Resident Playwright Ricardo Gamboa and Producing and Marketing Associate Regina Victor in conversation on LA ELOTERA, 28-Hour Workshops, and Chicago Dramatists’ role in the Chicago theatre community.
REGINA: Hey Ricardo, it’s great to hear from you thanks for having this interview with me! As one of our Resident Playwrights you are closest to all our programming, and you’ve just completed a 28-Hour workshop here at Chicago Dramatists for your project LA ELOTERA. For our readers, a 28-Hour Workshop gives a resident playwright 28 hours of actor time and the freedom to design his/her workshop to their needs. Over a two-week period a playwright can pull actors, a director, dramaturg, and even a designer into the process. The playwright submits an application and a certain number is chosen for each year.
REGINA: What stage is a play normally in when you apply for a 28 Hour Workshop? What is unique about your collaboration process, and how you use the 28 Hour Workshop?
RICARDO: For me, working on a 28 hour workshop, it was about being able to set aside some clear delineated time to be able to dive into what we were building. I had the concept going in, but it was really valuable to bring in people in the room that could help me flesh that out and develop it. Normally it’s bringing actors into workshops so the playwright can hear it out loud, but this was more about bringing people in the room who could be co-conspirators, and start conceiving and conceptualizing what that work even means. I create work through non-hierarchical collaborative processes. Oftentimes it’s about the playwright and their idea, and everyone else falls in line to bring that idea into production. I’m interested in challenging the way we make work. So much of [the work] is [made through] a pyramid structure: we have the playwright, then a director who is supposed to interpret the word of the playwright, then the actors who are mouthpieces for the playwright, and the audience who are the consumers. LA ELOTERA is actually written around Jazmin Corona who’s one of my favorite actresses in the city and doesn’t get the work that her talent merits, and then I brought in other actors into the project who I’ve admired and writing the work around them. LA ELOTERA circulates around racialized gendered bodies, and questions the way the woman’s body might be marginalized in the culture industry, and other topics like gentrification, the narco economy. Therefore, I’m not just bringing in actors that I like or think are cool, they’re also actors who come from the communities I want to reach, or the realities that I’m trying to explore in the text.
REGINA: What do you feel you learned about your work on LA ELOTERA from this process?
RICARDO: One of the things that’s been invaluable is my dramaturg, Justin Ignatius Mitchell, and how effective it is to have other brilliant people who can be challenging and supportive of you from the beginning from the ground up. Often as playwrights we write alone and in solitude, and so much of it is what you want to say and how you want to say it, through a process that at best hascritical self reflection, but unfortunately not always. So I think it’s been really useful to have people like Justin in the room. Usually, in my development process my actors are involved from the beginning of the work, but it was really useful to have someone who was there solely for that rigorous critical reflection.
It makes me really sad though because I was thinking how useful these resources have been to me, but it is so hard to come by these kinds of resources. Who else is going to pay someone, and write checks for someone to get in a room with you? Early in my career that would be people who would rally around me or people that would rally around an idea and were willing to work for free. And I’m at a point in my career where all this peripheral success is not of interest to me, and I’m trying to find ways to compensate people. If I can’t give them everything I’ll give them what I can.
There’s something about working-partner writing, or working with that kind of dramaturgical partner from the beginning that makes it about connection: having someone in the room you’re trying to make legible ideas to and you’re two different people who speak in different ways and who have to deal with the failures of the language and the difficulty in how you communicate. I write in my head a lot. I often have pages written in my head before even sitting down at laptop. Even with this play, I had that, but the 28 Hour Workshop really has been great to unravel a lot of those ideas or push them and come up with a better play and for that, I’m really indebted to having someone in the room from the get.
REGINA: What is Chicago Dramatists’ role in the arts community, as you see it, and what is our responsibility to artists like you (or, what do you need from us)
RICARDO: I’m a self-taught artist. I could cry when I think too hard about how I wish that I grew up somewhere different or sometimes even someone different, where opportunities and mentors were abundant. Or where people who look like me and come from where I come are given roots to be cultural creators instead of spectators to their own world. I think right now we live in a city where the social issues that we hear about in news or Facebook posts are being played out in real time in real ways but in ways so many Chicagoans don’t have to deal with. And for artists--even manyartists of color that working in mainstream theater--some of thesereal issues are often nothing more than fodder for the next great idea for a play. And often those artists aren’t entrenched in the violences that they are hired to represent. An example of this is Steppenwolf, when they hired a white professor from DePaul to interview people of color about their experience with violence for How Do I Cry rather than work with those people directly and trust they have the capacity to self-represent.
