The GALA Hispanic Theatre’s founder and producing artistic director, Hugo Medrano, greets me on the steps of the Josephine Butler Parks Center building. This is the Renaissance-revival style mansion, built in 1927 in the Meridian Hill neighborhood that provides offices for many Washington DC community-based organizations. GALA uses this building as a meeting place, but managing a Spanish language Hispanic theatre center at the Tivoli Theatre on 14th Street NW is no walk in the park.
As we settle into a comfy ground-floor room for this interview, Hugo, wearing a short-sleeved, blue-checkered shirt for the high heat of summer, is joined by his wife and executive director Rebecca Medrano, dressed casually in a sleeveless, light-blue top. “I handle the money,” she says, twinkly-eyed.
Rosalind: Ah, the power behind the throne. How did both of you come up with this idea for a season of Hispanic plays reflecting a woman’s perspective of the world?
Hugo: All these plays are about women and relate to a woman’s way of feeling. All are by women playwrights, except for one, the first one. Cancun, by Jordi Galceran from Catalonia, Spain, is directed by José Zayas, who in 2013 directed House of Spirits/La Casa de Espiritus, based on the Isabel Allende novel. Cancun shows and talks about men’s incapacity to resolve their sentimental relationships with women.
Rosalind: A neglected viewpoint?
Hugo: Exactly. Usually relationships are portrayed as women’s inability to understand their problems with men. Here, two couples try to confront their marriage relationships in terms of commitment. It’s about a woman’s need to confirm herself, treated lightly. There are only four characters; Luz Nichols from La Senorita de Tacna, (the second play in the 2013-2014 season) who played Elvira/Mamae, is one of the characters. Also, Chani Martin, the bull fighter, in Cabaret Borroco (the first show last season), is in Cancun.
Rosalind: Luz Nichols is amazingly versatile.
Hugo: Yes, here she is cast in a funny comedy, in the sense of style. You see that fine line between reality and dream. The audience is never sure as to what is real and what is not. What is fantasy and what is reality.
Rosalind: Would you call this play magical realism?
Hugo: No, no, no. Big difference. Magical realism crosses over into the dream world, into the absurd, to make sure the fantastic events seem real. It’s filled with magic and myth. It defines very clearly for the audience this is not real.
Rosalind: I think “down-to-earth.” Say “magical realism,” and I flash back to your staging of Isabel Allende’s novel, adapted by Caridad Svich, The House of the Spirits/La casa de los espiritus (January 2013). Alba’s graphic autopsy appears on stage in a “memory bleed,” a video projection. Or Barabbas, the dog, actually a puppet, comes on stage with a knife projecting from his back, symbolizing the death of pure love and loyalty. Then, in Rafael Spregelburd’s Lucid/Lucido, outlandish happenings appear to be real but are not. Actors fly across stage, as if in Peter Pan, and a group of Argentines disappear from the stage in a levitating flying saucer. It was like science fiction. It showed us the only way to escape Peron’s persecutions in Buenos Aires. That was wildly surreal and I loved it.
GALA’s 2014/2015 season:
by Jordi Galceran (Spain)
Sept 11 – Oct 5, 2014
¡TUM TICA!: Una historia de música y familia
by Cecilia Cackley
Directed by Tom Mallan
Music by Cecilia Cackley and Diana Sáez
Puppets by Wit’s End Puppets
Oct 13 – 25
LOS EMPEÑOS DE UNA CASA/ House of Desires
by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Feb 5 – Mar 1, 2015
by Cecilia Cackley
Produced in collaboration with Wit’s End Puppets
Mar 9 – 21, 2015
MARIELA EN EL DESIERTO/ Mariela in the Desert
by Karen Zacarías (USA)
Apr 16 – May 10, 2015
LAS POLACAS – The Polish Girls of Buenos Aires
by Patricia Suárez Cohen (Argentina)
Music by Mariano Vales
June 4 – 28, 2014
Tickets are on sale now:
online or call 800.494.TIXS
Hugo Medrano is Producing Artistic Director of GALA.
Rebecca Read Medrano is Executive Director. Together, the founded GALA in 1976.
Among their national recognitions:
In 2014, The American Immigration Council recognized Rebecca and Hugo Medrano for founding the GALA, and for over 38 years of working to promote and share the Latino arts and cultures with a diverse audience.
The Award Order of Queen Isabella, conferred to Hugo and Rebecca Medrano by the King of Spain Juan Carlos I, for their outstanding promotion of Spanish Culture in the U.S., 2006.
The Excellence in Entrepreneurship and Community Involvement Award from the Latino Economic Development Corporation, 2000.
