A Conversation with Jacob Padrón
The Sol Project was launched as an ambitious initiative to raise and empower Latina/o/x voices in the arts in order to nurture and foster true diversity. We sat down with Jacob Padrón, the young, smart, and passionate founder and current Artistic Director of The Sol Project to talk about this initiative, and his hopes for the future of Latina/o/x voices in the American theatrical landscape.
Margarita Javier: I’m very excited about The Sol Project. What can you tell us about it?
Jacob Padrón: I grew up in Gilroy, a small town in California which is just south of San Francisco. There’s not a lot going on in a small little town, but it’s very close to a seminal theater company, El Teatro Campesino, by Luis Valdez. I grew up seeing their shows—I was in the shows when I was little— so, early on, I understood that theater could be a catalyst for social justice and social change, because that’s really what the Teatro stands for. Fast forward to 2013, I went to a convene at Emerson College in Boston, and we brought together a group of about 80 Latino theater makers to talk about the state of the American Theater relative to Latino theater, and recognizing that we weren’t necessarily having the kind of opportunities that we need or deserve. So I thought to myself Could I create an initiative that would support Latino playwrights, Latinx playwrights in New York City? At the time, I was living in Chicago and I was going to be moving to New York to work at The Public Theater as a producer, so when I landed here in New York, I started to put the pieces together; I started to have conversations with different artistic directors, inviting them to basically partner with me and a collective of artists that I had formed to promote Latinx voices. When we launched the initiative, we had six Off-Broadway theaters committed as partners; now we have nine. We’ve done three productions so far. And, really, the initiative in a nutshell is we pair a Latinx playwright with an Off-Broadway company. That company commits to producing that play. And the hope is that after all twelve writers have been produced we will have created a body of work for the new American theater. That was the hope.
MJ: So do you only commission new works by Latino playwrights?
JP: We ask each artistic director for three commitments: The first is to produce a play by a Latinx writer; it can be a brand new play, or it could be a play that’s been produced before. The second is that the theater commissions a Latinx playwright for a future production, to commission a brand new play. And the third is that you meet with as many artists of color that you maybe don’t know. Because what we’re also trying to do is build that pipeline of creative talent that a theater can draw from in putting those creative teams together. Because when you go to see theater, how often do you open a Playbill and see primarily white artists? So what we’re trying to do is create a more inclusive theater ecology.
MJ: Right, so not just the playwright but behind the scenes as well.
JP: Exactly; the director, the design team, the stage management team, etc. What The Sol Project is really trying to do is catalyze systemic change within each of the organizations that we’re working with. That’s really the hope. It’s an invitation to create a more inclusive theater organization.
MJ: It’s starting in New York City, but is there hope for it to be a more nationwide initiative?
JP: Exactly, that’s exactly right. The hope is that the work starts here, and then it radiates out, which is very connected to the name of the initiative, Sol Project, that it radiates out like the sun. After the work happens in New York, the hope is to identify regional theaters who commit to the continued life of each play. Ideally each writer will get the New York production, and then a second, third, or fourth production in different parts of the country. The idea being that you have all these theaters around the country who are in conversation with each other and all these different stages that are lifting up Latino voices across the United States.
MJ: Right, and then if the play becomes part of the canon, then it’s done regionally.
JP: Yes, exactly.
MJ: What is the process for selection of the playwrights?
JP: We don’t necessarily have an open selection, although writers can submit scripts directly to me or to members of the collective. I work with six other individuals—they are called the artistic collective—and together, we are The Sol Project company. Mainly. the way it works is once we have the partner committed, The Sol Project and the parent company work together. We read scripts together, sometimes a partner will have ideas for writers they maybe want to support, and we have ideas of writers that we think would be a good fit for that company. We sort of enter a curatorial process together and that’s how we land on the writer that we’re going to do.
MJ: Are you only looking for English language plays, is there an initiative to maybe produce Spanish language plays eventually?
JP: That’s a great question; it’s something that we’re thinking about a lot. I think for now, the focus has primarily been on English-based plays. That being said, so many of the plays that we’re looking at are very bilingual. The play that we’re going to do next has a ton of Spanish. I would actually say it’s 50/50.
