Drama: Institutional Critique with Jesús López Vargas
University of California, Irvine | May 13, 2022
Jesús López Vargas graduated from the Master of Fine Arts program in stage management in 2021, where he was awarded a grant from the Claire Trevor School of the Arts’s Institute for 21st Century Creativity (21C). 21C supports artistic creation and associated research across campus.
López Vargas sat down for a virtual interview with Associate Dean of Research and Innovation Jesse Colin Jackson. They discussed his 21C project, When We Watch (WWW), a haunting interactive web series, as well as ways to innovate the field of stage management and theater in general.
López Vargas was born in Sonora, México and has spent his life studying and working in both the US and México. He holds a BFA in technical theatre with a concentration in stage management from the University of Texas at El Paso. In addition to stage management, López Vargas has produced, written, and directed live-performance productions, short-films, a feature film, and the interactive web series mentioned above. He is the founder and artistic director of MOON Collective, an independent group of creatives and storytellers. He works as an associate creative producer at Transversal Theater and is a co-founder and the managing director and associate creative director for K.B. Theatre Company in El Paso, TX.
Jesse Colin Jackson (JCJ): Welcome Jesús López Vargas, a recent graduate of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, Department of Drama. Tell us a little bit about yourself and the program you were in at UCI.
Jesus López Vargas (JLV): I was in the Master of Fine Arts program in stage management in the drama department. My track was a little bit different because when I was recruited into the program, I explained that while I practice stage management as my vocation, as an artist, I also exercise other mediums of expression. From the beginning, I told them that I was interested in directing; I was interested in producing; and I was interested in lighting design, all of which I had done prior to coming to grad school. And I wanted to further develop those skills.
On my time off from specific assignments from the program, I focused on directing. I focused on producing. I focused on lighting design as well.
During the program, I staged managed and assistant stage managed a lot of the mainstage productions for the drama department, as well as a dance department. But on my time off, I ended up directing independent projects through which I got funding from different areas at UCI and CTSA.
I also mentored students in lighting, directing, production, and leadership through the Brown Bag Theater Company, which is a student-led and community-focused, LatinX plus university organization. I was set to design a bunch of lighting shows for the Experimental Media Performance Lab (xMPL) in 2020 before the pandemic hit. I was basically going to be the lighting designer for the space for two months.
I got to mentor some undergraduate stage managers and also taught some classes with Arielle Singer, who was also a stage management student in my year as well. We completely revamped the undergraduate stage management curriculum. I'm so proud of doing that with her. We made it more inclusive, diverse, and more accessible for students who had never known what stage management was.
JCJ: That's great and thank you for giving us so many different threads that we can now pull on. I'm sad to mainly focus on the research side of things, but it's so wonderful to hear about the improvements in diversity in any of our fields.
What I'm really excited about is that right out of the gate, coming into the program, you essentially pushed the stage manager towards a kind of research orientation. One of the characteristics of arts research, like any research, is the pursuit of novelty. There’s novelty and there’s different methods. It sounds like you basically wanted to do both. You wanted to do a different combination of the fields of drama based on your existing experience. And then you also wanted to shift each of those things towards new methods and new spaces.
The xMPL is our experimental media performance lab. It isn't a traditional theatre space. It's a black box theater, and although there's lots of those around, it has a different suite of technologies, a different suite of opportunities.
I want to explain that drama has a set of subfields: stage management, lighting design, set design, costume design. This is somewhat unique to drama among our four departments of dance, music, drama, and art, because you're expected to be very specialized.
One of the barriers to innovation and novelty is to be too specialized. So, it's exciting to hear that you arrived saying I don't want to be tied to just stage management. Because how are we going to innovate in stage management? How might we operate and how might it relate to these other fields? It sounds to me like you wanted to have authorship. You wanted to come in and be an author of the whole thing and bring all these things together in new combinations.
That's a nice segue into the 21C project. Tell us a little bit about the project that we were able to fund last year.
JLV: I’m going to go back a little bit to something you said and then tie it to 21C.
