Theatre Corner

FULL EPISODE

Delicia Sonnenberg & Jesse Perez

We catch up with two giants at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Delicia Sonnenberg, founder of the Moxie Theatre in San Diego, discusses her unique path to following her passion of emotionally moving audiences with performances on the stage. Perez, head of an MFA program along with many other feathers in his cap, discusses the individual experiences of the effects of BIPOC performers onstage.

AIRED: December 16, 2021 | 0:26:46
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male announcer: "Theatre Corner" is brought to you by

Amazing Grace Conservatory--

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announcer: And by Central San Diego Black Chamber of Commerce,

The Mental Bar, Jones, the Westgate Hotel,

La Jolla Playhouse, and viewers like you.

Thank you.

Michael Taylor: Hi. Welcome to "Theatre Corner."

I'm your host, Michael Taylor.

As a lifelong theater enthusiast and a board member for one of

the top theaters in the country, I've seen firsthand the positive

effects that diversity and inclusion can have on the stage

and the theater seats.

This interview series was created to share my passion for

theater and promote diverse voices throughout the national

theater scene.

We sit down with some of the top professionals in the

entertainment industry to discuss training, careers,

advice for young actors, and how to make theater matter

to more people.

Michael: Today I have a conversation with Director

Delicia Turner Sonnenberg who is in her own right of powerhouse.

As a woman of color, she is trailblazing for other women to

have space and opportunity in the theater.

Delicia shares how she fell in love with language, the

importance of knowing playwrights, and the moment she

felt like she had come home to theater.

So silence your cell phones, folks.

You're entering "Theatre Corner."

Michael: Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, welcome

to "Theatre Corner," sister.

Delicia Turner Sonnenberg: Thank you for having me.

Michael: Having you finally.

We've been chasing you down, but you've been doing a lot.

You are a director, and you've been now directing

for a lot of years.

What was the journey that brought you to this directorship

here in San Diego?

Delicia: Well, I took my first drama class in eighth

grade, and then heard about, while I was taking that class,

the performing arts high school, and this is in Houston.

I grew up in Atlanta, and then my mother's job transferred us

to Houston.

And when I was there trying to living in a new city, trying to

figure out what to do, I decide to take a theater class, which

then changed my whole life.

I mean, it was from there that I went to the performing arts high

school in Houston.

And in high school actually, it was--we had to audition.

I started like an--as an actor, like a lot of people in theater,

but I didn't love acting.

And even though I had to audition to get into my high

school and then re-audition at the end of every year to stay in

that high school, in my junior year, I just--we took a

directing class, and I fell in love, and then I haven't looked

back since then.

Yeah, so since 11th grade.

Michael: But then when you got to college,

you majored in theater.

Delicia: I think it's a Theater Production BFA,

but there was no directing major per say.

There was a theater major.

So I took all the directing classes I could and--but also in

college I discovered stage management, which is--in the old

days was the way to become a director.

Now they're separate, sort of.

They're way separate disciplines.

Even though a stage manager is still like directing

understudies or put in the understudies, stage management

was actually what allowed me to work full-time in theater.

Michael: And then you get to San Diego and at some point in

San Diego you start--you decide to start a theater of your own,

which was Moxie Theater.

Tell me about that beautiful place.

Delicia: Moxie, I co-founded with three other amazing women,

and our mission, which it took us a while to get to, but our

mission was to create more honest and diverse images of

women for our culture using theater by producing female

playwrights and giving opportunity to voices

that were not heard.

Michael: And while you were there, not only the founder, but

you were the artistic director for 12 seasons.

Delicia: For 12 seasons, yes.

And our intention was to build something that could outlive us.

And now it's being run by Jen Thorne, and who is a very

capable artistic leader and she's the next generation

for that theater.

Michael: On top of being the artistic director, you directed

quite a few of those plays over the 12 seasons.

Delicia: Right.

Right, I did, partly because, you know, we couldn't afford to

hire outside directors.

I mean, partly it was financial, but also--yeah, while I was

there, I had the opportunity to work on some really amazing

plays and with some really amazing playwrights.

Michael: There's a distinction between artistic

director and director.