We live in a Chicago theatre community that doesn’t respect or provide inroads for native Chicago artists. The youth and POC that are raised here, their issues can be cannibalized for productivity. Referring back to Chicago violence it’s an issue we see all over the place, and that is directly affecting communities of color and youth of color. Not only are they absent in the political or media discourse, they’re absent and not centered in the local theatrical output. Large theatres, or any theatre, can produce shows about the subject [of youth, POC, local issues and/or violence] and not center their voice or experience, or when they do it has to be mediated by aninstitutionally sanctioned artist they consider "credible." They gain money and recognition for addressing the issue but really, they’re not. If that type of dynamic was one of many, that would be fine, but this is the dominant way it happens, and the prominent way that ithappens, and the people of color or working class communities of color are sidelines in the representation of their own oppression anddon’t get to write that play. It’s about the way these power dynamics play out. So what does it mean? Usually I don’t apply for grants or residencies, but what was great about applying for this was meeting Meghan Beals. She’s one of two people working in the city in leadership that I think is fully committed towards trying to do things in a different way and creating space for people. The cohort of new residents my year was comprised with a strong presence of queer people, people of color of and women of color… there’s me and my pretend cousin Isaac Gomez in there who are both two queer working-class latinx artists, and when you look at our cohort as a whole there’s also Sue Pak, Georgette Kelly and Jay Torrence.That's more diversity in one cohort than I've seen in any season by a theater company or most ensemble. And that’s remarkable when you look at how few plays by writers of color are being produced in the city.
REGINA: Young playwrights are moving across all mediums, and you have just launched a quite popular new web series called BRUJOS, about four Latinx doctoral candidates who are witches trying to survive a witch hunt led by a secret society of witch hunters descended from white heteronormative New World Colonizers. Personally, I think it’s revolutionary. The project began in 2014 with interviews with queer Latino men, healers, and psychics. I’d love to hear about the research that led up to BRUJOS, and how the show was developed from those concepts.
RICARDO: I think the show was a result of my academic research that dealt with immigration and hyper-incarceration (prison industrial complex) and I was trying to figure out what was underpinning those phenomenons and it led me to historical research and colonization. And I was left with the conclusion that the world that we live in in 2017 is the product of and has deep resonances with the world that was around in 1492, which is precisely a moment when colonization would begin to articulate and promote logics of heteropatriarchy, classism, and white supremacy. At the same time, I went through my first major gay heartbreak and going to a therapist made too much sense, so I went to other experts that I developed relationships with: a tarot reader, a medium, and started tapping into my own repressed non-normative alternative knowledge. Integrating parts of my sexual and gender identity, dealing with my sexual trauma, meant integrating these parts of me that were also depressed and pushed down. So, that’s where part of it came from. The impetus was so much of theatre especially in Chicago is very exclusive, the majority of plays are produced on the north side are white, the majority of plays are boring, and the diversity represented in the the forms of popular entertainment are high class representations like the money-driven, get-rich-or-die-trying aesthetic of Empire, which is still quite normative.
I don’t want to just re-color code white supremacy, I’m not settling for anything less than revolution. I am probably not having as much fun, and I’m definitely not making as much money as I could if I didn’t care about that. But I’m okay with going down trying, there’s a little masochist in me too, so I guess I’ll take my pain with the pleasure of knowing I’m doing things the principled way.
The reason I put BRUJOS on the web was so that it was accessible, and it’s made available across the economic and geographic stratification that affects Chicago. I originally made it as a play and I didn’t think it would get put up in Chicago. It’s my same fear for LA ELOTERA and another play, THE WIZARDS that I’m doing. I’ve used my grassroots organizing experience and applied it to production to make things happen. It’s not just what you do it’s how you do it. So the process of producing BRUJOS is something that I also view as an invitation to a social movement and political project. It approaches media-making as an attempt to model the world we want to live in, a world where everyone is honored. For example, everyone who auditioned for the show we have been hustling to make sure they could be included in the show. Which is unusual, as usually you’re trying to get some guy who’s just gotten a great review and will sell tickets or some celebrity, but that’s not what I’m trying to do. Not just in terms of casting, but even thinking of locations and craft services, we integrated local businesses as much as we could. We’re still learning, you know what I mean, we shot in Pilsen and Little Village, two neighborhoods very close to my upbringing.
