By some theatrical coincidence (are there any coincidences, though?), both Esteban Andres Cruz and Esco Jouléy, who worked together last fall in the La Jolla Playhouse’s genderful production of As You Like It, both landed the role of Feste in separate productions of Twelfth Night: Esteban at the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival (in a run that closed June 25) and Esco at the Old Globe (in a run through July 9).
I spoke with these two actors about the bond they’ve forged via Shakespeare and their process in creating their own takes on Shakespeare’s saddest clown.
WOODZICK: What are the odds, two friends playing Feste at the same time in different productions? I love this so much. First of all, tell us about your background.
ESCO JOULÉY: If someone’s meeting me for the first time, I think I would like them to know that I did not study acting. I went to school for integrative arts. I was at Penn State. Then, when I got out of Penn State, I was like, I’m missing something. In high school, I was a part of a show choir. So after college, I went to AMDA in New York, and studied musical theatre, and got into that, and did very well but never did “acting,” like I’m an actor. So this is my second Shakespeare show; my first one was As You Like It. I am such a newbie in this Shakespeare world, and also just never thought it would be possible, as a person that has dyslexia. And then you enter a whole world that has to do so much with language. I mean, come on—come on!
ESTEBAN ANDRES CRUZ: I started acting 41 years ago in a production of Christmas Carol; I was Ignorance or Want. I actually fell in love with Shakespeare at around the same time. So Shakespeare has been a big part of my life; I can’t tell you how many Romeo and Juliets I’ve done, and played everyone in that play.
I grew up in Cicero, Ill., just on the edge of Chicago. Growing up, it was mostly a Latino community, and poor and troubled. My brothers were all in and out of institutions. So I used Shakespeare as something that I could be like—there was hope for better than this small town. It was kind of my gateway out. I found the gateway drug of theatre when I was in high school at 15. I was actually very shy, if you can believe it—I was a closeted extrovert. So theatre gave me a home and gave me a place where I felt like I could express who I really am.
I love this balance between someone who’s just coming into Shakespeare and someone who has this vast experience with Shakespeare, and you’re both friends and playing the role at the same time. Tell me about the casting process. How did you both come to this role with these respective productions?
ESTEBAN: It was very early in the process that I was brought on. I was actually brought on as a different character. It was going to be a trans relationship at the center of the play with another trans actor, which was the vision of it. But when I was offered that role, I said explicitly Feste as the role that I was interested in. You know, I’ve had a musical year—it’s been all musicals for me this year. So I was like, this is something that would be great for me. Lisa Portes, the director, came back, and she was like, “We’ve been auditioning these Festes but we cannot find one, and I know you said you were interested. Could you send me a tape?” And I’m like, oh my God, okay; I’m already cast in the show, but now I have to send the tape. Are you kidding me? I was doing a show in New York at the time, and I was like, why do I have to audition for a show that I’m already cast in? Okay, whatever.
So I sent a song, “Come Away Death.” I played on the ukulele, and I sang it really folksy, like a country song. Lisa got the tape, and she’s like, “Yeah, that’s really focused in country, and the direction we’re going with this is salsa,” and I was like, “This is what you get!” Then, a couple days later, she was like, “You know, I know you can do it. I’ve seen plenty of videos. I know you can act—just do it.” And then we did.
ESCO: Ours is completely opposite! I found out seven days before, like, “Do you want to be Feste at the Old Globe?” And I was like, “Sure.” I didn’t know I was gonna have to sing. They asked me, “Do you play an instrument?” And I was like, “Yeah.” I like to low-ball it, because you never know, right?
I mean, I’ve had moments when I was like, “Esco, what did you do to yourself?” Because—and Este, I don’t really think you know this—I unintentionally but secretly quit singing. Because I got on low-dose T (testosterone), and it changed who I was, but at the same time didn’t really change my voice so much. My voice never really dropped, but it was definitely in this new arena. That was like 2019, and then the pandemic happened. I thought, I guess I’m not doing musicals anymore. Before, I was a workhorse, I was in vocal lessons, I was in dance class. And then everything just stopped, and I was like, “I don’t have money right now as a Black artist to be like, ‘Oh, I can dish out this for voice lessons.’”
