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Bill Virchis directs Real Women Have Curves

And sends students onward from Southwestern College's theater

Bill Virchis - Image by Robert Burroughs
Bill Virchis

West Hollywood,

Paramount Studios

Friday, January 5,

1:00 p.m.

Any minute Norman Lear will walk through that door. We are sitting in the Michael Douglas Room, in the Jerry Lewis Building at the Paramount Film and Television Studios waiting for him. Though trying hard to appear relaxed, the actors are tense, because they know that when Norman Lear arrives, if he likes what he sees and hears, he will buy their show, put it in development, and, come February 1996, America will have its first Chicano sit-com, Real Women Have Curves. If that happens, we have Mexican-American director Bill Virchis to thank for it.

Virchis rehearses students at Southwestern College

Who, then, is Bill Virchis?

Let me back up to two days ago, when all of this began for me.

San Diego, Fat City restaurant

Wednesday, January 4,

9:00 p.m.

It’s downpouring. Getting out of the car, I nearly lose my umbrella to the wind. Overhead, a Southwest Airlines Jet roars past to the runway. How could they fly in this weather when I can barely make it to that door? Inside, I stand looking down at my drenched pants. A waitress comes over and looks at my pants. She shakes her head, and I follow her to a booth. She pours me a cup of coffee, but I don’t drink it.

I don’t see Bill, not at first. That’s because I am looking for him in the wrong place. I am not in Fat City, as it turns out. “Fat City,” the waitress tells me, pointing to a door, “is thataway.” She is nice enough not to charge me for the coffee I haven’t touched.

I enter the door to Fat City and see Bill waiting at a table with a young woman. Rising as I approach. Bill extends his hand, not to shake mine, but to pull me into a full embrace. He’s a sturdy, wiry Mexican, built on a welterweight frame, with a wide smile and bright eyes.

“How are you?” he greets me and introduces Isabella, the young woman, as his secretary who keeps his life organized.

Japanese Muzak plays in the background. The waiter comes.

“I’ll have an Irish coffee,” Bill orders. “And for you?” he asks, turning to his secretary and me. We all agree on Irish coffee.

How did Norman Lear come to see the play Real Women Have Curves?

“Two of his people—Greg Cope, director of film development, and Sean Dwyer, his chief of television development — came to see the play here in San Diego,” Bill says. “They liked it and contacted the producer, John Mercedes, who called me, and we arranged to show the play tomorrow to Norman Lear himself.”

“What was the play like before you became involved with it?”

“When I saw the play, it was at the very beginning stages of its success,” he recalls. Real Women Have Curves is about five undocumented immigrant women who are working in a sweatshop in East Los Angeles. The youngest of the women, Ana, aspires to be a writer and tries to convince the four other women that they are living in an age of feminism. D.J.R. Bruckner, who has reviewed the play for the New York Times, claims that the playwright, Josefina Lopez, who was 19 when she wrote it, “may still have things to learn about plotting and story development, but she has a sharp ear and a gift for comic dialogue.”

Bill Virchis has directed the play for the San Diego Repertory production and for the Borderlands Theater in Tucson, Arizona. For both, he gave roles to the veteran actress Lupe Ontiveros and playwright Lopez.

“I thought the play suffered an identity crisis — characters and issues were too broad,” Bill says. “There was not really a play as much as sound bites, like news items. But the real issue of the play was thought-provoking.

“I saw it after San Francisco,” he says, referring to the world premiere at the Mission Cultural Center. “But before the Teatro de la Esperanza’s production in 1989, it was a workshop, a student-directed play. It was done in a small theater. The acting and directing were very good, but the play didn’t know what it wanted to be.

“It was going into a feminist tunnel, with a lot of women directors doing it. I thought it was a woman’s piece. I was very pleased to do it as a male director. Female directors do male plays all the time.”

“What did you add to it to make it more successful?”

“I have a certain energy, that I know. It’s like being a musician,” he says. “I hear the music. I thought, T could do it.’ I saw it in all kinds of ways: ironic comedy, social consciousness, and humor. What struck me was, being in a male-oriented society, that the humor was mostly male-delivered, i.e., the way they ‘codify’ everything, you know? Here we are speaking of women’s issues that were only heard in sewing circles. It’s like when you see these women talking in that Lorca style; it’s not tragic, but women have their issues.”

One of the things he added to the play was to have Josefina play the part of Ana, the young woman who wants to be a writer. “Josefina’s education and her natural talent, her voice, and her experience helped her become a stenographer of her own family life. One lady in the play, Carmen, is like her mom.”

“What else did you add?” I ask him.

“I pointed out more of the comedy of the situation, instead of the comedy of the characters. I wanted to make the women more noble. I felt it would be embarrassing to have large women— fat people — making fim of themselves. But a friend suggested that I keep the high-risk factor. That is, the [women’s] risks of being deported. This would give it integrity. This would show that there was something important going on here. That it wasn’t just about these fat women. It was not the Dance of the Fat Women in Fantasia. It was a serious play that had high-risk factor.”

Virchis learns from his critics, one reason he is an important director. For example, in the San Diego version, he used slow-motion transitions to hold the scenes together. Critics complained, and when he did the next performance in Tulsa, he cut the transitions, improving the rhythm of the play.

“I still had some slow-motion transition,” he says, “but I also had a couple of blackouts for the audience to bridge the change of dates.

“One of the reasons why Norman Lear is interested in Real Women Have Curves, ” Bill says, leaning forward, “is the possibility of producing a Spanish-speaking version with the same cast.”

A Spanish-speaking version?

“We are looking for a cast,” he says, “that can do both languages. We shoot it in English and then — with the same cast— shoot it in Spanish.” Of the five women who were performing the play, three of them were able to speak both languages.

“You could sell this play to a Spanish-speaking audience?” I asked.

“Tomorrow! The play deals with the American dream. It deals with bonding between women — a kind of bonding that we hardly see on television, except perhaps on Designing Women. But even in Designing Women, it is still on a surface level.”

Cast members rehearse the evening before meeting with Norman Lear

Pausing, Bill sips his Irish coffee. “Norman Lear hasn’t had a big hit since All in the Family, and he knows the risks involved when one mixes politics and comedy. The reason Norman Lear is attracted to this piece,” he says, “is because he is intelligent about the risk of politics and drama.” Real Women Have Curves would “provide that edge” — the edge that mixes politics and humor and made All in the Family a big hit.

Bill calls for the check.

I ask if it would be possible to meet up with them in Hollywood.

“Sure,” he says. “What about tomorrow? Come by the house, and we’ll drive to the school, and I’ll show you around.”

As we walk to his van, he says he would be free around 9:00 a.m. I take his address and directions and say good-night.

Bill Virchis’s home, Chula Vista

Thursday, January 4,9:00 a.m.

I drive for miles through a gigantic golf course before I find his house. Wearing a bright, Aztec-design sweater, Bill is watering the lawn as I drive up the driveway in front of a light-green garage trimmed in dark green.

“Good morning,” he greets me.

I get out. “This concrete was just poured,” he says, pointing to the driveway. “I got a great deal, and the guy who did it did a wonderful job.” Like most homeowners, he takes pride in the upkeep of his property and neighborhood.

He turns to the house, a white-shingle with light-green shutters. I follow him on the hedge-lined walkway to the front door.

Offering me a glass of orange juice, Bill leads me into his living room, where I glance at the pictures of his two sons. When he returns with the juice, he hands it to me and looks at the pictures of the two young men.

“That’s my oldest, Jason, 26, and that’s my other son, Adam,” he says proudly. Jason is a graphic artist in San Diego, and Adam is at San Diego State, Bill’s alma mater, where he’s a pitcher for the baseball team and majoring in sports medicine. Bill was divorced from their mother, Bonnie, a few years back. He loves family, coming up as he did with a brother and sister. His brother works for Pacific Bell, as vice president of Hispanic and Asian affairs, in Danville, California. His sister, Martha, is principal of a junior high school. Virchis was the middle child, “the dumb one,” he claims with a smile.

Bill is also an actor. Flipping through his portfolio, he shows pictures of his various acting roles: Bill dressed as a mime, in a top hat with a daisy in the hatband; Bill dressed up like a beach boy, broad smile and tousled hair; Bill as a matador, in a gold-trimmed blue suit of lights; Bill as Dobie Gillis; Bill dressed like a Mexican businessman; Bill in Mexican peasant costume of sombrero, serape, a bandana around his neck.

