[Weekly Q&A]

Local playwright Ernie Curcio talks reflecting Vegas onstage—and theater’s future here

Black box theater: Ernie Curcio doesn’t mind breaking the fourth wall.
Photo: Sam Morris

Ernie Curcio is a household name, or “roach,” in the Las Vegas theater community. The 34-year-old native Las Vegan, resident playwright, co-founder of Cockroach Theatre and theater manager at Onyx has spent more than a decade writing, acting and directing in the dramatic arts—including with the now-defunct Insurgo Theater Movement. His latest play, Corner of Hacienda, is the story of two brothers, Elliot and Francis Debanari, who are struggling to keep their family together on Thanksgiving in 1994. We caught up with Curcio to talk about his play’s debut, the state of theater in Las Vegas and how growing up here contributed to the creation of Corner of Hacienda.

How did you become a part of Cockroach Theatre and how long have you been with them? I was one of the original founders ... we did Line at Las Vegas Little Theatre (in 2002), and then we just kept doing plays. I [was] involved with them ’til I moved to New York. I moved to New York in 2003, so when I came back I got back involved with them in 2008.

Your run at Cockroach has included some really colorful titles, like Sudoku the Musical, Seven Blowjobs, and a play called Cowboy Mouth. Cowboy Mouth was right after Line, and we did that at the Funkhouse. We did it in the backyard over there. That was before First Friday and all that stuff. We had the cops pull up on us and sh*t—I was in a lobster suit. They had no idea what was going on. We told them we were doing a play. It was [written by] Patti Smith and Sam Shepard, so it was really loud and nuts and crazy. It was fun.

How was writing Corner of Hacienda different from anything else you’ve written? This play, I started working on in New York in 2006. It got submitted to a public theater—I was in the running for an emerging writers program over there—so I did a lot of work on it then. Then, afterwards, I kinda let it just sit for a while, ’cause I didn’t get into the program. This play, it’s gone through so many drafts and re-drafts. Especially when we got to [director] Bryan [Todd]. It’s gone through tons of changes that strengthened the play so much, ’cause I got a lot of Huntridge information that I didn’t know about. All my [information] was coming from Hacienda and Nellis and the east side, where it’s a little dragged down. I was just trying to get something out from a Vegas local perspective. That’s where I’m from, Hacienda and Nellis.

Why is the play set in 1994? Honestly, when I first started writing it, I just didn’t get my math right. So really 1994 came in when I started writing it again. It was just more centered on the Tubes and the Huntridge. MGM just opened up in ’93, and that was massive. It was the biggest resort that we had. And that’s when everything changed on The Strip and everything changed in Las Vegas. We literally had, like, a million people come in right after that, all these jobs opened up. Treasure Island opened, Luxor was opening, the Excalibur was open. It more or less revolutionized the Strip in a way that, I think, a lot of people were just like, “This is not where we want Vegas to go.” There was such a home, a personal feeling toward these casinos that were on the Strip like the Silver Slipper, the Dunes, the Sahara—all these places that you grew up with—these were all places that we had. This was our history, and they were getting demolished, just torn down and destroyed. Then they started putting in playgrounds by the poker machines and it became this family entertainment thing, which has changed. Now it’s become this mega-resort spa and all this other sh*t. But, it was changing Las Vegas. It changed all of Vegas. When all those places opened up, I feel like a lot of us locals just kept getting pushed off to the side, like we’re just here to be staff—to accommodate. But in that, we had the Huntridge, we had the Tubes, we had Café Roma and Enigma.

It also takes place on Thanksgiving. Why? Because that’s my favorite holiday. It’s a holiday that’s kind of bland. It’s a family gathering, really. Thanksgiving has always been where you come and eat and watch TV and hang out with your family, that’s it. It’s not about presents; it’s just about gathering the family together. That’s where the character Francis, I guess the lead, he’s just trying to keep the family together now that grandma died. Now that the matriarch is gone, these kids are pretty much incompetent. They can’t cook or work or do anything. Francis is 24 and Elliot is 26, so they’re graduated and out of school, but they’ve been more or less coddled by their grandma, so they didn’t pay rent or anything like that. They were little punks and sh*t, just smoking weed and hanging out with thugs, and grandma would cook for them and all that stuff.

