Every week, culture critics Diep Tran and Jose Solís bring a POC perspective to the performing arts with their Token Theatre Friends podcast. The show can be found on Spotify, iTunes and Stitcher. You can listen to episodes from the previous version of the podcast here but to get new episodes, you will need to resubscribe to our new podcast feed (look for the all-red logo).
The Friends recorded on June 23 where they discussed the news that Broadway will not be back until January 2021 (at least). They also went into a deep dive on 2666 by Seth Bockley and Robert Falls—a five-hour play adaptation of the Roberto Bolaño novel, that is currently available to stream for free at the Goodman Theatre’s website.
Then they hop on a Zoom call with Raúl Esparza, where Jose manages to hide his excitement and act like a professional. The four-time Tony nominee, and Law and Order: SVU cast member, has been doing a lot of virtual theatrical experiences, including hosting the Stephen Sondheim birthday special, Take Me to the World, and doing a monologue from his kitchen. Esparza talks about getting type-casted and how he hopes the theater of the future will be cheaper. This weekend, he will be doing a live reading of the comedy Tartuffe, produced by Molière in the Park.
Here are links to things that Friends talked about in this episode.
- 2666 at the Goodman Theatre
- The Guardian: “Barcelona opera reopens with performance for more than 2000 potted plants”
- Kotaku: “Pokémon Plush Toys Gather To Watch Korean Baseball”
- Broadway News: “Broadway shows expected to remain closed through early January”
- Tartuffe from Moliere in the Park (playing until July 12)
- Seared by Theresa Rebeck at MCC Theater.
- Raúl Esparza doing a 24-Hour Play monologue
- Take Me to the World: Stephen Sondheim’s 90th Birthday Celebration
- Lindsay Mendez’s Tony Awards acceptance speech
- Mixed Blessings at the Coconut Grove Playhouse
The episode transcript is below.
Diep: Hi, this is Diep Tran.
Jose: And I’m Jose Solís.
Diep: And we’re your Token Theatre Friends. People who love theater so much that I actually had a dream about being in the theater last night and and it was just me and a bunch of actual plants. Oh no, it wasn’t a dream it was actual reality. Did you see that article about the classical music hall in Barcelona that just put actual plants in the audience while the musicians played. Oh my god, it’s so heartwarming. I will send it to you. Okay.
Jose: Did you see that thing? I think it was in Korea where they filled the stadium with little plush toys because there’s no audience. We’re probably gonna say the same thing, imagine like having like Beanie Babies instead of like angry old white people shushing us at theater.
Diep: Yeah. Oh my god or imagine when you go to the theater you also get a free houseplant.
Jose: Oh, that’s a big responsibility.
Diep: They’re very relaxing. I’ll send you a houseplant.
Jose: Okay, but it’d be like plastic cuz I was gonna die.
Diep: I didn’t have a green thumb either. And then quarantine happened. And then I realized, Oh, I get my coffee in the morning. And then I water my plants. And then I feed my cat. Maybe not necessarily in that order, cat usually comes first. And there are certain plants I’ve discovered where you can where you can not water them for like weeks and they’re still alive.
Jose: Are they plastic.
Diep: No, I wrote about it in the newsletter, which obviously you did not read Jose.
Jose: Oh, I read it. I just I’m forgetting my facts right now.
Diep: Okay, well, how are you feeling? What are you thinking about?
Jose: I’m sweaty, I’m exhausted. Oh, these fireworks are gonna kill us all, are this crazy in Astoria as they are in Brooklyn?
Diep: No. What are your theory about the fireworks because because I’ve been hearing some conspiracy theories.
Jose: It has to be someone in power cuz every time I hear them and just been like many instances where I feel like I’m going insane, like I feel like I’m being gaslit clearly because there’s some times when I’ll be like, you know, like just chilling at home and it’ll be like two in the morning and I hear this like explosions, all the fireworks and I go to my window and there’s nothing to be seen. And what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard and seen many times, when I hear the you know the sounds, but I don’t see anything. There’s like helicopters also. So I wonder if they have like one of those, machines they use when they invade other countries, and they just blast sounds to terrorize people and to keep them awake and keep them you know, angry, not even angry because I’m so tired. I can’t even be angry because I’m too tired.
Diep: Yeah, agitated. I mean, I feel like it’s no coincidence. And you know, we’re going into conspiracy theory land. We don’t have not have any proof of this. It’s more like anecdotal evidence of a shit ton of people having fireworks issues, people in New York are like, popping off fireworks all night into the early morning. And where are they getting these fireworks? They’re illegal in New York, and why are the cops not doing anything about this? Why aren’t they investigating this? And so it makes you think, Hmm, maybe it’s someone inside giving these these terrible people free fireworks so they can light them off so, that we’re all too tired to protest and to call and to, you know, do all the activism work that we’ve been doing.
Jose: Right? It’s also, they mostly happening in neighborhoods where a lot of the protests were happening, you know, why aren’t they happening like the super rich white neighborhoods.
Diep: Maybe if they happen in the rich white neighborhoods, things will actually stop because you know, when things affect white people, that’s when change happens, right?
Jose: And coming soon to podcast near you, Token Conspiracy Theorists.
Diep: You should hear my theories about ancient aliens.
Jose: Okay, I can’t wait.
Diep: You know we miss theater. But a firework show every night is not the kind of theater we want right now.
Jose: A friend was telling me just yesterday, and I’ve never read it so I don’t know what it’s called. But he says there’s a short story by Kurt Vonnegut that said in the future in a dystopia where the people who have thoughts outside of like the system have like some sort of chip in their brain and every time they start to think outside of the box, the chip triggers sounds of fireworks. So like, I don’t know, maybe get like Katy Perry to sue the cops or something like, baby you’re not a firework.
Diep: Speaking of theater, did you hear that news about from the Broadway League saying that theater might not return until January 2021?
Jose: I know. And that’s why we’re very, I don’t know if I’m grieving because like, I mean, we kind of knew that this was gonna happen, right?
