PMA Podcast Transcript: Episode 30, Landings: Jorge Silva

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Bryan Hagelin: Hello and welcome to the Cornell Performing and Media Arts podcast. My name is Bryan Hagelin and on the phone with me is Cornell PMA alum Jorge Silva, who's the managing director for the Neo-Futurist Theater group in Chicago. Jorge, thank you for calling in with me today.

Jorge Silva: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Bryan Hagelin: Yeah, of course. So why don't we get started? Why don't you tell me a little bit about yourself, just like your background and how you got to where you are.

Jorge Silva: Wow, that's... Well, it started a long time ago in Chicago in 1990. I'm originally from Chicago. I grew up on the south side of the city in Bridgeport. I went to St. Paul School for high school. I got a scholarship from the Daniel Murphy scholarship fund and that was in Concord, New Hampshire. And that was the first time I moved out of Chicago. After that, I spent a little bit of time trying to get my professional acting career together in Chicago at that time. And then that's when I made the transition to Cornell. I came in I think the fall of 2009, and I had about three years of scholarship money, so I wanted to finish without any student debt whatsoever. So I sprinted to get everything done. But I also decided that I was going to have all the cake I could possibly have. And I ended up doing a degree in government, a degree in theater, a minor in Latin American studies, and a minor in Latino studies. I think the department is now called the Latinx Studies Department. And while I was an undergrad, I actually was studying lighting design with—back then it was the Theater, Film, and Dance Department. And so it was like working with, you know, Ed Intemann closely, and I was a part of the undergraduate theater or advanced undergraduate theater program at the time, working with Joey Moro [inaudible]. And while I was doing that, I was trying to do acting. I was working with Teatrotaller, which was the Latino theater student group.

Jorge Silva: And after that, I decided to go to DC because some part of the government thing that I was doing was doing policy research for immigration services. And I thought if I go to DC and the art thing fails, I could go back into policy research. Luckily the art thing didn't fail. I ended up working with the Smithsonian for a while first as just an actor and then I was working as venue manager and then as a technician and then you know, doing more production management work. And the artistic director at the time had to keep stepping back for personal reasons. And so I ended up taking more responsibility essentially as an associate artistic director. And the thing about working for a theater company, a small theater company, and it was a theater for young audiences. So it was, there's even more parameters that we have to live up to. It's mostly that, you know, our theater, we're serving DC public schools. So we had to like make sure that all of the acts we were booking and all the shows we were producing were meeting educational standards.

Jorge Silva: But also we were a theater company that's within a museum that's within a federal trust organization. So if you ever want to figure out what red tape looks like, it's a really good way. And then after that, I was working as an actor in the evenings, rehearsing four nights a week, performing three nights a week, and my parents started having some health issues. So I moved from DC back to Chicago to help take care of them. When I got back, you know, I didn't have a network in Chicago. I didn't know anybody at that point. A lot of the people who were working in Chicago back when I was around there had moved away or had quit the industry or were doing something else completely different. So, I ended up going to 18th Street to sling tamales to make ends meet and then the opportunity to work at the Goodman Theater kind of opened up and they were looking for somebody to work in their producing department and organizational acumen is in short supply in the arts industry.

Jorge Silva: And you know, I was good at working in an office. Again, I was doing policy research. It was really, really easy for me to get behind a computer, put together statistics, and handle logistics and that just ended up becoming more and more of a thing that I wanted to do. I was becoming really disillusioned as an actor in DC, especially with the kind of roles I was getting as a Latino: you know, the vagrant, the criminal, the servant, right? Like these are the things that I kept getting called in for. By the way, nothing about this, I'm gesturing to my face right now, nothing about this says "thug." A: I fired my agent and B: I realized that a lot of the people who were making these decisions didn't look like me, which is why I ended up getting called in for these things so often. So while I was sitting there working in a producing fashion, I thought this is the way, this is the way I can actually affect change, by being a part of the decision-making process. Because we celebrate, we celebrate playwrights, we celebrate actors, we celebrate writers, but we don't celebrate, you know, people behind the scenes who are making decisions and who are also affecting the work. And because we don't celebrate those people, we don't scrutinize those people either. And so there's a lot of people, executive directors, managing directors, company managers, and in film, television, that they know they go beyond the approach.