Could you describe that distinction?

Delicia: Yeah, it's a big distinction.

But like the artistic directors, in simple terms, is in charge of

the overall artistic vision of an institution, right, and then

a freelance director just directs one particular

production in a season or, I mean, if you're fortunate, you

could hire back into theater, but, you know, you're just

responsible for the one play, not the entire artistic vision

of the theater.

Michael: How would you define a director?

Delicia: All directors are different.

So let me just say that.

And I will say, for me, I'm a director who's moved by words.

I grew up in Atlanta, and my aunt,

my--was stuck babysitting us.

So she would take us to the library all the time, but she

would get these books of poetry, like Paul Laurence Dunbar, the

complete works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, and read us like ten

or twelve poems in a sitting, right?

So I fell in love with poetry that summer, and then that led

me to discover like the Harlem Renaissance poets and the Black

Art Movement poets.

And like Nikki Giovanni is my favorite poet.

And so that--and that was even before I took

my first drama class.

So when I look at a script, I am first looking at how

the playwright uses language, right,

and then there's a lot of play analysis.

And like, some directors are visual and they see in pictures,

but I always--I'm pretty text based.

So I start with the play, analyzing the play, trying to

discover what the playwright's intent is, and communicating

that to the whole team: the actors, designers, and audience.

Michael: So in simplest of terms, a director

is the orchestrator.

Delicia: I guess.

Yeah.

Michael: I mean, that's huge responsibility.

I mean, it's--I mean, you've done it countless times, but--

Delicia: Right.

It's--but I always think my main job is to make sure I'm

communicating the playwright's intent.

Michael: Okay.

So that comes out in the end, as close is to the playwright's

vision of the piece.

Delicia: Right, I mean, I think of like theater

as a playwright's medium, like because

we're--we all have gathered to see this particular

story told, right?

So for me, theater is like the story, the people who tell the

story, and the people who witness the story.

And everything that everybody does is so important in support

of those three things, including me, right?

So making sure that the story is clear, that I understand it from

the playwright, like that the actors--that I communicate

clearly with the actors, and then they are communicating the

story clearly to an audience, right?

That's sort of the simple way I see my job.

Michael: How often do you get to actually talk to the

playwright?

I mean, that's not every piece. You're--many times you're--

Delicia: Right, sometimes the playwright's dead,

yes, but whenever possible, I can.

And if it's a playwright that's not--no longer with us, then I

do as much research about the playwright as I can because one

of the things I learned in high school is--one of the things

they drilled into us in my particular high school is that

you don't know the play unless you know the playwright 'cause

anybody can write a story about star-crossed lovers, but--or

even "Romeo and Juliet," but this is Shakespeare's "Romeo and

Juliet" or this, you know--so it's particular--like, it's

understanding the playwrights, the way they use language, and

what they're trying to communicate gives me insight

into a play.

Michael: What happens to the director once opening night

happens and it goes into a run?

What's the director's involvement once it's--the play

is running?

Delicia: Okay. Yeah, then the director is done.

I mean, that's generally like the end of the contract, then

the stage manager and the like associates they keep it in

shape or whatever.

It depends on the production and also the theater

and all of that.

And sometimes, as a director, I've had to come back like to

put in a new actor or when something's quite--not quite

working and nobody knows why.

Right.

They call me back in and say, "Can you take a look at this

because, you know--" For me, directing is a lot like

being a mother.

Like, you're making something that you put in the world that

can live on its own.

Michael: Oh, I see.

Delicia: Yeah, right?

And it's going to change a little bit and it's going

to grow, hopefully.

It's not going to stay the exact same.

I always hope that if I put enough like guardrails

that keep it safe.

Even if it starts to veer one, that you hit that guardrail and

bounce off and you know back, you know where you are.

You know, just like with my children.

Michael: Just like with your children.

And so is there a different kind of texture for you as a director

when it is a black play?

Delicia: Yes.

Michael: Okay.

Delicia: I'm glad you asked me that question actually

because what's interesting, I directed a production of

"Fences" like years ago and for Signa Theater, and Shawn had

been trying to get me to direct.