I'm an immigrant. I was born and raised in Mexico, then I moved to El Paso, Texas to study translation and then changed my major to theater. I started in translation because I truly believe that language is the code through which we build borders between people. And my goal as an artist, as a person who practices management, is that: to connect people.
When I went into stage management, I knew there was an issue. Back then I didn't realize what the issue was, but I knew there was an issue. And the issue was that stage managers don't have power. Historically, managers have no power. They're the enforcers of the rules made by the producers or by the people in charge. People in the room feel like the managers have power. But in reality, we have nothing.
JCJ: And let me jump in and just say that metaphor applies to life itself. I mean there’s the enforcers of the rules, rules that are imposed upon us, and the rules we inherit. To break out of those rules in any way is exciting.
JLV: And the managers get pulled into the field of stage management, at least in theory, because they feel like they have a sense of control or they want to help guide the production in some way. But in reality, we have very little agency. Because we're so focused on representing the producers, the people in charge, sometimes we forget that as artists, we have to adapt. When I started practicing stage management, I realized I'm not going to be a good leader, but just a manager. But I didn’t want to just be a manager, I wanted to be a leader. In order to become a leader, I need to understand all the aspects of the work of the people that I'm leading.
How am I going to have a conversation with a designer if I don't understand what their process is or the history they’ve studied or the details they pay attention to? I knew since the very beginning that in order to become the best stage manager, I needed to become the best leader. And in order to do that I needed to understand absolutely every single aspect of the field that I was studying. Tying that into 21C…
JCJ: This is a really exciting piece. Your innovation in a way was to ask to be trained differently.
JLV: Yes, to be asked to be trained differently. Whenever I mentored students, I told them, in an effort to be transparent: this is dumb, we have to innovate ourselves. Management in any field is very based on white supremacy culture. I didn't know this back then, but during the pandemic, I did my research on white supremacy culture and how we're conditioned in the world, not just America, to follow these toxic traits. Management is the epitome of what determines culture in the workplace. I started teaching or mentoring the undergrads, as well as the graduate students, on what that meant for management and how we had to flip everything around.
How people have always been trained, is that if someone arrives late, they should get a pay deduction. Instead, what if, when someone arrives late, we ask them why they were late. Maybe there was traffic. Maybe they have to park far away because they can't afford the cost of parking. Maybe what they need is a $10 raise for them to be on time. Instead of focusing on the problem, what if we focus on the simple things people need. I want to be a stage manager and change the culture within the industry as well.
JCJ: This is super exciting for me to hear. I'm from the Department of Art, and we'd call this institutional critique, where instead of creating artwork that you know, you create a new medium or some new scale. The innovation is to question the basic premise and the structures through which art is made. In a social critique of the art world, you might critique the gallery or the people who fund the gallery. A program like yours is highly professionalized and very difficult to challenge because people don't show up to ask basic questions about the way things are structured. But there's an entire world of theater and how do you divorce yourself from, as you say, this white supremacist idea that's embedded in how things have been structured. A group of white guys decided how theater would work 100 years ago, or 400 years ago in some cases, and we've continued to do that. This is where we'll get to your 21C project. There's a suite of dramatic possibilities that exist on the other side of this wall. Let's hear about the one that you and your group pioneered.
JLV: We’re getting so close to 21C. I just want to say, a group of white guys decided that this is how it works. Maybe it worked for them, but I don't think it has ever worked at all. Theater in America has never worked, has never been healthy. It has never worked for the majority. It has never worked. I just want to repeat that. It has never worked and is currently not working. The industry and BIPOC individuals, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, are helping theater head towards a place where it's going to work. But right now, it's not working. Theaters make money from donations, not from people. The work that we're putting up is not for the people. So theater does not work.
JCJ: Thank you for that clarification. That is a much better characterization.
JLV: It will never work unless we are more inclusive and diverse. And that leads into 21C. So when the pandemic happened, theater was not working. Everything shut down and people started trying to transition theater into different mediums. They started trying to transition theater into video live streams and movies. However, they had an existential crisis. I was talking in the drama department for a whole year and a half about this existential crisis.
