Theater In Dialogue
The Elaborate Theater of Kristoffer Diaz
Imagine the entire crowd at a Yankee stadium suddenly buying tickets to the theater.
As playwrights living in New York we see a lot of theater. Some of it we never forget. Some we see by obligation. And some, well… So it is not surprising how many people feel disconnected to theater. It is not their world. And they have no desire to make it so.
And so, over time, I have come to realize two categories of theater:
1. The type that “theater people” buy tickets
(or get comped) to see.
2. The type that we feel comfortable taking
“non-theater people” to see.
Believe me, there is a vast difference. Let’s use my Dad as the litmus test. I know that, placed before some of the most amazing pieces of theater that my memory still holds onto, he would snore and then ask me why the hell I brought him.
But then we have the theater of Kristoffer Diaz.
Finally, he is revealed: CHAD DEITY. He is huge. He is strong. He is African-American. He is extremely well-dressed. He wears a big gold championship belt. He is literally tossing money around as he enters through the audience and heads to the stage/ring.
Here are the facts about Chad Deity, organized in handy numbered outline form. Number one: Chad Deity is extremely muscular.
Chad Deity strikes a pose.
Number two: Chad Deity has a winning smile.
Chad Deity smiles winningly.
In the audience at The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, you can look around and notice one thing: the audience is smiling. And not because they happened to find something humorous at that exact moment; rather, they are having fun. They are enjoying themselves. They are having the opposite experience of what many people think of the theater. My dad would be okay with this. As the playwright himself explains:
KRISTOFFER DIAZ: It’s not enough to be good at what you do; you’ve also got to make people want to pay attention. Sometimes the latter is more important than the former. It doesn’t matter if it’s theater, wrestling, or even politics—perception matters. Style usually trumps substance. As an artist, it became clear to me that I needed to try to balance both.
In The Elaborate Entrance we are introduced to Mace, a Puerto Rican professional wrestler who is not a star; he is a journeyman who never quite achieved the glory of superstar Chad Deity. Oh, he is also our narrator and guide through the evening. In some ways he is us, as we grin at the carefully orchestrated media-savvy Everett K. Olson (EKO) that creates and acts as a parasite to the sensation and farce that is Chad Deity. And we the audience know immediately how we are hooked: Will Mace get his due? Will EKO get what he has coming? Will Chad Deity get revealed? Anybody sitting in the audience has the right and privilege to be engaged and excited by what is onstage. It is almost as if Kris is asking only one thing of his audience:
DIAZ: Maybe first I should mention what I hope audiences bring to the play: a willingness to have some fun...then think critically about the fun they’re having. We’ll be doing everything in our power to get you to stand up and cheer, then call you out on why you’re cheering and for whom you’re cheering. There’s only one thing theater can do better than television and film, and that’s create a communal experience between audience and actor.
Playwright Rogelio Martinez once asked a table of aspiring writers why they write for theater. As in why not TV, why not short story, why not just write nightly in your journal. So around we went with our responses and then Rogelio sat back grinning, “I can’t believe none of us said The Audience,” he said. As artists, we spend so much time attempting “great art” that often we forget to consider those people sitting in the chairs. That while some of them perhaps came to be intellectually intrigued or dramatically/comically engaged, some of them, like my Dad, came (even if by force) for one reason and none other: to be entertained. With Kris’s work, you feel that no matter how dramatic, funny, or intellectual, he’s always aware of that one crucial ingredient: his audience.
People love the powerbomb. They love the power, the beauty, the implausibility of it. They know somehow that it takes two people to pull that beautiful bullshit off, and they love that it takes two people to pull it off. There’s community in that move, and somehow the people know that me and this genius are uniting to make it look like he’s murdering me, when in actuality I’m doing what I can to make him look like the all-world fighting machine he’s made out to be, and he’s doing what he can with his limited capacity to make sure I don’t break my neck, and so at the bottom of what we’re doing is we’re both trying to ensure that neither one of us gets hurt.
That fact is powerful and beautiful and, like I said, one of the most profound expressions of the ideals of this damn nation.
Did you catch that? There we are watching with curiosity about the intricacies of a wrestling move and almost without us noticing, he slips in an idea to take us further and deeper than what we likely expected from a stage with a wrestling ring on it. Some of us go to theater to scratch our goateed chins at cerebral thoughts onstage, some who just want a story to unfold, and Kris seems intent on wiping away that difference.
