A Conversation with Ramiro Antonio Sandoval
On a rainy Monday, I stopped by Teatro LaTea, located on the second floor of the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center on the Lower East Side. LaTea is hosting a residency of the international theater collective Tabula Rasa whose mission statement is, among other things, to foster dialogue on an international level through artistic expression. We were invited to sit at a run through of their latest piece, In the Eye of the Needle, a funny, inventive, and ultimately poignant look at communication in the modern age. We sat down with Ramiro Antonio Sandoval, the founder and artistic director, who in the middle of an arduous day full of rehearsal was gracious enough to share his thoughts on theater, social change, diversity, and the importance of interpersonal communication.
Margarita Javier: What can you tell us about Tabula RaSa?
Ramiro Antonio Sandoval: Tabula Rasa is an international theater collective, an ensemble of artists from different countries. It started with mainly Latino artists from different countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Spain, Ecuador, Argentina. Our last production also included artists from The United States, Korea, and The Dominican Republic. In a broad sense, our aim is to reflect what New York is like and what we think the world is like nowadays, to visualize how being inclusive and diverse in our society can create interesting works of art. One could go out to the community and teach a bit of what we have discovered, go to other countries, bring that to other countries and exchange and build bridges of communication between the United States and other cultures.
We have also built within Tabula Rasa, the Theatre For Peace Project, which came from an agreement we have with Hye Ja Ju, a director from a theater company in South Korea. She is one of the very few female directors in a predominantly male dominant society, even within the arts. We knew we had in our work topics and a passion for peace, so we created the Theatre For Peace Project which brought us to Korea, where we presented our last show in a production in which half the cast was from the United States –– including people from different countries –– and the other half was Korean. The show was presented in both English and Korean in a festival as part of a month and a half residency. The idea was bringing the message of peace.
After that we went to Columbia, to the Women on Stage for Peace Festival, a very important theater festival in Colombia. We had a great experience going to the mountains to work with ex-combatants, ex-guerrilla people. We did some work with them, they’re very creative and they have developed great things. They shared their vision, and then they came to a university where I was teaching a workshop, and it was a great exercise of rejoining them with the society from which they had been separated for a long time. Some of them are now going to school for theater, for arts. We were very happy to be part of that process. Later they created a theater company and did a show on their own along with students from the university. That relationship is ongoing. Then we went to an even more dangerous zone in south Colombia bordering Ecuador, where recently people had been killed. It was very dangerous, but we thought that Theatre for Peace should be there where it’s needed. And we spent about three weeks doing theater with ex-combatants and people from the community, trying to bridge those relationships between these folks that had suffered from a lot of different factors during the war in Colombia. We created a show there with them, listening to their own manifestations, to their own will, and we put something together that was shown in their community. And we came back to NYC to bring our third large production, which is In the Eye of the Needle, after The Winter of April, which is about human trafficking, and Where There was Fire, which talks about the women who are left behind. They’re also victims of war who are left behind when their partners go to war for many, many years at a time. And then they reunite after they have grown and they meet up with different people. These are victims of the war as well.
RAS: We started working on In the Eye of the Needle after the experience in Colombia. Two years ago, a couple of the actresses from the company decided they wanted to do a show that talks about communication, about conflict resolution, about gender, about a lot of different things. And I was wondering, Why so many things? And they said it’s because that’s what’s happening nowadays. Everything all at once. It’s not one topic that people are concerned about, but many topics that are intertwined. How communication, the manipulation of communication and manipulation of knowledge is creating attachments or detachments within this society.
MJ: Right, both interpersonal and also the way the media handles communication.
RAS: Exactly. When there’s a big illusion about living a wonderful life when the basic needs for an individual to survive are denied. So we wanted to portray these characters as being in an in-between kind of situation. We don’t know where they’re coming from, where they’re going, or what’s happening. What we do know is that they’re being taken, that they’re missing, they’re disappearing. One of the key points along the way is let’s not talk about them because we’ll forget.
MJ: Was that a collaborative process?
