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Imagining with Victor Vazquez

Victor Vazquez: Not just how do you open up doors for people of color—for Black folks, for queer folks, for folks with disabilities, for Indigenous folks—but how do you take these fucking doors off their hinges, which is more of my politic.

Chorus: [sings “Remember”]

Yura Sapi: Welcome to season three. Welcome to our liberation. Welcome to the Building Our Own Tables podcast. The Building Our Own Tables podcast is produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. This is Yura Sapi here to support you on your journey of creation towards our collective liberation. How exciting is it to transform our future, and be the future ancestors we’ve dreamed for? May you receive that which supports you on your journey and release that which does not. The universe expands as we do. Nature evolves as we do. We remember. We remember. We remember.

Chorus: [sings “Remember”]

Yura Sapi: Let us call upon the four elements that support us: The fire that burns within igniting our imagination, our ability to see into the future. The water that holds us and holds within our memory. The air that lifts us up and carries our stories across to meet each other. The earth, which provides us sustenance, repair. To support us on this journey, let us welcome in all of our ancestors.

We’re learning from visionaries who have built their own tables, receiving gems of wisdom to support us along our journey. In today’s episode, I interview Victor Vazquez, the visionary creator of X Casting. I first met Victor at the Sol Project’s Latinx Theatre State of Emergency Talk. Like me, he had so much to say, and I knew this conversation wouldn’t be any different. We share in our love for nature, our history as humans on this planet, and the storytelling that comes with it all. Victor Vazquez, X Casting, please tell the beautiful listeners about your beautiful self.

Victor: Hello, listeners. My name is Victor Vazquez. I use he/him pronouns. I’m currently in Los Angeles where I was born and raised. I was born in Compton, and I was raised throughout South Central Los Angeles. Both my parents are from Mexico, from the state of Jalisco, and I’m a casting director.

I started a casting company in New York City about four years ago. Now I get to work not only across the country and on both coasts but internationally as well. I get to work in projects that span not just theatre, regionally, Broadway, off-Broadway but also film and TV.

Yura Sapi: Please share with us more about the spaces, practices, initiatives you’ve created and why.

“What a beautiful thing to dare so greatly to say you are building something not just for yourself but for others without really knowing the full structure of what you might be building.”

Victor: To be honest, I want to talk about casting in a way that maybe we typically don’t think about, or maybe we do. It just doesn’t enter the conversation as much. I think that there’s a lot of responsibility in the way that we imagine. For me, imagination work is so rooted in the way that our ancestors imagined did their work, right? Imagining not just the current moment but imagining generations further, further, further, further out.

For me, casting is work of the imagination that, for me, the exciting part is not that it’s rooted in entertainment. I think that’s just a byproduct of it. For me, the biggest responsibility is: How do we infuse imagination into the work we get to do by thinking about the responsibility that we have, not just to future generations but the current generation, politically and culturally?

For me, these questions began and my work in casting in 2017 in March, which in the United States and our context here, was two months into the Trump administration. My first job as a casting director was in Washington, D.C. at a major theatre company, a few blocks away from the National Mall on the White House. Our audiences consisted of Supreme Court justices, lobbyists, senators, congress people, people who are really involved in conversations that impact us nationally. That was my local community.

When I first took that seat as a casting director of this major institution, which at the time was a twenty-five-million-dollar institution. I took this question of, “What does this seat look like when we think about the world in its current context? How do I think more responsibly about the bodies that our audiences are watching?” I started thinking a lot about the work I do outside the scope of entertainment, quite literally, because of the political landscape that we found ourselves in.

As a queer, Latino son of immigrants who is also immunocompromised myself, I had to think about with this privilege, how do I have my own radical protests in the work I get to do? I was asking myself a lot of questions. Out of that came a lot of my own ethos, it’s rooted in curiosity. What I was noticing at the time in 2017, we had this president who was demonstrating very forth rightly his pillars of white supremacy. So many of us were offended and outraged that somebody can be so bold, not just in a classist way but in an outright white supremacist way.

