Exposing the Storyteller Within
Elaine Romero does not know what it feels like to be a combat soldier sent to the front lines of a fight between warring nations. She also does not know the feeling of being a mother or a partner to such a soldier.
Likewise, Romero has not lived the life of a young, impoverished Hispanic boxing champion. Nor has she experienced what it is like to live as a slave in the modern world.
But these are her stories; they are our stories.
"I don't write plays to teach people something, but to start a conversation," said Romero, a playwright and UA assistant professor in the UA School of Theatre, Film and Television.
"I have never been a soldier, and I have never been enslaved, but, as a playwright, I lend my musings to these characters and their worlds, and that offers me the opportunity to share my sense of the world."
Romero, an award-winning playwright, has been approached by theater companies to produce nearly 20 different plays. She also has held multiple residencies with organizations across the U.S., and has taught and collaborated with companies nationally and internationally.
"Through character and story, theater can be a place to engage in ideas of loss, the fragility of human relationships, and social justice. It’s never black and white," said Romero, who teaches play writing, script writing and dramaturgy at the UA and has written 85 plays throughout her life. "It is not a simple world, and there is a lot to wrestle with."
Often, she writes about people living in situations that are uncomfortable, emotionally charged and tragic. Her sharply focused social justice orientation stems from childhood teachings and interactions with widely divergent people from around the world.
Growing up, Romero's household was a place where conversations about poverty, the death penalty, the prevalence of homelessness, presidential elections and warfare were commonplace, as were talks about the importance of community and charity.
"My parents raised us to be socially conscious. We were encouraged to be thinkers and to share our thoughts, and told that our thoughts mattered," said Romero. Her father, a businessman, and her mother, an educator, did not censor or demean the perspectives she and her siblings held, even if they were different.
And, over the years, on occasion, her family hosted visitors, such as world adventurer and explorer John Goddard and the king of Zululand, who was on travel from South Africa and spent his honeymoon at Romero's family home.
Romero also had the opportunity to work alongside Mother Teresa, providing food to people during a trip to Paris. And she once swam with an Olympic gold medalist.
Drawing on those experiences, and riveted by national and international crises – such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the recent murder of dozens of student protesters in Mexico and civilian deaths during warfare, for example – Romero's work tends to be dramatic, lyrical and emotionally resonant, yet reflective of social situations and divergent cultural realities.
"Thinking and living a thoughtful life are important to me. I am driven to write about characters and ideas that haunt me," Romero said.
"I am interested in flawed people who cause danger, sometimes even to themselves, perhaps through their own actions," she said. "Human beings often feel alone. I take a risk in revealing my characters and, in a sense, my own humanity, and I hope that helps people see that their suffering is shared; they are not alone."
Romero is writing a trilogy of war stories that focus on the experience of soldiers, the perspective of families and countries 40 years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She also is writing a second trilogy about the Arizona-Mexican border, exploring themes associated with hate crimes against immigrants, the arming of educators and cultural conflicts.
She holds resident playwright positions with the Arizona Theatre Company in Tucson, and Chicago Dramatists. The Goodman Theatre commissioned "A Work of Art," the second play in her war trilogy. The first two plays of that trilogy, called “Graveyard of Empires," won the Blue Ink Playwriting Award from American Blues Theater. Also, “A Work of Art" will premiere in Chicago in 2015. Recently, Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., commissioned "Modern Slave," and Chicago's Halcyon Theatre commissioned "Hunger."
Romero has held fellowships and participated in workshops across the nation, with organizations including Sundance, the Goodman Theatre’s Playwrights' Unit and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers.
She also has earned numerous awards. Her short play, "A Simple Snow," won first prize at Toronto's InspiraTO Festival in 2010. That year, "Rain of Ruin," was produced by the Short+Sweet Festival in Australia, where it appeared on Australian television, and she won the Edgerton Foundation's New American Play Award for "Ponzi."
In addition to her nationwide collaborations, Romero is deeply invested in professional development and engaging UA students in their own learning.
In November, she participated in Encuentro 2014, presented by the Los Angeles Theatre Center in association with the Latina/o Theatre Commons, taking several dramaturgy students with her. Involving dozens of theatre companies and artists from across the U.S. and Puerto Rico, the festival was pegged as one of the most significant gatherings of Hispanic theater artists in decades.
Also, Romero regularly involves her students in early readings and dramaturgy for other playwrights across the country, especially to aid other professionals in the development of their plays.
"Being here is a huge piece of being able to mentor the next generation of theater artists," said Romero, who worked in the past as a UA adjunct professor before returning to the faculty in August.
"It's a unique moment to be teaching here, and to take all of my life experience and to be able to work with my students. I look in each of their faces and I see the artist within. I try to re-create that feeling I had at the family dinner table, so that each of them can know that their thoughts, and their response to the text, matters. On a personal level, it has been profound and exciting to come back to the border, and especially to Tucson. I have so many roots here."