Los Quijadas no se quedan quietos. Imagínate: Marvin and his younger brother Brian play and play and make a home movie series they proudly call Seriously Joking. Their parents swear they’ll grow out of it, but after every summer day full of chores, they manage to squeeze in a movie, a story, or an experiment in making people laugh.
Today, most theatre folks invested in new work know their names or marvel at their boundless creative ingenuity. Many know Marvin Quijada as the one with the moves and Brian Quijada as the one with the words, but the true tale of these two brothers shows more overlap than we read in show programs. Having grown up in Chicago, Marvin and Brian often workshop new plays and musicals right at home in the city before they go on to attract audiences nationwide. While some larger companies might prioritize tried-and-true storytelling their subscribers will recognize, the Quijada multi-hyphenates prove the value in keeping things fresh, risky, and genre-bent.
Marvin’s new “silent musical” The Dream King recently charmed audiences at Teatro Vista with its raucous sense of play, its exciting theatrical take on silent movies, and the sublime physical storytelling that has been central to Marvin’s artistic life. Cultural organizations have come to love him for his DJ, clown/mime, and digital artist work. Mexodus, Brian’s new musical with Nygel D. Robinson, had a limited run at the Wirtz Center on Northwestern University’s Chicago campus and has 2024 productions scheduled at Baltimore Center Stage and Mosaic Theater Company. Innovating form through live music looping and discussing how we historicize care amid atrocity, the musical offers hope for the future of American theatre. Also known for Where Did We Sit on the Bus and Somewhere Over the Border, Brian has entirely changed how I view musical theatre and who it could be for. Audiences at both brothers’ shows feel like home.
You might be surprised to learn that these two didn’t get their start super early as theatre kids. In the summertime, while other kids in their neighborhood could afford summer camp, they’d complete chores around the house and squeeze in time to watch a movie or make a home video. Through this, they began to cultivate a sense of play and joy through everyday storytelling. With their dad’s over-the-shoulder camera, they explored sketch comedy to make their friends laugh. Seriously Joking would loop in their grandmother, in a true family affair. Great community sprouted from there as Marvin’s friends circulated their videos. And through a family CD subscription and a job at Blockbuster, Marvin and Brian would gain access to movies and music, falling in love with silent films, 1980s pop, and Golden Age Mexican music all at once. And their live looping performances? That’s what GarageBand was for.
But the brothers didn’t fully connect the dots to their shared vocation until much later. The first show that sparked their interest in theatre, Marvin said, was Cabaret at Columbia College, a production his friends were in.
“I remember seeing it and being like, ‘Holy moly, this is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen,’” Marvin said. “I’ve always loved my brother and I always loved sharing things that I find cool. And I was like, ‘Brian, I need to take you to this show Cabaret.’ I loved sharing that with my brother. I saw that show four times. It was so good. That was the first show I ever saw.”
While Marvin was college-aged at the time, Brian was in middle school. Brian recalled fondly how they bought the Alan Cumming cast album and listened to it every night, marveling at the intersection between political theatre and entertainment, excellent performance and beautiful writing and composition.
“Beyond that, it planted a seed—of loving that, of wanting to do that,” Brian said. “I think that’s what made me go audition for my first musical. It made me try out for the after-school choral program, because I wanted to do a musical, and you can only do a musical if you know how to sing. It was all because of that.”
As they set their sights on theatre, they continued taking in music and media at home, exchanging ideas and inspiration. Brian said, “It started in the same pool of ideas, in the same pool of consuming a bunch of what was being played in our house.” They both loved physical work and the emotional power of music, but in early adulthood Marvin put the pedal to the metal on the former and Brian on the latter.
If you look at each of their pieces, you’ll see the overlap. The narrator in Brian’s Somewhere Over the Border engages in clowning and physical play, and Marvin’s The Dream King contains original compositions and soundtracks they loved growing up. Though their family didn’t contain working artists, their parents’ creativity fueled them.
Even though they hoped the kids would turn out doctors or, as Marvin put it, “something that would have a sustainable financial lifestyle,” mom Reina and dad Eduardo understood whence their kids’ creativity and drive sprouted: She loved to sing, he played guitar, and both would dance. The brothers, in many ways, honor their family in their work.
“They were always proud,” Marvin said. But their parents were from El Salvador at a time where artists were not earning a living. So the brothers worked extra hard to prove to their parents that they could do it, not only seriously joking but also seriously creating.
“My dad would leave at 4 a.m., come back at 6 p.m., fall asleep at 8 p.m., because he had to go do it again the next day,” Brian said. “We saw their work ethic, and I think it either was passed on in genetics, or we just saw it and we’re just like, okay, let’s work as hard as they’re working.”
They also honor their parents more directly: Marvin’s silent theatre is designed to resonate beyond spoken language, and Brian’s musicals center border politics. The brothers have realized that they create for their family, for folks like them to feel seen.
Today, the reality of artists of color earning a living has started to seem more possible to the Quijada parents. When Reina and Eduardo came to the United States in the ’70s, the opportunities were few and often hollow. Both onstage and in the audience, the brothers said, their parents are the sort of folks they want at the theatre. So the brothers have constantly looked to Teatro Vista and the company mission of giving Latiné artists and artists of color meaningful work when others wouldn’t.
In its early days, ensemble member Sandra Marquez shared, Teatro Vista needed to prioritize how to get funded, market themselves, convince funders they’d sell, and build a wide audience base. That’s incredibly hard work for a company of color, considering the U.S. history of consistent erasure. For instance, a 2021 report found only 3 percent of workers in media are Latina. Thankfully, company conversations today are more about nurturing the art than about how Teatro Vista will fight to survive. Now that it’s a women-led Latiné multimedia theatre company, co-artistic directors Wendy Mateo and Lorena Diaz are setting precedents by making space to experiment with new work, genre, and multimedia.