I’ve been doing media work for awhile and the whole reason I’ve been doing media work was because there was no space in theatre for people like me. I don’t have an MFA from NYU, I’m too political and too mouthy to get hired at most of Chicago’s theatres. I’m proud of that marginalization actually, and because I’m not a credentialized artist of color who is legible to white supremacy, I know there will be very few opportunities for me to move within the arts community. Even local Chicago Latino theatre is not really Chicago Latino theatre, they’re Latino transplants from other areas. To my knowledge, I’m the only Chicago-born Mexican-American playwright to ever have a play put up in Chicago which is at Free Street Theatre. The stories that are represented, the bodies of work they produce are not that of local Chicagoans and their stories. I’m more likely to go see plays by Mexicans or writers from other Latino populations from every other city in the country writing about the Latino experience than I am to see a work by a local Mexican or Latino playwright writing about their relevant experience in Chicago which is weird because ⅓ of the population of Chicago is Latino, and 80% of that is Mexican. My project with Free Street right now Meet Juan(ito) Doe is about obtaining stories from the Mexican-American diaspora. I received a Joyce Award to make it and it's been great. I'm doing cool stuff: Training an ensemble of writers, actors, and non-artists that are becoming artists and opening a storefront--"a storyfront"--where Mexican-American and immigrant residents in the city can come to share their stories with us.
REGINA: In this uncertain world, people feel lost, and artists are often left searching for a way to create meaningful change. What words of advice would you have for artists and storytellers looking to create dialogue in their communities?
RICARDO: Part of my big problem when you say ‘creating dialogue in the community’ is the idea that the artist comes in and gives the community the tools to speak, or suddenly their speech matters because someone who is institutionally sanctioned is listening. The people have always been talking. The idea of the artists "creating dialogue in the community" really has roots in ideologies of colonization or notions of "the avant-garde" that viewed racialized communities (like Natives, etc.) as not being credible creators of culture and so in need of a mediator or that viewed the artists as uniquely attuned to insight and truth and ahead of the masses who were just, you know, stupid or uncultured or whatever. And the practice of artists going into communities to help them has resonances with colonial sciences like anthropology. How this usually works is the writer becomes ethnographer, they "go into" the community, conduct interviews or whatever, and then take those narratives (that are actually) their lives and represent them or we can say "re-present" them for consumption. I think there are some really great ways to do ethnography as an artist, or creative ethnography, or ethnography for artistic/expressive creation that don't fold back into its historically problematic dynamics. I think Isaac Gomez does really great work where ethnography is a tool and does it in a way that challenges power dynamics rather than uncritically reproduce them.
But the etymology of the word "author" isn't really someone who controls the narrative but refers to someone who interprets signs and symbols. That doesn't necessarily imply a craft where the author is just a person that is the master of the narrative or that craftily recapitulates the stories of others for consumption and for their industrial mobilization (movement within the culture industry). So what I love about that alternative understanding of the author is how it changes how we might think about writers particularly in community engaged context. It shifts the conversation from one in which the writer or the author isn't the authority on dialogue--what it looks like or sounds like--or just an an ethnographic collector of dialogue, but instead puts them in a position where they are not the authority, they're credibility is not presumed. Instead, it is earned, negotiated and reliant upon a reversal of the power hierarchy in which the author isn't there to "create dialogue" they are there to witness the dialogue that has been happening. And from there, there are many things that can happen. What usually happens is that artists--especially playwrights--assemble the dialogue into some earnest (but wack) docudrama or oppression porn for the consumption of an audience that is not the community they're representing. But, there are other options. For example, the artists can work to make themselves obsolete and let the community represent themselves. I don't think that has to be the only objective but it certainly is one that I strive for frequently in my work. But, I do think there are other possibilities that can emerge between interplay of artists and communities, but we have to imagine them, but first we have to witness.