GALA Hispanic Theatre was founded in 1976 by Hugo Medrano and Rebecca Read Medrano in their rowhouse (1985 photo). (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Assemble lovers, laughter and a South American dictatorship, add toil and pluck, and you’ve got the bones of any number of plays presented at GALA Hispanic Theatre and Teatro de la Luna over the years. You’ve also got the unlikely story of Latino theater itself — now at a crucial crossroads in the Washington region.

“He was spraying paint. He had long curly hair. Very Spanish-looking. I said, ‘Well, that’s an interesting guy,’ ” says Rebecca Read Medrano, recalling the day in 1973 when she met her future husband, Hugo Medrano, working on sets at a bilingual children’s theater.

He had recently landed in Washington from Spain, where he sojourned to escape the oppression in his native Argentina. She was a dancer from New York — with a degree in Latin American studies from Smith College — who spoke fluent Spanish.

They co-founded GALA (a “Grupo de Artistas Latino Americanos,” many of them expatriate refugees) in a “theater” inside the couple’s Adams Morgan rowhouse, in 1976. After moving four times over the years, GALA is now ensconced in the historic 264-seat Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights, following a $4.3 million renovation in 2005 — one of the premier homes of any Latino theater in the nation.

As GALA was forging its reputation in the late 1970s, an actor and director named Mario Marcel was being tortured by Argentine authorities. During eight months of detention, he was beaten and shocked with electricity.

He had been presenting free-thinking pieces in a theater in the northwestern part of Argentina. “They took me for a subversive,” Marcel says.

After he got out, he went to Paraguay and met an architect named Nucky Walder in a troupe he was mentoring. She was shut out of good architectural jobs because she refused to join the ruling party. Theater was her other passion. “I was his best student,” Walder says.

They married in 1981, moved to Washington and joined the orbit of artists the Medranos had assembled. Twenty years ago, they formed Teatro de la Luna, presenting works in Arlington County’s 100-seat Gunston Arts Center.

Despite fears that la Luna would cut into GALA’s audience, both have grown. This season, they are producing in-house, or presenting from elsewhere, a total of 20 plays, nearly all in Spanish with English translation.

“I think it creates more audience,” Hugo Medrano says.

The longevity and relative success mask fundamental questions about the role of Latino theater: Who is the audience? Must that audience still be addressed primarily in Spanish?

The context for Latino theater has changed since the 1970s, and the theaters are struggling to adjust to new economic and demographic forces.

The old mission of presenting brave plays from Latin America and Spain, as well as Spanish classics, bumps against a new one of staying relevant to increasingly bilingual descendants of immigrants.

The theaters say the makeup of their audiences is roughly unchanged: up to 60 percent Spanish speakers, 20 or 25 percent bilingual, 20 or 25 percent English speakers.

But it’s harder than ever to sell out shows, and filling seats is essential in a tough economy amid wavering government support.

The difficulty exists even though the region has more Latinos than ever, after decades of immigration from often poor parts of Central America. But, unlike the old exiled intellectuals, many of the newcomers have little experience seeing theater.

At the same time, English-dominant venues are more open to presenting Hispanic-inflected works, including a bilingual “West Side Story” three years ago at the National Theatre, and later on Broadway, and a musical adaptation of “Like Water for Chocolate” planned (and postponed) this season at Arena Stage, etc.

With the competition, “you have to invest more in marketing to bring people to anything,” Rebecca Medrano says.

“We have to offer more programs in order to survive,” Walder says. “More programs — but less income.”

An obvious tactic might be for GALA and Teatro de la Luna to offer more plays in English. That is the model of Latino theater in much of the country. (Notable exceptions are Spanish-language theaters and festivals in New York, Miami and some other cities.)

“GALA and Teatro de la Luna are unique places, along with a few other theaters with that focus,” says Maria de Leon, executive director of the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture in San Antonio.

Set aside for a moment the claim of both theaters that a sufficient number of quality works in English about the Latino experience have not yet been written. GALA presents roughly one play a season in English, but it proves no panacea.

Despite good reviews in 2007 for “Elliott, A Soldier’s Fugue,” by Quiara Alegria Hudes (who co-wrote the Broadway musical hit “In the Heights”), neither English nor Spanish-speakers attended in sizable numbers. Other English plays have suffered similar fates. The Medranos can only speculate: Is it the plays themselves, or the language they’re in, that cause box-office disappointment?