For me, what it was doing at the time too was like, well, we’re mad at him, but it’s all of us. We’re all involved in this system in one way or another. He’s just the face of it but we are all responsible for it. As I thought about my own privileges, in the spectrum of Latinidad and the spectrum of my own access, color of my own skin, I thought, well, what do I want to do about it? Those questions really infused themselves into the work I was doing, get to do, and continue to do in casting, which is not just how do you open up doors for people of color—for Black folks, for queer folks, for folks with disabilities, for Indigenous folks—but how do you take these fucking doors off their hinges, which is more of my politic.

We know that there are about a little over a thousand casting directors globally who are responsible for curating the way that culture imagines itself quite literally. If what we see matters, and if the thing that we are consuming on a mass level is story, constantly, through commercials, through film, TV, audiobooks now, who you listen to is telling the story, who you see. It’s the way, to me, that we then imagine or ourselves in the current moment and imagine ourselves forward.

It’s no surprise that representation is important because when we see ourselves reflected, there is a sort of sacredness to that, to seeing someone like you in a story that is beyond you. There’s something sacred in seeing a brown-skinned Latina woman in space. There’s something sacred about seeing a Black woman being the leader of a spaceship on Star Trek. There’s something sacred in seeing a Black president. There is something sacred in seeing ourselves surviving and thriving. That’s the sort of responsibility that I think that casting directors have on a global scale now that globalism is such a thing.

Before, we had such localized imaginations, but now we’re really talking about even a global one. Then how do we think about that responsibly? That’s why for me, casting is really the way that we have conversations about culture and politics. When you see somebody like Tenoch Huerta in Black Panther, that is a platform that you would have now given one artist to amplify the conversations that he’s been having throughout his whole life about racism, about Indigenous folks, about his experience in Mexico. These are not conversations that are shallowly based off just on box office numbers or training or entertainment. For me, casting also has a curatorial process. If we think about casting as curatorial, then that’s a whole different way in imagining our positions.

Yura Sapi: What practices would you like to share with someone who’s looking to build their own table?

Victor: There’s a recklessness that’s necessary. Lean into that. How do you build your imagination? There’s no one way to do that. When I started X Casting, it was outrageous. I thought on one side, who am I to just say that I’m starting a company in New York City? Who am I to say that I’m opening up a casting office? A lot of people affirmed to me in that fear, but then the other part of me was like, why not?

Also, I saw a hole in this dam, even visually like a dam, like holding water back. And I saw a hole and I was like, “How do I solve for that when I am here in this position and I could but am I just not going to?” My advice to people is go for it. What a beautiful thing to dare so greatly to say that you’re building something, not just for yourself, but for others, without really knowing perhaps the full structure of what you might be building.

Yura Sapi: An important part of envisioning to manifest is not getting stuck up in the how, in that moment, especially of envisioning. This setback that can happen if I’m all caught up in figuring out the details of, “Oh, I have this idea, and then all of a sudden now I’m like, well, but this and this, and this to get there, but wait.” Let’s just focus on seeing, experiencing, hearing, feeling, knowing this liberated future that exists in a reality out there. Everything that is begins as a thought, begins as an idea, a vision, an imagination, the power of being able to build our imagination.

Victor: Trusting that part of ourselves is really beautiful because it’s devoid of all the big questions of how. It requires trusting those parts of ourselves that just wants to throw themselves at activating something. Then there’s the other part that’s also required, which is the patience of letting that initial energy that you throw out in such a big way. By saying, “I am going to activate this,” there’s a tremendous patience that then is required to let that energy transform outwardly. We have to trust that that is also the other side of this process, and that that patience might require years.

For me, these topics that I am really curious about, these questions that I’m really asking, I knew instantly that these were not questions I would answer in the moment or anytime soon. In fact, there are questions that I hope develop into clear questions and decades. It’s not a problem that I’m trying to solve. It’s a problem that I’m trying to be in conversation with. That is just a different reframing for me, of what it means to be in relationship with that energy.

I think that those two things are definitely necessary. The initial avientate, do it, and then the necessary, okay, now let it play out, commit to it, chill. Let it do its thing. That’s also necessary.

Yura Sapi: Plant a seed and do the work of cleaning the weeds, giving the water, making sure the sunlight is there.

Victor: Yes.

