Art Works Blog

The Sol Project: Changing the Color of Theater

It’s perhaps no great surprise that “The Great White Way” is, well, quite white. According to the Asian American Performers Coalition, 78 percent of all roles on major New York stages were filled by Caucasian actors over the past nine years. Out of 39 Broadway shows produced during the 2015-16 season, there were just six writers of color, including composers. And according to Actors Equity, 77 percent of stage managers on Broadway and Broadway touring productions were white.

Although there is growing awareness of theater’s relative lack of racial diversity, it will take more than a #TonysSoWhite hashtag to truly move the needle. It will also take people like Jacob Padrón to hold theaters accountable, and advocate for voices and faces that are too often ignored.

Last year, Padrón launched The Sol Project, which aims to make more space for Latinx theater artists both in New York and nationwide. Working with an artistic collective of six Latinx theater artists (Claudia Acosta, Elena Araoz, Adriana Gaviria, David Mendizábal, Kyoung Park, and Laurie Woolery), The Sol Project will pair a cohort of 12 Latinx playwrights with a different Off-Broadway company, which not only commit to producing the writer’s play, but agree to commission a Latinx writer for a future production. For each of the 12 plays, The Sol Project also identifies two or more regional partners across the country to produce the play and further extend its reach. With every theater, Padrón hopes to create a more permanent shift, where leadership recognizes the need to “deepen the bench” of actors, designers, producers, directors, and writers of color. “It’s not just the playwrights who need opportunities,” said Padrón, who previously worked as a producer for Steppenwolf Theatre Company, The Public Theater, and others. “It’s figuring out how this whole project will lift up the community collectively and provide opportunities for artists who don’t normally get them.”

A few weeks before The Sol Project’s third production, Oedipus el Rey by Luis Alfaro, opens at The Public Theater on October 24th , Padrón talked with us about his initiative, the relationship between theater and community, and what he thinks needs to happen before we consistently see more diversity on national stages.

NEA: Was there a particular instance or moment that pushed you to found The Sol Project?

JACOB PADRÓN: I grew up in California. I’m from Gilroy, which is south of San Francisco. There wasn’t a whole lot growing up in Gilroy, other than it’s the Garlic Capital of the World. And I’m allergic to garlic, which is the great irony of my life. But it’s very close to a seminal theater company called El Teatro Campesino, which is “The Farmworker Theater,” started by a real maverick named Luis Valdez.

When I was little, I would perform in shows with Teatro and Luis became my theater godfather in many ways. But the theater really existed to serve Latinos—it was a place for us to galvanize as a community and share our stories. It was also a theater company committed to social justice. I saw early on how El Teatro Campesino used storytelling as a catalyst for change and social justice. So those seeds were planted in me at a very young age.

When I came into my professional life as a theater-maker and producer, I always knew that I wanted to get back to those roots, and give back to the Latinx theater community in a meaningful way. So fast forward to 2013. With the support of HowlRound and [what is now the] Latinx Theatre Commons, we had a big convening at Emerson College, where we brought together about 80 Latinx theater-makers—artistic directors, producers, designers, actors and writers. It was a chance for us to share space and dream together, to talk about our future as a community relative to the larger American theater, and to reflect on our past and really think about our future.

One of the things that I heard loud and clear during our weekend together—it was a three-day event—was a lot of writers talking about not necessarily having the kind of visibility that their peers had in New York. At the time, I knew that I was going to come to New York to take a new job at the Public Theater as a producer. So, I thought to myself: Could I launch an initiative that would address this need to provide more opportunities, to create more space, to create more visibility for Latinx playwrights in New York City and across the country?

Which was a tricky thing to think about. We have what I like to call our pillars—companies here in New York that have been supporting Latinx artists for many, many years. The work of The Sol Project would not be possible without companies like Repertorio Español, INTAR, Pregones, Puerto Rican Traveling Theater Company, and others. So it was about honoring their work, and also figuring out how do we get our stories at primarily white institutions—the larger, Off-Broadway theaters. When I came to New York and I started my job, I asked [Public Theater Artistic Director] Oskar Eustis, “Would the Public Theater be willing to host a small gathering of New York-based Latinx theater artists for us to talk about the idea of an initiative that I am calling The Sol Project?”

That happened in 2014. There was a lot of excitement and support. It was in May of 2016 that we officially sent out the press release [for The Sol Project].

NEA: I think for a lot of people, they go to the theater as a one-off evening out. They don’t necessarily think about it in terms of community. Why do you think theater is so pivotal to creating community and empowering community?

PADRÓN: For me, theater is a place where we go to be fully alive. It’s a place where we can simultaneously see a reflection of ourselves and be inspired by others. Theater reveals our collective humanity. When we make the commitment to sit in a dark room together and bear witness to a story, we bear witness to each other. Kwame Kwei-Armah, who is the outgoing artistic director at Center Stage in Baltimore, says this beautiful thing: “Theater can be a catalyst for debate. But when theater is really great, it has the power to change lives.” I think that’s such a powerful idea, especially when it’s experienced in community. That value that we are stronger together, that we are in this together, and that we can be inspired and nourished by each other was something that I felt acutely when I was a child going to and being a part of shows with El Teatro Campesino. It’s a value system that I try to bring to my work as an artistic producer and to the work of The Sol Project.

NEA: The NEA has a pretty long history with your third production, Oedipus el Rey. We gave a grant to Magic Theatre to help develop it and then to Woolly Mammoth to produce it. Can you talk about the importance of having a multi-layered network of support for theater?