We have all been taught that theater is three things: a performer, a work of art, and that performer performing that work of art in the same space as an audience member. Without those three factors there is no theater. What we were missing when the pandemic happened was an audience member. We only had two parts. We were trying to do film. We were trying to do something similar to Twitch where people are using technology, but the audience reacts differently. The audience can be even more vocal through the group chat, but they were trying to adapt something to theater. I think the biggest mistake that we did as an industry is not realize that we're going through an existential crisis and not admitting that we no longer were doing theater.
That ties into my 21C project. I saw the faculty and students struggling with the fact that we no longer were doing what we love to do. What I was trying to do with the 21C project was create a project that was neither film, neither theater. It was something innovative. It was different from anything that anybody had expected. It had “live” aspects to it because that's what people were trying to do with theater. They were trying to make the experience feel like it was live.
I was attempting to make the project feel theatrical, yet at the same time, it was told through the medium of film and video without making it cinematographic. What we did is create a project based on liveliness, based off of logging into people's lives, and invading their privacy. Which is something everyone could relate to because of Zoom and that everyone's working from home.
I was trying to make something invasive. The project ended up becoming When We Watch or WWW, which is, you know, the World Wide Web. We were trying to make it campy. It ended up becoming an international project, which was really fun. Because why not? We're filming with computers, we're filming with phones, we're filming with security cameras. We don't have to fly out an entire crew. We can just accept that it will not be great quality. That was the premise of the project. The project is based on the fact that these people are being followed and stalked, so the quality could be bad. The quality of the cameras that we used was actually beneficial because we spent less time editing it to look terrible, because it was already terrible quality. The fact that sometimes the internet connection would glitch while filming made it more realistic, which made it more like theater. There’s something exciting about the fact that anything can go wrong at any time in theater and live performances. The audience actually gets a thrill from it. When something goes wrong, the audience knows that something is going wrong, or sometimes they don’t, but they accept it. But even when one is aware of it, we move on. That was happening with this project, even though it was not live, those moments were still happening. There are moments where the audience will wonder if a glitch was caused by this entity that's making horror stuff happen in the room or if it’s caused by the internet.
We incorporated aspects of immersive-ness and interactivity. We didn’t just send videos out, but we actually created a platform, a website, and made it interactive. Audience members don't just click play and then relax. They actually have to be engaged with it, click on different pages to find out more about different characters. Creating the website was an experience in itself.
JCJ: You're performing a grand experiment with uncertain outcomes. And it turns out there's a whole world of the arts, where there's the promise of uncertainty. People make mistakes. A lot of artistic productions are predicated on there being no uncertainty or as little uncertainty as possible. The traditional conservatory model is to practice until all uncertainty is eliminated to some degree. What you're doing is to allow for uncertainty to exist. It reminds me of Yvonne Rainer, who was part of the Judson theatre in New York City, where dancers and regular folks were invited to perform together and the results were uncertain. There's a whole kind of history there. So in a sense, you're capturing the spirit of a series of historical projects where we're trying to undermine the professionalization of this whole field. And again, it opens a whole set of new doors. You're combining professional actors, professional production, with invading people's spaces. It sounds super exciting.
I'm going to jump to a kind of post-pandemic question. What have you been doing since you graduated at the end of last year? And I guess the more interesting question would be, how has this work been? How have you been able to incorporate this work into the things you've been doing?
JLV: That's a complicated, loaded question. In 2017, I applied to a big dance festival in Massachusetts as an intern for a four-month contract. In the middle of filming the WWW project in the Spring of 2021, I got an email saying, hey, we remember you from this internship interview from years past, and we would like you to apply for a position for the summer festival, which paid relatively well. I applied and got the job and went to Massachusetts.
I cannot speak for everyone that's BIPOC, but having gone through what I had gone through in 2020, with everything that was happening culturally, everything that was happening within my department, I was very sore. I was like an open wound is how I describe it. And I was hoping to have a really nice time in the forest of Massachusetts, professionally. And when I got there, it turned out that the people that had hired me were expecting me to do a lot of emotional labor for them.