So I hadn’t sung since then. My Feste is such a vulnerable moment for this Black unicorn body being like: Y’all, this is my first time back, singing. This is a voice that no one’s ever heard. I mean, yes, I pretend that I’m Janet Jackson. But I’ve never shared it with an audience. I’ve always wanted to. Sometimes you don’t know how to bring up the difficulties that you’re having, because they’re not the norm. I did not feel comfortable to go to the director and be like, “You know, I’ve, I’ve been on low-dose T…” It was just such a re-coming out. You’re coming out of a door all the time as a colored person and a trans person in this business; they don’t know how to deal with us. And sometimes they don’t even try. So we secretly have to do so much more work than the average person nowadays. I might be wrong about that. I might be speaking out of turn.
ESTEBAN: I’ll jump in here, because part of what’s important about what we’re doing is the level of advocacy we have to do for ourselves and for each other. Esco and I, we talk about this a lot, about the things we have to do to let them know—like trans girls, if you’re doing HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy), that shit makes you pee, it makes your bladder like this big and you have to pee a lot. So one thing that I think has been really helpful in rooms that I’ve been in is to just advocate for a check-in on access needs, because then it just puts it as an umbrella for everyone. So we just go around the room and say, “Are your needs met?” That way if somebody has children and one of them is sick, they might get a phone call, they need to step out of the room, that is an access need. I love when rooms are offering that; Sarah Benson at Soho Rep was really good about advocating for people to have regular check-ins about whether there are any access needs. I would love for that to be kind of the norm in theatre rooms as we go.
ESCO: We want to be performers. Like, the little kid in me wants to be a performer, right? And wants to be so good. It’s just the journey to here looks a lot different than you, and sometimes we just want to be able to be like: I’m having such a hard day, hearing this new voice in my mouth—I’m sorry, I’m gonna be moving so slow today. But I’m a professional and I’m gonna give them a performance. You’re gonna get it. But if you take care of me, if I know you’re on my side and see the little kid in me, you can calm the little kid down and be like, “Fail as much as you can.” I think our play will soar even more because rehearsal is for failing; we are supposed to fail there. But sometimes it’s hard. I don’t want you to think that I’m not good or are not going to produce what you want in the end. At the end of the day, I gotta respect my own process, which I’m relearning now, because it’s totally different.
Feste was the first Shakespearean character I connected with as a kid. As an adult, having understudied the role, I’ve come to appreciate that it is a role that transcends type, and is a uniquely blank canvas for the actor. How would you describe your personal takes on this character?
ESCO: Feste is so far away from me but so close to me. We can talk about costume and I’m like, “Yes, I put on that costume,” which is totally different than yours, Este, time period-wise. I am back in the day. And I’m like, “Okay, but you know what I am? I’m also Black.” Cool. And if I’m out here speaking all these rhymes and reasons, I know things—I know things, like I am a wise being. But also Feste is alone.
It’s such a powerful thing to be the person that breaks this fourth wall; that is so magical. I feel so lucky to have a chance to play this role, because it’s a place that I need to have in my life right now, of ownership—this person is so comfortable with who they are. This person be walking up in all these rich people’s houses, “Oh, you want me to sing? You want me to go over here and play a little (mimics paying the ukelele)?” They are such a person of today. Such a survivor. It’s the person on the street that you think they’re so low, and they kind of are, but they’re thriving in some way, and you learn something from them somehow. But at the same time, their heart feels so much. Some days I wake up and I feel so much of the world, and it’s overwhelming. To be a person like that is a person that is Feste: a traveler, someone who has decided, this is the way it’s gonna be. And I’m like, ooh, Feste, you are teaching me a lot about solitude right now, and you can learn a lot from solitude.
