Janis Butler Holm: Diana, you’re known in southern California as a drama professional who has very successfully integrated art and activism. Before we address your personal trajectory as a writer and performer, could you describe your involvement in various social justice projects, past and present?
Diana Burbano: I have written for the Protest Plays project on gun reform, immigration, DACA, and the lack of response to the Covid-19 crisis. On language shaming, racism, and performative allyship. My latest project was a staged reading of my play Ghosts of Bogotá, which deals with deep-seated DNA trauma, and I was honored to have RAICES (the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services) as the beneficiary of the funds we raised, which were not insubstantial! That was surprising—except that so many people responded to the play, seeing what they considered their story on stage.
JH: Let’s talk a bit about your background. Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
DB: I’m an immigrant. I start my bios and most of my interviews highlighting this fact because it’s an essential part of who I am. Being an immigrant to this country has informed all of my writing and informed my activism. I came to the USA from Columbia, unable to speak English, and we arrived at a place where no one spoke our language. It was hostile territory.
In many ways, I still don’t feel like I belong anywhere. A lot of my activism comes from my deep knowledge of being othered and how damaging that is. Not only as an immigrant but also as a person with pretty severe learning disabilities, ADHD. I know now that a lot of the things I went through as a child were exacerbated by the neurodivergent way I learn and take in information.
I am passionate about allowing people to exist “where they are” instead of trying to make them fit into boxes. I don’t believe in shaming anyone for the way they speak, for their unique writing, spelling, anything—shame and fear are damaging and a terrible way to limit creativity.
JH: When did you first think that you might want to be a writer? What were your earliest influences?
DB: I wasn’t immediately compelled to write. I did write when I was young, but because of learning disabilities, I couldn’t spell, couldn’t handwrite. The computer, with spell check, allowed me to be a writer.
I was an actor, a good one. But no one wrote roles for me. In my years as a performer, I played a variation of the nanny, the gang girl, or the frightened migrant. None of which were me, by any stretch of the imagination. But acting was always the primary thing I wanted to do. It was my vocation, the place I felt safe, the only place I excelled. Literally no one was writing roles for Latina girls with any wit or intelligence. We were invisible on stage, and that was really depressing.
The last straw was seeing a play where the white writer made this joke about the Mexican gardener—“We call him Jos-B because we already had a José”—which made me realize that white American theatre had no clue and no desire to tell our real stories. So I started to write—mostly for myself to perform so that I could play someone who wouldn’t make me feel shame. I know that sounds harsh, but it is painfully true that I didn’t seem to exist as a whole person in other dramatists’ imaginations. I continue to write almost exclusively to put wonderful meaty roles for Latina women out in the world. That’s my mandate, and that’s what drives me.
JH: What brought you to California?
DB: My family landed in Cleveland from Colombia, then moved to Buffalo and could not stand the cold. I grew up in freezing winters—and thinking the country was grey. I think my mother was terribly depressed for all the years we lived on the East Coast. Then my father got a job, stuffed us all in a station wagon, and drove us across the US to San José when I was nine.
JH: Why write and act here, as opposed to, say, New York?
DB: Fear. I spent a long time stuck by fear. Fear of losing stability. After I graduated from conservatory, I got my Equity card right away and started to work in Theatre for Young Audiences in Los Angeles. I had been with a long-term boyfriend since I was 19, and I felt I had a real home for the first time in my life. To be honest, I found L.A. in general–and my housewife life in particular–dull and uninspiring, but I had gone to school here. I had friends and a career here. When you’ve never felt at home anywhere, stability seems like all you want.
And I wanted to go to New York only after having found some success. When I finally broke free of my ridiculously conventional life, I not only worked and wrote in New York City but traveled all over the world! And this has continued. My home is still in the Los Angeles area, but last year I spent twenty-one weeks on the road, and it was bliss.
JH: Have you ever collaborated with other dramatists? Do you have an artistic community that supports your work?
DB: My first full-length play, Silueta, was written in collaboration with my partner and his cousin. We wanted to write something for us to act in together, that maybe we could take to colleges, as we had a young child. I’m collaborating right now with an entire class of Portland acting students on a radio play. I also belong to the Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble. They have always supported me and my work. In fact, I’ve always had great support from small theatres with female BIPOC artistic directors and lit managers.
JH: You’ve had numerous plays published and produced. Which are your favorites? Why? What are the dominant themes of your dramatic writing?
DB: I really like Caliban’s Island for its use of language and for the theme of accepting nonbinary gender. Ghosts of Bogotá is an exorcism of family trauma; Sapience is about autism and orangutans; Gargoyles, about World War I. The one thing that unites my work is that I write huge leading protagonist and antagonist roles for Latinx women+.
JH: How have grants and residencies contributed to your development as a playwright?
DB: I have been awarded the Rella Lossy in the Bay Area, which went towards the development of Ghosts of Bogotá. I was part of the Brown Swan Lab at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for Latinx writers, under Luis Alfaro and Amrita Ramanan. I wrote with Center Theatre Group’s writers’ circle and am currently writing a full-length in residency with the Geffen Playhouse. I love writers’ groups because I love and trust playwrights. I’ve met and fallen in love with really fantastic writers through these organizations.
