Get to Know Desiree Sanchez, Artistic Director at Aquila Theatre

The following is a transcript of an interview with Desiree Sanchez by Convos Executive Director Todd Wetzel (edited for brevity). Watch the full interview here

TODD WETZEL, Assistant Vice Provost, Student Life and Executive Director, Purdue Convocations and Elliott Hall of Music
We have the great pleasure to interview Desiree Sanchez, the artistic director of the New York City-based theatre company, Aquila Theatre. Aquila specializes in the classics – an amazing bundle of stories rooted in the plays of classical antiquity, the Greek and Roman mythologies, works of Shakespeare and so many others. Recent Aquila engagements at Purdue include this immediate past season with a gripping and intense production of The Odyssey and the adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. Past seasons we also had Aquila to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Aquila has also graced our stages here at Purdue with productions of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Aristophanes’ Birds, as well as an earlier production of The Odyssey. Aquila started in 1991 in London and then moved to the U.S. in 1994 and rapidly established itself as one of the foremost producers of classical theater in the US with their regular tours to 50 or 60 American cities each year. And since 1998, the company has been the permanent company in residence at the Center for Ancient Studies at New York University.

Desiree, welcome, it’s great to have you here on the Convos Cultural Update. Guess you’re on vacation a little bit right now?

DESIREE SANCHEZ, Artistic Director, Aquila Theatre
Thank you for having me, this is great. I’ve escaped my home and did a last-minute rental in Cape Cod. Unfortunately it’s raining but I’m just really happy to get out of my house – I’ll take it.

TW: I think we all share that sentiment, so good for you. We’ll live vicariously through your Cape Cod journey here during the length of the interview. It’s been a great pleasure for us to be able to talk to leaders and thinkers in the artistic field, especially those that have been connected to our Purdue audiences over the years, and we’ve been so thrilled to have Aquila be a part of our Purdue cultural community multiple times. Over 20 years we’ve had this great connection and so it’s a pleasure for us. Rather than start with something somewhat mundane can I start with a provocative question?

DS: Sure.

TW: So we live in a world of instantaneous connections and voluminous amounts of data. Talking heads and blogs are interpreting the world around us and so how in the world can the classics – these ancient Greek and Roman tales, these Shakespearean tales – speak to us today?

DS: Ultimately this is a really big question and a really big conundrum for us at the moment – and not because we don’t believe that they can’t – we absolutely, firmly believe that these works can speak to us today. I feel like these works are under attack and unfairly so in a politically correct world and I feel that we people who put these works out there for the general public have a responsibility to make these works speak to us today. We’ve always felt that our mission is to take these works that have been interpreted in one way and dust them off and try and get at the essential spirit of each of these works – why they have lasted as long as they do and make them relevant to our lives. So as a woman of color I can read these and feel some ownership of them because they’re part of our story whether we like it or not.

Ultimately we need to hear more stories, not less.

I definitely feel that we need to do a lot more work in expanding the canon – that is something that I have always wanted to do and always felt is the hardest thing to do. Even though I may come across something that’s more obscure, I find it difficult to sell it to venues because they fear it’s not got the name recognition. Then we won’t be able to sell it and we could lose money and there’s just this vicious cycle of how do we do it if we can’t get the audience members in the seats to support it? So I’m hoping that with everything that is going on in the world people will make more of an effort to go – our local arts venue has booked this title and we never heard of it before but maybe it’s time I go and see it and give it a chance.

I have been doing a lot of work and reading things, trying to get out there and find new work. James Baldwin is somebody I’m enjoying – I never read before. I’m finding artists from my own culture in Puerto Rico. I’ve had to order books and they’re taking forever because they’re just mostly out of print. I was researching, trying to find works that have the name recognition but also touch upon things that are a little bit more relevant, and Jane Austen was one of them. I came across an unfinished work of hers, Sandition, in which she talks about a woman of color from the West Indies who was brought over who had a large fortune. Then she doesn’t finish the book and that’s it! And I’m like wait, wait, what happened to that woman? So that sort of led me down a whole rabbit hole of learning about the Earl of Mansfield. He did actually have a niece or daughter that he took care of who was what they called mulatto, which I’m very familiar with in my own family being from Puerto Rico, and how difficult it was to be of mixed-race origin. That led me to a book I’m currently reading – The Woman of Color. It was written in 1780, if that’s not a classic from a classic time! So the work’s out there, we just have to find it. It’s kind of like a treasure hunt for me this summer. I’m just reading as much as I can and trying to inform myself. In doing so it’s been really great for me and made me actually see that I have a rich heritage to draw from as well.