Diep: Mm hmm. I think you and I are the same way about this. Like, we always prepare for the worst case scenario just so that we’re not surprised and, and heartbroken when it happens. But it’s just been so frustrating to me, like the lack of leadership from the Broadway League about this. Because I know financially, they’ve already sold tickets for you know, for the rest of 2020. And they don’t want to like cancel all 2020 right away because then you have to give all that money back and you know, money’s very tight, right? Except of course, if you’re a producer and you’re hanging out in the Hamptons. Yeah, that’s another thing. Yeah. Where are you, Jordan Roth? But, but anything would be better than what’s been going on right now, which is just nothing, which is just “okay, well, we may be come back in July. Oh, wait, we may be coming back in September, or we may be coming back in January 2021. We don’t know.” Like, isn’t the point of being an industry leader is to lead the industry towards a better future or vision for it and not just fly by the seat of your pants.
Jose: But I mean, just remember the way that Broadway just like pretended #MeToo never happened. So they’re kind of doing the same with COVID. And everything that’s happening right now, they’re pretending that you know, everything’s normal. And it’s just like a, I don’t know, a dark, very dark, you know, a very long dark night at the theater and I don’t know why because it’s clear that things are never going to be the same. So why are they doing this? Like, how do we get new leadership on Broadway? I mean, can we vote them out? Like we hope to with the Republicans in November?
Diep: It’s appointed by like a bunch of Broadway producers. I mean, granted the Broadway League, it’s not like they own a theater. It’s basically a conglomerate of our producers trying to come together to make a decision about something and I guess no one wants to make a decision about anything.
Jose: I mean, they can pay us and we can make the decision for them, right.
Diep: Yeah, right, right. Okay, So enough about that. Why are we talking about today?
Jose: We talked about the very sad thing, but now we’re going to talk about a very long show, which is a good thing, right? We watched the Goodman Theatre production of 2666. It’s an adaptation of the Roberto Bolaño novel, and the Goodman made it available for free, for people to stream and it’s split into very handy, like miniseries, vegetable sizes. And I think we both did it like over a few days, right?
Diep: Mm hmm. I did over two nights. Yeah.
Jose: And we’re gonna talk about that and how we both love marathon theater. And obviously this this made me think so much about that.
Diep: Mm hmm. And then after that we have an interview with Raúl Esparza. Jose is very excited to talk to Raúl in Spanish. And this Saturday Raúl Esparza are will be doing a reading of Tartuffe. Tartuffe is being produced by Moliere in the Park, and you can find the performance on their YouTube channel. They’re doing two performances on Saturday, June 27 at 2pm and 7pm. And the video of the performance will be online until July 1 At 2pm. So once again, actors acting in their own home, making themselves up.
But first, let’s talk about this five-hour play that we saw. Oh, and just for some background, the Goodman Theatre is one of the biggest theaters in Chicago. And they brought a number of productions to New York, including a four-hour production of The Iceman Cometh, starring Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy, which was wonderful, like surprisingly wonderful. Yeah, so I was really excited to see 2666 because it’s adapted by Seth Barclay and director Robert Falls. And you know, it’s epic. It takes like this novel that’s very, it’s a very fragmented novel, like each section can basically stand on its own. And what the adaptation basically did is just make a full a five part show.
Jose: I was reading about all the, you know, other reviews from Chicago and people like saying how the breaks were structured and all that. And that made me really want to, you know, experience it in the theater, you know, with all the people. Because if we sat through 24 days of The Inheritance, I would certainly sit for five and a half hours.
Diep: I wasn’t the only one comparing this to The Inheritance! And if you follow us on Twitter, you know how we feel about The Inheritance. Did you like this Jose? I feel like you’re better equipped to speak on this production than I am because I haven’t read the book, which is 1000 pages, but you have so I want to hear your thoughts first.
Jose: Well, I mean, that I don’t think that makes me better equipped technically, because that book like Roberto Bolaño, like I love Roberto Bolaño so much, and it’s one of those authors that, so I can comfortably say that I love him, but I don’t get him. I mean, I don’t get him, he was so like, remarkably strange. And at times, like getting lost in his books feels like, okay, I don’t know where I’m going with this. But then like, it’s like been two hours and you’re still reading. And you’re like, I don’t know, I don’t know who any of these people are, what’s going on right now but the language is so rich, and the ideas are so wonderful that you keep going. And this production made me think about that, like, in a way when you get into one of our Roberto Bolaño books, it’s kind of like getting lost in a tree, where the things overall don’t necessarily connect to each other. But at the end, you know, the next morning when you remember everything you’re like, Oh, yeah, like you get some really profound, really wonderful insight. And there’s also like a richness of the way in which he, you know, craft something so epic out of this. It’s almost like a vestige of like Latin American history and like Chilean history, and he just like, I don’t know, it’s like this world building that makes me makes me very sad that he’s no longer here.
Diep: Yeah, it was his final novel. And well, I’m gonna try to sum this up the best that I can the plot because there’s really no plot
Jose: Break a leg.
Diep: You know, it’s very much in the modernist novel vein of a bunch of things happen. They may be connected by a theme, but you’re not in it for plot, you’re in it for language. The first part is about these European authors who are really obsessed with this German author named Archimboldi and they’re trying to find him because he’s a recluse. And they’re super fans. And they traveled to Mexico to try to find him because they heard that he was last seen in Mexico, and then they get to Mexico and then they get roped into this kind of mystery novel about how like 500 women are being murdered in the city in Mexico, which was based on a real life event. And the government and the police have done nothing about it. And these things kind of, they do come together. At one point, kind of The Inheritance, it’s kind of a meditation on, like the ability of literature to take us outside of ourselves and to help us escape and to help us find meaning in our chaotic lives. And on the other hand, it’s also a mystery slash a record of collective trauma. Is that, did I do okay?
Jose: Is this the first Bolaño adaptation you’ve seen?
Jose: Your summary made me think of a few years ago when there was a production of another adaptation of a Roberto Bolaño novel called Distant Star in New York, and I did it interviews with the people behind it. And I remember when I went to the rehearsal space where they were doing it, they had like, this table full of clippings, of like references and stuff that they use for the the show. And his novels and also like this show, that production Distant Star kind of feel like that where, you know, like, it’s like this, like wealth of things like spread all over that somehow they seem very overwhelming at first, but you’re always able to, like, you know, find something really, really valuable in it. Mm hmm. So, yes, it was a great, great, great summary.
