On October 4th, immediately after a touring show at Chicago’s Northeastern Illinois University, Salsation was interviewed by Effie Mihopolous in the small, CD-lined underground studio at WZRD, the university’s radio station. Present were, Salsation Co-Artistic Directors Ramon Charriez and Beatriz Jamaica, Touring Directors Juan Villa and Patrick Garone as well as new touring members Linnea Carrera and Michael Villarreal. Linnea, Michael, Patrick and Beatriz had all performed in that evening’s show. Linnea and Patrick are NEIU students (Michael is an alumnus.) After talking a bit about the show, Effie asked Salsation to talk about their training. We join in as Patrick talks about his experiences doing theater at NEIU.
PATRICK: I’m getting to do some shows here, getting to get some good experience directing and some good work at the Theater Department.
WZRD: And how long have you been a Junior here at Northeastern?
PATRICK: Well, I’ve been a Junior since 1998. I’ve been a Junior here since last fall.
RAMON: Yes. Actually guys, Michael just came into the room. Michael is one of our other actors, he’s not a “co” but he’s awesome. Say hello, Michael.
RAMON: Villarreal. Well, okay. I studied at Wright College, I did that for a couple of years and I studied at Improv Olympic and…the Annoyance Theater and I’ve taken some Meisner Classes at…a couple of acting studios and I studied under Del Close’s direction and if it weren’t for Keith Privett, our founding director, I don’t think Salsation would be around. And I am grateful to him and to Del Close for allowing me to learn what I have learned over the years.
WZRD: Well, I think his spirit would be pleased with the situation that we have right now. I’m sure he’s like “Yeah, yeah,” all crowded into a tiny space. You know like we’re almost like doing a comedy skit right now the way we’re all set up here in our big big studios here at WZRD but you know I’m old enough to remember, you know, BEZ in their old studio was about this size when I used to be interviewed for doing art projects and poetry projects. They couldn’t fit more than one person at a time, the second person had to wait outside and we’d take turns going in. So, let’s go on down the line.
BEATRIZ: Okay. I took a lot of theater class at UIC-that’s University of Illinois at Chicago. And then took more classes at Act One Studios. And then finally said “Okay, I’ve taken tons of classes, it’s time to get out there.” So I auditioned for Salsation and they took me and really this is the best way of doing theater, just going out there and doing improv and I was able to get some writing done which was wonderful, because I was an actor and didn’t think about actually writing my own stuff and there was a couple of sketches that Salsation did that I helped write. And it’s really exciting and I loved the opportunity.
WZRD: Let’s finish going down the line and then we’ll deal with certain issues, like you’re a Latino sketch comedy company which isn’t your average thing.
LINNEA: Um..,I took a lot of classes when I was younger at Northern Illinois University and then I went for two years in High School to the Chicago Academy for the Performing Arts where I did a lot of work with a fantastic totally insane old man, Lawrence McCully. And then I came here and I did Communications. I’m a Junior…but I haven’t been a Junior quite as long as Patrick.
LINNEA: But…who knows? I might beat him in the end. And, this is my first real job, so, yeah I’m really excited. This is the first professional thing I’ve ever done.
WZRD: And our new arrival? Do you want to give us a little background about how you came to theater and sketch comedy?
MICHAEL: Sure. I’m Michael Villarreal. I was a student at Northeastern and had started doing a little acting back like eight years ago. But…I kind of got out of it, just life happened and then I, about two years ago, started going back to Second City and did improv and the writing program there and learned a lot and then I started to audition and I got accepted for Salsation’s touring company and I’ve learned a lot from everyone that’s part of the ensemble and part of the touring company and I really like the material. It has a really strong satire to it that I think that we need to see sometimes.
WZRD: Yeah, I think that’s a really important issue because, you know, except for the token white guy, Patrick-
WZRD: -who I don’t know could be half Latino for all I know and just looks like a white boy.
WZRD: But…you know, you guys are a Latino company and, I mean, come on, let’s face it, even though there’s a thousand theater companies in the city of Chicago it’s always hard for a Latino to get a job. So, you guys took things into your own hands, you know, like except for Teatro Vista, right there, that shows you, how many other Latino companies come to mind right away. You guys took things into your own hands and started your own company. Would you like to talk about that a little bit?