The more we can educate young people that there are ancestors that have created bodies of work that are really valuable – just as valuable as the Jane Austens of the world – the more we can feel more equitable with our culture.

I just feel like we’ve been beat up a little bit.

TW: I think this is obviously a special moment in our societal understanding and it’s really a global phenomenon as all of this discussion has just been blown wide open of late. It really does help people understand – people who perhaps might have said I don’t understand what you’re talking about when you say structural racism or structural bias. It really does help one begin to understand that there’s such a small – you mentioned the word the canon earlier. There is a loaded expression –  what is the canon and who decided? So clearly there is a lot of discussion and growth and understanding about what passes muster or what has passed muster.

DS: That’s correct, and I think that we can do that and not eliminate the other work. They should be seen side by side. I think that is one of the epiphanies that I’ve had on how to go forward with next season. I plan on doing a series where we can compare work side-by-side and in the same way that we’ve done with our public programmings with the Warrior Chorus. We might take scenes from various Greek plays, read them out like a staged reading, and then present them to an audience of veterans and have a discussion about how that made me think of my life now or what it was like to come home from the war. I think in the same way we can present works that are old, that have been almost forgotten and compare and and start to educate ourselves with what is out there. We’re not sure what we’re going to call it but probably something like the “Expanding the Canon” series. I think that we have an opportunity as a company that reaches so many venues across the United States – rural communities and urban communities and suburban communities – we have a really great opportunity to expose this work to as many people as we can.

TW: It’s interesting that you mentioned the Warrior Chorus and for the benefit of our viewers, let’s review what the Warrior Chorus project is and how it has influenced work that you’ve done. We presented The Odyssey the opening of the tour and so obviously our audience had an exposure to one of the most recent connections to the Warrior Project.

DS: The Warrior Chorus is public program that was funded by the National Endowment for Humanities. We partner with veterans and we use the ancient Greek works as a springboard for discussion. One of the things that we realized in some previous public programming that we had done in libraries is that whenever we started to read or do dramatic adaptations of the Greek work they always entailed what it was like to deal with either coming home from a war or what the implications of war were on the individual and family. Whenever we did these we realized if there were veterans in the audience or family members of veterans they would stand up and say, “My god – I had no idea how relevant this work was to my life!” This line in The Odyssey about a man drowning – “That’s how I felt when I came home, I felt like I was a man drowning and it was my wife who really helped me.” People would say, “I’ve never talked about this in public and thank you for bringing this to light.” We realized we had to do something to continue to foster this discussion because we felt there was a real big divide between the 1% of the population who serve our country and everybody else who benefits or not from the wars that we engage in.

One of our Warrior Chorus members Brian Dellit – he’s a Vietnam veteran – said we need to be more war literate. So we decided that this program would be aimed at creating dialogue. We did various programs across the country. We had a group in Austin, Texas that was based at UT Austin and they focused on various works and were encouraged to write their own stories based on what they had read from the ancient works. We had a group in Los Angeles who did a movie. We have a group of African-American Vietnam veterans who are in Miami, Florida, and they just finished their program. We’ve been doing one in New York on and off and that has often led to various productions and reinterpretations of Greek myths. We’ve incorporated some new works from our veterans in New York that were folded in. We had a production called The Trojan War which had some new, original works and we had The Odyssey, and occasionally will have veterans perform. We found a large group of veterans in New York who were attracted to New York City because they wanted to become actors, so that was a really rich collaboration because we had the actual people who would have served responding in the moment to the work – that was also very exciting.

We’ve taken the work to Greece and had a few of our vets go to Athens and work with a group of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Uzbekistan. The last time they saw Americans they were holding machine guns in their own countries. I remember the first day of both sides kind of panicking. What are we doing? How are we gonna create art together? There’s just all this crazy tension and we’re like – I don’t know, so let’s just do it. It’s amazing how perfect theater-making is for this exact thing, because the minute you just get in the room and you start moving and stretching and making crazy noises and moving around space and looking at people in the eyes – it’s not about words it’s just about focus – everything just melts away and drops. We become this group of strangers who are no longer strangers before we’ve even uttered one word. The session was absolutely incredible and we forged lifelong friendships. It’s exactly what we need to do all across the world, really. So that’s the Warrior Chorus in a nutshell – you just get together and read and talk.

