¡Salsation! was founded in 1998 by Latino actors from Chicago’s improv comedy community. In 2002, the informal collective of artists became the Salsation Theater Company, a not-for-profit corporation eligible for grants. The company now includes an education outreach program and a touring cast.
The casts include veteran members of the permanent ¡Salsation! Ensemble, associates and new talent. Many are natives of the Chicago region, but our heritage traces back to Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Mexico, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, and Venezuela.
Cast members have been trained at places such as The Second City, Improv Olympic, Players Workshop, Comedy Sportz, Blackbox Studios, Steppenwolf Theatre, and The Annoyance Theater.
Salsation Theatre Company began in 1998 when students from Chicago’s improv community decided to get together and form a group. It was something that almost had to happen: In the mid 90’s, Chicago, which is widely considered the home of improv and sketch comedy, saw something of a resurgence of talent and performers such as Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch and Horatio Sanz and others were appearing in hit revues at the historic Second City before moving on to shows like Saturday Night Live and MADtv. Also, Latino popular culture was finally “crossing over” with artists like Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez creating what the media would call a Latin Explosion in entertainment. Writer/performer John Leguizamo was performing character-oriented comic monologues that took an irreverent look at Latino life. A comedy troupe coming out of both Chicago’s extensive improv scene and Chicago’s large Latino population in the 1990’s almost seemed inevitable.
Second City and I.O. both have large training programs and process hundreds of students a year, but for Latino students in 1998, the population seemed strangely homogenous: Hispanic performers were few and far between and the comedy establishment was largely male and Anglo-dominated. Latino students naturally sought each other out wanting to explore their shared experiences but finding it difficult to do in the classes and groups that they were in at the time. When they realized that there were enough of them, they decided to start an improv group and Salsation was born. They sought out director Keith Privett to guide them.
Salsation went through growing pains in the first two years of its existence. There was an early schism in the group between those members seeking to focus on pure improvisation and those wishing to focus on scripted sketch comedy and writing. During this time, Salsation lost many of its founding members. This was the first crisis the company would face in its fifteen year history. Leading into its first sketch show, Salsation picked up many strong female performers who would become important members of the group such as Diane Hererra, Josie Dykas, Eva Rios, and Sandra Chavez. While finding Hispanic sketch and improv actors was difficult at the time, finding Latinas who were willing to do comedy was even more difficult.
Along with remaining founding members Joe Nunez, Paul Vato, Aamer Arboleda, Ramon Charriez, and Keith Privett, this group would form the precursor to Salsation’s Artistic Ensemble. Salsation honed their material by playing festivals and college gigs which would later become a staple and financially vital part of the group. An important component of the group’s success and longevity also formed at this time: a sense of family. Perhaps this is a cultural carryover or a product of the group’s misfit origins but Salsationistas will often describe themselves as big family—often a big dysfunctional family—but still a family. After two years and with a close-knit cast of writer/performers, and money in the bank, Salsation was ready to put up its first real sketch comedy revue in its hometown.
In 2000, Salsation premiered their breakout show Touched by an Anglo (TBAA) to delighted audiences at both at Second City and on Chicago’s south side in a successful attempt to bring the show to both Latino and more general theater-going audiences. TBAA was a wildly funny commentary on the pop cultural “Latin explosion” and featured sketches, songs, impressions and parodies. The show was widely acclaimed and extended multiple times. It ran for a total of six months in multiple venues. Anglo featured a fluid running order that was constantly tweaked and revised to allow the development of new material.
The success of the show came at the price of another great schism in the group between those that wanted to stay in Chicago and those that wanted to bring their material to Los Angeles to pursue TV and movie development. Again, Salsation split in half, with several key members such as founders Joe Nunez, Paul Vato, and Diane Herrera leaving for LA and starting a spin-off group called Barrio Speedwagon. Later, Eva Rios and Sandra Chavez would leave for L.A as well. However, Josie Dykas-having missed out on Anglo-actually returned from L.A. during this period and rejoined the group. This was another period of growth and adjustment for Salsation as the company found a new director in Ed Garza who was then running the training center at Second City. Garza was no stranger to minority themed sketch comedy having written and performed with the gay and lesbian themed sketch group, GayCo. A talented new batch of Salsationistas joined the group at this time such as Eddie Martinez, Hugo Rosado, Juan Villa, Rose Guccione, Sonia Astacio, and Sylvia Alvarado. Garza took a more disciplined and orderly approach to Salsation’s comedy with a Latin flavor and challenged the group to create smarter and less stereotype-based comedy. He also brought a strong visual style and a sense of rhythm and musicality to the group’s Second City-style shows.
Garza’s time with the group produced one of its most popular and best-loved revues: 2003’s My Big Fat Quinceñera a wildly comic exploration of generational and gender fault lines in Latino culture. Told through the eyes of an “illegal” extraterrestrial, Quinceñera was a tightly constructed sketch revue that also showed off the group’s many unexpected talents, including serious musical numbers, improvisation, monologues, and movement pieces. Garza followed this with the often bittersweet Veracruz! also in 2003.
As well as artistically, this was a period of organizational and financial growth for the company. In 2003, Salsation! Theatre Company was granted non-profit status. The company also formed its own Artistic Ensemble and Board of Directors both separate from the cast of any given show. In the past, artistic and financial decisions were made by an informal core group of Salsationistas, but the company was now large and diverse enough to support a larger organizational structure.
During this period, Salsation also expanded its previous touring program to a full-fledged touring company featuring a rotating “best of” show that goes to college campuses, festivals and other events around the country. Salsation’s touring program is now a place where veteran performers and new members get a chance to work on archival material together. It is a place where new performers and directors can hone their craft. To date, Salsation has toured through out the Midwest as well as such far flung states as New York, Texas, Tennessee and Washington D.C. In 2002, Salsation helped launch the very first annual Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival and has been a mainstay of the festival ever since.
