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'Tortilla Curtain' at the Rep

March 21, 2012 12:58 p.m.


Matthew Spangler, playwright of “Tortilla Curtain”.

Sam Woodhouse, director of “Tortilla Curtain” and co-founder and artistic director of the San Diego Repertory Theatre.

Related Story: 'Tortilla Curtain' Makes Its World Premiere At SD Rep


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. When rich and poor, immigrant and citizen, American and Mexican meet, there are usually challenges. We've seen that in the politics of our state and nation. Back in 1995, novelist T. C. Boyle wrote a story based on the issues raised by prop 187 in California. The law that was struck down by the Courts but would have denied illegal immigrants access to things like education and healthcare. Boyle synthesized the culture clash down to two families and created the best-seller, the tortilla curtain. That novel has been adapted into a play. And my guest, Sam Woodhouse is director of tortilla curtain, and artistic director of the San Diego repertory theatre.

WOODHOUSE: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Matthew Spangler is the playwright of tortilla curtain. Welcome to the show.

SPANGLER: Thank you, happy to be here.

CAVANAUGH: The play the novel is based on is 17 years old. Is this still relevant?

WOODHOUSE: Yes, is immigration one of the major issues in American public life? I believe that essentially we've been in this status quo situation with no action for a number of years because people are not sure how to address the issues.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. Status quo for 17 years, kind of frightening. Matthew, tell us briefly what happens in this play.

SPANGLER: Well, I don't want to give too much away, but essentially it's about two undocumented immigrants who come from Mexico and settle in next to a suburban housing development outside of Los Angeles, and they work and try to save money to get an apartment.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what is the tortilla curtain?

SPANGLER: Well, are that's one of the characters' names for the border between the United States and Mexico.

CAVANAUGH: I read that you thought as you were first reading this novel that you thought it would make a good play. How would you come to that kind of a conclusion?

SPANGLER: Well, the book is written from a series of points of view. So the book actually features four characters' points of view, and it's all about the collision of the points of view around the issue of immigration. I made the play about three of the characters. So I sort of reduced one of the characters to a supporting role, but I thought that tapestry of point of view could make a compelling drama.

CAVANAUGH: Because the tension from what I understand in the play as well as the novel is in not just the people who are here, the immigrants living in the canyon, but their reaction to them from the people who are settled in the gated community above.

SPANGLER: That's right. You also have the point of view of the settled community, which is mostly Anglo. But you have different points of view among the settled characters. Some are favorable to them, and some aren't.

CAVANAUGH: This is a nice big novel. You must have had to cut out an awful lot to make this a stage piece, did you?

SPANGLER: Of course, that's always the challenge with adaptation. The book is about 350†pages long, if you read that aloud from the first page to the end, it would be 15-18 hours of reading time. But you can't have a play that's 15 hours long. So I reduced it to 90 minutes of stage time. And that's always the challenge, reducing a 15 hour story to an hour and a half, and having the play still resemble the original

CAVANAUGH: Do you like working with adaptations?

WOODHOUSE: Honestly, I like both. This is it an interesting experience because we have an original sourced piece of material we can cut on the table. As we work on the play, we can always say, well, what did T. C. Boyle have to say about that? And we go back to the book. Matthew has really written a complete play, his play based on the book. So it's more than an adaptation, actually.

CAVANAUGH: Right. But you have a backstory right there for you in the novel itself, right?

WOODHOUSE: Big large resource material sitting on the desk.

CAVANAUGH: You have a short video up on YouTube that shows you and the actors, you're around a table, reading, rehearsing the play. How much of what we see is stage is created in table readings like that?

WOODHOUSE: Well, we call it table work in the theatre. When you're making a new piece, there's a tremendous amount of analysis and discussion that goes on as to what is trying to be said here, what's the best way to say it, whose voice should it be set in, what tense is it set in, how long it takes to say it, there's an enormous amount of discussion as this collaborative team shapes the story, and there really is a team because the visual team and the musical team on this production is contributing a huge amount to the telling of the story. It's completely chosed through a piece of original musical scoring, and there's extraordinary projects in the piece and lighting design. We have a big whopper of a tale.

CAVANAUGH: Now, give me an example if you would about something very important in the novel that you might have found challenging to realize on stage.

SPANGLER: Well, the novel has some epic events that take place in it. I don't want to give too much away, but certain things that even if you were to do it in film, you would need special effects. So that's a challenge to represent those things on stage. But I suppose one of the luxuries of being a playwright, you just kind of hand that over to the designers and say deal with it. I'm being Cavalier, but our design team has done a wonderful job of representing some of these things on stage. And when they are successful, they're successful because the audience is able to imagine these things taking place. So you want to do just enough with the design elements say so that the audience can picture the epic nature of the events taking place.

CAVANAUGH: Was there a scene -- I would imagine there was perhaps more than one, in the novel that you knew had to be in the play?

SPANGLER: Of course, yeah. The novel begins with a car crash. One of the characters is driving home and accidentally hits the immigrant with his car. And I suppose it was that scene, the novel starts with that scene, and so does the play, and it was that scene that drew me to want to adapt this for the stage.

CAVANAUGH: In reading about this, and in not giving away too much of what this whole play is about, the character Delaney, one of those people who are situated in the -- behind the gates of that community above the canyon, I think is a character that many people who would go to a may like this may identify with.


