'Go big. Ask for the world': The Lewis Center's Elena Araoz on inspiration, innovation and making the sky your limit

Elena Araoz, lecturer in theater and the Lewis Center for the Arts, has spent the pandemic on the frontier of virtual live theater. In the latest installment of our “What I think” series, she reflects on how theater must continuously change to be in conversation with the now, teaching at Princeton, truth, beauty, risk-taking, wonder and more.

When the world’s stages shuttered in March 2020, Elena Araoz brought theater to the world — on their screens.

An award-winning theater and opera director, writer and actor, she has been on the frontier of virtual live theater, directing genre-defying works for her research project, Innovations in Socially Distant Performance (ISDP).

Collaborating with video-game designers, CGI animators, 3D environment designers and other artists she might never have worked with pre-pandemic, Araoz has helmed productions including “The Manic Monologues,” an interactive website experience that aims to disrupt the stigma around mental illness (McCarter Theatre Center); “Alice in the Pandemic” and “A Survivor’s Odyssey” (White Snake Projects), the first virtual operas to live sync singers from remote locations; and many others. She speaks widely on the future of theater-making after the surge of virtual productions during the pandemic.

The U.S. Library of Congress selected ISDP for its Coronavirus Web Archive documenting the effect of the pandemic on every aspect of American life and communities. In October, ISDP received a $10,000 innovation award from Princeton’s Keller Center. The award will allow Araoz to add more Princeton undergraduate researchers, as well as to pursue her next project: tapping sound engineers and other experts to produce an opera that attempts to maintain the real-time “feedback loop” between audience and performers, as live theater does.

Raised in Newington, Connecticut, Araoz is a first-generation college student who earned her bachelor’s from the College of the Holy Cross and her MFA from the University of Texas-Austin. A theater artist who works internationally, across the United States and off-Broadway, Araoz joined Princeton in 2016 as a lecturer in theater and the Lewis Center for the Arts. In 2020, she was named producing artistic director of the theater and music theater season.

This fall, she and her students celebrated the return to in-person performance with a production of “Early Decision/Late Bloomer,” two commissioned short musicals that give voice to the experiences of Princeton students who are from immigrant families and the first in their families to attend college.

These thoughts are taken from a Nov. 19 interview.

Directing virtual theater in the pandemic taught me to think about attention span differently. Anything you see on a screen is inviting you to think faster and think more. So, the smashing up of my theater world with that screen-based media world has only led me to greater interest in how we are captivating an audience, because both forms are just trying to captivate an audience. We just have different tools for doing it.

Araoz gesticulates while directing the students

Araoz, a first-generation college student who attended the College of the Holy Cross and earned her MFA at the University of Texas-Austin, reviews notes with student actors during a rehearsal for the Lewis Center’s fall 2021 production of “Early Decision/Late Bloomer,” two commissioned short musicals that give voice to the experiences of Princeton students who are from immigrant families and the first in their families to attend college.

In acting school, I started to crave the wider bird’s-eye view that the director has, and my aesthetic builds on lessons that I learned working alongside some of the best. Sir Jonathan Miller taught me how to find truth and comedy, and to study linguistics and the workings of the brain in order to accurately formulate complex characters. From Sir Richard Eyre, I learned not to push the joke so far that you lose the audience’s intense emotional investment. Steven Soderbergh taught me to think the impossible.

If I could tell my 25-year-old-self one thing, it would be “Go for it. Go big. Talk to everybody. Ask for everything. Ask for the world.”

My only glass ceiling was the one I put there myself. Women, including women of color and Latina women, are less represented in theater. For the first 20 years of my career, I was holding myself back while watching others, often men, say, "Oh, I'm right for that." And I would think, "No, you're not!" And then when I started doing what they were doing, people would say, "Oh my God, you'd be perfect." I didn’t have the courage before.

I got a special award for having perfect attendance from kindergarten through high school. My work ethic comes from my mom. She was an assistant to the actuarial department of an insurance company and retired at the age of 71, having worked for 51 years in the same department.

My father taught me to never let someone else's expectations of me hold me back. He left Peru for the U.S. when he was 18 during the Vietnam War. It was easy then for people to come from other countries. He ended up in Connecticut, working at the Colt’s factory, the arms manufacturer.

I love food and I love eating — and I eat a lot. I love long meals with many friends and great conversation. But I hate cooking. Despise it, really. My dad believed that if a woman couldn't cook, no one would marry her. Nothing turned me away faster from wanting to cook than that tradition.

In high school, I wanted to be a marine scientist. I once traveled a mile straight down under the ocean off the Cape of Maine in a three-person submersible. I loved every minute of it and only started to understand the gravity of the situation during the training session about how to surface should the pilot become incapacitated or what to do if there was a fire inside.

Araoz as a child, in front of her parents' wedding portrait

Araoz, age 6 ½, stands beside her parent's wedding photo in her childhood home in Newington, Connecticut.

