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American Theatre: Support for Latinidad Onstage: A Lifelong, Not a Month-Long, Job

by Francisco Mendoza

Being a playwright in the American theatre means getting used to scarcity: There are not enough resources to support everyone, or at least that’s what we’re constantly told. For some of us, this pessimism is compounded by other barriers; being a Latinx/e writer in this industry means constantly balancing the upholding of one’s identity in the face of those who reject it while avoiding being pigeonholed into creating stories that fit a narrow vision of who we should be.

The spaces where I’ve felt most free of that tension are the ones created by other Latine artists. My country of birth and my cultural baggage cease to be the single most important thing about me, while simultaneously being joyously celebrated. I don’t have to worry about how much Spanish I’m putting in my play, or whether the audience will be able to follow me, but I also feel free to pursue stories that don’t center my identity.

So for Hispanic Heritage Month, I pitched American Theatre on a roundtable with four Latine producers and curators whom I deeply admire for creating the sort of spaces I love: Dr. Maria Patrice Amon (she/her), from the San Diego REP Latinx New Play Festival; Adriana Gaviria (she/her) from SolFest; Darrel Alejandro Holnes (he/him) from the Greater Good Commission & Festival; and José Zayas (he/him), from Two River Theater’s Crossing Borders Festival. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

(Note: during this conversation, you’ll see the terms “Latine” and “Latinx.” Both are non-gendered versions of “Latino/a” and can be used interchangeably; I prefer “Latine,” as it is grammatically closer to Spanish, in which language a word like “Latinx” would be hard to pronounce.)

FRANCISCO MENDOZA: As a playwright, particularly a Latino playwright, I so often focus my efforts on breaking into new spaces and asking for what I need once I make it in. Having been in two of your festivals (San Diego REP’s and Crossing Borders), I can personally speak to how refreshing it was to just be welcomed. So it’s a pleasure to sit down with all of you! Let’s start with a bit about each of your festivals and how you became involved with them.

Darrel Alejandro Holnes.

DARREL ALEJANDRO HOLNES: I’m the founder of the Greater Good Commission and Festival, now in its second year. It came out of a conversation with my mother when the pandemic began, where I asked if I could make a donation to our family foundation to help out-of-work theatre artists in the U.S. But there was a lot of COVID-19-related need in Panama for our foundation to address, so I decided to reach out instead to Guadalís Del Carmen, artistic director of the LatinX Playwrights Circle (LPC), to talk about donating a few thousand to U.S. Latinx playwrights in need. Then Pregones came aboard, and LPC threw the full weight of its staff behind it and the whole thing took off.

For the first year, we commissioned Afro/Black-Latinx playwrights; this year, the focus was on LGBTQIA+ Latinx writers. I’m very excited about giving these early-career playwrights who are from the Latinx community, but also often marginalized within that community, the opportunity to start building their careers. Also, both Guadalís and I have been in SolFest. That was such a great experience, and it definitely served as inspiration for our festival.

ADRIANA GAVIRIA: You know, I was thinking while Darrel answered, I don’t remember how SolFest started? I mean, it’s part of the Sol Project, of which I am a founding member, and it came from conversations about expanding support to artists beyond the Sol productions, but with the same intent: to amplify Latinx voices. What I do remember is that during one of those conversations, I kinda jumped in and said, “I’ll take this on.” I had never produced anything before, and I wanted to learn, so I just went for it. I love that Darrel brought up SolFest as an inspiration, because to me that was Patrice—I called her and I said, “Patrice, how do you do this?” We had met doing a Cornerstone intensive and she was also starting her festival around that time, and she walked me through it. That first year [2018] was pretty scary, but it was also like an MFA in producing for me; I have an MFA in acting, but this was a whole new area. Plus, like Greater Good, we also partner with Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, and they’ve been huge mentors.

MENDOZA: Patrice, since you were one of Adriana’s mentors, tell us a bit about your festival.

Maria Patrice Amon.

