A Conversation with Jason Yancey, Author of the Quijóteres
Interviewed by Robin Kello
Jason Yancey, Associate Professor of Spanish at Grand Valley State University and member of the Dragoncillo puppet troupe, is the creator of Quijóteres, a puppet show adaptation of Don Quixote. If you’ve ever wondered what the adventures of the Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha and Sancho Panza would look like as puppets, or how to tell Cervantes’s thousand-page story in thirty minutes, I’m delighted to tell you that Quijóteres is part of the 2020 LA Escena festival, and will be available on November 14 at 1PM. Click here to RSVP: https://www.anoisewithin.org/play/quijoteres-puppet-show//.
We at Diversifying the Classics were fortunate to be able to Zoom down with Yancey recently to ask a few questions about the show. An abridged version of the conversation is below.
DtC: How did you generate the idea? What was the inspiration?
Yancey: I had been doing puppetry but it hadn’t really been part of my scholarship. I was coming off the translation of a Tirso play, and realizing I really enjoyed translation. I was hungry for something that was a little bit different. After several years of watching my students do puppet shows but not having done anything of my own, I thought: “OK, for my next project, I want to do a puppet show, and I want to do some work with adaptation and translation.”
I felt like I would try Don Quixote. I love the story, like most people do, and had read it several times. I also really wanted to be faithful to the things that I loved that were not just the jokes and stories but the narrative games that Cervantes is playing. I wanted to make it enjoyable for an audience of smarty-pants scholars who know a lot about the Quixote but also make it accessible to someone who doesn’t know anything about it, in a way that when they had a chance to read the novel later on, it would ring familiar.
DtC: I really like the inclusion of the original Spanish.
Yancey: The Spanish part was important to me. Having worked in translation and adaptation, I feel like there really is something beautiful about that language, and I don’t want to just strip it out and no longer have any of that Spanish. It was really important to me to present a show where people would hear Spanish and not feel threatened by it. How do you bridge that language barrier? All of the Spanish in the play comes straight from the text, word for word. I really wanted to be faithful and also make it accessible.
DtC: Besides the obligatory windmills, how did you choose what to put in the show?
Yancey: It’s very helpful that the text is so episodic. I made a collection of scenes that I thought would play well with puppets, a small, compact thing and something very visual. I felt like I had to put the windmills in there. I think from the very beginning, I knew I had to have the puppet show inside the puppet show, and have that puppet stage look just like the bigger stage. Once you pull those off the shelf and say, “here are the characters that we want to have,” it becomes a much more manageable project.
How does this connect to the Dragoncillo project as a whole?
Yancey: A couple of years after Quijóteres, I did an adaptation of Juan Rana plays that I called The Fabulous Johnny Frog. I told a couple of friends that I was going to see at a conference, “the idea is that we should be able to rehearse the play in an hour or two and then perform it.” We did all the conference stuff during the day, and in the evening we rehearsed. So that was my conference presentation, and it worked! The summer after that, we all started emailing and agreed: “Yes, let’s do that again! But let’s all work on it this time.” So Jonathan Wade is in North Carolina, and Jared White is in Iowa, and Esther Fernández is in Texas, and I’m here. Our next effort together was a series of Quevedo shows that we called Second Hands and the Ladies’ Man.
Now we’ve done that and found that this model works. I could take the Quevedo show, or the Johnny Frog show, and I would go to North Carolina. And Jonathan Wade would take his students, and they would learn how to do the show and then we would go to elementary schools and the students would do the performance. That takes the performance out of my hands entirely, and lets the students be in the driver’s seat.
DtC: What can we do to bring this dramatic corpus to new audiences?
Yancey: With Dragoncillo, every show begins with an introduction. For the Johnny Frog show, we introduce by saying, “this is an entremés, like a little sketch you would see on YouTube or Saturday Night Live.” We try to introduce it in a way that makes it seem familiar.
Some scholarship treats these plays with so much reverence that to tinker with them at all is somehow sacrilegious. I just don’t feel that way. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your period representation is if your audience doesn’t connect and have an enjoyable experience. I enjoy exploring these issues of translation and adaptation as an opportunity to play Virgil to Quevedo’s (or Cervantes’s) Dante, an intermediary and guide to help the words and ideas connect with a new audience.
What does it feel like to be doing these plays in the United States in 2020?
Yancey: I feel like there is an opportunity here. People are feeling a lot of anxieties, frustrations, and strong emotions, and theater is a way to get that out, and do something and say something with it. It’s the same conversation we’ve had several different ways. How do we reproduce that experience given the new environment that we’re in? How do we overcome some of those challenges, whether it’s how to help an audience connect with a 16th century play or to adapt a thousand-page novel into a thirty-minute puppet show?
DtC: Any final thoughts on the upcoming show?
Yancey: I’m excited people want to take this play off the shelf and watch it again. I often think of something from the Argentine playwright Griselda Gambaro: “soy lo que escribo, y escribo lo que soy.” I am what I write and I write what I am. Maybe I’m writing plays that I want to see or that I would enjoy watching.