Juan talks Chicago vs. NYC, how the election has focused his approach to his work
and the many brilliant artists we should be seeing and supporting.
InViolet: How do you identify in the theater world?
Juan: An actor, a playwright, a teaching artist, and an artivist.
InViolet: Tell us about your InViolet journey so far.
Juan: September of 2011 is when I became a company member of InViolet along with Erin Mallon, Bernardo Cubria, Sam Thomson and Bixby Elliot. It’s been a great place to hear my plays heard out loud as I continue to explore my voice as a writer. It’s been gratifying to witness the makeup of the company become more diverse because it lends itself to different perspectives. Co-Artistic Directors Angela Razzano and Michael Henry Harris give anyone in the company the opportunity to spearhead an idea with it being on you to oversee it. I have seen the extraordinary success of Second Monday Social led by Marguerite Stimpson and Bixby Elliot. The company’s desire to flex our artistic by directing, acting or writing led to the down and dirty series called One Night Stand. Bernardo was behind its initial inception producing the first one and it has become one of our consistent hits.
It’s been great to have a support system for any new plays that I am exploring. I have had readings of Don Chipotle, Gen-tried, El Dargòn del Village, Wanna be Starting Something…, and Can you hear me…now?.
InViolet: Do you have a favorite InViolet memory you can share?
Juan: The first meeting after the recent election is definitely a moment that stands out to me. The company showed up to the meeting a bit disconnected with our bodies. It was a somber meeting. It was clear that we were each yearning for something to snap us awake. I saw comrades shell shocked. I saw friends disjointed with reality. I saw artists questioning the purpose of art. I then saw what comrades, friends, and artists do which is help each other rise to the occasion. Clarity of a new direction for the company came out of it. I am looking forward to the next 10 years and beyond for the company.
InViolet: You grew up on the Lower East Side and have spent long stints living and working in both Chicago and NYC. What are the draws and challenges of each?
Juan: I have loved my time in Chicago. Chicago is where there is no tier system when it comes to art. The work is the priority regardless if you are at a 700-seat house like The Goodman Theater or a 47-seat house like The Gift Theater. The pay is different, but EVERYONE goes to support each other’s work. The fact that Goodman Associate Artistic Director Adam Belcoure, Victory Gardens Artistic Director Chay Yew will show up to witness my non equity production of Don Chipotle speaks volumes to their effort to support the Chicago community. Respect to your fellow artists is most important, work ethic comes second, and talent is the LAST quality that people look for. If you are an asshole, it gets around pretty quickly. You better be one talented asshole in order to continue to work. It has happened where someone’s talent can veil their disrespectful actions, but all it takes is one person to come forward and with the tool of social media the community can rally together. Last year’s Not In Our House initiative led by Laura Fisher and Lori Myers is a prime example of that.
New York City is where I grew up. I just look at it as home. I don’t look at it as New York City the way others see it. Time away has given me time to see the city for what it has to offer.
I trained at Maggie Flanigan Studios in NYC, which was an extraordinary experience for me. Though I completed the program 8 years ago, I am just now understanding what was taught. Patience, persistence and perseverance is how I look at my time in New York City. I recommend everyone to just live for one year in New York City because you will learn a lot about yourself. The make up of the city has changed, but there is a tenacity of New Yorkers that can never be extinguished.
I have been back in NYC since September due to some changes in my life that include my family and my career. I have returned with a new sense of purpose that has me aspiring for more from New York City.
InViolet: We’re excited to hear that your acclaimed solo show Empanada for a Dream is looking to be brought back for an official NYC premiere! For those who don’t know the play, can you tell us a bit about it? EFAD has performed nationally, what’s on the horizon?
Juan: Empanada for a Dream grapples with the question of “How can you love someone that has hurt so many people?” Growing up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I had to deal with all of the stereotypes that come with being Colombian-American. When I turned 11 is when all the lies that had been said about my family had been exposed to be true including the role of my family in the cocaine drug trade. That began a journey of shame and anger I had for my family. I had to grow up by getting out. Telling the tales of my family became a way to begin the long overdue healing process initiated by the deaths of my heroes Tio Alvaro and Tio Chepe.