MARIA PATRICE AMON: The Rep is in San Diego, which isn’t the biggest theatre town, but we are in a region that is very, very strongly Latinx in its composition. There had been a plan to put up a festival for Latinx plays for a while, so when I came in, in 2016, it really took off; we did the first one in 2017. And we’ve been working in these five short years to really cultivate and grow the festival to be a national presence, beyond our local audience. We’re telling stories not just about the Mexican experience, or the Mexican American, or the Chicano experience; our festival wants to tell stories about Latinidad across the broad spectrum of what Latinidad represents. We do four plays and one solo show, which usually has been touring, and there’s a goal that within every season, one of the shows comes from the festival.

MENDOZA: José, Crossing Borders is somewhat similar, in that it’s a festival that exists within a larger institution, right?

JOSÉ ZAYAS: Right. I’m the curator now, but there have been multiple people. It was started 11 years ago, in similar circumstances: There’s a big Latinx community in Red Bank, N.J., and the artistic director of Two River Theater, John Dias, wanted to bring that audience in. I came into the festival in its second edition, as a director for Andrea Thome’s Pinkolandia, which then got a rolling world premiere by Two River Theater and INTAR; John has really made an effort for the shows in the festival to get produced. I’ve been curating Crossing Borders for two years now, about to start my third year. It’s a beautiful festival that puts in the work and pushes for these plays to be produced. We’ve had over 60 plays read so far, plus music or spoken word performances, and while the focus is the Red Bank community, being so close to New York means we have access to a very varied pool of actors; we’ve had hundreds of actors and maybe five or six directors a year. 

MENDOZA: What you and Patrice are saying, about the festivals being a dialogue with the community, makes me curious about how play selection happens. How do the plays find you, and what are you looking for when they do? Something that will resonate with the community, or something that will resonate with you personally, as the curator?

José Zayas.

ZAYAS: It has shifted so much; we’ve done open submissions, agent submissions, we talked to playwrights individually, I’ve submitted plays. The reason I was asked to curate the festival is because for years I submitted plays that were eventually done, so at one point they asked, “Why don’t you just start curating it?” For the last two years I’ve found plays from people I know, talking to playwrights, going to see readings—there’s so much work out there. It’s amazing to get to invest in all of these different voices in many stages of development. I’m looking for a play that is doing something unexpected or unusual, doing it in a way that surprises me, whether through language or form. Or sometimes it’s not the play that I adore, but I adore the playwright and I want to give them the opportunity to continue exploring.

MENDOZA: Right. I appreciate that you can develop the playwright beyond one specific piece they wrote, which might not always be a good fit.

HOLNES: It’s important to have that balance. Greater Good is one of three pipelines for LPC, the other two being the Playwrights Intensive, in partnership with Primary Stages, and Sunday Service, which has no application process. For the Playwrights Intensive and the Greater Good Commission there are open submissions, and there’s a selection process. We elect a board of readers who are representative of the community that we’re trying to support that year in particular. They come from different areas of theatre, but really understand the value of the kind of representation that we’re hoping to create. They score all submissions, and then we have three discussions with our judges to determine which of the plays will win the commission that year. The readers rotate every year, and the staff also participates—what works for us is that there is no single deciding voice. We do it as a collective.

MENDOZA: And you’re not choosing a single play; you’re putting a slate together. Do you also look for them to be in dialogue with each other?

HOLNES: Yeah, absolutely. Our aim is that the festival represent a variety of different perspectives. Not all Black Latinx playwrights think the same, or have the same politics, the same history, the same identity, or even agree if the term should be Afro Latinx, or Black Latinx, or Afro Indigenous, or just Black from Latin America. Same within the LGBTQIA+ community, disability community, and other communities we’re working with. So we try to say to the world that there is no one single story that represents our community; here are just a few.

MENDOZA: Patrice, do you also do open submissions?