Is this based on your life? [Laughs] Yeah, slightly, it’s slightly based on my life. I lived with my grandma and my dad worked, so it was just my grandma and us. My dad was always at work. You know, we were kids in Vegas and we just had nothing to do. So we’d hang out all night, just come party at my house.

It sounds like the gentrification that’s happening in this play is now happening in 2014. It is. It’s cyclical. One of the brothers, he’s so excited about all of these jobs, the economy blowing up and the other brother is like, “I don’t want any of that.” So that’s the kind of “F*ck Zappos” attitude that’s coming in right now. I think it’s very close to where we are today, again. [It’s] a whole different evolution, I think, ‘cause that one was very corporate ... and kind of Disney or whatever it was. [But] Downtown, we’ve needed that forever. To have that happen to us right now, it’s phenomenal, it’s monumental. It’s going to change everything, I think. I hope.

So you’re on board with the growth Downtown? Oh yeah. If you want to clean up the neighborhood and get some money down here ... then there’s no reason not to. I was in Brooklyn when it was happening, I moved out to Bushwick right after Williamsburg blew up ... the bars that are coming in are going to cost a little bit more, but you’re paying for quality.

What was it like writing these characters? How did they come to life? It was a joy. They’re all based off people I know. Bill, the [National Finals Rodeo] rider is loosely based on my stepdad, who was a cowboy, definitely part of Vegas ... Elliot’s the one that really changed when Bryan Todd came in. He became the guy that could possibly do something with his art and has nowhere to go to put it. If this play was now, he would just pop right into Downtown; he’d be cool, he’d be a part of it. But there was not much of that in ’94.

What are you trying to tell people with this play? What statement are you making? That people do live here. That people are born and raised in Las Vegas. That there are families out here. That we don’t live in casinos. It’s a whole community that’s out here, that’s been living here. We came from a very small blue collar town, and now it’s become this mega-resort city, which is, like, it’s not what we are. I mean, most of us stay off the Strip as it is. It’s like Times Square in New York. You’re not gonna hang out there. The statement is, yeah, there’s a community that’s been here, that’s lived here, that will be here, that needs family. It needs to stay together.

What’s the current state of theater in Las Vegas? I don’t know, to be honest. It’s trying to find itself, really. It found itself awhile ago, but as a community theater, and I think right now, what it’s trying to do is become more than community theater. Which doesn’t necessarily mean paid actors, equity houses, award theaters or any of that stuff, but just more of, like, a professionalism on stage. Which is hard to do, because everyone is carrying 9-to-5 jobs, families and careers. It’s a constant uphill battle with theater in Vegas. I think it’s a constant uphill battle with theater anywhere. It’s almost like a defunct art form. [But] no one’s gonna stop it, we’ll keep going. Hopefully there’s going to be a collaboration between Downtown Project and theater, not even Downtown Project, but more of a collaboration with all the arts.

So much of the arts scene is volunteer based. What drives that? Passion. It’s just pure passion. Theater has gone through so many changes since the beginning to where it is now. What we have in Las Vegas is a group of people that are very passionate about it that want to do it no matter what. They’re not gonna get paid for it. They’re gonna volunteer their time, they're gonna lose their money, they’re gonna lose their girlfriends—but they just want to do it. It’s insane ... that’s the passion that I think all the psychopaths out here have.

At Art Square the audience is basically sitting on the floor, on the stage. How does putting on a play there feel different for you? There’s a difference between performing in Art Square. I remember when I was playing Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman, I had to come out with my hoe at the very end of it, and I like dig in the ground. There was a person, this lady foot’s in the front row, and I put the hoe—it was nowhere near her foot—and she moved her f*ckin foot, and I was like “Don’t worry, I won’t hit you,” and during the play I got to say that and communicate with the audience. I dropped my glasses in another play in someone’s lap and picked ’em up and put them back on. So there’s a way to be like, “We’re here together guys.” That kind of black box theater just really leaves your options open for everything.

Corner of Hacienda February 14-March 2, Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m., $16-$20. Art Square Theatre, 818-3422.

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