PADRÓN: When we launched the initiative, we knew that we wanted the work to expand beyond New York City. Our hope is to develop a large and robust network of many partner organizations whose stages can all be in conversation with each other. So part of what I am trying to do with The Sol Project is create synergy between these different communities and build a movement where our Latinx stories and storytellers are celebrated from the east coast to the west coast, and everywhere in between.

So even though Oedipus el Rey has had a full life in the different regions, to come here to New York and then hopefully continue to have regional productions, I think creates that synergy that I am articulating, which is how all of these partners can together lift up a writer, lift up a community, lift up a story. My hope is that The Sol Project encourages more of that synergy of different theater companies all around the country working together. Because I think then we will be a stronger field, we will be a stronger American theater by doing that.

NEA: How do you think the national Latino theater scene differs from the Latino theater scene in New York? Do they require different approaches in terms of diversification?

PADRÓN: We’re trying to inspire our community to come together as one community. The community can be bifurcated. On the West Coast, we have primarily a Mexican, Chicana/o community. Whereas here on the East Coast, it’s a very Puerto Rican and Dominican community. Even in looking at Luis [Alfaro]’s work, he was labeled as a West Coast-based writer with a West Coast aesthetic, or that his plays were specifically speaking to a Chicano community. I would really bristle at that, because I feel like he is one of our master writers and I think his work is universal. Whether you are a Puerto Rican, Dominican, or Peruvian, I feel like he’s Latino, he is one of us. So how can we all come together and celebrate one of our own?

So The Sol Project is trying to bridge the gap, and say we can all claim this story, we can all share this faith, and we can all look at each other and say, “We’re a part of one community.” By lifting each other up, we’re going to be a stronger community, and we’re going to have more visibility within the evolving ecosystem of the American theater.

NEA: What do you look for when choosing plays for The Sol Project?

PADRÓN: I work closely with an artistic collective—six other Latinx artists. Together, we figure out who the writers are and the kind of plays that we want to support. But I would say first and foremost, artistic excellence. We’re looking for bold, innovative stories—stories we haven’t heard before. Or maybe stories that are trafficking different kinds of questions for an audience.

One of the things that we talk about is making sure that we don’t necessarily pigeonhole ourselves. It’s never a surprise when you’re watching television and you see the role of a housekeeper being played by a Latina, or a drug cartel being played by a Latino. I think that those experiences don’t represent the totality of who we are as a community. I’m excited to think about creating a bold, timeless, and kaleidoscopic body of work where we see Latinos in positions that inspire, in positions that empower, in positions that nourish. That’s what I’m thinking about when I’m reading a play.

NEA: Right now the plan is to pair 12 writers with 12 Off-Broadway theaters, as well as multiple regional partners. What happens to The Sol Project once that cycle of 12 is complete?

PADRÓN: It’s always been very intentional and strategic that we don’t exist in perpetuity. What we are trying to do is create a spark, create a synergy, create a lasting impression with these partner companies and hopefully across the country where Latinx theater becomes a core part of who these companies are.

I was on a panel yesterday in Brooklyn, and one of the things I said was, “The Sol Project will have failed if the only time a partner company does a Latinx production is when they’re doing it with The Sol Project.” The invitation on the table to our partners is to transform the organization’s DNA. Our stages need to reflect the diverse world we live in. It’s hard for me to see that our stages don’t actually reflect the beautiful colors of our great city or of communities across the country—they continue to be very homogenous. What I like to say is that The Sol Project is hopefully holding artistic leaders accountable to the promise of the American theater, which is that it’s a space for all, that it can be a repository to hold all of our stories. The Latino story is an American story. And if we’re the American theater, then Latinos need to be at the table in a deep way.

NEA: What do you think the single most important thing we can do as a nation to consistently make theater more diverse?

PADRÓN: I think it starts with the gatekeepers. The gatekeepers are the artistic leaders running our theater institutions around the country. They are setting the agenda in terms of what gets seen and what doesn’t; who has a voice and who doesn’t. Taking it a step further, the work of inclusion racial equity, and social justice have to touch all parts of an organization for there to be meaningful impact. So it’s not just about a single artistic director or executive director. It’s about the composition of the board governing the organization, it’s about the staff, it’s about the audience, and of course, it’s about the programming. But for an organization to be committed to this work, it must start from the top and has to be 360. Whether it’s a theater, museum, dance company, or orchestra, the commitment must be holistic. And here’s a biggie: we need more leaders of color running our theaters!

NEA: In an interview with The New York Times, you described the idea of diversifying theater as “a big hairy audacious goal.” I imagine that striving toward such a goal comes with its share of frustrations. Where do you turn when you need a dose of hope or inspiration?

PADRÓN: To be totally honest, I struggle with this idea of “Is [The Sol Project] going to work?” One of the things that the late Martha Lavey [former artistic director of Steppenwolf], said was, “Jacob, sometimes you don’t always know the ripples that the work is going to have. You don’t always know how the seeds that you are planting are going to bear fruit.”

That’s something that I have been thinking a lot about, because when you’re in the trenches, you’re not always able to see the forest from the trees. It’s something that I am trying to be mindful of. My hope is to just keep doing the work, just keep showing up for my community, to keep trying to create opportunities for artist of color, to keep saying yes. [Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director] Bill Rauch, my dear mentor who gave me my first job out of graduate school, has a fantastic picture behind desk. It just says “Yes.” [It’s that] animating idea of creating possibility, creating opportunity and saying “yes” to the improbable.

I think about those leaders in terms of creating when I need some sort of inspiration. But I also turn to the artistic collective. I turn to the six of them and say, “Are we doing something right?” We’re always affirmed when artists come back to us and say, “Thank you for making this happen.”

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