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GALA's Grand Entrance

Curtain Rising on Theatre's Home, Ambitious Goals

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page N01

They're waiting for the psychic. And as they wait, they fidget. One of the washerwomen, a lithe argentina with a swath of jet-black hair, stretches into a balletic arabesque before abruptly switching into a frenzied cancan, legs flying, skirt bunched in her hands. Others in the theater -- Spaniards, Salvadorans, Venezuelans -- watch her display, laughing as they nosh on potato chips and Twinkies. In the audience, a tiny white dog, dapper in his winter sweater, meanders about.

Finally, the psychic, actress Lucrecia Basualdo, slinks upstairs and into the newly renovated Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights.


Hugo Medrano and his wife and artistic partner, Rebecca Read Medrano, in the renovated Tivoli Theatre, GALA's new and much-anticipated home. (Photos Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

_____More in Theater_____
'Yerma' Performance Info
GALA at Tivoli Info
Arts & Living: Theater

"Lucrecia," Hugo Medrano, the director, says to her in a soft-spoken, but clearly irritated, Spanish. "Where have you been? Pardon me, but don't you start Act 3?"

Yes, she says, eyes wide, startled.

"Ayyyyyyy," Medrano says, slapping palm to forehead.

Then the psychic, with the rest of the cast -- the washerwomen, the crones, the pagan lady, the Devil and his wife, dressed in Ugg boots and jeans, leotards and turtlenecks -- begin Act 3 of Federico Garcia Lorca's classic tragedy, "Yerma," starring Ana Veronica Muñoz, which premieres this Thursday. The opening is more special than most, as it will mark the beginning of a new life for GALA Hispanic Theatre. Deftly, they step around the invisible hourglass (still being built) dripping imaginary sand onto the stage, dashing up and down the massive ramp, running lines, marking places. Medrano, 61, a slip of a man with silvery hair and the air of an aristocrat, slides from one part of the theater to another, observing from different vantage points. He stops the actors, gives notes, exacting but unfailingly polite.

"Come here to the front, my dears," he says in Argentine-accented English. "Chicos, chicas," boys and girls . . .

He talks. They listen. Until the command:

"Go!"

And they begin again.

After 29 years of hopscotching from temporary shelter to shelter, struggling to attract audiences, GALA is indeed beginning again, this time -- a casa, home at last -- in a 270-seat space in the historic Tivoli, a reconstruction that, fittingly enough for this group, melds elements of the old and the new, from the ornately decaying ceiling dome to the chain-metal "clouds" floating in the lobby. Fitting too, that this motley band from across the Hispanic diaspora, formed with a mission to preserve Latino culture, is taking on Garcia Lorca, the martyred poet and playwright, a Spaniard whose life and work serve as symbol for fighting against oppression.

"We've been a cultural center for the Latino arts," says Medrano, whose 1971 arrival in Washington took a circuitous route from his native Argentina to Spain. "We want to project the richness of our culture. We're in the nation's capital, in a neighborhood that's multicultural."

Adds his wife and artistic partner, Rebecca Read Medrano, "The real important mission is maintaining the language. . . . It's absurd that people know Shakespeare" and don't know Shakespeare's contemporary Lope de Vega. "But you've got to project where the culture is going now." And the culture, she says, is moving toward American-born Latinos, the children of immigrants, who may or may not speak the language.

And therein lies the challenge: Honoring the past while moving into the future. Preserving a culture and a language while trying to woo new English- and Spanish-speaking audiences. (GALA has always offered translations of its performances for non-Spanish speakers.) Paying down the $3.8 million debt on this historic structure, for which GALA still needs to raise another $1 million. (The money raised so far came from a combination of D.C. government grants, foundations and private donors.) Never mind last month's glitzy opening, sponsored by Target and presided over by Rita Moreno. Now is what counts. And now is about doing the art and the business of theater, aspirations of creating a permanent national Hispanic theater.

Homecoming

The fundraisers have their work cut out for them: In the 2003-04 season, 5,100 people attended 62 performances at GALA's most recent home, the 110-seat Warehouse Theater, according to Carlos Prio Odio, GALA's director of marketing and public relations. In contrast, last month's free "homecoming" weekend, which included free performances, children's activities and a fundraising dinner to commemorate the opening of GALA at Tivoli, drew 3,000 over a three-day period.