Diep: Yes. Did you like it?
Jose: Yes, I mean, I was very impressed by how, again, this stuff was like, you know, it took me like, a decade to go through the whole thing because it’s so long. So I was like, I really admired the way that they, you know, made it make sense on the stage, especially like things like that that are super heady. Like after an hour or so you start getting exhausted so maybe it was the fact that it’s like perfectly split into several episodes that made it more manageable or digestible, I guess but yeah, I liked it. I mean, I was very I actually I was more impressed than—yeah, I have like more admiration and love for it. It’s like holy shit that people can do stuff like this right now.
Diep: Game recognizes game. Yeah. No, like I really—okay so I cannot say I enjoyed this experience. I can’t say like what I got from it the thematically resonated with me on, I can’t say it resonated with me on an emotional level. Which, I just have that feeling about most modernist literature because they’re just so written, the way they’re presented, it’s just so much at a remove and it’s so nihilistic about human behavior, and just so hopeless that it’s not an enjoyable experience to sit through. I do appreciate that I didn’t have to, like you know, spend 10 hours reading a novel. I only have to spend five hours with bathroom breaks. So I appreciate that. I appreciate how like every section was different stylistically. Because when the whole thing first started and they presented it like a panel discussion with a bunch of white people who are narrating the action, I was like, “Oh my God, if this is gonna be if it’s gonna be five hours of this, I’m gonna shoot myself. Like, I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get through to this experience.” But every single part had like a different set, had different styles. Like part three, which was my favorite part was was kind of like a movie—it was so much about silence and so much about the characters reacting and taking in this new city that’s very chaotic, and the music. So I appreciated the narrative diversity of the entire thing, it kept it really interesting to me and I appreciate all the actors were able to transform it to different characters and time periods very seamlessly. I just, I admire to thing, I did not like the thing.
Jose: I mean, that’s that’s not a bad thing. Right?
Diep: I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It’s more like what what what did I spend five hours doing? Like what was what was the point of that Jose? What is the point of this?
Jose: I dunno. I mean, at least you were you were entertained, right?
Diep: Yeah, there’s some parts where I was very much like, this needs to, we need to wrap this up. I don’t know where we’re going and now, oh, wait, there’s no point. I just sat through this boring ass scene for nothing. Why, why?
Jose: I’m just right now imagining you as Roberto Bolaño’s editor telling him, “stop writing after like the 400th page, like, stop, like, give us the ending right now.” I appreciate right now, you know, like something so heady and something so, because yeah, I do love that and I’m glad that you mentioned the styles because one of my favorite things about the different styles was that they’re not, I mean, they clearly like very specific and very different, but they’re not done in like a very showy way. It’s not production is congratulating itself, or like being like, you know, well done and well crafted and stuff. It’s very seamless. Um, and again, that reminds me also, like, Bolaño’s books, which are like, genre-defying. Someone might read this book, for instance, or Distant Star and call it a mystery like you did, or call it like, you know, like an intellectual brainy novel or, like a political piece, you know, and it’s like, I’m not that that something’s like so it’s a puzzlement. You know, so I don’t think the possibilities are so like, endless that I’m like, oh, okay, it’s exciting, you know, to have, it’s exciting when artists invite audience members to think a little bit, and not just like, give them like a bunch of like, you know, tiny suggested ideas for them to just like, learn a lesson, for instance. And that’s why I was like, so jealous of the people who got to see this in real life.
Diep: I’m wondering because what was really disturbing to me, the most disturbing moment for me was the fourth part, the part about where they, where they list all the crimes that happened to the women and, and, and it gets—it’s a lot rape happening, a lot of recounting of rape and strangulation and just generally, you know, trigger warnings everywhere if you’ve been a victim of, you know, of sexual violence, here’s a section for that, especially because there’s these terrible men in that section who make really, really, really disgusting jokes about women. And I hated the audience. Whoever recorded that audience. They were laughing, there’s some of them were laughing at the joke, and I hated all of that. And so maybe this was me, you know, taking on some of the nihilism of the novel where I was like, you all suck. The creators of this place just showed all of us how much you all suck, and it doesn’t make me feel good. I think that was part of it. It was just showcasing violence and showcasing like, how numb people are to it, especially men and how they’d rather laugh at it than do anything about it. But then it also started to troubled me that we don’t there’s no, I mean, in real life, there’s no resolution to this kind of violence. It still continues to happen, no one does anything about it. And there’s no resolution in the novel either instead, you just kind of take like the hard left in the next section, and you don’t really go back to that ever again. And I don’t know, I don’t know what to make of that.
Jose: Well, I guess that’s the whole point about it. Like, you know, it’s so frustrating because there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s just a little bit of existential dread for you take home. Well, I mean, you saw at home so to live with already. After five and a half hours. It’s, you know, it’s a it’s a place of complete discomfort. And I think about for instance, remember what we went to the theater in the past and someone laughs at like a gross joke right? I always wondered like, Who the hell was that person because I want to see who they were. So I can like know it was them, and that whole thing about the anonymity of you know, like sitting in the dark and being able to like let out like your most like basic impulses, almost like your basic instincts and like laugh at like gross jokes and like laugh at sexism and violence is, it’s disturbing. And do you think you would have felt differently about this show if you had seen it pre quarantine and pre right now?
Diep: Not really, only because, you know, we had the #MeToo movement in 2018, which is basically a compendium of women recounting their trauma hoping for change to happen. And my problem with these displays of violence on stage, or even on screen, is there’s a very fine line between between education and exploitation. And I feel like this experience, maybe the novel but I didn”t read the novel. But the theater experience, it veered a little bit closer to exploitation for me, just because you don’t say anything that a woman doesn’t already know about men’s capacity for violence. And so that nihilism is just like a fact of life that you know, women just live with. And it then becomes like, you’re not telling me anything I don’t already know. So that means you’re talking to the men in the audience. And I don’t really feel included in this conversation. So why, what am I doing here? Where are the women on the creative team? Where are the women?