Hugo: Yes, exactly. We clearly understand in magical realism, it is not reality. But in the type of comedy in Cancun, we are always in reality, the fantasy and the reality go together as part of what’s real. We’re not completely submerged in the dream. And that’s what the surprise is. Sounds difficult but it’s not.
Rebecca: The turn of events are full of surprises. It’s a comedy of errors. The comedy relates to a woman’s way of feeling.
Rosalind: Would you call it a dark comedy?
Hugo: No. It’s funny; not dark. It’s a game. You are not sure that what happened actually happened.
Rosalind: Sounds like a guessing game. Let’s move on to the upcoming season’s second play, Los Empeños De Una Casa/House of Desires, by Sor Juana de la Cruz, that is directed by, you, Hugo. It’s one I’m excited about because I visited the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana in Mexico City (Universidad de Claustro de Sor Juana), in 2009. Founded in 1979, this university grew out of the closed convent where Sor Juana actually lived in the 17th century. Her remains were moved and reburied underneath the auditorium floor, that is now considered sacred ground. The Mexican people worship her; they have great respect for her writing.
Rebecca: She was a genius. Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz, from Mexico, is really the queen of 17th century published feminist playwrights. She was from Mexico, called New Spain. There were feminists in Europe during the 17th century, such as Ana Caro (GALA staged her Valor, Agravio Y Mujer/Stripping Don Juan, in 2006). But Sor Juana was the first feminist in the New World, in this hemisphere. She lived under the same kind of rigid code inherited from the Old World in Spain. And she had to deal with her own needs for artistic expression.
Rosalind: I’m thinking back to the play by Karen Zacarias, Los Pecados de Sor Juana. Sor Juana had three choices in life: to become a nun, a married woman or a whore. We saw this cultural stigma at work in Mario Vargas Llosa’s La Señorita de Tacna/The Young Lady From Tacna. After the señorita, Elvira/Mamaé, tragically renounces marriage and the chance to bear children, she faces limited choices. But the role she assumes makes sense. On one level, she embodies the Spanish code for the pure, virgin woman, protected behind the iron gate– the chaste, childless maiden aunt.
Hugo: Sor Juana chose the convent forever, not because she was crazy about God but as the only place where she could study.
Rebecca: Yes, Sor Juana was a great intellectual. Karen dealt with the part of her life that was her struggle as a woman in macho society. This play is not about that. Los Empeños De Una Casa/House of Desires, is Sor Juana’s work, her own playwriting.
Rosalind: Incredible. Where did you find it?
Hugo: She has two theatrical works, plays. One is about psychology and philosophy, and much more complicated. This one is a much more direct play. And she so cunningly uses the same cape and sword style of the period to ridicule the macho world.
Rosalind: She was satirizing, making fun of her society? And she got away with it? This was during the Inquisition, an extremely oppressive period.
Hugo: Oh, yes, there is one of the male characters, who dresses as a woman in order to get a message to some important person. And Sor Juana, as a playwright, breaks the third wall. This male character talks directly to the audience, staging that was never seen at the time. He is ridiculing the same women in the audience he is impersonating, making fun of them.
Rosalind: This is a man dressed up as a woman?
Hugo: Yes, which was never seen in Europe at the time. The character is telling the audience: I am dressed as a man but actually I am a woman.
Rebecca: This was very different, because in Spain, women dressed as men but not the men as women.
Rosalind: Wow! My head is spinning. That was really a sign of their freedom compared to the rest of Europe. In Elizabethan England, for instance, women on stage were banned. Director José Luis Arellano made that point in Cabaret Barroco last season. Spanish women enjoyed enormous freedom, compared to their Elizabethan sisters. A woman could be punished severely, hissed, booed, pelted with stones for acting on stage.
Rosalind: Spain was closer to Italy and influenced by the commedia del’Arte?
Hugo: Yes. But Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was the only one in this hemisphere who wrote and satirized the mediocrity in the society around her. As the stage director for Los Empeños De Una Casa/House of Desires, I am going to use the fact that Sor Juana is from Mexico. There is some music in the play. So I’m going to set it in a big hacienda in Mexico in the 1940s in a rural area in the country. It will be like a spoof of the rancheros film in Mexico. Macho Mexican horseman style. Charros and the essence of machismo. (Hugo with his elbows sticking out imitates a cowboy walk.) The big hat, exaggerated cowboy walk. It will be in the style of a spoof of the musical rancheros films in Mexico.
Rebecca: The Mex-Tex music (that blends Texas German polka music with country, mixed in with Latino beat, blues and rock.)
Rosalind: So exaggerated machismo style? The Charros, the country boy under the big Mexican hat?.
Hugo: Yeah. And the romantic lady, like Dolores del Rio, who falls for that machismo.
Rosalind: You know, I remember now. Sor Juana dressed up like a man to gain entrance to the university in the center of Ciudad de Mexico in the 17th century. But her mother stopped her. So Sor Juana entered a nunnery instead.