Yura Sapi: Also, yeah, I mean before part of planting a seed, you have to make sure clear the area, prep the soil, maybe do a mixture of soils, observe how the light is hitting that spot. Yeah, planting it is a big deal. The moment you plant it, but the biggest part too is the follow through and keeping up. There are so many things that can kill the seeds and so it’s all of that nurturing.

Victor: There’s a lot of care involved.

Yura Sapi: How do you care for yourself?

Victor: For me, even activating this idea of starting my own company is a way to care for myself. There’s a mutual benefit here. So much of the way that I’ve envisioned what I get to do, it also returns to me a lot of autonomy and it gives me financial security. It gives me the ability to care for myself in many, many different ways. It gives me the ability to take time off when I need to, and it’s once again allowing me to dream.

The work I do is not the entirety of me. It’s one commitment I’m making that actually interests me. There are other parts of me that I’m also now starting to attempt to and care for because of it. That’s my own writing practice, that’s my own commitment to my own body and caring for it. That is my own value set of what family means to me and how to commit to that. It’s asking the question, even in therapy, what does fun look like for me? Now, I’m about to be thirty-five, and I’m asking myself that question in a new way. What does it mean for me to play? What does that mean for me now? How can I prioritize that? What does that look like? For me, care is also being curious about those other parts of me that I get to take care of too.

Yura Sapi: I want to uplift the birds that are supporting what you’re saying throughout your speaking. There’s different moments where they’ll be like, yes, yes.

Victor: Do you hear the bird chirping in the background?

Yura Sapi: Yeah. Animals, I’ve noticed as I’m learning more about connecting to nature, the wisdom of nature, when you acknowledge an animal or a plant, they acknowledge you back. Oftentimes, I’ll experience the support of birds. Rain here is huge. Just the rain in general, connect to the emotions and feelings of everyone, but yeah, the birds, especially. Dogs, even things that happen, a sound of something in a specific moment. Different recordings, and there’ll be a specific sound, an animal just amplifying that. Yeah, there’s moments where I’m like, “Let them speak.”

Victor: We worked on a film last year and it takes place in Cuba. We, when working in the casting of it, wanted to really cast Cubans out of Cuba. It seems obvious but there are a lot of challenges to that. One of our main processes of accepting tapes was by having—not even actors. There were citizens of Cuba who most of them had never acted before, but the thing that was most consistent in all their self-tapes was the sound of Cuba outside their window. You heard rainstorms, you heard the streets alive, you heard honking and cars passing by. You heard people talking really loudly, you heard music. It was one of the most magnificent things ever for me to listen to all these tapes that were coming in virtually and to know that the sound of Cuba was very present in all of those.

It was one of the most beautiful things. There were moments where I would just cry because it felt like this person is in relationship to their location in such a different way than we operate, even here in the states. We try to quiet everything down, and it was such a stark difference that it made me very emotional.

Yura Sapi: Being able to identify that and share that with others, it’s definitely something that... it’s part of what I’m doing now, is being able to help show that a lot of this rhetoric around third world countries, developing, all this stuff—this idea of hierarchy of the West, English speaking places, which most of our listeners are likely listening from these places. That there’s a lot we can learn from non-Western, English-centered speaking places around the world.

Being able to be in relationship with where you are and what you’re around, it allows us to make decisions that are more in line with what you’re talking about, the seven generations in the future and being more in tune with what’s happening, not only in our mind and not only thinking about making the next paycheck or getting things on time and filling in a certain box because that’s what maybe was said in a different moment, a different place. But the reality of what the situation is, is different and so being able to live in that moment and make decisions based off of what is happening, responding to the needs of our community.

Chorus: [sings]

Yura Sapi: The Building Our Own Tables podcast is produced in partnership with Advancing Arts Forward, a movement to advance equity, inclusion, and justice through the arts. We create liberated spaces like this one, that uplift, heal, and encourage us to change the world. Check out advancingartsforward.org to see our gatherings, courses, coaching, and artist residency program. You can also donate to support this podcast in other spaces.

Victor: One of the first things I tell actors is like, “Okay, so a lot of you probably have a binary understanding of your craft that has been conditioned and rooted in this pass/fail system, which is rooted in our educational system. Your understanding of success is pass/fail, and therefore, you think if you don’t get a job, you’ve failed. You only succeed when you pass.” That’s the first sort of myth I try to break.

Again, when we’re thinking about, like you said, the generations ahead, when we’re thinking about this slow commitment, that is a lifetime of work. We can’t proceed with that kind of binary in place. It will consume us. That is such a Western understanding of the way that we do our work or even just a Western understanding of work in general. What lessons are learned outside this context? What you’re saying really helps break that open and that there’s actually more generous solutions out there.

Yura Sapi: Here for the generous solutions we’re naming and imagining and bringing into reality.

Victor: They have to be. What else are there?

Yura Sapi: Yeah, yeah. Going forth towards the way everything works out and projecting that vision into reality, believing in that vision because if we choose to believe otherwise or believe that it’s not possible, that ends up becoming the reality.

Victor: Initially reading Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown years ago was such a pivot for me because it helped me bridge or start a bridge towards understanding about the lessons that nature offers us already in its own design. And so, I started diving deeper into what that means for me because I did find it to be more generous. I did find that it was helping me break open a lot of the myths I had believed to be true, that actually, nature offers us systems of generosity.

For me, one of the most important systems is that of relationship. I think often about the work I get to do, not so much as a landscape or a field, but as an ecosystem. When I think about it that way, I think about myself as an active participant in it. I think of us as active participants in this ecosystem. I think about the alchemy of what it means to be in active participation and how we want to be in relationship with one another and with it. How do we replicate that generosity among ourselves, amongst each other?

When it comes to things like time, when it comes to things like financial barriers, needs for survival, our responsibility to one another and to all the things that are not people in this ecosystem, which is what precedes us and what will be here beyond us, there is a big responsibility for how we choose to live in it and with one another. That’s why, for me, being generous is a state of mind and it’s an active practice of relationship, that I’m not expecting it to be generous with me, I need to be generous with it.

There’s an adrienne maree brown quote: “What we pay attention to grows.” I think a lot about that responsibility, which is like, well, what do I want to pay attention to, because it’s going to grow? Not only is it about the responsibility that we have to each other and the responsibility that we have to the future, it’s also the responsibility to have faith that the smallest interactions transform into or plug into these larger systems that we have to have faith in, that aren’t working to transform the world around us. We don’t have to be these magnificent beings, activating, building tremendous tables. Actually, the smallest work is our most sacred act, that we can have faith that that responsibility alone is transformational, not just for ourselves but for others. I’ve seen that, now, play out for me in many, many ways, where a small interaction from five years ago leads into, for someone else, even in the role I have, leads into them getting a job five years later that I can help connect.

I think about that a lot. I’m not building relationship with people in a transactional way. It’s a faith that I know that down the line, that we’ve been connected for some reason, and what that will play out of as it should, as it will.

Yura Sapi: Paciencia y fe. Knowing time is on our side, living in that truth.

Victor: Yep. It’s so hard. It’s so hard to be patient. At least I’ll speak from the “I.” I like to fight it so often because there’s so much of that initial myth of now, now, now; this binary way of understanding Western versus non-Western. From a Western context, we live in such a market exchange culture. We even want to be in an exchange culture with time. We think that time owes us things, that if we invest time, that we will get something back.

We think that we can control it in many ways and that we have goals and expectations which are carefully architected to give us X, Y, Z results. If not, then there’s a problem. It’s no surprise to me that even with time, we try to commodify it but yeah, you can’t do that. Like you said in your poll: What does it look like to indulge in refuge in this collusive thing that’s out of your control? That is a practice right there.

Chorus: [sings “Time is Not Linear”]

Yura Sapi: It’s a cool way of seeing how time is not linear because slowing it down or speeding it up, I think also can be, and then going back slow, tangible ways to experience how time is not linear and that it’s something made up. Even the idea of the calendars that we run on, the dates that we put, there’s all kinds of answers in there, all different kinds of ways. I’m just thinking even of these times of year that are gathered upon for humans and beings in general, in different parts of the world and in different cultures, things that kind of go past the calendar that we’re in now—the moon cycles and the seasons that you may be in, you may have, aligning to that aspect of how time moves. The day, following the day, the sun rising and setting and kind of syncing up to that time.

