No celebration of indie artists would be complete without raving the inexhaustible energy and engaging talents of Jazmyn Arroyo & Janelle Zapata Castellano, the brains, the muscle, the wit, and so much behind Step1 Theatre Project. Step1 Theatre Project is an NYC-based indie theatre company whose mission is to present professional works presented by underrepresented artists while providing accessible support to members of the local indie theatre community.
Their next piece is a deception in a deception: A noir mystery that looks like a Frank Miller comic book but packs a devastating conclusion: Mahogany Brown and the Case of the Disappearing Kid.
Step1 has made a commitment toward creating new, innovative ways of supporting fellow artists. They seek to be a company of #ArtistsSupportingArtists–to foster growth and inspire the next generation of theatre makers; to encourage them to present their projects fearlessly, regardless of financial and social barriers. With every artist support initiative and every story Step 1 tells, they encourage all who have a vision to start and keep moving forward, one step at a time. Well, hooray, ladies, A.i. is here to support you.
We were sworn to secrecy over the twists and turns in their current show so we took this opportunity to hear what NYC arts look like from their vantage point.
Tell us about your journey as producer/directors in New York
It has been a journey! It has not been easy because we don’t come from a background where art is ever an option. We both are very similar where we have family that moved here from Puerto Rico, and worked very hard for their children to have it easier than they did. My parents always told me they worked hard so I can do anything that I wanted. Being the first generation that is more established, and has the space to follow their dreams and passions as opposed to being concerned about survival can only be described as a gift. We are very aware our lives are a product of generations of hard work, and that informs everything we do. This is the reason we choose to produce work, and create platforms for people like us, the people who do not have the traditional story. The amazing thing about this ‘not traditional’ story is that it is not only the two of us who share it, but there are so many others who have grown up in a space where art is not centered in their lives, but they found art and realized that that is what they were made for, that it is essential to their lives and the way they experience and communicate with the world. We want to celebrate those differences, and highlight how these experiences actually make us the same.
It’s hard to follow up Janelle’s answer, but it’s worth reiterating that our awareness and appreciation of those who came before us really does inform everything we do. I had big dreams as a kid, but things surrounding me taught me that life was about survival. It took me some time to accept that I am allowed to think beyond survival, that I can grant myself permission to create. However in high school and college, even though I was constantly surrounded by other people of color, I personally did not see myself represented much in the work we were being taught. That was another thing I had to work through–not simply accept the lack of representation and giving myself permission to create platforms for the works we needed to see through those formative years. When it comes to producing in New York, I’ve found this strange, often unspoken assumption that legitimate, professional theatre exists only in Off Broadway and Broadway spaces. We’re here to show folks that diverse voices can be presented and shine on a small stage, maintain their magic and legitimacy, and hopefully get their work one step closer to those larger, aspirational spaces.
Tell us how you formed Step1?
Jazmyn came to me one day with an idea. I had no clue how much this idea would come to change and shape my life. Let’s make art. Let’s tell the stories we always wanted to see. Let’s connect to the people that have not traditionally been connected to. Let’s celebrate artists, and center them and their experiences and their needs. Since then we have been trying to figure out how to create an experience for our artists and audiences where everyone can connect to one another. We truth think of theatre as a community, and building this community is what is most important to us.
Summer of 2015 I had what I called my “quarter-life crisis”, working at my hourly job that had no room for growth and nagging feelings of inadequacy. I knew I wanted to start a theatre company, but I felt too young, too inexperienced, that I would get it going “someday”. When I verbalized this to a friend, he asked me, why not just start the company now? Once I realized I didn’t actually have an answer for that, I allowed myself to honestly entertain the idea of founding a company. That night I opened a notebook and wrote out pages and pages of ideas, and I called Janelle right away asking if she was down to take the risk and just go for it. Our hope is that other artists can feel this experience, too–if they feel underprepared or inadequate in any way, every journey starts with that first step. Step1 Theatre Project aims to be an accessible space for underrepresented indie artists to “get started”, so if you feel that drive in you, just start!
Obviously, you wear many hats. How’s the juggling going? Difficult? fun? necessary? desired? etc…
We work really hard to support one another. Sometimes one of us has more time, ability, or just brain space to help the other when they are overwhelmed. We really work hard to be transparent with each other and with everyone we work with so they know they can be transparent with us. No one is perfect and if we are honest with each other in that way, we can hold each other up. When we work with artists, we try to check and give them avenues to let us know how they are feeling at any point in the process. Everyone wants to work hard and do a good job, and in this business it is often that you take on a lot and have to be supported. We try hard to support one another and everyone on our team.
I think about this a lot! At first I assumed that it was part of the territory of being an indie theatre producer, but what I have found is that folks are often forced to wear many hats, whether they want to or not. For our first season our titles were “Co-Directors of Everything” because we had to do it all on our own! Season one we operated on the grace of unpaid volunteers because they believed in us, they loved the work, and wanted to be a part of it. We have gradually been able to elevate our productions, pay our team members, and hopefully we will soon be able to start hiring more admin team members! Growth of the team means we don’t have to spread ourselves so thin so we can be of better service to our artists. (Shout out to Ashley Rogers and Benjamin-Ernest Abraham, without their hard work I’m not sure I would have gotten through these past couple of months with my sanity intact!)
As an artist, and a woman, how has “reality” of working in New York differed from your original expectations?
I had very few expectations coming in. I knew that I had no choice, I had to be in theatre. I often get asked by young people about doing theatre in New York and I tell them that they should only do it if they can’t ever see themselves being happy doing anything else. Sometimes it is surprising how small the community really is. You come in expecting the biggest theatre community in the world, but it is much smaller than many expect. I feel lucky every day to get to do what I do, but I have only ever expected it to be difficult, and boy was I right!
I’m not sure I had any specific expectations going in. My driving force was the desire to be in service of indie/early career artists, especially those who have been disadvantaged in some way. The reality I found was, it’s much more difficult than I originally thought to find viable funding opportunities when you are a very small company with a small budget. It seems like most grant opportunities are reserved for more established companies, so it’s been tricky navigating the catch-22 of needing to increase spending in order to be eligible for more funding. (Shout out to groups like A.R.T./New York and the League of Independent Theatre for offering real support to small companies like ours!) As a woman, well—maybe this is a cop-out answer but I’m just happy to be existing in this community as a woman of color in a leadership position! That’s what I want to see more of.
What are future plans?
Growth! We are really in transition and are growing as a theatre company. Fundraising, adding to our team, and learning about the ins and outs of really establishing the organization is really at the forefront of our minds right now. Our reading series, where we give playwrights with work early in development a space, actors, and an audience of other theatre artists to develop their work in an open, loving, relaxed environment has been a great way to connect and service our community. Our upcoming show, Mahogany Brown and the Case of the Disappearing Kid by Gina Femia is absolutely the most ambitious work we have ever done, and showing what we can really do without the restrictions of being a ‘young company’ has been an amazing experience. I cannot wait to continue to grow, to continue to service artists and to connect more people to art and our community!
What Janelle said: growth, growth, growth. Even if it’s incremental, every level-up for us means we can be of better service to the artists who find and work with us. Right now, we provide free public cold readings for early draft / developing works, then we elevate those pieces further by producing ticketed staged readings with design elements, and next we are looking to elevate those works even further with full productions. We also offer free workshops, and with more resources we can offer higher quality (free!) resources that artists need for their own development. Step1’s tagline is Artists Supporting Artists, we want to be those supportive artists, and we want to create spaces where artists show up to support one another as a community. Committing myself to this effort has been the most rewarding decision of my life.