Theater with a Different Accent

by Victoria Hutter

GALA Hispanic Theatre is located in Washington, DC's Columbia Heights neighborhood. Photo courtesy of GALA Hispanic Theatre

"It's as important for us to expose Latinos to different Latino cultures as it is to present Latino cultures to non-Latino audiences." --- Abel Lopez

GALA Hispanic Theatre in Washington, DC, is a national center for the Latino performing arts. Its tagline, "The Theater with a Different Accent" applies not only to the language of its presentations but to the different regional "flavors" of Hispanic theater on offer. This includes work from Chile, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Columbia, and Spain and that is just the current season. In its pan-Latino perspective, the company reflects the diversity of Spanish-speaking communities in Washington, DC, an outgrowth of the city's international role as host to many nations.

Co-founders Hugo and Rebecca Read Medrano started the theater company in the mid 1970s with Latino artists, including Abel Lopez, joining them in those early years. A long-time NEA grantee, GALA is currently participating in the NEA-supported Southern Exposure, a program---in partnership with Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation and the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation---that seeks to build greater understanding of the cultural richness of Latin America through presentations of dance, music, and theater artists from that region in communities across the United States.

With Southern Exposure heading to the nation’s capital on November 1, it seemed like a good time to talk with Executive Director Rebecca Medrano and Associate Producing Director Abel Lopez about “different accents.”

NEA: First, what do you each do at GALA? What are your day-to-day responsibilities?

ABEL LOPEZ: I supervise marketing and public relations and assist in the artistic programming and production. Essentially, I bridge production, the artistic, and management sides.

NEA: And Rebecca?

LOPEZ: Rebecca does it all.

REBECCA MEDRANO: Abel does it all too! I also bridge the artistic, production, and management sides. I am the principal fundraiser, I manage personnel, and [I] work with the board of directors. Abel works more directly with [Producing Artistic Director] Hugo [Medrano] regarding artistic decision-making, as well as coordinating with me on fundraising and board management.

NEA: GALA has two missions: to engage Spanish-speaking people in Washington, DC, with Hispanic plays from across Latin America and to connect English-speaking audiences to Hispanic theater and all that it offers. Can you speak to how you balance these two goals?

LOPEZ: I don't think of it as a dual mission. Instead the focus is on the kind of work that we do and then making it accessible to all audiences. The underlying need we are addressing is the lack of opportunity to see the work of Spanish, Latin-American, and Hispanic-American playwrights.

MEDRANO: I agree with Abel. I see it as all part of one mission under the overarching goal of being inclusive. Long before people talked about the need for diversity, we were already doing it. The theater was established by people who were both Latin American, and American, and Hispanic American. The only criteria for the work is that it be produced by a person of Hispanic heritage. We're connecting people who are of that heritage to those who aren't but who have an interest.

LOPEZ: Most of the work by Hispanic Americans is actually written in English. So sometimes, we will translate a work by an Hispanic American that is written in English into Spanish to make it accessible to Spanish-speaking audiences.

NEA: So how do you address the issue of language?

MEDRANO: When we started we were young and energetic and did every show with two productions, so we did the whole show with one cast in English, then cleared it out to do the show again in Spanish with a separate cast and costumes. Not only was it expensive, but it was exhausting! In fact, in my innocence with our first NEA grant I thought we were required to do that until an NEA staffer told me, "Rebecca you're crazy. No one said you had to produce plays in both languages."

After that we moved to simultaneous translation via individual headphones. Finally, we gave up the headphones when we moved into our current space in 2005 and started using subtitles.

NEA: You've also described GALA as "Latino in the fullest sense." Can you talk more about that?

LOPEZ: This speaks to what Rebecca mentioned earlier, reflecting the diversity of Latino cultures. Argentine culture is different from Mexican culture which is different from Puerto Rican culture, etc.--- and that variety is represented in our presentations. It's as important for us to expose Latinos to different Latino cultures as it is to present Latino cultures to non-Latino audiences.

NEA: I suspect then that you're always learning where Latino culture flourishes that you didn't expect.

MEDRANO: Always---that's what makes the job fascinating and that's why Abel and I are still here 35 years later.

NEA: What do you find are the themes of greatest interest for your different Spanish-speaking audiences? What are they most keen to experience?

LOPEZ: The important thing is that audiences want to see their story reflected on stage. If you look at the kind of work that we present in any given season, it will cover very different themes.

For example, the first show of this season was a classical Spanish piece, El desdén con el desdén, by a contemporary of [17th-century Spanish playwright and poet] Lope de Vega. The next production is about immigration and migration. The next one is based on Isabel Allende's House of Spirits, which examines moments in Chilean history through the experience of a family. Next season we'll be presenting a piece based on Salvadoran gangs here in the U.S., with flashbacks to El Salvador, and the impact that gangs have on families.

MEDRANO: It's part of our challenge in designing a season to feature work from or about different regions. One thing we've learned and continue to learn is that people from some countries will always go to see a play about their country. Our challenge is to encourage them to come back and see other things. This presents an additional responsibility for us because not only do we feature a spectrum of theater genres from edgy to classical, but also from the varying perspectives of different Latino communities.

NEA: Why was it important for GALA to participate in Southern Exposure? What opportunities and challenges did it offer?

MEDRANO: We were in the right place at the right time for this initiative. We had been reaching out in the last couple of years to other theaters nationally plus we've done international work for a long time, but as an institution we haven't connected with other theaters to co-present international artists. I found it fascinating to create the required group of partners, finding a non-metro partner and a non-Latino partner to share in the work. The project has allowed us to more fully understand the difficulties of international work and especially of doing a national tour

Also, most of our presenting in recent years has been with three or four performers. This allowed us to look at a more complex and larger presentation.

NEA: Through Southern Exposure, GALA will present Teatro Linéa de Sombra, one of Mexico's leading contemporary theaters. The company will present Amarillo, which explores the individual and national impact of migration---both for those who leave and those who are left behind. What do you hope will happen when the artists are here?

LOPEZ: Not only do we get to know them and they get to know us, but they become familiar with Washington, DC itself. We look forward to all of the interactions between the visiting artists and our audiences and with our own company members, the panel discussions and post-performance discussions.

MEDRANO: We have an ongoing relationship with the Central American Resource Center here in Washington that works closely with day laborers. It's always been important for GALA to reach across all economic sectors of the Latino community, and this is a perfect opportunity so they can hear some of the stories that they may be familiar with and maybe not.

We're also bringing a group of youth from Identity, Inc., an organization in Montgomery County, Maryland, that works with Salvadoran and Honduran young people. Many are second-generation, and haven't heard stories of crossing over or haven't had the opportunity to see the issue dramatized by a professional company.

Another important outcome is breaking down the stereotypical view of what a Mexican theater or Mexican artist might be, that it isn't folklorico dance with a sombrero. I think it will open people's eyes to the universal expressed through art. This story could happen anywhere, wherever people are crossing borders. It’s about the human impact.