CAVANAUGH: So what happens to this guy might be very challenging for the people in the audience. Would you both agree to that?

SPANGLER: I think so.

WOODHOUSE: Well, he's a nature writer for a magazine called wide open spaces, he wears Birkenstocks, is a member of the Sierra club, and is a card-carrying California liberalist, who makes a psychic change in this story based on what happens. And it's quite arresting and a bit terrifying are and incredibly traumatic.

CAVANAUGH: And quite challenging to one's assumptions. Now, what kind of discussion do you think is generated by the change in Delaney's attitude toward the people in the canyon?

SPANGLER: Well, in one of the -- I'd just like to comment on that a bit from the point of view of a playwright, the book as I mentioned is ABOUT 350 pages long. And Delaney does undergo this huge transition formation. In a book you can play that out. But for a play, it's making that transition seem credible in just a short period of time. That's a challenge for me as a writer but also for the actor. Because he does a complete 180 in his political opinions throughout the play.

CAVANAUGH: So I'm just wondering as the audience sees this and goes through the experience with all the characters, including Delaney, I'm wondering what kind of discussions -- you must have talked about that, does this open up with the audience? And with the cast and crew.

WOODHOUSE: Well, we're in previews now, so we're seeing the audience react to the show every night. And when it's over, there's this sense of people going huh, huh, I wonder what I would have done in that situation. There's this collective consideration of if I was faced with these kinds of challenges, how would I respond? What would I do? And these kind of challenges are a threat to my sense of personal security, the security of my home and of my family. What if that was challenged? What would you do?

CAVANAUGH: And that's exactly the kind of thing I would imagine that a playwright would love to engender in an audience at the end of a serious but entertaining play, right?

SPANGLER: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: This is not the first novel that you've taken into a stage production. What other novels have you adapted?

SPANGLER: A lot of novels. I'm a professor at San Jose state university, and I teach courses in adaptation, so taking novels, poems, things not originally written for the stage and adapting them. Then I work professionally outside the university. So I have adapted quite a lot. My most recent production was an adaptation of the novel the kite runner, I've done James Joyce, almost any writer you can think of, I've adapted something for the stage.

CAVANAUGH: It just seems for someone who's never attempted to do anything like that, just a daunting task. What draws you to that?

SPANGLER: As a consumer, the type of art I'm most drawn to is reading. If I have the choice between going to a film and a play or reading a book, I would rather read a work of narrative fiction. As an artist, I'm most drawn to practicing theatre. I love the collaborative nature of theatre, being in the rehearsal room with the actors, the director, the designers. Adaptation allows me to sit at that intersection between literature, and the practice of the theatre.

CAVANAUGH: One of the choices you've made in this play is to have several monologues, the actors directly address the audience. What influenced your decision to present part of the story in that manner?

SPANGLER: Well, it's a point of view piece. So the monologues allow the characters to speak directly to the audience and tell the audience what they're thinking and feeling at that moment. They're sort of like Sillilo Wes. Now, not all the characters speak to the audience. But what I think is interesting, by the end of the play, each of the three main characters starts to get things wrong. In other words they're presented with certain facts and they start to read those facts but they read them in wrong ways, but the audience does. And by the end of the play, the audience knows more than any of the three characters does. And we can see the characters make the wrong choices, but it's based on what they think the characters have.

CAVANAUGH: Right, what their own perspective is. Now, the rep is doing a special series of events featuring guests from both side of the borders to share their perspective on this play. Who's coming here, and what are these events?

WOODHOUSE: We have about 12 that occur, they're free. They begin an hour before each performance of the play. The best way to find out is to go to our website at But briefly, next week, I'm hosting my salon with Christian Ramirez of the American friends service committee, and a group that goes out into the desert, and leaves water for immigrants crossing the borer. We have a panel on human smuggling. Patricia Rincon's dance company is presenting a documentary dance film based on interviews in Los Angeles. We have ballet folklorico, an expert in Chicano theatre speaking, an expert in the migration of from the south to the north and Chicano border poets. There's 12 events,, an amazing amount of people have a lot to say about the fact that we live on the most active border in the world.

CAVANAUGH: And this is part of your mission.

WOODHOUSE: Oh, yeah. Well, this is where we live. We do live here in a region that used to be Mexico, and we are on the most active border in the western hemisphere. We believe at San Diego rep that we should be talking about those issues coming up.

CAVANAUGH: And especially during election season?

WOODHOUSE: Well, yes, that's not convince dental. Eventually, the government will get around to addressing the immigration issue. I'm not sure when, but they will.

CAVANAUGH: In closing, what is it that you would like people to take away from this play?

SPANGLER: Well, that's a hard question to answer. Depending on the person, I would hope they would take away slightly different things. But as a kind of general thing, this play ultimately is about the folly of seeing the world in terms of an U.S. versus them structure. And the characters end up in a bad space because they see the world that way. And I supposed to a certain extent, it's the magic of theatre, that it gets us to empathize with people who are different than us. If people took away anything, I hope it would be the capacity to empathize with somebody other than us.

CAVANAUGH: Tortilla curtain runs through April†8th at the San Diego repertory theatre at the lyceum in Horton plaza. Thank you both very much.

WOODHOUSE: Thank you.

SPANGLER: Thank you very much.