Exclusive Interview: Director Jerry Ruiz Talks ‘Fabulous Monsters’
Fabulous Monsters is making its world premiere at San Antonio’s Cellar Theater next week. Written by Diana Burbano with original music by San Antonio punk band, Fea, the show opens Feb. 24.
The production is directed by Jerry Ruiz with music direction by Jaime Ramirez.
Fabulous Monsters is a musical journey through punk rock in L.A. Sally and Lou were there: feminists, Latinas and queens of noise. One went pop, one stayed punk, but sparks from their tumultuous friendship remained. Decades later, they must try to overcome old wounds, forgive each other and rock as hard as they ever did.
Mr. Ruiz, who is making his own San Antonio debut with this production, talked about it with ArtScene SA.
ArtScene SA: Tell us a bit about the show. It’s a world premiere production, right?
Jerry Ruiz: Yes, it’s the world premiere of the new play Fabulous Monsters, written by Diana Burbano. She’s a Latina playwright based out of Los Angeles whose career has really been taking off over the last few years. I’ve been hearing about her work in new play development circles for some time now, and I’m very excited to be a part of introducing her work to San Antonio. The world premiere of Fabulous Monsters creates a really unique opportunity for both theater makers and theater audiences in the San Antonio area to be the very first to experience this play in a full production.
It must be a blast to have the music of local punk band Fea featured in the show. I understand that this was a collaboration between the Public, Fea and Ms. Burbano. How was that experience?
It was incredibly seamless! I’d heard of Fea, and before that Girl in a Coma, from friends in San Antonio. The Public’s Executive Artistic Director Claudia de Vasco and I started talking about reaching out to Fea to write the music soon after the production was announced last year. We watched one of their videos on YouTube and thought it would be a real coup to get them involved in the production. The theater reached out to Fea, shared the script, and luckily for us, Fea were interested. After we cast the play, we read it over Zoom with the actors, with Diana, Fea, and several members of the creative team and the theater staff in attendance virtually. Then we had a great creative discussion about the play.
The members of Fea went off on their own and wrote music to the lyrics Diana had written into the play, making slight tweaks to the words when necessary. Our music director, Jaime Ramirez, has been working with our cast and the musicians in our show band to learn these songs, which are just so memorable. They’re constantly in my head. Most importantly, the music is authentically punk, which is very important. This is not a musical! It’s a punk rock play with live music. We needed Fea to bring that authenticity to it.
Though this play is set in L.A., how will it resonate with San Antonio audiences, particularly in a city whose punk roots run deep?
I believe the play will resonate with San Antonio audiences as it tracks the journey of a Latina trying to make it in punk rock, a music scene dominated by white cis-gendered men. As a woman and as a Latina, Slade has some major obstacles in her way, but she carves out a career in the music business through her talent, ferocity, artistic integrity and dedication to the music. Everything about Slade — her ethnicity, her gender, her orientation — is secondary to the fact that she is a guitarist. One of the other characters even asks her, ‘What are you?’ and she says, ‘I’m a guitarist.’ She’s someone who defies easy categorization. It’s very punk, and also very San Antonio, this collision of cultures and influences and identities.
The history of punk rock in San Antonio makes it a good fit, as well as the fact that some of those musicians also happen to be Latinx. There’s been recent punk bands in that vein, like Fea. Or like Piñata Protest, whose music fuses punk with elements of conjunto. And of course, there’s been punk in San Antonio well before that, all the way back to the infamous Butthole Surfers, who started out at Trinity of all places. I hope the play is able to attract some of those punk rock fans and get them into the theater. This play has a lot of elements to it; it’s a punk rock play, it’s a Latinx play, and it’s also a feminist play about two women combating sexism to make music.
What are the main themes of Fabulous Monsters?