Jose: I never thought about that. That’s so interesting. I mean, I guess that speaks to my male privilege. Like just last week. I was saying some things to a girlfriend of mine and she was like, I know everything you’re saying I know everything you’re saying because I’m a woman and we live with it every day. And yeah, you know, it makes me very sad because I think of myself as someone who is a little bit more in tune with women and, you know, non straight male people. Apparently lots of lots and lots of male privilege over here also, cuz I was like, my mind was like, even right now that you were saying that I’m like, which is sad.
Diep: I know, which is why we started the podcast so we can, this is an exchange of ideas. But then also, where are the women on this creative team? It’s two white man adapting a novel by a Chilean man and and there’s a casual rape on stage in the play, and we just never talked about it. Who okay-ed this? Why did you think it was okay to do that and just never acknowledge it, just have it be a throwaway moment like that is artistically irresponsible. It’s artistically irresponsible. And it’s morally irresponsible.
Jose: None of those things I thought about I’m like, I was mostly impressed that you know, a Chicago theater head adapted Latino writer and I was like, that’s where I focused my attention. And now I’m like, holy shit, like, I need to work on a lot of removing my maleness, wow. That’s a lot to process when it’s so hard, right now.
Diep: I know. Well, that’s I guess that’s why we talk about the male gaze. You know, and we talked about—this kids is a great conversation about biases and what you have more, and the things that you’re more sensitive to based on your, you know, lived experience, like I’m just more sensitive to these kinds of things because because I live in a different body than Jose does.
Jose: I’m just nodding because everything you’re saying is true. Yeah, it’s very revealing. Hmm. I feel like it’s therapy. Coming to a podcast near you. Token Therapy Friends.
Diep: At that point we really need to need to start charging people.
Jose: Yeah, see none of these things I thought about, that’s so fascinating cuz I was just so into like, admiring the craft and admiring the work of adaptation, I’m a huge, huge, huge like a lover of adaptations, not like Broadway, you know, musicals about movies and stuff like that. But like when you take like something that’s like, impenetrable, and heavy and so like, you know, like intellectual and stuff and like, you turn into something else that works in a different medium. I’m like, bravo. I never thought about any of these things, and I’m very well very ashamed of myself.
Diep: You don’t have to be ashamed. You didn’t see it. Yeah, you can’t apologize for things that you’re not able to see, you know? But, but I had a better time than I did The Inheritance.
Jose: I mean, there we can both agree.
Diep: Oh my god Matthew Lopez is just never gonna talk to us.
Jose: We have done nothing wrong. I mean, there’s plenty of plays that we don’t like, and we don’t know him. We don’t dislike him. We just don’t like his play.
Diep: What the other thing this made me think about was the you know, how it’s going to be so long until we can actually sit and do like these kind of five hour experiences. When the theaters reopen, I can’t imagine that producers will want to produce anything more than 90 minutes because COVID spreads in contained spaces so you should not be in contained spaces with a bunch of other people for very long. And so I wonder if, like, this video 2666 is just gonna be like, in five years time it’ll be like, “ooh, remember the before time when you could do these long ass plays and it was just safe to sit in an enclosed space with this many people, hundreds of people for so long. Remember that time?”
Jose: But I wondered actually because this made me think of The Irishman which I’ve never seen. I never saw it because I never got to see it at the movie theater. And then I was like, I’m never gonna watch it at home. But this made me think of The Irishman, remember when it came out at the end of last year? There was this like controversy because like some people were advocating when it came out on Netflix, some people were advocating to split it like a miniseries and someone even came up with the right places to split it. So it worked as a miniseries. And all this, like, you know, snobby cinephiles were like, this is murdering Martin Scorsese while he’s alive, how dare you do this to him? And with this, I think that the segments work really well, you know, split the way they are. And I wondered if theater comes back that way, if it’s gonna start trying to emulate television more, because right now television is what’s pulling everyone’s lives. And maybe it’s gonna be like trying to get people to feel like they’re watching TV when they go to the theater and splitting longer plays—I honestly don’t want to sit for another four hours of Long Day’s Journey Into Night ever again. If it was like, you know, split into four nights, and maybe different actors were playing the characters or there were different directors doing each part, you know, something exciting, you know, something that leaves you wanting to come back and not be afraid of dying.
Diep: Yeah, no, I always feel so proud of myself though, after I get out of a marathon theater experience. Because it’s a love hate relationship. It’s like going to the dentist, you know, like I dread. I dread the experience going in because I know like, that’s, that’s gonna be a huge chunk of my life just like taken up and I have relinquished that time. And I won’t be able to get it back. But at the same time, when I finish it, I always feel like very accomplished, like, ooh, I did something, I went on a journey today. I committed to something today. And I’m going to miss that feeling of satisfaction and exhaustion that comes after a six-hour play experience because it’s epic. People don’t do that anymore because our attention spans are so low that we can’t watch anything longer than 90 minutes. Not even film you know, a 2 hour film is so rare these days that you have to like, put up articles about this is where you can go pee.
Jose: I mean, maybe you can take some novocaine when you go to see the 90 minutes show, and you’re gonna feel like you’re at the dentist.
Diep: Oh, god. And I do want to say that the free online access to 2666 is made possible by the Roy Cochran Foundation. And so I’m assuming that they helped pay for all the artists so that we can all watch it and I hope this is a model in the future if we can’t all be back as soon as we want to where foundations, maybe the NEA can fund a bunch of grants so that people can film and then stream their shows.
Jose: Do you know when until when is this available? I didn’t see that on the site.
Diep: Oh, yeah, I emailed the Goodman. They said indefinitely.
Jose: That’s very generous. Thank you Goodman for you know, allowing us to see this theater should be accessible for everyone.
Diep: Mm hmm. Anything else, any closing thoughts about this experience?
Jose: No, I just have new things to think about but I would recommend it for people to check out, you know, it’s probably a little bit more idea rich than a lot of stuff on TV, and a lot of other stuff that you might be doing. So it’s, if you like heady stuff, like you know, like Novecento by Bertolucci and Martin’s novels, this is for you.
Diep: Yeah, and it’s filmed very well, there’s a lot of close ups. It’s like a multi camera setup you can get really great details of the set that you won’t be able to get otherwise. And so yeah, I did not like it. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it. It is worth is worth spending your time with it. And if you really like it, then give the Goodman some money.