TW: In some ways this is really connected to the very simple idea that is theater, but you went to the rehearsal studio so I’m gonna follow your lead. Let’s talk process. I think process brings so many things together, they have to coalesce. Obviously a number of the classics that you engage with are formally works of theater, they’re written as scripts, but others are not. Our community just experienced the Michael Jean Sullivan adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 that was turned into a script. Someone sat in a room, theoretically, by themselves and wrote it – converted it into a story – but other times that may not be the case. You may be working through process and there’s a power of the workshop process and deciding what scenes make sense. I would love to hear how you go from page to stage when you’re working on works that are prose. How do they become theater?

DS: You know that’s really torturous, that’s long and intricate and I don’t even know if I could articulate precisely how that happens because it sort of feels elusive and magical and painstaking. My process is very unique to how other people do it. I know that I’m a complete whack job when it comes it. I have to really work with very patient and very talented artists who go – okay, she knows what she’s doing eventually and we just have to be calm and go with the flow and just try. So often times I’ll start a year prior and I will work by myself with this text and that’s the more straightforward part of it.

Immediately when I read something I know strongly what I’m responding to, what I feel. I think every artist has to make a decision: why am I doing this piece right now? That becomes the reason and that helps focus you down to the essential parts of each text. Then there’s another layer of – how do I stay focused to that point but also pick scenes that are gonna be viable on stage and be able to tell that story? Once I’ve gotten the rehearsal room draft, I bring it into the room with my actors and I say, look – this is not set in stone. This is our first working draft and we’re gonna just try it, and try it fully, and if it doesn’t work – throw it out, we’ll start over. I’ve thrown half of it out and come back the next day with new scenes that we just workshop or Xeroxes of pages of it from the original and just read the narration. That can be really difficult for some actors because they’re just like – but I just learned that whole thing! Alright, but we’re not gonna do that – here, learn this. In that sense it is painful, but that’s what it takes to make a piece that’s gonna hang together and pull people in. So that’s sort of my process.

TW: Obviously the current moment in time influences it, everything that you bring to that moment influences it, the people in the room influence it – there are so many inputs and possible destinations. When you talk about what’s viable on stage, the honest truth is there are people sitting in a dark room, there are people on a stage maybe wearing fancy clothes, there’s some scenic flats standing up, there’s a couple lights, maybe a little bit of theatrical haze, some paint and glue, maybe a lot of duct tape – it’s not real. So the whole point is that the theater lives in the mind of the person who views it and so we have to go on that willing suspension of disbelief journey with you. Does that create a special responsibility for you in any way?

DS: Yes, I think I’m very aware of the aesthetics of a piece telling its own story. I’m very aware of my casting telling its own story and all of those aspects are a huge responsibility because you’re signaling with every choice you make – every single choice. That is part of crafting this piece of work. You cannot just go – it doesn’t matter, whatever you want to wear – or the collaborators you bring into the room they cannot operate separately. I mean it’s every single detail – even the way somebody might hold themselves to walk across the stage or a simple gesture – it’s all interconnected and it all tells a story a without words. That’s one of the things that I think is probably my strength. Coming from the dance world I often say that I’m always seeing before I hear things. I say to them in the rehearsal room – and this is another thing that sometimes doesn’t sit well with more traditional actors who are not used to a physical approach –  the audience isn’t listening to you, they’re watching you, and if what they’re watching isn’t combining with what you’re saying they are gonna not listen to you anymore, they’re not even going to watch you, they’re gonna look at their program. So it’s all connected and that’s just how we are. I think the more visual our worlds are with even our social media platforms – it’s like less and less words. Something like that in 1984, right?

TW: Right. Double-plus good on you! In some ways it sounds like you’re taking elements of the formal school of total theatre where all of the pieces – it’s not just the script, it’s everything about the conception – have their responsibility to communicate in what you do. It also struck me that when you talked about your experience as a dancer, that dance is a communal creation process in so many ways. So it may be that some of your natural approach to the work that you’re doing in the theatre space has some connection to what it feels like to have dance created which has to be a communal act in so many ways.

