This is member-exclusive content
icon/ui/info filled

arts entertainmentPerforming Arts

Ruben Carrazana is a theater success. Not bad for the shy kid who never left his room.

The sheltered Miami childhood of the son of Cuban immigrants gave way to a career of risks and rewards on the Dallas and now Chicago theater scenes.

A year ago, amid a rising career in Dallas theater, Ruben Carrazana up and moved to Chicago, where he didn’t know a soul.

“I don’t know that it was anything that was missing. I think it was the opposite,” he says while back in town to direct a play by his favorite stage dramatist, Stephen Adly Guirgis. “I feel like Dallas was giving me everything I needed. And I’m not OK with that.”

He discovered Guirgis through his high school drama teacher, an influential mentor, who gave him the playwright’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train to mine for monologues. Since then, Carrazana has traveled wherever he could to catch Guirgis’ work and in college performed in several of his plays.

When Fort Worth’s Stage West Theatre announced it was producing 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Between Riverside and Crazy, about a retired New York cop suing the city over his shooting by another police officer and struggling to keep his rent-controlled apartment, Carrazana suggested himself to direct.

Ruben Carrazana, center, with the cast of Stage West's "Between Riverside and Crazy," which...
Ruben Carrazana, center, with the cast of Stage West's "Between Riverside and Crazy," which he is in town from Chicago directing.(Evan Michael Woods)

“He tends to write about characters that live on the fringes of society. They’re the kind of folks that if we walk by them on the street or sit near them on the bus or subway, we try not to make eye contact,” Carrazana says in an interview at an East Dallas coffee shop before heading to rehearsal. “They’re often criminals and ex-cons and drug dealers and addicts and sex workers and crooked cops and thieves. They can be brash and violent and cruel. But there’s always this kind of underlying heart and tenderness. Those moments where characters open up and lend a helping hand feel impossible. They feel like little miracles.”

Carrazana, who just turned 31, also tended to operate on the margins during his dozen years here, first as a theater student at Southern Methodist University shunning main stage productions for experimental work and then as an independent actor, director, writer, producer and teaching artist who never sought the security of regular employment.

Until he took a position as community engagement manager for the well-established Northlight Theatre in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Ill., the Miami native had never had a day job in his life.

In Dallas, that methodology worked for him as he appeared on stage or behind the scenes for Dallas Theater Center, Stage West, Kitchen Dog Theater, Undermain Theatre, Second Thought Theatre, Theatre Three, Prism Movement Theater, Cry Havoc Theater Company, Cara Mia Theatre and the Danielle Georgiou Dance Group.

“I would come up with an idea to put on a show, some weird thing like The Cube, like the movie Stacy Has a Thing for Black Guys, which seems impossible to do having no experience,” Carrazana says. “And then I could do it. The city would support me. I could find the money. I could find the people. I could find the space. I would create a plan and do the steps. And that just, I don’t know, it scared me that it was feeling a little easy.”

Ruben Carrazana in "The Cube," which he wrote, directed and co-conceived.
Ruben Carrazana in "The Cube," which he wrote, directed and co-conceived.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

Co-conceived with his friend Jeffery Bryant Moffitt, The Cube was a landmark in pandemic entertainment and revealed some of what’s behind Carrazana’s anxiety about the easy route.

On stage at the Latino Cultural Center, an audience of one to three sat inside a curtained box surrounded by moving images of nature and people. A HAL-like computer voice wondered aloud what made humans tick, why they needed relationships, what made them lonely, in contrast to animals in the wild. Eventually, the cube rose to reveal Carrazana at a desk, his face projected larger-than-life on the back wall.

From left, composer Nigel Newton, writer-producer Ruben Carrazana, critic/audience of one...
From left, composer Nigel Newton, writer-producer Ruben Carrazana, critic/audience of one Manuel Mendoza and dancer Emily Bernet during a rehearsal for "The Cube: An Interactive Experience For The Socially Distanced Era."(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

In a short monologue, he alluded to his sheltered childhood. In an earlier piece, the Danielle Georgiou Dance Group’s The Show About Men, Carrazana also tapped his own life for material.

He grew up in the Miami suburb of Hialeah, the son of Cuban immigrants who came to South Florida in the 1980 Mariel boatlift. He says his mother forbid him to hang out at other kids’ houses. He never played sports or participated in after-school activities.

“I love my mom. I don’t know what happened in her past that made her feel overly protective and not trustful of adults around her children,” he explains. “In school, I was talkative and would sometimes get in trouble for being really talkative. I think that was because I had nowhere else and that’s part of why theater became a healthy outlet for that kind of energy. I don’t know how much of an exaggeration it is, but I grew up in my bedroom. That was my safe space, playing games, reading books, watching movies, eventually once video games and the Internet became a thing spending a lot of time online.”