Still, outside observers see hope. "The fact that they can do this on a legit level is huge and good," says playwright Luis Alfaro, director of new play development at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, who notes that there's still a lot of Latino theater operating out of storefronts. "To show their work is really important for the advancement of our culture. . . . The success of [their fundraising efforts] is really important."

GALA's achievement is particularly important, Alfaro says, because it's located in the nation's capital; the new space signifies a certain complication of the Latino identity.

"Now that you have a space that's elegant and beautiful, it's also going to allow for a discourse of who gets to participate in this space. And that's the challenge: Who gets to be Latino?"

Back in 1976, the issues weren't so complicated. There was next to no Latino theater in the Washington area (today, besides GALA, there is Teatro de la Luna in Northern Virginia) save for Teatro Doble, a children's theater based out of the Back Alley Theater. But Washington was filled with exiles from Latin America's more oppressive regimes, professors, writers, artists, doctors. There, among all the Spanish-speaking intelligentsia, Medrano, an exile himself, saw fertile ground. Gathering together a loose collection of similar people, actors, directors, visual artists and dancers, the Medranos formed GALA -- the acronym for Grupo de Artistas Latino Americanos.

Recalls Medrano, "We saw the possibility for a very interested audience. It was a wonderful Latino community."

They were his people, a very specific demographic. Indeed, GALA's theme, printed on its earliest brochures, proclaimed: "You know who we are, we know what you want."

Medrano knew because he was one of them. He'd left Argentina in 1965 because of the burgeoning political repression there. He went to school in Spain on a theatrical scholarship, stayed and formed his own children's theater group, fell in love and followed his heart to Washington.

"Within six months," Medrano says, "the whole thing was kaput."

Returning to Spain, he figured, was out of the question. He'd disbanded his company to come to Washington and feared his friends "hated" him for it. So he stuck it out, even though he spoke next to no English. He auditioned for Teatro Doble, and there he met an American dancer who was auditioning as well -- Read Medrano, a Smith College graduate who'd majored in Latin American studies. After the audition, she offered him a ride home.

"She gave me a ride," Medrano says. "It became a ride of life."

They married in Argentina, came back and bought a townhouse with the help of Read Medrano's parents in the then rough-and-ready terrain of Adams Morgan, on 18th and Kalorama. "We destroyed the townhouse completely," Medrano says, recalling how they gutted the house's traditional structure to make way for their little theater. He and Read lived in a tiny room in the back.

From the start, they tried to be inclusive. One day a week was set aside for Tertulias de los Martes, or "Tuesday Get-togethers," freewheeling salons where artists from Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz to Argentine novelist Julio Cortazar to African American poet/playwright/activist/actor Amiri Baraka would come to read or perform. Then there were the plays, performed always with an eye toward inclusion: The earlier performance, for non-Spanish speakers, was done in English only. As soon as that show ended, they'd clear out the house to make ready for the later crowd -- the Spanish speakers.

"Sometimes we'd forget if we were doing it in English or in Spanish," Read Medrano recalls with a laugh.

They were flush with ambition, not to mention grant money. With a $100,000 federal grant, thanks to the Comprehensive Education and Training Act, everyone earned a salary. It seemed the coffers would never empty, or the good times would ever end.

"People were so happy to get paid for doing their art," Read Medrano says, "We didn't build infrastructures from other grants."

"We were so young," Medrano adds.

"Then we lost it all," Read Medrano says. "We had to build it up again."

A Foothold

The rowhouse, wonderful as it was, wasn't big enough; the audience was crammed into every cranny, with actors risking their necks to get from the dressing room to the stage. It was hard to attract audiences to the neighborhood. After Medrano was mugged in the box office, GALA started searching for a new home. But from then on, it seemed, the company was dependent on the kindness of strangers.

First, GALA performed out of the All Souls Church in Columbia Heights, then moved to the Lansburgh Arts Center downtown, then back up to the Sacred Heart School in Mount Pleasant and then further up to the Takoma Theater in Takoma Park and to the Warehouse Theater downtown.

It's a story not unique to any theatrical group. Theaters come and go, struggling to retain both prominence and audiences. But for Latino theaters, the struggle is even more fraught.

