A Conversation with Jaime Lozano & Lauren Epsenhart
Written by Esther Cohen
Art by Michelle Tse
Photography by Emma Pratte
July 20, 2016
Lauren Epsenhart and Jaime Lozano are hard at work. It’s almost opening night and there are decisions to make: what costume to choose; which lighting gel looks just right; where to seat their friends and family for the best view. But this dynamic team isn’t sweating any of it: having worked together since their time in graduate school at NYU, the two share a closeness and common vocabulary that is clear from the moment you meet them. Though these two artists were raised worlds apart, they’ve since learned to harmonize beautifully.
Their show Children of Salt, which has been in development for nearly ten years, is headed for its world premiere at NYMF. We sat down with them to discuss the state of diversity and empathy in the American theater, the wide-reaching Latinx influences in the show, and their longtime collaboration.
Esther Cohen: The two of you met at NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program.
Lauren Epsenhart: Yes, about nine years ago.
EC: How did you decide to work together and collaborate; when did it start clicking?
Jaime Lozano: They actually put us together.
LE: NYU has a process: It’s a two year program, and so the first year, you collaborate – so all the words people collaborate with all the composers, so you get to kind of feel each other out. At the end of that first year, you compile a list of people that you’re interested in working with. They do their best to match you with your top picks and people on your list, so they paired us!
JL: Yup! It was so random, but so right.
EC: So it was an immediate click for you guys?
LE: Yeah, pretty much.
JL: We wrote a couple of songs together during the first year, and I think we have a great collaboration and that’s why we were in each other’s lists in some way. I don’t know where I was on the list –
LE: I’ll never tell.
EC: Obviously it was up there!
JL: [laughs] So all the second year, we worked on this project. During the summer, we were trying to figure out about what we should write –
LE: Yeah, school isn’t really over in the summer in that program because that’s the time you’re paired up, at the end of the year, and then you’re exploring material. What we had to do was, we had to present an original option, then an adapted option at the beginning of the year to the faculty. So we started an original piece, which we actually are continuing to work on, and then we – we didn’t explore Children of Salt first, I thought about that today. We wanted to write Like Water for Chocolate, and the rights weren’t available, which I suppose worked in our favor.
JL: I’m sure someone is working on it right now and bringing it to Broadway.
EC: Well, darn it.
LE: Darn it, what do we do!?
EC: So let’s talk about why you did decide to adapt Los Niños De Sal.
LE: Jaime had seen the stage production in Mexico.
JL: Yeah, I did. I saw the stage production in Monterrey, Mexico, in 2001, I think. So eight years before we actually talked about adapting this piece. I told Lauren that I’ve seen this piece in Mexico that I liked, that is very poetic, that it could be good material to adapt into a musical. I sent her the script –
LE: It’s funny, you had actually printed the script.
LE: So I remember reading through it – I don’t think I ever shared this with you, Jaime – I finished reading it, and I’m scared out of my mind, even trying to think about tackling it, because the stage show is so existential in a way, and it is very poetic, so I had to ground that into a solid musical piece –
EC: – without it losing that touch?
LE: Right. So I was quite intimidated by it.
JL: It was a big challenge. Now we keep the story –
LE: – and the theme –
JL: Right, but no: it’s a very different show. We made it our own, and we added a lot of different scenes that weren’t in the original play. We even changed a character. I think we brought a lot of ourselves into the piece in so many ways. It’s changed a lot from during that time at NYU to now eight years later.
LE: Yeah, a lot has happened and a lot has changed in that time.
JL: When Lauren said go for it, we contacted the writer and we asked him for the rights, and from there we have been working during the last eight years.
LE: We’re not always in the same state. He went back to Mexico for a period of time then came back to New York, then I left New York, so we’ve been doing a lot of it through email, and messaging.
EC: I can’t imagine how hard that must be.
JL: I think we dealt with a lot of it during those two years [at NYU], and knew each other very well, good and bad. We collaborated a lot. So we learned a lot from each other and helped us to keep working.
LE: You learn your vocabulary. And there were periods of time where nothing was happening.
JL: Yeah, like even for a year.
LE: Yeah, a year would go by, and we wouldn’t work on it, because he was in other projects and I was working, so it just all depends on where life is taking you in that moment. But that’s probably why the time doubled for us to get this on its feet – because we were together.
JL: But that helped the show as well.
LE: Definitely. I think something really clicked this past year, at least for me, in editing it, cause I finally got to that point where… it’s a Mexican piece, and I’m a Jewish white girl.
JL: Really?! I thought you were Mexican!
LE: [Laughs] But really, there’s so much richness in Mexican culture that I’ve not been privy to in the past because I didn’t grow up around it. I finally got to the point where in making those edits and in working on the book and lyrics, realized I do have to make it my own in some way.