AMON: Yes, we put out a national call Dec. 1-31 every year. We allow direct submissions or submissions from agents, whichever the playwright prefers. We do full-length pieces, except musicals, with casts up to eight because we’re looking for pieces that we can include in our season. And we have a team of typically 20 readers, but this past year was unprecedented—we had a team of 80 readers! There are usually three rounds of reads, and then after the third round, it’s curation. Ultimately, I’m the curator, but I have very strong conversations with our literary manager [Danielle Ward]. I’m typically looking for at least one thing that I can see living on the stages at the Rep, because getting a play workshopped is a different goal than getting a play produced, and I want to hold both goals in my head at the same time, and she’s very useful for that. We curate a diverse approach in terms of the playwrights’ gender, race, even age. Thematically, we really don’t want to fall into the trap of “victim-centered”; there might be a play that really focuses on trauma, but then I’m putting in a comedy to balance that out. Similarly, there might be a piece that’s ready for production, and then another which hasn’t figured itself out yet.

MENDOZA: If it’s the latter, do you have any input? This wasn’t my experience, maybe because I’d workshopped my play Machine Learning 300 times before the festival. But has there been a case when you’re saying, “Yes to this play, but let’s talk about it first”?

AMON: It really depends. There have been plays that we’ve selected for the festival that feel much earlier in their development process, and it all starts with a conversation with the playwright, asking them what their perspective on their play is, what shifts or growth or opportunities they want to take with it, and helping to support that—while also knowing that, like, the first act is really dragging and there are 14 scenes in the second act. But that is my read, no one else’s, and I’m happy to share those thoughts, but not unless they’re solicited. It’s approaching that in conversation with the artist as opposed to mandating the changes that need to be made. There was a piece selected for our festival that had been submitted multiple years, and in the first year, it had a narrow and dark focus. That was coherent to the play, it made sense for where the playwright was going with it, but I couldn’t see it on our stages, because its focus was so intensely on the trauma that the character was sitting with. Then that piece went through a couple of workshops and was resubmitted to us with this kernel of hope that didn’t undo the work of the play, but gave it this spin that I could see holding our audience’s interest.

Adriana Gaviria.

GAVIRIA: I’m drooling a little when I hear about the open submission process. I’m like, that would be so amazing, to be able to have readers and committees. But like I said, it’s just me, learning as I go. When Sol Project was founded, we met weekly for two years, and we talked about the writers currently in the field that we would love to amplify. Something that was important for me to have in mind when selecting artists for the festival was to have a mix of experience levels, because there is a tendency for mid- to late-career artists to not have those opportunities.

I definitely don’t select a play, I select the playwright, and those names come from being on different committees, from getting recommendations from the collective, from the playwrights or directors who were part of previous SolFest editions. And there’s a part of it that’s just me. I really love plays that have strong women in them, for example. Or different perspectives; I grew up in Miami, and each region is so different. In New York you have a tendency to hear a particular type of story, in L.A. another. I am attracted to hearing different perspectives.

MENDOZA: You’re touching upon two things that I want to explore with this group. One, how important is it to your festivals that not only the writers be Latine, but the stories they’re telling center Latine lives and experiences?

ZAYAS: I’d like to think that it doesn’t matter; what I believe in is the voice of the playwright. But we did have an experience one year where we did a Mexican play by Bárbara Colio called Ropes, in translation. The play was then produced, and some audience members at Red Bank were asking, “How is this a Latinx narrative?” because the play didn’t specifically mention that the characters were Mexican. It wasn’t about their identity; they just were. It was a conversation that came up and I was really surprised. Personally, I’m not looking for that kind of work only; I really want to push the boundaries as to the kind of stories that these writers can tell, to expand the kinds of characters we see onstage.

AMON: This one’s a difficult question for me. In my opinion, if a Latine person writes a play, that’s a reflection of Latinidad. But the festival has a slightly different approach. There is no single thing that we’re looking for, but as a minimum, there needs to be at least one Latine character. In the past, there have been plays that don’t present the Latinidad of the characters at all, other than the fact that we cast a Latine actor in the role, and there have been plays that have been very, very focused on their cultural signifiers. It really just depends on the piece, and it’s not like a stated requirement of the admissions, because I want to keep it open. Like Tillikum [by Kristiana Rae Colón], from a few years back, a piece that centered around orca whales. All the characters were whales—there was no Latinidad, they were whales! I want to keep the doorway open to the possibility of future Tilikumfor us to consider, but where we have human characters, it’s hard for me to argue within the context of the Rep and a Latinx new-play festival that there are no characters at all that are Latine. Especially knowing that there are other places for the submission to be considered in our season.