When I had a conversation with my direct supervisor, he said, please don't leave. We need you here because you know the type of work that we need to do and I know that you've done it before. He knew I had been very active with the BIPOC community in theater and had stood up against the white supremacy culture. He really wanted me to stay and help, but that part of the job was not mentioned in the interview. It was just something that they decided to assign me to and I wasn't ready for that. Emotional labor takes a lot of work. It's a position in itself and I was doing my full-time work on top of that. It's unhealthy. I was not getting enough money for doing those two things. So I decided to quit.
I don't quit. I'm a go getter. I was a straight-A student, a perfectionist. That's something that I grew up with. It's also part of white supremacist culture that I'm trying to shift within myself introspectively. But I had to quit because the conditions were wrong. My agreement was not respected. There were expectations that were not discussed when I took the job, so I left. And then I took two to four months off of work to focus on the 21C project. I took time off from professional work. I focused on my research. And that helped a lot because the research wasn't in theater, nor in film, it was its own thing. I could work with people who I was mentoring and people who were mentoring me. It was a very healthy environment to work on this research project where all of us were doing new work. We were all learning from each other. It was a very healthy thing to do right after school because we were innovating media, we were innovating storytelling, and we were all learning from each other. Undergrads, grad students, professionals, we were all involved in the project, learning from it. And we're all getting professional experience in different media that will make us more suited for the future.
In the summer of 2021, I was able to work part time as a graphic designer and as a photographer for theaters and performance venues. I am currently working as a production manager too. The 21C project taught me how to produce. So I now felt equipped enough to do production management.
I am going to do two projects in the upcoming months as a stage manager too. Because I've worked so much in education and teaching students and teaching new methods and innovating what it means to be a manager in the arts, I am now applying to faculty and staff positions at different universities.
This research really gave me the validation that I needed to feel like I was ready to teach, because it was through this research that we're having important conversations about something deeper than just the product. I'm flying to Chicago to visit a school where I'm a finalist as a faculty member in three days.
JCJ: Amazing. Fingers crossed.
One, this standing problem of how white supremacist culture expects BIPOC participants to provide the way forward with no additional support or compensation, this happens in faculty positions too. Let's not shy away from any of these complicated and difficult subjects in this interview. This is innovation, not in the sense of inventing a new molecule, you're tinkering at the edges and/or exploding the center of your entire discipline. If you lack a diverse group and you bring in some diversity, that's generally a good thing. But then suddenly, the emotional labor of providing diversity falls on those people. And so I can imagine that this is similar in a theatre company, where the management wakes up one day and says, oh, we're insufficiently diverse, we don't reflect the times. I applaud you for leaving a toxic situation.
The other kind of innovation in all creative fields is money, is how you are paid, and if you are paid appropriately. Independent projects have a tendency to not pay very well, but they may lead to the greater opportunities. It's a really tough problem that we all face in different ways and is particularly strongly faced by the BIPOC community that has been cut off from a kind of traditional path to success or is not interested in those paths either. It's not only are you cut off from them, but why would you want to join the traditional theatre company. We do seem to be facing the collapse of the traditional summer theatre culture as it's existed for a long time because it's, as you say, broken. It's abusive. You work too hard for too little pay. You are never going to achieve any form of diversity if you can't make the actual employment something that people that don’t have independent means can sustain.
That issue maps on to all of our disciplines in the School of the Arts. There's essentially a path for people who don't need to get paid and there is a path for people who do. And they're very different paths. It's an enduring disappointment, for me, for all of us, that we are still addressing this very basic question of being able to feed yourself in a career in the arts.
Images: Promotional poster for When We Watch (or WWW), (above) production still from the same project.
JLV: There's also the idea that if there's no money involved, it's not worth anything because our capitalistic society tells us that time equals money and money equals worth. As young professionals we're still figuring it all out and learning skills. I think it's up to each person to decide what they need for the moment. If you absolutely have no experience in something and there is an opportunity for you to learn it, it might be worth it to you, even if you're not getting paid for that time. Maybe we don't have to associate money with worth because you will get something out of it.
