Gabriel Ruiz, Writer & Star of Horror-Mystery ‘The Fifth World,’ on Creating During the Pandemic

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I’ve loved stories of the supernatural for as long as I can remember. It began with my grandmother, an almond-faced immigrant from Honduras whom everyone outside the immediate family referred to as Doña Blanca. The stories she recounted from her childhood, set in the tiny, unelectrified, single-dirt-road village of Santa Lucía, would begin mildly enough but always took a sharp turn into the bizarre, grotesque, or even downright demonic.

One of my favorite stories is when her father Isidro, still a young man, was walking through the forest beyond the edge of the village. He carried a pistol, as was common practice then and still today, since you never know who or what you might meet along the way. I forget where he was going when he was suddenly ambushed by something, a huge wild boar of some kind, and shot it dead on the spot.

Pigs are delicious, as most people know, and this one was too big for my great-grandfather to carry back by himself. So he hustled back to the village to recruit some men. When they got back to the spot where my bisabuelo had left the dead boar, there was instead an old woman on the ground with bullet holes right about where he had shot the thing that attacked him.

A classic shapeshifter story, and my grandma keeps a handful on tap that she swears actually happened.

Ghost stories were my first love, but these days I mostly entertain myself with crime documentaries—#MurderDocumentariesAndChill—and so it was only natural that the six-part audio series The Fifth World hooked me from the first episode.

Produced by Teatro Vista and set in the Arizona desert town of Palomas, the series stars Gabriel Ruiz—who also wrote and co-directed the “audio play,” as it’s billed—and follows the story of Sebastian Reyes, a journalist from Chicago investigating the disappearance of 13-year-old Angel Pérez. From the moment Seba arrives in the seemingly abandoned settlement to the blood-chilling conclusion six episodes later, The Fifth World is a steady and horrifying descent into a realm terrorized by Mesoamerican mythology and sinister forces both natural and otherworldly.

Do not listen to this podcast at night, especially with the lights off… or maybe do, if like me you get your kicks by coming as close as possible to a self-induced heart attack.

The Fifth World is co-directed by Lorena Diaz, who was recently named Teatro Vista’s new co-artistic director and is perhaps known by most for her role as Nurse Doris on Chicago Med, Chicago Fire, and Chicago PD, though Latino Chicagoans of my vintage know her and co-artistic director Wendy Mateo best as the two hilarious halves of the comedy duo Dominizuelan.

The production also features eight other members of Teatro Vista’s ensemble — Cheryl Lynn Bruce as Ruthie, Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel as Florentina Perez, Jon Lyon as Simon, Sandra Márquez as Sandra, Eddie Martinez as Eduardo, J. Salome Martinez as Tlolac, Ayssette Muñoz as Christina, and Nate Santana as Deputy Raines — with sound design by Ruiz, Mikhail Fiksel, and Giselle Castro.

Courtesy of Teatro Vista

Founded in 1990 to allow Latino artists to not only present their talents and skills but also hone their crafts, Teatro Vista is today Chicago’s largest Latino, Equity-affiliated theater company, meaning its members belong to the theatre actors’ union. Now in its 32nd season, the company boasts of having “presented over 60 productions, including 19 world premieres and 15 Midwest premieres.”

Teatro Vista is gearing up for the world premiere of not one but two more productions in 2022: Detective Q, described as “a moving graphic novel,” also by Ruiz along with Marvin Quijada; and Brian Quijada’s Somewhere Over the Border, “a mash-up of The Wizard of Oz“ that blends with Quijada’s mom’s immigration story.

I reached out to the star and writer of The Fifth World, Gabriel Ruiz, who’s currently on Broadway starring as Alejandro in MJ the Musical, and sent him a few questions via email to pick his brain. Normally I’d pull out the juicy bits and sprinkle them as quotes, but Ruiz’s responses make for an interesting read in their entirety (edited for greater clarity, of course):

 

What inspired you to create a horror-mystery podcast?

This project was born out of an ensemble meeting at Teatro Vista when we were sharing ideas about how to be active during the initial shutdown. Cheryl Lynne Bruce offered an option of doing a “radio play,” which is a phrase that makes my ear cringe, but I’m a huge fan of podcasts. So once I made that initial leap for myself, the next step was confronting the circumstances of the lockdown itself.

As an ensemble, we couldn’t safely gather in one place to create this project together, so the viral restraints meant that we would continue the trajectory of our other “TV@Home” projects and build this project remotely. Technically, recording like this presents myriad challenges, not the least of which is everyone having to record on different hardware, resulting in all of their sound qualities tending to be radically different. Not a game-killer of an obstacle, but this being my first foray into recording on this scale, I decided to lean into what years of Chicago theater-making instilled: when met with an immovable obstacle, transform it into a design choice. Endow it with a function.