Jose: Yes. Thank you Goodman.
Diep: Thank you Goodman. You want to intro our guest?
Jose: Yes. I’m gonna hug him also. So next we are going to talk to the just really wonderful, marvelous Raúl Esparza. I don’t even know what to say about him. I love him so much. He is a genius. He knows how to sing, dance, he knows how to act like a freakin God. And you know one of my favorite moments in quarantine so far was seeing him in the Sondheim tribute. He is, you know, he doesn’t need like a bunch of sets, he doesn’t need like a bunch of lights or anything to just like do like something incredibly compelling and, I’ll just stop gushing over him and let’s go talk to Raul.
Raúl: Hey there. How’s it going?
Diep: Have you voted today?
Raúl: Yes, I did. I did absentee ballot actually. Is that background too busy? I mean, it’s my apartment. I’m not gonna do a virtual one, I think. It is what it is.
Diep: It’s been months and we’re done being whimsical.
Raúl: Who cares?
Diep: We’ve all seen the inside of celebrity apartments at this point. So it really doesn’t matter.
Raúl: Sometimes I stand in the hallway and I’m like, I haven’t used this corner of my house yet.
Diep: Jose and I both watching your 24 Hour Monologue. And so we’re like ooh, Raúl’s kitchen is a very tight.
Raúl: It is crap. The kitchen, this apartment isn’t bad. But the kitchen is crap. crap crap crap. And I had to try it in the kitchen. I didn’t have to make the frijoles, but I went ahead and made my aunt’s frijoles. I wrote to Matthew [Barbot] and I was like, you gave me a great excuse to make the frijoles.
Diep: How was it? Does it taste like hers?
Raúl: It’s phenomenal? Yeah, it does taste like hers but I’ve been making those every every night.
Jose: Do you usually keep all that Goya in the house or was that just for the play?
Raúl: Ha, I had a bag. I had a bag of frijoles. Because also when we were working on Seared they gave me a bag of them. Have we started yet? You guys want to just film shit?
Diep: Yeah, let’s do it, doesn’t matter. Yeah.
Raúl: So when I was working on Seared, they gave me a whole bag of frijoles to learn, Seared was this play I did by Theresa Rebeck. I did last year at MCC and I played a chef and in order to learn to do all the like flipping of hot onions and things you practice with frijoles. So I have this like huge bag of them. Hmm. Anyway, so I just use that.
Jose: What were the scallops in Seared made out of because I was like—
Raúl: Plastic. They were made of plastic. That’s sad isn’t it? Nobody eats the scallops.
Diep: The sizzling sounded like it was real.
Raúl: The sizzling was real. There’s a lot of stuff that I cooked in Seared, a lot. But the scallops is the one thing we did not cook. You did heat the oil. And that that thing was incredible because Tim made it look like a real kitchen. And he made it look like the burners were gas from the audience. And I have friends who were set designers who would come up and go, I can’t believe you guys fooled me. But all of that was fake. The lighting was fake. They were basically like, you know, little electric like hot plates that your grandmother would take to the beach. You know to make cafe con leche. So that’s that like these little tiny hot plates. And that’s what we used. There were four of them, or six of them, sorry. And they would turn them on, stage management and control all of it, and everything was faked, but they would get hot enough when they started the play, or at any time that they would do the timing for it that it could sizzle. You could cook things, you could make a full meal. The salmon that I made in the play, everything was fresh and real. Plus, we had a separate kitchen, going backstage, doing all the prep. So we were actually running a restaurant, it’s nuts. And the food was good. Actually, the food was really really good. We were at the chef named Ben Lickett who created these recipes. They were sensational, but nobody ate it.
Diep: They’re theater people. Why is no one eating the food?
Raúl: I know it’s a good question. They composted everything. Nobody on stage actually ate it. It all would just get tossed into the prop bins.
Jose: Oh my god, mi mama Latina would not—
Raúl: I know, no way.
Diep: I was, at the time that I saw you in Seared, I was dating a chef and he would always talk about how anyone can cook. It’s not about ability, it’s just about practice and about learning technique. And so how would you compare your cooking at the beginning of it versus, you know—
Raúl: I would say that it got substantially better, substantially, substantially better., I’ve always liked to cook and I learned to cook actually, because after I went to NYU, for undergrad, and then I, when I graduated from Tisch, I got a job in Chicago not long afterwards. And I was living in Chicago and kind of on my own there. I couldn’t find any Cuban restaurants. And I really learned to cook for myself because I would call home and be like, “abuela, cómo lo haces whatever, the frijoles or the masitas puerco or whatever stuff that I grew up?” I just wanted to learn to cook the food that abuela would make. And at first I sucked at it, but then I got better and I really liked it. And I love to follow recipes. So I find it very calming to be like, take these 10 things and you end up with this, nothing in life worse like that. So I like that. It’s predictable. Seared changed things for me big time. One, I learned to cook a lot faster. And I learned to cook without recipes. I learned to cook like, open the refrigerator and go, what do I got in here? Okay, we’re okay for dinner. Because usually it would take me two hours to be like, what am I gonna make? I gotta get this dish. Seared took the stink off that idea. So I still make the Cuban stuff. But I’ve learned to just take it easy and not stress out so much. And you’re right. Practice, practice, practice, practice, I’m a faster chopper, I’m a faster everything. But it applies to a lot of stuff. You know, we, the more you do it, the the better you get at it. And the more and the more you do it, the not the easier it becomes but the less sort of second nature, things start to get. And that’s nice. You know, it was a great way to act. I’ll tell you that because doing a play where you have to accomplish something like that on stage is the definition of like, a secondary activity where they talk about in theater school where you take an acting class: always have something to do, always have something to accomplish on stage. This was, I have to make a meal for two hours. You stop acting. You just stop acting.
Jose: That scene at the top of the second act, it’s almost like a like a scene from a musical, it’s like a you’re like dancing.
Raúl: Yes, that’s right Jose. At a certain point, people said that I was dancing to the music, which I didn’t even notice that, the music they were using Palmer the sound designer had created a piece based on how I was moving using Tumbao No. 5 by Cachaito, which is a beautiful bass piece. So without my realizing it, halfway through, I’m like doing this. And I don’t think Harry is in any way Cuban so I don’t know where the, between Kristina and myself, we’re like, alright, we like the music. It’s the Latin production.