Victor: As a West Coast boy, there is such a lesson in that when I moved to the East Coast and I was living in D.C. and New York City because my body did not know or understand seasons in that way. It was so hard to surrender to how time changes in that way. I hear what you’re saying, and I’m like, “Ooh, that’s why I was.” It’s so beautiful and so captivating. To hear about practice. Then on another level, putting that practice into practice is so hard to let yourself, your body, experience different ways of moving through time. Then sometimes, it speeds up and then sometimes, it slows down, and that sometimes, you just got to chill. Sometimes, you just got to go very real. Such a great lesson too is then adapt that into so many other parts of our lives, whether it’s our careers or artistic practices or our relationships. Same thing.

One of the things I mentioned earlier was even just like the dissecting of the word cast versus caste. For anybody out there listening who’s interested in this concept of casting, the reason that I root it in the space of imagination is because I think that for so long, the other way of saying the word, the other meaning, has been true for many, many generations, which is that we have imagined each other or one another or others in ways that have impacted generations of peoples in violent, political, cultural ways. Talking about imagination work is not always rooted in generosity. It can quite literally be rooted in genocide. It can be quite literally rooted in violence. That understanding of the two sides of that coin is where this responsibility comes from; that imagining ourselves and people like and unlike us in generous ways is a radical act. Imagining people like us and unlike things, and envisioning their futures, is a radical act of their survival too.

Yura Sapi: An envisioning practice to help you see, feel, taste, smell, hear what liberation might be. I do this practice a lot and welcome sharing it with others, especially when we may feel like we’re trying so hard to think our way out of a problem, when really, the solutions are so close. Take a moment, feel your feet connecting to the earth, taking a breath, feeling the air rush through your body, giving you nutrients you need.

Close your eyes if you wish and start to let yourself see, hear, taste, feel, smell. What does your liberated future tell you? What signs or symbols, places in nature, what’s there? Trust your instinct. Trust the first things that may come up. Getting curious, seeking to imagine, what’s there? What does that mean for you, that color, that image, that sound, that smell?

What does it feel like when you reach your liberated future? How will you know by what you feel once you’re there? Take a breath, indulging and refuging in this feeling and this vision and this sound and this smell. Go ahead and start to come back into our present moment, looking around, rejoining where we are.

Victor: I want to end this conversation by just going back to the responsibility and the severity of imagination work. It is necessary for all of us to choose what kind of imagination work we want to be responsible for. I do not think that we can be passive about this work and that I believe that that assignment of how you wish to imagine your future in other people’s futures finds its way into the work you currently do out there. I really do think that it’s our way, our modern way of storytelling.

Before, we used to gather around the fire to tell stories at the end of each day, lessons we’ve learned that day, most of them rooted in survival. Do not travel towards the river that way because there’s a click hidden. Travel this way because there’s adequate food sources. I can just imagine the sort of storytelling that was happening around that fire, and that in our DNA, that we were trained to listen to these stories out of an act of survival to imagine ourselves forward, to imagine our generations forward. I do not think that we’ve let that go.

I believe in many ways, that we still do that kind of work to each other and one another, through many of the work that we collectively do on our daily lives. What kind of stories do you want to participate in, do you want to tell, do you want to imagine? How can you ensure not just your survival but the survival of those around you too?

Yura Sapi: This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content, on howlround.com.

Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the commons. This is Yura Sapi. You can find out more about me at yurasapi.com or follow me on Instagram or LinkedIn @Yura Sapi. Thanks for joining us.

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Thoughts from the curator

I hear talk about wanting for racially diverse populations to “get a seat at the table” or “bringing chairs to the table for POC,” meaning that we want our people to have a position at existing organizations and institutions with decision making power. For me, a few years ago, I decided to not focus on infiltrating existing organizations, but rather start my own. I know I’m not alone. With the blessing that we all have a role in the revolution, this podcast checks in and learns from BIPOC founders of various organizations in and related to the theatre industry changing the game, making new things happen within, and expanding beyond white and euro-centric experiences. We will learn from these incredible visionaries who have created their own tables of arts institutions, movements, collectives, initiatives, and more. We learn about their processes, pathways to success, and challenges they've overcome. This is an outside-the-classroom leadership learning from folks who are doing the things.

Building Our Own Tables

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