When he goes into his bedroom to pick up a windbreaker, I walk into the living room study, which has a wall full of awards and a large photograph of Bill with world-renowned mime Marcel Marceau, with whom he studied for many years.

After a few minutes, Bill is ready to go. Isabella is there. She tells him that he must be at the train station by 1:30.

Outside, we walk across the lawn to the driveway. “Let’s go over to Southwestern, where I teach.”

I get in the driver’s seat and he gets in the passenger’s side. Isabella will follow us in Bill’s car. “Go up to the corner and take a right,” he instructs me, as we glide past the houses.

“There’s Chula Vista High School,” he says, directing my gaze to a modern structure. “Look, there is where I went to school.”

This was not only where he went to high school, but where he returned for his very first teaching job. According to a former student, he was considered “strange,” because he did things like bring pyramids to class and walk around in bolo neckties. Some students thought he was far-out. “Yeah, it’s weird that I was elected teacher of the year my very first year of teaching!”

Lear (in glasses) poses with cast members; to his left are playwright Josefina Lopez, John Mercedes, and Virchis

“You were born in Mexico?”

“Yes, in Mexico City, in the belly of the city,” he says, “and I came to Chula Vista in 1951, when I was a small boy.”

He was born on May 10,1944. His father, who was a Golden Gloves champion boxer and a baseball player, earned his living in the airline business, as a manager with Aero Mexico and opening airline offices across America. His mother presented readings of Spanish poetry.

In the spring of 1951, on their way to Chula Vista, the family stopped in Corpus Christi, Texas. Bill, who was seven, went with his father into a greasy spoon to get something to eat. The white proprietor said to them, “You spies sit over there!” The boy watched the white man’s face and could see that he didn’t like his father. His father said, “I sit where I want to!”

“What’s going on?” the young boy thinks. “They don’t like Mexicans? Mexicans—those heroes like his father, a Golden Glove champion Mexican, who grew up in the notorious Spanish Harlem, New York City, and who became an American football player? They don’t like people like his father, this man holding his hand now, this savior who saw him through 11 operations because of his birth defect? They don’t like Mexicans?

“Oh, man! What an awakening that was!” he tells me as I turn the car in to the entrance of Southwestern College. “It was like being pulled out of a woman’s womb and being slapped across the ass!”

But that was just the first of many rude awakenings. A series of trembles that shaped his early life. The second came when he realized that he was not white. He went to school one Monday morning in 1954 and for the first time noticed the way the white teachers and students treated the few black kids in his school. He saw how the black students were looked down on by the whites. All of a sudden, he saw how white people were racists toward blacks, and he realized he had something in common with the blacks.

“Back in those days,” he says as I drive across campus to the parking lot, “the word ‘Chicano’ was a dirty word. There were a lot of Mexicans who wanted to be anything but Mexican. Some would call themselves French or Spanish or whatever. None of them wanted to be identified as Spanish-Indian. Indians were always lower than dirt.”

Talk about color prejudice! If you were brown or a little brown, you were considered lower than dirt. Not even black people hated themselves the way Mexicans did.

Until then Bill had thought he was part of the white system. He was seven years old! When he came to a border town like Tijuana, it was like a cantina. It was 1951. Sailors and houses of ill repute. It was the furthest thing from Mexico. He had never seen Mexicans like that! He thought, “This is another country!”

We get out of the car and walk across campus to the theater department. We pass only a few students, because this is winter break and most are not back yet from their Christmas holiday.

“I came here to Southwestern as a student,” Bill says, “but I was a bad student. My biology teacher, Dr. Tom Hahn, told me to go with my passion, and so I wrote a play about bugs, called Bugatry. It was a rock opera. I sold out the 450-seat theater. Now Dr. Tom Hahn is the vice president of academic affairs. He is the second guy in charge. He is one of my strongest supporters here at Southwestern.”

As we stroll down the hallway to the drama department, I see a corkboard in the hall announcing, “S.W.C. Theater — 20 Years of Productions.” In the past 20 years, Bill Virchis has produced 76 plays and musicals. His latest was the rock musical Metropolis, which has been selected as best at the American College Theater Festival. Two previous plays, Pippin and Hair, also won the award.

Virchis is proud of having the only junior college that offers a degree in Hispanic and Chicano theater. In 1990, along with Jorge Huerta of UCSD, he established Máscara Magica, the first Latino theater in San Diego.

“Here is where we performed Metropolis, ”he says, as he switches on the lights. I see a large stage and an auditorium of more than 500 seats.

“That’s the trap door that holds the orchestra,” he points, “where the musicians were.” He shows me the control box in the back of the room, where they control the lights and music cues.

Metropolis was a fantastic production,” he says. “Let me show you the models of it.”

The rock opera was an adaption from the silent film of the same name. It was brought to the stage in February 1994 through the collaboration of Bill and Joseph Brooks. The recent production had a cast of 42, which included Southwestern students and community members, such as the 19 young children in the cast.

Bill takes me downstairs, into the room beneath the stage, where there is a model of the set.

“Look at that,” he says, showing me how the miniature works. “The stage could revolve like this,” he says, turning a small part of the model.

He shows me the men’s and women’s dressing rooms. These rooms are professional quality, with new lighting. Each actor gets his own dressing space. After the grand tour, we sit in his office.

“We teach directing,” Bill says, describing his Chicano theater curriculum. “We do almost 14 one-acts a semester. Every Thursday the students put on a one-act. They design it, direct it, do the publicity, the playbill. I like them to do originals as well as classics. They do their own scripting too. We offer play-writing every spring semester.

“We offer a major in Chicano theater,” he says, “and a minor in movement. We are the only junior college that offers a Chicano and Latin American survey course in both languages, at the same time. We provide a college of experiences in theater, dramatic arts, the contemporary and the classical.”

Bill certainly knows what the students go through, having studied here himself. “It was here that I found myself,” he says. “I wasn’t a good student until I found the theater.

Virchis' portfolio

“Southwestern College is a good place to find yourself. It’s where you turn out good people. Success starts here. We are five minutes from the border, and we deal with those whose native language is Spanish. I speak Spanish, their language,” he says.

“In my humanities class, after we finish the Renaissance, we go right into the Mezo-American civilization. I want to show them the takeoff point from the Old World to the New World. I think those points must be shown. This point of view must be shown to a student who is going out there to take over the world, you know. It cannot be so European-bounded that our cultures aren’t spoken to.

“This is one of the books that influenced me during the ’60s,” he says, as he hands me a copy of Nicholas Kanellos’s History of Hispanic Theater in the United States.

“There were hundreds of Chicano and Mexican theaters here at the turn of the century, the 1910s and ’20s,” he says, “and they were hidas—tent shows. Oh, yeah. There were carpas, and there were hidas. There were groups that toured from San Francisco to L.A. to Arizona to New Mexico. There were actually tours of bilingual plays.”

After he left Southwestern College, Bill tells me, he went to San Diego State, where he earned a B.A. and a master’s degree in theater. There he met Jorge Huerta, who became a friend and mentor. Huerta is an associate professor of theater at UCSD.

“Huerta introduced me to Valdez,” Bill recalls. In the 1960s Luis Valdez began to revolutionize Chicano theater, both as a playwright and as a director.

“I met Luis Valdez in the ’60s, and this was it. This was the great discovery. This was the beginning of the Chicano movement Luis’s teatro opened up the door to Tutankhamen’s tomb, you know? I saw the gold, man.”

Luis Valdez is only four years older than Bill Virchis, but unlike Virchis, Valdez was born in the United States, in Delano, California.

“Here are the first actos, ” Bill says, handing me a tattered book of plays to examine.

Bill explains that Valdez’s first productions — called actos— were commedia dell’arte type of broad, farcical, political theater based on sociopolitical issues. Valdez performed his farces from flatbed trucks for uneducated farm workers. To reach this audience, Valdez pulled recognizable comic stereotypes, such as the trickster coyote from folk culture. Virchis is greatly influenced by Valdez’s style and philosophy of the Chicano theater.

“Where do your students go after they finish your program?”

“UCSD and State. We send a lot to State, because that is our sister theater. For people of color, it’s hard to choose for them. Wherever they go, they are wanted.”

Bill is at the center of a large group of colleagues. There is Jose Huerta at UCSD, where there is a Ph.D. program in Chicano Theater Arts and Chicano Theater; Floyd Gaffney, of SDSU and the Southeast Community Theater; Yareli Arizmendi, one of the stars of Like Water for Chocolate at Cal State San Marcos, now on leave; Carlos Morton, an author at UC-Riverside, and many others.