MJ: With that in mind, when we talk about improving representation, I feel like sometimes the focus has been on having more people of color involved in the productions, but we don’t always talk about the makeup of the audience. I think if we want to improve the theatrical landscape—which right now I agree with you is very white—you have to create new theater lovers. And I think one of the reasons it’s perceived that people of color don’t go to the theater as much is because we want to go see theater that relates to us. I feel like a lot of theater companies focus on diversity, they do so thinking of white audiences instead of focusing how to attract audiences of color. Is that something that you have considered?
JP: Yes, absolutely, it’s something that we definitely think about in each of our partnerships. I think you’re absolutely right that in order for us to have a more inclusive ecosystem, we have to think about all the different facets, not just the creative team, but also the people who are coming to see the shows and supporting the work. The way that The Sol Project thinks about it, or the way I think about it as the Artistic Director, is that we have to extend the invitation, and the invitation has to continue. What I mean by that is it’s not enough for a theater to program a Latino play once and invite that community into your home and then not invite them in. Once you invite them into your home, you have to make a sustained commitment; you have to continue to program stories that reflect and honor and celebrate that community. So the hope is that with each partnership, that after The Sol Project goes away, the theater will continue to pick up the mantel and make Latino theater part of their core practice. One of the things I say to each Artistic Director is that if the only time you produce a play by a Latinx playwright it’s with The Sol Project, we will have failed in our collaboration. The hope is that we’re generating a spark within your company, and when we go away, you’re going to continue to support these artists, and you’re going to continue to cultivate that community of Latino theatergoers into your home, into your artistic home.
MJ: Yes, I agree, and Latinos do go to the theater. I grew up in Puerto Rico, and there was theater culture, and there’s a lot of great theater happening in Latin America.
JP: Yes. I think it’s a misconception that it’s not part of our cultural practice, but it definitely is. I think maybe where we fail the Latino community is that the invitation doesn’t continue. That we don’t continue to program to celebrate, lift up and tell the stories of our community.
MJ: I think also it sometimes feels alienating because it feels like you’re entering into these very white spaces, and it’s not very welcoming of the different reactions different audiences have. There’s an idea of what theater etiquette should be that’s not entirely open to the realities of other communities.
JP: Yes, exactly. When George C. Wolfe was running The Public Theater, he made a really considered effort to make sure the front of house staff, you know, the ushers who were letting audiences in, reflected the city of New York. When we think about how equity and social justice has to touch all parts of an organization. I think what you’re speaking to is exactly right: as a person of color coming into the organization, or coming to see the show, how are they welcomed? Who are the people they see in the box office? Who’s the person handing them their program? We have to be able to unpack all of it if we’re to really address systemic change.
MJ: You mentioned working for The Public Theater, I feel like the Public has done a great job with that recently. Were you involved with Public Works?
JP: I was involved with the producer, I wasn’t involved in the curation of that program. But, absolutely, it’s about reaching diverse communities and giving them an opportunity to share their artistry and to share their gifts. The animating idea behind that is that culture belongs to everybody and that we are all artists in our own right, I think it’s something very special and very needed in the city of New York.
MJ: You have a very impressive resume. How do you find time to do all of this? You teach at Yale, correct?
JP: [laughs] I teach at Yale; my class just finished up. I taught a new class, Artistic Producing, which is fantastic. My full time job is with Time Warner, where I work in cultural investments, and then The Sol Project as the Artistic Director. But you know, I think when, like I say, when your corazón is really full, and you get to do something where you feel like you’re making a difference in the world, you don’t feel fatigued. The fact that I’m able to do these things that are hopefully affecting change makes me feel very nourished by that work. The appointment to the Yale faculty happened just this year, and it was definitely hard to maneuver the trip up to New Haven. But just being with those students was completely energizing, and to be a part of their journey in graduate school—which as you know is very hard—it can be a really defining moment in your life. So to be able to be on that journey with my ten students was very rich and very fulfilling. It really fed me; it didn’t actually tire me out.