RAMON: Sure…My name is Ramon, again. Actually, the reason why we started was because at Improv Olympic there were other troupes like Oui Be Negros, and Stir Friday Night, which was an all Asian sketch comedy group and we thought: “Wow, there isn’t any Latino comedy troupe out there and we’d like to see what happens.” And, so we got quite a few Latinos together at the school and then we decided that we would form a group. Little did we know that we would be around eight years later.
WZRD: Yeah, you guys have done a lot of…plays. I know that your touring show is a compendium of all the different plays. I’m going to read some because I think you guys always have the best titles. “Whole Lotta Shakira Goin’ On,” “Touched By An Ango,” “My Big Fat Quinceanera.” Am I saying that right? “Veracruz: Cirque De Salsation.” Who comes up with these great titiles?
JUAN: It’s a battle. There are some titles that don’t make it that we…that we like.
RAMON: The “Pinata Strikes Back” and…“The Little Sweatshop of Horrors.”
JUAN: So, its…we just go around and we try different methods. Keith has been exposed to a lot of sketch groups so he thinks of different ways…to come up with a title and a name. It’s hard for all of us to agree to it. We all have our ideas and our preferences. But it does take us a little bit of a while but we…fight and yell and cry and make up.
JUAN: And we roll a dice and then there it is.
WZRD: Well, I mean being a Latino company you can’t help being political and living in the times that we do and a lot of the material I saw tonight deals with politics in, you know, a non round-about way. Would you like to talk about that a little bit? And how your politics drive the material?
PATRICK: I like to think that-contrary to maybe what you saw tonight-we’re pretty-it’s pretty diverse politically. We’ve got a guy who’s on our ensemble who’s pretty, a pretty…
PATRICK: We have a Republican. And we love him. We love him to death. He’s a great guy. His name is Aamer Arboleda. So, I would hesitate to say that it’s all leftist. I think that a lot of the people who have been writing, like in the last year and a half or so hang a little bit to the left like myself. But I like to think that we are welcoming of other people’s points of view. I mean, I wouldn’t dismiss anything outright.
RAMON: That’s what makes up Salsation: The many different voices.
JUAN: Yeah. And also, the best way to do like a satire or to score a point is to do it from the perspective of what you might consider the opposition. So that’s how we try our best to keep it to not keep it-‘Cause who wants to see a completely leftist perspective of a show? So it’s good that we have someone like Aamer. All of us, we might be Democratic or Liberal but as in today’s time, as proven by the election, it’s so gray. You know, it’s never just clear cut. It is fun though. The best part that I like is that we have a good time just talking about the different things that are going on. And that’s how we find different things. We go through clippings of newspapers and just talk, converse. And then, “Who wants to write about that?” “Who wants to write about this or that?” It’s…It’s tough, It’s like a challenge but we don’t ever want to stick too completely to one side.
WZRD. Yeah, the sketches are very topical, you know, so it makes it very contemporary, ‘cause it’s like right today. Although, my favorite is Patrick’s…
WZRD. At first you think it’s a little boy praying and he’s, you know, “Bless Mommy and Daddy” and, you know, God starts talking to him. And he’s so exited he’s like, “Oh! Oh my God. I’ve prayed to you for so long and you’re finally answering me.” And he says…
(Makes a throat clearing noise.)
WZRD: And Mr. Bush knows he’s in trouble at that point and says a word we can’t say on the air.
WZRD: Exactly. That’s good. That’s good. Um…but…given the constraints of radio and how we can’t use certain words, perhaps you guys would like to do a sketch a little bit…a little…I don’t know, it’s kind of hard to kind of change your material.
Salsation then performs a series of sketches.
WZRD: …Actually speaking of miming and imitating movement, you guys use that quite effectively in your skits. Do you want to comment on that? Or have you studied mime or dance?
PATRICK: When you study improv, I mean mime is a always big part – I don’t want to say that mime is a big part of it but object work is a big part of it because you are not using props or costumes or anything like that. So there is a big emphasis on physical acting. So it’s just kind of part and parcel of the improv training that we’ve all had.
JUAN: Well…it’s pretty much the same as he said, adding on to it of just, of never…I think especially here in the States is a very talkedy-talking heads. And it’s very good to-I guess in my mind-to Europeanize it. Which is more visual and movements. And object work. We try the best as we can of adding objects-painting the scenery. Because it’s just-surprising how we don’t use our imaginations nowadays, and that just adds to it. And you almost feel like a five-year-old when you watch it because you get really into it. Your imagination just carries over it. So…that’s something that we try to do in our rehearsals…to do that because it just makes it a lot more alive, the scene.
