Seattle playwright Rose Cano staged readings of scenes from her unfinished play “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: Homeless in Seattle” back in 2011. She took the play to shelters, day-labor organizations and tent cities to perform a modern story influenced by Miguel Cervantes’ classic epic novel and to get feedback.
She spent three years producing the play and is preparing for its premiere on Sept. 12 through eSe Teatro at ACT I sat down with Cano at a rehearsal to talk about how her job as an interpreter at Harborview Medical Center influenced the play and the process of creating a bilingual performance.
So I think where I wanted to start was where you got the concept for “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: Homeless in Seattle.” I understand that it came from an experience you had at Harborview Medical Center, and I wondered if you could explain that.
I think it came from a series of experiences. I mean, there’s certainly two or three gentlemen that stand out in my mind that [are] kind of engraved in my heart as it were. But when I first started working as a Spanish medical interpreter at Harborview, I was there only on the weekends, so I was kind of there by myself all day Saturday and all day Sunday. And because Harborview’s a public hospital, we see everybody: [we see people] that can’t afford to pay; we see inmates from the local jails; we see highway accidents for four states. There’s a psychiatric emergency unit along with the regular emergency department. And we see a lot of homeless people and among those, some people have substance-abuse issues. There’s a lot of chronic inebriates, people with drug addictions or people with mental health illnesses, along with a lot of other things.
After about a year of working there and interpreting for a lot of different kinds of patients and a lot of homeless Latinos, I just started to ponder on the fact of what does it mean to be a gentleman, because I noticed that some of these men that would come in were able to keep their dignity. And some people seemed like they had succumbed to the street, that the streets had broken them and that they no longer had dignity while they were living out there and their humanity was compromised. I remember one man specifically, he came in and he did not want to spend another night on the street. He didn’t want to be around drugs, and I remember he was very nice looking.He was very clean cut and he had these nice boots and I thought this man looks like a gentleman, a caballero.
I began to think of the idea of being a gentleman in the Latino culture. I think it’s very important, the idea of being a gentleman, a caballero. So I thought, well, who’s the most quintessential, the most famous gentleman of all time? It’s Don Quixote. I thought if Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were alive today, 400 years later, where would they be? I thought they’d be at Harborview. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were two guys wandering outside all over Spain with no home, always looking for a place to sleep at night, looking for food. Don Quixote in his mind, he’s trying to do good, he’s trying to right wrongs and help the unfortunate. But he was always getting himself into trouble and getting them both beat up.
In what ways does your version of Don Quixote embody the idea of being a caballero?
I think the idea of dignity not being attached to how many personal belongings you have or attached to money or attached to if you have a job — just really the idea of the chivalrous act of helping another. That’s one of the concepts that I wanted to put in this play. So we [presented] different scenes at various shelters, tent cities, day-labor centers; we went to Casa Latina at 7:30 in the morning to read some scenes for the workers. We went to Tent City 3. That was our last kind of performance that we did as part of these “Dialogues on Dignity.” We’d always ask, so how do you hang onto dignity while you’re living on the street, how do you manage to still feel good about yourself? And people said that when they’re helping others, that really helped. The buddy system is really common. Helping someone else really made people feel better or feel like they had dignity.
What did you learn from those sessions, and how did it influence the final version of the play?
What I learned was how the language worked because that was the first challenge.
I wanted it to be understood by people that spoke only Spanish or people that spoke only English or a combination; that this play should work in Canada or Spain or Costa Rica or wherever English or Spanish was spoken. So sometimes I would go to shelters, and there would be nobody that spoke English. Sometimes, I’d go and there’d be nobody that spoke Spanish. I decided that the character of Sancho Panza should be the bilingual one and speaking Spanglish, how a lot of us grow up here in the United States combining English and Spanish, which provides some humor, too.
I also asked at each place in the beginning: Does this seem real to you, does this seem like life on the outside? Because there’s some scenes that are a little bit crude. There’s some scenes of violence. I didn’t want to make it not reflective of real life. I wanted to not shy away from what it is to live on the street. Mostly, I got, “No, life on the street is much worse, much worse.”
I remember after one of your readings, and it was back in 2011 that as the actors were gathering their things to leave, people preparing to stay at Union Gospel Mission were spreading out cots and sleeping pads around the room. Was that a common experience in your readings, and what did you think of that?
It reminded me that theater can’t solve everything. We’re there to reflect society to encourage dialogue. But it’s not like theater’s a Band-Aid to fix everything.
It’s a point of connection.
What will the experience be like for people when they see a bilingual play?
Don Quixote only speaks in Spanish, but the way I’ve written the play, I’ve tried to make it so Sancho Panza, he doesn’t paraphrase everything, he doesn’t repeat everything but by his answers, by his implications or by his attitudes, we get the important information through him. So David [Quicksall], our director, is in charge of making it all really clear, and he does a great job.
You know how when you watch a foreign film, sometimes there’ll be something that’s not subtitled and you’re looking intently, you’re watching body language and the inflection of the voice.
What I wanted was to make it like Seattle, like the real world that we live in. This is a very multilingual city. I consider Washington a bilingual state. And at Harborview, you hear languages in the hallway all the time. I think at Harborview, 92 languages are served.
Cervantes’ Don Quixote has elements of comedy and elements of tragedy. What is the balance between the comedy and drama in your play, particularly given the serious nature of homelessness?
I really wanted to make a comedy. Just like in the original novel, even if there’s cruel situations where they make fun of him, they humiliate him, there is still this amazing element of humor. In the golden age of Spain, it was very common to title plays the tragicomedia en catorce actos, the tragicomedy in 14 acts, because there are elements that are tragic and are comic. I think it’s a comedy overall, even though, like you said, the theme is serious. But within that and [with] Sancho, the erstwhile interpreter, making mistakes in his interpretation, I think that lends itself to comedy.
The literature and the fliers and the posters for the play show that it’s clearly set in Seattle, with pictures of the hammering man and the Great Wheel and Elliott Bay. Could the play have been set somewhere else?
I really wanted the flavor of what it means to live in our region to be a character in the play so it’s set in very recognizable places. When I first started writing it, the Great Wheel wasn’t built yet and I was searching the city for what would be Don Quixote’s windmills.
Everyone thinks of the windmills of Don Quixote ‘cause that’s a famous kind of chapter where he thinks windmills are giants, and he takes out his lance and he tries to joust them. So I don’t want to give away the ending but I decided that I found the perfect Seattle equivalent to Spain’s windmills.