And I was like, "Oh, man."

It was right when I was--like, Moxie was relatively new.

And I was like, "I direct like kick-butt chick plays.

I don't do male plays.

I don't do like, you know--" And I wasn't looking

forward to it at all.

And then I get in the rehearsal room with this all black cast,

and what it felt like literally was like coming home.

It was like I had--I knew two language.

I was in like two languages, and I have become very proficient in

both of them, but doing the August Wilson was like speaking

my first language.

It feels like coming home.

Yeah, I mean, like the sheered not that all black people are

alike or not that we have the same experiences, but we have

common culture.

And that commonality is sort of, for me, like grounding.

Michael: Almost more of a--more organic kind of feel.

Delicia: Right.

It's like speaking your first language.

That's exactly what it's like, or at least for me.

Yeah.

Michael: These days, we have all been forced to pay more

attention to what's happening in the country in terms of

inclusion and just how necessary liberation movements are for us

to progress as a people.

In my conversation with Jesse Perez, we explore encountering

the white lens in theater and the importance of BIPOC

representation in the arts.

Here's an opportunity for you to hear from a true theater

scholar, Jesse Perez.

Michael: Welcome to "Theater Corner."

I appreciate you taking out time to sit here with a brother.

Jesse Perez: It's my pleasure.

Michael: So right now you're the Old Globe and University of

San Diego Shiley Graduate Theater Program director.

Jesse: Correct. That's it.

Michael: So, my goodness.

Now and I'm out of breath.

You could kind of explain what exactly do you do here.

Jesse: I run an MFA program, Michael.

You know, we take in seven students a year.

It's a 2-year program year around.

It's an apprenticeship with the professional theater of the

globe here in San Diego.

We do understudying for them.

And in the summer, we get to be on the festival stage for their

Shakespeare summer programming.

All our students are guaranteed a slot during that festival

performance.

And so they get to learn right next to professionals and also

do a professional rehearsal process and just really engage

with the professional theater.

Michael: And it's also exciting that you're a person of

color in this position because that's not something that

programs had.

Jesse: Well, I think it's rare, not only that I'm a person

of color, but that I'm an actor, you know, not necessarily known

as a director.

I'm in the field as a performer, an actor.

And so that was my trajectory.

You know, I went to Juilliard, and when I graduated,

I started acting.

And from that, you know, getting professional gigs and getting my

feet wet, eventually Juilliard called me back.

And, you know, through a friend of mine, Brian Myrtus, who's a

really big director and is head of directing at Brown University

now, he called me in to choreograph some of his work, do

movement work, do some dances, and it was this big

Greek production.

It was ten Greek plays.

And that's when I started working as a movement professor

over at Julliard.

And as I started working there, you know, Michael, I started

realizing how white the training was.

You know, it's centered around European writers.

Shakespeare was upheld as the pinnacle, you know, the best.

And, you know, there is no question that Shakespeare is who

he is and is somebody that should be reckoned with and

studied, but also wrestled with, you know, and rubbed up against

so that we can find ourselves in it because ultimately, you know,

Shakespeare didn't write for BIPOC people, you know?

Shakespeare didn't write for women.

He wrote for all men, right?

So what does that all mean, and how do we translate that to

2021?

Michael: So you take the classics like Shakespeare, not

changing a word, but am I hearing just putting a black

aesthetic or a Latin aesthetic on those characters?

Jesse: Yeah or, you know, you start saying, "What does this

language mean to me?"

You know, you also have to say, "How do I put these words in my

own vernacular, right?"

Every time we work on Shakespeare, which is, you know,

Elizabethan English, we look at it, and it's foreign even if you

are a white person.

It takes a long time for the ear to adjust to the iambic

pentameter, to the poetry, to the prose.

So all of a sudden, you have to start saying, "Okay, these are

just words on a page.

Let's start there.

It's literature, right?

Who wrote it?"

Of course, it matters, but if we start with, "This literature and

I'm supposed to interpret it," I am supposed to interpret it.

It's been given to me.

It's been given to the world as a gift to interpret.

Now, my lens is not white.