ESTEBAN: It’s beautiful, Esco. I think about you in Wolf Play, and you talk about just being the listener and just being present and working with solitude. When I saw you talking to that little puppet, and the care that you gave it and the tenderness you know—I can see all of that in your Feste as well. I’ve been challenged in my career with certain roles. But I feel like this has been the greatest challenge of my Shakespearean career. Feste is the smartest one in the room. This Rudyard Kipling poem, “If,” makes me think a lot about Feste. Because he really is the one that balances the world. The intrusion of this fight with Malvolio, and all of that which he represents that is conservative, and anti-fun, and basically, anti-queer.
Ours is set in Miami, it’s mostly Latiné and Black. So we’re an ensemble, an almost entirely full company, of people of color performing in St. Louis for a mostly white audience. It’s a very interesting transaction, I would say. It’s beautiful, because the people here—this Shakespeare festival is their pride and joy. And you can feel it in the audience when they come around.
I feel like it’s a role that really molds to the actor that’s playing it. What’s your personal take? Your costumes are just gorgeous.
ESTEBAN: We kind of invented Feste based on suggestions that I made to the costume designer (Danielle Nieves). Coming in with myself and with who I am and everything that I am—I’m a boy and I’m a girl, I am all of these things all at once, and sometimes at different times. I enter the stage in a very sexy, almost Prince-like jacket and slacks. But I’m still fabulous. That’s kind of hard to erase.
And as the play progresses, I get more into conflict with with this guy and more trying to balance everything—because I think part of the burden of Feste is that we carry a lot of everybody else’s shit, we carry the knowledge of what Olivia is going through, and we know better. We can see the end of that story before she can, before anybody else can, we know how things are going to play out. So we’re trying to keep the peace and keep the balance in the world, while at the same time we’re trying to not let our own turmoil overtake us. For all that you are capable to mourn for in the world, I think Feste carries that with him the entire time, which is why he’s always fighting for joy, always fighting for the party, because he knows: You don’t know that life is worth living unless you are well aware of the depth of pain.
And I think if you ask any trans actor in America, they can tell you all about that shame. So the immediacy of joy is something that I feel very much connected to. Esco and I, we love to play onstage, and when there’s a game, when there’s something new, something changes, we are ready and we are there to play. I know that as actors, we’re both very open to the world around us and what’s happening.
One thing that I did in this role was I mapped Malvolio, who is like a Ted Cruz kind of person in our production. I mapped my brother, a person who actually lives in Florida, who did drink the Kool-Aid, who I don’t really speak to anymore. And it was way too heavy, way too much, way too dark. So I had to lift the dial and adjust my background stuff on Feste, because it was just too close to home and it sucked me into a place where I couldn’t get out of the mire. I had to find a balance where I place the aperture of my own personal emotional life into the world. Feste is so much fun, probably the most fun of any Shakespeare character I’ve ever played. (I do want to play the Nurse one day.) But I never imagined it would be one of the characters that brought me to some of the darkest places I’ve ever experienced onstage.
ESCO: I think playing Feste requires such an openness. I only have one Shakespeare play to compare this to, but when I played Orlando, there was like an armor that I could put up. I’m the romantic lead, and you have like this thing that you can follow. That’s like a protection. Feste is like free falling, you know? Every time I have to go, “Whatever you’re feeling, Esco, you truly have to let it go and be so open.” Because if not, then I will miss out on that energy that Feste feeds upon, Feste knows that someone’s behind them without turning around. It’s just like, I know how the world works, I’ve been here so many times, you know, and it’s just like, it’s…oof.
ESTEBAN: You talked about the music, Esco, and that’s also an important thing to bring up about this production I’m in. We don’t have “Come Away Death” in ours. Instead I sing “Silencio” from Buena Vista Social Club. So all the music we’re doing is Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Latin American salsa. So I’m a sonero and a salsa singer. I come out at the top in a suit, and then at the end, I’ve got like a Donna Summer, glittery, silvery, shimmery thing that I sing Celia Cruz to.