The scariest thing I ever did was cliff diving. Why in the world would I think hurling myself off a cliff into a lake below was a good idea? It took me about 30 minutes to gather the courage to take the first jump. Luckily, I walked away after numerous jumps. I called my mom and said, "Mom, I kept thinking of you. It took you 10 months to make my body, and I could have destroyed it in a few seconds." She thanked me for telling her after my diving excursion.

I chose Holy Cross for its biology program, but then I took a theater class. In theater, it is impossible to get it right. In science classes, I could get it right and easily. But in theater, you spend your whole life trying to figure out the puzzle, and one production or one role is just one speck of a bigger conversation about the complexity of humanity.

Theater helps us grapple with life’s big questions. Any good story is based on conflict. Conflict is what creates drama. Theater puts us in a place where each audience member, as an individual, gets to decide how they would deal with that conflict. When I’m directing, that's the kind of thing I think about a lot. How do I create a production that asks questions so the audience is saying, "Oh my gosh, if I were in that character's shoes right now, what would I do?” I don’t think theater really creates empathy; theater asks each audience member to dive deep into their own psyche.

In fall 2020, way before the vaccine, I guest-starred as a doctor on NBC’s “New Amsterdam.” I’ve been directing so long, and I missed the feeling of abandonment that you can have as an actor, the letting go of yourself in a role. My agent called and said that they had asked for me to audition. The shoot was the first time I was indoors with other people besides my family, but luckily the anxiety that brought on played into the character because the show’s whole season was based around COVID-19.

The goal is for the audience to have the emotion, not the actors. Take all the great love stories that we have in the theater: they’re based on grief, fear, loss. That’s what gets the audience to fall apart, because we have all been in that moment where we're feeling lost, and we're trying to keep it together. And maybe as an audience member we can finally let that emotion gush forward because we're sitting in the dark. I always say to my actors: In a performance, the audience is your third scene partner, they are the ones who came here to feel.

There's this supposition by most of the theater world that poor people, people of color, people from underrepresented communities, don't have access to the arts. They have a lot of art, you just might still be blind to it: everyone has music, dance, poetry, literature. Often theater-makers just think, "I know how we'll get them in. We'll commission a play about them." I think the opposite way. We need to think about being hosts and inviting all art, especially what might be most obscured, into our houses. If you invited someone to your home, you would say, "Can I take your coat? What kind of music do you want to dance to? You don't like the food? Let me get you something else." A good host makes everybody feel warm and welcome so that they can be fully themselves. How can we invite everyone’s aesthetic, their style of storytelling, their collective and individual definitions of beauty, into our theaters?

Young people are the keepers of our evolution and the experts in the now. I'm curious about how theater and theater training must continuously change to be in conversation with the now. If students can wrestle with the different parts of themselves on our stages and in our rehearsal rooms, then we can wrestle along, as a community of culture-makers, with them.

I want the Lewis Center to be a leader in the theater industry. We have the ability here to do just about anything. We aren't tied to what we think an audience will pay for.

Traditional auditions are traumatizing for students; you have to perform, and it closes the doors to so many people — especially students who might not have had fancy theater training before Princeton, who might not feel like they’re good enough. So, Jane Cox [the director of the theater program] and I, along with other faculty, staff, students and alumni, completely turned the audition process on its head. We don't even call it auditions. We call it "Try on Theater Days." It’s a three-day experience, where we get to know each other by doing improv, by doing theater games, by approaching some texts together. This levels the playing field between director and performer. So many more students have shown up. Some said, "I'm not really here to be an actor, but I want to be a set designer. Is there a set design I can do?" Or "I don't know how to read music, but I love singing. Can I be in a musical?" You can come with just curiosity and an open mind.

I'm really invested in the theater and music theater programs being in conversation with what's most important on the Princeton campus. I want students to give us their most adventurous self, to give us their honest culture, and to give us a real investigative look into who they are, and what their priorities and values are. I want that to influence not just what we see on our stages but the way we make theater.

My students ask me questions that I don’t have an answer to. That’s the best thing.

In the first five minutes of my very first class here at Princeton, a student raised her hand and asked, "How would you describe beauty?" And I thought, I have no idea (and I'm sure there's someone in the philosophy department who is an expert at that answer). I knew that Princeton was the place for me because I knew that that's the kind of question I needed to ask myself and that we all need to be asking ourselves.

We don't have a definition of truth and we don't have a definition of beauty. We only know it when we see it. And it’s different for different people. As an artist, that kind of impossible puzzle keeps me going. 

When my son got his first action figures at age 2, he said, "Batman is a man who's a bat. Superman is a man who is soup. And Wonder Woman is a woman who wonders." Yes, there was the humor of Superman being a man who is soup. But this idea of Wonder Woman as not somebody who has superhuman strength or superhuman beauty — she's a woman with curiosity. A woman who wonders. And I thought, gosh, if I can be that Wonder Woman to my family and to my community, somebody who wonders and helps other people stay curious and wondering, then I can be Wonder Woman.