This is part of the Creatives Series, a set of interviews comprised of the same six questions posed to different members of the Latino community who have made their careers in the creative industry.
Puerto Rican-born director José Zayas is a graduate of Harvard and Carnegie Mellon. He’s held residencies at various theaters, like Repertorio Español, where I went over the weekend to see his direction of La tía Julia y el escribidor, adapted from Nobel prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same title about a young writer who falls in love with his aunt.
Hip Latina: Will you tell me about your creative process?
José Zayas: The process is very instinctive. Everything depends on the project. As a director, what you’re doing is shaping the storytelling. I’m very responsive to what is occurring in the room. So, let’s say, with something like La tía Julia, where I originated the idea with Caridad [Svich, the playwright], we spend the first couple of months talking about the novel, talking about the story we’re trying to tell. Then Caridad would go off, create a text, or create a template for it, and then I would start rehearsing with the actors—and the actors were company actors, so I know all of them. It feels like I’m working with family ultimately. And then we sort of create the text together—we problem-solve, we shape the text for that particular space. This space is very small, very intimate, there are no wings, so we’re sometimes telling enormous stories with the understanding of how we’re shaping the space and how we’re using it.
On a larger scale, what I do is immerse myself in the material that I’m about to embark on. I do a lot of research—musical research in particular. It might not be music that I use, it might not be images that I use, but it’s just sort of to spark things that might be interesting.
HL: What are you most afraid of when doing your job?
JZ: When you start out, I think you’re always afraid of not having an answer. As you get older, you sometimes get afraid of actually having too many answers. So I think the better you get at it, the more responsive you become. I’ve directed over 100 plays at this point, so there’s so many permutations and so many issues that I’ve dealt with that there are very few surprises. So I will say: I don’t want to have too many answers, and I want to make sure that I’m always surprising myself as I’m working, because it can get very technical otherwise, dull.
HL: What project are you working on right now, and what excites you most about it?
JZ: I’m working on two projects coming up. Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which is an adaptation that we’ve done at Repertorio Español. We’re going to do it at Gala Theatre in D.C. I’m going to take a very different approach to it. It’s adapted by the Colombian director Jorge Alí Triana, so I’m using a director’s pre-adaptation, and it’s challenging to be able to find my own way into it. But I’m excited by the scope of it, the scale of it, the fact that I’m working on a Márquez novel that’s so well known, that time is fluid. Magic realism on stage is really challenging and I want to be able to be honest to the vision of both the adapter and the novelist.
I’m also working on a new adaptation of another novel. I’ve been doing a lot of novels of late—I love novels because trying to adapt them is a really interesting puzzle. Caridad Svich and I are working on a novel in Costa Rica called The Island of Lonely Men, or La isla de los hombres solos, which is one of the most famous Costa Rican novels, like the novel in high school that every Costa Rican kid reads. That’s going up in September of next year. We have the author’s involvement, and we’re going to visit—basically it’s the equivalent of Rikers Island. Terrifying but really exciting.
HL: Whose work do you admire?
JZ: The novelists that I’ve worked with—Isabel Allende, I adore, Julia Alvarez, Mario Vargas Llosa. Of the people I haven’t adapted that I’m desperate to adapt: Roberto Bolaño, who’s one of my favorites. Obviously my collaborator Caridad Svich; I think she’s so remarkable and I love her poetry and what she does with text. For directors, I’d say I love the work of Robert Lepage in theater. I find him really inspirational, just because he’s sort of thinking outside the box and thinking outside of narrative. The resources that he gets make it very exciting. And in cinema, oh gosh. I just saw the film Eisenstein in Guanajuato, so I’m thinking of Peter Greenaway a lot. So, you know, my tastes are very varied and it depends on usually where I’m at.
HL: Do you have a fantasy project?
JZ: Well right now it’s working on a Bolaño novel. The Savage Detectives, an adaptation of that novel. I would love to do that.
HL: How has being a part of the Latino community played into your work?
JZ: I’m basically creating work that connects us to language, Spanish heritage, different cultures. I’m very lucky that, in New York, I can direct the plays of many different Spanish-speaking countries. So I can do a play from Chile and Spain and Guatemala and Costa Rica. The work in English is different insofar as the community interests, the people who you’re talking to, are different. So if I’m working at The Public Theater on a play in English, usually that play is specifically for an English-speaking, not-Latino audience. So it’s a way for me to communicate with that audience and to create a different cultural dialogue. Being in New York, and being a Latino director that speaks both languages fluently, I think, allows me to do that in a way that is pretty unique.