When writers write books, they're published as they've written them. Photographers' photographs are displayed as they've printed them. But playwrights and their plays, which require middlemen, are at the mercy of the actors and directors who produce them.
The Terry Earp Festival at the 7th Street Theatre complex features five different works and provides an interesting demonstration of what can happen to a play from the time it leaves the playwright's hands to the moment the curtain rises on opening night. Forty-three-year-old Terry Tafoya Earp says she came to playwriting only recently as a result of what she termed "a midlife crisis." During the past four years, she has written a number of one-acts and full-length plays, and several have been produced by small groups around the Valley.
She is one of a very few people in the Valley--or anywhere--to get plays produced. It's a hard thing to do, and she's been lucky. But that luck is a double-edged sword because the productions of her work have been almost uniformly poor.
Earp has a sharp sense of humor and an uncanny ear for dialogue. She has taught herself to use them in creating imaginative plots, employing such unlikely elements from popular culture as standup comedy and female impersonation as vehicles for storytelling. Her characters have an unmistakable humanity and speak straight from the heart.
But in production, her Skimpies and A Touch of Tortilla were afflicted with music; the latter was also expanded from one act to two, a length it was unable to carry.
When it comes to her plays, Earp becomes a girl who can't say no. Understandably eager to see her work produced, she displays a flexibility befitting a sideshow contortionist. No one can deny that the process of developing a play for the stage requires collaboration. This playwright, though, is far too amenable to the suggestions of directors and producers hell-bent on improving her scripts. She allows revisions and additions that cloud her original vision and weaken--rather than strengthen--it. It was Peter Cirino, then-artistic director for Teatro del Valle, who suggested expanding Tortilla into a full-length play. After the rewrite, only five pages of the original script survived. "I didn't even want to rewrite the damned thing," Earp says.
Cirino also suggested the addition of music. "He said, 'You know, if there were music, I think it could be really marketable because there are very few Hispanic plays with music in them.' So I said, 'Okay,' and that's how it happened." While it would be wrong to imply that Earp and her lambs have been set upon by wolves, what she and others have done to her plays is a testament to the battle of egos waged in any theatrical production and the kind of compromises playwrights must sometimes make in order to see their works on the stage.
Playwright's Workshop Theatre, a group that specializes in developing new works, and Teatro del Valle, the Valley's only Hispanic theatre group, have been Earp's primary outlets, and are collaborating on the festival. Joining them is Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre, a new group begun by former Teatro artistic director Cirino. All are small, struggling outfits with tiny budgets and minimal facilities. In addition to Skimpies and Tortilla, the festival is offering a set of previously unseen one-acts about marital dissolution under the title A Friendly Divorce. In the festival, both Skimpies and Tortilla are being presented in their revised forms. The problem is that the musical grafts shifted the focus away from the original stories but gave nothing in return. Even though I still don't like the play in its present form, I love the idea of Skimpies: A postmodern Aphrodite, facing eviction from Mount Olympus, goes slumming in the mortal plane. She attracts new followers by dispensing lingerie made from miracle fibers that can make fat women thin, plain women pretty and sexless women sexy. Earp drags ancient mythology into the modern world and creates an extravagant fantasy that contrasts nicely with the play's simple message that true beauty comes from within. Further, the story's darker side--the goddess's greed, her son Cupid's cupidity, a straight man cross-dressing to romance a nun--adds a welcome edge. What's the fatal flaw? By shoehorning in several songs that were written after the basic script was completed, Skimpies became a play trying to be a musical. In the end it's neither fish nor fowl.
In this current edition, directed by Ramona Richards, the actors seem to have confused fantasy with farce. The characters are reduced to a set of physical and vocal clichs, so broadly and badly acted that they're offensive. A Touch of Tortilla, on the other hand, is much more down-to-earth and mines the playwright's bicultural background to tell a simple story about self-acceptance, honesty and family loyalty that brims with affection--but without whitewashing what must be bitter memories. In its first go-round, however, this play was so badly done as to be nearly unwatchable. After weeks of production problems and setbacks, Tortilla still wasn't ready when opening night rolled around. But time constraints dictated that, ill-prepared as it was, it had to go on. And though it did improve with time, that first performance was a horror.