I wasn’t raised speaking Spanish. Spanish isn’t even my second language. It’s my third. Polish is my second language, interestingly enough. All these songs I grew up with, but I never sang them—they were just there whenever the family had things. I forced my parents to speak Spanish to me, so now I speak Spanish, but it’s always with a little bit of like questioning, Am I good enough at it, though? You were talking about your insecurity; going into this production I have that insecurity of like, Am I even Latin enough? And does my Latino family even consider me Latiné enough? Now I own this, and it’s so much fun, and it’s such a gift for me to be sharing this music that I love in this way that I’ve studied in depth now.
ESCO: In my show I am playing the ukulele and accompanying myself. So on top of my nerves, they have me out here being a fool. I was like, okay, who am I? I am Jimi Hendrix. I am a mariachi. I’m in love with this ukulele. It was such a personal thing to share with people and they’re like, “You’re actually really good at the uke.” For a Black person that don’t know something, and someone looks at you and they’re like, “You’re actually good at something that you taught yourself.” For all the people out there that are self-teaching, I think this is important to say, to give them hope to keep going. If you can’t afford things, keep going. You probably are really good. You’re good even if you don’t have the money to spend like other people. I just wanted to say that for anyone who reads this: I’m up here doing this, being a self-taught musician, and rehabilitated, teaching myself how to sing all over again. You can do it.
ESTEBAN: You said Jimi Hendrix, I mentioned Celia Cruz. But I also have Freddie Mercury and James Brown that I’ve been pulling from.
ESCO: We can parallel this with gender, the genders that we’re playing with that have been around for so long. That’s why I don’t know why people are so up in arms about it. I’m like, guys, this is nothing new. We’re not doing anything new. We’re not reinventing the wheel. I’m just doing something that’s actually old.
ESTEBAN: Excuse me, I’m sorry, we’re also not queering Shakespeare. Shakespeare came to us queer as fuck. Okay?
ESCO: I’m just going off the text right now, like: oh, Feste is two-spirited. It takes a special human being to be able to move through this type of world. This cannot be someone that holds onto what society says is right. I cannot play Feste if I think that there’s only one way that’s right. That’s Malvolio! Who you are and what you would…
ESTEBAN: …are out of my welkin.
ESCO: I see you. Be you, boo. You are trying to survive. I’m trying to survive. And I see the survivalist in you. Do you, boo. You’re safe with me.
ESTEBAN: That is exactly the moment in our production that we do have this kind of outing of Viola as Cesario or Cesario as Viola. We have the whole exchange of, “Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb…” Why do you think I know what’s going on with her? The next thing, they see me in a dress. So we kind of stacked it that way—not explicitly. That wasn’t like our ambition to do that.
Let me just tell you about this dress. Okay? We went into the fitting that day. And I saw that thing on the hanger, and I was like, “Are you serious?” And then I—I say I put it on, but it jumped onto my body, and it said, “Este, I have always been a part of you. We’ve just been waiting for this moment.” Then I turned to the costumer and the shop mistress. And I was like, “Do we even need to try on the other ones?” The dress chose me.
I feel like LGBTQIA+ performers tend to get cast as clowns and magical creatures in Shakespeare. What Shakespearean roles are on your bucket list? I know you said the Nurse, Esteban.
ESCO: I kind of like not knowing and not having any kind of like, “Oh, I want this,” when it comes to Shakespeare. I’m starting to understand; I’m starting to call Shakespeare a thing, not a he. I also think Shakespeare is Black too. Why not? Every role is so interesting. And no matter what, whatever one I touch, I will bring my own unique experience to it. I’m just interested in what someone would put me in next. I’m so interested as a person that has dyslexia—it’s kind of hard. Like, reading for the first couple weeks I’m like, “Guys, I have no idea.” But then it goes on and I know exactly what I’m talking about.
Actually, you know what? I would love to play what the world would consider a woman. That would be a stretch. Like to have to wear a dress the whole time?
ESTEBAN: Your Beatrice to my Benedick. We’ll fight, we’ll spar, it’ll be so great.
If you’re reading this, let’s make it happen! We’re speaking it into existence.