Jorge Silva: So it was great to be in that place at that time working with, you know, Suzan Lori-Parks, working with Paula Vogel, working with Jose Rivera. And Sarah DeLappe with Brendan Jacobs Jenkins. Like these are these big, big names. It was a dream come true. And when the opportunity came along to work with another theater company that I was working with as an artist already, the Neo-Futurists, I couldn't say no, I couldn't say no. It was a weird long winding road to get to where I'm at, but it's worked out for the best because I couldn't be happier working with a theater company. In a [inaudilble] fashion but has already appreciated me as an artist.

Bryan Hagelin: Yeah, it sounds like it's like a convergence of a lot of passions for you, how you kind of got where you are. What activities did you do in college? You kind of touched on it already, but outside of the classroom and then how did those inform your career, your career path?

Jorge Silva: So I was really involved in activists' movements on campus. I got to Cornell thinking that I was going to be a lawyer. Thank God I didn't, but I was still really, really interested in politics. So I was really involved with at the time especially trying to support the Africana center. At the time we were still seeing DACA. DACA was an issue still at that point and we were still seeing DACA as we are right now. So there was that, I was working with a few service organizations. They were not really organizations, but they were these like these big organized service projects to serve the community. You know, we would set out huge food drives. We would cook huge meals around Thanksgiving for Tompkins County. Other than that, there was also, like I said, I was working with Teatrotaller, which is great because I met my lifelong friend Jimmy Noriega, who was also a graduate from theater, film, and dance. He got his PhD at Cornell and we were working together and worked with each other after Cornell. We went to Peru together to work on a project up there. The other things I was doing on campus. I was also playing rugby at one point. I love it. I love rugby. Mostly because I really like dumb sports that are prone to get you hurt. But I remember, I remember coming back to rehearsal from, or I was going to rehearsal, I had this huge cut on my cheek from taking a knee to the face and I got yelled at by Jimmy because he said my face was my tool, my health was my tool as an actor and I can't be risking my personal safety because he still needs me as an actor and that's my job. And I said, all right. I started phasing out of rugby a little more and more after that, but yeah.

Bryan Hagelin: Gotcha. What advice would you give to graduating students who want to go into arts fields?

Jorge Silva: So I remember asking the same question to Jimmy Smits when he would come visit and I did it. I feel really bad about it too because I said really militant fashion being like, "What do you think Jimmy? What do you say about what we should be doing?" And the advice he gave was actually really good advice. I was just like, I was being kind of a jerk, but he kept saying that like, "Hey, don't get pigeonholed in whatever you're doing." Right. And in our case, in that context of that conversation, he was really talking about, don't get pigeonholed into Latino roles but also have something else that you're looking at actively, right? Like there's nothing about arts to say that you just do the art. I mean there's some people who have that practice in mind and that works for certain people. That is your craft. That is all you do. And I can appreciate that practice. But there's nothing to say that there isn't something else that supports that art, anything that you do otherwise is only another muscle that you're exercising towards art. So I think the thing that graduates, if they're going right now into the field, is find work immediately no matter what it is. Just, just start working. I saw a bunch of people after graduation who are really, really struggling with their own pride about like not wanting to take just like a barista job or anything like that because they didn't want, because of, we have this Cornell degree, we should be working, but that's not the nature of the business. And not to mention you want the flexibility to be able to practice the art, right?

