Monday, August 17, 2009

Interview with Gregg Barrios

Rancho Pancho, a play by former Los Angeles Times journalist and San Antonio playwright Gregg Barrios, is about the short-lived but intense relationship between playwright Tennessee Williams and South Texan Pancho Rodriguez from 1946-1947. The other characters are Carson McCullers (with whom Williams and Pancho shared a summer home in Nantucket), and pioneer stage director Margo Jones (who was in P-town for Brando’s Streetcar audition.)

Barrios based his play in part on previously unknown correspondence between Williams and Pancho. Williams used his relationship with the volatile Pancho as a model for the character of Stanley Kowalski and his relationship with both Blanche and Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire. Barrios chose the name of the play from the fact that Williams dubbed their home together “Rancho Pancho,” wherever they happened to be living. As previously noted on La Bloga, Rancho Pancho was presented in collaboration with Classic Theatre of San Antonio and was directed by Diane Malone. The Hansen Publishing Group has now published Rancho Pancho in paperback.

Gregg Barrios very kindly agreed to sit down with La Bloga and answer a few a questions about his play.

DANIEL OLIVAS: To be honest, until I read your play, I knew nothing of Tennessee Williams' relationship with Pancho Rodriguez. Are you surprised by this admission? Have others admitted this to you?

GREGG BARRIOS: I am not surprised. In fact, that was my impetus to write this secret history. I too didn’t believe the story when I first heard it. Even after I meeting Pancho and his twin brother Juancho in New Orleans in 1972 while teaching at Loyola University, I couldn’t get them to open up about the relationship. Nor could I engage Tenn into discussing the relationship when I met him soon afterward. So I figured the whole thing was fabricated or wildly exaggerated – a fiction.

Only after both Tenn and Pancho were dead, did I return to the idea when I read director Elia Kazan’s autobiography. Kazan who directed both stage and screen version of A Streetcar Named Desire reports an altercation between Tenn and Pancho while Streetcar was in rehearsal. Kazan used the incident to understand the dynamic of the play that was eluding him: “If Tenn was Blanche, then Pancho was Stanley.” And he was then able to direct the play in earnest. That too became my mantra as I began my research armed with the knowledge that their relationship had been real.

Of course once I began knocking on people’s doors to learn more, I was told by Williams’ scholars and biographers – and friends - that I was confusing Pancho with Frank Merlo, Williams longtime partner after Rodriguez.

Even more amazing was discovering that Pancho was from Eagle Pass, Texas, just a hop and a skip from Crystal City, Texas, flagship capital of La Raza Unida, where I had taught drama and journalism for eight years. Ultimately, my good friend the actor Peter Gonzalez - who is from the area, and starred as the young Fellini in Roma – related that Pancho was his uncle. He made contact with the Rodriguez family possible. Small world, verdad?

OLIVAS: The play is quite funny at times. Did you intend this or did this element naturally flow from the characters involved?

BARRIOS: In many of the Q&A’s that we have after a performance, I start out by asking the audience, “Did you find it funny?”

Humor is the dramatist’s saving grace. It’s an important ingredient. There has to be a balance. Heaven forbid, that life would be grim and unrelenting. Oscar Wilde used humor in the face of outrageous fortune. And Tenn and Pancho used humor, call it camp if you like, but it is in the humor that you can see the love and the bond, and then understand why the loss of love and separation become so tragic.

That harkens to the still modern Cervantes who used comedy in El Quijote to tell the sad tale of his “mad” caballero.

OLIVAS: One of my favorite scenes in the play is when Marlon Brando makes a cameo. Was it difficult to write lines for such an iconic actor?

BARRIOS: Well, as Tennessee says in the play, “You have to write what you know.” And as Pancho says about the Stanley character, “I just think there might be a little bit of me in him.” Actually, I have Brando off-stage during his cameo for the simple reason that having an actor portray him might have dashed the audience’s expectations. We all have our own idea of what Brando was like so don’t spoil the magic. Actually, the real Brando did repair the electricity and plumbing at Rancho Pancho on that fated day. Hilarious.

We had the actor Bennie Briseño who portrayed Pancho make a recording of his interpretation of Brando doing Stanley - sort of a mirror looking into the mirror, etc. It was quite effective especially when Pancho eavesdrops while Brando’s audition is taking place off-stage. It is also very moving.

OLIVAS: Pancho is, in many ways, a tragic figure, someone who could have become quite famous if he were alive today. Do you agree or am I just reading something into the play that isn't there?

BARRIOS: Jijole, that’s hard to answer. In the context of the play, he is a tragic figure. I don’t think he would have been famous if he were alive today. He kept his relationship with Williams under wraps. He wasn’t one to kiss and tell. And you have to add to that mix, the entire stigma attached to gay Latinos by the culture. And when I finally got Juancho his brother to open up about the affair, he too was reluctant.

Pancho was booted out of the military during WWII after serving two years in the South Pacific because he dared confide with an officer about his sexuality.

It is “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” happening 40 years before our present military policy. As a result, he received no GI benefits and he couldn’t face his family. That’s why I included the scene where Pancho while tooling around in Irene Mayer Selznick’s convertible gives a ride to a hitch-hiking Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of WWII, and laments not his own fate, but the way Murphy was treated in Hollywood, The irony is devastating.

