Name: Matt Barbot
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Current Town: Brooklyn, NY
Affiliations: Columbia University School of the Arts
Q: How do you self-identify?
A: Latino and Nuyorican work for me. When people ask me where I’m from I usually just say “Brooklyn.”
Q: Tell me about El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom.
A: It’s a very personal play for me about ethnic identity and comic books, receiving its world premiere at Two River Theater in January. It follows Alex, an out-of-work young comic artist who finds himself frustrated by the fact that so few heroes look like him, so he creates El Coquí Espectacular, an avatar of everything he thinks it means to be Puerto Rican. It doesn’t help that he’s plagued by a worry that he’s not “Puerto Rican enough,” that having been born on the mainland, not speaking Spanish, speaking a certain way, and liking certain things make him less authentic or less connected to his heritage. Meanwhile his brother, Joe, works in advertising, focusing on projects aimed at “the Hispanic market,” and in dealing first-hand with having to decide what those consumers think and want, he faces his own crisis of identity. There’s also Yesica, a young photographer who wants to fight gentrification through her art, and finds herself something of a viral internet celebrity with her photos of the weird guy dressing up as a “super vejigante” and jumping around on rooftops in Sunset Park. When all their projects collide, they risk losing control of their creations.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I have a lot of half-finished scripts floating around, but at the forefront right now are a play that borrows characters from Shakespeare to discuss respectability politics, and rewrites on Saints Go Marching, the play I wrote as my thesis at Columbia University, about a young woman forced to find a path forward for her family after the death of her wayward abuelo, whose ghost won’t leave her alone.
Q: What have been the defining moments of your journey as a playwright?
A: The first workshop production I had in New York was kind of a bummer, and it taught me to never be too grateful for the opportunity to be assertive about my work, as well as the importance of good collaborators. Producing my first full length, Infallibility, at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2013 was a pretty huge moment for me, and it more or less cemented my focus on playwriting rather than acting. My short play A List of Some Shit I’ve Killed is published in Red Bull Theater’s Red Bull Shorts Volume 3, which is my very first publication you could actually hold in your hands. But nothing’s been more influential than my time honing my work at Columbia, stretching my voice and learning more about the kind of writer I could be.
Q: Who have been your playwriting mentors and heroes?
A: Lynn Nottage, David Henry Hwang, Kelly Stuart, Charles Mee, Deborah Brevoort, Mikhael Tara Garver, and Jeanine Tesori were all incredible mentors to have at Columbia, and I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to study with them and refine my work under their guidance. Additionally, I had the honor of working with Kristoffer Diaz on my thesis (even though he teaches at that other school downtown) and that play is much better for it—more than anything, he helped me get over how hard it was for me to write the play at all.
Outside of school, I credit Stephen Adly Guirgis’ work for making me a playwright at all. I first read The Last Days of Judas Iscariot as a senior at a Jesuit high school back when all I’d read was Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams in class and it opened my eyes to what was possible on stage—a feeling I was reminded of when I saw Brendan Jacob Jenkins’ An Octoroon at TFANA. José Rivera and Miguel Piñero have been influences on my work, sure, as well as Lorca. Quiara Alegría Hudes changed my view of what kind of stories I could tell about Latin characters. Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman is one of my favorite plays, as is Caryl Churchill’s Far Away. I haven’t stopped talking about Annie Baker’s The Antipodes since I saw it. Sean Graney’s These Seven Sicknesses, a five hour long adaptation of seven Greek plays which I had the good fortune to be in at The Flea, taught me a lot about being ambitious in my writing.
I’m leaving people out, I’m sure. I could talk about this for hours.
Q: What advice do you have for Latin@ playwrights at the beginning of their career?
A: People are going to tell you that, because of who you are, you have to paint with a smaller palette than them. They’re wrong: you have your palette and their palette, too.
Q: What else should we know about you?
A: I loved The Last Jedi and don’t understand why it’s so divisive.
***For more on Matt Barbot, see:
- Matt Barbot on New Play Exchange
- El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom at Two River Theater
- “El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom” – Gary Wien (New Jersey Stage)
- “El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom examines Latino identity” – Monika Fabian (NY Daily News)
- “What Flavor Am I? Reflecting on Michael Sommers’ Review of Ropes” – Matt Barbot (Café Onda/HowlRound)
- “Creator of the Week: Matt Barbot” – Ricardo Biramontes
- Read Matt Barbot’s work in Red Bull Shorts Volume 3
- Follow Matt Barbot on Twitter