Teaching Artist Leah Reddy spoke with director David Mendizábal about their work on the bandaged place.
Leah Reddy: What is your theatre origin story?
David Mendizábal: I think my theatre origin story starts with my father. He is an immigrant from Ecuador who became naturalized and is an immigration attorney with his own business in Orlando. When I was in middle school and had summer breaks, I used to go with him to his office and I would help with paperwork and photocopies and whatnot. My favorite days were going with him to court. I would go and I would watch him. And for me, that was theatre. It was watching my dad perform a monologue, a life-changing monologue. He was telling the stories of his clients, undocumented people who were looking for belonging, who were looking to be seen, who were looking for opportunity. And he was also providing a platform for them to share their own stories.
Obviously there's the legal system all at play, but for me as a young child, I was thrilled to see my father up there. It reminded me of performance. It reminded me of theatre, right? In a lot of ways, that's where a lot of the values and the ideals of what makes me a theatre artist and the kind of work that I'm excited by stem from. The first musical I saw was Phantom of the Opera on tour. Watching my dad, the political, social justice-based storytelling, combined with the pure spectacle and over-the-topness [of Phantom of the Opera] makes sense now that I think about my career and the work that excites me.
LR: Once you got interested in theatre, how did you pursue your interests? Did you have any particularly influential mentors or teachers or experiences?
DM: I went to a public high school, but I was part of a theatre arts magnet program. It was sort of like pre-college immersion in theatre. It was pretty legit. Alumni of the program include Patricia McGregor, who's now the Artistic Director of New York Theatre Workshop, Alano Miller, who's an amazing actor, Wayne Brady, Joey Fatone, and Wesley Taylor. So there were a lot of artists who were coming out of there. Our theatre teacher, Karen Rugerio, really instilled in us a passion for theatre, a rigor, a discipline.
I would say that throughout my career, probably more than anything, I’ve been influenced by peer-to-peer mentorship. I met one of my best friends in high school and she continues to be a lifelong collaborator and, in my opinion, a visionary in the field. Her name is Alex. Alexandra Meda. She runs Teatro Luna, which is based out of Los Angeles and Chicago. She's a director and an arts leader, and I would say she and I have been each other's biggest mentors. Really, I think neither one of us really knew, at the time, that we were leaders. We were just making theatre and we were helping out in the office and doing all of the producing stuff that we didn't realize, while also being artists and wanting to figure out what that was. And I would say that that has continued throughout my career, at the The Movement Theatre Company with the Producing Artistic Leadership Team – Deadria Harrington, Eric Lockley, Taylor Reynolds, Ryan Dobrin, and former leaders and founders Jonathan McCrory, Geri-Nikole Love, and Christiamilda Correa, and at The Sol Project with Jacob Padrón and our artistic collective. That peer-to-peer mentorship, that peer-to-peer advocacy of giving each other room to try and fail and grow and figure out what it means to be a leader and an artist at the intersection of the political, social justice edge.
LR: I love that you brought up peer-to-peer collaboration because I know that you and Harrison David Rivers have worked together before. How did your collaborations come to be? What excites you about directing his work?
DM: My first year at The Movement Theatre Company, 15 years ago, we did our first open submission. And through that, Harrison submitted a play called, we are misquoted texts, made right when you say us. It was over 170 pages and there was a young, tap-dancing prodigy named Cow, and his parents were lost in the Turkish desert, and there were whirling dervishes and bombs exploding. It was this beautifully poetic, gorgeous, big spectacle-filled, but also socially justice-rooted play, and it was queer without that being “the thing”, it just existed in its DNA.
I remember it was the first play I read in the submissions. I was like, "What is this title? I'm obsessed," and I did not know Harrison. I read it, and then I was like, "We're doing this and I want to direct it," and I called him and I was like, "Hi. You don't know me, but we're going to produce your reading and I want to direct it." He was like, "Cool." And then, he invited me to go see a piece of his called Quartet at the old Dixon Place. I went and I was obsessed. There was something about the way that his writing spoke to the words that were going on in my head. I don't consider myself a writer. It's not a muscle that I exercise. But when he writes, it sounds like the rhythms that I hear. It sounds like the ways in which I also view the world, and so I just connected so deeply to it.
I remember going up to him afterwards. He had never met me. His brother was there. I was just kind of hovering over them and his brother was like, "Do you know this person?" And Harrison was like, "I have no idea who they are." I jutted my hand out and I was like, "Hi! I'm David. We're going to be best friends," and that was literally the first sentence I said to him in person. He was, I think, equal parts like, "Who are you?" and also open to it, I guess. From there, we started our friendship. And from there, I directed his Columbia thesis, and then at The Movement Theatre Company, we developed and produced Look Upon Our Loneliness. We also developed and produced And She Would Stand Like This.