RAS: Yes. We’re experimenting in different ways. I come from an experience of working 12 years with another company that I had founded here in New York working with immigrant communities, based on their experiences. And then you put together the dramaturgy and everything around it. In starting Tabula Rasa, I wanted to stay close to that process, but open it to celebrating the diversity of New York, of our world and the fact that we’re stronger when we add more, we’re putting more heads together. And also, we welcome conflict, which is something that is touched upon in this show. We welcome conflicts and we treat it as important, within a theatrical perspective. It’s key. I think I believe in that democratic way of doing theater, of collecting everybody else’s creative inspiration and putting it together, because every actor has something to say. I feel that because I grew up in that environment, maybe I’m biased that way, but I do see actors who are like, I wish this was more like this than like that. I mean, yeah, I understand where they’re coming from. It’s like a level of creativity can be expressed because you’re tied to “here’s text that someone wrote.” You become trained to execute. You’re an executioner of, more than a creative individual. One of the questions I ask my actors is: What do you want to tell the world as an artist? With that we start having lots of material to play with. There are many ways of doing it. For this piece, I adapted a few of the actresses’ stories. The story line helped weave their stories and their own expression. The experience we had with collective creation in The Window of April was different. We spent a lot more time in the research. We watched documentaries. We wanted to know, wanted to talk about social pathologies –– pathologies in the relationships nowadays, how people relate and how some pathologies get us to not relate to each other or to just put a value to those relationships. And little by little we started getting into human trafficking. We focused on sex trafficking for several reasons. We interviewed victims, police officers who have been involved in investigations. And then Ricardo Sarmiento Gaffurri, a great playwright and director who was my professor in college and part of the advisory board said Hey, this is great. Would it help if I write it? I said By all means, please. He took it over and did amazing job. He’s a very thorough and integral artist. For In Winter of April, we wanted to focus on drama, so we did a police thriller. Now we’re working in comedy. What do we laugh about? Do we laugh at the same things we used to laugh at? Why is that? We’re discovering that a lot of times we laugh about nothing new, which other very important and famous playwrights have posited. Somebody else’s tragedy becomes our biggest laugh.
MJ: Right. And it’s also a coping mechanism.
RAS: Exactly. So we took that kind of scenic route.
MJ: So In The Eye of the Needle is a comedy?
RAS: We hope so [laughs].
MJ: And how did you become involved with LaTea?
RAS: I had come in the past, but they’re busy doing their things. This time when we came back from Korea, a close friend of one of the actresses from the company and the director Miguel Trelles connected us with LaTea. We had things to talk about and it was our fifth anniversary in September. So we said Hey, it would be great if we could get to collaborate. When we set a date to the premiere of In the Eye of the Needle, Miguel said Why don’t you guys come and not just do the premiere, but also a residency here with us –– sit in a desk and do your things here, have an exhibit, do workshops so people know what kind of techniques you use, have a Q and A afterwards? So that’s what we’re doing! We’ll be here, open to like sit down with people and talk about theater, about Theatre for Peace Project, and do interesting things like that.
MJ: What kind of workshops are you doing while you’re here?
RAS: We picked four different ones that are pillars of the kind of work we do. One that’s just a fun game and theater for people who are curious about how we get to do that. We really wanted to do that. Let’s play, let’s have fun. Let’s play some games that will allow us to create a structure about something meaningful, and then maybe turn it into a theater piece. There is another workshop called “The Body in Power,” which is based on the Feldenkrais technique of movement. It’s great for actors, for dancers, even for non-performers because it’s discovering the amazing energetic potential of a human body. How we use that, how to administer, how to manage that energy, how to be efficient with our bodies on stage, but on the day to day tasks as well. So it is great because it opens the creativity that we have in the innate captivity of the body to express ourselves through this amazing organ like this. Along the lines of the Feldenkrais work, we have another one called “The Semantic Embodiment,” which has to do with how we incorporate experiences in our life, how we get to reflect in our bodies. From a theater standpoint, characters embody conflicts, traumas, and a lot of different things in their body. It happens in our lives as well. I will also be holding a space related creativity workshop where I use the technique of a neutral mask and exercises to explore the creative potential of the empty space, the “tabula rasa.” It’s a nonverbal type of a creative work, movement work, which is not dance either. We get to see how the body can create many things that can be molded into artistic pieces. Those encompass the type of things that we do. Also, it’s not in the program, but we have a singer collaborating with us, an amazing singer, who’s also an actor. He’s offering a workshop on voice technique, techniques to warm up your voice, which is very key.
MJ: I’m always fascinated by the idea of theater as a tool for social change. What is it about theater specifically as an art form that contributes to actually making a difference in the world?
RAS: I think that theater in that sense is above all arts. The direct contact with the audience is something that can’t be replaced, because the farther we steer from everybody, the more we appreciate when we can get together around one idea, one thought, one feeling, one sound. Through theater, and these are not my words, I’m paraphrasing Peter Brooks, who acknowledges that in society, those dynamics that break up society because we cannot see each other dismembers all of the parts, and they find in theater a place where all those members get together to become one big organ, if you will. So because of that you can go beyond ideologies, religion. You can go beyond many borders that are created by men to supposedly evolve and to solve problems, but end up separating us, isolating us from even ourselves. When we don’t even go out to see and feel what the weather’s like today, but we just ask our phones; we’re losing that level of awareness, the human touch. Theater breaks through that and sheds light on those issues that will come together, and we have something in common now that we’ve seen this and when we have something in common, then we can do things together. Ideas may generate from that.
