How do you run a brand-new theater company that has no home, no full-time staff, and seeks to produce plays only by underrepresented Latino/a playwrights?
Ask Jacob Padrón.
Padrón, the Senior Line Producer at the Public Theater, cut his teeth producing plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) and the Public—where he has shepherded plays ranging from Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels trilogy to the vast spectacle of Public Works to the New York stage. Previously, he produced some of Chicago’s most adventurous programming in the Steppenwolf Garage, and he helped usher in a new era of diverse programing at OSF under Bill Rauch’s artistic directorship.
Now, Padrón is taking his work even further. While maintaining his (more than) full time job at the Public, he has, with a cohort of Latino/a artists, launched The Sol Project, a unique initiative to create a new canon of Latino/a playwrights. It’s a revolutionary gesture: a demand by an established phalanx of theatrical players that the Latino/a voice be not only nurtured and developed, but produced.
The Sol Project clearly harkens back to the playwright-led initiative 13P, which sought to give full productions—not just workshops—to thirteen plays by thirteen emerging playwrights (including Sarah Ruhl and Anne Washburn). But Sol differs in that, instead of being a series of stand-alone productions, it strives to actively engage with the existing theatrical ecology of New York City and make a lasting impact on the nationwide theatrical realm.
I sat down with Padrón on his lunch break at the Public Theater recently. His animation is palpable, and his excitement at rewriting the manual for diversity in American theater is contagious.
John Michael DiResta (Rail): What was the moment where this project was born?
Padrón: The initial inspiration of the project came to me in October of 2013 when I was at Emerson College for a major convening that brought together seventy Latino/a theater makers from all around the country. It was a historical moment; the last time a convening like that had happened was in the 1980s. It was an opportunity for us to come together and look at the state of Latino/a theater in this country. On the last day of the convening, the last activity was to stand in a circle and to make an offering or commitment of what we were going to do to impact what we’ve learned here? We were all galvanized: we felt inspired, we felt called to a movement. At the time, I knew I was going to be coming to New York City, so I decided that I wanted to create an initiative to create more visible platforms for Latino/a playwrights in New York City.
Rail: Why the decision to focus squarely on New York, and not nationwide?
Padrón: One of the things I had heard a lot during the weekend was that Latino/a writers say the opportunities for writers in New York City—the mecca for theater in this country—were few and far between. And though they were grateful for the opportunities that are culturally specific companies or regional theaters, to have major productions in New York City really meant something. And that was when the seed was planted.
Rail: How did you select the team that makes up The Sol Project, and what is the process of collaboration like?
Padrón: When I put together the collective, I knew I wanted to have people who I could really trust and who were really smart, and who really shared the same values. It was a very organic process, and a kaleidoscope of perspectives.
What’s been so wonderful is that a real alchemy has been created between all of us, and we’ve all played a central role in crafting the mission of The Sol Project, and in picking the partner companies that we reached out to. We have six companies at the current moment, but we are also, ourselves, a little mini theater company. We meet every week.
Rail: What are the values of The Sol Project?
Padrón: First and foremost, a spirit of generosity animates our work. We work from a place of abundance, rather than scarcity. Part of what makes New York’s theater ecology so vibrant is that it’s full of programming; so many artists are doing exciting work here; but it does create a culture of scarcity that makes it hard for communities to be generous. We wanted to guide not just the work that we were creating as a collective, but also the work that we’re doing with our partner companies.
In order for The Sol Project to be successful, we want to place the writer at the center of the process. That means every project is going to have different needs and expectations. We want to be able to be nimbly responsive to the needs of the writer’s process.
Rail: Beyond positioning the Latino/a voice as the heart of both production and programming, what other big questions about theater, especially theater in New York, is Sol hoping to tackle?
Padrón: “How do we define excellence?” Excellence is so subjective. I remember Rebecca Rugg, my mentor, used to say that making art is mysterious. How you codify art is really difficult. But there is a conversation to be had about what makes a show artistically excellent. If our writers are going to be in conversation with all the other major writers being produced in New York City, we want them to go toe to toe and feel like they are of the same caliber and quality as the writers that are consistently produced in New York.