“So we are really in a place where we all benefit from each other’s contribution and can have a real coalition.”

Bill Virchis loves metaphors and uses them to describe theater. “Theater,” he says, “is like dance.” There are many kinds of dance, he explains, from tap dance to ballet, but it’s all dancing. “It’s the same way with theater. There’s carpa, vaudeville, slapstick, burlesque — it’s all theater.” He pauses. “Then there is the ‘theater of color,’ and it comes especially from Latin culture.” Latin theater and Chicano theater “connects its integrity with nationalism. It’s very political.

“We can’t be a one-block mentality. We must get out of our barrios, ghettos. If we don’t, we will run out of walls to paint.”

Bill looks at his watch and then turns to his secretary, “What time does our train leave?”

“One-thirty.”

“We have time,” Bill says, smiling. “Let’s go visit Craig Noel.”

A few years after arriving in San Diego, young Bill started working as a child actor in the Old Globe Theatre. The man he worked with then was Globe artistic director Craig Noel, who now has known him for more than 30 years.

Old Globe Theatre, 11:00 a.m.

In the theater lobby, Bill stops, picks up a playbill for La Pastorela, and hands it to me. Bill’s company, Teatro Máscara Magica, produces La Pastorela each year at the Old Globe during the Christmas holidays.

Craig Noel and Virchis

“It was a wonderful production,” he says as we enter. I follow him around as he greets some of his friends. We walk backstage, where Craig Noel’s production of Time of My Life is in rehearsal. The stage assistant comes out, and Bill asks her to tell the director that we are here. She says she will see what she can do and leaves.

We have to wait a bit, but suddenly the doors burst open and a jolly, red-cheeked man comes out. Bill brightens when he sees him.

“Oh, there you are,” Noel says as he walks up and embraces Bill. They are happy to see each other.

“When I first met Bill, he came to audition for Night of the Iguana. He was a young Hispanic, probably about 17. He was eager and enthusiastic and had such energy! He moved fast, talked fast, thought fast. And he found the theater exciting.”

“Which Mexican boy did you play?” I ask. In Night of the Iguana, two Mexican boys catch the iguana. As Tennessee Williams wrote, “The Mexican boys appear with a wildly agitated creature— a captive iguana tied up in a shirt.”

“I played Pancho!” Bill laughs, “La iguana se escape.”

“Ah, yes!” Craig also recalled the line from the play.

When Bill goes to get a coffee for us, I ask Craig to assess Bill’s career.

“The amount of work he has done down through the years has been tremendous, and you discover his shows are full of compassion and commitment. He is a stickler for training. He studied with Marcel Marceau, so mime work is very important to him.

“Actually the body and how the body can express itself is very, very important to him,” Craig says. “No wonder, you find out, that he teaches wrestling, because the body is a temple that can move and control.

“He has such a love of the theatrical. His work is a big canvas with big, bold strokes. In his shows, you think, ‘This is quite different from most of the college productions one goes to see.’ This is because of his commitment to the students and his passion. I think he is very, very remarkable.”

“Did you see his production of Metropolis?”

“Yes, Metropolis was fascinating. I knew the film, and I thought, ‘Oh dear, I don’t think that will work anymore.’ But Bill has a way of making anything he does sound and look significant because of the energy and vitality he puts into it as a director, and he instills this in his actors. I find that his talent has matured and grown through the years so that he is really a fine example of someone who has, with dedication, been able to instill a love of life and a love of the theater.”

“Is La Pastorela a tradition now at the Old Globe?”

“Yes, La Pastorela has such charm and humor, and it is done, again, in a rather broad fashion. There aren’t little choices made, but big choices, and sometimes very far-out, very unorthodox. You think, ‘I wouldn’t have thought that would work at all.’ And it works beautifully. He is a constant source of amazement, and I am full of admiration for him.”

Bill returns with the sodas and coffee.

“Recently,” Craig says, “we gave a surprise 50th birthday party for him.”

“Oh, that was fun!” Bill admits.

“Of course, I don’t want to think he’s 50, because I don’t want to think that I’m beyond 50,” Craig says with a laugh. “I am well beyond 50.1 have to face the fact that my friends are getting older also, and thank God.”

Bill nods.

“It was a great party,” Craig goes on. “The people who had worked for him for the past 20 years told such funny stories about him and did such funny imitations of him. It was great fun.”

“How did you trick him to the Old Globe for the party?”

“Bill and I always have projects on the side that we intend to do someday. I told him I wanted to show him a set. We walked on the dark set, and then the lights came on, and everybody was there.”

There were tributes of songs from many theater groups, and Bill and many of his friends from the colleges and theaters around San Diego gave speeches. Brian Bilbray, Chula Vista mayor Tim Nader, comedian Rene Sandoval, and Josefina Lopez and John Mercedes were there. There was a proclamation from Mayor Golding’s office. Chuey’s restaurant catered the affair.

“It was wonderful,” Craig recalls with a touch of fresh nostalgia.

We say goodbye to Craig and take off for lunch.

Downtown San Diego, Sante Fe Restaurant, 1:00 p.m.

We eat a fantastic Mexican meal. Bill’s friend Paul is the maitre d’. I am introduced, and Bill tells me that Paul was a bullfighter in Mexico.

As we eat, Bill talks about language and its significance.

At school in the United States, he says, he was not allowed to speak Spanish. He knew something was wrong then. Language is a part of identity. As an altar boy in the Catholic Church, he felt that the more he learned about the Church’s vocabulary, the more he learned about consciousness. Instead of cutting out their hearts, the oppressor cut out their tongues! He never figured this out until somebody told him he couldn’t speak Spanish in the classroom. “If I take your language,” he says, “I take your consciousness, because language is the key.”

We walk to the train station, which is across the street. I see a group of young women coming toward us.

“These are the actresses,” Bill says, introducing the group to me. “This is Roxane.”

Roxane is a beautiful woman. She wears black high-heeled boots, black leotard, a black pullover, a black coat. She carries a big bottle of seltzer water and has a black overnight bag slung across her shoulders.

“This is Catalina.” She wears a long plaid coat and a white turtleneck and carries a sleeping bag and overnight bag.

“This is my assistant director, Kaddiz Gonzales.” She has an overnight bag stuffed with scripts and props. She has just been married, and her husband, who is a dancer, is there to see her off.

“We are taking the train in a few minutes,” Bill says. “Let’s take a picture.”

We cheer as a last picture is taken, and then they are off.

“Can you meet us in West Hollywood tonight?” Bill suggests, handing me a card with Josefina’s address on it.

“Great. See you tonight.”

West Hollywood, 6:30 p.m.

Driving through rain and the rush-hour traffic, I arrive three hours later in West Hollywood. I ring the apartment number, and when the intercom crackles, I shout my name. Somebody buzzes me in. Bill stands in the middle of the room, with several women sitting in a circle.

“We are just going over the play,” Bill explains. Josefina’s apartment is all white walls, with a cactus plant in one comer, a wreath of dried flowers on one wall, a stained-glass window, and an Aztec-design throw mg.

Lupe Ontiveros sits in the middle of the rug with her script open. On the sofa, Roxane and Catalina sit with their scripts. The assistant and Bill are facing them.

Bill introduces me to the other members of the company.

“This is Josefina,” Bill says. A tall young woman with wavy, reddish blonde hair, dressed in a black pullover, jeans, and black motorcycle boots. She turns from the microwave. I shake her hand.

“Hi,” she says with a smile. “Would you like a burrito?”

“I am starving,” I say. “Yes, I would.”

She shoves another white, fat lump into the microwave and stabs the indicator. As we stand in the kitchen, I talk to Josefina about her play and play-writing. At 24, she is the youngest and most productive of a new wave of Chicano women writers.

She has a play opening at Cal State Northridge in March, Confessions of Women from East L.A. A second play, Unconquered Spirits, opens in April. Real Women Have Curves opens in L.A. in May.

I ask Josefina why there is as yet no published version of Real Women.

“I’m still working on it,” she informs me, although the play has been widely produced by 16 different companies.

What did she think of playwrights like David Mamet? She is puzzled by his fame, she admits, because his plays sound like “a bunch of white guys tryin’ to sound like blacks.” What about Tennessee Williams? Oh, she loves Tennessee Williams.

