Playwright Matthew Spangler tells us how Tortilla Curtain made it from the page to The Western Stage

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle is a big novel in many ways. Published with great fanfare, the 1995 book is a powerful exploration of immigration, race and class that focuses on two undocumented Mexican immigrants who interact dramatically with a wealthy gated Los Angeles community. It’s a weighty statement that runs more than 300 pages.

Playwright Matthew Spangler read it, loved it, and then had an equally weighty task: how to bring this novel to the stage? He would have to remove details, cut dialogue, and generally pare down the plot.

Matthew Spangler.

Matthew Spangler.

Fortunately, theatrical adaptations have always been a labor of love for the Bay Area writer. His adaptation of the Khaled Hosseini novel The Kite Runner, which was produced by the San Jose Repertory Theatre and recently toured in the United Kingdom, has won wide acclaim. He has also adapted writings by John Steinbeck, James Joyce, John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and many other authors.

Many of the stories deal with newcomers to a country, which is why Spangler says his work, broadly speaking, “sits at the intersection of adaptation and immigration.” Besides teaching performance studies at San Jose State, he also leads an institute on theater and immigration funded by the National Endowment of the Humanities.

Spangler’s work also combines two of his great loves: narrative fiction and theatre.

“The form of art that I’m most drawn to is reading prose,” he said, adding: “I find practicing that a little lonely. As an artist, I really like the theatre because theater’s so social. … Theatre is one of those unique forms of art that happens live. The communion between audience and artist is particular to the theatre.”

To create an adaptation, Spangler must get close to the original writing. “It takes maybe nine months to write the first draft of a script,” he said. He analyzes the work, seeing what parts would translate best to the stage, and seeking to stay true to the author even as he makes changes. Sometimes those changes are tough.

The Tortilla Curtain—which he renamed Tortilla Curtain in his version—is a good example. The book is long, but the play just can’t be. In fact, it’s only about 90 minutes, with no intermission. Cuts were necessary to preserve the book’s rapid pace from dramatic event to event.

“If you’re won over by the magic of the book, you kind of fall into it and it becomes a roller coaster that takes you along,” Spangler said. “If you are true to all the elements of the novel, you’re going to have a three-hour show, and you’re going to miss the roller coaster. In a strange way, you have to take out some of the plot in order to stay true to the plot on stage.”

The playwright’s notes in his script mirror this pacing. Nearly all the transitions, for instance, “should happen as quickly as possible, with the subsequent scene starting on the heels of the previous one, and in some cases, even before the actors have cleared the playing space.”

It’s a fast-paced story with many challenges for both playwright and theater company. Without giving away plot twists, suffice it to say that Mother Nature throws in lots of drama.

How does Spangler know what to cut? “I suppose how you make those decisions is really one of intuition,” he said thoughtfully. “Maybe for all playwrights, that first draft is almost always overwritten. The challenge is figuring out what to take out so that the audience is never ahead of the story. You don’t want them to know what is going to happen.”

Tortilla Curtain has brought many great rewards for Spangler. For one, the two main characters are compelling: Cándido, the immigrant determined to make a new life for himself and his pregnant partner América despite numerous hazards; and Delaney, the affluent journalist who lives in the gated community near where Cándido and América are sleeping in a ravine.

Spangler is fascinated by Delaney’s journey from seemingly reasonable person to near-vigilante. “How does this happen?” he asked.

Meanwhile, Cándido, ravenous and desperate, keeps soldiering on. “He’s one of the most beautiful characters I’ve ever read in a book,” Spangler said.

América (Elizabeth Murillo) cares for Cándido (Adam Saucedo) after he is injured in a car accident. Photo by Richard Green.

América (Elizabeth Murillo) cares for Cándido (Adam Saucedo) after he is hurt in a car accident. Photo by Richard Green.

T.C. Boyle wrote the book in the aftermath of California’s Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that forbade undocumented immigrants from using public education, health care and other public services. The controversial 1994 initiative was approved by voters but later ruled unconstitutional.

“The book never comments on 187 but very much is responding to that context,” Spangler said. The play is set in 1995, and while Spangler says he believes the dialogue on immigration has become more progressive in California since then, nationwide it’s still very much the same.

As examples, Spangler mentions moments in the play when Cándido and América are injured or victims of crime but are afraid to seek medical attention or law-enforcement help. “When you have 11 million undocumented immigrants who don’t have access to the laws, then you essentially open your society to a number of civil-rights abuses.”

Spangler is very pleased to bring his message and play to The Western Stage. “I can think of few companies better situated and better located to do this show,” he said.