I think unpaid internships in theater are detrimental for health when they don't give you enough time to take care of yourself and do something else to make money. Most of these internships, fellowships, and apprenticeships expect you to work 40 to 100 hours a week without pay. That’s not worth it because you have no time to make money in another way. But an internship that's part time, maybe 20 hours a week unpaid, where you can spend another 30 hours a week working for pay somewhere else, is more doable.
With that being said, if you're BIPOC, if you look at the numbers and demographics, in most cities, it's harder to get a job. It's harder to get an interview and to get inside the room and have a conversation with the people hiring. It's just so much harder. So it does affect BIPOC people way more than white individuals.
JCJ: The internship model is pervasive across creative fields. It was structured with the understanding that someone has another job. There's something a bit perverse about that too. Why can't we just pay people to do the work in the first place?
The other distinction that your experience seems to illustrate is that if you're faced with a choice between an unpaid internship that has some kind of professional credibility, offers opportunity to innovate, but in fact is abusive in various ways, or pursue your own collaborative project with a group of like-minded individuals…that actually maybe points to the future of the theater.
JLV: Everything is based off credit. And with independent work, you will have no credibility. It will just be an experiment. But if you do experiments with a company that has credibility, then it's okay.
JCJ: This is where we need to look at the long arc of creative history and remember the things that we valorized 50 years later. One example are the Judson theatres. It started with a group of like-minded individuals who went off on their own and did their own thing. Looking back, they became important pivot points in a field. I just want to applaud and psychically support you and your collaborators in continuing this work. The possibility of that becoming discipline changing is extremely high. The possibility of an internship with an existing theater that's done the same thing for 20 years changing the world is probably fairly low, although it might give you, as you say, more credit and more credibility.
JLV: Yeah, and it's what people value right? Do you value an actual healthy process where you're going to learn something new? Or do you value an unhealthy process because of credibility? Something also that I want to talk about, Jesse, is that you mentioned working with like-minded individuals or finding a group of like-minded individuals. That's what I thought before, but I have found out in the past five years that what people need is a group of unlike-minded individuals because you do not challenge yourself if you all think the same. You just keep doing the same things over and over. But if you find a group of unlike-minded individuals, then there's people who will say no. The power of “no” is immense.
JCJ: What I meant was a group of people that want to go and do something different. Yeah, not necessarily like-mind in any other way.
JLV: The first version of the “about page” for the group that we created, called MOON Collective, said like-minded individuals. Then when everyone in the room read it, they're like, we don't even listen to the same music, what the hell. So, we changed it. I just thought it was important to mention.
JCJ: I mean, in a sense, a like-minded individual group is the traditional theatre company that often come from the same school and learned the same traditions and might in fact be white historically.
Let's pivot back as our final question to this idea of “what is theater?” You talk about and I remember this moment, early in the pandemic, when all of the performing arts were grappling with not automatically becoming a movie. Because, of course, we're not here to make films. This is not a filmmaking program. As much as we value film, that's an entirely different field with a whole set of structures. The experiment was how to create something that retains the core qualities, the immediacy of theater, where the audience and the performer would coexist. That's what I feel like you were heading towards. We can't be in the same space physically, but is there a way to continue to be kind of interactively commingled? How did that work in the project? How does that work in the project?
JLV: The project started being way closer to theater than it was to film. And it ended up living in a weird spot where it kind of felt like a dark web. The aspects of theatre that it still keeps is the campiness of it all. Another aspect is the ability of audience members to - to some extent - have control over what's happening in the space. There’s theater space and then there's a screen. Those are the current spaces that we had between movie and theater. In the space that we created, the website is the space that we use. The people, just like in immersive experiences, can move between rooms. With our project, there's also rooms. The homepage could be the lobby. Then you move into the first interactive experience, which is about 15 to 20 minutes long. It’s an introduction of the project. And then there's a bunch of buttons. You decide which is your next step. You can go and explore the characters. You can go and explore the history of this mysterious group that created the website. You can visit day number two. You can skip an entire day of content and just skip to people dying on your screen. Or you can follow the steps and do day one, day two, day three, day four. And then we also have a page for the international footage that we have. That gives you extra information. So the interactivity is there, we give the audience the power to choose what they look at.