Cory Kosel, left, and Ruben Carrazana in the Danielle Georgiou Dance Group's "The Bippy...
Cory Kosel, left, and Ruben Carrazana in the Danielle Georgiou Dance Group's "The Bippy Bobby Boo Show."(Anthony Lazon)

Carrazana recalls the outtakes at the end of the 1997 Jim Carrey vehicle Liar Liar making an impression on him. “Carrey is breaking character and making everybody laugh. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, they look like they’re having so much fun.’ They looked like a family that was working together to create something. And I didn’t have this word at the time. But I think the word that I was searching for was community.”

He drew on those scenes when deciding how to fulfill the arts requirement in middle school, so as a sixth grader he enrolled in drama class. For a monologue from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, “I had never worked on anything that hard in my life,” he says. “I stayed up every night memorizing and rehearsing in front of my mirror.”

When it came time to perform in front of the other students, “I started, and man I remember I had them. They were just riveted. It’s not like they were quiet. They were still talking. But it was all in service of, ‘Did you hear what he just said?’ And at the end, they all stood up and clapped. I don’t know how much of that I’ve invented in my head. But that’s what I remember. And then I remember the drama teacher afterwards being like, ‘You need to be part of the drama club.’ And so I became the drama kid in middle school. I was in all of the shows.”

Ruben Carrazana starred opposite Mimi Davila in Cara Mia Theatre's production of "Romeo and...
Ruben Carrazana starred opposite Mimi Davila in Cara Mia Theatre's production of "Romeo and Julieta."

Even with that success, Carrazana remained skeptical when he went on to Miami Springs Senior High School. He still worried that he wouldn’t fit in, so to be on the safe side he took beginners drama and didn’t tell the teacher about his past theater experience. “I sat in the corner. I was the last one to get there and the first one to leave. I thought, ‘I’ll get my “A” and move on with my life.’ And then we had to write a monologue.”

He poured his life into it and got the same reaction. The teacher, Marielva Sieg, whom he now calls a second mother, recruited him for the drama team that competed against other schools. He needed $60 to join. Talking about it is the only time in the interview that Carrazana gets emotional.

“My mom said, ‘Is this something that you want?’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ and she handed me the money. And the next three years, that was my life.”

Carrazana’s lack of advance planning, coupled with an ability to intensely focus once he’s made up his mind, follows him to this day. He thought about moving to Chicago for a few years before pulling the trigger. He also considered starting a theater company or going to grad school. But as if to leave his future at least partially to chance, he set a goal for his bank account and told himself he would move when and if he reached it, regardless of if he had to break his lease or drop a show.

From left, Ruben Carrazana, Kristen Kelso, Alejandra Flores and Dolores Godinez in a scene...
From left, Ruben Carrazana, Kristen Kelso, Alejandra Flores and Dolores Godinez in a scene from Kitchen Dog Theater's production of "Wolf at the Door."(Ashley Landis / Staff Photographer)

“Moving away seemed really scary, seemed terrifying, which made me think it was the thing to do, especially to a city like Chicago, where I didn’t know anyone,” he says. “I’ve always viewed Chicago as the gold standard for what a regional theater community should look like. And I was really going to have to hustle in a way that I haven’t had to in a while. I wanted to have to start from scratch. The work needs to keep me up at night. Otherwise, it doesn’t feel worthwhile.”

Ironically, he reached the goal suddenly in the form of emergency pandemic grants for The Cube. It was a time when funders were throwing money at artists in hopes of keeping the arts alive while everything was shut down.

Carrazana had thought enough ahead to know he wanted to live in the north Chicago neighborhood of Edgewater. He had the cash to pay for an apartment he rented unseen and to feed himself for three months.

Besides his day job with Northlight, which has made it possible for him to extend his stay, he has landed an agent, a couple of directing gigs, a spot in a festival for a short film and a starring role in a post-apocalyptic play called After the Blast for the small troupe Broken Nose Theatre. Did those opportunities open new doors? He says he has no idea what’s next.

“I don’t know if that’s a thing I’m interested in — doors being opened. The goal is not to eventually work at the Goodman or Steppenwolf, the goal is to do the same thing I’ve done here. I work at the big ones, and I also do my own stuff on the side. I work with the small theaters. I wear all of the hats. I pursue my own pleasure. What is the thing that I’m interested in right now? And I barely think about the project after that. That’s the plan.”

Details

Aug. 18-Sept. 11 at Stage West Theatre, 821/823 W. Vickery Blvd., Fort Worth. $20-$45. stagewest.org.

CORRECTION, Aug 12 at 11:45 a.m.: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect name for Carrazana’s high school teacher, her name is Marielva Sieg.

Arts & Life

Get the latest Arts & Entertainment

Catch up on North Texas' vibrant arts and culture community, delivered every Monday.

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy