Not too long ago, I got an email saying that one of my plays was a finalist for an award that “promotes Latinx plays and playwrights.” Scrolling through the list of current and past nominees, I recognized several names—if theater is a small world, Latinx theater is even smaller. So I pitched the idea of a conversation between me and some of those names to the Brooklyn Rail to discuss the experience that is to be a Latinx/e playwright in this industry, celebrating each success while simultaneously feeling stuck in the same cycle and not graduating to bigger opportunities. The following is a condensed and edited version of that conversation that was held over Zoom in July 2021.
Francisco Mendoza: I know all of you, but do you know each other?
Ren Dara Santiago: I know Darrel!
Darrel Alejandro Holnes: It’s so good to see you! Eliana, I think you’re the only person I haven’t met.
Eliana Pipes: I’m so happy to be able to meet you virtually! I feel like I’ve seen all your names 1,000 times.
Mendoza: That is the unofficial theme of the roundtable! Probably because we run in similar circles, since we all identify as Latinx. In my case, I was born and raised in Argentina, then when I was 12 my family relocated to Brazil, so I feel like I’m a bit of both—I only moved to the US at 25. Darrel, you just came back from seeing family in Panama. Is that where you’re from?
Holnes: Yes! I came to the US when I was 17 to study creative writing at the University of Houston. I took a playwriting class my senior year and wrote a play that went up at the Kennedy Center’s college theater festival. Then for graduate school I decided that I was going to be a poet, but I wanted to mix poetry and performance, and finally somebody was like, “Well, why don’t you go back to theater?” So I moved to New York, and there were all these great opportunities to grow as a playwright, but I used to feel some imposter syndrome, because I was a literary guy hanging out with the cool theater people. Now I think that it’s made my writing different and my journey more unique.
Pipes: Yeah, you’re the cool poet in the room! Theater wasn’t my main thing either, I always wrote film and TV, just from growing up in LA, it’s what you do.
Mendoza: Is that where you’re from?
Pipes: Yes! I’m Black, white, and Puerto Rican, born and raised in LA. I came into the arts through nonprofit programs that did outreach to public schools. I started as an actor, then turned to writing because I was cast as a silent maid three times in my junior year of high school. I got an English major in undergrad and an MFA in playwriting at Boston University, and now I’m back in LA, expanding into the film and TV space. I actually just made an animated short film, which is something I never thought I would do.
Santiago: I love animation! That and video games, I’m really big into. I have a visual arts background.
Mendoza: Oh, tell us more!
Santiago: I’m Puerto Rican and Filipina, born and raised in New York, and went to LaGuardia High School for visual art, but was told I didn’t have a personal take and that I’m bad at composition. So I wrote fanfiction all through high school, then auditioned for MCC Theater Youth Company, which is where I met my mentor, Lucy Thurber. She’s like family to me. I didn’t go to college because I couldn’t get enough financial aid, so I reached out to Lucy and she helped me get a scholarship at the Atlantic Acting School. And like you, Eliana, I found myself performing plays by all these older white men who write about things I can’t relate to, so I started writing my own scenes.
Mendoza: I also stumbled into theater. I went to college for journalism, then pursued a marketing career in Brazil, but I always wanted to write, so eventually I applied to NYU’s MFA program. Similarly to Ren, I didn’t get enough aid, but I annoyed everyone until they gave me the full ride, so I quit my job and came here. I was a TV student, but a play I wrote during the program got into The Lark’s Playwrights’ Week, which was a lovely experience, so I stayed in New York and kinda focused on theater. I write for other mediums as well—I went to MacDowell earlier this year to work on a novel—but you could say I’m an “emerging playwright,” which I think you guys all are too?
Santiago: We’ll be emerging until we’re, like, 50. You’re not considered mid-career until you’re almost on Broadway.
Mendoza: You had a downtown production that got canceled by COVID, right? The Siblings Play at Rattlestick.
Santiago: Yeah. They recorded it, so it streamed after it was canceled. I do wish it was eligible for awards because the designers were out of sight. I could walk through that set all day, it was so detailed, and the lighting and sound were spectacular… And beautiful performances, too! After that I did the MTA Radio Plays. It was really fun, lots of awesome designers and directors, amazing cast—and I got to hang out with writers I love for nine months! But I realized I don’t like producing.
Mendoza: Darrel, you also did some digital work during the pandemic?