Rebecca: So do you think the general public knows Sor Juana de la Cruz? I hope so.
Hugo: I think so.
Rosalind: In Mexico, her verses are recited by kindergarten children.
Rebecca: But that’s in Mexico, not in the U.S.
Rosalind: So what about the other two plays in this 39th season?
Rebecca: People in Washington DC know Karen Zacarias, the playwright who has written Mariela in the Desert/Mariela En El Desierto, our third play. Zacarias lives in Washington D.C. and her plays have been done at the GALA and at Arena Stage.
Rosalind: So how does Mariela in the Desert fit into your theme?
Rebecca: The Mexican theme. It has the characters of the artists Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo in it.
Rosalind: And the last play, the kicker, to close the season?
Rebecca: The last play, Las Polacas/The Polish Girls of Buenos Aires, a musical about the Polish-Jewish girls and women lured into prostitution in Argentina is a total risk. The playwright, Patricia Suárez Cohen is known in Argentina, but not here; it’s about their spiritual strength and impact on Buenos Aires’ society. The music is by Mariano Vales. Director Mariano Caligaris, who directed Momia en el Closet: The Return of Eva Perón.
Hugo: It’s the same production team doing this last play. It’s a musical by a woman playwright, Patricia Suárez Cohen, a very hot one, from Argentina.
Rosalind: A woman playwright whose play about Polish prostitutes is a musical with music by Mariano Vales? Who knows that Polish women were lured into prostitution?
Hugo: Oh, they were. They were. Because there was a really strong mafia at the time conducting human trafficking.
Rebecca: We are featuring three plays written by women playwrights. And the plays are about women. Only the first one is by a male playwright; but Cancun is about women.
Rosalind: And that’s just skimming the surface of the 2014-2015 season for GALA. People have to come and see them for their richness…..So let’s shift gears. Let’s look backward. What did you learn from last season (2013-2014)? To what extent do you rely on box office to dictate your choices of plays?
Rebecca: Good question. When GALA started years ago (1976) we didn’t have overhead to think about. We might have to pay rent for a church. Now we have a building and you have to keep it going. Our fixed operating costs are enormous.
Rosalind: How has the theatre changed over the years since you started?
Hugo: We were much more free in the first 25 years, in selecting experimental plays. We could respond to what was going on in Latin America at the moment, in terms of what we could do artistically as a company.
Rebecca: Then it didn’t matter if there were only15 people in the theatre. People came to the GALA to see their intellectual reality. Without a big overhead, we were fine. Now we have an obligation to fill our houses. We can’t always do the most experimental works, like Lucido, which you loved. It is becoming more difficult to do things that aren’t well-known. You look at theatres here that are successful, they do things that are proven.
Rosalind: You mean like Arena Stage doing a revival of Oklahoma? It was a great production, but it was well-known.
Rebecca: Exactly. One thing GALA does still do: We take risks. But it is getting harder. For example: In the 2012-2013 season, we decided we were going to do three big plays, instead of four, and run them longer and see how that worked. We did Agustin Moreto’s El Desdén con el Desdén/In Spite of Love (A classic Spanish Golden Age play); La Casa de los Espiritús, adapted Isabel Allende novel by Caridad Svich; and a musical, DC-7 The Roberto Clemente Story, written & directed by Luis Caballero. These plays were expected to be box office hits; but we just did okay. That was because of the schools. Allende’s House of Spirits did 2/3 of our box office that year. That was our huge hit and it surprised us.
Rosalind: How come that play, an adaptation of a novel?
Rebecca: Because of Isabel Allende. Name recognition. Everyone goes to something that was either by a famous novelist, novel or a film. The same thing happened this year with Mario Vargas Llosa.
Rosalind: You used to start with a classic Golden Age of Spanish Theatre play. A Lope de Vega play, like El Caballero de Olmedo in 2010. This year is different. You’re starting with a contemporary play. Why?
Rebecca: The classical plays used to do very, very well with our general public. Now they do well only with the schools. Like the Lope de Vega plays that used to be the staples of GALA. You have to remember I was 24 and Hugo was 30 when we started GALA. So everybody else was older. So the older generation of Latinos, the Spanish ladies, who used to come, have moved on or gone to heaven. So it’s a question of trying to reach this new demographic. The Latino culture is changing. And in other theatres, there’s this whole revival of Latino culture. Everybody wants to do something Latino now.