Jorge Silva: If you are thinking about being an artist and you want to be a director, you want to be an actor you need the flexibility. So there's, there's only so many jobs like that, that are going to be full time, that are going to be flexible and you need to accept that. But if you're really honest about wanting to be, say, an administrator, something like what I do, then a full-time job is the way to go. And again, it doesn't have to be in the field that you want. It doesn't have to be in a theater. Something adjacent does a lot, right? If when we're looking at producers, associate producers, if we're looking for marketing managers, when I was at the Goodman, if you didn't have necessarily the direct experience with theater, that's one thing. But if you had the experience of working in marketing, if you've had the experience in development, those are the things that they say, okay, well you, you can get used to theater, you can begin to speak that language, right? It's much harder to do it the other way around. It seems like you know a lot about theater, but you don't know anything about development. And by the way, if you're an artist, everybody should know about development. Everybody should be learning how to fundraise.

Bryan Hagelin: I've heard that before. So what do you think you'd do differently if you were to do it all again?

Jorge Silva: Like if I went back to Cornell... I was, can I cuss?

Bryan Hagelin: Maybe not...

Jorge Silva: I would, I think if I were to do it all over again, I think I had such a fear about wanting to get out of Cornell without any student debt. And I think that if I had just put a little more time and effort into thinking about that I would have extended to the fourth year and figured it out. I think I would've figured it out I think I'd have figured out how to pay back those loans or how to find more money to pay for the fourth year. Because what I ended up doing was, as great as it is that I was able to get two degrees and two minors as a part of it, there wasn't a lot of room for electives and there wasn't a lot of room to get into the really nitty-gritty things that I was really interested in. I would have loved to spend more time learning about the technical aspects of costume design that include sewing craft work, right. I would've loved to spend more time in those other fields to expand my base of knowledge as I was going into the professional world and to the industry, right? Like, I would have loved to spend more time learning how to program a board so that as soon as I got out of school, I could be a technician that knew how to program a board like that and immediately get hired.

Bryan Hagelin: Right. Good answer. So who were your mentors in college and how did they kind of help you?

Jorge Silva: So I have, I have a few, I have like a good chunk of people. The thing is that the theater department was really, really supportive of, all my professors were really supportive because they were saying that I was trying to do the work, but they held me accountable to the things I was doing. You know, I was really embraced, like Beth Milles really embraced my desire to perform in a style that wasn't necessarily what everybody else was doing. Right. She appreciated my honesty. And because of that I felt more capable of going to her with all my problems, which I feel like a lot of people do anyways. You can say that a lot of people do that. But she was very supportive the whole way through about what I was going through as a student and what I was trying to do and some thoughts around. And she always very open to talking about things academic and otherwise. Ed Intemann was a mentor that I really, really got attached to and he did a lot for me in terms of challenging me as a designer but also as a performer and also as an academic. Because I think again, design for us wasn't necessarily to say you have to be a designer to do design or that design work meant that you're going to be a designer. It means that you're exercising a different analytical aspect to creating work, right. So there was, there was Ed, I mean Jimmy Noriega. Oh, we have like this like fantastic, confrontational nature to our relationship because I was his actor and he was my director and that was our relationship. But we were also friends. He was also my teacher. He taught one of my classes and he was a TA for another class and he was very supportive in terms of if I was struggling in the class, he would reach out and try to figure out a way to make it work. And there was, there was also just, the people in the shop were really, really helpful. Right. Fritz was always willing to talk to me about like things that nobody else would talk on, and he would always give me the honest answer too. He would give me the honest answer to the things that I wanted to talk about. So, if I said I was thinking about joining the Marines he'd be like, "Why?" Which is a good question and I don't think maybe a lot of other people would have answered.

Jorge Silva: And I would say that the most of them were in that building, in the Schwartz. You know, I had some really great professors in the Government Department as well that were really, really instrumental. Gustavo Flores-Macias and Maria Christina Garcia in the history department. Boy, oh boy. Boy boy. She put up a lot with me. She put up so much with me, but she, she did a great job. She had this class that was specifically about an intro to Latino history and A: was such an eyeopening course and B: if you're going through an identity struggle and you're essentially taking the intro course to your identity struggle. She also did a lot of work to try to help me understand what the material meant for me personally. So I have a lot of respect for Maria.