I have performed the show with The Latino Theater Company at The Los Angeles Theater Center, Teatro Vista at 16th St Theater in Chicago, Victory Gardens in Chicago, Le Moyne College in Syracuse, La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, Ballybeg and terraNOVA Collective soloNOVA Festival here in NYC. The opportunity to perform it at places like East Morton High School or The Chicago Cook County Juvenile Detention Center has been the most rewarding experience due to the stories that are shared with me from those teenagers.
InViolet: Your next solo show is underway, yes? What is this one exploring? Where are you in the process?
Juan: My next solo play is called Finding Pancho. It explores my time raising a child, which triggers my relationship with fatherhood while searching for my father in Bogota, Colombia after he’d been missing for over a year.
I began writing it for the inaugural El Semillero Playwrights Unit for ALTA’s Victory Gardens residency in Chicago. It led to a 25 min performance as part of the Pivot Arts Festival in Chicago. This summer the play will get continued development in D.C. during my residency at 1st Stage Theater while performing EFAD.
I will continue to develop it with Alex Levy who developed and directed Empanada for a Dream. A lot has changed in our lives since the initial workshop production of EFAD in 2012. It will be interesting to revisit our artistic relationship at this point in our lives when exploring the question of “What does it mean to be a father?”
InViolet: There are still a few more performances where folks can see you in Five Sessions at Julia De Burgos Theater in NYC. Sounds like shows have been getting great, enthusiastic audiences. How has the process been for you?
Juan: For those looking to support Latinx new works, here is a good opportunity to experience exactly that, through the eyes of a Latinx playwright, a Latinx director and a Latinx lead with a dynamic play like Five Sessions.
Five Sessions by Jaime Estada, Directed by Eddie Torres has been an inspiring experience that has pushed me as an actor. This is a story of a Puerto Rican Superintendent who manages buildings on both The Upper East Side and The Upper West Side who after his repeated failed attempts of suicide has been forced to go to 5 therapy sessions with a newly graduated white therapist. The pressures on the working class while trying to maintain their sanity can push anyone to the edge. Here you get to see how that can happen.
“We are both humans but we are situated differently….How are we supposed to feel when we are surrounded, angry or depressed?”-Superintendent
Jaime has written a character that I like to call “The Truth Teller.” There is usually one in all plays where they are the person who tells “the truth” whether you want to hear it or not. But being a truth teller comes at the price of being ostracized. Will this middle aged Puerto Rican Superintendent choose to focus on exposing the truths of our society that have caused him to be angry or choose to focus on exposing the truths of his deep hurt since a young child?
This is the kind of role that can push an actor to go through an epic roller coaster ride like Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman), King Lear (King Lear), Troy Maxson (Fences), and Henry Reyna (Zoot Suit).
This is our final weekend of performances Friday March 24th at 7:30 pm, Saturday March 25th at 7:30 pm and closing will be March 26th at 3 pm. It’s a 95 min play with no intermission.
InViolet: You will next be heading back upstate to Rochester, NY to perform at Geva Theater in Other Than Honorable by Jamie Pachino, Directed by Kimberly Senior. What can you tell us about the play?
Juan: With her husband deployed to an unknown location, lawyer Grace Rattigan, a former Army officer who resigned her commission under sealed terms, must make life-altering decisions on her own. When she reluctantly takes on a military sexual assault case, it re-opens old wounds and forces her to confront her past, along with the real meaning of the military’s codes of honor, courage and loyalty. A new drama by award-winning playwright and screenwriter Jamie Pachino, writer of NBC’s “Chicago PD.”
I get to play a LAWYER! I am excited due to the rarity of a Latinx actor getting the opportunity to play a role that is not reduced to a drug dealer rapist, crooked cop, restaurant cook or prostitute. I get to play “Hector Nuñez”, a smart, ambitious, military lawyer who has been treated well by the army and plays by the rules.
I have known Director Kimberly Senior for 15 years from back in Chicago, but his will be our first opportunity to work together. Kimberly’s profile has been elevated since directing Disgraced by Pulitzer Prize Winner Ayad Ahktar on Broadway. But to me she is still Kimberly who has worked at small storefronts all over Chicago. It’s been a joy to be in this industry long enough to witness colleagues’ careers soar.
I went to Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY so I’ve had plenty of experience of visiting Rochester, NY. My good friends Arin Sullivan and Andrea Taylor both worked at Geva Theater for years, which is why I was able to experience numerous plays there. It will be good to revisit upstate NY after it became a safe haven for me in the 7 years I lived there.