DIAZ: In the United States, we’ve somehow managed to create a false division between theater (seen by many folks as “high culture”) and other forms of live storytelling. With this play (and in all my plays), I’m trying to blur that line.
So often we whine and moan about the pull that television or films have over people, and we lament that theater is a relevant art form. We say and believe this, yet we sit time and again in a theater bored as hell wishing time would just skip. And every once in a while we come across a play that our Dad (or Aunt, friend-from-out-of-town, roommate) would actually enjoy. Theater that welcomes people who don’t give a shit about theater.
DIAZ: My challenge to myself is to create work that can be appreciated by multiple audiences. I want people to leave saying, “I didn’t think I’d like a play about professional wrestling, but I did,” or “I usually don’t like plays, but I really liked this.” I travel in both worlds, so I make art for both worlds.
I first met Kris as part of No Passport’s Hibernating Rattlesnakes, brainchild of the wonderful Caridad Svich, and even when you first meet Kris, one thing is clear: he loves theater. He believes in it. He is passionate about its future, and he is always looking for ways to keep it alive and breathing. One of the ways Kris does this is by using cultural elements that we don’t often see in plays, such as Trip and Nelson, the two DJs who tour guide us through his earlier work, Welcome To Arroyos:
The DJ booth should be visible on stage for the majority of the play. Trip and Nelson will play music and make comments from there throughout.
Kris’s use of theatrical elements such as this maintain that his work be seen specifically onstage. There is an aliveness that not only creates a relationship with the audience but makes them feel they are necessary as they are given commentary to from characters within the play.
Did you see me write my name on this wall?
You’re standing there, got a can, claiming like you did it…
But you didn’t see it. Did you, Officer?
Not you actually doing it, but—
Molly spins, makes eye contact with Officer Derek for the first time. Love at first sight.
—Then I’m leaving, because you got…
The DJs play an ironic, angry rock love song (something like “This is Love” by PJ Harvey).
Living in New York, we often say how there is too much theater to see. We simply don’t have the time for all of it. Yet, even with that abundance, the art form struggles daily. Beautiful works play to half-empty houses, while the AMC on 42nd Street is busting at the seams. But I get it, looking through the theater listings, seeing companies hashing out plays from an older generation: a theater that doesn’t represent the world of our everyday. And yet with just these two plays, Kris has already tapped into two audiences who are not usually known for buying tickets to theater: hip hop and sports.
My guess is that you could give a curtain speech at one of Kris’s shows and ask the question: “How many of you have never been to the theater before?” And you would see hands raise.
And perhaps those same people would so enjoy Chad Deity walking over them, throwing fake dollar bills on them, and think: “Oh, I didn’t know theater could be…cool.”
And once he’s got his hooks in them, Kris would continue to “blur that line”:
Throughout this section, Mace fights off EKO, Chad Deity, and Joe Jabroni with a series of wrestling moves.
Everett K. Olson didn’t invent wrestling and he didn’t invent wrestling in the United States and the United States didn’t invent wrestling and definitely didn’t master it—
—And Mexico and Japan and Canada are the real world powers in wrestling, because of their pure uncut devotion to fake fighting, to the art of making beautiful balletic brutality that tells a story of basic human heartfelt emotion—
And good guys used to be weak and vulnerable and overcome impossible odds, but now they have to look strong and invincible because the United States—and honestly, that’s all wrestling in the United States is ever about, the United States—the United States, it can’t be vulnerable, it can’t be the victim.
Now imagine an audience not just of theater/industry people who were comped and non-theater people who were dragged. Rather an audience just as you would see at a Saturday night movie or yes, even a Sunday afternoon Yankees game, people from all professions, from all backgrounds, age, and interest. A true diversity of people and, hopefully, no more half-empty houses.
Matthew Paul Olmos
MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS is the inaugural recipient of La MaMa ETC's Ellen Stewart Emerging Playwright Award, as selected by Sam Shepard; a Sundance Institute Time Warner Storytelling Fellow; two-time Mabou Mines/Suite Resident Artist; and an Artist in Residence at Brooklyn Arts Exchange. For more information, visit: www.matthewpaulolmos.com.