Michael John Garcés directs with the insight of a shrink and the muscular energy of a Purdue quarterback. Rehearsing the Atlantic Theater’s Force Continuum, he fervently unravels motivation for an actor playing a drug dealer. The actor just doesn’t get it. Why does the guy sell to the undercover cop when he knows it’s a trap? Why does he tell the cop he sold crack to his own daughter? “You’ve got a stranger here,” Garcés snaps back, “and the motherfucker’s listening to you.” The director, nearly dancing in place, punctuates his remarks with a jabbing finger. While the actors reprise the scene, Garcés nods, squats, rises, lunges forward. He’s never still.
But then, the 33-year-old Garcés doesn’t spend much time idle, period. The director of choice for the Latino theater world, he has credits that read like a who’s who of Latino playwrights. In the last two years alone, he’s directed pieces by Cuban Americans Nilo Cruz, Eduardo Machado, and Rogelio Martinez; Nuyoricans Carmen Rivera, Eduardo Andino, and Cándido Tirado; Chilean Dolores Sendler; and Chicano Octavio Solis. Force Continuum marks his first time staging an African American play, virtually his only non-Latino venture. But to Garcés, there’s more crossover than you might think between Kia Corthron’s multi-generational saga of African American cops and plays by Latinos one to three generations away from their homelands. “The search for identity in Kia’s play speaks to me strongly,” explains Garcés. “These people are still trying to figure out what it is to be right—a moral person—and to be an American. They’re asking, How do I deal with the fact of my culture?”
As a Cuban who grew up in Bogotá, Colombia, and went to college in Miami, Garcés has wrestled with identity issues of his own, as well as with those of his writers. “What does it mean to be Latino,” he asks, “when your first language is English? Or if you’re third-generation and don’t speak Spanish at all? Do you have to be Street? I feel very much between two or three cultures.”
Garcés’s first job out of college was as a production assistant for Max Ferrar at Intar. He was soon writing and performing pieces for Tiny Mythic’s American Living Room series, exploring the crises of Latino men cut off from family and culture. In 1994 Ferrar asked him to create an actors’ group at Intar. “I pitched a works-in-progress idea,” recalls Garcés, “and Max said, ‘Go for it.’ ” The concept grew into the NewWorks Lab, which Garcés ran for six years, featuring all Latino actors, directors, and playwrights.
It was Ferrar who first suggested that Garcés—then a writer and actor—try directing. “I was nervous,” Garcés recalls, “but intrigued.” He grins broadly. “I loved it. Though I still act and write, what I enjoy most is the rehearsal process and wrestling with the actors. And I prefer working with new scripts and writers.”
They prefer him too. Most of his gigs have resulted from his close association with playwrights: They ask for him. Corthron, who saw Garcés direct at the National Playwrights Conference last summer, was impressed. So, for Force Continuum, which the Atlantic had commissioned, she chose Garcés—after asking around about him.
“This is the first time I’ve ever had this experience,” she exclaims, “when every single playwright—and I asked five—adored him.” Corthron, who admits she’s had mixed experiences with other directors, raves about Garcés’s open, patient, power-trip-free style and brilliant intuition. HERE’s executive director Kristin Marting agrees. “He’s incredibly talented, and, on top of that, an incredibly nice fellow. You know,” she says in a confidential tone, “they don’t always go together.”
Garcés’s projects have varied wildly, but he maintains a consistent approach. “I try to be as clean and spare as possible,” he explains. “I keep props and sets to a minimum. To me, what makes theater vital and different is that sense of bodies and voices grappling with text in space.”
Although Garcés is clearly tickled to be working at a high-profile venue like the Atlantic, no way is he looking to escape his ethnic theater scene: “I don’t feel limited,” he declares. “There’s too great a sweep. Though I’d like to work at bigger theaters, what I’d really love is if places like the Atlantic start making their forums more available to Latino voices.”