It’s especially meaningful having his work presented at a college where there are many budding theatre professionals and writers. When asked what advice he would give to an aspiring playwright, Spangler said immediately: “Do it.”

In today’s digital world, Spangler believes we need live theater even more because of how much time everyone spends on screens.

“The theatre is the best art form for cultivating face-to-face moments,” he said.

Tortilla Curtain, adapted by Matthew Spangler from the novel by T.C. Boyle, runs Oct. 24-Nov. 14 in the Studio Theater at The Western Stage. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2. For details, go to


Behind the scenes of The Liar with director Dennis Beasley

This summer at The Western Stage, we enjoyed Dennis Beasley’s heartfelt performance as The Baker in the mainstage musical Into the Woods. Now, he’s directing The Liar, an updated French farce that plays in the Studio Theatre from Sept. 18 through Oct. 4. In this post, Dennis tells us about the fun he and his cast are having with this clever, fast-paced adaptation by David Ives.

Dennis Beasley.

Dennis Beasley.

I was recently reminded of the old adage “Death is easy; comedy is hard.” After working on The Liar, I couldn’t agree more! The big difference between comedy and death, I suspect, is that comedy is a whole lot more fun.

Certainly working on The Liar has been a labor of love and, while we have been laboring, we have been laughing. I can’t count the number of times where someone has literally rolled on the floor laughing. It is particularly fun for me when, talking with the actors, I get to start my sentence with, “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” or “would it be funnier if you…” And The Liar gives us plenty of opportunities to find the funny.

The play is funny in many different ways. Just listening to the verse written in iambic pentameter and rhymed couplets is enough to keep us in stitches. David Ives is a master of finding ways to make the rhymes work and he is willing to stretch the English language to do it.

For instance, if you soften the “t” sound in “rattle,” it rhymes with “paddle” or, if you change the first vowel a bit, “buried” rhymes with “married.”  He goes even farther to get some of his rhymes. One of my favorites is coupling “switcheroo” with “pitched her woo.” Mr. Ives also has a big vocabulary (and perhaps a big thesaurus) as he sprinkles in words that are not terribly common to complete a rhyme.  When was the last time you used “emolument” in a sentence? We had to look it up.


Dorante (Aaron Kitchin, right) has a little fun with rival Alcippe (Nick Mandracchia) in “The Liar.” Photo by Richard Green.

Of course, the verse is not the only part of The Liar where we derive humor. Mr. Ives has also incorporated into the story many classic comic bits, or lazzi, as we call them in the theatre. I asked the cast to watch all kinds of old comedy to get an idea on how to approach this play. I recommended watching old comic bits by Abbott and Costello, The Three Stooges, and Bob Hope as well as some “newer” comedies like The Princess Bride and The Birdcage to see how master comics handle their business.

I watched them all again myself and I couldn’t help thinking to myself that this was a wonderful way to prepare to do my “job.” We in the theatre are sometimes very lucky.

Producing a show like The Liar is always a lot of work for all involved. From the actors to the designers to the wonderful artisans in the costume and scene shops, countless hours have been put in to bring this show to fruition. Upon reflection, I have to say that I have worked hard, too, but even in the throes of rehearsal, I often forget that I am working. That is the joy of working on a hysterical play by a great playwright at a nurturing company with talented and hard-working colleagues.

I hope that my joy comes across in this production of The Liar.  And even though death is easier than comedy, I hope I get to do the latter again before I am visited by the former.

The Liar, adapted by David Ives from the 17th-century Pierre Corneille comedy, runs Sept. 18-Oct. 4 in the Studio Theater at The Western Stage. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2. For details, go to


The Liar: a classic French farce with 21st-century flair

The Liar starts out like any other 17th-century French farce: with references to bean burritos, iPods and taxis. A sprightly young actor calls out:

“Ladies and gentlemen! Mesdames, messieurs!
All cell phones off? All cellophane secure?
Finish your texting now, not during my scene.
I’m in some theatre, But, like, where’s the screen?

Hold on for un moment. What exactly are we seeing? Is this the Pierre Corneille comedy The Liar that premiered in 1644?

But of course. It’s just slightly updated. This Liar, which runs at The Western Stage from Sept. 18 through Oct. 4, is a smart, fast-paced adaptation of the Corneille classic, courtesy of the pen of prolific American playwright David Ives.

The new play keeps the fun of the original, telling the story of a young man named Dorante who gleefully spins whatever tale he will to woo women, escape family obligations, and make his way in Parisian society. Along the way, Ives also weaves in modern details and fresh wordplay while taking a few liberties with the plot. After all, it’s unlikely that Corneille will object.