Diep: Goodness. Well, we’re here talking to you about doing Tartuffe, the Moliere in the Park production. And you’ve been doing a lot of these virtual acting experiences.
Raúl: That’s a great description for them! They are experiences. Look, you know, it’s been a couple of interesting months for all of us. And this is not the way to make theater necessarily, but it is a way to make theater. So it’s not the only way but it is a way to make theater. And, honestly, the first month, the first month of the pandemic was intensely hard for a lot of personal reasons. We had a very big loss in our family of relatives on Sunday, Santiago Miranda who, who died in in Madrid and he died by himself. Speaking of Nochebuena, we used to spend Nochebuena at his house when I was a little kid, you know, so he was like an uncle to me and a dear, dear, dear man. And then I had a teacher that died in Miami and then relatives who were getting sick. And so the beginning of this felt like, what’s the point in getting up in the morning, and I know I’m not the only one who felt that way. And I personally did not get sick, but so many friends were suddenly getting sick or colleagues who had died. So in the midst of all that, I had the idea to create the Take Me to the World concert for Steve’s birthday. And that ended up being a crazy project to put together but a really wonderful thing. And for a week or two, it felt like we were in a room together. And then friends kind of like would reach out and say, “Hey, you want to sing a little song here?” And then you say, okay, because it began to fill the days in a way that was really nice and I can say about Tartuffe right now, unexpectedly, it feels like we’re in a rehearsal hall. Of course we’re not. But we get on these Zoom calls, essentially, that we’re rehearsing and we come up with ideas, and everybody’s talking and you’re reading the play. And you know, you’re not moving around and you’re still in your apartment. But you are creating something with Lucie, with Samira, with Toccarra, with Jennifer Mudge, whatever scenes we’re doing, we’re actually working together for a moment. And that’s extraordinary. It’s a great feeling. So all of this is a long way of saying that all these experiences have helped to fill my days. And they have helped to make me feel like I own a little bit of my creativity, and can share it a little bit more. Because as actors, we’re always spending our time asking for permission to do the thing that we know how to do. And I’m not saying this is the way to do it. But I think our future and our future opportunities potentially may change, given that we have all had to come to terms with the fact that right now, if we don’t create something for ourselves, there’s nowhere to go. So, yeah, I didn’t realize how many doors I had opened to this. It’s not easy, but at least it’s filled the time and has alleviated some of the sadness.
Jose: Other things that you are have been doing, you know, because you’ve had to be, you’re an art director, you’re a makeup person. You’re your own director at times, are there things that you’ve learned from the art that you’ve made in quarantine that you think you’re going to carry. If we ever leave our apartments.
Raúl: I feel that for the longest time, I felt that putting myself on tape for anything was a challenge and just the hardest thing in the world. It would take me four days to get myself on tape for an audition and that that’s just gone. Like any sense of this has to be perfect in any sense of, I don’t know what I’m doing or it’s not as good as what I want it to be. It’s not a real audition. That’s gone. Like, I actually called my agents and my manager and apologized. “I’m sorry ever put you through this shit. Like, I’m really sorry.” So stupid. Who cares? You know? So there’s that. On the other side of it is. Yeah, I’ve learned how to light myself a little better. I’ve learned that I can do it. I’ve learned that I can pick up a camera and, and come up with ideas. There’s a project that I worked on two summers ago, a musical adaptation of Virginia Woolf novel, The Waves, which we did a production of at Vassar, at New York Stage and Film. And that production was gorgeous to work on. And so here’s this musical. And it occurred to me it’s a musical about about six friends who grew up together in England, and who end up very very alone in their lives and wish they could all come together again and I thought we should do something with this play in quarantine. Now what comes with it? I don’t know. But the fact that I feel like hey, we could maybe make something out of this, we can maybe create something, turn on our iPhones and see what happens. That’s entirely new for me. So think of something that I did in life that was kind of workshop or a creative theatrical event that’s like, who knows what’s going to happen with it? And to think I can do something with it without having to have a producer in place. So that is another thing I can take from this experience. And I hope more actors actually have that sense of like, why not? Why not? Take charge of my own ability to create this.
Diep: What was the appeal of doing Tartuffe for you right now? Is it because the comedic aspect of escapism or is it like the righteousness of taking down someone who was terrible?
Raúl: Yeah, there’s a little bit of that, I’ve always loved the play. I really liked Lucie very, very much and we have talked about working on a project together. So she asked me to do this and I thought it would be kind of a fun thing. My very first professional job as an actor in Miami was at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in a Cuban adaptation of Tartuffe called Mixed Blessings written by Luis Santeiro, who was a writer for Sesame Street for many years, and who wrote a series that was seminal in my life called ¿Qué Pasa, USA? which was a completely bilingual sitcom about a Cuban family. And so I’m very fond of this particular play because it was my first professional experience. And I was also excited by the theme of what the play is about, because we’re living through a time right now where everybody feels, at least in terms of positions of power, it feels like we’re being led by a lot of con artists. And I felt that had something to say, something to say about how people take it back and say, “Uh uh this is bullshit.” And also then the last thing is, I wanted to see how this could work. I’m curious about, it’s a little bit of an experiment of a way to do some theater in the interim. And I think that what Moliere in the Park is trying to do here is really, really creative. Who knows what it’s going to be. But I think it’s just a really creative and interesting way to try to make something out of the limitations that we’re living through right now. And they’re bursting with ideas. So I wanted to see how that works. Because this is all very new sort of technology and new world.
Jose: I think one of my favorite things that’s happening right now is that there’s people for instance who know you from Law and Order, but they’re like, wait, he can sing? And have never seen you on stage. And you know, what’s happening right now is giving access to Latinos, to people of color, to people that are often kept from theater—we can be like very classist. And I wonder if you’ve encountered that, people are suddenly discovering this, you know, like probably the most, one of the most famous Latinos on Broadway. And they’re like, oh, wow, like why didn’t he sing on Law and Order?
