Q&A with Karen Rizzo by Dan Berkowitz

Get ready, folks, for soon I’ll be posting my first real review in quite a while. Yes, after surgery and rest and lots of lolling about and eating bonbons and doing physical therapy, my knee is almost healed, and I’m up, walkin’ and talkin’ and reviewin’ – so watch out, LA theatre!

But in the meantime, I couldn’t resist doing one more Q&A, this time with Karen Rizzo, the author of Mutual Philanthropy, which opens August 27 at Ensemble Studio Theatre/ LA at the Atwater Village Theatre Complex.

Mutual Philanthropy is a World Premiere play about our city. East L.A. born Mexican American Esther holds down a full time job as a chef’s assistant while her talented husband Lee is an unsung sculptor and stay-at-home dad. They’re invited to dinner by a wealthy couple from their children’s school, and complications ensue…

Karen Rizzo

Dan Berkowitz: In thirty seconds, can you tell us what Mutual Philanthropy is about?

Karen Rizzo: Mutual Philanthropy is about what happens between “friends” when wealth divides and its power proves seductive. It’s about the difficulties of making a living and making art, and the frequent dichotomy between the two, especially when one is hoping to hold onto some vestige of “The American Dream” – not a big, unrealistic dream, simply one of being able to provide for oneself and one’s family. It is a story about what people will do to further their needs and desires.

DB: How did you get the idea for the play? How much of it is based on “real life” and how much comes purely from your imagination?

KR: Raising kids in a city, specifically Los Angeles, puts you in a position to know people you might never otherwise have known. Whether your kids are in a “10-rated jewel of a public elementary school” or a small private one, you’re bound to have a play date situation in which you say to a parent, “Oh, I love so-and-so’s movies” and the parent says to you, “Oh, yeah, so-and-so’s kid goes to our school and my daughter is really good friends with her.” Or you have a bottle of wine on your table and a parent says, “My uncle owns that vineyard.” It’s crazy.

When my son was in kindergarten, we went to a birthday party at an estate in Pasadena and beyond the “play” backyard was the “pool area,” where the party was. Beyond that were tennis courts. [Disclaimer: We live in a comfortably cozy 1100 sq. ft home in Highland Park] My kid says to me, “Hey look, Mom, there’s a park right back here. We should come for a picnic sometime.” I said, “That’s not a park, that’s the rest of the backyard.” He just didn’t get it.

One night my husband (who is an actor and writer) and I were riffing on a “can you top this” conversation we’d been privy to at a parent-kid party and we created these crazy “what if” scenarios, like “what if we put the couples on a stage at a dinner party and the floor opens and a wrestling ring comes up and they just go at it?” The next day I was still thinking about it. I also thought about an essay I was working on about financial woes and anxiety and how much do you tell the kids. How do you explain such discrepancies between families? And the idea for a play came to mind.

Mark Carapezza as Lee)and Xochitl Romero as Esther. Photo: Carole Real

Mark Carapezza as Lee)and Xochitl Romero as Esther. Photo: Carole Real

DB: Income inequality has become a major issue over the past couple of years, and has played a big role in the Presidential campaign. Would Bernie Sanders like the play?

KR: Ah, Bernie, he’s from my old ‘hood. Would he like this play? There’s certainly the element of income inequality and middle class struggle. I think Bernie would find supporters in either couple, for very different reasons. I think he’s shrewd enough to know that there’s often a certain amount of theatricality in philanthropy and good intentions.

DB: What’s your process when writing a play? Do you start with a situation? With characters? Do you work from an outline, or do you let the characters tell you what the story is as you go along?

KR: Since having kids, I’ve mostly been writing personal essays for magazines and newspapers (in between having two books published). I’ve also hosted and curated a storytelling series, so I’ve been writing a lot from actual situations and experience. BK (before kids) I wrote theatre pieces that sprang from people I knew or I’d met briefly; a cab driver who told me that he was “The Boy King, King Tut, reincarnated,” a heroin addict who raised money to go halfway around the world to help clean up an oil spill. Since getting back to playwriting, I’ve been interested in situations, real and surreal. Characters tend to spring from the situations, although those characters are often born of real people, who then morph into whatever the situation dictates.

DB: What’s a fun thing about you that no one else knows? (And we guarantee not to tell…)

KR: Hmm, why don’t I trust you on this? I map out conversations in my head, constantly, a lot of times when I’m driving my daughter around. I think I’m pretty covert about them – I don’t talk aloud, I try not to gesture – but then my daughter will say to me, “You’re having a conversation with someone, aren’t you?” “Crap, how’d you know?” I’ll say. And she’ll just smile and say, “I know you.” It scares me, just a little.

See? I didn’t even mention that. Secrets are always safe with me…

Mutual Philanthropy
Written by Karen Rizzo
Directed by Dan Bonnell

Through September 25

Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA
Atwater Village Theatre Complex
3269 Casitas Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90039

Tickets: 818-839-1197 or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2581024



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