Ives calls his creation a “translaptation”: a mixture of a translation and an adaptation. The Western Stage’s team is also having fun with this bouillabaisse of a play, mixing present and past most colorfully, as seen in Suzanne Mann’s creative costumes and David Parker’s interestingly textured set.


[image: "The Liar" at The Western Stage]

Dorante (Aaron Kitchin, right) sweet-talks Clarice (Gracie Navaille) in “The Liar.” Costumes by Suzanne Mann, scenic design by David Parker, photo by Richard Green.

Ives began creating his Liar a few years ago, commissioned by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. Spotting the comedic and linguistic potential of Corneille’s script, he enthusiastically dove into the project, he told a reporter from National Public Radio in 2010.

“What struck me first was just the rippling purity of the language,” Ives said. “Even though my French is — I have to confess — based on a year and a half in college and a romantic weekend in Paris 35 years ago, I could just feel this sort of silvery language, because Dorante, the main character, has these page-long lies of sort of baroque extravagance.

“And when I saw those I knew instantly that I would have to translate the play into poetry just as Corneille had, and specifically would have to use rhymed couplets just as he had, because the entire play is kind of a high-wire act by Dorante. He’s constantly stepping very close to the edge of an incredible cliff with his lies and yet he always finds his way out of them. And so the language had to be a high-wire act as well.”

Ives also added a few more twists to the story: Dorante’s valet, Cliton, who cannot tell a lie; and two servants who are identical twins but played by the same actress.

(Listen to the NPR interview with David Ives.)

Ives’ translaptation project has become a modern classic in its own right. The New York Times has called it an “effervescent comedy,” writing:

“Mr. Ives’s rhyming couplets playfully range from stylish to silly, and much of the humor is derived from anticipating the next pun or joke, as when Dorante compares his reticent sweetheart to a clam and tenderly says, ‘You may be a bivalve, but you’re my valve.'”

A play written in rhyming verse was never so much fun.

The Liar, adapted by David Ives from the 17th-century Pierre Corneille comedy, runs Sept. 18-Oct. 4 in the Studio Theater at The Western Stage. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2. For details, go to


Corridos! Tales of Passion and Revolution makes vibrant history on many levels at The Western Stage

Coming soon to The Western Stage: a production that’s historic on many levels. From Aug. 29 through Sept. 19, TWS is presenting Corridos! Tales of Passion and Revolution in tribute to playwright Luis Valdez. The production also honors the 50th anniversary of El Teatro Campesino, where Valdez is the founder and artistic director. That’s decades of rich, vibrant Latino theatre.

[image: Luis Valdez]

Luis Valdez. Photo courtesy of El Teatro Campesino.

The Corridos! script itself delves into colorful history. This musical play by Valdez weaves together corridos, which are both ballads and storytelling sketches that explore Mexican folk traditions. Songs in Spanish and narrative in English tell tales about the heroes and stories of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920.

Traditional corridos “encompass the voices of the streets, the cantinas and the dance halls,” the New York Times wrote when covering the TV version of the play. In the play, various corridos deal with family drama, wartime heroism and battlefield journalism, all introduced by El Maestro, a charismatic character with a guitar.

El Teatro Campesino traces its beginnings back to 1965 and the world of Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers Union and the Delano Grape Strike. Valdez’s company would write and perform actos (brief skits) to depict and call attention to the workers’ cause, with union halls and flatbed trucks for stages. By 1972, El Teatro Campesino had won two Los Angeles Drama Critics Awards and an Obie Award for “demonstrating the politics of survival,” according to the company’s website.

The company has been based in San Juan Bautista since 1971 and still performs holiday plays in the historic mission. It’s reached far beyond, too, with tours of Europe, the United States and Mexico. And Broadway plays a starring role on the company’s résumé. In 1977, Valdez created the play Zoot Suit—about the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and ensuing riots—for the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where it was a major hit. It was the first play by a Latino to have a run on Broadway, and also sparked a movie (written and directed by Valdez) that earned a Golden Globe nod for Best Musical Picture.

After acquiring a new theater in San Juan Bautista in 1981, El Teatro Campesino opened Corridos! to sold-out houses. The play soon moved to San Francisco and won eleven awards from the Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, with Best Musical among them.

Corridos! then leapt to TV with a new adaptation by Valdez for KQED. Valdez starred as El Maestro, along with a cast featuring singer Linda Ronstadt, San Francisco Ballet artist Evelyn Cisneros, actor Clancy Brown, and Mariachi Los Camperos.

