Welcome to the DGF Fellows Spotlight.
This series of interviews put the spotlight on individual DGF Fellows and invites you to take a behind-the-scenes look at our program.
The 2020-2021 class of fellows was asked a series of questions exploring where they’ve been, what they’re up to now, and what they hope for the future.
Please take your seats, unwrap your candies, and silence your cellphones as we put the spotlight on Juan Ramirez Jr.
What was your first experience with theater?
I remember the characters in my neighborhood, standing on the street corners or stoops, their stage, performing for each other, whether it was rap cyphers, cee-lo, drunk rants or fights. It was all drama to me.
It took me some time to feel my first theater experience. I had seen a few shows but I think I was only understanding the stories, but not feeling them. A fortunate last-minute-extra-ticket-invite took me to Shakespeare in the Park, where I saw George C. Wolfe’s production of Tony Kushner’s adapted play Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht. Starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. Now if this wasn’t going to inspire me, what will? The performance has had such an impact on me that I penned my own Bronx homage work. To this day, I keep chasing the experience of that play.
When did you decide to become a writer? Is there a writer, show, or piece of writing that was particularly influential on your path?
I think you are a writer and the becoming is in the craft. I feel writers go through three significant moments when deciding on becoming a writer. Exposure, Encouragement and Evidence. Sounds scientific, right? First, we’re exposed to the art, we fall in love with it and want to understand it better. After a writer embraces their voice, someone, usually a teacher or mentor, gives us that validation or rather, encouragement. Then, after grinding mad crazy, we get a unique compliment that’s our own. A personal recognition, an added memory for someone, or, if we’re lucky, even an award. But most often than not, even a rejection can inspire.
With all that said, I noticed writing when I was forced to do it as a kid. I soon took to drawing and began telling stories that way. I can’t remember the grade but I was young and a fellow classmate wanted to have a drawing competition with me. The best drawing wins. I created an entire illustration with characters, plots, beginning, middle and end – all to lose out because it was too long. Now I can’t remember anything of what I created but I remember how everyone kept talking about my story. How what I did should be a real comic. This is when I realized how inspiring a story can be. After a few self-taught screenplays later, I was at Lehman College’s theater program, where I met the first person who ever told me I had a talent to write story, William M. Hoffman. After self-producing my plays, I experienced how my work inspired audience members, especially as I spoke about my own tribe, and took every opportunity I could to tell a Bronx story. It wasn’t long before I decided to get an MFA at NYU. Who knows? Maybe a PhD is in my future. After this past year, I have officially taken on writing full-time. And now I’m creating stories in genres and mediums that are completely new to me. The journey of deciding to be a writer is always happening. To tell you truthfully, it’s every morning that I get up and decide to be a writer.
How do you describe your work overall? What sets your work apart?
My work is about giving voice to the voiceless. About creating artivism. Thinking of art and science in the same way. About exploring humanity in all its ugly and presenting that in the most beautiful of ways. I ask for the truth of myself and of the themes I take on. And if I’m lucky to find an answer, I ask, “And then what?”
I think about my ancestors, my kin, descendants and what stories of today they would share. The closest we get to immortality is story. My mother took on the journey to come to this country while pregnant with me and my father was denied hospital access to see my birth. I’m a Nuyorican, Guatemalteco, Spaniard, Tanío, Mayan, African mix from the Boogie Down. I’m filled with story and perspective because I am story. I’m a Juan Man Show.
Can you tell us a little bit about the work you’ve been developing as a Fellow?
My play Calling Puerto Rico is about Joél, a hermit living in an attic apartment of a NYC private house, where he uses a ham radio, a device used for non-commercial communication, to connect with people, like Debra, an astronaut on the International Space station. After getting news about the potential for a third hurricane to hit Puerto Rico named Maria, he decides to contact and hopefully, save the person he hasn’t spoken to in a year, his grandfather, Aníbal. As both suffer from the same generational trauma of being afraid to go outside, Joél wants to safely get Aníbal out of Puerto Rico, because then maybe, he’ll find the strength to leave his attic too. The play focuses on hopelessness and the urgency of communication, asking ourselves, “When we hear cries for help, is it enough to only listen?” and if we are listening, “What will it take for us to finally respond?”
This work is an attempt to archive a moment in history, hopefully to remind ourselves of the fragile state we sometimes live in. More so, I’m obsessed with truth, in definition to how our characters view their lives. For this play, one of those truths I aim to explore is how important it is to feel hopeful.
What do you find most rewarding about your work as a writer?
I’m never the same person after any story I write. Sure, sometimes it’s cathartic, other times it’s all exploration, and I could describe to you how it’s probably the only thing I’m good at but honestly, it’s the only thing I want to be good at. I’m full of opinions, ideas and questions and as someone who has been speaking their truth since a young age, I want to share that. When your play is on stage and an audience laughs, you laugh. When they cry, you cry. And it’s this bridge between us that reminds us we’re universal. In this vast space we exist in, for a moment, we’re connected and we’re no longer alone. Writing is feeling and feeling is rewarding.
Do you have any upcoming work you’d like to share?
I’ve been awarded the Bronx Council on the Arts New Work grant, where I am writing a play titled A Love Letter To The Bronx [@ALoveLetterToTheBronx], where after production, I will release the rights for free for community members to produce the work for educational or fundraising.
I’m a teaching artist with Art Defined, a Bronx based non-profit, where we’ve partnered to develop The Flip The Script Anthology Series, where writers will develop and produce their first works.
This year, I was accepted into the Block by Block Artist grant with Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, where I performed an excerpt of my first official Juan Man Show titled Broadway Of The Bronx. Follow on social media as the character Angel will soon start making an appearance.
Part of the American Theater Group PlayLab and Latinx Playwrights Circle, I’m always writing new works and looking to meet new artists. Find me. Say what’s up.
Thank you, Juan, for contributing to the blog! Find Juan and “Say what’s up” by following:
Website: www.JuanRamirezJr.com | IG: @AJuanManShow | TWITTER: JuanMRamirezJr