Playwright Diana Burbano was interviewed for a feature in the Los Angeles Times not long ago, and she said that she writes a lot about legacy. You can definitely see that theme in the play, as Slade and her former bandmate Luisa both pay tribute to their mentor Nigel, a Bowie-esque character, and shape and influence the next generation, represented by Luisa’s daughter (and Slade’s number one fan) Kady. Slade and Luisa are forced to consider the legacy they are eventually going to be leaving behind, now that they’re around the age of fifty.
We also get to see them in their earlier days, and see the choices they made and how those choices, whether self-destructive or made out of self-preservation, have had lasting repercussions in their lives. They’re confronting their musical (and actual) mortality. Another one of the main conflicts is artistic integrity versus commercial success. While Slade stays true to her musical roots and never changes, her former bandmate Luisa makes a choice to go in a more commercial direction and achieves major success. But that comes with a cost, too.
How has it been working with the actors on this piece? Is it also a collaboration?
Yes, my rehearsal process is very collaborative. I’ve been directing for about twenty years now, and over time you learn how important it is to empower and trust your actors to do their best work. I tell my students at Texas State that a director primarily has to foster a creative space where actors can make compelling, believable choices. My approach is to give the actors some parameters, some ideas about what their characters might be doing in the scene, then watch and see what happens. The next step is to give them helpful, useful feedback they can use to keep digging deeper and sharpen their performances. By the way, this is all so much easier said than done. The art of collaboration and communication is not an easy one. It’s a craft that takes a lifetime to hone, and I think that’s why I love it so much. You’re always learning, and every show is different, every cast is different, and it never gets stale.
These actors have really been a joy to work with. They all bring so much insight to their characters, and they’re all genuinely warm, kind people. It’s been a really enjoyable rehearsal process with them.
It’s said that this show celebrates the overlooked legacies of Latinas in punk rock. Was that surprising to you?
I knew a little bit about that history, but not in a lot of detail. The character of Slade is loosely inspired by two people: Joan Jett, who is very well known, and Alice Bag, or Alicia Armendariz, who is not as well known, but whose music and performance style are electric. Seriously, look her up online, because she is amazing. Working on this play has been a good reminder of how political the punk movement was. It’s protest music. They were reacting to the ‘free love’ of the 1960s, which they saw as a failure. They really wanted to create anarchy and chaos to disrupt the stifling status quo. And the Latinas and the other women in punk rock, most of whom did not become as famous as Joan Jett or Deborah Harry, were truly feminist trailblazers.
What’s your history with the Public Theater? How do you like directing there?
This is my first show with the Public Theater, and my first show in San Antonio. Since moving back to Texas from NYC in 2018 for a position teaching directing in Texas State University’s Department of Theater & Dance, I’ve directed several shows in Houston and Austin. Claudia and I met back in 2010 in Los Angeles. She was part of a company that I was directing for, and we have many mutual friends. When she was appointed as the leader of the Public I reached out and offered to help in any way I could.
I am very fond of The Cellar, the intimate downstairs space where we are doing this play. It seems like the perfect venue for a play about punk rock. Most of all, I’ve enjoyed working with the theater’s staff and the incredible actors in the show, most of whom are local. I feel like the theater artists of San Antonio are a little under the radar, not getting as much recognition as the visual arts or the music scenes do, but there’s some great talent in town. And as I said at the first rehearsal, I know The Public and the San Pedro Playhouse both mean a lot to the theater community in San Antonio. I am very hopeful that as the city continues to grow and evolve, the theater will keep building up its local artists and audiences. If I can be a part of that, I’ll feel I’m contributing to something really important, even if it means commuting down from San Marcos.
Fabulous Monsters plays Feb. 24 through Mar. 19 at the Cellar Theater, located in the San Pedro Playhouse in San Pedro Springs Park. Tickets are $45 (Standard), $30 (Military/Student/Senior* with valid ID), and $15 (Child Under 12) are available online or by phone at (210) 733-7258. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. The Public Theater of San Antonio is wheelchair accessible. For additional information about group sales, contact Box Office Coordinator David Piwarski at email@example.com.