DS: It definitely is, and I think I’m positive that’s really where all of that comes from for me.

Performance is immediate, so the process of creating it has to be immediate. You have to allow yourself to find the truth of something.

Every artist does it differently, but for me to find the truth, I have to allow the actors to just hang out in the moment and find it and that can be really disconcerting in the process. People just want answers – I don’t understand why, just tell me where to stand – and I’m like I don’t know yet, I need to see how everybody is gonna communicate this point and then I’m going to know how you should be entering the room or not or where you should be ending. It all has to work together. It’s collaborative. Somebody will come in with an energy or a perspective that I hadn’t thought of and I’m like – wow, that just completely changes everything for this scene, so let’s go with it. What’s the domino effect of that? That’s really empowering in the end for the actor because they feel like they can really get behind this choice and there’s a truth to it. They’ve thought about it and everybody’s discussed it and it’s real, it’s not just haphazard. I think that is really the reason why we’re doing this to begin with – we’re trying to show the audience a different perspective they hadn’t thought of.

TW: We speak of the audience and right now we’re in a time where we aren’t having audiences sitting in a room having this shared experience. Creativity is partly in how we navigate where the boundaries are now, but what do you think about how you look ahead? As we look further, is there something that you hope to see happen there?

DS: I think more than ever I’m seeing how important it is that we all physically get back together eventually, and that we find ways to make that happen more than what we were doing before. I see how difficult it is with my own children who are young teenagers and they’re having to do everything through a screen. They make the best of it, and they’re programmed to do that in ways that I’m not, but I see how it affects their psyche and their physicality and I feel like it’s creating an anxiety that doesn’t need to be there. The simplicity of having taking for granted that I feel okay with just going to an event and being with other people is no longer something in our society now. It’s like – I’ll just stay on FaceTime, I’ll just text that person. Our kids don’t even pick up the phone and call people anymore. Even being able to articulate a point through language is becoming more and more difficult. I think when this is all over we have to make that a priority. We have to find ways where we can just get together – even a performance is not enough. Sitting in an audience and just watching something and then going home is not enough. We need to have talk backs, we need to have breakout sessions afterwards, we need to have parties afterwards where we can just hang out with these people after what we’ve just seen and let that kind of work through each other, and get back to what it’s like to be human again without these little boxes that we’re speaking through. I mean they have their place, they’ve made something really possible and helped us out in a lot of ways but they can’t be a replacement for human interaction. A baby dies if they’re not touched and cuddled. So what are we doing to ourselves?

TW: The importance of theater as a way of creating community and helping us have these shared journeys or shared escape – whatever it may be – the way we’re talking about it signals that theater speaks to us in the context of where we are and who we are and we need to be able to respond. I’ll just say as a way of bringing things in towards a close that we were really excited with the production of Frankenstein that we had the year prior. We were able to add some additional research context looking at the ethical dilemmas. We know the crucible of theater is a perfect space for setting up these ethical dilemmas and moral quandary and how to navigate. We have plenty of them today – these large-scale societal questions that we’re asking. In some ways I just want to say thank you from our audience.

We had Professor Amy David and Dr. Amanda Mayes work on this research that had students study the Bhopal, India chemical spill under Union Carbide. They reviewed that case, then they went to see Frankenstein. They started to wrestle with the question of who owns the moral responsibility for their actions. Then they went back and looked at that case and they realized that there’s culpability here that we didn’t assign. It taps into that human connection, the understanding of the human condition and empathy that needs to be present. That your company can help create those discussions and answers, those possibilities is really what it’s about. I think that it’s a huge thank you from us that we have the ability for theater to speak outside the performing arts, to speak to us at large.

DS: Thank you. When I saw that tweet with the study I wasn’t even aware of it. This is so cool. Thank you guys for doing that and bringing us to your performing arts series. It’s a very prestigious one. We love being able to come to Purdue and be a part of your community because you are so engaged. We want a place to uncover some truth because we believe in it. And for us it’s important to be able to participate. So I thank you for bringing us in.

TW: A great pleasure for us and I just want to say a special thank you to you for taking the time from your vacation space to sit down and visit. We are thrilled to have your company be a part of our community and we look forward to discussions about the future, however we creatively navigate our way to that future.

DS: Thank you, take care.