MJ: Yeah, and that shared experience when you’re in the audience, even if you’re not part of the creative process, you’re just in the audience and having that collective experience of everybody laughing at the same time, sharing in this experience; it’s a very powerful thing. You don’t get that in any other art form.
MJ: You talked about wanting to create theater that actually represents the diverse landscape of New York, but I feel like the theatrical landscape in New York is still very homogenous. It’s still dominated by white males. There’s a lack of diversity even in the city that has so many cultures, so many talented people. There is still a very big problem with diversity and obviously there are projects like yours and there are a lot of things that are being done, but I always like to ask artists in the theatrical community: What more needs to be done to improve the theatrical landscape in New York City to make it more diverse?
RAS: Yeah, exactly that, to take a big bet to be diverse. It’s my impression that we have been confusing “being diverse” with “ghettoizing” as an artist, or as a social or religious being. I once went to see a discussion about diversity in a university, and I walked out because I didn’t think it was diverse. There were 12 people from different groups, all segregated: the Latino Group, the Korean group, Indian group, African-American, etc. They were each focused on their own group. That doesn’t create diversity. I didn’t hear anyone say Hey, we would like to open up to work with anybody who wants to come and do the experience and collaborate. Bring their own creativity, learn from us, teach us things. We need to open up and stop thinking that we’re being discriminated upon in the arts landscape. Come and have dialogues with people who are looking to talk to other people. It’s like here at LaTea, where you have Puerto Rican, Latino plays and you see that people come from all over the world. That’s one of the things I like. There’s a genuine cultural exchange in this place, you know? Good things happen when we start sharing our cultures, even if we’re in the same building. We’re presenting the play in English, and we have someone from Switzerland, from Germany, Mexico, Colombia. And then we do the Spanish version. And then you hear accents. I think accents are important and they’re beautiful. They’re welcome. We need to understand what they’re saying but they are absolutely welcome and we pay tribute to that diversity with different languages. We’re in a context where we hear all of these things and so you can go off script for a bit.
MJ: Why do you want people to come see this play?
RAS: Because I think this is a good opportunity for a dialogue with artists, just by watching this kind of show which has all this creative energy from all of these artists, from people who are creating through music, the acting, the writing, the production. Everybody is contributing. They’re saying something to the world, so if you really want to have a kind of a dialogue there, it will be great to see this because it’s a relevant play.
Ramiro Antonio Sandoval has lived in New York for over two decades and he is the founder and Artistic Director of Tabula RaSa NYC Theater and Performance Lab –– an international artistic ensemble based in New York City, where he has been developing his own vision of theater and acting around the relationship actor-space (acting-design). His work has been presented in both English and Spanish in the US and abroad. He studied acting, directing, and staging at the National School for Drama in his native city Bogotá, Colombia; where he was also resident actor of one of the most important theater companies in Colombian contemporary theater. He has trained with professors from Teatro La Candelaria, the International School of Jacques Lecoq, the Piccolo Teatro di Milano, and the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski. He has also appeared in several film productions and tv series. In 2001, Ramiro co-founded ID Studio Theater where he was co-artistic director, actor, and manager of the permanent workshop for actors’ development, a space for research and education specializing in work with actors and non-actors from New York’s immigrant communities. Besides his award winning work as an actor, director, and producer for more than a decade, Ramiro was the creative director of the Medical and Scientific communications division of Ogilvy & Mather New York, where he was able to unite his research and artistic passions working with immersive technologies as well as directing and producing educational programs, live and online. He is a director of the Theatre For Peace Project, a global initiative to build cultural bridges around peace and human rights discussions. The project has brought Ramiro’s vision to Asia and South America as well as the new peace-building communities (former guerrilla communities) in Colombia building bridges of reconciliation through theater. Ramiro has been invited to be part of judging panels for important film festivals such as the Ícaro International Film Festival of Central America, the Americas International Film Festival, and the Havana Film Festival of New York. He is a board member of the Spanish Benevolent Society and member of the organization committee of the Lower East Side Festival of The Arts in New York City. He has been a guest lecturer at important schools such as the New School For Drama; the New York HB Studio; New York University; the Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia; the Universidad de los Andes post-graduate faculty of Design in Bogotá; the La Guardia Community College-City University of New York (CUNY); and recently participated at the 11th International Congress of Education Universidad 2018 in Havana, Cuba. He is an active member of the Red de Colombianos por La Paz NY and the International Agendas of Citizen’s Initiatives for Peace and collaborates with the Colombian Studies Group of Graduate Center at CUNY. In 2017, Ramiro received proclamations from the Westchester, New York County Executive and a New York State Senatorial proclamation for his outstanding work on peace and human rights through the arts.