JL: But at the same time, I always say that when something is very specific, that’s what makes it universal, you know? So the fact that it’s set in Mexico and they’re suppose to be a Mexican story is actually what makes it universal because of that specificity.
EC: Theater operates on the idea of empathy. When you see or listen to a piece of music or theater, you can relate to people that are different from you. But on the other hand, Jaime, you may have a better idea of adapting a Mexican piece of art because of your background. Lauren, theater is about playing pretend, but you also have to respect and relate as a Jewish white woman, while not knowing everything about that experience. So can you talk a little bit about how you both approached it?
LE: Well thankfully, Jaime is in my skin now. He’s kept me in check. There are a lot of things that have come up in writing the piece that I didn’t necessarily understand. For example, there’s something that happened recently. You weren’t there for it, Jaime, but we were talking about costume design. They showed me the costumes for one of our characters, Ángel, and I thought oh wow, it’s a little over the top there. Then I was speaking with our director, José Zayas, and our lead actor Mauricio Martinez, who said, “No, that’s common!” I didn’t know that. There are things that I just don’t know. Other people in the cast that are Latino or Mexican are able to say hold up, white girl, that’s not what it is.
JL: We’re very glad that we have a good mix of people in this production. We have a guy from Venezuela, another from Spain, an American with Mexican parents, Puerto Rican, a girl from LA, two Mexicans. Our choreographer is from Hamilton, Stephanie Klemons. We have people from all different cultures, and that helped the show a lot.
LE: Definitely. And they’re very proactive in suggesting ideas, and it helps, and makes it a bit more authentic.
EC: It’s funny that you say that you’re the only white person in the room, because in most rehearsal rooms, in the United States and across the world, it is very rare for it not just be white people. So it’s actually a very unique experience.
LE: You’re right. My past experiences have been like that.
EC: Theater is usually overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly male, especially on the creative side. In theater right now, diversity is growing, but a big issue is that non-black people of color are still extremely underrepresented. Hamilton is definitely helping, but how would you like to see that change, or how do you think that is changing?
JL: We’re lucky to be living in this era of the musical theater. There’s a lot of diversity on Broadway right now. We have Hamilton, we have On Your Feet!. Right now, two very close friends of mine are the stars of Chicago, and they’re Mexican. So I think it’s the right moment for this show to happen at NYMF. New York City is this big diverse city, people from all around, but for some reason, musical theater was about Jewish people, and gay people.
LE: Well, hey now.
EC: My boss always says that American Theater, for a very long time, was just the white upper middle class Jewish experience in the living room, and that’s all that it was. And then people started realizing oh wait! America is not all white Jewish people!
JL: What’s great is that, me as a Latino, I can identify myself with a lot of shows that have no Latinos. And white people should be able to see themselves in shows not about white people. That’s the great thing about theater and art. You can reflect yourself and whatever kind of show.
LE: Right, and that’s the point. And I suppose my experience is a bit colored, but this is my only true musical experience. In terms of being a part of something like this, I don’t have any other experience. It feels different for me – not in a bad way, but this is all I’m used to. How I’m perceiving things right now is different because all I see is Latin things on Broadway, because my head is so in it right now. I know it’s not a lot, but to your point, there’s a lot going on right now.
EC: This year is definitely a jumping off point for the Broadway community. This year was the first time in a long time it was possible for all black people to sweep the musical acting categories.
LE: I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a moment. I agree with you, but did you follow what happened at the Oscars this year, with all the people boycotting? I wonder if the Tonys had something to do with that, not to say that all the people who won didn’t deserve it. When I watched them, I had that moment of, good or bad, but this person is extremely talented but why are they really winning?
EC: Three of them were from one show. So part of it was obviously that Hamilton was going to sweep. I think without Hamilton, having four actors from four different shows that are people of color winning those trophies would’ve been much less likely.
JL: We’re not there yet.
LE: Absolutely not.
EC: Jaime, you work with – I’m going to butcher the name of this, I’m so sorry – R.Evolucion Latina. Did I just totally ruin that?
JL: No! No you didn’t. And before [NYU], I didn’t speak English.
LE: That was the first thing that came out of your mouth when you got here. I remember that. You introduced yourself and said “I don’t speak English” and then you sat down. I still remember that. That’s brave. That’s strong.
EC: I have so much respect for anyone who has to learn English in the twenties and thirties.
JL: At the end of everyday, I get a headache, because I was trying to understand what they were saying in class, and I didn’t get it. After class, I’d have to talk with friends.
LE: Really? During the first year?
JL: Yeah, and every week or two, the faculty would go over all the information with me.
EC: That’s really amazing.
LE: You never gave that away. You were always confident.
JL: I tried to fake it.
EC: You faked it till you made it!
EC: Back to R.Evolucion Latina, can you talk about why arts activism is so important to you?