Raúl: I’ve always thought we should have done a musical episode of “Law and Order.” Benson hits her head and then we all end up in the courtroom singing and dancing. Mariska would totally go for it. I know she would. She was so obsessed with “Hamilton.” I think she saw 22 times. How could she get tickets is what I want to know.
Diep: How many times did you see it?
Raúl: Three. But I saw it at the Public, you know. I still remember with Hamilton that because Renee Elise had worked on SVU and I’ve known Brian D’Arcy James for so many years and and Leslie is a dear friend and people would come in or I would see friends and they would say, “Oh my God, this musical, this Hamilton musical, oh my god, the workshops are so great.” And I would say, yeah, I’m sure it’s good. Whatever. Yeah, I’m sure it’s nice. “No, no, you don’t understand.” I’m like, yeah, you guys, whatever. You guys are being nice, Lin’s talented. It’s nice. We went to go see it at the Public. The very first second Leslie walked on stage, I burst into tears. And then I cried to the entire first act. The people next to me were like, are you okay? I’m like, sobbing. So, in terms of like, you know, theater has always been my, my, my love because I love the relationship to the audience. And I never thought that I would necessarily be an actor who made a lot of film or TV because I never really felt like I cracked it. Law and Order came out of the fact that Warren Leight and I had worked on Leap of Faith, and it was supposed to be a couple of guest star episodes. And then it turned into a really wonderful thing. Because he wrote beautifully. I really hit it off with Mariska. And they are just a tremendous group of people over there. They’re just a beautiful crew. And the surprising thing about television fame, it doesn’t happen immediately. But as the show goes on and on, you’re suddenly recognized all over the world. And that opened doors to people who didn’t know my work before. And that comment about, “Oh, I didn’t know you could sing.” It was constant, you know, it’s constant.
But if the work on television brings people to my work on stage or any of the other things that I’ve done, then I think that that is extraordinarily good in terms of what’s going on now, for instance, in the world of being a Latin actor, you know, I can’t tell you guys the number of times I’ve been told to, “Change your name. You don’t look like what we expect you to look like. You’re not Cuban enough. You’re not.” And what they mean by that is you’re not, you don’t look right to play drug runner number three. Because auditions for that, going for movies in Miami would be like, No, no, you don’t look Cuban. What do people mean? Coming out of Hollywood to tell me what Latin means. So it was a very big deal to me to hang on to who I am. And where I come from and to own that over and over and over again. And the very first time I saw my name on the marquee on Broadway, not the very first time but when I saw it for “Company,” actually, because it was so huge, and it says Raúl Esparza, over the marquee. All I could think about was like, that’s my dad’s name. And that’s my grandfather’s name. And that’s my great grandfather’s name. Because we’re Cuban, and we all call each other Raúl. Like, we’re very creative, but we’re all but that’s, there’s a whole history there of, of have men who lived in Cuba who came to this country. And then the fact that I get to be up there. And carry their name forward was just a really big deal to me. And I hope that whatever little bit I did helped open doors to more Latin actors getting the opportunity to play whatever parts they want to, instead of being told you’re not enough of what we think the stereotype is. So it seems to me it’s very important. And it’s also really great to talk about it now and to own it and to not apologize for it. I mean, not to ever apologize for it, but to just really be loud about it, which is wonderful. Because I do feel a little bit like we’re still pretty underrepresented in the theater world and on television and film, but I hope that it’s getting, we’re gonna, we’re gonna be able to take that into our hands.
Diep: Right, right. I mean, when I first read the anecdote about you seeing your name on the marquee for the first time and realizing like, I didn’t have to change my name, it made me think of like Lindsey Mendez’s Tony Award speech in 2018, when she got the same advice to change her name. And so, do you think the industry has gotten better in terms of, like you said, people being more open with it because I feel like right now there’s like a floodgate of people being really honest about the darker more racist aspects.
Raúl: No, I don’t think the industry has gotten better about opening doors. I really don’t. I feel that we are taught to expect a certain look from people and definitions of race and ethnicity are created a lot of times in this industry, particularly by what comes out of Hollywood. Like people who are very ignorant about what they’re doing. And I feel that it’s imperative to keep making a lot of noise about it. I told you about that Mixed Blessings playwright. The woman who played my grandmother who was huge Cuban star, Velia Martinez, who was on ¿Qué Pasa, USA?, was given an outfit, a costume for Spanish dancer or something as a joke at the end of Act One, they put her in a flamenco outfit. And they also put a big basket of fruit on her head like she was Carmen Miranda. And they gave her a serape, like a wrap. And she was like, “The hell is this?” And she was insulted about it, actually, you know? And this was many, many years ago, but that kind of thing comes at you all the time.
I remember when I did Evita for the 20th anniversary tour, which was wonderful to get to do and to play Che which is a complicated role for a Cuban actor to play, especially son of exiles. They would say to me, o”h, well, you know, this is a very authentic production of Evita.” And I’d be like, “why?” And they said, “Well, you know, because you’re Cuban. And everybody’s Latin.” And I was like, “Okay, so I’m Cuban. You’re Eva’s Puerto Rican, and your Peron I think has Mexican heritage. How does that make any of us more Argentine? How does that make us more authentic?” So actually, just because we speak the same language, we do not share the same values. And we are very different people. It’s the same thing I always felt growing up in Miami, where there’d be like, “Put your name, you know, you’re white, you’re Black, you’re Latin.” And I’d be like, “well, I’m white. But I am also Latin. What am I?” So it’d be like, “put other.” Other isn’t an answer for anything. So I really feel like, yes, the floodgates are opening. And that’s fantastic. But I think we have to get louder instead of getting quieter. I think we have to make a hell of a lot more noise. And I think that people need to continuously educate themselves about the assumptions we make, or the stereotypes that we have about what, who people are. I mean, the number of times I’ve been asked like, “hey, do you speak Cuban?” Really? Well, that’s not a language. But I do speak Spanish. Or they say, “You don’t sound Cuban.” And what do you mean? What does that mean?
Diep: Yeah you don’t sound like Ricky Ricardo, right?