And all the while, the bandaged place was a play that Harrison was developing on the side. It was a play that I actually didn't do a lot of the development of. He was working with other directors, and it is a piece [in which he took] a very personal narrative and used theatre as a means to work through that narrative until it got to a place where I think he was able to look at it as a play. It was no longer sort of looking at his own wounds, right? It was looking at a play and it became a fictional piece. It was really beautiful to witness the evolution of that and to witness the evolution of Harrison as an artist and his own growth as a human being and his own healing journey. And to then be invited to develop it at New York Stage and Film and to continue with it here is this full circle moment in a lot of ways.
I think, especially, as an emerging director, you're taught, "Find that writer and grow with them." And I think oftentimes, directors end up not growing at the same rate and getting pushed to the side by an institution. It feels really special to be making this piece together at Roundabout. Celebrating 15 years of The Movement and celebrating 15 years of our friendship, and celebrating almost 15 years of this play's development – to be able to mark that with a production here in New York is really exciting.
LR: What else excites you about the bandaged place?
DM: I think one of the things that excites me the most about all of Harrison's writing, and especially about this play, is the social and political themes of the play are embedded inside of the characters and their relationships. We, as an audience, get to meet these Black and Brown and queer bodies. And we witness them navigating the interpersonal relationships – a father trying to show up for his daughter, a man trying to heal from a past love, two men who were never taught what it meant to love themselves, let alone to love another man – watching them navigate that, fail and fail again, and yet find compassion in their narrative, as horrifying as certain events might be. There's something really beautiful about the way Harrison is able to humanize these stories and make them about people and to make us, as an audience, understand the nuance and the complication in that no issue is black or white. There is complexity and dissonance. I think for a play that revolves around a series of incredibly violent actions, it is a play about healing, and I think the journey of its development has gotten it towards that more and more.
Healing is not linear. In a lot of ways, it's circular. It's messy. You can't go at it alone, and yet you also need to confront yourself sometimes. I'm super excited to be able to also draw from both of our journeys, and our own healing journeys and narratives, and complicate the play even more with the representation that's on stage and the ways in which cultural and societal norms are being interrogated. Especially in terms of machismo culture or homophobia and stigmas around same gender-loving bodies, especially amongst people of color. And to see those narratives being unpacked in a way that isn't about highlighting the trauma, but acknowledging that the trauma exists in the body, and how then do we need each other and ourselves to heal from that and to work through that to get to that new place of self-understanding.
LR: How are you approaching the dance aspects of this script?
DM: Harrison actually went to undergrad for dance, so I think movement and dance has been a part of the vocabulary of his plays. And I believe in a past life, I was a ballerina, so I think that I have this sort of love for dance and for movement. We have an incredible collaborator on this project, Tislarm Bouie, who is really not looking at dance as "5, 6, 7, 8" choreography, but the ways in which this character, Jonah – who is a dancer – is unable to use words to express all of the emotions in his body, and the ways in which his body, because of the injuries – and maybe not even because of the physical injury, but because of the mental, emotional, and spiritual trauma – his body is no longer there to support his healing journey. So how then does this dancer navigate that process in a body that feels robbed of him and what is that reclaiming of it?
LR: What advice do you have for people who want to direct?
DM: Find the artists who believe in you and your voice. I think, for me, finding a writer like Harrison, producers like Deadria and The Movement Theatre Company, Jacob and The Sol Project. Or finding Alex, who was and continues to be that person who can lovingly call me in and who wants me to show up better as a leader, as an artist. Finding those people who you can trust. It's not the people who always say yes. It's the people who can say no, but not just no and deny you something. But "no" as a sort of problem solver, as in, "How do we engage in something more rigorous, more full?"
Also know what values you want to lead with. Directing is so much about collaboration. It's so much about leadership. Work can be beautiful, but how was it made? Think about the beauty, the care, the intention, the joy, the love with which you put in the making of the work. It's hard what we do, right? None of us are paid enough. It's rigorous. We are asked consistently to rip into our wounds and put them out on stage, and then just pack them up and go back to normal. So I think, especially in this sort of reckoning that the field has gone under, so much of the conversation that I'm excited about is how the work is made. We've all seen brilliant work, but the people are broken afterwards. So I think a lot of that is about leading from a place of values, leading from a place of genuine collaboration. You are only as strong, in my opinion, as the people that you fully welcome into the room. And that's not just about their presence, their physical presence, but it's about allowing them to bring all of their selves, their whole selves, into the process and knowing when you have to filter out things too. It's a dance. It's a careful dance. But I think leading with compassion and joy and care and intentionality makes for better work. And in my experience, my evolution towards that journey has made for more meaningful, long lasting collaborations with people who want to come back to the process.