GAVIRIA: We also had an experience like what José was saying. The first play that the Sol Project did was Alligator by Hilary Bettis. What we learned from that experience is that there are limited opportunities for actors as well, right? It is important for there to be roles that we can cast our community in. But I’m also thinking about Noah Diaz’s play. I love that play, we supported that play. We’ve created different avenues to support all those stories in their own way.

MENDOZA: You’re talking about Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally, right? That play was at Crossing Borders too.

ZAYAS: Yeah, we’ve had a lot of plays that haven’t been centered on [Latine characters], as long as they inspire conversation. Because it’s only my second year curating, I certainly don’t want a piece that centers a white perspective, also because we want plays that are going to be acted by our company, 10 actors who are usually going to be Latinx. We have brought a couple of actors who were not—for instance, in your play [Machine Learning], not everybody is Latinx in it—but what we ultimately need is to build the community. I’m in dialogue with your festivals, I’m always looking at what you’re doing, what writers you’re interested in, what’s out there. Ideally, for me, all of these festivals nationally are in dialogue with each other, and we’re finding work that is crossing the coasts, we’re sharing stories that go from the Caribbean, or from Spain, all the way to the West Coast.

MENDOZA: Darrel, would you say that’s the case for Greater Good as well? It’s structured to uplift certain identities, but does that extend to the plays as well?

HOLNES: Our mission is to celebrate community members who are often left out of Latinidad. Discussions around Blackness, or discussions around an LGBTQIA+ identity, might not be considered a Latine issue, so they don’t get into a certain festival or production or space. With that in mind, we are trying to give our playwrights freedom to express whatever it is that they have to share, to tell whatever story they want to tell, because of the ways that so many of us have been shut out of spaces and told that the topics we’re engaging in are not the ones that audiences from our community allegedly want to see. Every year, there’s a topic for the commission, which they can engage with in any way, shape, or form—we really don’t want to be in a position where we’re dictating to playwrights that they need to write. This year, the topic was access, and it really runs the gamut, because some of them have thought about access in terms of economics, others have thought of it in terms of physical space or geographic space, others in terms of love in the era of COVID and how you access your loved ones.

MENDOZA: I love that. And this reminds me of the second point that Adriana brought up that I wanted to discuss, which is the idea of servicing playwrights who are in different moments of their career. Is that also a factor for all of you? Say you find a play you love, but the playwright is successful enough that it feels like they’ve “graduated” from your festival?

GAVIRIA: I had so many thoughts just now. The first thought was no, because for example, there are some writers that may be very well known on the West Coast, who may even be veteranos, but may not be known on the East Coast. It’s important for me to have those different stages [in the festival] and to make sure that the writers have that conversation with each other—same with the directors, that everyone’s learning from each other, trying to recreate a little bit of the experience that I had when I went to Encuentro for the first time. So no, there’s not a point when you graduate at all. I do think that each writer has different needs, so maybe someone won’t find SolFest useful for them? I don’t know. No one’s said no yet!

HOLNES: I’ll just briefly add that I loved my time at SolFest, I thought it was super fun. And I’m in awe of Adriana because, at least the year that I participated, it was really a one-woman show. I was like, “Wow, look at her go.”

GAVIRIA: Thank you!

ZAYAS: For me it’s the same answer: no. This thing’s 10 years old; we have had people come back. And one of the first things I do when I start reading is I go back to every playwright we have done a reading of and I ask them what they’re working on, and to submit. The question I’m asking myself is, how do we support people who are mid- and late-career? How to bring in a Caridad Svich, or José Rivera, or Nilo Cruz into the festival, mixed in with the younger playwrights? SolFest does this so well; when I was there, I was able to work with Edwin Sánchez, whom I’d never had the opportunity to work with before, and with whom I developed a beautiful relationship that I really cherish. So that’s my thinking: What is next year, and how do we bring really different experiences into the festival?

