Photos: Alma E. Hernandez for The Express News
As a theater-minded youngster growing up in San Antonio, Laura Garza remembers being frustrated that no matter what she did, she never managed to win a lead role in the plays at her high school because she was — and looked — Latina.
When Garza confronted the teacher, “the teacher responded in a cruel and indignant tone. ‘You want to know the truth? You just don’t look the part.’”
She made it her mission to foster theater in San Antonio that would be open to less traditional actors and work, and along with fellow theater artists Alison Vasquez and Paula Rodriguez, she founded Teatro Audaz, a company dedicated to telling the stories of Latinos, women and the LGBTQ community. Vasquez has since left the troupe, but it got a big boost in February when it became a company in residence at The Playhouse San Antonio.
The launch of Teatro Audaz and The Playhouse’s embrace of it coincided with a concerted push by several other established performing arts groups in the city to reach out to Hispanic audiences in a way that they haven’t before.
But in a city that’s 63 percent Hispanic, such efforts are still behind what other Texas cities are doing. Austin and Dallas both have theater companies devoted to work representing the Latino experience. San Antonio does not.
It wasn’t always this way. The city once had a number of theaters that presented that kind of material, and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center once had a national reputation for its theater program. But in recent years, San Antonio’s Latino theater star has dimmed.
The Guadalupe program, which had been dormant since 2011, began a revival with the 2015 staging of “La Reina del Acordeón: Eva Ybarra’s Life on Stage.” Since then, it has produced a number of smaller shows, emphasizing the works of area playwrights. This summer, the Guadalupe is teaming up with Jump-Start Performance Co. for Nuevo Teatro, a festival of new works.
Other examples of outreach include:
The Roxie Theatre Company and Alamo City Opera both took their first dive into the Spanish language in May. The Roxie presented a dual-language version of Disney’s “Aladdin,” and the opera company staged “La Hija de Rappaccini,” an adaptation Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” Opera founder and General/Artistic Director Mark Richter has committed to offering one Hispanic-themed show every season. Next up is “Maria de Buenos Aires,” slated for next summer.
Classic Theatre kicked off its ninth season last fall with “The House on Mango Street,” an adaptation of Sandra Cisneros’ classic novel that sold out every performance. The company revived it for a second two-weekend run in April, and that, too, sold out. Next up is a two-weekend run of “Burning Patience,” which is built around the work of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, in July, and a stage adaptation of Rudolfo Anaya’s classic novel “Bless Me, Ultima” opening in February.
San Antonio’s outreach efforts are in line with work theaters across the country are doing to diversify both their audiences and the people who work onstage and behind the scenes, said Abigail Vega, a producer with the Latinx Theatre Commons, a national initiative by artists across the country to raise the visibility of Latino works and artists.
“At the large regional theaters, they’re finding they’re in cities where white people are in the minority, and that’s not reflected in their organizations that are funded by taxpayer dollars, so that’s not right,” she said.
The Guadalupe’s theater program once had a much higher profile, both here and across the country. When Vega started going to national theater conferences, she said, some older artists often spoke of the work done there in the ’80s in reverent tones.
In a 2014 interview with the Express-News, Chicano scholar Tomas Ybarra-Frausto talked about the history of Hispanic theater here, going back to the turn of the 20th century, when the performing arts were a major part of the cultural landscape for Mexican immigrants.
“San Antonio has always been a very important theater town,” he said, recalling how he spent much of his own childhood here in the 1940s and 1950s visiting theaters downtown.
“At Commerce and Laredo (streets), there was Teatro Zaragoza, which was a movie house but also a legitimate theater,” he said. “A block down, across the street from Centro Alameda, was the Teatro Nacional. So this was like a theater row.”
In Dallas, the Cara Mia Theatre Co. was founded in 1996 with the aim of representing the Latino experience in the United States and is still active. And Austin, which is 33 percent Hispanic, is home to Teatro Vivo, which began in 2000 with a focus on Latino theater.
Meanwhile, San Antonio, which is 63 percent Hispanic, has no equivalent company.
“Opportunity and access are big issues, and I think that many of us here in San Antonio lament the fact that there is not a more robust theater community,” said Maria Lopez De Leon, president and CEO of the S.A.-based National Association of Latino Arts and Culture.
Funding is a consistent problem, she said, and that’s true for minority arts groups across the country. But important conversations exploring how to deal with that and other issues of accessibility are taking place, which gives De Leon hope for the future, as does the work of Latinx Theatre Commons and other similar organizations.
“Advocacy plays a great role in creating that change we want to see,” she said.
Jorge Piña, who led the theater program at the Guadalupe for 16 years, sees a lot to be hopeful about, too. Piña, who is now working part-time at the Guadalupe as a house manager, said that he and his wife, actress Ruby Nelda Perez, have been impressed by the younger theater artists they’ve encountered here of late. He was particularly delighted when the relatively new FIRE Collaborative invited him to give a talk at Jump-Start about the history of Chicano theater and his own career.