How did she begin the writing of the play? She tells me she took a women’s writing workshop. The workshop didn’t teach her structure, but it gave her the opportunity to express “her head and her heart.” She got the title of the play from the label in a blouse when she was working in a sweatshop.

How did Bill make her play better? He helped her with the characters, she says.

The door opens and in walks John Mercedes, the play’s producer and Josefina’s agent.

Mercedes is a congenial man. “I have known Norman Lear since 1969,” John tells me, “so I contacted him and spoke to him in April 1994. He couldn’t make it to the play, so he sent Sean and Greg, and they liked it. And after they reported to him, we were going to meet. He was involved with another series at the time based at Columbia studios, and he was very busy with a new series with John Amos. After he became free and he went over to Paramount studios, we met in December 1994, and we agreed to do a reading for him.”

“Would the dual-language play a part?”

“We don’t intend to use a lot of Spanish, only occasionally. We are planning two versions, one in English with very little Spanish, and one version in Spanish with very little English.”

“Silence!” Bill calls, “Let’s get this rehearsal started.”

I sit beside Josefina as the cast goes through their lines. After the run-through, Bill calls for a break.

I go outside with Roxane Carrasco. She tells me how she was about to leave for New York when Bill called her for the part of Rosali. She had been living in San Diego and taking care of her sick mother. She is apprehensive about tomorrow’s reading for Norman Lear. If the show goes and she gets a role, this would change her life, of course.

When we go back in, the actresses are talking about Norman Lear.

“What’s he like?” Catalina asks Lupe.

“He’s nice,” Lupe tells her. Lupe has worked with Norman Lear when she worked on television shows. She has been in many movies, including Born in East L. A., Bound by Honor, and How Else Am I Supposed to Know I’m Alive? and she became well known for her Dolores in Zoot Suit.

“How old is he?”

“About 60.”

“Sixty! He’s older than that!”

“Seventy?”

“Is he sexy?”

“In a way.”

Somebody asks which shows had he produced All in the Family, Good Times, and the Redd Foxx show, Sanford and Son. Oh, how Lupe Ontiveros loved Redd Foxx! She puts her hand on her heart and yells, “I think it’s the big one this time!” like Fred Sanford, and we crack up over her imitation.

Bill emerges from a bedroom in his pajamas, and the girls all shriek with laughter. “We had better get some sleep,” he says. “Tomorrow is going to be a big day.”

Paramount studios, Los Angeles

Friday, January 6,9:00 a.m.

I head for the Jerry Lewis Building, where I find Bill in a room with the cast. They are all sitting around an oval table.

They are dressed brightly and greet me with fresh smiles. They rehearse for about an hour, going over sound cues. John asks me to get coffee for some of the cast; when somebody needs an extra chair, 1 go for the chair.

When Bill asks Kaddiz, his assistant, to play back the sound cues, she does so, and to everyone’s surprise, they are loud and disturbing.

“Why didn’t you put them on one tape?” John asks.

“I didn’t have time to do that,” Kaddiz confesses.

“But we can’t use those cues,” John says. “That’s too distracting.” It is a problem that has to be solved in the next few minutes. Bill takes over with an example of how he solves problems in a pinch.

“Let’s go back over all of the cues,” he says. “Start with the first one.”

The first cue calls for the women to sing an a cappella “Tequila,” but Bill suggests that Kaddiz read, “Lights come on. Radio is on,” so the sound is coming from the radio. “Instead of making it a theatrical device, we make it a radio,” Bill says.

“She says, ‘Lights come on. The radio is on.’ Then I turn on the radio?”

“Right,” Bill says. “That way it makes sense.”

Everyone is happy with the solution. John Mercedes comes in and tells them that a bigger space is available. We are moved upstairs to the Michael Douglas Room.

The hall upstairs is lined with posters of Michael Douglas’s films. The poster of Falling Down—showing a white man attacking a group of Hispanic youths — adds an ironic twist as the troupe of Chicana actresses marches by.

Bill takes the cast through a “speed reading” for the last time. Within a few minutes, Norman Lear and two associates — Sean Dwyer and John Basin, who is the president of Lear’s Act III Productions — enter the room.

Norman is about five-feet-nine. He wears a white golfing hat, a checked pullover, glasses. He is smiling and very cordial.

He shakes the first actress’s hand and asks her name. Then he goes to the next, until he has met them all.

“Avery?” Norman Lear asks for Avery Schreiber, a comedian who co-starred in his own TV series in the ’70s, was a writer for the Smothers Brothers, and who also made a well-known TV commercial for Doritos tortilla chips.

“We have been waiting for this play for a long time,” Mr. Lear says.

Bill says, “Okay, let’s begin.”

The cast performs the play, and Norman Lear laughs. His intense face and smiling eyes swerve from actress to actress, as he cheers along the performance with the rest of us.

A lot of the lines are bawdy and sexy, but Lear laughs and nods in agreement. He laughs especially hard at the stretch-mark contest among the women. “You think you got stretch marks,” shouts Carmen, the mother of Ana and Estela, as she pulls up her shirt, “I’ll show you stretch marks!” When Estela accuses her mother of making her feel guilty for not being married, a sign of recognition appears on Norman’s face. He seems to identify with the plight of these women as they scurry for cover when they think la migra is coming.

We have a break after act one, and Lear takes the opportunity to tell everybody how great they were.

During this break, he chats with the actresses, then they begin act two. It is a moving performance. At the end, Lear asks Coral Thuet if she really is Mexican. Looking at her blond hair and blue eyes, he says, “You are as much Mexican as I am.”

“No, I was born in TJ. My mother is Mexican, but my father is Scottish.”

“And is this your first acting job?” he asks.

“I am a jazz singer,” she admits.

“Oh?” Lear replies, impressed. Then he asks all of them a few questions — if they are all professionals and belong to the Screen Actors Guild.

“No, I just started being a professional this year,” Lucy Rodriguez replies. She wants to be a professional actress but has not been prepared to do it full-time. Roxane says she has been dancing for a long time.

“Has the play ever been performed just in Spanish?” Norman asks Josefina.

“Yes, in New York, at the Gramercy Theater,” she tells him, “with an English translation.”

Bill says, “Let’s take some pictures!”

Lear and the company pose while I handle the camera.

We prepare to leave, and I feel compelled to admit to Norman Lear that I once worked for him. I wrote an episode of Good Times, and he wants to know which one. On the way out, I ask him what he thinks about Real Women Have Curves.

It is a very good play, he says, and he thinks it would work for him. He walks off with John Mercedes. Bill and I and the actresses head for the parking lot.

“That reading,” he said, “was the best I’ve ever heard of that play.” The women are excited and very pleased to hear that.

Berkeley

Friday, March 3,10:30 a.m.

I call Norman Lear’s office and speak with Sean Dwyer, the chief of TV development. The play is in development to become a half-hour sit-com, he tells me.

“Norman is taking an active role,” he added, “meeting with Josefina every week to shape the story. The show is something very original.”

I talk with John Mercedes, who tells me, “We are meeting with Norman for the sixth time. We are developing the characters and the story for the pilot. Josefina is doing the writing for the pilots. We have no idea if the cast will be the same.”

What is the next step? After the characters and the story are developed for the pilot, it will be presented in June or July and then to the public during mid-season, in February 1996. Most of Lear’s successful shows have been mid-season replacements.

Along with Josefina Lopez, John Mercedes will be executive producer and will write some of the episodes. John says it was Josefina’s story that Norman Lear bought. Lear wants to develop the project because there were five great characters here and a great setting, and the characters have a lot of room to grow in terms of projecting a five-year life for the series.

John is happy that Bill helped develop the characters, that he was the first to put Josefina in the play as an actress, and that he saw the play through its important productions until it was presented to Lear at the Paramount studios.

Bill will be an associate producer, a writer, and a director of some of the episodes. “Bill is a very talented director, with experience from having been an actor, a writer, and a director. It all depends on his time schedule. But I would very much like to work with him.”

When I ask Bill what his involvement in the TV situation comedy will be, he is typically modest. “What I want to do,” Bill says, “is be a line producer and cast some of the parts. I want to do an internship in directing. That’s my real dream. And I am really interested in being a part of the Spanish version. Spanish is spoken from here to the tip of Argentina.

“If they do it right and stay with the soul of the play,” he says like a father seeing his child off to college, “and expand it to the multi-ethnic world, we will have a hit forever.” But until then, he is busy teaching his classes and preparing for his theater plays at Southwestern College.

