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In Search of a Home

Playwrights’ Corner
Mariana Carreño King in The Lark's Barebones Studio. She stands in front of a row of playwrights seated in chairs, in front of a red curtain. Everyone is clapping.
Mariana Carreño King celebrating the 10th Anniversay of the México/U.S. Playwright Exchange Program at The Lark.

New York: Friends. Community. Theater.
Los Angeles: Friends. The unknown.

New York: Crowded. Expensive.
Los Angeles: Vast. Expensive. Scholarship.

New York: Decent public transportation system (at least until this summer). Horrible winters.
Los Angeles: Great weather. The Pacific Ocean. Really hard to get anywhere without a car.

I started this list when I got accepted to the MFA program of Dramatic Writing at USC and moved to Los Angeles last year. I was terrified. The Los Angeles of my imagination had nothing to do with what I encountered. School was brutal. I felt lonely. Didn’t like my neighborhood. But after a year I’m still here and I’m making it work. If nothing else, I’m stubborn.

Good news is that it’s gotten better. A lot better. And like everything that has ever gotten better in my life, it’s had to do with theater, friends, and community.

I moved to New York in part because I felt restless in Mexico, but also because like many teenagers all around at the time, I thought New York was the only place to do theater in the entire world. I had only one suitcase and a journal full of blank pages, but I remember feeling at home the moment I got off the plane. I felt free and independent and excited. The plan was to stay a couple of weeks, look at theater schools, maybe even apply. That I didn’t speak English or knew anybody or anything about the city or any schools other than the one from the movie Fame didn’t seem like a big hurdle.

Nothing worked the way I envisioned, of course, but three weeks became three months that became one year and then 23 more years later I was still there.

The Los Angeles plan was better thought out. I was coming with a full scholarship, spoke decent English, and had friends and colleagues on both coasts and many cities in between. But I was still terrified. All I could think of was how good I had it being an idiot when I first moved to New York without being aware I was one. Awareness is a bitch.

New York: Home?
Los Angeles: Closer to home-home?

When people think of home in the United States they mostly think of their childhood homes, their home towns or countries. But I’ve spent more years living in New York than in Mexico, and although I go back to Mexico often to visit family and friends, my adopted city has always made me feel freer, more comfortable in my skin. Like I actually belong.

A few years ago, at an event at The Lark, we went around a circle and took turns to say what our definition of “home” was. I was (ahem) in between apartments and not in a great place emotionally. I said something like “home is where I’m going next.” I was being literal. I had all my stuff in storage. I was looking for an apartment to call home. And I found one in Washington Heights, and then home became also teaching at Queens College and directing at NYU, directing and writing and making theater around town. Participating in Lark’s programs, especially the Trueque de palabras/Word Exchange.

Fast forward a couple years and I’m packing again, downsizing, figuring out how I was going to make the move west. How I was going to pay for it. How, having been legendarily bad at school since seventh grade, I was going to survive the rigorous program at USC. What my next home would be like. Contemplating not leaving a trace in New York. Wondering where my roots where, or if I had any, or what home and roots meant in the first place.

And then I took the plunge.

New York: Noisy. 
Los Angeles: Really noisy.

New York: Feeling stuck in my career.
Los Angeles: Starting over. A great opportunity.

New York: Walking city.
Los Angeles: Ha!

Am I even a writer? What am I doing here?

Most playwrights who move to the West Coast do so to break into film or TV. I’d never had an interest in those industries, but as my colleague Matt Olmos eloquently writes here, there’s no way to make a living just doing theater. And you get to a point that making a living is imperative. To that end I’ve freelanced as a translator, editor, journalist, and worn many other hats. Ironically, here in LA, for the first time in my life, my only job is to write plays. And it has been equal parts terrifying and amazing.

Every time I felt stuck in my writing in New York, there was an opportunity to direct, act, teach, or invite myself to friends’ rehearsals to just observe. Here in LA, I don’t have that choice.

Los Angeles has not been easy, but I’m learning to love the city. I force myself to go to the beach and museums and go for hikes, even if I have to take two buses and a train to get there. I stop and look at the breathtaking sunsets. But mostly I write. A lot. Way more than I ever did in New York.

Of course this has to do with school - I don’t have a choice. But there’s also something defiant about writing for the stage in Los Angeles. Even going to see plays is a challenge. The distances are ridiculous. The traffic even more so. Public transportation is not always even an option.

Although there are plenty of theaters and theater companies in LA, Theater is not what the city is about the way New York is. And you’re not going to make a living as a playwright here either. And yet, the artists persist. They put up plays. Writers write. Directors direct. Designers design. Actors act. And we all strive to make that magic happen. And that happens in every state, whether the New York Times registers it or not. But LA seems a particularly hard challenge, just based on distances alone.

Los Angeles: New friends, new community.
New York: Still there. And coming to the West Coast every once in a while.

The Lark has had two gatherings in the West Coast where I’ve met other expats from the East Coast along with theatre makers from here and all over the country. I realize how much we all yearn for a place we can call home, no matter where it is. And also how lucky I am to have found homes at The Lark, with Labyrinth Theatre Company, at Intar Theatre. That’s probably what I miss the most from the East Coast.

I recently visited the exhibit Home—So Different, So Appealing: Art from the Americas since 1957 at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). In it, artists from different countries in Latin America and with Latin American roots here in the U.S. explore what home means. It made me think a lot about what and where home is for me. And I kept thinking back to my beginnings in theater in Mexico City, my impulsive stoner-teenager move to New York, my journey to LA, always reaching for some intangible, fleeting theater dream. Theater is, in a way, a home that many of us embrace as the legitimate place we inhabit, even if we can’t pay the rent.

My “hometown,” at least in English, might semantically still be Mexico City, where I fell in love with theater. But home is also New York, where I grew up professionally and found many of my tribes. And now home is LA too, where I've joined other communities and I’m flexing writing muscles I didn’t know I had. And yet, in my mind, home is still where I’m going next.