Raúl: Yes. [in a strong accent] “Hey, I’m Cuban now, that’s what I sound like if I’m Cuban.” Look, some of that’s funny and some of that is extraordinary. Speaking of Ricky Ricardo, did anybody transform television more than Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. If you think about that man being the genius that he was, understanding that his wife needed that platform, understanding how to build a studio audience and a three-camera shoot, and do all the things that we took for granted forever for sitcoms, Ricky, Ricky, Desi Arnaz, created that, you know, and then headed a studio. So all that joking led to a great deal of power. But it’s a struggle that has to constantly keep getting renewed. And I think it’s important to know that we need to own that for ourselves and decide, you know whether the joke’s on us or we’re the ones telling i.
Jose: Did you ever play the part where you were actually surprised that you got it, because you thought that the cards are stacked against you?
Raúl: That’s a good question. I was surprised I got cast in play George Surat in “Sunday in the Park with George,” remember that? But that was because I was so new here. I was so entirely new. And nobody, nobody, I had only done, I had done, “tick, tick….boom!” I had done “Rocky Horror.” And that was like a huge, starring role and that opened so many doors but that was very surprising to me. I have to say that, no, I have never, I have never felt, other than things like that where I’m not famous enough or I’m not sort of well-known enough for you know, I’m not really seriously in the running. I have never felt like the cards are stacked against me in any way because I’m Lat necessarily. Except when it comes to Latin parts and then I just simply don’t get cast. They just will not. Barba was a Cuban character because Warren made him a Cuban character and we decided to go for that. And that was a part of his story. But I think that’s about it for major things I’ve done professionally, where someone will see me as a Latin, as a Latin. So the cards are stacked against me in the opposite way for Latin parts. Again, I don’t look like what the the expected stereotypes and I’m not really even sure what they mean by that, to tell you the truth. I’m not sure they know what they’re looking for. I remember coming in for Capeman to audition, when I was still living in Chicago, and that amazing music, Paul Simon—coming in for audition with Paul Simon and singing for him. And he said, “That was really good. But you’re Cuban, so you can’t possibly play Puerto Rican.” And being like, “Okay.”
Diep: Do you think it’s also like, part of the—and Jose, tell me if I’m like using the right language for this—what’s stereotypically Latin versus like, what the population, what the people actually look like, which spans a whole range? The identity is very, it’s varied. And American culture not being able to recognize the fact that there’s of a diversity within Latinx culture.
Raúl: Yes, I think Latinx culture feels too varied and too multiple to be contained. And people in Hollywood, especially I feel a little bit less so with the theater because the theater is a physical place where talent can really blossom. And the talented people can come in the room and kind of blow you away and they’ll get hired, hopefully. With Hollywood at least I think that there are constant efforts to put people in boxes because it is easier, because you are casting personalities, types, and not necessarily I mean, sometimes glorious, glorious actors. Of course, filmmaking is brutally hard when it’s well done. But they’re also casting inside a container of an idea of so that no acting is necessary, so that you can simply look at the role. And that’s the definition. And I think that also, in American culture, there is such a constant interest in things being Black and white, yay or nay, A or B, and there’s no room for complexity. And that means there’s no room for complexity in human experience either. There’s no room for the difficult explanations. I think of Hillary Clinton who kept saying, “I can’t give you an answer that is a soundbite about these issues. That man can, but I can’t.” And then they attack her for that. Or anybody—Obama was too intelligence, he spoke to well, you know.
They don’t want to hear the clear, more complicated version of things, they want to hear the easy answer. And I think it does also apply to this, to what we’re talking about here, that that multitude, multitudes with many different colors and shapes and sizes and varieties of experience within something that they want to call Latin is uncomfortable. It’s very uncomfortable and not at all the way that is easy for decisions to be made, particularly in entertainment and also in politics. My experience as a Cuban American growing up in Miami is very different from someone who is Nuyorican. You know, we share many things. But there are others, there are other aspects. Or someone who grew up with a Mexican family say in Chicago, or in California—everybody, we bring, we carry our cultural heritage with us and we carry our families with us, our ancestors, and all of the history that shapes us. But the cities themselves take in a very different energy. In Miami to be Cuban was to be king of the world. At least I thought, until I left and I realized, oh, wait a minute, that was just my version of Miami in the 70s and 80s. There was a whole other thing going on that I didn’t know about. You know, a whole other concept of what was political. It was what was political power, and what was the focus of life in the city at the time. Whereas I had met other kids who were raised to feel almost ashamed of speaking Spanish, of being part of the culture and had to sort of rediscover it later. I wanted to be so American when I was growing up among all the Cuban kids in Miami, and then I left and all I wanted to do was be Cuban. But I didn’t know that. So I think that yeah, I feel that we all, we complicate things on a bigger scale, than people are comfortable with.
Jose: Let’s celebrate our culture then what’s your absolute favorite word in Spanish? And if it’s a curse word, then we’ll love you even more.
Raúl: Comemierda! That’s my favorite. I’m always trying to teach people how to curse in Spanish because I was like, come on. English is alright, but you got nothing on us.
Jose: It’s music.
Raúl: Yes, it is. It is it also because we could say it so fast and emphatically. And it’s code. It’s true. My favorite words are always like, the curse words, but I don’t know a Cuban who doesn’t curse every other minute.
Jose: When all of this is over, are you looking forward to being in a show? Or to see a show?
Raúl: I’m looking forward to seeing shows. I really am. I took it for granted that I could just kind of go see my friends do stuff. And now, I wish I hadn’t. First of all, theater’s too expensive. So I hope that one of the things that changes right now is that nobody could afford a $300 ticket or $400 ticket or $200. Like, hopefully, this will make some intrinsic changes in the structure of how we price theater and who theater is available to, I hope. But that being said, I took it for granted that I could go to see stuff and support stuff and then it was so expensive, so I didn’t always do it. But now I’m like, I want to go back. I want to be out there and see what people are creating. This is the greatest city in the world. I think it’s the capital of the world, New York, and I miss the energy of it. It’s so inspiring. And I want to get out there and because Joe Papp once said that, “The artists need an immediate environment to create. You get chipped away at like a block, you know a sculpture. Well, there’s no more immediate environment,” he said, “than New York City.” And I think it’s true. And I’ve been so aware of it in the silence for the last three months of, god we live here so that we can all shape each other. That’s how we get better. It’s amazing. Yeah, I’m really looking forward to that.