The circumstances that conspired to keep us from successfully building this podcast became its central binding force. Technology was holding families, communities together at a time when we were isolated from each other. So these phone calls [in the play] would be central in the narrative.

All around us, the virus had isolated everyone from each other. We were all victims to a pervasive fear of each other, and a need for each other.

The Fifth World lives square in that cultural moment, while not being about the virus at all — which all of our favorite horror content manages to accomplish. I wanted Teatro Vista to be able to mark this moment in history with a project that years later, if some kid asks, “But what did that initial lockdown feel like?” I’d be able to point to The Fifth World and say, “Kind of like this horror, actually.”

Why set the story in Palomas, Arizona?

Personally, I’m a city slicker with precious few, if spirit-expanding, experiences in the deserts of the American West. I spent an afternoon with one of my favorite lockdown day killers, Google Maps, virtually exploring highways and small cities and abandoned towns throughout the west.

Palomas was a place that was designated by Google not as a town or city, but a “populated place,”  the implied definition being enough of a mystery for me. Looking at the satellite imagery, I found what looked like uninterrupted desert geography. So, for me in my flyover ignorance, it was something of a blank canvas. I could build a town here. And it could represent not only the geographical distance our protagonist travels, but another metaphysical depth this country can have when exploring spaces overlooked or neglected by the rest of society.

It’s me looking at Google from the comfort of my Chicago apartment saying, “There’s nothing there,” and the imaginary residents of this “populated place” saying, “We are. We are here.” Palomas was a place on the map I had little to no context for, so our main character would be just as lost as his author. 

I explored using a place that had long been disconnected from the larger societal monoculture, leaning on the horror trope of that town with no cell service, or internet, to achieve isolation. After clicking around these towns I became much more interested in the invention of a town that was more recognizable and connected. So it could experience a severance from the world, the way we were at home.

Are any of the supernatural aspects based in actual mythology?

They are based entirely on Aztec mythology — well, also filtered through a Catholic lens. The cosmic rules present in The Fifth World are invented by me, but they exist in the context of the Aztec myth of a “Fifth World” [which we’re said to inhabit today]. In these stories, Gods would ritually sacrifice themselves to become the sun that gave life to the world and humanity. According to this myth, we exist in the fifth and final world. With no more gods able to sacrifice themselves, they accept human sacrifice to continue. So, many of the macro elements of the story inherit these cosmic circumstances, as well as some smaller details (The Old God’s appearance uses specifics from Aztec descriptions).

I’m a big fan of movies like Hereditary and Midsommer. The events of these films seem inexplicable throughout not because there are no rules or reason, but because those rules are unfamiliar to the viewer. With a strong understanding of pagan/satanic rituals, maybe they would seem less confounding. But there’s the fun.

I’m a nerd that reveled in a few books about the definitions, similarities, and contrasts of sacred and secular space. They can exist in the same geographical space, but to each, the other can be confounding. This story is about someone who exists in secular space discovering the world exists in a sacred realm. The mystery is as much about finding a missing child as it is discovering the true underpinnings of existence. One is the mystery, the other is the horror.

What are some of the challenges in creating this type of podcast?

Every single thing was a challenge. Writing the series was the toughest artistic feat I’d ever encountered, and was still the easiest part of the entire process. Obviously, recording remotely is not ideal, but technology was just catching up with our needs and we were able to virtually act “together” in a virtual space that was not the dreaded Zoom but still a new format to navigate.

Another challenge was the sheer size of the project. I wanted to learn every piece of this process, so I learned how to be a writer, recording engineer, a sound editor, a co-director, a composer, a sound designer, and finally a lead voice actor. Much of this was a first for me, so the encouragement from our former artistic directorship and the enthusiastic drive of our new artistic directors have been essential. I’d never run a race like this before, so having Lorena and Wendy say they were getting me to the finish line no. matter. what. was crucial when doubt set in.

The other godsend was having the talents of a broadway sound designer, Mikhail Fiksel, who dove into the deep end, sight unseen, and elevated the content immensely. 

The truth is there was an easy way to accomplish this, and no one was interested in it. Choosing the challenging route resulted in a product we could all be proud of. And it set a standard that few would ever expect from a theater company of our size to meet.

 

You can stream The Fifth World now through teatrovista.org, Apple Podcasts, and Spotify.

Hector is the founder and editor of MANO as well as the host of the LATINISH podcast. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's also the senior editor of Latino Rebels, part of Futuro Media, as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He was a columnist at RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, Good Morning America, TIME, the Washington Post, and other outlets, and his writing was featured in 'Ricanstruction, 'a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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