In 2004, founding member Keith Privett returned to the director’s seat with The Piñata Strikes Back, a sharper and more actor-driven show than those immediately preceding it. Piñata was filled with wildly funny characters and often biting riffs on pop culture and current events.
By the time 2006 rolled around, Salsation had not produced an all-new sketch comedy show in two years and had undergone one of its characteristic personnel turnarounds. Then touring director Patrick Garone was given the opportunity to direct The FANTA Menace (TFM). an irreverent exploration of the Latino identity versus the disturbing gentrification of Hispanic culture. FANTA was remarkable in that it was the first Salsation revue which did not feature a single founding Salsation member as a director or performer. It represented a brand new generation of Salsation including newcomers Nelson Velazquez, Elias Morales, and Michael Villareal along with a performance from a returning Eva Rios.
Salsation also took opportunities to diversify and experiment with other formats. The company used 2007 to get back to its roots as an improv troupe performing regularly around Chicago and experimenting with long-form improvisation entitled Can’t Have Nothin’ Nice. Salsation also produced an all-monologue show that harkened back to the company’s original John Leguizamo inspirations. Many of these pieces were bittersweet or even dramatic in tone, which was a stark contrast to the company’s fast-paced sketch shows.
In keeping with its non-profit status, Salsation also created a series of workshops to bring theater arts to Latino communities. In 2007, Salsation paired up with Casa Central community center in Chicago’s Humbolt Park neighborhood and prepared a series of improvisation workshops with local kids which culminated in a live comedy show where the kids got to perform for their parents and community. Part of Salsation’s mission is to give the joy of theater and self-expression to an under-served population and to give the younger generation opportunities for which Salsation’s founders sought.
Subsequently, Salsation brought a thrice-extended sketch revue entitled The Devil Wears Chanklas – a hilarious examination of the diversity of the 21st Century Latino experience, as it relates to immigration, jobs and family life. This show featured a return of Beatriz Jamaica and Hugo Rosado to the Salsation stage along with Chicago comedy veteran Ricky Carmona. Chanklas was instrumental in bringing Latino artists together from disparate background to form new Latino-based comedy groups and shows to Chicago.
Later that year Salsation began a yearly one-day-only sketch comedy event called Salsa-Sketch where 20-30 performers take residency in a theater writing, rehearsing, and performing original sketch comedy all in one day. This event allowed the company to reach out to members of the theater community to participate with Salsation as well as a venue to showcase the very things that Salsation wants to give people access to – improvisation, writing, and performance in a safe, nurturing environment.
Riding the wave of success of Chanklas, the company produced their next spring show Bank of A-matress-ca:GhettoDog Millionaire, a sketch comedy revue offering a comedic look into the everyday lives of people who delve into issues such as crime, sexuality, and the challenges found in the workplace while hoping to stay afloat in today’s economy. This show highlighted contributions from Artistic Associates Gabe Martinez and Horacio Ramirez, and Michael Villarreal. The revue was also a return in direction from Ed Garza who had not worked with Salsation since Quinceañera. The show was a Chicago Metromix/RedEye pick of shows to see, was featured on CAN-TV, WGRB-AM,and attracted a wide audience of patrons.
In 2010, the company decided to address the definition of the Latino living in the “generation text” era with their hit spring show Ctrl+Alt+Deport. Salsation explored material to see what happens when relationships are pitted against technology. The show highlighted contributions from Artistic Associates Mary Zemaitis, Horacio Ramirez, Gabe Martinez, and Maria Mendoza along with a return to the stage after a long theatrical absence by Ensemble Member Nelson Velazquez. Again the show was a Chicago Tribune/Metromix/RedEye pick of shows to see and was featured on CAN-TV’s ENE Chicago Rocks program.
On the heels on Ctrl+Alt+Deport, Salsation produced the critically-acclaimed fall show It Takes A Village, People! – a show meant to explore and address issues and struggles in the LGBT Latino community. With acclaim from the Chicago Tribune, multiple guest spots on the Feast of Fun podcast, supporting reviews on nwi.com, and interviews on WGRB-AM, this show would live to go onto more success at the 2011 Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival as part of a best-of-year presentation. The Chicago Reader reported that “…Salsation’s comedy is based on relationships rather than strings of jokes. The characters are fully formed, and the sketches they inhabit…create the sense that you’re dropping in on their lives.”
For many years, Salsation had been known as only a sketch comedy group. However, Salsation actually started out as improv group many years previously. The rotating cast of performers performed the new improv show Back to Basics in front of audiences in the Chicagoland area with great crowds and fantastic feedback. As shows continued, Salsation began being asked to come back and do more shows in Chicago at places like The Second City DeMaat Theatre, Chemically Imbalanced Comedy, Stage773, Open Door Theatre, and Gorilla Tango Theatre. It was a fantastic way to get begin a base of performance that would feed ideas and skills into future productions.
Fortunately Salsation raised a decent amount of money to keep the shows and opportunities going for the rest of the year. We needed money to cover operational costs, fund future sketch & improv shows, cover costs for touring and festival appearances, and leave us in a good position to be able to expand out programming.
For 15 years, Salsation Theatre Company has been providing Chicago and the country with its unique brand of Comedy with a Latin Flavor. Salsation has given dozens of talented artists the chance to develop their own artistic voices, to tell their stories, and to showcase the Hispanic experience in a fun and interesting way. In a city where theater companies come and go every day, Salsation has achieved a rare milestone. While the world of comedy and improv is notoriously cut-throat and competitive, Salsation has managed to cultivate a unique sense of family. It is this atmosphere that keeps people in Salsation and manages to bring them back after they have left.