AMON: People have come back [to our festival] over the years. Diana Burbano was with us in 2017 and 2020. Herbert Sigüenza, who’s our playwright in residence, has been with us multiple times. We’ve had early-career, mid-career, and veteranos submit, and everybody gets evaluated on the same criteria. A vision for the future would be to have a consistent way to honor veteranos. They do already have relationships with literary managers and artistic directors at different theatres, so their need to develop a piece is very different from an early-career playwright’s need to develop a piece.

MENDOZA: Thinking about need, Darrel, in your case, Greater Good is a commission as well as a festival, and one that was born as a response to the way the pandemic has impacted people financially. Did you ask applicants whether they had suffered a financial impact as part of the submission process?

HOLNES: One thing was clear to us at the time the first round happened: that everyone was impacted by COVID, one way or another. Our commission was announced early in the pandemic, and we wanted this opportunity to be something that was available to everyone far and wide; I think if it had been announced later, we might have required more paperwork to measure the impact. But at that moment there were just so many shifts that were happening, with plays closing, theatres not sure when they were going to reopen or if they were going to reopen, or what online might look like. The best we could do was to open this to anyone who self identified as an Afro/Black Latinx playwright, who understood the need we were trying to address and felt they were in need of this type of opportunity. Since then, the commission has grown to not only address the need created by COVID-19, but specifically the need for more diversity and inclusion within Latinx theatre in the United States. We’ve been really excited by how the festival has started to build relationships with directors, with producers, with stage managers, with actors, who have continued to benefit from the festival and who would like to continue to build relationships with the playwrights that support.

MENDOZA: What you just said about representation makes me think of something I read recently, that Matthew Lopez was the first Latine playwright to win a Tony for Best Play [for The Inheritance], which I felt both excited and depressed by. I wouldn’t say that winning a Tony is something I aim for, professionally; I didn’t even watch the ceremony. But as a Latino in this field it does impact me, because it’s less about that specific award and more about the field I’ve decided to enter and what’s going on in it. All of you have created and worked on these festivals, to some degree, because they didn’t exist before and they are needed. To use Patrice’s term of “a vision for the future,” what do you envision for your festival, and for the industry at large?

AMON: That everyone has a 401k and is able to retire. [Laughs] But in terms of San Diego Rep, like I said, one is building space to honor our veteran playwrights. Another is expanding the opportunities of online content; I anticipate that for the next few years we’re going to be hybrid, workshops happening virtually, edited as recorded video and then streamed on demand in an online platform, but also live for an in-person audience in San Diego. It’s too good a tool to let go of, particularly in terms of accessibility—I can include captions, I can change volume levels, I can make it sensorially supportive to so many different audiences, I can jump past time zones. And it also allows me greater access to incredible talent from across the U.S. And yes, those benefits sit in conversation with the loss of in-person connectivity, which I mourn and I wish I could have, but the benefit of those tools currently outweigh that loss.

HOLNES: I think the future looks digital for us too. As a new organization, the only way that we could even think of accomplishing our mission on a national level is through the technology that’s available to us, and leaning into it. And because our mission is to support emerging Latine playwrights, and there are so many that haven’t made it to New York or L.A., as Adriana was mentioning, the digital realm really allows our scope to go wide and deep. Once the pandemic hit, it just became so clear how many more playwrights we could serve, and what kind of need there was. And one of the reasons I’m so excited to be in this conversation right now is because the five of us on this call cannot meet the amount of need that is there. We need all of our festivals, and we need more festivals online and in person in different regions across the country, in order to just meet the tremendous amount of need there is. So I’m glad to be part of this family.

For me, the future looks like an industry that doesn’t have a center—one in which, regardless of where you are, you can be a playwright and be valued. I’m so excited to be a New York playwright, and I moved all the way from Panama just to be here, but how awesome would it be also if I was in Panama doing this, being part of this community and not having to migrate?