“The industry will grow if it chooses to grow and the people within it choose to grow,” Marquez said, looking at the industry-wide shifts toward repairing relationships with artists of color.
Still, Diaz worries whether the Quijadas’ particular brilliance will continue to be cultivated with generous rehearsal rooms. The landscape hasn’t always known how to make space for innovative artists of color.
“I want the American theatre landscape to take care of these brothers,” Diaz said.
Reflecting on their most recent new work projects, The Dream King and Mexodus, Marvin and Brian prioritize rest, something neither is particularly accustomed to given their constant hustle. Brian invoked composer Michael R. Jackson’s “useful procrastination” practice. “It’s just a matter of changing the vocabulary,” Marvin added. “Rest becoming a luxury,” he said, feels detrimental. They consider, again, Reina and Eduardo.
Apart from rest, the brothers’ creative processes make space to intentionally invite inspiration. Marvin cited the Picasso axiom that inspiration finds you when you’re working. Brian has drawn strength from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life and Rick Rubin’s The Creative Act: A Way of Being. He’s considered a work “done” or “ready for now” not when “you feel like you can add more, but actually when there’s nothing else to take away, when there’s nothing else to subtract.”
While similar, Brian and Marvin’s paths, interests, and methods led them to distinct artistic personas. Brian has deeply enjoyed writing new musicals but waited a while before getting into Mexodus.
“I found an article years ago on Facebook,” Brian said of the show’s inspiration in the true story of a Mexican network for escaped enslaved people from the U.S. “I remember copying, pasting it and putting it in a Notes page on my phone, of plays that I want to write. I thought, I cannot write this alone. I knew that was true. And second, I was putting off finding a collaborator, because I knew how many books I’d have to read and research I’d have to do.”
After he met with musician Nygel D. Robinson, the pair wrote virtually through the pandemic, their friendship blossoming alongside the story. Following a formerly enslaved man’s flight to Mexico, the story’s central friendship, between Nygel and Brian’s characters, feels moving, healing, and real. Indeed, the events of this live-looping hip-hop musical are based on various legends and stories of extraordinary survival. And the experience of Mexodus feels full of history but doesn’t play like a history lesson. It’s more like an urgent prayer, a battle cry.
“Between me, Nygel, and our dramaturg, Tlaloc Rivas, we read everything that there is, all of the wars, all of the battles,” Brian said of the often painful research that included search and wanted ads. “There’s a beautiful myth about a runaway slave who floated on the Rio Grande on a bale of cotton. We thought it was beautiful, because the thing that enslaved this man was the thing that made him float to salvation. So what we did was, we ended up taking these bits and pieces—because there isn’t one story of a man or a woman that we could follow. There just isn’t enough. There isn’t enough research. It was secretive for a reason. There is not a lot of documentation on it. We ended up taking composites of all of these stories.”
Talking to Marvin about his process, it doesn’t sound all that different from his brother’s. Though The Dream King is a very different kind of story—about an everyday man who falls in love with a woman in his dreams—Marvin said he crafted specific world-building lore and rules based on real human emotions and experiences. Having a forest of foot flowers, as the protagonist of The Dream King does, may not be a common experience, but struggling with mental health and addiction is, as is seeking some recovery magic in an imaginary world. Devising alongside and riffing off of co-directors Sandra Marquez and Alice Da Cunha, Marvin devoted brain space to the relationship between the protagonist, magical aspects of his dreams, and everyday life.
“This notion of building a world that you can’t poke holes around is very valuable,” Marvin said. He aims to create a place, he explained, “wherein an audience can come in, sit back, and go through the mythology of whatever that specific creation is. Maybe in other versions there will be even more specificity in regard to the foot flowers’ powers and the world. But this notion of creating a world is fantastic, because then you can create your rules and then you can break those rules. Some of my favorite theatre is when you break rules, because then it starts to potentially feel dangerous.”
Marvin looks back on Kid Prince and Pablo, a show he co-wrote with his brother, very fondly when speaking of valuing care in the rehearsal room. “Like with The Dream King,” he said, “it’s important to build a room of people I trust—and who find me funny!” That certainly applies to their work together, as both brothers said several times that each was one of the other’s favorite performers. The two are considering a couple of ideas to write together, knowing they feel especially brave around each other to take risks mixing music, physical theatre, and multimedia with tech.
Some future projects and dreams include the possibility of audio plays, and the innovation present in Marvin and Gabe Ruiz’s graphic novel series Detective Q. They hope for more projects with representation that doesn’t segregate—i.e., they would love to work with siblings across different backgrounds. And after laying a foundation of stories based in their own experience and truth, they said they’re excited to tell more kinds of stories, and to break away from trauma narratives.
After coming off the highly physical The Dream King, Marvin is DJ’ing with Idris Goodwin at Milwaukee Rep as well as with Chicago Shakes. Meanwhile Brian is taking Mexodus around the country. But they’re still dreaming up what’s next, and they have each other’s back all the way.
“The only way I can feel confident in being who I am as a performer is if I’m around love,” Marvin said of their shared expansiveness when collaborating. “If there is love, then I am brave. And if I am brave, then I will go anywhere. But if I’m not brave, then I’m gonna travel very small.”
The brothers smiled to each other.
“And so,” Marvin said. “I’d rather be brave.”
Gabriela Furtado Coutinho is the associate Chicago editor for American Theatre. email@example.com
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