Chat it Up: Carlos Armesto

Heads up, everyone! I may have found your new favorite thing. Theatre C is in the process of developing a new, immersive production of Radiant Baby - the bio-musical about artist/activist Keith Haring that debuted at the Public Theater over a decade ago. A concert will be held at Joe’s Pub this upcoming Monday as a benefit for Theatre C and you should consider going and getting a hit of some late-80’s nostalgia and see some NRNW faves (Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Robin de Jesus) sanggg the score.

In honor of the occasion, I got on the phone with director Carlos Armesto (sweetheart alert!) and discussed everything Keith Haring, Radiant Baby’s projected future and casting. You know, as you do.

NRNW: Did you see the original Off-Broadway production during its run over ten years ago?
Carlos: Not during its run; I saw the tape at the Lincoln Center Library.

NRNW: What was your initial reaction to watching it?
Carlos: When I saw it, I was really taken aback by the spirit of Keith Haring. Just what he was trying to do, his generosity...he was able to inspire so many people with the way he did work, how he engaged with so many different communities. I felt like the production itself was beautiful in many ways, but also a little distant. And when I read the text, I thought, “Wow, his work is so immediate. I felt like we should be living directly with it as opposed to watching it.”

NRNW: Take me through a discussion you had with the creative team regarding the new scope for the show.
Carlos: When I met with the writers, I talked to them about an immersive experience and they said, "We loved the production at the Public because it was so beautiful, but we also always wanted it to be more of an instillation.” It was exciting that we were all seeing it the same way. We have been developing the piece like that, starting with a meeting about a year-and-a-half ago.

NRNW: How do you reintroduce Keith Haring's life story to an audience that may not be familiar with him, his artwork or his personal life?
Carlos: Well, he's been so pervasive now in the art world - his name is exploding! We just met with the Keith Haring Foundation and they have been noticing a huge interest in his work again and his work is being licensed in a lot of places. Keith had this incredible thing about making everybody believe that they can be something bigger then who they were. His work was so much about getting other people to draw, to express themselves in ways they never even have known. Not just other artists, but youths and people who necessarily didn't do arts. Keith did so many workshops that inspired people to look at themselves in a different way.

NRNW: How do you even begin blocking and conceiving a "360-degree immersive experience?"
Carlos: *Laughs* The way you start thinking about it is you imagine what type of space you want to put this in. We are thinking about a big open, flexible warehouse-like space that allows us to have the audience moving around. We're thinking of it as a studio that turns into all these different things in Keith's life - starting off at a party back in 1990, going backwards and then taking you on a ride through his life, all in his mind. It's pretty exciting - the way to think about it is to start thinking about where in the space are all of these events going to happen and how his art would create a moment and how the audience would have to relate to that moment, since he interacted so much with people. I think we are going to have him around everyone, walking around, maybe looking down into the space.

NRNW: Gotcha. Has Here Lies Love come into conversation at all?
Carlos: Of course!

NRNW: I figured.
Carlos: That show is a big inspiration - it's interesting, before we were talking about this, I was talking generally and theoretically. And then I saw Here Lies Love and I said, “Deborah [Barsha], Stuart [Ross] (book, music and lyrics for Radiant Baby), go see this! This is kind of what we're looking at.” Not that we are going to make it like that because there are aspects of so many different immersive experiences that exist. It's not going to be like Sleep No More, in which people walk through a space on several different levels. There is gonna be a lot of dance and we’re gonna make it into one big space that happens around everybody.

NRNW: As far as casting, what was the process like?
Carlos: We worked with Daryl Eisenberg, who was our casting director. The writers and I really wanted to think about what was done before and I wanted to go with a much more rock-pop edge with the music. Deborah, as well, was really excited and wanted to focus on making the piece much more in that guild. We took a look and made sure we had singers and actors who can fall into that category. There had to be a rough edge to all of them in some way and we started reaching out to all of these people that we identified and Daryl was very helpful in putting that together.

NRNW: And how did you guys land on Andrew Keenan-Bolger for the part of Keith?
Carlos: We landed on Andrew because we were mulling over people and we have seen his work in Newsies. There is this innocence to him and an unassuming quality to him. Then we saw him in Looking, the HBO show, where he goes through an intense sex scene and we thought, "okay well, Keith, although he is so sweet and unassuming in some ways, he also has a dark edge to him." If Andrew can go there, let's see where he can go with this.

NRNW: I happen to love him; I think he is really talented.
Carlos: Yeah, me too!

NRNW: With the concert coming up next week, why should people come?
Carlos: It's their chance to see the acclaimed score in this new rock-infused and funk-infused edge. We have some amazing people - Robin de Jesus is gonna play Carlos, Keith's love interest. Kelvin Moon Loh is playing Keith’s best friend and we have Nikka Graff Lanzerone playing Amanda, Keith’s assistant. They're pretty amazing people and have incredible voices and the band that was put together has been really top-notch. We’re very excited to see and hear the new sound; if you want to hear it the way its gonna be, come to Joe's Pub. It’s a completely different experience then what it was before.

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