MJ: We’ve been talking about Latino playwrights and Latino identity, and we do talk about it in a general sense, even though we all have such distinct cultural identities. I’m from Puerto Rico, and I always identify as Puerto Rican, and Puerto Rican culture is very different from Mexican culture, etc. I find that sometimes it’s hard to explain to non-Latinos the differences and idiosyncrasies in our cultures. To speak of my own experience, if, say I’m seeing a Puerto Rican character, and there’s no attention paid to the accent, or specificity of my culture, it’s jarring to me as an audience member. Because we’re somewhat lumped together as Latinos, all these idiosyncrasies are often lost. I’m wondering what your take is, or what The Sol Project does in terms of authenticity of specific cultures.
JP: That’s a great question. I feel like it’s something we still struggle with. I don’t know that we have an answer just yet because I think—to use your language—being lumped together means that sometimes, unfortunately, we don’t have the kinds of opportunities that other communities have. So I think sometimes what happens is there’s a bifurcation between our different communities. Like I’m Mexican, you’re Puerto Rican, and yes, while there are things that are specific to our cultural heritage, that doesn’t mean that we can’t support each other, or come together and celebrate each other.
JP: And I think the more we can lock arms and say yes, we are specific but we are also the same, as we talk about the American theater, I think there might be strength in that. It’s something that we really struggle with. So for example, Oedipus El Rey is a play about Chicanos, Mexican Americans—the writer Luis Alfaro is Mexican—but in the casting of that show we had Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Dominicans, and I felt very honored and proud that those actors were part of the show and were able to inhabit and tell that story of a Latino, or a Mexican community. It’s nuanced, it’s complicated.
MJ: Yes, but to use a specific example: I have a friend who’s part of Repertorio Español, and he has told me that when he’s playing a Dominican character, even though he’s not Dominican, he knows he has to work on his Dominican accent, because the mostly Dominican audience is going to know. But he says it’s something he takes upon himself; it’s not necessarily a concern of the production. And I agree that the audiences notice things like that, so I’m just wondering if attention is being paid in your productions to these things behind the scenes. I’m not saying that if the characters are Chicano, they have to be played by Chicanos, but I’m just wondering about the attention given to authentic representation of specific cultures.
JP: Absolutely. To be totally frank, there are probably some who would disagree with me. There might be those inside our community and outside our community who would say, No, those roles should be played my Mexicanos, by Chicanos, that’s actually really important! That’s why I say we don’t necessarily have an answer for it, but I think at this point what we can do is be conscientious and try to be thoughtful about these casting decisions and how we’re representing Latino communities onstage.
MJ: And how do you feel about non-Latinos playing Latino roles?
JP: I do not support it. I just think that because as I said earlier, for Latinos opportunities are far and few between, so it’s important that we claim space and have opportunities to share our gifts and our artistry. So I don’t support that.
MJ: I think the thing that gets lost in these arguments is that, yeah, maybe in an ideal world any actor should be able to play any role, but we don’t live in an ideal world.
JP: No, we live in a racialized world, where race matters!
MJ: Right, and there’s lack of roles available to Latinos, so when there’s a Latino role and you give it to a non-Latino actor, you’re taking away from us.
JP: That’s exactly right.
MJ: You mentioned the three shows you’ve already done: Alligator by Hilary Bettis with New Georges, Seven Spots on the Sun by Martín Zimmerman with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, and Oedipus El Rey by Luis Alfaro with The Public Theater. We actually spoke with Hilary Bettis when Alligator was starting, and she talked about The Sol Project. Could you tell us about these shows? How was the response? How has the experience been so far?
JP: It was completely gratifying to be able to give these three Latinx playwrights productions in NYC. It feels like the very active expression of what The Sol Project is trying to do, give visibility and lift up these voices. It would be interesting to hear what Martín says or what Luis and Hilary say, but I thought it was very moving to see all those Latinos sharing a stage and telling the story of these writers. And to bring in a new audience into these companies. For me, my hope is that the work continues to get richer and we continue to build that body of work for the American Theater. I also think that the thing that was really wonderful was that we were able to hopefully build lifelong relationships with these companies, the idea being that we are now in a creative relationship, and that relationship will extend beyond the one production that we’re doing together. So with New Georges, Rattlestick and now The Public Theater.
MJ: We’re in very precarious times. It feels like every strive we make we’re pushed back 10 steps in this country. We have a President who ran on a very anti-immigrant and anti-Latino platform. The Supreme Court just upheld the travel ban, which is currently for Muslims but could easily be extended to Latinos, and we continue to be very underrepresented in the arts; even in what some are calling a post-Hamilton landscape, it’s still a very white-supremacist landscape in New York City.