[image: Linda Ronstadt]

Linda Ronstadt performing in 1978. Photo by Carl Lender.

The program won the prestigious George Peabody Award and widespread media coverage. The awards program noted that the actors “infuse the material with heartfelt energy and electricity,” and concluded, “The result is an hour of excitement and color unmatched in 1987.”

Other highlights of Valdez’s career have included directing the 1987 film La Bamba and being awarded a medal from President Ronald Reagan for his contributions to the arts.

More recent productions by Valdez and his company have included the feature film La Pastorela: A Shepherd’s Tale, which aired on PBS and overseas; the feature Ballad of Soldier, written by Kinan Valdez and based on Luis Valdez’s anti-war play Soldado Razo; world premieres with San Diego Repertory Theater; and a hit 25th-anniversary production of Zoot Suit.

Productions of Zoot Suit have drawn crowds at many other venues, including San Jose State University, Pomona College, and of course The Western Stage.

Everyone at TWS is looking forward to presenting another powerful play by Valdez, and paying tribute to his groundbreaking theatre company and career.

Corridos! Tales of Passion and Revolution, a musical play by Luis Valdez, runs Aug. 29-Sept. 19 in the Mainstage Theater at The Western Stage. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2. The play is produced by special arrangements with Valdez and El Teatro Campesino, in tribute to Valdez and ETC’s 50th anniversary. For details, go to


For Into the Woods, musical director Don Dally takes on the exciting / confounding adventure of Sondheim music

[image: Musical director Don Dally]

Don Dally.

Don Dally is a seasoned orchestra musician with classical training. So being the musical director for Into the Woods at The Western Stage is kind of a perfect gig. After all, it means embarking on that sometimes frightening, always alive adventure that is Stephen Sondheim music.

“He’s definitely one of the most sophisticated composers. You can really study his music like a classical composer,” Don said. “There are very few places where the music is exactly what it is on the surface.”

Into the Woods, with its familiar characters, might appear to be a straightforward, happy-ending story. Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood and others head off into the forest on specific quests, like selling a cow or visiting Granny. But the woods can get mighty dark mighty fast—like life. Before the characters know it, they’re clashing, encountering villainy, and glimpsing their own dark sides. Sondheim’s music and lyrics only make the turmoil more vivid.

Don admires the depth of the score. A character might seem to be heading for a happy ending, but subtle dissonant chords warn the audience. “Characters might be saying something and the music is saying something else,” he said. “There could be something that the music’s telling the audience—or something in the character’s mind.”

Sondheim often uses repeating motifs, as an opera composer would, Don added. The main musical theme that we hear at the start (“Into the woods / It’s time to go / It may be all / In vain, you know”) returns throughout the show, with different words and at various paces. Sometimes it’s hesitant and fearful; sometimes it’s upbeat. “The music’s constantly changing. You never just settle into the accompaniment,” Don said.

[image: Stephen Sondheim]

Stephen Sondheim around 1976. Photo: Wikipedia.

Don is a veteran of Sondheim shows at The Western Stage, having worked on productions including Follies, Sweeney Todd and the junior version of Into the Woods. He’s been a regular here since 1985. Over the years, he’s played in the orchestra pit and onstage, working his way up to musical director.

Don originally started out playing the violin as his first instrument, and then guitar. Viola, mandolin and a bit of piano got added to the mix. He played in rock bands and studied music classically, earning a degree from U.C. Berkeley.

Then he came to The Western Stage and caught the theater bug, and has worked at many companies in Monterey County and the Bay Area. Besides working as a musical director, sometimes he composes music for productions or works as the sound designer. He also does some teaching.

He keeps coming back here in part because of its respect for musicians. “This theater puts more money into their orchestras than any in the area,” he said, nodding approvingly. For Into the Woods, he’ll have a 14-piece orchestra of experienced players.

Don also has praise for the actors, who are equally savvy in the ways of musical theater. They have to be. This is not a show where an actor can just relax and sing, thanks to the masterful Mr. Sondheim. “You have to be a good musician. You have to count or follow a conductor,” Don said. “Some musicals are light … this one gives you a lot to think about. It’s more about: This is how life is. It’s difficult and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

When a musical like this really clicks, it’s that much more rewarding, Don added. “More than any show I’ve done, the people (in it) have said it’s their favorite show.”

Into the Woods, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, runs July 11-August 1 in the Mainstage Theater at The Western Stage. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2. For details, go to

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