ESTEBAN: Your question about all the magical characters is totally true. I played Puck, I played every fairy in Midsummer. I am grateful that I’ve gotten to play 800 Romeos and Mercutios and Tybalts, all that. But I want to tackle the masculine roles and be like, this femme bitch can come in here and take your job, because I’m that good of an actor. Esco has been very candid about their dyslexia. I am blind in my left eye. We don’t talk about disabilities that we don’t see often. Being a disabled, trans, non-binary Latiné actor—Richard III is also one I would love to play, because I feel like I’ve got a personal thing to bring to that.
I feel like I’ve broken through with Feste to the clowns of Shakespeare, so I want to hit them all. I kind of want to go around to the clowns and be like, let me see where he’s at. Because, you know, Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night right after Hamlet, and Hamlet was right after his son died. So a lot of what Shakespeare is going through and looking for—I don’t think we do what we do without the pursuit of healing, whether we recognize it or not. I think we’re creating art as a way to create some kind of catharsis for ourselves, and hopefully we can share that with people.
I think Shakespeare was trying to find a way to heal from this loss of his son. And I think that melancholy is carried in Feste. I think that’s why we have that well, and I think anybody who steps into it I can feel this sense of ennui or just sadness in general. Which is the thing that rockets us towards joy. I want to get the full spectrum of what he was going through with all of his clowns and what they facilitate—this is a very interesting pursuit for me.
What is left unsaid? What question do you wish we would have asked? How do you want to end this time together?
ESCO: I want to say, growing up as a Black person, there were no Shakespeare books being thrown in front of me. And also with dyslexia, words are horrifying, terrifying. But if you have the right people around you, and the people who can see that you’re capable, and then also go, “Hey, would you like to join?” I’m very thankful for those people for giving me the opportunity, because I now want to pass on to other people that if you have the opportunity, and you feel safe enough, I think it’s a place to try—a place that should be explored. What they don’t know is that it’s for our people. It’s for the artists. It’s really for the artists. Some people have tried to make it so high and mighty and uppity. It’s not. It’s literally for the artists that are still trying to speak in code. Definitely do Shakespeare if you can. Which I would never have thought I would ever say, so it has to go on record.
ESTEBAN: I feel an aversion to Shakespeare in the way it’s practiced in this country, which is to be put as a museum piece up on a pedestal, up on a shelf. Also, even though there are some companies that have the word “American” in their name, whenever they do Shakespeare, they have to (puts on an affected British accent) put on a British lilt, and lift up the language so that it sounds “better.” So we already have this still like conquistador-able idea of what colonialism looks like, and we try and make it like people don’t see what they’re doing with Shakespeare when they’re doing that.
What was great about this production, what I’m really loving, is that it was directed by a Latina who assembled a room that is mostly Latiné and Black. And then also the stage management staff and most of the people we had in the room were women. She never mentioned that. She never patted herself on the shoulder about, “Look at this women-led room.” I called it out and said, “That’s why we don’t have as much BS going on in here, tell you that much.” But there was an investment that all of us people of color had and agreed to, that we never spoke of, which was: When we’re on that stage, we are presenting our dignity. We’re presenting our humanity. And we’re not only speaking for ourselves, we are speaking for the ancestors who didn’t make it, who died for us. We’re standing on their shoulders, that we could sing the song of the eternal triumph of the human spirit through these characters for which we stand as prism.
Dear reader, I was in love with that ending to the conversation. And then, in true Festian fashion, Esteban emailed me right after to say something they forgot to say regarding their characterization of the role: “I’m just a sweet trans Fest-ite!”
K. Woodzick (they/them) is a theatre artist and journalist currently residing in Northern Wisconsin on Anishinabek land. They hold an MFA in contemporary performance from Naropa University, and their writing has appeared in Theatre Topics and HowlRound. They are the founder of The Non-Binary Monologues Project and produce and host the rebooted Theatrical Mustang podcast, distributed monthly by American Theatre. More at www.woodzick.com.
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