When Stephen Adly Guirgis Asked Him, He Couldn't Say No
By JANICE C. SIMPSON
Wednesday, December 04, 2019  •  
Wed Dec 4, 2019  •  
Directing  •   0 comments Share This
"I had to put on my big-boy pants and step up to the challenge."

Veteran actor-producer John Ortiz on making his directorial debut with Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven

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John Ortiz cofounded the LAByrinth Theater Company with a group of actors in 1992. As the company's artistic director for much of the last three decades, he has helped develop and produce, and frequently performed in more than 250 plays. But he had never directed one until his longtime friend Stephen Adly Guirgis insisted Ortiz helm the playwright's latest, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, currently running at Atlantic Theater Company.

A comic drama about the residents and staff of a shelter for abused women, Halfway Bitches is the first new Guirgis play to hit the stage since his Pulitzer Prize-winning Between Riverside and Crazy five years ago. Guirgis had actually been in the middle of working on a different piece when the idea for Halfway Bitches hit. He presented that other play at LAByrinth's annual members' retreat last year, and the feedback was fine. But when Guirgis noticed that several of the women in the company didn't have enough to do, he dashed off a 13-page vignette set in a halfway house for females. Ortiz, who's been collaborating with Guirgis since they were theatre students at SUNY Albany in the late '80s, loved it, and encouraged Guirgis to expand it into a full-length piece. Guirgis said he would -- but only if Ortiz promised to direct the world premiere.

Although Ortiz had long wanted to direct, he worried that he just didn't have the bandwidth. "To tell you the truth, producing and keeping the company going as artistic director, along with having a full-time career as an actor, took up all of my time," he says.

So he tried to demur, telling Guirgis: "There are a lot of other fine directors out there who are proven and great, so why don't we ask them first and if none of them can do it, then I'll consider it." But the playwright couldn't be swayed. So, Ortiz says, "I had to put on my big-boy pants and step up to the challenge."

John Ortiz; photo by Ahron R. Foster
John Ortiz; photo by Ahron R. Foster

The challenge is a considerable one. Halfway Bitches interweaves multiple plotlines that grapple with issues such as homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder, gender identity and inadequate healthcare for the poor. And telling these stories in Guirgis' patented poetic street-speak are 18 diverse performers, plus a surprise four-legged creature.

Some of the human cast members are stage vets who are well-versed in the playwright's work, like Sean Carvajal, who starred in Signature Theatre's 2017 revival of Guirgis' Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, and Orange Is the New Black's Elizabeth Rodriguez, who earned a Tony nomination for her performance in Guirgis' The Motherf**ker with the Hat on Broadway. Others are newbies like Kristina Poe, who started with LAByrinth as a company manager almost two decades ago, but is making her acting debut in Halfway Bitches.

On top of all that, the script is still evolving. Ortiz estimates that only 80 percent of it had been written when rehearsals began. New scenes have been added. Others cut. Still others extended. Early preview performances ran nearly four hours, though as the production nears its official opening date of December 9, it's down to a tight three.

The cast has changed, too. When one key player had to drop out just days before rehearsals began because she landed a TV series, auditions were hastily set up to replace her. Among those who tried out was Patrice Johnson Chevannes. While she turned out not to be right for the role, Guirgis felt such an instinctive connection to Chevannes that he created an entirely new part just for her.

"It's been intense," Ortiz concedes. "Right now, there's folks who will be having their acting debut, there are seasoned veterans, award-winning actors and there's me directing for the first time. But it all speaks true to the core of our company's mission. Apart from creating a space that artists can call home, we encourage everyone to do things that they secretly always wanted to do but were afraid to do." Fittingly, that's what Halfway Bitches is about, too.

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Janice C. Simpson writes the blog Broadway & Me and hosts the BroadwayRadio podcast Stagecraft.

Top image: Kara Young, Esteban Andres Cruz, Benja Kay Thomas and Pernell Walker in Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven. Photo by Monique Carboni.

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