May 10, 2021

A Year In: Rudy Ramirez, director and theater artist

Though Ramirez stayed busy during the pandemic, the need for change remained urgent. 'I think we're underestimating how radical the changes in theatrical practice need to be.'


The series ‘A Year In’ catches up with artists now that the coronavirus pandemic has passed its one-year mark.

Rudy Ramirez is a multi-faceted theater artist — a director specializing in the development of new work, the associate artistic director of Austin’s Vortex theater, a founding artistic director of Avante Theatre Project, a company dedicated to producing new and avant-garde Latinx performance. And Ramirez has won a a slew of local theater awards for every endeavor it seems.

Last August, Ramirez was one of four who received a residency at the University of Texas’ Texas Performing Arts. The novel program, a collaboration with the Fusebox Festival, gives theatre and dance artists critical support to develop new work. With “The Ruining Lorca Trilogy,” Ramirez plans to collaborate with fellow queer-identifying Mexican American writers Victor Cazares, Krysta Gonzales and Jesús Valles to reconsider Federico Garcia Lorca’s iconic “Rural Trilogy”

What were you working on and looking forward to when the lockdown began in mid-March 2020? What was the first of your work you saw cancelled?

Rudy Ramirez: I was working on two projects when the lockdown began. I was in rehearsals for Reina Hardy’s play “Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven,” produced by ehe Vortex as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere. I was also workshopping my first show with Penfold Theatre, which was an ambitious take on “The Tempest” inspired by Nell McKeown and Stephanie Donowho’s work on “Witchcraft in Their Lips.” The two of them created this brilliant Shakespeare-remixed show that explored women in the history plays; I was working with actors to look at different adaptations of “The Tempest” as well as some of the source documents Shakespeare drew from to think about the play as one of the first big literary engagements with colonialism. We were meeting and going through all these texts to think about how to tell the story of the play through history and address the more problematic elements of the text, but still create something vibrant and engaging for the audience that would be seeing the show on a summer night in Round Rock. I would have loved to figure out how to thread that needle, but it looks like the show is on indefinite hiatus at the moment.

S: What part of the pandemic were you surprised to find being a creative benefit?

RR: The most surprising thing about the pandemic was I got paid better for directing than I ever had been before, and I was able to keep working pretty consistently throughout. The shift to Zoom and other online platforms meant that I could direct anywhere and work with anyone, so I was bringing in actors I’ve always wanted to work with in New York for “The CoviDecameron” series I created for The VORTEX streaming, and I had playwrights inviting me to work on their shows even if they were being produced through companies out of state. One of the last shows I did before the pandemic was “Click” by Jacqueline Goldfinger, and when a company in New York wanted to do a workshop of a new “online-friendly” version of the piece, Jacqueline asked me to direct it, and we were able to have four out of the five actors from the Austin production reprise their roles and earn some extra money. More than once during this pandemic I’ve thought about how I grew up thinking that everyone would be doing video calls one day, but it took this pandemic to make it a norm.

Kacey Samiee as Gette and Kareem Badr as Nazrullah in "Heartland." Photo by Errich Petersen
Kacey Samiee as Gette and Kareem Badr as Nazrullah in Gabriel Jason Dean’s “Heartland.” Directed by Rudy Ramirez. Photo by Errich Petersen

S: What changes do you want to see in theater, how it’s practiced and how it’s presented to an audience? What could/should the so-called ‘new normal’ of theater look like?

RR: I think we’re underestimating how radical the changes in theatrical practice need to be, and how big the resistance to change is going to be when theater gets going. I hear the voice of Gia Gunn haunting this conversation, saying “Well, what you wanna do is not necessarily what you’re gonna do.” There are so many foundational theatre practices rooted in white supremacy, misogyny, classism and ableism, just to name a few, that need more than a change of leadership or some training sessions to resolve. I don’t just mean having White gatekeepers; I mean the model of gatekeeping itself, of a singular artistic director or even a small cohort of artistic leaders determining how a theatre moves forward without community input or accountability. I don’t just mean practices that exclude people with mixed abilities; I mean theatre practices that put intense physical, mental and emotional strain on everyone involved regardless of ability.

I also don’t just mean that everyone else needs to work on these things; I need to work on them myself. I think we’re going to see a lot of theatre companies and organizations, including academic theatre departments, dig in their heels when it comes to doing anything more than the minimum when it comes to addressing these problems. Every little bit helps, but we have to keep our eye on changing the system and learn to discern the difference between pain-relievers and real medicine, the latter of which might have rough side effects but result in a healthier future.

I think Austin in particular is going to have to band together. I often picture a coral reef when talking about Austin theatre. We’re a bunch of different organisms, each filling our niche, but we need to recognize that it’s the diversity of the system that keeps it strong. We’ve tried to talk in years past about sharing resources and lobbying the city together, but a lot of it hasn’t gotten past the complaining-about-it-at-the-bar stage and into the implementation stage. I know that a lot of artistic directors have been meeting, and I hope they’re thinking creatively about how to position our community as a whole in post-pandemic Austin.

Jennifer Coy Jennings in Allison Gregory's "Wild Horses" at the Vortex Theatre in Austin. Photo by Errich Peterson.
Jennifer Coy Jennings in Allison Gregory’s “Wild Horses” at the Vortex. Directed by Rudy Ramirez. Photo by Errich Peterson.

S: Artistically, what’s next that you look forward to, and are excited by?

RR: I’ve got a full few months ahead of me: I just arrived in Western Massachusetts to stage a series of outdoor installations called “Monuments of the Future” as part of my directing MFA program at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Then I’ll be back in town to co-direct our long-awaited production of “Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven” with Marcus McQuirter, do a workshop of a new Reina Hardy play we’ve been developing about Sesame Workshop called “Sunny Days,” and do readings of a trilogy of new plays based on the works of Federico Garcia Lorca called “The Ruining Lorca Project” (shout out to the Rude Mechs). The pieces are being written by Victor Cazares, Krysta Gonzales and Jesus I. Valles, and they’re very queer, very Mexican and deliciously absurd. Our project has been sponsored by Fusebox Festival and Texas Performing Arts, and I am hugely grateful to them for all the work they’ve done for us.

Finally I get to go up to Massachusetts again ahead of my second year at UMass to direct some friends in a dance theatre piece about the closeted romance between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.

It’s funny: people talk about the pandemic as a time of rest, but I’m very extroverted, so knowing that I’ll get to travel and work with all these people feels, if not restful, then at least rejuvenating compared to being alone for the past year. It’s been a long winter, and I’m ready for spring.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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