Raising Community Voices
Director and playwright Juliette Carrillo helps bring hidden stories to the stage
By Christine Byrd
When Juliette Carrillo's play Plumas Negras was performed in 2013 in the East Salinas, Calif., community where it was set, some audience members were brought to tears. Not only had Carrillo written the story about three generations of Mexican migrant women in collaboration with the community, but many members of the large cast were farm workers themselves.
“It’s about the voice of the voiceless, telling stories of people who don’t get their stories told, and amplifying a community in a particular way,” says Carrillo, who is an associate professor of directing at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. Plumas Negras is just one example of community-centered projects Carrillo has written or directed with Los Angeles’ Cornerstone Theater Company, where she’s been an ensemble member since 2004.
“At Cornerstone Theater, we’re interested in mutual mentorship. The community members are schooling us in the issues in the community, stories in the community, values of the community,” says Carrillo. “And we’re schooling them in the craft of theater making.”
Carrillo’s other projects with Cornerstone have included highlighting stories about the gentrification of a historically Black neighborhood in Venice, the Hindu community, senior citizens and their caregivers, and the Los Angeles River community.
These deep dives into often overlooked communities expose Carrillo to worlds and lives she would otherwise never know, and the process informs her work as an artist and teacher at UCI, where she helps students from diverse backgrounds use theater to share their unique stories. In 2018, she adapted Plumas Negras to be performed by a smaller cast of UCI students, and connected one of the student actors to the farmworker who had helped craft the storyline of their particular character in play.
“I say to my students, you’re a sponge as a person and an artist,” Carrillo explains.
All Roads Lead to UCI
Carrillo began absorbing theater arts from a young age. She was only 11 years old when her theater teacher introduced her to physical warmups for actors called Grotowski exercises which are named for the avante-garde Polish theater artist Jerzy Grotowski who created them — and who taught at UCI in the 1980s.
Carrillo had an even closer encounter with UCI when she was a college student at UC Santa Cruz, where she began as a psychology major but switched to drama. She joined a group of students traveling to UCI in the summer to study with performance artist Rachel Rosenthal, who was also an animal welfare activist and sometimes taught class with a rat on her bald head.
“I absolutely loved it,” says Carrillo. “I’ve had a great impression of UCI for a long time.”
Carrillo went on to earn her M.F.A. in directing at the Yale School of Drama before embarking on a career directing, and eventually writing, plays. Soon after graduating, she was hired by Bill Rauch — co-founder of Cornerstone Theater Company, who is now the acclaimed artistic director of the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at the new World Trade Center site — to direct a play in the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles about bringing together the Black and Latinx communities. It was her first of what would eventually become many productions with Cornerstone and other theaters around the country.
Latinx Stories on Stage
Throughout her career, Carrillo has made a point of amplifying Latinx voices in theater. For over seven years, she produced plays as head of South Coast Repertory’s Hispanic Playwrights Project, and today she serves on the advisory board of the Latinx Theatre Commons, a national program hosted by the progressive platform HowlRound Theatre Commons.
“These programs helped bring Latinx theater to the forefront,” says Carrillo. “There’s much more awareness today, and the writers are doing incredible work. I feel like I was involved in the seeds of that, and I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done.”
I’m interested in how recipes, smells and tastes live in our DNA; more specifically, in the Latinx community.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Carrillo worked on a trio of virtual events for South Coast Repertory’s commUNITY series, El Teatro de la Comida, all tied in some way to Latinx food — and in several cases, featuring UCI artists. Carrillo wrote and directed Ten Dollar Taco, a “radio play” based on a real life high-end Mexican food restaurant, which featured performances by professor Vincent Olivieri, as well as Anica Garcia-DeGraff, M.F.A. ’19 and M.F.A. candidate Abel Thomas Garcia. Another part of the series featured short plays about masa — a dough made from corn flour used to make tortillas — and included UCI alumnus Amilcar Jauregui ’19 performing an excerpt of his play Tejuino, named after a cold drink made from fermented corn.
“Since every recipe has a lineage and a story, how do we reach back into the past and embrace the traditions of our ancestors?” said Carrillo at the time. “I’m interested in how recipes, smells and tastes live in our DNA; more specifically, in the Latinx community.”
In addition to her writing, Carrillo is a sought-after director for productions that highlight the Latinx experience. Carrillo directed Mojada, playwright Luis Alfaro’s retelling of the Greek classic Medea, which explores themes of migration, assimilation and gentrification in Los Angeles. In fall 2020, while theaters were still closed to live audiences, she directed a performance of Mojada that was filmed and shared with virtual audiences around the globe, produced by Center Theater Group and The Getty Museum. The script, along with production photos, recently become part of California’s new ethnic studies curriculum required for high school students.
“It’s so satisfying to see Latinx stories become more present and visible in our culture. Karen Zacarias, for example, has been a top-10 most produced playwright in the U.S. for two years in a row. Luis Alfaro is a household name for theater students. And there’s a plethora of new Latinx writers coming up now that have incredibly exciting stories to tell,” says Carrillo. “There’s definitely been a significant shift in recognition of the importance of this work.”
Giving Students a Voice
Carrillo is keenly aware of the challenges theater groups have faced throughout the pandemic, but she sees some positive adaptations. She was among the first faculty to adjust her curriculum last spring, turning her directing course into an audio fiction class, akin to the radio plays of yore or modern-day podcasts.
“That format was popular before the pandemic, and it’s going to continue to be popular,” says Carrillo. “It’s helpful for us to continue developing audio fiction skills among our drama students.”
She also sees both students and professionals in theater becoming increasingly aware of the camera.
“UCI is a theater school, but there’s no harm in us understanding the power of the camera and the image and how we can manipulate a digital image,” Carrillo says. “It’s so healthy to have those tools, and I hope we continue to be open to that in the future.”
I say to my students, you’re a sponge as a person and an artist.
One of the things that drew Carrillo to teaching was the opportunity to mentor the next generation of theater makers. In an improvisational development class in winter 2021, she worked with UCI students on a devised piece, which means they started without a script. Together, she guided the class to write hundreds of pages of a story about genealogy, based on their own family genealogy.
In the spring, the resulting piece was brought to life by 13 student actors who represent four of the CTSA’s theater companies: the Black Door, Brick Theatre, Brown Bag, and Theatre Woks, which highlight Black, LGBTQ, Latinx and Asian American/Pacific Islander students, respectively. Rather than a theater performance, it was filmed and shared online.
“This project came out of wanting to celebrate these particular student groups,” says Carrillo. “I’m trying to work as collaboratively as possible to tell our students’ stories in a way that’s respectful, celebratory and artful, but also real with all of the complexity of families and genealogy.”
The title of the work, To Keep Our Roots Alive, came from a line in the play:
“I’m going to keep finding ways to keep my roots alive in the conversations that I have, in the relationships I make, in the art that I produce. That is how you stay alive, in life and after death, by bringing life to your roots, and preserving that life!”
While Carrillo has made a career of amplifying community voices and cultural experiences on the stage, she’s now helping a new generation of UCI students bring their own unique voice into the spotlight.
Image: Cast and crew members from the Department of Drama spent the day filming a student collaboration, To Keep Our Roots Alive, at Crystal Cove State Park in Newport Coast. (Photo by Emily Zheng)
To learn more about Professor Juliette Carrillo and the faculty in the Department of Drama, visit drama.arts.uci.edu.
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