WZRD: You know we’ve been hearing from the men a lot, maybe we should hear from…the women!
WZRD: Let’s hear a little from the women. Tell us what it’s like being in an all Latino theater company-well, you know, with the white guy exception.
BEATRIZ: He’s off-white. Well, what I’d like to say is…this is really a wonderful opportunity because before I came to Salsation I would audition and end up getting roles as-I swear-as, you know, The Maid…as what else?
WZRD: Or even worse, the girlfriend of the gangbanger. So you can’t even have any action.
WZRD: No, but I’ve seen a lot of bad shows that, you know, try to feature Latinos.
BEATRIZ: And it never fails, I’ll go to regular auditions. And that’s what they’ll say. And they’ll ask “Do you speak Spanish?” and they’ll love me to throw in a few Spanish words. But in Salsation since we write our own material it really is challenging for me to think, “Ok, what is happening now and what do I want to say? I have a voice and what do I want to say?” There was one sketch I wrote about Mexico being personified and going to see a psychiatrist and just saying, “I don’t know what to do my children are leaving just running away and going into the neighbor’s yard”. That to me-I wanted to say something as a Chicana and knowing a lot about Mexico and I thought, “Wow, I have this opportunity. Where else can I?” And actually audiences coming up after and say that they can relate. They don’t see this material in other places because it’s not being written. So, it’s really a wonderful opportunity. It gives us a chance to write. And every season it’s something different. We get together and say what are the current issues and whose going to write about it and let’s workshop it. So some things make it through and some don’t. But then you know we can work on it and bring it back. So it’s really a wonderful opportunity for Latinos and Latinas specifically because, like I said, you know, I can only play so many gangbangers.
WZRD: Well, do you get a lot of audience response where people, you know, as you say, relate to it? Do they, you know, kind of like, recognize-is is empowering for them?
BEATRIZ: Most definitely. Especially when-We have different kinds of audiences, you know, all kinds. But when it’s a Latino audience, we can tell. It’s like they get the jokes. We do something and it’s like “Ha ha ha! That’s alright! That’s my Mom up there!” Or whatever. They can relate.
BEATRIZ: There’s another sketch I wrote where the Latino goes off to college and he’s a first generation college student and his mom goes with him because she doesn’t want to leave him and she’s like “Ay, mijo! Who’s going to cook for you?” You know, who else can relate? So I took it one step further and saying yeah the mom went with him to college.
WZRD: Well, you know, what I think is interesting, too is that you guys are actually in Pilsen performing, you know, or at least you were for a long time. So, you actually, you know, can get a Latino audience because they’re right there, they don’t have to travel to see you guys in the Theater District, in Boys Town, where a lot of the other theater companies perform. Would somebody like to address that issue?
RAMON: Well, actually, over the years we have performed all over the city. We’ve performed at The Second City-at The Skybox. We’ve performed in Pilsen. We’ve performed-actually in Boystown. And, we’ve had a chance to really go around the US as well with our tours. That’s how we made it out here tonight. This is part of our touring season.
WZRD: How extensively do you tour?
JUAN: The big month-
JUAN: Boston. We’ve done Boston. We’ve gone to Syracuse, New York.
JUAN: Austin, Texas.
JUAN: Iowa, Michigan…We might have another one in New York City, t we’re waiting for. For Manhattanville.
RAMON: Next year, San Francisco.
JUAN: So, we get to go around. It’s actually every year it’s getting…that’s why like Linnea and Michael are new people from our touring group. This is their first time working with us and it’s been great. We’re looking to expand so we can have-sort of like other groups do it, like Second City-Team A, Team B, Team C-so we can get as much money as possible and continue to be in control or our artistic work. So we can pay for a space. Because that’s always been a challenge. Of just like-are we going to a space where people are going out of their way to see us? Because each show draws a different crowd and we want to be at a location where not just Latinos go but also non-Latinos so that we can get a perspective on things.
WZRD: How difficult is it? I know for a while you were doing things in Pilsen but like every theater company to keep it’s lifeblood going has to find a new audience, you know, an expanded one. So that’s very wise that you guys are doing that. Because you can even do the same play to a different audience if you don’t feel like writing new material and it’s a whole new thing. But how difficult is it being an itinerant company?
