A conversation with Kitchen Dog Theater Co-Artistic Director Christopher Carlos
Updated: Jan 16, 2020
Kitchen Dog Theater, one of Dallas’ stalwart theatre companies, is a champion of new plays. A founding member of the National New Play Network, the theater company has been pivotal in bringing new plays, new playwrights, and new voices to the Dallas stage. After their successful season opener, a love offering by local playwright Jonathan Norton, Kitchen Dog is bringing another regional premiere to the stage this week with Hilary Bettis’ play Queen of Basel.
In its promotional material, the play is described as a “bold and contemporary take on Strindberg’s Miss Julie.” The description of the play intrigued me, and I wanted to find out more about it. I also had a desire to speak with the director of the play, Kitchen Dog’s Co-Artistic Director, Christopher Carlos. He granted me a rare interview in which he shared his insights into Bettis’ new play, how he approaches Latinx stories in his work, and what keeps his creative spark alive.
Can you tell me a little bit about Queen of Basel?
The playwright, Hilary Bettis, was commissioned to write a remake of Miss Julie. When she was approached, she said, ‘Yes, I'll do it’. But she didn't really remember the play. It had been a long time since she read it. And she hated it with a passion. So, she had to decide what to do about that. So... I don't think that this is a remake of Miss Julie in any way. It’s influenced by it. It’s inspired by it. Even though there are some similarities, she's made it her own play. It’s much more empowering for women, and Miss Julie was not that at all.
It sounds more like a reaction to Miss Julie than a remake or rewrite of it.
Yes, that’s a great way to say it. [Queen of Basel] is a reaction to Miss Julie. She has flushed out the backstory of the characters more, there are character similarities, but it’s her own play. It’s a new story.
How did Kitchen Dog learn about the play, and ultimately decide to produce it?
Tina [Parker, Kitchen Dog Theater Co-Artistic Director] and Jeffrey Schmidt [Artistic Director, Theatre Three] went to Houston to The Alley Theatre, where they had a reading of this play and some other plays - they were having a New Works Festival. They went down there to see what The Alley was bringing to the table. When Tina got back, she said, ‘I saw this play and I want to try and get a copy of it. I think you should read it. I think you'd really like it.’ And, of course, I thought it was great.
The play is about race, class, and sex in the Latinx community. I’ve noticed that over the years, you direct a lot of plays that have a Latinx focus – the plays are either written by Latinx playwrights, or contain Latinx stories or characters. Why are you drawn to those stories?
I think it's at a certain point in my career I thought, you know, as a director and an Artistic Director, it's my responsibility to bring those stories to Dallas. So, I've been very conscious of looking for work that will...share those stories with our community. I'm attracted to their stories. I was born in Cuba, but came to the United States when I was 7. My family lived in Denver for a few years and then we moved to Texas. So I've been surrounded by Americans my whole life. I’ve never been in a community of Cubans, for example, like I might’ve been if I lived in Miami or something. So, really, I think like an American. But I enjoy learning about different cultures.
In this particular show, one of the characters is Venezuelan. So, I've had to learn about what's happening in Venezuela – about what’s happening in the class system there. So, learning about other cultures helps me understand my own culture a little bit better.
Also, Tina and I both have been very aware, particularly the last 10 years or so, about including women playwrights, Latinx playwrights, gay playwrights, black playwrights, in our seasons. We don't choose a show because it deals with race or because it’s written by a black person or a Latinx person. We choose them because of the quality of the work. Because the stories appeal to us. And those stories can teach us something new. It’s a learning opportunity for me, and also for the audiences in Dallas. This play serves that purpose - besides being a great story and a wonderful tribute to an old classic.
Is it activism or storytelling or both?
It’s not activism. It’s storytelling. For me, it’s all about the human interaction – that human connection. But with this play – I hope people will leave wondering about what’s happening in Venezuela. To understand it a little bit better. Or to question, how are my beliefs different? Or maybe to question how we can change our point of view? I feel like I'm a better human being because of the stories that I've told. Because I've had to question certain beliefs or certain ways that I react to things, and go, ‘you know, maybe there's a better way’ and through questioning those things on the inside, I feel like I'm a better human being.
On a personal note, I’m not sure I’ve ever asked, and audiences might like to hear about it - how did you find yourself in theatre and then as the Artistic Director of a theatre company?
Well, I have to say that I often wonder how I got into this business to start with. I started theatre in 7th grade, basically because I couldn’t be in the band. I started in the school band in 5th grade, but I learned how to play by ear. I never learned how to read music. And when I auditioned for 7th grade band, they of course put a piece of music in front of me and I was like, ‘uh, can you play it for me?’ So, I didn’t make the band. So, I thought I would try theatre class. And I had some talent. There was something about the search for truth and trying to figure out what the character's motivation and objectives and actions. I had a problem though, because I had a heavy Spanish accent. So, to cast me was challenging. It happened a couple of times, but it was very challenging.
Did you work to lose your accent, or did it just fall away over time?
No, I worked at it. When I went to a college, the teacher was a renowned vocal coach. And through my process [with him], I got rid of the accent. Which was kind of a gift and a curse at the same time. Because now everybody wants you to be authentic and have the accent. And now I have to kind of produce it.
Regarding how I found myself at Kitchen Dog...I was working with Joe Nemmers, we were doing [the early 90s TV show] Wishbone. Joe was a founding member of Kitchen Dog Theater, and at the time, they were starting this new thing where they would have classes on Saturday morning. They were free classes, and they were just a way to broaden the group a bit. The whole idea was to learn about new talents. That was in 1995. At the beginning of 1996, I got cast in Hamlet for the company. And, then I stayed. After the first show, I got cast in True West. I became a company member after that. Then in 2005 when Dan Day, our Founding Artistic Director, decided to move on he proposed that Tina and I take the company and go with it. And that’s what happened.
Those early days with Kitchen Dog – they were great - they were giving me opportunities not just to play Miguel or Pablo - they were giving me opportunities to play characters. I think for me – that's inclusivity. I’m not looked on as just a Latinx actor. I’m looked at as an actor. And a lot of my career has been pushing that envelope – the boundaries of casting – blind casting.
Finally, what keeps your creative spark alive? What drives you to tell stories the stories you tell?
For me what it really boils down to - it's the people that you're working with, and the material. Those are the two things I looks for. And I'm always trying to challenge myself. If I'm not scared about going into something, then I typically don't do it. I have to have a little bit of fear. And I've gone and failed. I think that's great. You know, failure doesn't bother me. And actors. I really love working with actors and the craft of acting...It always fascinates me. It's inspiring.
Queen of Basel by Hilary Bettis opens Thursday, November 21st at Kitchen Dog Theater. This regional premiere tells the story of Art Basel, Miami's week long party for the rich and famous. This explosive elixir of power, class, and race within the Latinx community is a bold and contemporary take on Strindberg's Miss Julie.
Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm through December 15, 2019 at Trinity River Arts Center 2600 Stemmons Fwy, Ste 180, Dallas. For tickets, visit kitchendogtheater.org or call the Box Office at 214-953-1055.