Before emerging as a director, Loy Arcenas designed throughout the country, receiving honors wherever he went. Awards include the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award, a Chicago Jeff, Bay Area Critics Circle Awards, the Dramalogue, Drama Desk Nominations, and Obies, one of these for sustained excellence of set design. Born in the Philippines and trained in London, he has designed Off-Broadway and on, with credits that include American premieres of Love! Valour! Compassion!, Corpus Christi, Prelude to a Kiss, Once On This Island, Spunk, Blue Window, Indian Ink, and Simpatico. He has been a resident director for New Dramatists and is a regular at the Ma-Yi Theatre Company, the Fil-American troupe that recently took eight Obies for The Romance of Magno Rubio, which Arcenas designed and directed.
Davi Napoleon: Let's talk about transitions. You directed musicals in Manila before you came to this country. What drew you to design?
Loy Arcenas: I really jumped into it quite by accident. At the Drama School of London, I wanted to take a little of everything and go back to directing. It was easy for me to block actors…. But emotionally the story did not move. I realized I had to learn more about acting. Then I happened to take the Theater Design Course at the English National Opera under Margaret Harris.
DN: Are you an actor as well?
LA: I still have stage fright.
DN: Does your work as a designer influence the way you direct?
LA: I don't compartmentalize one from the other. When I design, I design with the movement of actors in mind…thinking about how the particular director I'm working with would possibly block them. I guess it's because my initial stab at theater was with musicals. In musicals, you have to acknowledge this flow. I've always been attracted to dance.
DN: How does your work reflect this flow or movement?
LA: Much of the work I did when I first started to design were American plays, plays of the 80s that approach the cinematic. I really found my stride with my work with Norman Rene and Craig Lucas. Craig's plays are written with a certain rhythm, a certain pace — it's like music, one movement goes into the other. What I love about plays like Craig's is they require you to solve the emotional problem of the play.
DN: How did you solve Prelude?
LA: It has something to do with creating a visual world, an emotional stage for the play. In Prelude, you move from the bedroom to the park to Jamaica in a couple of minutes. That's a lot of scenery to bring in in a short span of time. But it's not about the park. It's an accumulation of emotion. At South Coast, we used a turntable and a huge wipe, 30' long. The different and unexpected permutations they created when they moved had a very cinematic and magical quality. Prelude on Broadway was a disappointment. We didn't have either.
DN: What brought you back to directing?
LA: Part of the reason was I felt like I'd come to a crossroad, and I wasn't happy with what I was doing. There were times during rehearsals when I thought I could do better than what I was seeing being done on stage, and that is not usually a very good sign for designers. It had something to do with that what I was seeing in rehearsals was not what we talked about during the design process. Now if I fall on my face, I can only blame myself for that.
DN: How do you prepare to direct?
LA: You come in with an idea of what the play should be about and you work toward that goal. You need to have actors who can sort of fly with you, which means that you need to reassure them that you're there for them.
DN: Do you begin with table time, or do you jump right into blocking?
LA: A lot of table time. I let the actors move around the table on their own. You learn a lot from their initial moves, the way they come close or go further away from other actors.
DN: When you direct, do you always hire yourself to design?
LA: Right now, that's the case, but I would love to use somebody else to design for me, just to see what happens. When I design for myself, contrary to the way I behave when I design for other directors, I wait until I feel how the production is going before I finish the design. I know the time frames I have to work with, and as I tend to be minimalistic, I don't demand too much in terms of props. I much prefer to solve the problems in an easier way than adding more stuff. If we follow the rules we set up, a design works. The same principle applies to shows I've designed. I sort of like to say, “You've designed yourself into this corner, how do you get out?”
DN: How do you get out?
LA: Sometimes, the actors give you the solution. What is so fun about the whole process is once you set your rules and you try to solve it within the rules, you can open yourself up to the collaborative process which includes the actors. That's the fun part of directing.
DN: Now that you've started directing professionally, how do you feel when you design for other directors?
LA: Part of what makes this profession fun is the director you work with brings in a new perspective. One of the more exciting things I've done lately is the Steppenwolf Topdog/Underdog — this huge red fragmented wall divided into small sections, with an almost cubistic expressionistic steep rake for entrances. I feel like the language of Suzi Lori Parks, the heightened theatricality, is almost operatic in nature. Amy Morton [the director] and I felt the design needed to go that way.
DN: You directed and designed The Romance of Magno Rubio first for Ma-Yi, then for the Laguna Playhouse, and I hear you're taking it to the Victory Gardens in Chicago this spring. Tell me about that.
LA: I had suggested to Ma-Yi to do an adaptation of Carlos Bulosan's work — he was a migrant worker and a Filipino activist who was in California in the 30s. I had worked with Lonnie Carter during my residency at the New Dramatists, and I suggested that he adapt a story. He came up with a working script. The whole thing was a series of serendipitous events that happen rarely.
DN: How did you direct and design it?
LA: The setting is depression-era California. Migrant workers are crammed up in farm bunkhouses, segregated from the rest of society. I decided to create this sense of isolation by putting up a wire fence between the actors and the audience to reinforce the confined nature of the men's lives. It created a natural tension between the actors and the audience because it unconsciously made the audience feel that they had to make a stronger effort to reach out to the characters, and it gave the actors something physical to play out the men's caged situation. Another directing/design decision was to create this isolated world by making it an ensemble piece for five male actors and to cast one of them to be the voice of the lone female character who extorts money from Magno by promising him marriage. California laws forbade the marriages of Filipinos to Caucasian women at that time. By making a male actor embody the letters she sends to Magno, you see that she is a creation of their fantasy. When she finally appears, we only get to see her shadow….She is really the idealized woman that Magno has created in his head, and when he kisses her or rather her shadow, he is kissing his dream.
DN: Do you work regularly with certain theatres besides Ma-Yi?
LA: I enjoy returning to theatres because I have working relationships with TDs and production managers. Many of the TDs are really wonderful.
DN: You seem to be attracted both to the theatrical and the cinematic. Are you finding opportunities to do the work you like?
LA: I wish more of the theaters were more adventurous. Part of the problem is the insularity of the plays. A lot of the plays have no sense of the big world, the big picture. It's a lot of navel gazing. In films, the camera creates the opportunity of the close-up, which gives even a small picture a cosmic resonance. You don't have that on stage. You have to come up with a theatrical gesture. The play has to resonate within a bigger world or it becomes small.
DN: What are you enjoying most these days?
LA: The reason why I love the profession is the intellectual stimulation the process between artists creates. It's like solving a puzzle, an emotional puzzle. Part of the fun is the banter, the give and take.
TWO OR THREE THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT LOY ARCENAS:
- He planned to follow in the footsteps of his father, a physician, but started taking incompletes in pre-med classes at the University of the Philippines once he started directing there.
- His mother, a banker, interviewed for him at the Drama Studio of London because the Philippines was under martial law. He couldn't leave the country; a banker could.