A case study of the complicated calculus is GALA’s experience this season with what was to have been the world premiere in April of “I Put the Fear of Mexico in ’Em,” by up-and-coming playwright Matthew Paul Olmos.

The English-language play, about a North American couple who get lost in Tijuana, is “a humorous and complex dance that explores stereotypes,” according to publicity notes. It’s also a blunt work that might equally offend American and Mexican pieties, Rebecca Medrano says. As a consequence, the theater couldn’t get sponsorship, and, in tough economic times, the Medranos feared they couldn’t count on ticket sales to compensate.

They decided to postpone the play until next year. They’re substituting a tango production, a one-woman show in Spanish and a bilingual “Occupy GALA” event with comedy, poetry and local bands.

Besides the audience identity issues, the episode points up the mixed blessing of having a sparkling new theater space: The Tivoli’s higher overhead makes the Medranos slightly more risk-averse than in the rowhouse days.

Rather than go more mainstream, GALA’s and Teatro de la Luna’s response to market challenges has been to double-down on Spanish. To do otherwise would betray the hard-won struggles of the ’70s to be able to say anything at all in the native language, the couples say.

“We are theaters committed to our origin,” Marcel says. “I have endured many things for these words: my origin.”

“Language is fundamental to heritage,” Hugo Medrano says.

The survival strategy includes appealing to a greater number of niche tastes within the growing Latino population.

Teatro de la Luna has expanded its annual festivals of theater imported from Latin America. Artists who are hot tickets in foreign capitals are express-delivered to Arlington for short runs, such as Petru Valenski and Graciela Rodriguez from Montevideo and Mariano Mazzei from Buenos Aires. Festival selections are spread among as many countries as possible, in hopes of drawing expatriates.

To broaden the menu further, Teatro de la Luna last year presented four children’s plays to more than 11,000 students at 47 schools in the region. This season it co-produced “Luisa Fernanda” with the accomplished local company Zarzuela DiSi, thus adding zarzuela to the mix, an opera-musical hybrid from Spain.

Similarly, GALA has taken advantage of its much larger budget to commission musicals by Latin American playwrights, calculating that musicals can be crowd-pleasing and artistically ambitious.

The results, including “Momia en el closet (Mummy in the Closet) — the Return of Eva Peron” and “El Bola — Cuba’s King of Song,” have been so successful that they have gone on to be performed in Venezuela and Cuba. Thus, Latino theater in Washington not only receives, but also generates, new work in the hemisphere.

“You guys are lucky,” New York-based Cuban American playwright Nilo Cruz says to Washingtonians exposed to so much Latin American work. Many “North American theaters are afraid something will be lost in translation.” Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anna in the Tropics” will be presented in Spanish next month at GALA.

The survival strategy also involves stepping outside a strict definition of theater. Teatro de la Luna offers bolero singing and harp music. GALA has a flamenco series and Spanish-language stand-up comedy and is considering film.

On Sunday, GALA will present its annual Three Kings celebration in Adams Morgan. More than just theater directors and actors, it’s as if the companies are returning to the original vision of a “grupo de artistas Latino Americanos.”

The future is complicated by another factor: The first couples of Hispanic theater in Washington are aging. Hugo and Rebecca Medrano are 68 and 63, respectively. Marcel and Walder are 74 and 65.

It’s not clear who will step up to take on the long hours, low pay and quixotic scramble of Spanish-language theater.

“This is not only work, it’s like a mission,” Hugo Medrano says.

The Medranos are optimistic a successor will emerge. (The couple have three adult sons not involved in theater.)

Marcel and Walder say they hope the young people in Teatro de la Luna — including their daughter, actor Marcela Ferlito, 29 — will carry it on.

Marcel sighs and cites a saying in Spanish: “Los sueños son muchos, los años son más,” which means “a person has more dreams than years left to fulfill them.”

Some worry that the couples might be irreplaceable.

“The book I want to write is about the four of them and how they transformed the Latin American artistic experience in this area,” says Rei Berroa, a Dominican-born poet and literature professor at George Mason University. “They show that if you believe in something, you should never let reality shatter your dreams.”