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by Jesus A. Reyes, Creative Director

I love staged readings. I find them to be exciting – at least they can be. So, when Caridad Svich asked if EAST LA REP would consider participating in her “scheme” to present staged readings of her play The Way of Water, I immediately said yes!

I love staged readings because I’ve had some of the best times directing staged readings. The art of the staged reading is so particular and not any actor can pull it off. Actors in staged readings have to be extremely confident and flexible. They have to be courageous and be ready to put their ego aside. These actors have to rely on their technical skills 100% and you can always tell when an actor is not having fun during a staged reading.

The staged reading, be it in-house and private or for public consumption, is a great way to take risks, to hear new work, to hear new actors, to stretch the imagination muscle of actors, directors and audience alike. When I lived and worked in the Bay Area I was so fortunate to be on the directors’ roster for Jim Kleinmann’s company, Playground. Playground is an amazing opportunity for Bay Area playwrights to master the art of the 10-minute play but also for the actors and directors to have fun and support the text. Annie Stuart is the casting director for Playground and had an incredible sense of the actors that can pull it off and roll with the staged reading process. With a days notice, the actors and director have only an hour and a half to digest, discuss and stage a reading before a paying audience that evening. It’s exhilarating to work with the playwright in the room and the actors, all just going for it.

I admit that I was moved to work on The Way of Water because of the sense of responsibility to put the work and words out there that were inspired by the 2010 BP oil spill. To present a play that took the devastation and immediate aftermath of this event and gave life and voice to four characters affected by it. To make it work for EAST LA REP we wanted to tie-in Los Angeles and during our initial conversations of the play, we found out about high toxic levels in the nearby community of Huntington Park. So the plan was to take part of the public “toxic tours” that a local organization conducts and perform excerpts of the play to complement, to connect and to inform the tour participants. As a company we had always been pretty good at performing outdoors and site-specific and this was a great next step to that process. To work with an organization  and a community in a more direct way then just offering comps or half-price admission. For the first time we would be on the front lines. Then it didn’t happen.

The opportunity fell through but we were committed to be part of this important international scheme and had to figure out how to proceed. The obvious choice was to present a traditional staged reading at our home venue. Then the idea came, to take the excerpts and film them as monologues, The Way of Water Project was born. We pulled together a diverse cast of seven, a cast that represents some of the diversity of East Los Angeles. From the get go we told the actors that they did not have to memorize their lines, some did, because they are very committed, but it was not necessary. I wanted to capture that staged reading rawness from live performances and put them on film. I absolutely love the craft in progress, as actors look at their pages and make choices. Bold choices, interesting choices, dangerous choices. They dig deep into their experience and use what they have to tell the story. It’s risky but so much more of the moment. I wanted us to capture some of that on film so we emailed the actors their sides a day or two prior to the scheduled filming and went for it. Two, three takes is all we filmed for each. We discovered that the prayer that was sung originally didn’t quite gel with the footage filmed afterwards, so we re-shot it. We discovered that one of the monologues was more effective if we split it into two. Each and every actor involved gave their time and talent to this project. The director Alejandra Cisneros along with each and every actor we asked to participate was chosen because of their strength and willingness to jump off the staged reading cliff with us.

Something that was also new to us was premiering the shorts on our group Facebook page. Because EAST LA REP is in the midst of changing its model from a theatre company to a creative center, it made sense for us to try something new, something unknown. We still get emails and posts from people telling us that they loved the video they saw and can’t wait to attend the reading. Sorry, that was the reading. Once all eight shorts premiere, a full-length version that ties all the shorts together will be featured. This full-length version will also be new for us, a new way of telling the story that is a full-length play via social media.

Last night, I was at a play and ran into one of the actors that participated. He mentioned how he wished that maybe, the actors should have been off book. He pointed to one of the actors that was completely memorized and how effective that was for him. I replied that indeed, that actor’s work, along with the one or two other actors that were memorized, was very good, and for the full-length version it will be such an interesting balance of storytelling, but, his work along with that of the actors that were not off book was just as effective. The way each actor committed to his words. The way each actor made choices. The way each actor found rhythm and language. The way each actor looked down at his script when he/she needed to and stayed in character – that was amazing – that is theatre – this is the one way to get a sense of what live theatre is like but on a screen. The Way of Water Project was not to be a film or a documentary; it was meant to be a staged reading on a small screen.    

I just posted the fifth short out of eight, so we are sort of half-way to the finish line. I thank Caridad Svich for asking EAST LA REP to be part of this incredible experience. I thank her for being incredibly brave to let us take excerpts and re-arrange her play. I thank her for allowing us to take the poetry, drama and politics of her play, The Way of Water, and letting us share it online. I must also thank my cohorts at EAST LA REP for their continued support in this time of transition. Finally, I thank the creative team that made The Way of Water Project so memorable, director Alejandra Cisneros and the actors, Carla Valentine, Anthony Aguilar, Blake Kushi, Raquel Sanchez, Juan Ramirez, Lynn Haro Martinez-Arvilla and Juan E. Carrillo. Oh, and extra special thanks to all those brave ones that go mano-a-mano with the staged reading.

Jesus A. Reyes, Creative Artistic Director, EAST LA REP

The Way of Water by Caridad Svich was read at East LA Rep on April 21st, 2012 as part of its Necessary Conversations Series, directed by Alejandra Cisneros.