JH: Does feminism inform your writing? What has been your experience as a woman writer in a male-dominated profession?
DB: I write like a woman, but I submit my work like a white dude. So I’ve done all right. I’m persistent and pretty ambitious and am also willing to weaponize my charm. Having spent much of my early life following rules and trying to fit into a patriarchal mold of womanhood, I can’t tell you how happy I am to have left all that behind.
JH: When you set out to write a play, do you work up a rough outline of the action, or is your process mostly one of discovery? Do you have writing rituals?
DB: I do not tend to outline because, when I do, I never follow it anyway. I think about the topic I want to write about, start with the character that substitutes for me, and build up from there. I do find that if I have to write on a specific topic, the process goes faster and feels easier. When I need to write, I put Phillip Glass on my speaker and dive in.
JH: Do you have a “first reader,” someone who reads what you write before you consider yourself done?
DB: No. I never wait to share my stuff—I put it out even when it’s ugly because I value the exchange of ideas. I’ll bring my work anywhere to hear it out loud.
JH: What sustains you as a writer?
DB: That people I admire and love go out of their way to give me commissions and other work.
JH: Which dramatists do you like best? Why?
DB: I adore Paula Vogel and Sarah Ruhl, Brian Quijada, Hansol Jung, Kemp Powers, Caridad Svich, Suzan-Lori Parks, Dominique Morriseau, Octavio Solis, Luis Alfaro, and José Cruz González. Language! These playwrights are into world-building, taking command of the stage, and feeling free of colonized constructs. Speaking of—I love the language of Stoppard, as he writes English as a second language, but was very disappointed to hear he signed a letter supporting J. K. Rowling’s transphobia. Crushed, really. I’m not a canceller, but I’m less inclined to fangirl him now.
JH: A section of your blog is titled “Microaggressions against BIPOC: Audition Edition.” It’s a list of racist comments made to black/indigenous/people of color who try out for parts in theater, film, and television. There are nearly 200 quotations of intensely insulting remarks that demonstrate all too well the obstacles that BIPOC actors face in these industries. Specifically, what difficulties have you encountered and overcome in your own acting career?
DB: I was told I was too sexy, too butch, too Latina, not Latina enough, can I do it with an accent, and my favorite: please don’t act like you’re in a telenovela. Also tone down your enthusiasm; you’re too much. Be quieter, slower, less—I don’t know—spitfire. I have a note in my programs asking the reviewers never to use the word “telenovela” and not to use food adjectives such as “spicy,” “hot,” or “full of salsa”– and no Spanish words unless the reviewer is bilingual. (I am not the only bilingual person who hates it when reviews sprinkle Spanish in the text like it’s sugar.)
All this said, we need more BIPOC reviewers, casting directors, and producers. I think if one has been marginalized—and has managed to succeed in spite of that—one is inclined not to marginalize others but to pull up and defy expectations.
JH: Of your various acting roles, which have you enjoyed most? How did you prepare for it/them?
DB: My favorite recent roles have been Amalia in José Cruz González’s American Mariachi, Marisela in Isaac Gómez’s La Ruta, and Leona in Brian Quijada’s Somewhere over the Border. Amazing roles for women, written by Latinx playwrights and very difficult to pigeonhole.
My preparation usually consists of putting on a funny hat and trusting in luck. But seriously—for American Mariachi I had to learn to play violin.
JH: You’ve been a teaching artist in various lab, workshop, and academic settings, and currently you’re a theater conservatory instructor at South Coast Repertory, Orange County’s Tony Award-winning theater. How would you encourage students (and dramatic artists of all stripes, for that matter) to persevere during the Covid-19 pandemic?
DB: Find a class; find a community. There are groups popping up all over the country. I teach free playwriting classes at Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble, and I have students in New York, Chicago, Arizona, and Honduras. We are happy to have found each other, and we write together. It’s a group I never would have gotten to know pre-pandemic, and I think they’re wonderful.
JH: Thank you, Diana, for taking the time to answer my questions. I’m so glad to have had this opportunity to ask you about your work.
DB: Thank you for asking me and for allowing me to be reflective. It feels as if I’ve been moving so fast, trying to maximize opportunities to keep the community alive during this pandemic, that it’s been interesting to slow down long enough to really consider where I am today and what forces have shaped me. Be well, Janis. See you on the other side of shelter-in-place—and best of luck for the future.
DIANA BURBANO is a Colombian immigrant, Equity actor, playwright, and teaching artist (South Coast Repertory and Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble). She is currently part of the Geffen Playhouse’s Writers’ Room (2020-2021). Her commissioned play Ghosts of Bogotá premiered at Alter Theater in February of 2020 and will be published by Stage Rights. Ghosts also won the NuVoices competition at Actors Theatre in North Carolina and is scheduled for post-pandemic production. See <www.dianaburbano.com>. Burbano is the current Dramatists Guild rep for Southern California.
JANIS BUTLER HOLM has served as Associate Editor for Wide Angle, the film journal, and currently works as a writer and editor in sunny Los Angeles. Her prose, poems, and performance pieces have appeared in small-press, national, and international magazines. Her plays have been produced in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.