Rail: It seems that many theater companies, both in New York and nationwide, take “the color slot” approach to programming diversity: just make sure that there’s one play each season written (or directed) by a person of color. The Sol Project seems like a direct response to that trend and a demand for more than that.
Padrón: One of the ways in which we wanted to make sure that the work is not siloed, or that the work is not fulfilling a kind of expectation for the company to check a box by programming the play, is by asking each artistic director to invest in a collaboration between us and the production. We’ve asked each company to commission a Latino/a writer, to meet with as many Latino/a writers as possible, and we ask each company to be engaged in ongoing dialogue with us about diverse programing.
Part of what we feel our responsibility is as The Sol Project is to be cultural translators. I think that part of what happens for these writers of color that go into predominantly white institutions is that it can be very challenging to navigate that, like a writer of color sitting in a marketing room describing their play to an all-white marketing team or a design team, to be in conversation about the art that they’re trying to make with no people of color on staff. One of the ways we’re trying to combat that is to ask each artistic director to commit to each of these pillars.
Rail: So it’s actually about a whole lot more than just playwrights, isn’t it?
Padrón: Yes! A huge commitment that we’re asking each company to make is to aspire to make the entire creative team be people of color, especially the director, and specifically Latino/a. In order to really push the dial, there are a lot of talented directors and designers for whom the door is just not open. It becomes a systemic problem where we go back to the same individuals, who are predominantly white, because those are the ones that have the opportunity.
Rail: How has that holistic approach to diversity in staffing and producing been met in your first production, Alligator?
Padrón: It was really important to continue to shake the bushes. We hit some roadblocks—it took a while to find a design team of color, but it made us commit to our pillars, and to both fight the fight and talk the talk.
Rail: Broadening the lens, what else can be done? It seems that The Sol Project is doing work that colleges and universities and training initiatives should also be sharing. What do you hope the project will inspire?
Padrón: It’s always been my hope that while the seeds are planted in New York, we will identify regional partners throughout the country to commit to the continued life of each play. I get excited that we have theater companies all across the country that are in conversation with each other, that the plays are in conversation with each other, and that the stages from east to west more fully reflect the diversity of our country. Specifically, that Latino/a artists’ plays are in conversation with the great playwrights of our time. That gets me really excited.
Rail: How do you see The Sol Project engaging with theaters that are already decidedly focused upon Latino/a artists, like Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, INTAR, Teatro Circulo, Repertorio Español, and Pregones?
Padrón: I have a life in the theater because I came up through a culturally specific company with El Teatro Campesino in California. In many ways, The Sol Project was born out of being a part of that company. I remember Luis Valdez, their founder, saying, “Take our stories with you.” I feel like I have a responsibility to tell these stories within the larger companies I’ve worked in, like the Public, Steppenwolf, and OSF.
I would be remiss in not saying that in order for The Sol Project to have the sort of success that I think we’re already starting to have, the culturally specific companies in the city and across the country really paved the way for us. They’ve been supporting these artists for years. I think we have to continue to honor them. We have to continue to support their work. And we have to make inroads at the larger, more mainstream companies. I hate that word, mainstream: it makes it feel “better than,” which is not the case. But these larger institutions have resources. To introduce their audiences to our communities is really important.
Rail: What do you say to the regional and Off-Broadway theaters that are still presenting all or almost all-white seasons?
Padrón: Be brave in your choices and trust that your audience will go on the journey with you. That’s what happened at OSF. There was a lot of concern when Bill [Rauch, OSF’s current Artistic Director] came in and his programming was so adventurous. We learned that the appetite for diverse programming was really there.
For more information about The Sol Project, please visit http://www.solproject.org/. Their first production, with partner theater New Georges, will be Alligator, written by Hilary Bettis, directed by Elena Araoz; it will debut in November 2016.