artist-in-residence for two years, during which time she'll develop two plays as well as mentor Latino and Native American playwrights.

Although the residency doesn't start until December, ATC will hold an initial meeting this month to introduce the program. The workshop is intended to identify Latino and Native American artists interested in writing for the stage. It meets at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 15, in the Temple of Music and Art Cabaret Theatre, 330 S. Scott Ave. Romero will also oversee the National Hispanic Playwright Award competition as part of the grant.

Romero wrote her first Latino-oriented play, Ethnic Data, in 1986, while working on a graduate degree in play writing at the University of California, Davis.

"You could write superficially about the Latino experience," she says, this time with her eyes wide open. "Certainly anybody could write about the trappings; but for me, you have to get to the guts of it.

"I see Mexican culture as a very deep culture. I mean, we have the Day of the Dead (on which) we give skeletons to little kids! Our sense of death is really different. In our culture, we talk to dead people and we really don't think anything of it. They're just with us. That's something that's evident in a lot of my plays: death not being an ending; that this physical realm can interact with the spiritual realm and how they can touch each other."

Romero has worked a variety of jobs over the years to keep her writing career afloat. These have included teaching part-time at the University of Arizona, consulting with Tucson screenwriter Steven Barancik (The Last Seduction) on film projects, and even a stint some years ago as a theatre critic for The Weekly. Last year she wrote a novel, though she admits to feeling guilty about taking time from her plays to do it.

With more than 30 plays completed, awards have been cascading over her of late. She won the 1998 Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival award for her one-act play Undercurrents. She's been a finalist the past two years at the Humana Festival in Louisville, and won second prize at the Stages Repertory Theatre Company's Women's Repertory Festival, not to mention numerous local awards.

In addition to the ATC residency, she recently received an NEA residency program grant to work on Barrio Hollywood for the Brava! For Women in the Arts Festival in San Francisco. That play, set in Tucson, examines a Latino family's trauma when its professional boxer son suffers brain damage in the ring.

"I've studied a lot about intuitive healing, the Mexican tradition of curanderismo (the study of healing)," she explains. "These are things that inspire me--the whole journey of being a human being and learning to love ourselves. My plays address things that are very deep. Not every play, but certainly many of them, are about getting to that core thing."

Romero read a draft of Barrio Hollywood this week at Damesrocket Theatre, opening that company's play-reading series, which will continue through November. Presenting works in progress and using workshops is how Romero hones her works.

"I need actors," she says. "Some playwrights can do it all in their head, but not me. For me, it's having that process where I check in and have that three dimensional feeling from the actors. They bring a quality to the characters that I can never get on my own. And I can use what I see to further develop the characters."

She admits, "A lot of people don't understand the development process, they just want the play to be done yesterday. For me, the play takes a while. Characters grow, they change, they merge, things happen. That's why this is the prefect grant for me, because I'll have a lot of time to develop these two plays for ATC. I know that I'll have two very polished plays that I can be really proud of, and that reflect our community in some way.

"Living here in Arizona," she states, "I still need to write the plays that are in my heart and not worry about being trendy. I think that's what's causing the success--having my own take on it, that people like the world that I create. I think that's what writers really need to do--they need to stop imitating and really be what they are." TW

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