“It’s a whole new group of young artists that are coming up and not just talking, but really producing shows. It’s really great that the culture’s still alive,” he said.
Teatro Audaz is one of the newcomers. Once Garza, Vasquez and Rodriguez decided to take the plunge and start a new company, they spent their first season roaming, doing a summer theater camp at a charter school and producing readings and other work at nontheater venues around S.A.
While they were getting the company off the ground last summer, George Green became the CEO/artistic director at The Playhouse San Antonio. One of the first things on his wish list was to create a resident Latino troupe.
Garza approached him, asking about partnership possibilities. Instead, Green offered to give the company a home.
The Playhouse is helping the fledgling company with marketing and is running its box office. It also provides space for meetings, rehearsals and some performances. The company will end it second season with “Aye, No!,” a comedy about a lesbian who comes out to her traditional family by bringing a girlfriend home to meet them.
“As a first-year company getting to hook up with a theater of The Playhouse’s stature, we were really blessed and fortunate to come across George’s path,” Garza said.
Getting started again
The Guadalupe’s theater program had been dormant for about four years when Joel Settles went to work there in 2015 to revitalize the program, a daunting task.
“Actors had not come out to audition for anything at the theater for a while,” said Settles, who for five years ran the theater program at SAY Sí. “Playwrights were sort of not around anymore or weren’t submitting things to the theater. Directors weren’t trying to beat down the door to do things here because, obviously, there wasn’t a lot of programming.”
One of the first things he did was to make it known that playwrights and solo artists could find a space to present their work there. Settles, a 36-year-old San Antonio native, had been active on the city’s theater scene for years as a producer, actor, writer, director and arts advocate, and so he had a big list of contacts to tap into.
“Those partnerships made it a lot easier to get audiences back in the space, get artists back on the stage, rather than me trying to produce a season of five plays with very little resources,” Settles said. “That would have been very difficult, if not impossible.”
It also served a community function, he said.
“The Guadalupe emerged from the West Side of San Antonio, it is based here, and it should reflect the regional culture,” he said.
He believes some of that work also can find a national audience, as Hollywood’s films and New York’s theaters rarely reflect the lives of Latinos and other people in Texas and the Southwest.
To do that, he said, the Guadalupe and other arts groups need to send proposals to universities and schools which might be in the market for productions, and they need to enter festivals and contests across the country. Case in point: “Conjunto Blues,” Nicolás Valdez’s multidisciplinary piece about conjunto music, received its Texas premiere at the Guadalupe last year and has been selected for the Encuentro de las Américas international theater festival in Los Angeles this fall.
The revival of the Guadalupe’s theater program and the launch of Teatro Audaz are a significant developments, said Marisela Barrera, who worked at the Guadalupe from 2002 to 2006 and co-founded the San Antonio Latino/a Theatre Alliance advocacy group with Settles and others in 2013.
“I just pray that there’s a through-line that will build upon itself in order for more work to blossom,” she said. “Already, I feel a sense of rejuvenation in the scene, definitely.”
Getting results (or not)
Simply producing bilingual work or plays exploring Hispanic themes is not a guarantee of new audiences. The Roxie’s staging of the dual-language “Aladdin” went half as well producer/director Jonathan Pennington would have liked, he said.
The theater relies on Groupon deals as part of its marketing strategy, and “Aladdin” had the lowest number of sales for the company through that platform. He’s not giving up on trying to reach that audience, and he’s hunting for material that might draw big houses more consistently.
Classic Theatre has fared much better with its runaway hit “The House on Mango Street” last fall. Its 2011 staging of the play “The House of Bernarda Alba” sold well, too, recalled director José Rubén De León, and a few performances sold out.
Finding ways to reach out to diverse audiences is an important part of the company’s goal of becoming a regional theater, said Kelly Hilliard Roush, executive director of he Classic Theatre.
De León, a respected theater artist now on Classic’s board, can personally attest to the fact that there is an audience for Spanish-language and Hispanic-themed works. Much of his original work is in that wheelhouse — including deep-dives into the lives and work of Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca and composer Agustín Lara — and he often plays to packed houses.
One of his newest shows in that vein was “Corazon del Bolero,” a song-laced look at the bolero that sold out its three-performance run well in advance of opening night when he presented it at Classic in 2015.
He’s also looking toward the future. Among other things, he’s been paying attention to the growing theater program at Palo Alto College, which presented a full season of work during the 2016-17 season that included a bilingual take on “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” titled “Alicia,” and “West Side Story.”
Hector Garza, a transplant from California who moved here almost two years ago, runs the program and said his intent long term is not simply to focus on Hispanic-themed work, but to showcase stories from all sorts of voices that have not routinely been featured on the stage, including those of women.
“I think we are moving in the right direction,” said Garza. “We will know that we have had some kind of impact when it’s not an issue.”