Lang from the Threads Team sat down for a Q&A with Emilio Rodriguez, one of the featured UMS Artists in Residence. Here's what he has to say:
Threads: How would you describe your work for someone who has never seen it, or doesn’t know who you are?
Emilio: I would just say that my work is a fusion of poetry and theater. I like to say if poetry and theater had a baby that would be the genre I would like to go under.
T: Does that fusion normally occur in the writing or the performance of the pieces?
E: A little bit of both. I definitely write it with poetry moments written in and I like to find actors who have experience doing poetry readings to make that come to life.
T: So when you were younger were you into both theater and poetry or was one of them your ‘first love,’ so to speak, and the other you adopted later?
E: I didn’t discover theater until college so maybe poetry, or just writing in general. I was really fortunate that my mom was a preschool teacher so I started reading really early. So at a very young age I could say “you know I’m kind of bored of this story, what if I just write this story and be in control of that.” So I thank my mom for encouraging me.
T: About what age were you when you started writing? And then at what age did your current blend of poetry and theater begin?
E: I think I would say that I started writing when I was about five, you know not good stuff, just like “tie my shoe, the sky is blue.” That sort of stuff, if you know what I’m saying. And then late college is when I started mixing poetry and theater. Probably the beginning of college is when I discovered spoken word and def poetry jam and all of that. And then, also discovered theater in college as well, and figured out how to mix those as best as I could.
T: At school did you study theater, or poetry, or something else?
E: I formally studied theater. I took a couple of poetry classes and there was a spoken word club on our campus, and so I got really involved in that and became the president of that. That was sort of my training in that.
T: You’ve already said how, growing up, your mom was an integral part of your writing, but did find that there was a good community of artists where you were
E: Growing up I moved around a lot because my dad was in the military, so I had a lot of home bases. But I would say that the place I was the longest was Riverside, California, and they do not really have the best arts scene. So I think that’s why I got into theater so late. I can’t remember ever seeing a play. I think in kindergarten we saw a ballet or something. So that’s why I’m really thankful that my mom had that early literacy background to get me into stories at a young age.
T: Did you have school plays at all?
E: (Laughter) It’s so interesting! I was in 3rd grade, my brother was in 5th grade, and they did The Wizard of Oz, and I was not cast and my brother was, and my brother doesn’t do theater at all. The same thing happened with a church play, I auditioned and my mom said “if I’m going to drive you out there I may as well take your brother.” And my brother got the part and I didn’t.
T: That’s rough.
E: And now he doesn’t act at all, he’s going to grad school for business.
T: Going in a little bit of a different direction, this festival is based around the Ann Arbor community of arts, and exposing people in the area to that community. Do have any suggestions to young artists and people just getting started in the arts?
E: I would encourage people to look around for resources and go out and support whatever medium they’re in. Like if you are an opera singer go out and see opera, because that’s how you can network with people who are being successful in that area. I guess that is what I try to do, I try and see theater as much as I can.
T: Who would you say are your biggest influences?
E: That’s a good question. So I really love Sandra Cisneros House on Mango Street, that was one of the first books in high school that was required reading that I actually read, because I liked it. So she was a big influence for me in melding poetry into whatever art form you do and being authentic to the people in your neighborhood and your communities. And I really love Ntozake Shange. She wrote For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf, which I directed in college. Basically people who have a poetic sense to whatever their art form is, or whatever their form of writing is have been most influential to me.
T: Could you briefly explain what the UMS artist in residence program is, and what it entails? And further, what it has allowed you to do.
E: It entails seeing five shows for free at UMS, then was also have meetings together. There are five of us, each from different disciplines. The main goal was to get us to see how other disciplines affect us. So, both with the meetings and the works we chose to see, they encouraged me not just to see the plays but to see the opera and the jazz music. It also allowed me to apply for an excellence in higher education in theater award, which I ended up being a finalist for.
T: Has the artist in residency program been your first exposure to Ann Arbor?
E: Well I had done a play in Ann Arbor as an actor at the old Performance Network so I really just knew that area. We would meet in that area and eat in that area, so the residency was my first time seeing even the power center and the state theater, I had no idea what any of that was.
T: How do you think that being in Ann Arbor has affected your work? And that could be geographically, community-wise, or in terms of being a part of the artist in residency program.
E: I think that it’s a little bit odd because I actually live in Detroit, so there are not a lot of young people going to theater. So being in Ann Arbor was really cool because you young people in the audience because of the university. And working with a couple of the theaters in the area has been really beneficial because that 20-30 year old crowd is what I really like to write for. When I come to Ann Arbor it’s really nice to have those people in the audience.
T: So I’ve got a theory that you can tell a lot about a person based on what their favorite bad movie is. What is your favorite bad movie?
E: I don’t know if this counts as a bad movie but one of my favorite movies is To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. It’s John Leguizamo, Wesley Snipes, and Patrick Swayze are drag queens who travel from New York to California for a competition.
T: That sounds awesome! One more question for you: if you could be a plant or non-human animal, what would you be and why?
E: I would be a kind of tree. I know that sounds simple but I just want my leaves to fall off because I love the idea of losing something and getting it back and being able to appreciate it and just when you appreciate it, you lose it again.
T: I never thought about the question from that angle, that’s awesome. Well thank you so much for sitting down and talking to me!