Ben DeJesus on How John Leguizamo Has Changed American Theatre
John Leguizamo’s Road to Broadway follows the always provocative Leguizamo as he prepares for his most challenging theatrical quest yet – cramming 3,000 years of Latino history into 90 minutes of stage time for his one man show. With extraordinary access to his creative process, the film traces the evolution of his latest success, Tony-nominated play Latin History for Morons, from its challenging premise through its triumphant debut. A special co-presentation of Great Performances and Latino Public Broadcasting’s VOCES, John Leguizamo’s Road to Broadway, directed by Ben DeJesus, premieres nationwide Friday, November 16 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings). The film will be available for streaming on November 17 at pbs.org/gperf and on PBS apps.
Interview with Director Ben deJesus
Ben DeJesus started as a theater actor and was bitten by the producer bug during his internship at MTV.
He started his own production company in Times Square. About 10 years ago Ben met John Leguizamo and immediately hit it off. John agreed to DeJesus’s idea of a documentary of Tales of a Ghetto Clown. Today, they own a company with other partners. Here’s what Ben DeJesus had to say about his friend and business partner and shooting John Leguizamo’s Road to Broadway.
QMW: What was the biggest lesson or what did you value the most from the Disney Directors Program?
DeJesus: Becoming an episodic director is one of the best jobs in Hollywood. it’s ultra competitive. I ended up applying for the program but didn’t make it in the first time. In the mean time, I decided to make myself a candidate they couldn’t say no to. The Disney Directors Programs allows you to shadow and train with top directors on major tv shows with the idea that they were preparing you for a career. So, while I was waiting to reapply, I started doing it on my own. I sought out top directors that I admired. I’d track them down and ask if they would mind if I came to hang out on set. By the time I had reapplied, I had all this experience under my belt. Fortunately, I got in. One of the most important things I learned in the (Disney Directors) Program was – obviously the technical side of directing for television episodics which is a completely different art form than maybe doing a movie or documentary. It’s a lot faster. I learned to pick up with pace and keep up with the rhythms of Hollywood sets. I also learned the importance of maintaining relationships with people who are the gatekeepers. It is not enough for me to be good. People have to be rooting for you. There has to be a joint effort with people helping you to break in.
I learned that I love it.
It’s very fast. You have to be able to think quick on your feet and be confident in your decisions. You have to be cool and calm under pressure. It’s been an interesting experience for sure.
QMW: That’s a different pace than filming a documentary. Will you share a little bit of how different it was to shoot Road to Broadway and Tales from Ghetto Clown?
DeJesus: The good thing is with LH4B I had an idea of what I had done with TFGC. I could tell what worked and what didn’t work. But when you’re doing a documentary, it’s filled with so many unknowns because in a lot of ways you are witnessing the story being written as you’re watching it and you’re shooting it. You may have an idea of where you hope the film will end or where you think the film is heading but in reality the actual real time action of what’s happening is still being determined.
We started filming 4 years ago with John in comedy clubs there was no PBS supporting and there was no money except what I was putting in to it and my partners. It was just believing in it and hoping that it was going to turn out great. We didn’t even know if the show was going to make it to Broadway. So, if I had shot for four years and the show never made it to Broadway, I wouldn’t been left without a real finished film.
You’re kind of living in it as you go along, as opposed to something that is written with a beginning, middle and end. In the documentary world, you’re still discovering it as it’s happening. It’s exciting but also can be nerve-wracking. You’re not in control of what you could be in control of if you had written scripts but I like it. I live for those moments and for the thrill of unveiling it and having the story reveal itself to you.
QMW: In the documentary, I felt a shift of energy with the audience as John practiced the show in front of different audiences from comedy clubs to theatres. You captured that shift well. What was that like?
Different audiences in different venues have different expectations. When John started out at comedy clubs, these were his hard-core fans who were excited but they really only know him for his one many shows that have been on HBO and YouTube clips. There’s a little bit of an expectation that they have. When they show up and see him reading from his laptop they were taken back but they seemed excited and eager to take the ride with him. It was all good.
Once he got in to the theatres, they are expecting something more polished. They’re expecting something that’s more refined and more ready for prime time. John’s process is that even when he’s in the theatre it’s still part of his learning process of how to figure out and manage the material. They were open to let him grow in the piece. They were still understanding but it was just a different level of expectations that they have.
In the real world as John was making his way through the theatres on his way to Broadway, the election happened. The whole world seemed to flip. That was the biggest change. During the political season of 2016, the audience – especially the Latino audience – became more invested in the material. Outside they were feeling like their culture was being attacked or devalued. There seemed to be a shift in the audience and the awareness and the openness. They were more politcally-minded than they were when we were in the comedy clubs. I definitely noticed the shift.
QMW: In the documentary Oskar Eustis says, “John has changed the American theatre landscape.” What do you think about that statement?
DeJesus: John has absolutely changed the American theater landscape. He has inspired an entire generation of people like myself, of writers, of actors, of even people like Lin Manuel Miranda who have attributed in many ways their success to what John did in the theatre. I do feel like when you look back at theatre history John is absolutely going to have his rightful place as one of the greats of all time. In the one-man show, John just went completely all in (with his personal story). Now you see a lot of other one-man shows that have come after that that kind of follow the same formula even from Billy Crystal on Broadway to Mike Tyson. A lot of that came from what John did when he opened up his heart and his soul and his family background to audiences everywhere.
That is absolutely a fair statement that John has changed the landscape forever.
QMW: As a Latino, how did Latin History for Morons affect you?
DeJesus: I’m Puerto Rican. Even though I didn’t grow up there I have a lot of Puerto Rican and Taino blood running in my veins. I have a lot of pride in my roots.
Watching the show, it reinforced those roots but it also opened up this world of pride and history. Even though I consider myself someone who is really curious and in to history, he would basically be teaching me. Every night I’d be watching the show and would be learning something else about my culture and my people. Looking back on it now I feel more proud of who I am and where I come from because of the things I learned in John’s show.
That was the reaction most people had. You could see people walking out with more pride.
Queridos, take the time to watch this documentary on PBS.