Bryan Hagelin: Why don't you tell me a little bit about the Neo-Futurist Theater, what they do? I read on the website the theater describes itself as a fusion of sport, poetry, and living newspaper. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about that.

Jorge Silva: We're just big old weirdos is what we are. So the Neo-Futurists started 30 years ago in Chicago and we have a very specific aesthetic that prioritizes honesty and brevity. And it's the Neo-Futurists in that the futurists did this in Italy. They also appreciated brevity and honesty, except the Neo being that it's just like futurism without the fascism and the misogyny, get rid of that stuff. But what's left is this aesthetic means that when a performer's on stage, they're telling their own story, they're never playing a character, right? They're creating work from their own experience and that may take the form of a monologue or maybe a movement piece or maybe a dialogue.

Jorge Silva: But again, they're never ever playing characters and they're always true to life in some way, shape, or form. They can be abstract, they can be very political, they could be odd. They can be this avant-garde performance piece that doesn't work. And they thought it was funny but it wasn't funny. And we call that performance art. And the flagship show that we have, which has been going on for 30 years, 50 weeks out of the year, that changes every week is called the Infinite Wrench. And it's an ongoing, ever-changing attempt to do 30 plays in 60 minutes, plus a wrench. So, Bryan, if you were to come to visit me in Chicago, which I hope you do and you see the show, you'll come into our space and the first thing that'll happen is you choose your price of your ticket by saying, we say $9 plus a roll of a die.

Jorge Silva: So you roll a die, whatever the outcome is, you add that number to nine and that's how much you pay. And you're given a menu with all the plays that we've written, those 30 plays. And a part of your job as an audience member is to pick the order of the plays. So this is why a show night to night is never the same. The show week to week is never the same. And because we're always having to write new plays, because at the end of the weekend, we pick a number of plays based on, again, another roll of a die to change out for the next week. So that means that the ensemble has the job of writing that number of plays in one week to rehearse, tech, and perform on the Friday night of the next weekend. So, which means that because we're writing those plays every week and having to change, we're always topical, we're always timely and so, it kind of forces an innovation in style and content all of the time. And it's pretty gnarly.

Bryan Hagelin: Sounds pretty wild.

Jorge Silva: It's nuts.

Bryan Hagelin: Where would you say that you see your own, the path of your career going? Or where would you like it to go?

Jorge Silva: Interesting. Like somebody asked me this recently, one of my high schoolers asked me this and I feel like that's a question that gets ingrained in at a high school level. Like, what's your five-year plan? And it hasn't been asked to me in a while and I keep going, I don't know. I'm doing, I'm managing a company. That was kind of the end goal. So I think for me right now, it's just a matter of expanding the company where it's at. Again, I'm really grateful to be a part of a company. It's a nonprofit theater. It's in my hometown of Chicago, was born in Chicago, has never had a POC, native Chicagoan at the helm. And I think my job at this point is to try to spend the next few years of the foreseeable future to try to make sure that company expands and does the job of giving back to the city as much as possible. I see myself there for the foreseeable future. First off, however many years and if, if I were to ever leave that position, it's because I want to be an ensemble member instead of an administrator. If that were to happen, I don't know what I would do for money. I think I would go work at another large nonprofit again. But the point being that I think my future is at the Neo-Futurists.

Jorge Silva: You know, I think the only other thing that I'll say is that I want everyone to remember that there is more theater outside of New York. I think we get it ingrained that the two things we can go to, are Hollywood or Broadway, but there's an entire country in between those two cities. There's a bunch of markets, there's the nonprofit sector, and that's where the most risk is taken, is in the nonprofit sector. If anybody wants to try something, I don't know, do something new, that's the way to go. So that's all I'll say about that.

Bryan Hagelin: Right. You've been listening to the PMA podcast with Jorge Silva, the managing director of the Neo-Futurist theater group in Chicago. My name is Bryan Hagelin. Thank you for listening.