Even though most people will know that it's pre-recorded, there's an aspect of liveliness, because once you hit play on the videos, the graphics make it look like it's happening at the moment. Like right now we're having this conversation in Zoom. There's a little red button blinking that says recording. In the project, whenever there's a specific type of camera on, there's a red button that says “live”. And there's messages that appear as if it was a security camera. While the people on the screen don’t have a voice, the people recording have a voice through the text that appears on the camera. Whenever something happens, it might say “security dispatched” or stuff like that. So there's an immediacy to it, or at least the feeling like there's immediacy to it. The audience member plays the role of the recruit to a cult. So there's messages that appear directly to the recruit saying, “Hello, recruit member, you just finished your practice in this specific module.” Once you finish watching a video, more messages appear telling you what's going to happen. Anybody who is familiar with the internet knows the virus warning pop-up window. And that could happen during this experience. The end of the actual experience - spoiler alert - ends with a message saying the field officer of your section is going to contact you tonight. So when the audience member finishes the experience, they're like, what the fuck, someone's going to call me? So who's to say that we didn't gather your information? You have clicked join. You have clicked agreed. You don't know what you're agreeing to when you go to a shady website like this.
JCJ: That's great. I don't want to celebrate anything about the pandemic, but these kinds of cultural jolts provide opportunity. One of the things that pops into my mind is the way that authors know their audience’s specific state. We've had web based interactive experiences since the beginning of the web, and even prior to that with artists like Lynn Hershman creating interactive video experiences that predate the World Wide Web. But the difference here is that you can anticipate that your audience is in a pandemic, and in a pandemic frame of mind, and in a kind of semi-paranoid state. In a pre-pandemic time, you had a choice: you could either do an interactive thing online, you could play a computer game, or you could go to the theater. Here we've got a group of people that actually don't have that choice anymore. Or if they do, it's a very fraught choice. And you can take advantage of that. And the uniqueness of the experiment is partly because of that different relationship you have with your audience and how you're able to work with the way they are. That does sound disturbing to have that leverage. The pop-up window is a nefarious element.
JLV: It's weird. In movies, for example, you're cued to feel a certain way with the background music. We didn't have that because it was supposed to be a group stalking people. So it is really up to interactivity to make people feel differently in specific moments that you would normally be jolted because of the score.
Something about the pandemic is that everyone was spending so much time trying to avoid recording actors with masks on. And then when people watched it, they felt uncomfortable because they’d see people closer than five feet not wearing masks. So the audience members were feeling unsafe by watching this.
One of the things that we did with this project is that we did not ignore the reality that we were in. The number one thing was making sure everyone was safe. We were also not pretending that everything was okay or that it wasn’t happening in 2021. One of the main characters is a nurse. They have an entire monologue talking about what the life of a nurse is right now during the pandemic. Another aspect we addressed was isolation. There was so much isolation. It was a huge aspect of the terror created by the project. There's a character whose entire storyline relies on isolation and how dangerous it can be for mental health and how mental health manifests physically.
JCJ: As a final thought from you, if you had to give one piece of advice to an incoming student in stage management or any part of drama that wanted to pursue independent work as you have done, what would it be?
JLV: You cannot do it alone. You can try, but the types of stories that we usually want to tell require a group of people, not just to materialize it and make it something tangible, but we also need people to create it from the ground up. There's a lot of ego involved in writing, when it comes to artistry. A lot of people prefer to write by themselves and have their concept, their credit, be out there. It's so much more fun and so much more healthy and well, better, well-rounded, if you have multiple people, creating and writing it with you. Erase the ego from it. Don't do things by yourself. Find a team and allow that team to create together and to share credit, and to share validation. Because things are more well-rounded that way.
JCJ: Erase the ego. I love that—erase the ego. Thank you so much for being with us today and I hope we get to see you again. Good luck with the interview and future interviews. I hope we get to see you again in person here and at UCI down the road.
For a previous profile of Jesús López Vargas from the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, please visit: https://drama.arts.uci.edu/news/renaissance-man