JUAN: It’s hard, you know. I mean Ramon has been with the company a long time and so has Keith and they’ve seen the different turn outs for all the different shows that we have and we just now did a show over at The Prop Theater over on like Elston and like Addison, I believe.
JUAN: Exactly, because it’s on Kimball and Elston. And it was an uneven turnout. Not as much as we were hoping for. People liked the show. (Inaudible) in Pilsen, you know. We did two shows there. We did “My Big Fat Quinceanera” and “Veracruz: Cirque de Salsation” and “Quinceanera” just blew away. It was great, the turn out. And then “Veracruz” wasn’t. So…you know, this touring thing is vital to our company. Because then, that money will support wherever we want to perform next. And not have to depend on box office money. Cause not a lot of theaters can. We’re not for profit. We just want to break even or have enough money for next season. Ramon, I don’t know, how’s it look for you?
RAMON: It’s just been what you said. Over the years, we’ve had our ups and downs, every theater company has it. The great thing is that we have been growing and we’ve had audiences come back. The fact that we have fans that see us on the street and say “Oh my God, I remember you. You were in that show!” That’s awesome, you know. It’s different with every show and I’ve seen cast members come and go and a lot of them come back because they love the family atmosphere that we try to create in our theater company.
WZRD: What other theater companies do you guys admire? Who are, like, your models?
RAMON: As far as-Well, obviously Second City. That’s why we modeled ourselves like Second City. We have Teatro Vista. Teatro Campesinos, they were the original Latino sketch troupe back in the ‘60s.
WZRD: Wow. Tell us about that. I’ve never even heard of those guys.
RAMON: Actually they’re not from Chicago but it’s funny we performed for them but we didn’t know we were performing for them. We just knew that some group had hired us to come out and perform for them. And after the show the came up to us and were like “We’re glad that the spirit is still alive.” And so that just threw us for a loop.
JUAN: What’s that other company from California?
WZRD: There’s also another Latino company there. I saw them as part of a festival actually I saw them performing in Florida but it was like I don’t know if they still exist they had been around a long time but I don’t know if they still exist. They had been around a long time and it was like a decade ago. Of course, I can’t remember their name but they were doing some really great work by Latino playwrights but you know it wasn’t a sketch comedy…
WZRD: Yeah, you learned your lesson well.
RAMON: I’d also like to throw out another couple of other theater companies like Teatro Luna which is an awesome all Latina theater company which I respect and admire very much. It’s very hard to get Latina actresses together and do something very positive for the community and they have come together and done just that and we respect the heck out of them.
PATRICK: I just want to say one of the things that we have in common-especially with Teatro Luna-they are a company that primarily writes their own material like we do and I think a lot of impetus for starting this group came from not wanting to be anybody’s puppet. ‘Cause, unfortunately as an actor you are kind of a puppet. Depending on who’s directing the play, if it happens to be a show you like, you never really get to tell your story. But when you are writing your own material, you know, you can say whatever you want to-you can express yourself. That’s why it’s such a great format. And that’s a great power of the work that we do is that it all stuff that we’re writing ourselves.
WZRD: Well, you know, Patrick, aside from being the token white guy you get to play the heavies besides Bush…like the general. Obviously, you’re a nice guy, I mean I don’t know you, I just met you.
(Patrick laughs evilly. Others join him.)
WZRD: And also you get to play Banderas, so you know you’re the token white guy and you get to play like epitome of what people think a, you know, is a Latino guy.
PATRICK: That was my first time doing that tonight, actually. In terms of playing quote-I’m doing the quote signs right now, although nobody can see me.
PATRICK: In doing, like, the villains, I don’t mind because I think there is an equal measure of-like, I don’t only play the villainous parts, I get to play-I just love that I’m using the word “villainous.”
PATRICK: I feel like I should be twirling a mustache or something. You know, it’s a pretty good balance. I don’t think it’s mean spirited, you know what I mean. I don’t think a white person coming to see the show would-I think there might be a misconception among some people that it is an “I Hate Whitey” show. Maybe we toe the line a little but but I think-just like the way we use stereotypes in the show-It’s in kind of a deconstructionist way. So it’s not like it just one-dimensional or mean-spirited. The sketch that you referring to about the general is something that one of our writers-his name was Jason Hindo, who wrote for us for about a year. Juan and I-who direct touring, we felt really strongly about getting that in because of what it had to say and what’s going on in the world right now. And it’s a little hard-hitting and it’s a little…prickly as a scene but we felt it was important to get it in there. Even though it might be a little off-putting for some people but we both thought it was a very important statement to make.
