Marco Ramirez's debut Broadway play, The Royale, at Lincoln Center Theater has been called "a riveting play" (Variety), with "swift, stark lyricism" (New York Times) and "terrific performances" (New York Daily News). No stranger to writing and producing, Ramirez has produced plays at The Kennedy Center, The Julliard School and has been the writer-producer of hit television programs like Daredevil, Fear of the Walking Dead and Da Vinci's Demons. His writing credits also include Orange is the New Black and Sons of Anarchy. He has been nominated for an Emmy Award and for a Writers Guild of America Award. Stay Thirsty Magazine was fortunate to visit with Marco Ramirez in New York during rehearsals of The Royale for this Conversation.
STAY THIRSTY: Your play, The Royale, is about an African-American boxer who wants to be the champ. You are a Cuban-American Florida native who cut his writer's teeth working on the Sons of Anarchy television series. How did the idea for The Royale come about and what motivated you to tell this story for the stage?
MARCO RAMIREZ: First and foremost, I set out to write a play about boxing. As a sport, its stripped-down aesthetic resonated with me because it felt like the simplest, purest form of theatre. Two enter the ring. One wins. End of story. Then somehow the stuff that makes me "me" came into play. Suddenly there was an element of Hip-Hop in the play. Suddenly there were race relations. And most importantly, suddenly the play became not about boxing, but about family.
STAY THIRSTY: The Royale revolves around one man's epic quest for fame and the consequences of being an outsider. It is set in the early 1900s and is loosely based on the life and times of Jack Johnson who became the first African-American to win boxing's Heavyweight Championship of the World. What makes this early 20th century iconic figure relevant in the 21st century?
MARCO RAMIREZ: Even beyond being a boxer, Johnson is remembered for being a guy who pushed boundaries. His true legacy isn't just an athletic one, it's cultural. In the story of the rise (and fall) of Jack Johnson, I recognized traces of Miles Davis and Kanye West. It was shocking, how relevant his persona was to the 21st century. Many of the people in this country still struggle when cultural icons make declarations that seem "too political" for the personas they've created as artists or athletes.
Just consider the responses to Beyoncé's overtly political half-time performance at the 2016 Super Bowl. On the one hand, people are celebrating the fact that she's embraced her political power. On the other, people are freaking out because they think that she's somehow "overreached" as a performer. They love her music when it's all fun and games. They don't when she asks them to confront systematic racism. It's weirdly the same conversation people had around Jack Johnson.
STAY THIRSTY: The telling of boxing stories in film or on television usually involves brutal, blood sport moments. How did you deal with the brutality of boxing in a live theatrical setting?
MARCO RAMIREZ: The simple answer is – I didn't. For me, the magic of theatre is in the imagined space between audience and performance. I'm not impressed when an actor sits on a fancy throne on a stage. I'm impressed when an actor sits on a stool and calls it a throne and hundreds of people in the audience all see a throne. To me, even if we got the best fight choreographers in the world, an onstage fight was always going to look staged, not just because of the fact that they're not actually hitting each other, but because boxing itself is so improvised, so very much about bodies in space reacting to each other, that the human eye is always going to know when it's phony.
So, in order to respect the sport of boxing, and the tradition of theatre, and the intelligence of the audience, I decided early on to do away with all that. The boxing matches are performed by the two boxers in the ring as direct-address stream-of-consciousness monologues, intercutting each other. In some ways, it's bloodless. In others, it's bloodier than you've ever seen boxing before, because it's all in your head.
STAY THIRSTY: The Royale traveled a long way before coming to Broadway. Its journey began in Los Angeles and included stops in Chicago, San Diego and London before arriving at Lincoln Center. How did the play evolve over time and what did you learn about the play and yourself as a playwright?
MARCO RAMIREZ: The play didn't change a whole much, but I did learn that stripping it down to the bare minimum was always the best choice. It's why the sport of boxing endures.
What did I learn about myself as a playwright? I don't know. Maybe that I like writing plays with theatrical conceits that take a while to explain. I've heard many people talking to others who haven't seen it, and if they like it, it often goes, "It's about boxing, but there's no boxing. I mean there's boxing but it's all monologues. But it's not boring. You know what? Just go see it."
STAY THIRSTY: Your professional credits including writing television episodes for hit series like Orange is the New Black (Netflix), Sons of Anarchy (FX), Fear the Walking Dead (AMC) and Daredevil (Netflix)to name just a few. How different is writing for television vs. writing for the stage? Which is more natural for you?
MARCO RAMIREZ: I grew up in front of a television. I didn't start writing for theatre until later. They're two completely different art forms, and the more I work in each, the more I realize that. Truth is, they both happen to come natural to me, they just come from different places. I was very nervous when I took my first TV job on Sons of Anarchy, but after a couple months in the writers' room, I realized "Oh, this is just like writing a play. Except there's six of us doing it. And someone brings us lunch."
STAY THIRSTY: In addition to your career as a writer, you have produced or co-produced television programs like Da Vinci's Demons and Daredevil, where you are also the co-showrunner. Are there similarities to the business side of producing entertainment programs for television and to mounting a Broadway production? How comfortable are you in being "the boss" of these significant projects?
MARCO RAMIREZ: In TV, being a writer-producer basically just means being a high-level writer. You get to make lots of creative decisions like casting and storylines, and that's kind of amazing. To be honest, my involvement in the actual mounting of the Lincoln Center Theater production has been minimal. They have an amazing team in place for that. I like to think I'm not the boss in either realm, just someone who helps steer a huge team in the right direction. Often, that direction isn't the one I set course for at the beginning. It's often something we all find along the way, together.
STAY THIRSTY: You have worked with some of the new wave of entertainment production giants, like Netflix for example. What is the climate like for creative talent at these cutting-edge production houses?
MARCO RAMIREZ: I'm lucky in that I came to Los Angeles at a time when creative types were getting lots of work. There are new networks everyday. My years at Netflix so far have been a dream.
STAY THIRSTY: Thus far in your career, you have most often worked in the crime or superhero genres (Leonardo Da Vinci loosely falling to the superhero category for this Conversation) and now with The Royale you are tackling race and human emotional frailty. Do you see similarities in your work regardless of the story genre?
MARCO RAMIREZ: I try not to look for them, but sometimes outside sources let me know. After seeing The Royale, for example, several close friends were keen enough to point out similarities. Apparently there are three movies released in the early 90s (when I was 10 or so) that I accidentally quote all the time. My friend Greg loves pointing out when I do that. It drives me insane – because I'm not even doing it on purpose. It's just part of my DNA.
STAY THIRSTY: What role does sound play for you in The Royale and do you consciously write sound in as a "character" in your stories regardless of the medium?
MARCO RAMIREZ: In The Royale, I consciously wrote the sound into the play. I'm an amateur drummer and I always imagined percussion would be a part of my boxing play. I went as far as to write every percussive sound into the script (booms, claps, etc.). I didn't know how we'd make the sounds at first, but I knew the play needed them.
STAY THIRSTY: You recently were signed to write a screenplay based on the Japanese comic story Akira. How have your previous projects as a writer prepared you for this film endeavor?
MARCO RAMIREZ: I like to think I've been preparing to write Akira since I was a kid. Comics were always way too expensive to buy, but the minute trade paperbacks became a thing and I could get collected comics from my local library, there isn't a book I didn't get my grubby hands on. In the most obvious sense, my motorcycle writing days on Sons of Anarchy may have helped. And my time on Daredevil, which – like most of these projects – has been a dream come true.