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I raise my Tecate to the Master.
Bill Virchis - Image by Robert Burroughs
Bill Virchis

West Hollywood,

Paramount Studios

Friday, January 5,

1:00 p.m.

Any minute Norman Lear will walk through that door. We are sitting in the Michael Douglas Room, in the Jerry Lewis Building at the Paramount Film and Television Studios waiting for him. Though trying hard to appear relaxed, the actors are tense, because they know that when Norman Lear arrives, if he likes what he sees and hears, he will buy their show, put it in development, and, come February 1996, America will have its first Chicano sit-com, Real Women Have Curves. If that happens, we have Mexican-American director Bill Virchis to thank for it.

Virchis rehearses students at Southwestern College

Who, then, is Bill Virchis?

Let me back up to two days ago, when all of this began for me.

San Diego, Fat City restaurant

Wednesday, January 4,

9:00 p.m.

It’s downpouring. Getting out of the car, I nearly lose my umbrella to the wind. Overhead, a Southwest Airlines Jet roars past to the runway. How could they fly in this weather when I can barely make it to that door? Inside, I stand looking down at my drenched pants. A waitress comes over and looks at my pants. She shakes her head, and I follow her to a booth. She pours me a cup of coffee, but I don’t drink it.

I don’t see Bill, not at first. That’s because I am looking for him in the wrong place. I am not in Fat City, as it turns out. “Fat City,” the waitress tells me, pointing to a door, “is thataway.” She is nice enough not to charge me for the coffee I haven’t touched.

I enter the door to Fat City and see Bill waiting at a table with a young woman. Rising as I approach. Bill extends his hand, not to shake mine, but to pull me into a full embrace. He’s a sturdy, wiry Mexican, built on a welterweight frame, with a wide smile and bright eyes.

“How are you?” he greets me and introduces Isabella, the young woman, as his secretary who keeps his life organized.

Japanese Muzak plays in the background. The waiter comes.

“I’ll have an Irish coffee,” Bill orders. “And for you?” he asks, turning to his secretary and me. We all agree on Irish coffee.

How did Norman Lear come to see the play Real Women Have Curves?

“Two of his people—Greg Cope, director of film development, and Sean Dwyer, his chief of television development — came to see the play here in San Diego,” Bill says. “They liked it and contacted the producer, John Mercedes, who called me, and we arranged to show the play tomorrow to Norman Lear himself.”

“What was the play like before you became involved with it?”

“When I saw the play, it was at the very beginning stages of its success,” he recalls. Real Women Have Curves is about five undocumented immigrant women who are working in a sweatshop in East Los Angeles. The youngest of the women, Ana, aspires to be a writer and tries to convince the four other women that they are living in an age of feminism. D.J.R. Bruckner, who has reviewed the play for the New York Times, claims that the playwright, Josefina Lopez, who was 19 when she wrote it, “may still have things to learn about plotting and story development, but she has a sharp ear and a gift for comic dialogue.”

Bill Virchis has directed the play for the San Diego Repertory production and for the Borderlands Theater in Tucson, Arizona. For both, he gave roles to the veteran actress Lupe Ontiveros and playwright Lopez.

“I thought the play suffered an identity crisis — characters and issues were too broad,” Bill says. “There was not really a play as much as sound bites, like news items. But the real issue of the play was thought-provoking.

“I saw it after San Francisco,” he says, referring to the world premiere at the Mission Cultural Center. “But before the Teatro de la Esperanza’s production in 1989, it was a workshop, a student-directed play. It was done in a small theater. The acting and directing were very good, but the play didn’t know what it wanted to be.

“It was going into a feminist tunnel, with a lot of women directors doing it. I thought it was a woman’s piece. I was very pleased to do it as a male director. Female directors do male plays all the time.”

“What did you add to it to make it more successful?”

“I have a certain energy, that I know. It’s like being a musician,” he says. “I hear the music. I thought, T could do it.’ I saw it in all kinds of ways: ironic comedy, social consciousness, and humor. What struck me was, being in a male-oriented society, that the humor was mostly male-delivered, i.e., the way they ‘codify’ everything, you know? Here we are speaking of women’s issues that were only heard in sewing circles. It’s like when you see these women talking in that Lorca style; it’s not tragic, but women have their issues.”

One of the things he added to the play was to have Josefina play the part of Ana, the young woman who wants to be a writer. “Josefina’s education and her natural talent, her voice, and her experience helped her become a stenographer of her own family life. One lady in the play, Carmen, is like her mom.”

“What else did you add?” I ask him.

“I pointed out more of the comedy of the situation, instead of the comedy of the characters. I wanted to make the women more noble. I felt it would be embarrassing to have large women— fat people — making fim of themselves. But a friend suggested that I keep the high-risk factor. That is, the [women’s] risks of being deported. This would give it integrity. This would show that there was something important going on here. That it wasn’t just about these fat women. It was not the Dance of the Fat Women in Fantasia. It was a serious play that had high-risk factor.”

Virchis learns from his critics, one reason he is an important director. For example, in the San Diego version, he used slow-motion transitions to hold the scenes together. Critics complained, and when he did the next performance in Tulsa, he cut the transitions, improving the rhythm of the play.

“I still had some slow-motion transition,” he says, “but I also had a couple of blackouts for the audience to bridge the change of dates.

“One of the reasons why Norman Lear is interested in Real Women Have Curves, ” Bill says, leaning forward, “is the possibility of producing a Spanish-speaking version with the same cast.”

A Spanish-speaking version?

“We are looking for a cast,” he says, “that can do both languages. We shoot it in English and then — with the same cast— shoot it in Spanish.” Of the five women who were performing the play, three of them were able to speak both languages.

“You could sell this play to a Spanish-speaking audience?” I asked.

“Tomorrow! The play deals with the American dream. It deals with bonding between women — a kind of bonding that we hardly see on television, except perhaps on Designing Women. But even in Designing Women, it is still on a surface level.”

Cast members rehearse the evening before meeting with Norman Lear

Pausing, Bill sips his Irish coffee. “Norman Lear hasn’t had a big hit since All in the Family, and he knows the risks involved when one mixes politics and comedy. The reason Norman Lear is attracted to this piece,” he says, “is because he is intelligent about the risk of politics and drama.” Real Women Have Curves would “provide that edge” — the edge that mixes politics and humor and made All in the Family a big hit.

Bill calls for the check.

I ask if it would be possible to meet up with them in Hollywood.

“Sure,” he says. “What about tomorrow? Come by the house, and we’ll drive to the school, and I’ll show you around.”

As we walk to his van, he says he would be free around 9:00 a.m. I take his address and directions and say good-night.

Bill Virchis’s home, Chula Vista

Thursday, January 4,9:00 a.m.

I drive for miles through a gigantic golf course before I find his house. Wearing a bright, Aztec-design sweater, Bill is watering the lawn as I drive up the driveway in front of a light-green garage trimmed in dark green.

“Good morning,” he greets me.

I get out. “This concrete was just poured,” he says, pointing to the driveway. “I got a great deal, and the guy who did it did a wonderful job.” Like most homeowners, he takes pride in the upkeep of his property and neighborhood.

He turns to the house, a white-shingle with light-green shutters. I follow him on the hedge-lined walkway to the front door.

Offering me a glass of orange juice, Bill leads me into his living room, where I glance at the pictures of his two sons. When he returns with the juice, he hands it to me and looks at the pictures of the two young men.

“That’s my oldest, Jason, 26, and that’s my other son, Adam,” he says proudly. Jason is a graphic artist in San Diego, and Adam is at San Diego State, Bill’s alma mater, where he’s a pitcher for the baseball team and majoring in sports medicine. Bill was divorced from their mother, Bonnie, a few years back. He loves family, coming up as he did with a brother and sister. His brother works for Pacific Bell, as vice president of Hispanic and Asian affairs, in Danville, California. His sister, Martha, is principal of a junior high school. Virchis was the middle child, “the dumb one,” he claims with a smile.

Bill is also an actor. Flipping through his portfolio, he shows pictures of his various acting roles: Bill dressed as a mime, in a top hat with a daisy in the hatband; Bill dressed up like a beach boy, broad smile and tousled hair; Bill as a matador, in a gold-trimmed blue suit of lights; Bill as Dobie Gillis; Bill dressed like a Mexican businessman; Bill in Mexican peasant costume of sombrero, serape, a bandana around his neck.

