by Michael Van Duzer
On the heels of its 25th Anniversary celebration, Playwrights’ Arena has welcomed Adrian Centeno as the company’s new Literary Manager. Centeno is a familiar face, having worked with departing Literary Manager, Annette Lee. Artistic Director Jon Lawrence Rivera strongly believes Centeno is the perfect fit for the job because he understands the company’s aesthetics and mission. Playwrights’ Arena is the only theater company in the region dedicated to presenting exclusively new plays by Los Angeles writers, underscoring stories from the city’s minority populations with scribes and actors who resemble the many ethnic faces of the city.
I spoke with Centeno about his experience, his relationship with the company, and his plans for the future.
@THISSTAGE: You have a history with Playwrights’ Arena. Could you tell me about that?
CENTENO: My first official position with Playwrights’ Arena was Administrative Intern. I’d just been accepted into the graduate program at UC Santa Cruz. One of the requirements for graduation was the completion of an internship with a professional theatre company. I reached out to several companies and, after meeting with a few people, I decided Playwrights’ Arena was the best choice for me. I began right away, summer 2015.
As an intern, I performed administrative tasks, did archival work, and wrote script coverage for Jon and Annette Lee, who was Literary Manager at the time. Initially, I was unsure about taking a summer internship because I knew there wouldn’t be a production. In hindsight, I think it actually worked to my advantage. I had a lot of time to learn about the history of the company, read past scripts, go over production notes and internal memos, etc. Also, I had a lot of time to talk with Jon, Annette, and many of our artistic associates. I think those relationships were given room to grow organically and that’s why they’ve lasted.
When I left for Santa Cruz at the end of the summer the door was always open to return. Jon and Annette would check in on me from time to time and that meant a lot to me, too. Community is very important at Playwrights’ Arena and it shows, onstage and off.
When I moved back to Los Angeles our partnership continued like I’d never left. Jon and Annette brought me on as an Associate Producer for Iron Tongues, which was a collaboration between Playwrights’ Arena, USC School of Dramatic Arts, and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Poland. After that, they brought me on as Associate Producer for Playwrights’ Arena’s 25th- Anniversary celebration, 25×25. Soon after I was offered the position of Literary Manager.
@THISSTAGE: Dramaturgs are arguably the most divisive position in the theatre. They are both praised and dismissed by theatre professionals, with many playwrights reporting contentious relationships. However, audiences are either oblivious to the existence of the position, or completely misunderstand the term. How does this confusion surrounding your role affect you?
CENTENO: I’ll start by saying I think the ambiguity of the term “dramaturgy” is a good thing. It’s a question a lot of us dramaturgs grapple with and I think a great deal of innovation in the field comes from the absence of a universal definition.
To me, dramaturgs are experts in both the theoretical and practical aspects of the performing arts. Many of us are researchers, well studied in philosophy and history in general and dramatic theory in particular, but we also have extensive training in one or more technical discipline. Additionally, we may be asked to act as organizers, administrators, facilitators, educators, and curators depending where we ply our trade. All of us come to dramaturgy in our own unique way and with our own particular set of skills. If you ask a dozen dramaturgs what they do you may get a dozen answers and they’re all correct. What links us together is we aren’t suspicious of the marriage between theory and practice. After that, it’s up to the individual to decide.
My studies at UC Santa Cruz were primarily focused on new play development. I took theory courses and did a lot of research during the day. At night I was actively involved in various theatrical productions. I worked with playwrights during the pre-production process, directors during the rehearsal process, and I also wrote educational materials, translation guides, and created lobby displays. I also put together staged readings and planned a new works festival. It was a really wonderful experience.
@THISSTAGE: Why choose to return to Playwrights’ Arena?
CENTENO: The sense of community was a big factor. I’ve been in a lot of spaces where I was glad for the experience but relieved once the production was over. I didn’t feel that way at Playwrights’ Arena. I was always ready for the next project because I genuinely enjoyed the people I worked with.
For me personally, I don’t think anything tops the excitement of a new work. My first theatrical love was Shakespeare and I’m sure I would enjoy working with a classical repertory company, but, if I’m being honest, there’s nothing as invigorating as being handed new pages and nothing as satisfying as guiding a wholly original work through production and into performance. It’s addicting, truly.
@THISSTAGE: What happens when you realize the play you’re reading has begun to excite you?
CENTENO: I’m very active when I read a play. If it’s working for me, I’m shifting in my seat, jumping up, pacing back and forth, and reacting audibly to what I’m reading. I don’t know how to contain my excitement when I find a script that clicks for me. I get really energetic.
I’ll usually take a break after I finish reading just to clear my head. I’ll do something else and try my best to put some objective distance between myself and the script. The first pass is just a read. The second time I read a script I’ll take notes and go through it in much greater detail. I want to be sure that I’m not just responding to the novelty of a first read.
Sometime after that, I’ll write all of my thoughts out in a clear, easily readable format. If I’m still really high on the play at that point I’ll want to give Jon a chance to read it so we can have a conversation about how the script fits into the bigger picture of what we’re doing.
@THISSTAGE: Playwrights’ Arena has been Jon’s baby since its inception. Any apprehension as you navigate a new working relationship?
CENTENO: Jon brings such a wealth of knowledge to the table. He’s not just an outstanding director, and he really is, but he’s also a sort of historian of Los Angeles theatre. He’s seen the ebb and flow of dramatic creation in this city for a long time and that kind of firsthand knowledge is invaluable to me as an academic and a practitioner in my own right. I respect him a lot and I think that’s key for any partnership.
I’ve had a lot of freedom from the beginning, even when I was an intern. Jon’s always given me a lot of creative space to explore and that means a lot. He’s put a lot of trust in me over the years and I like to think I’ve worked hard to ensure it was trust well placed. There aren’t many people my [young] age in the position I’m in now and I think that speaks volumes about our relationship.
@THISSTAGE: Playwrights will be vying for your attention. Any tips about getting it?
CENTENO: I’d be remiss if I didn’t say this: Many communities in Los Angeles exist in an especially fraught political moment right now and anyone with even a modicum of power has a responsibility to address that in their own communal and artistic spaces. We need to carefully consider whose work we put on stage, what ideas we’re giving a platform to, and how we can best support and uplift the voices of Angelenos who are harmed daily by the current US political climate.
That being said, I don’t want to say anything definitive here about my personal taste because it is constantly evolving and I’ll only regret putting it down on paper in the end. I’ll say this: find out what you genuinely want to write about and work hard to refine it. Reading you is another way of meeting you and I want to meet you at your best. When I sit down to read a play I’m rooting for it. Take advantage of that and make a statement.
@THISSTAGE: What can we expect to see Playwrights’ Arena producing with you as the gatekeeper?
CENTENO: Expect Playwrights’ Arena to continue its mission. We’re going to discover, nurture, and produce Los Angeles playwrights for another 25 years.