JP: Yes, very much so.
MJ: Projects like yours are very encouraging, but what more can be done? For other people in the arts, what can they do, other than start their own initiative?
JP: I think the first thing is to educate yourself as much as you can. We’re all gatekeepers; I like to describe it as that. We can all affect change in our own circles, in our own communities. I think sometimes people think that in order to be a gatekeeper you have to be a CEO or an Artistic Director or a Managing Director. But in fact, in whatever space you occupy, you can affect change. And the way I think you do that is by asking really difficult questions. And when you see injustice, to speak out about it. As an example, the way I’m trying to do that is if I see a season that doesn’t actually reflect the kaleidoscope of our city, I try to just reach out to that Artistic Director. I try to activate conversation. In terms of educating myself, I try to read as much as I can about how to be a real ally, how to dismantle systems of oppression, and how to dismantle white supremacy. One of the things that I did recently was I organized an “Undoing Racism” training with my classmates from Yale, where we brought together 40 leaders from around NYC—cultural leaders, artistic directors, agents, actors, designers—and we came together and shared space to understand racism and the causes of racism; the idea being that now you have tools and language and knowledge to combat and dismantle white supremacy. I always encourage people that if you can—I know this sounds so specific but it’s actually very powerful—take an “Undoing Racism” training. That’s also something that you can do. Because I know that the idea that you have to start an initiative to affect change that’s not the case, it can be very overwhelming. What are the levers that you can push and pull to address systemic change?
MJ: Yes, and when I spoke to actor Kimberly Chatterjee for Stage & Candor she said something that resonated with me: “Don’t go to see things that you think are hurting the art that you want to see in the world. And go see things that support it.”
JP: That’s a huge one, right? Go see the work. That’s a huge thing, because if we’re programming this work that’s populated by people of color and you’re not going and seeing it, that’s tough. Or if we as a community say we need more representation, we need to widen that circle; we don’t make a very good case for ourselves if we’re not supporting the work, supporting those artists who are making this thing possible.
MJ: Can you tell us anything about your next project?
JP: Not yet, but it’s going to be by a female writer. It’s going to be a world premiere; it’s a play that The Sol Project has been working on since the beginning. She was actually the first writer that I reached out to when I started the initiative and said, “I really believe in your artistry, I believe in your voice. Do you have a play that you would want to work on with us?” And this is the play that we’re going to work on together. We were in graduate school together. She studied as an actor in the theater management program. I ended up producing her first play at Yale Cabaret, which is the student theater at Yale. It feels really wonderful that things are coming full circle and I’ll be working on her world premiere play.
MJ: What would be your advice to young up and coming Latinos who want to work in theater in some capacity?
JP: I’m going to steal a page from my dear mentor and friend Bill Rauch who taught me so much about how to be a thoughtful producer, and how to be an artistic leader. Bill Rauch is the Artistic Director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He gave me my first job when I graduated from Yale in 2008. He was asked this question on a podcast and he said, “There’s no one path. To have a life in the theater, your path can be uniquely your own.” So for those who decide to go to grad school, that’s one path. If you decide that’s not for you and you want to get to work, that’s another path. But to figure out what it is that you’re passionate about and follow a path that makes sense for you. I think that’s the way I’ve done it and that’s the advice that I’d want to give to a young person looking to have a life in the theater.
Jacob G. Padrón is the Founder and Artistic Director of The Sol Project. He was most recently on the artistic staff of the Public Theater as the Senior Line Producer where he worked on new plays, new musicals, Shakespeare in the Park and Public Works. At The Public he shepherded the work of Tarell Alvin McCraney (“Head of Passes”), Universes (“Party People”), Stew & Heidi Rodewald (“The Total Bent”), Tracey Scott Wilson (“Buzzer”), Lemon Andersen (“Toast”), Richard Nelson (“The Gabriels”), Suzan-Lori Parks (“Father Comes Home From the Wars,” Parts 1, 2 and 3) and Shaina Taub & Kwame Kwei-Armah (“Twelfth Night”), among others.