In lieu of the recent election, this play has become a priority to highlight the misogyny culture not only in the military but also in this country.
InViolet: You are one of 6 playwrights chosen to be part of The Brooklyn Generator’s Season 5. This June you will close their season by writing a brand new play in less-than-30-days. Any idea what you might tackle? Have you ever completed a draft that quickly?
Juan: Since the election, my virtues have simply become clearer for me in my role as an artist. In 2009, I had performed in a play that explored the history of immigration in the USA called America Amerique by the late John Adams, Directed by Alex Levy, It toured all over the country, but focused on rural areas that wouldn’t normally be exposed to these kinds of stories. It was then that I had a sobering view of how the country outside of liberal cites like NYC and Chicago actually was. There was a sense of patriotism and normalcy in those areas that made me aware how split our country was. I only share that for perspective on how the recent election made me very sad despite me not being surprised by the result. But it seemed to wake up the rest of the country. So now what is my role in all of this as an artist? Do I create a zany comedy to take everyone’s mind off of things since the world seems so dire right now? Do I explore a play that is from the point of view of those in support of our current president? Or do I simply speak from my truth as a descendant of Colombians to highlight the atrocities of the history of violence while exposing my contribution to those atrocities as an American? Regardless on what I choose, all I know is that no matter how brutal our fellow humans have been, it is my duty to also highlight the power of compassion. Compassion can be just as dramatic as conflict.
I am grateful for the opportunity to write a play with a beginning, middle and end. My stomach is turning just thinking about it, which means it’s good I am doing it!
InViolet: What was the last show you saw that really knocked you out and had you feeling hopeful about theater?
Juan: I was blown away by Orange Julius by Basil Kriemendahl, Directed by Dustin Wills, presented by Page 73 and Rattlestick. Dolphins and Sharks by James Anthony Tyler, Directed by Charlotte Brathwaite, presented by Labyrinth Theater was another production that excited me. Both were potent theatrical productions that were brilliantly directed with two courageous casts that were led by two playwrights with very original voices that add to the diverse makeup of American Theater.
InViolet: Whose work (companies and/or individual artists) do you think we should be seeing and supporting more?
Juan: Quicksilver Theater in NYC led by Tyron Henderson. Free Street Theater in Chicago led by Coya Paz and Melissa Duprey. Victory Gardens led by Chay Yew in Chicago. LATC Latino Theater Company in Los Angeles. Watts Village Theater in LA. 1st Stage Theater in D.C. since Alex Levy took over has gone through a dramatic shift. Meghan Beals at Chicago Dramatists has been creating exciting new opportunities. Teatro Vista’s production of La Havan Madrid by Sandra Delgado, Directed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce in Chicago highlights as you step back in time to 1960s Chicago and right into La Havana Madrid, the long-gone Caribbean night club that drew throngs of newly-arrived Latinos to the city’s north side. La Havana Madrid, a vibrant, musical venue, became a cultural hub for these new Chicagoans. Black and Brown Theater led by Emilio Rodriguez in Detroit. INTAR Theater in NYC led by Lou Moreno. ALTA Semillero Playwrights Group in Chicago led by Isaac Gomez. Halcyon Theater in Chicago. Sweat by Lynn Nottage presented by The Public Theater on Broadway. Make an effort to know the canon of work by Lorena Diaz and Wendy Mateo of Dominizuelan, Ike Holter, Guadalis del Carmen, Bernardo Cubria, Jonathan Payne, Ming Pfeiffer, Lauren Yee, Tanya Saracho, Ricky Gamboa, Aaron Mays, Katori Hall, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Marisela Treviño Orta, Marcus Gardely, Thomas Bradshaw, Rohina Malik, Lavina Jadhwani, Gabe Ruiz, Georgina Leanse-Escobar, Reginal Edmund, Migdalia Cruz and Marco Antonio Rodriguez. There are so many more, but this interview is overdue.
InViolet: What’s next for you?
Juan: March 30th airing of Blacklist: Redemption (NBC). April 5th performance of my 10 min play When My Father Died. Directed by Aaron Mays at Something Marvelous in Chicago. April/May 2017 Other Than Honorable by Jamie Pachino at Geva Theater. June 25th Brooklyn Generator reading of my new play. Empanada for a Dream at 1st Stage Theater in Washington D.C.