When he goes into his bedroom to pick up a windbreaker, I walk into the living room study, which has a wall full of awards and a large photograph of Bill with world-renowned mime Marcel Marceau, with whom he studied for many years.

After a few minutes, Bill is ready to go. Isabella is there. She tells him that he must be at the train station by 1:30.

Outside, we walk across the lawn to the driveway. “Let’s go over to Southwestern, where I teach.”

I get in the driver’s seat and he gets in the passenger’s side. Isabella will follow us in Bill’s car. “Go up to the corner and take a right,” he instructs me, as we glide past the houses.

“There’s Chula Vista High School,” he says, directing my gaze to a modern structure. “Look, there is where I went to school.”

This was not only where he went to high school, but where he returned for his very first teaching job. According to a former student, he was considered “strange,” because he did things like bring pyramids to class and walk around in bolo neckties. Some students thought he was far-out. “Yeah, it’s weird that I was elected teacher of the year my very first year of teaching!”

Lear (in glasses) poses with cast members; to his left are playwright Josefina Lopez, John Mercedes, and Virchis

“You were born in Mexico?”

“Yes, in Mexico City, in the belly of the city,” he says, “and I came to Chula Vista in 1951, when I was a small boy.”

He was born on May 10,1944. His father, who was a Golden Gloves champion boxer and a baseball player, earned his living in the airline business, as a manager with Aero Mexico and opening airline offices across America. His mother presented readings of Spanish poetry.

In the spring of 1951, on their way to Chula Vista, the family stopped in Corpus Christi, Texas. Bill, who was seven, went with his father into a greasy spoon to get something to eat. The white proprietor said to them, “You spies sit over there!” The boy watched the white man’s face and could see that he didn’t like his father. His father said, “I sit where I want to!”

“What’s going on?” the young boy thinks. “They don’t like Mexicans? Mexicans—those heroes like his father, a Golden Glove champion Mexican, who grew up in the notorious Spanish Harlem, New York City, and who became an American football player? They don’t like people like his father, this man holding his hand now, this savior who saw him through 11 operations because of his birth defect? They don’t like Mexicans?

“Oh, man! What an awakening that was!” he tells me as I turn the car in to the entrance of Southwestern College. “It was like being pulled out of a woman’s womb and being slapped across the ass!”

But that was just the first of many rude awakenings. A series of trembles that shaped his early life. The second came when he realized that he was not white. He went to school one Monday morning in 1954 and for the first time noticed the way the white teachers and students treated the few black kids in his school. He saw how the black students were looked down on by the whites. All of a sudden, he saw how white people were racists toward blacks, and he realized he had something in common with the blacks.

“Back in those days,” he says as I drive across campus to the parking lot, “the word ‘Chicano’ was a dirty word. There were a lot of Mexicans who wanted to be anything but Mexican. Some would call themselves French or Spanish or whatever. None of them wanted to be identified as Spanish-Indian. Indians were always lower than dirt.”

Talk about color prejudice! If you were brown or a little brown, you were considered lower than dirt. Not even black people hated themselves the way Mexicans did.

Until then Bill had thought he was part of the white system. He was seven years old! When he came to a border town like Tijuana, it was like a cantina. It was 1951. Sailors and houses of ill repute. It was the furthest thing from Mexico. He had never seen Mexicans like that! He thought, “This is another country!”

We get out of the car and walk across campus to the theater department. We pass only a few students, because this is winter break and most are not back yet from their Christmas holiday.

“I came here to Southwestern as a student,” Bill says, “but I was a bad student. My biology teacher, Dr. Tom Hahn, told me to go with my passion, and so I wrote a play about bugs, called Bugatry. It was a rock opera. I sold out the 450-seat theater. Now Dr. Tom Hahn is the vice president of academic affairs. He is the second guy in charge. He is one of my strongest supporters here at Southwestern.”

As we stroll down the hallway to the drama department, I see a corkboard in the hall announcing, “S.W.C. Theater — 20 Years of Productions.” In the past 20 years, Bill Virchis has produced 76 plays and musicals. His latest was the rock musical Metropolis, which has been selected as best at the American College Theater Festival. Two previous plays, Pippin and Hair, also won the award.

Virchis is proud of having the only junior college that offers a degree in Hispanic and Chicano theater. In 1990, along with Jorge Huerta of UCSD, he established Máscara Magica, the first Latino theater in San Diego.

“Here is where we performed Metropolis, ”he says, as he switches on the lights. I see a large stage and an auditorium of more than 500 seats.

“That’s the trap door that holds the orchestra,” he points, “where the musicians were.” He shows me the control box in the back of the room, where they control the lights and music cues.

Metropolis was a fantastic production,” he says. “Let me show you the models of it.”

The rock opera was an adaption from the silent film of the same name. It was brought to the stage in February 1994 through the collaboration of Bill and Joseph Brooks. The recent production had a cast of 42, which included Southwestern students and community members, such as the 19 young children in the cast.

Bill takes me downstairs, into the room beneath the stage, where there is a model of the set.

“Look at that,” he says, showing me how the miniature works. “The stage could revolve like this,” he says, turning a small part of the model.

He shows me the men’s and women’s dressing rooms. These rooms are professional quality, with new lighting. Each actor gets his own dressing space. After the grand tour, we sit in his office.

“We teach directing,” Bill says, describing his Chicano theater curriculum. “We do almost 14 one-acts a semester. Every Thursday the students put on a one-act. They design it, direct it, do the publicity, the playbill. I like them to do originals as well as classics. They do their own scripting too. We offer play-writing every spring semester.

“We offer a major in Chicano theater,” he says, “and a minor in movement. We are the only junior college that offers a Chicano and Latin American survey course in both languages, at the same time. We provide a college of experiences in theater, dramatic arts, the contemporary and the classical.”

Bill certainly knows what the students go through, having studied here himself. “It was here that I found myself,” he says. “I wasn’t a good student until I found the theater.

Virchis' portfolio

“Southwestern College is a good place to find yourself. It’s where you turn out good people. Success starts here. We are five minutes from the border, and we deal with those whose native language is Spanish. I speak Spanish, their language,” he says.

“In my humanities class, after we finish the Renaissance, we go right into the Mezo-American civilization. I want to show them the takeoff point from the Old World to the New World. I think those points must be shown. This point of view must be shown to a student who is going out there to take over the world, you know. It cannot be so European-bounded that our cultures aren’t spoken to.

“This is one of the books that influenced me during the ’60s,” he says, as he hands me a copy of Nicholas Kanellos’s History of Hispanic Theater in the United States.

“There were hundreds of Chicano and Mexican theaters here at the turn of the century, the 1910s and ’20s,” he says, “and they were hidas—tent shows. Oh, yeah. There were carpas, and there were hidas. There were groups that toured from San Francisco to L.A. to Arizona to New Mexico. There were actually tours of bilingual plays.”

After he left Southwestern College, Bill tells me, he went to San Diego State, where he earned a B.A. and a master’s degree in theater. There he met Jorge Huerta, who became a friend and mentor. Huerta is an associate professor of theater at UCSD.

“Huerta introduced me to Valdez,” Bill recalls. In the 1960s Luis Valdez began to revolutionize Chicano theater, both as a playwright and as a director.

“I met Luis Valdez in the ’60s, and this was it. This was the great discovery. This was the beginning of the Chicano movement Luis’s teatro opened up the door to Tutankhamen’s tomb, you know? I saw the gold, man.”

Luis Valdez is only four years older than Bill Virchis, but unlike Virchis, Valdez was born in the United States, in Delano, California.

“Here are the first actos, ” Bill says, handing me a tattered book of plays to examine.

Bill explains that Valdez’s first productions — called actos— were commedia dell’arte type of broad, farcical, political theater based on sociopolitical issues. Valdez performed his farces from flatbed trucks for uneducated farm workers. To reach this audience, Valdez pulled recognizable comic stereotypes, such as the trickster coyote from folk culture. Virchis is greatly influenced by Valdez’s style and philosophy of the Chicano theater.

“Where do your students go after they finish your program?”

“UCSD and State. We send a lot to State, because that is our sister theater. For people of color, it’s hard to choose for them. Wherever they go, they are wanted.”

Bill is at the center of a large group of colleagues. There is Jose Huerta at UCSD, where there is a Ph.D. program in Chicano Theater Arts and Chicano Theater; Floyd Gaffney, of SDSU and the Southeast Community Theater; Yareli Arizmendi, one of the stars of Like Water for Chocolate at Cal State San Marcos, now on leave; Carlos Morton, an author at UC-Riverside, and many others.