So this season, we’re opening with a contemporary Spanish play to see how that goes. Yet we’re still doing a classic. (the 17th century Sor Juana de la Cruz play). The schools study it; and the schools come. But with the general public, it’s harder. Last year, for example, Cabaret Barroco, focused on the 17th century period entremeses (interludes), directed by José Luis Arellano, from Spain, which was wonderful. It (the show) was hilarious, but not a success at the box office. The general public did not come. The second play, The Young Lady From Tacna, was a big hit, because it was by Mario Vargas Llosa. It was by a commonly known name (Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010.). He has a name like Nobel Laureate Mario Gabriela Marquez, from Colombia.
Rosalind: I confess as an American, I was not familiar with Vargas Llosa’s writings. Yet because he was a Peruvian Nobel Laureate, I read The Feast of the Goat and others, like, In Praise of the Stepmother. Now, I’m hooked.
Rebecca: The problem is the American public comes to the GALA because they know the novelist. The “boom novelists.” That’s a term adopted by Julio Cortázar, an amazing Argentine novelist, notable for his novel Hopscotch. Also known as one of the founders of the Latin American Boom in the 1970’s, Cortázar was grouped with Llosa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes. In Argentina, because of the Peronist suppression of the theatres, playwriting almost died out. But the boom of the novel was still there and Latinos read novels. Now, you adapt any novels by those guys into a play, and you’ll fill your house. The general public already knows them. And the high school kids today are reading the magical realism of Garcia Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Rosalind: You speak of the Peronist repression during the 70s. There’s the 1964 play, The Walls/Las Paredes, a play you produced in 2007, by Griselda Gambaro, a remarkable woman playwright, who laid her life on the line and started a movement, the Theatre of the Grotesque. Why haven’t you done more of her plays? She is still alive.
Rebecca: Terrible public. Audiences didn’t come.
Rosalind: Really? That’s surprising. That was an excellent production. Was it because there was torture on stage?
Rebecca and Hugo: Yes, yes, that’s it. Audiences don’t want to see torture on stage. Not when it’s in your face.
Rosalind: Yeah, okay. In House of Spirits, there is the Alba torture scene, but presented with magical realism, done with video projections. Playwright Caridad Svich made a point of it in an interview. We are thrust immediately into Alba’s mind so we are in a fantasy world and the torture is tolerable. We see her reaction after the fact.
Hugo: Audiences like political plays, when they’re intellectual. Griselda Gambaro has a play out now with Henrik Ibsen, as a character. It’s a rewrite of The Doll’s House, with the character Nora arguing with Ibsen. She wants to break out of his world.
Rebecca: You have to realize that our audiences are changing and are different. People 20-30 years ago were more politicized. They were immigrants who left their countries for political reasons. They were Intellectuals in the sixties and seventies, all escaping dictatorships. Writers needed a place to write, to think and do art. GALA was a haven. That’s where GALA got its name: Group of Latino American artists, which includes the fine arts as well as performing arts. GALA mirrored their ideas, political views, their intellectual reality and audiences came. In the 1980s, Salvadorans migrated to the U.S. for economic reasons because of their civil war. They had different interests and no money for theatre. We had built our audience and the public changed.
Hugo: Our audience is constantly changing.
Rebecca: And now we have people who are putting down roots. But there is still this huge division between the Latinos who are professionals, who have Spanish culture as their background. They’re raising their children here. But they may not include their Hispanic cultural heritage. Often younger ones don’t know anything about their heritage.
Rosalind: That’s what’s scary. I’ve always believed if you don’t know your history, you can’t enjoy a future.
Hugo: I agree. It is scary.
Rosalind: So what is it people in your audiences want? That escape to magical realism, which is an escape?
Rebecca: I think they want to see something that makes them feel they’re part of an important culture. Vargas Llosa. They want to see something the Kennedy Center would do. Those plays are about important people written about in the New York Times.
Hugo: But I don’t want to continue to do adaptations of novels of famous novelists. Maybe for our 40th season, we should do it just for men. (We all laugh.)
Rosalind: But I also remember something your associate producing director Abel Lopez once told me in an interview, (in a quote, not published until now): “It’s as important for us to expose Latinos to different Latino cultures as it is to present Latino cultures to non-Latino audiences.”
Hugo: Yes, Abel is very articulate about what we’re trying to do.
Rebecca: And there is something else I want to emphasize about this season’s theme with women. In cultural exchanges, we have always commissioned women playwrights. We have reached out. That’s our collaboration. It’s unique and people don’t give GALA credit for it. We commissioned Cecilia Cackley who has worked with GALA for years for the children’s plays. We’re doing another play by Cecilia. It’s called ¡Tum Tica! Una Historia De Música Y Familia, with puppets.
Rosalind: Anything else you would like our readers to know?
Rebecca: We are looking up! This year hopefully we can stand under a new marquis. We got the grant to upgrade the GALA street marquis on 14th Street. It will be a digital board with three sides and 24-hour messaging about what’s happening at the GALA. We’re working on it.