Says veteran actor Miriam Cruz, an ensemble member of the Spanish-speaking Repertorio Español in New York, who plays the Pagan Lady in GALA's "Yerma": "It's always been a struggle in New York. . . . Sometimes you do a production with six people in the audience. You have more people onstage. And that is so sad. To do theater, you have to have three aspects: The play, the actors and the audience, to make a complete experience. If one is missing, you have, as we say in Spanish 'Queda cojo.' Something is not balanced."

According to GALA's Odio, 41 members of the Theatre Communications Group -- a New York-based theatrical trade organization -- identify themselves as Latino/Hispanic. But a further analysis of the numbers reveals a different story: That figure includes theatrical organizations that have tried to market to Latinos. Factor out that number, and roughly a dozen are "authentic," Odio says. Only a handful of member theaters in the U.S. consistently perform in Spanish, including GALA. Even fewer have their own home, but many, like GALA, are moving closer to that goal. Repertorio Español has its own space but Intar Theatre, also in New York, is losing its home and will relocate to temporary digs while negotiating with the city for a new, permanent location. Meanwhile, Teatro Pregones, based in the Bronx, will soon move into its own space this summer. And for 12 years, Miami's Teatro Avante hosted the International Hispanic Theatre Festival in the same venue, but that ended last summer, when it could no longer pay the rent, according to Gaston Sanchez, Avante's director of operations. Adds Sanchez, "but the show will go on." Avante is now raising capital for another venue.

What Is Latino Theater?

Beyond financial concerns, there is the artistic debate: What, exactly, constitutes Latino theater? Classics from Garcia Lorca, Cervantes and de Vega? Contemporary Spanish-only plays? English-language plays by American-born Latinos fluent in Spanglish? What about artists like Cuban Croatian Caridad Svich or Mexican Japanese Naomi Iizuka, hyphenated Latinas who don't write about Latinos? It's a discussion bound to continue as first, second, third and fourth generations of Latinos come of age artistically, juggling languages, cultures and experiences.

"I am an American, born and raised in this country, of Latino descent. My story is an American story," says the Mark Taper Forum's Alfaro. "I write in Spanglish. . . . Part of it is political. I want my peeps to come out, Mexican Americans who are completely fluent in the language. I want to tell my story in the language that I speak."

English-language playwrights like Alfaro and Intar's artistic director, Eduardo Machado, say that they have often felt left out relative to their Spanish-language counterparts. They find more acceptance, they say, with mainstream, English-language theaters more likely to produce their work than their own folks.

"It's two completely different things," says Machado, who is Cuban American. "One is reaching out to be part of America, and one is saying, 'I'm different and I'm part of America.' A lot of people who are purists would say that I'm not legitimate because I write in English. . . . I of course don't agree. . . . It's hard to go into the mainstream if you're doing stuff in Spanish. So you're making a decision."

It's a decision that Medrano has given careful consideration. "It's completely true," he says of the English-speaking playwrights' complaints. "In some ways, we've [produced plays by English-speaking Latinos]. But not sufficiently. . . . There's so much richness. Chicanos, Cubans, Nuyoricans. . . .

"Our most important goal are plays and presentations that are Latino in conception and nature and are by Latino artists."

Because it's aiming for national, rather than regional, prominence, GALA is positioning itself a little differently. For the first time in many years, it will produce an English-language play, Josefina Lopez's "Real Women Have Curves," upon which the 2002 movie was based. It also will host other Latino theatrical groups, from both the U.S. and abroad. (A planned May production of "Poet in New York," by Philadelphia's bilingual Pig Iron Theatre Company, was postponed because of difficulties in mounting the production.) A New York-based theatrical hip-hop duo, Universes, comprising a Latina and an African American, will do a residency at the theater, while Medrano and Read's eldest son, Octavio, has plans to produce rap and Latino spoken-word events.

In the works, too, are plans for an ongoing film series and film festivals, a liquor license so alcohol can be served during theatrical events, outreach programs to attract black audiences, and continued work with Paso Nuevo, GALA's after-school workshop program for at-risk Latino youths.

"We have to keep the theater completely active," Medrano says, "To pay our debts. And for the maintenance of theater."

And of course, there is the issue of drawing larger English-speaking audiences. In the past, the theater relied on headphones; listeners kept up with the onstage action with simultaneous translations, a technique that often proved awkward. Now, with "Yerma," supertitles with English translations will be projected above the stage, a technique often used in opera houses. (English-language plays will have Spanish supertitles.) "It's very ambitious," Read says.

"But at least we want to try," Medrano adds.


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