“So we are really in a place where we all benefit from each other’s contribution and can have a real coalition.”

Bill Virchis loves metaphors and uses them to describe theater. “Theater,” he says, “is like dance.” There are many kinds of dance, he explains, from tap dance to ballet, but it’s all dancing. “It’s the same way with theater. There’s carpa, vaudeville, slapstick, burlesque — it’s all theater.” He pauses. “Then there is the ‘theater of color,’ and it comes especially from Latin culture.” Latin theater and Chicano theater “connects its integrity with nationalism. It’s very political.

“We can’t be a one-block mentality. We must get out of our barrios, ghettos. If we don’t, we will run out of walls to paint.”

Bill looks at his watch and then turns to his secretary, “What time does our train leave?”

“One-thirty.”

“We have time,” Bill says, smiling. “Let’s go visit Craig Noel.”

A few years after arriving in San Diego, young Bill started working as a child actor in the Old Globe Theatre. The man he worked with then was Globe artistic director Craig Noel, who now has known him for more than 30 years.

Old Globe Theatre, 11:00 a.m.

In the theater lobby, Bill stops, picks up a playbill for La Pastorela, and hands it to me. Bill’s company, Teatro Máscara Magica, produces La Pastorela each year at the Old Globe during the Christmas holidays.

Craig Noel and Virchis

“It was a wonderful production,” he says as we enter. I follow him around as he greets some of his friends. We walk backstage, where Craig Noel’s production of Time of My Life is in rehearsal. The stage assistant comes out, and Bill asks her to tell the director that we are here. She says she will see what she can do and leaves.

We have to wait a bit, but suddenly the doors burst open and a jolly, red-cheeked man comes out. Bill brightens when he sees him.

“Oh, there you are,” Noel says as he walks up and embraces Bill. They are happy to see each other.

“When I first met Bill, he came to audition for Night of the Iguana. He was a young Hispanic, probably about 17. He was eager and enthusiastic and had such energy! He moved fast, talked fast, thought fast. And he found the theater exciting.”

“Which Mexican boy did you play?” I ask. In Night of the Iguana, two Mexican boys catch the iguana. As Tennessee Williams wrote, “The Mexican boys appear with a wildly agitated creature— a captive iguana tied up in a shirt.”

“I played Pancho!” Bill laughs, “La iguana se escape.”

“Ah, yes!” Craig also recalled the line from the play.

When Bill goes to get a coffee for us, I ask Craig to assess Bill’s career.

“The amount of work he has done down through the years has been tremendous, and you discover his shows are full of compassion and commitment. He is a stickler for training. He studied with Marcel Marceau, so mime work is very important to him.

“Actually the body and how the body can express itself is very, very important to him,” Craig says. “No wonder, you find out, that he teaches wrestling, because the body is a temple that can move and control.

“He has such a love of the theatrical. His work is a big canvas with big, bold strokes. In his shows, you think, ‘This is quite different from most of the college productions one goes to see.’ This is because of his commitment to the students and his passion. I think he is very, very remarkable.”

“Did you see his production of Metropolis?”

“Yes, Metropolis was fascinating. I knew the film, and I thought, ‘Oh dear, I don’t think that will work anymore.’ But Bill has a way of making anything he does sound and look significant because of the energy and vitality he puts into it as a director, and he instills this in his actors. I find that his talent has matured and grown through the years so that he is really a fine example of someone who has, with dedication, been able to instill a love of life and a love of the theater.”

“Is La Pastorela a tradition now at the Old Globe?”

“Yes, La Pastorela has such charm and humor, and it is done, again, in a rather broad fashion. There aren’t little choices made, but big choices, and sometimes very far-out, very unorthodox. You think, ‘I wouldn’t have thought that would work at all.’ And it works beautifully. He is a constant source of amazement, and I am full of admiration for him.”

Bill returns with the sodas and coffee.

“Recently,” Craig says, “we gave a surprise 50th birthday party for him.”

“Oh, that was fun!” Bill admits.

“Of course, I don’t want to think he’s 50, because I don’t want to think that I’m beyond 50,” Craig says with a laugh. “I am well beyond 50.1 have to face the fact that my friends are getting older also, and thank God.”

Bill nods.

“It was a great party,” Craig goes on. “The people who had worked for him for the past 20 years told such funny stories about him and did such funny imitations of him. It was great fun.”

“How did you trick him to the Old Globe for the party?”

“Bill and I always have projects on the side that we intend to do someday. I told him I wanted to show him a set. We walked on the dark set, and then the lights came on, and everybody was there.”

There were tributes of songs from many theater groups, and Bill and many of his friends from the colleges and theaters around San Diego gave speeches. Brian Bilbray, Chula Vista mayor Tim Nader, comedian Rene Sandoval, and Josefina Lopez and John Mercedes were there. There was a proclamation from Mayor Golding’s office. Chuey’s restaurant catered the affair.

“It was wonderful,” Craig recalls with a touch of fresh nostalgia.

We say goodbye to Craig and take off for lunch.

Downtown San Diego, Sante Fe Restaurant, 1:00 p.m.

We eat a fantastic Mexican meal. Bill’s friend Paul is the maitre d’. I am introduced, and Bill tells me that Paul was a bullfighter in Mexico.

As we eat, Bill talks about language and its significance.

At school in the United States, he says, he was not allowed to speak Spanish. He knew something was wrong then. Language is a part of identity. As an altar boy in the Catholic Church, he felt that the more he learned about the Church’s vocabulary, the more he learned about consciousness. Instead of cutting out their hearts, the oppressor cut out their tongues! He never figured this out until somebody told him he couldn’t speak Spanish in the classroom. “If I take your language,” he says, “I take your consciousness, because language is the key.”

We walk to the train station, which is across the street. I see a group of young women coming toward us.

“These are the actresses,” Bill says, introducing the group to me. “This is Roxane.”

Roxane is a beautiful woman. She wears black high-heeled boots, black leotard, a black pullover, a black coat. She carries a big bottle of seltzer water and has a black overnight bag slung across her shoulders.

“This is Catalina.” She wears a long plaid coat and a white turtleneck and carries a sleeping bag and overnight bag.

“This is my assistant director, Kaddiz Gonzales.” She has an overnight bag stuffed with scripts and props. She has just been married, and her husband, who is a dancer, is there to see her off.

“We are taking the train in a few minutes,” Bill says. “Let’s take a picture.”

We cheer as a last picture is taken, and then they are off.

“Can you meet us in West Hollywood tonight?” Bill suggests, handing me a card with Josefina’s address on it.

“Great. See you tonight.”

West Hollywood, 6:30 p.m.

Driving through rain and the rush-hour traffic, I arrive three hours later in West Hollywood. I ring the apartment number, and when the intercom crackles, I shout my name. Somebody buzzes me in. Bill stands in the middle of the room, with several women sitting in a circle.

“We are just going over the play,” Bill explains. Josefina’s apartment is all white walls, with a cactus plant in one comer, a wreath of dried flowers on one wall, a stained-glass window, and an Aztec-design throw mg.

Lupe Ontiveros sits in the middle of the rug with her script open. On the sofa, Roxane and Catalina sit with their scripts. The assistant and Bill are facing them.

Bill introduces me to the other members of the company.

“This is Josefina,” Bill says. A tall young woman with wavy, reddish blonde hair, dressed in a black pullover, jeans, and black motorcycle boots. She turns from the microwave. I shake her hand.

“Hi,” she says with a smile. “Would you like a burrito?”

“I am starving,” I say. “Yes, I would.”

She shoves another white, fat lump into the microwave and stabs the indicator. As we stand in the kitchen, I talk to Josefina about her play and play-writing. At 24, she is the youngest and most productive of a new wave of Chicano women writers.

She has a play opening at Cal State Northridge in March, Confessions of Women from East L.A. A second play, Unconquered Spirits, opens in April. Real Women Have Curves opens in L.A. in May.

I ask Josefina why there is as yet no published version of Real Women.

“I’m still working on it,” she informs me, although the play has been widely produced by 16 different companies.

What did she think of playwrights like David Mamet? She is puzzled by his fame, she admits, because his plays sound like “a bunch of white guys tryin’ to sound like blacks.” What about Tennessee Williams? Oh, she loves Tennessee Williams.

