Greek tragedies inspire the work of USC drama teacher and playwright Luis Alfaro
The poet and performance artist appreciates literary classics that pose great questions of the day.
Playwright Luis Alfaro has an affinity for the Greek classics — plays about Sophocles and Euripides that encompass “life, death, love, sex — everything,” as well as the great questions of the day.
At USC, the associate professor of dramatic writing at the USC School of Dramatic Arts asks his undergraduates to recognize that “there’s the story you want to tell … and there’s a story that you need to tell,” because the complexity of the latter, the inevitable conflict and emotion, he said, “are what will allow you to look for metaphor, to find the poetry of your plays.”
With graduate students, Alfaro said, his role is to listen and “intensely burrow into their work and try to help them figure out who they are as artists and what they need.”
He added: “I tend to say that I don’t teach. The students tell me where they want to go, how they want to be and what they want to write, and then I kind of negotiate that and see where their strengths lie. What I really do is just elevate their journeys.”
Alfaro, who grew up in the rough Pico-Union district of Los Angeles, tries to instill the notion of the “citizen artist” in his students by connecting them to the world, away from “the comfort of the university and its enclosure. Part of the joy sometimes is just introducing them to the city,” he said. “You can live in the world as an artist, but you also have to be a citizen. If those things are in balance, it’s going to show up in the work.”
Back and forth
In recent weeks, Alfaro has flown between Los Angeles and New York, where he’s working on his off-Broadway play Oedipus El Rey at the off-Broadway Public Theater.
An adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the New York production is set in South Central L.A., where the tragic story centers on Oedipus as a young Latino in and out of prison. The revised play is part of the Public Theater’s 50th anniversary season.
“I’m always startled a little bit at how relevant and modern [the Greek tragedies] feel,” said Alfaro, whose awards include a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” “Every time I jump in, there’s a question that is asked and the question is very contemporary. I love that.”
Artist and activist seeks authenticity
Alfaro’s plays include his Sophocles-inspired Electricidad (a retelling of Elektra exploring gang culture in an East L.A. barrio) and Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, setting the Euripides classic within the context of immigration and migration.
His life as both artist and activist feeds the authenticity of his rich, theatrical works that wrestle with large social and political questions. Indeed, during a 10-year, nomadic stretch that he described as “a weird kind of exile,” Alfaro traveled across the country, living for up to a year at a time in different cities “in crisis,” making theater and conducting story circles and town halls with diverse groups of adults and teens.
“I would say, ‘I am the most ignorant person here. Tell me what I need to know about your town.’ ”
After revealing superficialities about a city’s history and geography, he said, participants would begin to tell their own stories, “talking about their challenges, how the city really worked for them and who really ran [it]. All of those things have played into my plays and taught me something about people.”