JL: R.Evolucion Latina is a non-profit organization, founded and led by Luis Salgado, who was the In the Heights Latin choreographer, and now he’s in On Your Feet! We they do, what they say, is that they do “art with a purpose”, to touch people, to move people. Luis Salgado is bringing musical theater to every suburb, for example they do this summer camp with hundreds of kids. During the fall, they do a free workshop with New York City actors and dancers. They bring kids to the theater. They’re just trying to bring arts to the Latino community. I work with them as a teacher. I went to different schools to teach musical theater or theater or music –
LE: A teaching artist.
JL: Right. A teaching artist. I worked on a couple of projects. We did something with a lot of Broadway artists – Corbin Bleu, Janet Dacal, so on, all the In the Height people – recorded an album and I was the music arranger on that. It’s called “Dare to Go Beyond”. Things like that. What is it called, a catchphrase? “Dare to Go Beyond” is actually their –
LE: Oh, motto.
JL: Motto. “Dare to Go Beyond” is their motto. It invites people to know that they can do anything they want to do. Just be brave, and go for it. Some of their projects are very private, some are very big, like this album.
EC: That’s really cool.
JL: I’m really glad I crossed paths with them. It started out when I was very alone in New York City. So this took me into a Latino community in New York City. Because of that, I met a lot of people that now have collaborated with us in the show. That’s what’s really great about New York City and musical theater in New York City – we’re really a community.
EC: Everyone knows everyone.
JL: Exactly. And especially in the Latino community. So it’s been really helpful as a Mexican to have this community.
LE: Hm, I just learned a few things.
JL: Another thing I want to bring up is that we have a lot of women on our team. Of course Lauren, our choreographer, our music director–
LE: Your wife.
JL: Right of course. Anyway, we have three very important women in our creative team.
LE: It’s interesting because – you’d mentioned earlier, being a women – it’s interesting being a woman in this particular instance amongst all of that, and not being Latino. I’m not saying this to be like… and I’m not saying it’s bad, I mean Jaime, I don’t think you’d even think twice about it, but there are times when I’m not completely comfortable and at times I feel like wow I really don’t fit in here. I definitely have those moments.
JL: Is it because one person speaks Spanish and then all of a sudden everyone’s speaking Spanish?
LE: No, no, you guys are very good about that with me. No. It’s not that. It’s just sometimes I don’t – I’m not a part of your culture necessarily.
EC: You’re not sure where you fit.
LE: I think that’s very true, in a certain way.
JL: I mean that’s how I felt at NYU.
LE: But you’ve moved on in a way that I haven’t.
EC: But I think it’s an important experience, I think – especially – as white people, to be in spaces where you think you don’t fit. Because you fit in most spaces.
LE: I’ve felt that way my entire life. That depends on perspective and experience also, though. Not every white person has the same experience. But it’s there.
Born in Monterrey, Mexico. Jamie Lozano is an accomplished musician, vocal coach, composer, arranger, orchestrator, musical producer and musical director. Jaime’s musical theatre works include Tlatelolco (composer, lyricist, librettist), Myths (composer), The Yehuatl (composer, lyricist), Lightning Strikes Twice (composer) Off-Broadway, The Yellow Brick Road (composer, lyricist) Off-Broadway and National Tour, Carmen La Cubana (additional orchestrations) Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, France, Children of Salt (composer) New York Musical Festival 2016. Albums: Tlatelolco (producer, composer, lyricist), Carols for a Cure 2010 (arranger, orchestrator), R.Evolución Latina’s Dare to Go Beyond (arranger, orchestrator, music director), Florencia Cuenca’s Aquí – Los Nuevos Standards (producer, arranger, music director), Doreen Montalvo’s Alma Americana, Corazón Latino (producer, arranger, music director). As a director: The Last Five Years, Into the Woods, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Fantasticks, Jekyll & Hyde, Songs for a New World, Joseph and the Amazing Dreamcoat Technicolor, some of them Spanish World Premiere or Mexican Premiere; as well as his very own works Tlatelolco and Myths. He is a teacher and activist for the New York City based not-for-profit organization R.Evolución Latina. BFA: Music & Composition, Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León; MFA: NYU/Tisch, Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. Proud member of the Dramatists Guild of America and BMI. “A mi hermosa familia, Florencia (Mi Henrucha hermosa), mi inspiración. Alonzo, bienvenido a este mundo, y mi princesa Ely Aimé. Los amo todo, siempre”.
Lauren graduated from the SUNY Plattsburgh, where she received a BFA in Writing. Lauren earned a MFA in Musical Theatre Writing from NYU. Lauren began a M.S.e.D. at CUNY Hunter and finished her studies at Indian River State College. Recent projects include Children of Salt and Pushing Daisy. Past productions have been featured at Lincoln Center, Julliard, NYU, The Secret Theatre, Goodspeed Opera House, Triad Theatre, Queens Botanical and The Theatre for the New City.