So how can I say, "Oh my god, I got to figure out what my white

lens is in this interpretation of this white playwright?"

No way, you know, Michael.

I look at it, and I'm like, "Okay, I'm Mexican-American,"

and stress on the American, you know, "and how do I see myself

in these plays?

How do I see myself as this king?

How do I see myself as this fool that can turn a phrase and

confuse the king or bring a reality to the king that he

doesn't even know?"

You know?

So it's--of course, there's status and all of that, but I

feel like status is an interesting question to me in

America, you know?

How do we distinguish status?

What does it mean, you know?

Is it money?

Is it power?

Is it somebody that just sells themselves as that and is a

complete fraud, which I think America has gotten a little bit

of that?

So I feel like we have to interpret them through an

American lens.

And the American lens is diversified.

Like, people wonder, "Why don't more BIPOC people

go to the theater?"

Because there's no programming for them.

You know, if we're not celebrating our differences,

I don't know what we're doing.

If we don't want to hear different stories from different

cultures to expand our minds, I don't know what we're doing.

Michael: You actually--you've done one opera?

Jesse: Well, yeah, we should talk about that story actually.

Michael: Yeah, I want to hear about that.

Jesse: I work with a director named Mary Zimmerman, okay?

And she's a big, big theater director out of Chicago.

I think, you know, she works at Northwestern, teaches there.

And she called me once and she was like, "Hey, we're doing

'Arabian Nights' in San Francisco."

And I was like, "Yeah, Mary, you know--" In Berkeley, California.

And I was like, "Yeah, you know, Mary, I'm a little tide up, and

I want to give New York more of a chance."

And she was like, "Okay, listen.

I'm starting to direct at the Met, and I was wondering if I

threw in a part for you in this opera if then you would consider

coming to Berkeley and working on 'Arabian Nights' with me."

And I was like, "So two jobs instead of one?"

And so, of course, you know, it took like all 5 minutes to talk

to my agent and be like, "Of course, I want to work

at the Met.

Of course, I want to be in a Mary Zimmerman opera.

Of course."

So it came down to it, and eventually I said yes to it.

And this was the part, all right, Michael?

The opera was "Lucia di Lammermoor," right?

Donizetti, right?

So very bel canto and very like big, big diva singing the part,

right?

And the diva's name--the diva's name?

The amazing opera singer that sang the part was Natalie

Dessay, okay?

Huge. Huge.

Tiny woman with the biggest voice, okay, and an actor before

an opera singer, okay?

And so Mary was working with her.

And sure enough, I got the call, and they were like, "Okay, so

there's the scene where she's forced to marry somebody and she

has to sign the marriage contract, okay?

And we're going to put it in a different time period than the

opera was actually done, when there was actual photography.

Now, Jesse, you're going to play the photographer."

And I was like, "Okay."

They gave me this old-fashioned camera, you know, with all the

gunpowder and everything.

And she was like, "And your job is to--after she signs, to put

them in a family portrait, not only the family, but the

extended family and all the guests there, and then take a

big shot of them, you know, big photo of them, right in the

climax of this act."

And I was like, "Okay, no problem."

I show up to rehearsal, you know, and sure enough, none of

the people that are playing the actual parts, because they all

have jobs all over the world, its opera singers,

are actually there.

It's people that are understudying them or they're

rehearsing for them so that then they can just take

over the part, right?

So I'm working with these opera singers, and sure enough, you

know, this one woman signs it.

And so I go over to her.

It's not Natalie Dessay.

And I go over her to move her, and she's like,

"What are you doing?"

And I was like, "I'm moving you into the photo;" totally in

character, you know?

"I'm moving you into the photo, miss."

And, you know, everybody's singing in Italian, and I'm

talking in English, but she asked me, "What are you doing."

Right?

So I was like, "I'm moving you into the photo."

And so she starts moving, but so like resisting, and she's

singing, you know?

And so we're moving her into the photo, and sure enough,

Mary's like, "Jesse, move them into the photo."

And I was like, "I'm trying, Mary, but they're opera singers,

and I think they need their freedom to release

their entire voice."

Long story short, Michael, every rehearsal,

there was a new person.

You know what I'm saying?