How did she begin the writing of the play? She tells me she took a women’s writing workshop. The workshop didn’t teach her structure, but it gave her the opportunity to express “her head and her heart.” She got the title of the play from the label in a blouse when she was working in a sweatshop.

How did Bill make her play better? He helped her with the characters, she says.

The door opens and in walks John Mercedes, the play’s producer and Josefina’s agent.

Mercedes is a congenial man. “I have known Norman Lear since 1969,” John tells me, “so I contacted him and spoke to him in April 1994. He couldn’t make it to the play, so he sent Sean and Greg, and they liked it. And after they reported to him, we were going to meet. He was involved with another series at the time based at Columbia studios, and he was very busy with a new series with John Amos. After he became free and he went over to Paramount studios, we met in December 1994, and we agreed to do a reading for him.”

“Would the dual-language play a part?”

“We don’t intend to use a lot of Spanish, only occasionally. We are planning two versions, one in English with very little Spanish, and one version in Spanish with very little English.”

“Silence!” Bill calls, “Let’s get this rehearsal started.”

I sit beside Josefina as the cast goes through their lines. After the run-through, Bill calls for a break.

I go outside with Roxane Carrasco. She tells me how she was about to leave for New York when Bill called her for the part of Rosali. She had been living in San Diego and taking care of her sick mother. She is apprehensive about tomorrow’s reading for Norman Lear. If the show goes and she gets a role, this would change her life, of course.

When we go back in, the actresses are talking about Norman Lear.

“What’s he like?” Catalina asks Lupe.

“He’s nice,” Lupe tells her. Lupe has worked with Norman Lear when she worked on television shows. She has been in many movies, including Born in East L. A., Bound by Honor, and How Else Am I Supposed to Know I’m Alive? and she became well known for her Dolores in Zoot Suit.

“How old is he?”

“About 60.”

“Sixty! He’s older than that!”

“Seventy?”

“Is he sexy?”

“In a way.”

Somebody asks which shows had he produced All in the Family, Good Times, and the Redd Foxx show, Sanford and Son. Oh, how Lupe Ontiveros loved Redd Foxx! She puts her hand on her heart and yells, “I think it’s the big one this time!” like Fred Sanford, and we crack up over her imitation.

Bill emerges from a bedroom in his pajamas, and the girls all shriek with laughter. “We had better get some sleep,” he says. “Tomorrow is going to be a big day.”

Paramount studios, Los Angeles

Friday, January 6,9:00 a.m.

I head for the Jerry Lewis Building, where I find Bill in a room with the cast. They are all sitting around an oval table.

They are dressed brightly and greet me with fresh smiles. They rehearse for about an hour, going over sound cues. John asks me to get coffee for some of the cast; when somebody needs an extra chair, 1 go for the chair.

When Bill asks Kaddiz, his assistant, to play back the sound cues, she does so, and to everyone’s surprise, they are loud and disturbing.

“Why didn’t you put them on one tape?” John asks.

“I didn’t have time to do that,” Kaddiz confesses.

“But we can’t use those cues,” John says. “That’s too distracting.” It is a problem that has to be solved in the next few minutes. Bill takes over with an example of how he solves problems in a pinch.

“Let’s go back over all of the cues,” he says. “Start with the first one.”

The first cue calls for the women to sing an a cappella “Tequila,” but Bill suggests that Kaddiz read, “Lights come on. Radio is on,” so the sound is coming from the radio. “Instead of making it a theatrical device, we make it a radio,” Bill says.

“She says, ‘Lights come on. The radio is on.’ Then I turn on the radio?”

“Right,” Bill says. “That way it makes sense.”

Everyone is happy with the solution. John Mercedes comes in and tells them that a bigger space is available. We are moved upstairs to the Michael Douglas Room.

The hall upstairs is lined with posters of Michael Douglas’s films. The poster of Falling Down—showing a white man attacking a group of Hispanic youths — adds an ironic twist as the troupe of Chicana actresses marches by.

Bill takes the cast through a “speed reading” for the last time. Within a few minutes, Norman Lear and two associates — Sean Dwyer and John Basin, who is the president of Lear’s Act III Productions — enter the room.

Norman is about five-feet-nine. He wears a white golfing hat, a checked pullover, glasses. He is smiling and very cordial.

He shakes the first actress’s hand and asks her name. Then he goes to the next, until he has met them all.

“Avery?” Norman Lear asks for Avery Schreiber, a comedian who co-starred in his own TV series in the ’70s, was a writer for the Smothers Brothers, and who also made a well-known TV commercial for Doritos tortilla chips.

“We have been waiting for this play for a long time,” Mr. Lear says.

Bill says, “Okay, let’s begin.”

The cast performs the play, and Norman Lear laughs. His intense face and smiling eyes swerve from actress to actress, as he cheers along the performance with the rest of us.

A lot of the lines are bawdy and sexy, but Lear laughs and nods in agreement. He laughs especially hard at the stretch-mark contest among the women. “You think you got stretch marks,” shouts Carmen, the mother of Ana and Estela, as she pulls up her shirt, “I’ll show you stretch marks!” When Estela accuses her mother of making her feel guilty for not being married, a sign of recognition appears on Norman’s face. He seems to identify with the plight of these women as they scurry for cover when they think la migra is coming.

We have a break after act one, and Lear takes the opportunity to tell everybody how great they were.

During this break, he chats with the actresses, then they begin act two. It is a moving performance. At the end, Lear asks Coral Thuet if she really is Mexican. Looking at her blond hair and blue eyes, he says, “You are as much Mexican as I am.”

“No, I was born in TJ. My mother is Mexican, but my father is Scottish.”

“And is this your first acting job?” he asks.

“I am a jazz singer,” she admits.

“Oh?” Lear replies, impressed. Then he asks all of them a few questions — if they are all professionals and belong to the Screen Actors Guild.

“No, I just started being a professional this year,” Lucy Rodriguez replies. She wants to be a professional actress but has not been prepared to do it full-time. Roxane says she has been dancing for a long time.

“Has the play ever been performed just in Spanish?” Norman asks Josefina.

“Yes, in New York, at the Gramercy Theater,” she tells him, “with an English translation.”

Bill says, “Let’s take some pictures!”

Lear and the company pose while I handle the camera.

We prepare to leave, and I feel compelled to admit to Norman Lear that I once worked for him. I wrote an episode of Good Times, and he wants to know which one. On the way out, I ask him what he thinks about Real Women Have Curves.

It is a very good play, he says, and he thinks it would work for him. He walks off with John Mercedes. Bill and I and the actresses head for the parking lot.

“That reading,” he said, “was the best I’ve ever heard of that play.” The women are excited and very pleased to hear that.

Berkeley

Friday, March 3,10:30 a.m.

I call Norman Lear’s office and speak with Sean Dwyer, the chief of TV development. The play is in development to become a half-hour sit-com, he tells me.

“Norman is taking an active role,” he added, “meeting with Josefina every week to shape the story. The show is something very original.”

I talk with John Mercedes, who tells me, “We are meeting with Norman for the sixth time. We are developing the characters and the story for the pilot. Josefina is doing the writing for the pilots. We have no idea if the cast will be the same.”

What is the next step? After the characters and the story are developed for the pilot, it will be presented in June or July and then to the public during mid-season, in February 1996. Most of Lear’s successful shows have been mid-season replacements.

Along with Josefina Lopez, John Mercedes will be executive producer and will write some of the episodes. John says it was Josefina’s story that Norman Lear bought. Lear wants to develop the project because there were five great characters here and a great setting, and the characters have a lot of room to grow in terms of projecting a five-year life for the series.

John is happy that Bill helped develop the characters, that he was the first to put Josefina in the play as an actress, and that he saw the play through its important productions until it was presented to Lear at the Paramount studios.

Bill will be an associate producer, a writer, and a director of some of the episodes. “Bill is a very talented director, with experience from having been an actor, a writer, and a director. It all depends on his time schedule. But I would very much like to work with him.”

When I ask Bill what his involvement in the TV situation comedy will be, he is typically modest. “What I want to do,” Bill says, “is be a line producer and cast some of the parts. I want to do an internship in directing. That’s my real dream. And I am really interested in being a part of the Spanish version. Spanish is spoken from here to the tip of Argentina.

“If they do it right and stay with the soul of the play,” he says like a father seeing his child off to college, “and expand it to the multi-ethnic world, we will have a hit forever.” But until then, he is busy teaching his classes and preparing for his theater plays at Southwestern College.

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