ZAYAS: At Crossing Borders we have a budget that would allow us to bring everybody in. But Paz Pardo was in Argentina, and it was much easier for her to do it from there. Nick Malakhow was in Chicago. So going digital is going to open the doors for, like, if we do have someone from Panama, and they can’t come in, we’re still gonna consider the work because it can be done virtually, and now everybody’s used to that. So that’s opening doors to really wonderful ways to develop new material with a huge range of people. Because yes, there is a huge need; I could schedule a decade’s worth of festivals with the playwrights I love who have yet to have their work performed. And this year was our attempt at going national. I’ve worked a couple of years with the Alley Theatre All New Festival,and that’s an interesting model for what I would like to do with Crossing Borders, which is to have people come to Red Bank, to create a community, to have space for the veteranos, to have a three-week workshop for a new play that needs to be developed and will be actually shown for three to four performances for the people who are coming in to spend a weekend together. So I hope that we can really expand our reach as we progress.

GAVIRIA: I’m hoping that everyone involved in SolFest, whether they’re a writer, an actor, a director, an intern, that they have a great time, like Darrel said, and that it inspires them to create more work and to create opportunities and to really build those relationships with each other. Because we all have each other for the rest of our careers, and we’re constantly going to have to support and uplift each other, we’re going to have ups and downs and we really need each other during the trajectory of our careers.

As for me personally, I would love it if our industry really starts valuing artists as a whole. That includes, for example, being flexible with schedules—as we each enter different stages in our life, we become different types of caregivers, so taking that into account. Working virtually has also opened a door for that, so that you can be with your families, for those that want to have that work/life balance. Also definitely better pay for artists as we continue doing these festivals, so we can have a livable wage. I loved all these micro-grants and opportunities being offered during the pandemic for artists to take care of those other things, but I definitely want that to continue—for organizations and institutions who have those funds to really do think about other ways to continue supporting artists holistically.

MENDOZA: To wrap up, I wanna give you a chance to shout out either upcoming work, either yours or from others in our community, that readers can check out. Darrel, in your case, the Greater Good Festival hasn’t happened yet, right?

HOLNES: Right. The festival takes place in person on Oct. 22, 7:30 p.m. at Pregones in Manhattan, and it will be streamed online Oct. 23, via the Pregones website as well. And I want to shout out Alisha Espinosa, who is an important part of LPC and is playing a huge role in the festival’s production.

GAVIRIA: I want to shout out Re-Encuentro, which is happening Nov. 12-21. Encuentro was a career-changing experience when I first did it, so it’s really exciting that it’s coming now in November, and it’s going to be a virtual experience, definitely check that out. Also the PAAL Summit, Dec. 1-3. And I am super excited to have narrated the new Audible Original Margarita in the Spotlight, by the wonderful author Maria Frazer.

ZAYAS: I’m currently directing 72 miles to go… by Hilary Bettis at the Alley. It’s going up live but it’ll also stream for three weeks afterwards. We start Oct. 15 and the streaming will begin towards the end of the month. It’s something that came from these festivals, so it’s been a long, beautiful journey.

PATRICE: Our festival panels are up on YouTube and accessible to anybody who wants to watch them. They’re really cool surrounding events with our designers, our dramaturgs, our playwrights, and then a panel of history scholars. Also, I will be directing Azul by C. Quintana, which was featured in our 2017 festival, at Diversionary Theatre. Other pieces from our festival are getting picked up as well; Sapience by Diana Burbano is going to be done at Moxie. It’s very neat to see the flowering of the pieces, people paying attention to Latinx playwrights, places that maybe hadn’t featured this work in their seasons before but are finding them through these culturally specific festivals or like pipelines that we’re creating. It really is like seeding the field.

Francisco Mendoza (he/him) is an Argentinian writer currently living in Brooklyn, after spending several years in Brazil. His writing spans theatre, prose, audio, and the screen, and he also works as a freelance journalist, teacher, and marketing consultant.