WZRD: Yeah, completely. And it makes people think about war and peace which we kind of want them to think about and as the situation goes on more and more it’s important to get people thinking about that. Well, our other Latina actress-who hasn’t been saying much-gets to do a skit which I think is really telling. And I think what’s admirable about your company is that when you do do stereotypes you do them in an interesting way. She comes expecting a scholarship because she’s a Latina so she’s trying really hard to show how she’s Latina, “I do this…”and she’s doing her little token phrases and the bottom line is she doesn’t really speak Spanish, she’s not bilingual-even though she’s pretending to. She’s summarily dismissed and she’s not the right material but gives a speech on the way out and she’s like “I’m proud of being what I am and even though I don’t speak Spanish, I’m a Latina,” and blah-blah-blah, blah-blah-blah. And I have a lot of Latina friends who are in the same boat-they don’t speak Spanish, but that doesn’t make them non-Mexican, they’re second, first generation, whatever. And to me that’s a very interesting way of showing what a real Latina is. It’s not a stereotype of what people think.
LINNEA: I was really excited to get to do that scene tonight, it was the first time I got to do it and, um, cause that was basically me, I wasn’t really pretending all that much. You know, I-
LINNEA: Yeah, yeah, that’s just me up there. No, I mean, I don’t speak very good Spanish-In fact it’s rather poor and tends to come out sounding like French.
LINNEA: But, I have a great respect for where my family has come from and my cultural background and I feel very strongly about it and so that scene for me was really fun because, you know, I look like a white girl and I sound like a white girl and for the most part, I act like a white girl but I really consider myself-
LINNEA: No, I’m not. I consider myself a Hispanic woman. That’s something that I’ve had to deal with too. And you don’t here about that a lot and I like that they touched on that issue because you know it out there and it happens and you have to deal with it. You know, it’s just a lot of fun and I feel like I can be myself with this group of people and I can be myself the way that I see myself. The way that I view myself as a Hispanic, the way that I view myself as a person and it’s all OK. And I think that’s the important thing that they are accepting, like Patrick said, you know, it’s not just one type of person or like one view point that they are looking for, you know, and I’ve only been with them like two months but I already feel like I’m a part of the group and like they just sort of welcomed me in and it’s been an awesome experience.
JUAN: Let me just throw a question out to Linnea and to Beatriz, how has been the experience for you guys growing up, actually, and with what is an identity crisis. It’s in general but I’m just curious with you guys, because we were talking about that subject.
WZRD: What’s it been like growing up a Latina in America today?
(BEATRIZ cackles. Laughter.)
BEATRIZ: My personal experience is…it’s hard because I grew up seeing my mom and my aunts and my grandmothers and how traditional they were and it was confusing in thinking, “Gee, is that Latina?” You know, sacrificing your life for the man in your life, and if I’m not like that, does that mean I’m not Latina? So…and just growing up and saying, “Wait.” And finding my own voice and finding the voices of other women that were like me and saying well no gee I don’t have to cook and clean and have, you know, five kids and I know that’s a stereotype as well but that’s what I was surrounded with, right, and growing up a lot of my friends didn’t go to college because their dad just wouldn’t let them. And it’s like well gee that’s an obedient daughter so how could you blame them for doing that and yet they closed so many doors but yet for them they were just trying to be the good daughter that they were raised to be and I on the other hand…was able to say I’m out of here and I ended up going to New York for college and it was the best thing that I did but even then I was torn to think gee I’m a bad Latina for doing that so I guess that’s more of a woman issue but also Latina.
WZRD: You know that’s really true. Like, I come from a Greek culture and in many ways you know they think the same, it’s a very non feminist culture, shall we say. And those are all issues that as a woman you have to go through. I know when my mother was young she didn’t get to go to not only to college but high school really. Because a girl-they came from a large family and actually they were wealthy and it wasn’t a question of money but of just the way things were done. The boys went to school and the women stayed home and they learned to be housewives and they were expected to continue to be housewives and have kids and do that kind of stuff. You know, that raises a lot of issues. How does your family react to you guys now being actors?
BEATRIZ: You know that’s really funny, because when my Mom came to see me for the first time afterwards, you know, I said, “So, Mom, do you have any questions?” I thought she’d have all kinds of questions. And she said,