Holnes: I did Black Feminist Video Game with The Civilians, which I created using investigative theater methods, and it was a great opportunity to work with the autism community on developing the play, which centers a young man on the spectrum. It changed my entire perspective on how we make art, and what it means to actually make accommodations when you have a specific community in mind. It was a wonderful experience. The saddest moments sometimes yield the greatest results, because I didn’t want to write this play during COVID—I was like, “Everybody is dying.” But it was like from that sadness and that struggle and that disappointment that me and the team said, “You know what, let’s just do it.”
Pipes: I love what you’re saying, because that was the case with my animated film! I won a grant to do a live action short film, so I wrote the script, put together a cast and crew… then COVID hit, and we couldn’t gather. So we pivoted to animation, but that’s way more expensive than live action, and the initial grant did not even remotely cover the cost. I had to produce it independently, which like Ren, I hate. But now I have an animation sample, and it’s such an interesting little twist in my career.
Mendoza: And you’re still doing theater, right?
Pipes: Yeah, my play DREAM HOU$E is going up at the Alliance in January, in a co-pro with Long Wharf and another company that hasn’t announced it yet, which is nuts and really exciting. It’s about two Latinx sisters who inherit their mother’s house after she passes, and they decide to sell it on an HGTV-like reality show—but they’re kind of capitalizing on the neighborhood’s gentrification.
Holnes: I’ve heard of this play! I think it was from someone on a judging panel, they said it was amazing. I’m so excited to hear that it’s getting produced!
Pipes: Oh wow, and I’ve probably never even met that person. Thank you for telling me! The way that work moves outside of our hands is so strange and lovely.
Mendoza: I also think it speaks to the way some plays really make the rounds before getting produced. My play Machine Learning has been in three different festivals this year alone. It’s gotten to the point that whenever I go into a new workshop, I have to disclaim I’m not rewriting it anymore. I think there is such a thing as workshopping a play too much, and I’m afraid I’m gonna ruin it!
Pipes: I love that you put your foot down like that. DREAM HOU$E got so many readings that I realized I had neglected all the parts that can’t be read out loud—I kinda forgot they existed.
Mendoza: Of course if the play gets produced, I’ll reopen that conversation. But like Ren said, we’re going to be emerging for a while. There was a time where I would get an email from a theater that was interested in my work and I would think, “This is my big break, I’ve made it!” Obviously that wasn’t the case. So it was important for me to understand what me and my piece needed, regardless of the opportunity that comes along.
Holnes: That’s something we at the Latinx Playwrights Circle (LPC) are hoping to help with, because we’ve all had that “hamster wheel” feeling of being stuck in development and never getting to a production—we want to provide writers with what they need. The reality is that the number of Latinx plays on Broadway is abysmal; Off-Broadway, you have organizations like Pregones, Loisaida, and The Sol Project doing wonderful work, but there’s a gap with the rest of the theatrical community, where Latinx playwrights have sadly been excluded from most seasons.
Mendoza: On that note, do we wanna shout out some Latinx productions coming up? I’m very excited about Arturo Luís Soria’s Ni Mi Madre at Rattlestick.
Santiago: Second that!
Holnes: Also Guadalís Del Carmen’s Bees and Honey, at LAByrinth with Sol Project.
Pipes: It was canceled last year, right? So glad it’s coming back!
Mendoza: Same thing with Tony Meneses’s The Hombres at Two River Theater. Oh and obviously Eliana’s play! Short train ride up to New Haven.
Pipes: I’m excited I’ll be close by so I can bother you all. I’m so jealous of the community you guys have there, though there are definitely other groups regionally.
Mendoza: Yeah, it feels so good when I’m in a space where I don’t have to argue to have a Latinx director, or to present a play with some scenes completely in Spanish.
Pipes: And in the vein of what Darrel was saying with LPC, spaces that are welcoming of people with no experience. If writers like us, who have been around theater for a while, still face barriers, how much more so do the people who are just starting out?
Mendoza: Speaking of which, what do you have out there that you want people to see?
Santiago: I’m going up to Portland for a commission with The Theater Co. It’s for a solo show about gentrification; my director and I want to go hang out in the neighborhood where my grandma grew up and talk to people who have lived there for generations or who have been displaced. The film version will be out in early 2022, and the stage version towards the end of that year. I’m also the head writer of a young adult podcast, See You In Your Nightmares, that’ll be out in September.
Mendoza: Machine Learning is going to stream at this year’s Crossing Borders Festival at Two River Theater. Oh and before we go—what do we call ourselves, officially? Latinx? Latine? I don’t know anymore.
Pipes: I truly never know.
Santiago: I feel like Latine is more global? The “x” is very American.
Mendoza: That’s true. How would you even say “Latinx” in Spanish?
Pipes: That’s so cute! It sounds like a tiny animal. “The Latinks.”