So it was always the same thing.

"What are you doing?"

And so I was like, "I'm moving you into the--" Finally, Natalie

Dessay gets there, right, and we're closed to tech.

And so I was like, "Okay, here we go."

You know?

And I had gotten so many notes about, "Hey, Jesse, just do

your job.

You're an actor, right? That's what you're doing here.

It's just that."

And I was like, "Okay. Okay."

Natalie Dessay shows up.

And we're in that moment, and sure enough, I go over and I

hold her hand, and she's, "What are you doing?"

And I looked at her and I said, "I'm moving you into the photo,

miss, so that we can celebrate this special occasion."

And she looked at me, Michael, and she goes, "Then pull me."

I immediately fell in love with the opera.

You know what I'm saying?

I was like, "Who is this woman?"

And I was like, "Ah."

And all of a sudden, I knew I was an actor in an opera

with another actor.

You know, she fell into character just as much as I did.

But, you know, it was because of Mary Zimmerman that I was on the

Met, you know, due to the fact that she was like, "We need an

actor to play this part.

We need an actor to move these opera singers."

And sure enough, once I met the people that were actually doing

it, it was a dream, you know?

I mean, I was a glorified extra, to be quite honest with you, you

know, but I didn't sing, but I was literally making beautiful

pictures for Mary Zimmerman in this grandiose opera house.

Michael: It's in the can.

You're an opera performer.

Jesse: Yeah. Yeah, it is.

I guess you can say that, you know?

I was above the supernumeraries, if you will.

So it was a good gig.

And I ended up in Berkeley right after that.

Michael: My goodness.

You've obviously done theater.

You've done Shakespeare, but you--I mean,

you've done television.

You've done film.

Express to me what it is about stage for you, you know,

compared to, you know, doing that stuff in front

of the camera.

There's something particular about the stage that's--I think,

that kind of fulfills you maybe just a little bit more.

Jesse: Oh, there's nothing like it, you know, Michael;

sharing space, and time, and molecules, and breath.

And I know it's been pulled from us during this pandemic, but

that thing that you're missing, you know, the human connection,

that idea of like being around bodies and in space,

that's theater.

Community coming together to see an event, a live event, to share

space and breath with performers, that

might-make-a-mistake, that can-forget, the idea that it's

happening in front of you in real time, the idea that 3 hours

can pass and it seems like 20 minutes because there's real

bodies in front of you telling stories, like, it's the roots of

storytelling, you know?

It's like, "Oh, let's make a fire.

And why don't you tell me a story, Michael?"

You know what I'm saying?

And it's like getting up and sharing sharing.

You ultimately have to bring yourself to everything, you

know?

Now, what that means for transformation and how to play

different characters that are further away from you, that's

training, you know, and that's you exercising the muscle and

seeing how you can go further than you think

you can go, right?

Because I feel that's what happens.

That's what makes a character actor.

All of a sudden, they're like, "Oh, well, I'm interpreting it

this way.

What happens if I push my interpretation a little bit,

you know?

If it's at a five, and I'm like at this neutral place and oh,

yeah, this feels natural, what if at one rehearsal,

I push it to a ten?"

And yeah, maybe the director is going to be like,

"Hey, what are you doing?"

But what is rehearsal for if not elaboratory, you know?

So all of a sudden, you're just like, "Hey, let's collaborate

and let's try many things.

Let's not just settle on the one idea, you know?"

And that's what I always tell my students too;

have more than one idea.

It pisses everybody off, you know?

And that, to me, really just feels like, "Wow, I think that's

theater, I think that's collaboration, and I think

that's how we streamline all of our ideas into this story to

make something that's completely ours; the people that were in

the room, you know?"

And that's when it becomes like if you have an all BIPOC team,

an all BIPOC cast, then that story really becomes us, you

know, especially if it's Shakespeare.

Michael: Great poet Nikki Giovanni said, "If you write

from experience, you'd maybe give one book,

maybe three poems."

Writers write from empathy.

We know language is power, and today we heard from two talented

artists who embody this quote.

I'm Michael Taylor.

And you just watched another episode of "Theater Corner."

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