Lisa Loomer's background may be in comedy, but her career took a dramatic turn when South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa decided to premiere her first full-length play, "Birds," now playing on its Second Stage.
The petite, dark-haired Loomer, a successful comedienne on New York's cabaret circuit, was a participant last summer in SCR's first Hispanic Playwrights Project. "Birds," which runs until Dec. 7, is the first of the workshop plays to be produced.
The drama chronicles the life of the Vasquez family during the past three decades. In building the theme Loomer, 34, said she drew from various sources, some real, others imagined.
Loomer's parents live in Mexico, and her visits there were instrumental in developing the play's settings: Half the action takes place in Mexico during the late 1960s and early '70s; the rest is set in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
But Loomer, who is part Spanish and part Romanian, says "Birds" is not completely autobiographical. While some of it reflects her family life, most of the characters and situations are inventions.
"A lot of it comes from just thinking about what I want to say as a writer," Loomer explained. "A good deal of it is intuitive (and) involves linking ideas together. The process is not unlike (putting) comedy together."
Much of the play's action centers on the uneasy relationship between two sisters, Gloria and Jasmine, who have taken different life paths. The younger of the two, Jasmine, is an opera singer who was born and lives in Los Angeles.
Gloria, on the other hand, was born and has settled in Mexico where she drinks, takes pills, supplies marijuana to the villagers and raises domestic birds.
Loomer said one of the reasons she chose the shifting locales and made Jasmine and Gloria such diverse personalities was to underscore the cultural differences between America and Mexico. The play tends to portray the Americanized Jasmine as more ambitious, driven and refined, while Gloria, who has created a relatively simple life for herself, is less self-conscious, more resigned and, perhaps, more natural.
"In Mexico, there's a sense of accepting things the way they are; people don't always have to have things pinned down, as they do here," she said. "The influence can be pretty big on some people, particularly (those) that may have grown up here and then went back to Mexico."
Loomer is reluctant to describe "Birds" as strictly a Latino play designed to reveal hidden truths about Mexican-Americans. Instead, she believes the work is "more universal than that" and may be valuable as an examination of family connections.
Although "Birds" is Loomer's first full-length play, it's not the first piece of drama she's written. Loomer, who lives in West Hollywood after several years spent in Manhattan, has a few one-acts to her credit. She currently is at work on a television play, tentatively titled "Looking for Angels," that focuses on an abandoned girl's search for a home.
But much of her experience is in comedy. Loomer has done stand-up work for years, primarily in New York. She wrote and performed Off Broadway in a one-woman show called "All by Herselves," in which she portrayed 10 different characters ranging from "Gloria Santiago," a very loquacious Puerto Rican talk show host, to "Anorexia," a somewhat askew performance artist.
"It's like what Lily Tomlin is doing: using humor to explore people and personalities," Loomer said.
While her comedy career flourished, Loomer was also involved in a New York theater group composed of Latino writers. She learned about SCR's playwrights project during that time, filled out an application and mailed off a rough draft of "Birds."
The workshop, an intensive collaboration among playwrights, directors and actors, has been called a success by its organizers. Besides "Birds," another project play, "Charley Bacon and His Family" by Arthur Giron, will be staged at SCR beginning April 7.
Looking back, Loomer said the workshop accomplished its goals--of encouraging Latino playwrights--by creating "an ideal environment where everyone could talk and be heard, including me."
What particularly impressed her was a commitment to dismissing Latino stereotypes that she said surface in the news media, television and films.
"I don't think we need to see any more lowlifes or Puerto Rican hookers," Loomer said. "We're moving away from that; you certainly won't see any in my work."
And despite eventual changes to "Birds" (some scenes were "clarified" and a few characters were further developed to minimize audience confusion), Loomer does not feel compromised by the give-and-take process.
"I've read that that can happen, that the writer was angry (because he or she lost control of the play), but that didn't happen with me."
She paused reflectively, then smiled. "No, I got pretty much what I wanted from the experience--a good play."