Spotlight On: Juan Francisco Villa and his solo performance show Empanada for a Dream
by Fanny Garcia
pLAywriting in the city
Juan Francisco Villa
Where did you grow up and where is your family from? I grew in el Loaisaida, The Lower East Side, in New York City. My mom is from Pereira, Colombia and my pops is from Bogota, Colombia.
How does being Colombiano influence your Americanism or is it the other way around? In my neighborhood there were a lot of Puerto Ricans and we were the only Colombianos. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States, which means that if you’re Puerto Rican you’re also a citizen of the United States of America. Growing up I wanted to be more “American” than Colombian, which created a rift at home.
Juan, tell us about your training as an actor and writer. Pippin the musical was my first play I acted in was at La Salle Academy High School in NYC which led to Midsummer Night’s Dream then Candide. None of these were plays I’d ever heard of and they sure didn’t speak like me or any of my friends. It opened up my eyes to an entirely different world and it kept me off the streets. That’s the only reason my mom let me do it. Plus it didn’t cost her a dime. I later attended Le Moyne College in Syracuse where I was able to explore different genres of theatre, such as Medieval plays, Brechtian plays, Moliere plays and Spanish playwrights. I lived in Chicago for 5 years and was trained in improvisation at IO (Improv Olympic) and was Meisner trained by Eileen Vorbach at the Actor’s Center. I became a company member of !SALSATION!: Chicago’s first and only Latino Sketch/Improv group and we’ve done “Touched by and Anglo”,” Veracruz:Cirque de Salsation” and “My Big Fat Quinceanera.” I became an ensemble member of Teatro Vista in Chicago where we’ve worked with and performed plays by Jose Rivera, Migdalia Cruz, Luis Alfaro, Tanya Saracho and Kris Diaz. When I moved back to NYC I had the most rewarding and intense training at The Maggie Flanigan Studio for 2 years. There I met April Yvette Thompson and took a Storytelling Writing Workshop and this started the process for me. I have also taken classes with Migdalia Cruz and John Jesurun along with Hans Ong.
Besides Empanada for a Dream, how many other solo shows have you written? This is my first and only one…so far. However, I am working on four other plays at the moment and have been asked to write two short pieces for Intar Theatre Company in NYC.
Why did you want to write Empanada for a Dream? I was 32 years old with a lot of anxiety because I believed that I was going to die. I had noticed a trend in my family, where the men never reached the age of 33 years old. This made me reflect on my life, my past and more importantly my future – the realization that I wanted a future and that there was a responsibility that came with it. I wanted to tell my stories and stories of my neighborhood along with the stories of my family even though I knew that time might be running out for me.
You’ve mentioned being influenced by John Leguizamo’s solo work, what is it about his work that speaks to you like no other? He is a classic storyteller. He could do any of his shows without a stage. It’s about the words and his performance. I can relate to his sense of humor. The emotionally charged family dynamic also speaks to me.
I have a friend who has written a solo performance but has been paralyzed by the fear of performing it, what advice would you give her? I would say to write down the 3 things that scare her the most if she were to perform it. I was afraid that I would be blacklisted from the industry, lose all of my friends and disowned by my family. I asked myself “knowing if ALL 3 of those happened, would I still want to do it?” My answer was yes because it was important for me. I would also say find a director you really trust who has a strong sense of dramaturgy who can work with you to get your show into really good shape. Surround yourself with people you trust. Start small – maybe do a reading of it first to family and friends…then a public reading, then build to a performance?
How do you think Los Angeles audiences will relate to your piece about growing up on the Lower East Side? Empanada is about finding a new beginning, that the themes are things many people can relate to and family issues (even though family experience may be different) is something everyone can relate to. People in LA are usually implants from other cities wanting a new beginning or are people who have been in LA their entire lives and want a new beginning. Catholicism, along with a question of faith, is what hounds “Juan” in Empanada for a Dream. Generational rifts, gender rifts, immigration rifts, patriotism vs ancestry and what forgiveness really means. If a person from a small town in Michigan can relate to my little neck of the woods of the lower east side in Manhattan then so can an LA’er.
Without revealing too much about your show, what have you learned about your family that has altered how you view the major players in it and yourself? I have learned that everyone finds themself in a circumstance where a difficult choice has to be made. Regardless of what the “rules” say, we are in no position to judge. The men in my family were stronger than I gave them credit for. The choices made by my family do not make me who I am, but they are a part of me. I can choose to be held back by it or choose to break free of them.
You mention that you grew up Catholic and that in your family everything good that happened was because of God and everything bad was because you’d pissed him off somehow. If the big G was reviewing her show, what do you think he’d say about it? I think the big G is always at the show. The big G would nod with approval at the sanctuary of truth that Alex Levy and I have created at each space that I have performed in. One day the big G and I will have a long chat about it over an empanada, a cortado and some aguardiente.
How is Empanada for a Dream, a show that young audiences can relate to? (If possible, talk about your work with youth in Chicago or New York). The violence in this country has been non-stop. We can go in circles about why that is and who is to blame. I grew up in a neighborhood and a family that was surrounded by violence and I see a lot of America’s youth still going through similar situations. I don’t think we will progress until communication begins with our youth and with ourselves. I am a Teaching Artist and have worked with the inner city youth in Chicago and NYC on “Your Story.” It was a very fulfilling job for me as I was able to use theatre as a means to open up a dialogue with young people about their experience and to get them to understand some of the situations that they found themselves in and the choices that they had made. I also want to do this with parents because they have a life that their children decide is not important. Everyone has a story and your story is not any more or any less important than anyone else’s story.
Your interview for The Huffington Post’s Jody Christopherson features a picture with the caption “Growing up on Allen Street,” who are the people in it and what’s happening in that picture? That’s a Christmas photo with my sister Sandra, myself and my step-father Fernando “Pollo” Giraldo. We did not have much material things growing up, but we did have each other and we knew how to have a good time.
What do you want the audiences who see your show to walk away with? The environment where I grew up was grim, but somehow we reached for bigger and better things. There were plenty of times that I wanted to give up and just give into what’s “predestined” for me. But I had to reach a point where I simply did not want to survive any longer. I wanted to live like everyone else in this world. I lost some people along the way, but I will never forget how huge of a role they played in my life.I would hope that everyone walks away thinking about those people in their lives who shaped them.
Empanada for a Dream written and performed by Juan Francisco Villa and directed by Alex Levy has previews on Thursday October 25th and Friday October 26th at 8 pm with opening night on Saturday, October 26th at 8 pm. The show is part of the Los Angeles Theatre Center’s Face of the World Festival 2012. The address is 514 S. Spring Street, Los Angeles CA 90013. For tickets and information visit their website at thelatc.org or call the box office at (866) 811-4111