Art Works Blog

The Butterflies Fly Again

New York, NY

A production of En el Tiempo de las Mariposas, currently on stage at the Repertorio Español

It is often said that art is a universal language. But what happens when that language gets lost in translation? For the almost 13 percent of New Yorkers who speak English “less than very well,” comprehending a play or musical can prove daunting at the most basic level. Luckily, Manhattan’s Repertorio Español provides a unique cultural resource for the city’s Spanish-speaking community. Founded in 1968, the Repertorio has produced nearly 250 productions in Spanish, representing a mix of classic and modern plays from Latin America and Spain, as well as select American productions. Not only does the Repertorio widen access to the arts in general, but the combination of spoken Spanish and simultaneous English translation exposes diverse audiences to the artistic contributions of Hispanic culture. To further broaden the Repertorio's reach, the NEA has for several years helped fund the theater's Teatro Accesso program, which brings performances to underserved schools and communities throughout the Northeastern United States.

Currently, the Repertorio is staging En el Tiempo de las Mariposas (In the Time of the Butterflies), a theatrical rendition of Julia Alvarez’s 1995 novel. One of the NEA’s Big Read selections, Butterflies creatively narrates the true story of the four Mirabel sisters, whose defiant opposition to the Trujillo dictatorship cost three of them their lives. A chronicle of both Dominican history and the human spirit, the story of the Mirabels is universal in its appeal. We talked with Repertorio Artistic Director René Buch and Executive Director Robert Federico about their theater and Mariposas, which is slated to run through June 25.

NEA: Why did you originally found the Repertorio Español?

RENÉ BUCH: In 1968, I was asked to direct a play in Spanish for Las Artes, a cultural organization headed by Margaritá Gusó. The production was sponsored by Nena Mañach Goodman, the Cuban wife of Goodman of Bergdorf-Goodman fame. I took the project to my friend, Gilberto Zaldívar, who was involved with the Off-Broadway theater, the Greenwich Mews. We produced the play to great success, and from there we decided to incorporate the Greenwich Mews Spanish Theatre, which morphed into Repertorio Español in 1972.

We founded Repertorio out of our desire to do Spanish plays because we found that the Hispanic audience in New York was very divided by nationalities. The only way to attract all the different Hispanic nationalities was through Spanish classical theater. So we started with La Dama Duende, mostly for practical reasons, since it was the play that was read the most by high school and college students.

NEA: What do you hope English-speaking audiences might get out of attending a Repertorio performance?

BUCH: I would like them to get the same thing they would from seeing a Swedish play in Swedish, a French play in French, or an Italian play in Italian. We must break the yoke of non-linguistic knowledge. It’s of great concern that we are not placing enough importance on the benefits of reading, thinking, and communicating in a language other than English. Non-Latinos must know about classical and contemporary Spanish, Latin American, and even American Latino culture. As the largest and still growing American minority, it is imperative for all Americans to be introduced to a rich heritage that is mostly overlooked. At Repertorio, audiences can hear an authentic Hispanic/Latino voice.

NEA: What do you think other theaters could be doing to better reach our underserved groups?

BUCH: It would be good for “mainstream” theaters to realize that all theater companies are culturally specific. People go to a theater when a company offers a play or plays of interest. “Culturally specific” does not necessarily refer just to minorities. Besides class, education, geography, age, gender, national origin, etc., cultural specificity can be broken down to “readers of The New York Times arts section who swear by Brantley and/or Isherwood,” “college undergraduates who like theater of the absurd,” “working-class immigrants who want to be entertained,” etc. Each theater company, led by its artistic director, creates a style, and therefore, attracts its natural audience.

NEA: As the Hispanic-American community has grown and evolved in both New York City and throughout the U.S., how has the Repertorio Español changed? Has its mission evolved?

BUCH: We added along the way: zarzuelas and musicals, plays by American Latinos, presentations of international companies, adaptations of great Latin American novels, and even stand-up comedy.

NEA: Right now, you’re putting on En el Tiempo de las Mariposas, which is a featured book in our Big Read program. Why did you choose to put on this performance?

ROBERT FEDERICO: The idea of adapting En el Tiempo de las Mariposas was brought to us by the young director, José Zayas. He and the playwright, Caridad Svich, had just successfully collaborated on bringing Isabel Allende’s La Casa de los Espiritus to Repertorio. We thought it was a great idea. It not only honored these martyred sisters, but would also introduce their story to people unaware of Dominican history. As it turned out, it premiered just as the revolutions were sweeping the Arab world, and the play became as timely as the headlines.

NEA: Why do you think highlighting the Trujillo era is important for the community?

FEDERICO: People who do not remember history are bound to repeat it.

NEA: This production of En el Tiempo de las Mariposas features only one actor in all the male roles. Can you shed any light on this artistic decision?

FEDERICO: To be truthful, the director, José Zayas, decided that to make the play produceable and to keep it in rotating repertory for a long time, the cast should be small. So there are just the four sisters (one of them, Dedé, played by two different actresses, young and old), the writer (who represents Julia Álvarez), and one lone male actor who plays Leo the revolutionary, Trujillo the dictator, DJ’s from the 1940s through today, and the driver who was killed with the sisters so there would be no witnesses. The connection is that they are all connected through a dictatorship, and reflect different ideological positions.

NEA: Do you find any particular challenges when adapting a book for the stage?

FEDERICO: How to keep to the spirit of the novel while creating a work that must stand on its own dramatically. It is extremely difficult to adapt a work in one medium to another, but theater is exceptionally difficult as you are taking a narrative and reworking it into a dialogue form. (Film at least has an overall visual element.) The plus is that theater is emotionally immediate and personal with the intimate relationship between the stagework and the audience.

NEA: Given that this is an artistic representation of history, I was wondering if you could share your thoughts on the relationship between art and history in general?

FEDERICO: To be truthful, this adaptation is really about the relationship among the four sisters. It must work whether you know who the Mirabal sisters are or not. The history sections are there only as a background and could be deleted. Today at the 11 a.m. performance, a high school student asked if this really did happen. As a play, it should not matter if the story happened or not, but since it did, there is that extra layer of emotion.

NEA: What particular themes in En el Tiempo de las Mariposas do you think resonate with audiences today?

FEDERICO: Before the performances for high school students, we point out that there may be four sisters now in Libya or in Somalia or in Sudan who are facing the same threats as the Mirabal sisters. It is not just an historical play. It is a timeless, universal play (unfortunately).


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