Another aspect of Pancho’s openness is the debate over gay marriage. He tells Tenn in the play – as he did in real life and in his letters – that Williams is the one he wants to share his life with “para siempre.” If that isn’t a heart-breaking marriage proposal then what is?

What many people don’t know but as the play gets produced in other venues and other media (I wish I could talk about this, but my lips are sealed), they might come to know the true history of Pancho Rodriguez.

I have a proposal for a short Penguin Lives style biography of Pancho under consideration. In my research, I acquired a sizable trove of letters, photos, and personal mementos from his life. I truly believe we have to write our own stories many of which have been usurped and appropriated by others.

As Sal Castro tells his students in the film Walkout: “We were at Gettysburg during the Civil War, but you won’t find us in the history book. Why?” Ditto the recent flap about the absence of Latinos in Ken Burns’ The War. And I would add, we were at the creation of one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, but you’d never know it.

Pancho figures in the forthcoming second volume of the definitive biography Tom – The Unknown Tennessee Williams by the late Lyle Leverich. The book’s publisher signed New Yorker drama critic John Lahr to write the second volume, tentatively titled Tennessee. And in conversation with Lahr, he has expressed great interest in restoring the profound influence Pancho had on Williams.

For my part, I have started a Tenn Trilogy: Three plays about Williams. Rancho Pancho is the first. Tennessee Mon Amour the second and The City that Time Forgot the third.

I have finished the first and the third and am halfway through the second. The last play takes place thirty years after the breakup chronicled in Rancho Pancho. It opens as Tenn and Pancho meet in New Orleans on Jackson Square – just a block from the house where they lived and where Williams wrote Streetcar. It’s all based on a true encounter. It’s both hilarious and heart-breaking.

OLIVAS: Was it difficult getting "Rancho Pancho" produced for the stage? Were you surprised by the critical acclaim it received? Did you edit the play after watching the play performed?

BARRIOS: It wasn’t as difficult getting it produced, as it was time-consuming. The writing was the easiest part. Researching and getting the voices right took the most time. I got a Gateways-Ford Foundation grant through the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio to develop the play – a commission of sorts.

The play went through several readings and each time I found ways to make it leaner. I originally had Juancho, Pancho’s twin brother as a character and narrator.

After we presented the play as a staged reading in San Antonio and New Orleans, we got excellent feedback. I was privileged to work with director Diane Malone who gave the best advice during this editing process. In many ways she was also the play’s dramaturge.

When I sent the script to the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival last year, they were pleased with my rewrites and accepted it as the only play in the festival not written by Williams.

I approached several Los Angeles theaters to consider producing it at the P-town festival, but most felt they didn’t have sufficient time or funding to mount a production and then travel to the festival.

Luckily, Malone was involved in a new theater company, The Classic Theatre of San Antonio. They agreed to mount a full production and then move it to P-Town.

I was not surprised by the positive critical response to the play, I was however overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response from the diverse audience – young and old, gay and straight, people of color and blue-haired doyennes. The theater had wrap around lines and some had to sit on folding chairs, it was so packed.

At the time, I wondered if the passionate response was due to the audience seeing themselves in the character of Pancho or if they were seeing a play that doesn’t pull any punches in portraying the love and sex life of a homosexual relationship. After all, San Antonio is still considered a conservative little town by many – even in the arts community.

In Provincetown, the thing that totally amazed me and I still treasure is that the audience composed of mainly New York City and P-town fans of Williams was so enthusiastic that they applauded after each scene. Unheard of.

Plus the San Antonio Express-News sent their theater critic Deborah Martin to review the play, and we got our rare notices the next morning via email as our cast and crew went to have “coffee” with Eli Wallach and his wife Anne Jackson.

OLIVAS: How did you go about getting the play published in book form?

BARRIOS: Months before taking the play to the P-Town, I was introduced to Jon Hansen of Hansen Publishing, who had published works – mostly scholarly and historical – about Williams. We discussed a T-shirt and a poster and then he suggested doing a souvenir publication of the script as a one-time thing.

Well, once the play moved into a more central position at the festival and the notices from the San Antonio production were glowing, we were suddenly on the Festival poster - front and center. And once the audiences at P-Town saw the play, we were on a roll.

Later, Jon and I brainstormed and he decided to do a trade edition of the play. And the more we talked, he decided to launch a new series: Hansen Drama. Rancho Pancho is the first of drama scripts that Hansen will publish.

Since then, we have discovered a very receptive audience eager to read new plays that perhaps they have no way of experiencing live. Once long ago, major publishers used to release reader’s editions of plays. Hopefully, that tradition will now find a new audience.

You don’t know what a thrill it was to go Barnes and Noble at Lincoln Center in New York City and have a friend ask for Rancho Pancho by title and be told: “That’s a new play by Gregg Barrios. You can find it on third floor, performing arts under drama between Albee and Beckett.” And there it was.

Better still, Hansen is publishing my new collection of poetry La Causa in October. I am blessed to have found a publisher who respects my work and hope that our literary relationship continues to flourish and prosper.

OLIVAS: Mil gracias, Gregg, for spending time with La Bloga.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great interview! I put the link up to this on our Facebook page for Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival. Thanks for talking about us.
Rory Marcus