Speak ‘e’ Spanish? (2006)

Tuesday – November 7, 2006
New York, NY

In November 2006, The Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts (aka The Non-Traditional Casting Project) hosted a Latino-focused roundtable entitled, Speak ‘e’ Spanish?—or the role of language in the creation, celebration, and acceptance of our work, to discuss the topic of language. The discussion was led by Program Associate Ephraim Lopez.

Invited participants included:

Varin Ayala—Actor

Quiara Alegria Hudes—playwright

Tatianna Mallarino—Artistic Director, Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental/Actor/Director

Jorge Merced—Associate Artistic Director, Pregones Theatre/Actor/Director/Playwright

Thaddeus Phillips—Artistic Director, Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental/Actor/Designer/Playwright

The conversation was designed to highlight a multigenerational as well as multidisciplinary perspective and was introduced with three broad topics:

1.) Writing: When and Why Writers Choose English, Spanish, or Both

2.) Casting: “Too Latino” vs. “Not Latino Enough”

3.) Navigating the Spanish-Speaking and Non-Spanish Speaking Communities

The roundtable discussion went without need for much prompting and the comments were personal, sincere, and honest. More questions than answers were posed, which supports the need for continued discussion on this and related topics by others in the community. Below are highlights:

Major topics of discussion included: audience, accents, casting, language as political, and language and “the other.” The reactions to the play El Conquistador—an “alternative” one-man show performed in Spanish (English subtitled) by an American—crossed all topics. Additional discussion focused on issues such as: Who’s directing? barriers to increased acceptance; and Race/Language/Skin Color.

“Language is interesting in that it touches upon many aspects: Why do you do the work you do, Who do you do the work for, and what is it there for? There are certain works in which language is really giving validity to a particular culture and not necessarily because it’s intrinsic to the work itself, but because it’s also a way of enticing people into the world [of the work] that’s not superficial.

There are times in which it [language] really comes from the heartbeat of the piece. These are the works I find to be the most challenging in terms of producing them elsewhere.

There’s the other aspect of language, which is language in the commercial arena. And that’s when we talk about who is producing and who is doing the casting, and who is the audience for that? But I find that in those works where language is not something that is used as something like a marketing device or just to make it more appealing to an audience, or just to give it some flavor, but something that comes out of the story itself, those stories I find are more compelling to me.” – Jorge Merced

Writing: What language do we use? Which language is appropriate, if there is such a thing?

We found that there can be a context to language and the audience plays a huge part in that determination. There are cases where language is integral to telling the story. Quiara Alegria Hudes noted with regard to her show, In the Heights: “I’m always trying to think of what Spanish words sound similar to their English words, meaning to the English translation, so I don’t lose the audience too much. But I also want it to sound rhythmically similar to the sounds you hear in Washington Heights, where it takes place.” Later, she also mentioned a situation where she decided to “pump up” the Spanish in one of her plays, Yemaya’s Belly, because directors were not calling in as many Latinos for the roles in her show.. She felt that more Spanish and more Latinos were needed in order to tell her story appropriately.

During the discussion, participants also raised the following: Do we feel the need to instantly translate when we write? Will we lose the audience because they don’t know what is literally being said? An interesting example was given of the production of The Clean House, at Lincoln Center, which showed how the playwright used language (the Portuguese maid speaking Portuguese in a comic scene) to show how we can trust the audience will get it. The actor’s work was strong, the language was used as a device, and the audience loved it.

Audience—Audience clearly plays a role in the creation of our stories. How? Who is the work for? What about bilingual audiences? What role does marketing play? Is there such a thing as a show for all audiences?

Regardless of language, everyone acknowledged the difficulty in establishing a regular audience, but the consensus among all panelists was that good work transcends all audiences. Jorge Merced brought up an interesting example relating history, audiences, and appropriateness: “In New York, there are Latino cultural centers and stages, such as Repertorio Espanol; Intar; Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre; Pregones, that have a track record that can assist the creation of our work and bring in audiences. I read about this Argentinean play festival going on at P.S. 122…and I thought, “Great.” I was sure the Latino theatres in the neighborhood and across the city would be involved, like Teatro Circulo, IATI, PRTTC, etc. There was not a single mention of them, no collaboration, no contact made whatsoever to include them. So then, who is this work for? Not for Latino audiences. It’s for a different audience. If your audience is different, fine, great, that’s fantastic. But we’re talking about a project with say, a $100,000 budget, competing with these companies for an audience. That’s when there has to be a need to be clear about who it is this work is for, and if we’re clear from the get go that this work is meant for this type of audience, you know that’s great. And if you feel your work should be presented somewhere else and you want to interact with a different type of audience, then be clear about that and then do the work there [where that audience is], but don’t go trying to play all the bases.”

One large thread of conversation centered around El Conquistador. Tatianna Mallarino and Thaddeus Phillips were able to shed some light on the intricacies of how and why, and for whom they develop their work. Their company, with their own unique brand of “alternative” theatre, works from an international perspective. This particular work seemed to cross audiences and cultural boundaries, as well as pushed levels of comfort. It’s a multi-media one-man show, acted in Spanish (with English subtitles), with the lead being played by a non-Latino (Thaddeus Phillips). The motivation for the show was Thaddeus wanting to do a show with Tatianna’s “crazy family” (her words), who are all Colombian TV and theatre actors. So because it was a show about Colombians, set in Colombia, it was in Spanish. Thaddeus pointed out that, “It ’s a thing with all our shows. People speak what they speak.” The co-production with New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) is what crossed huge cultural and audience boundaries. Tatianna and Thaddeus pointed out instances of when NYTW got “nervous,” For example, right before the show opened, subscribers would call a lot and expressed concern about the show being in Spanish. Tatianna says, “There’s an American thing; you could be perceived as arrogant, like we don’t care if you understand, we’re going to do it in Spanish and good luck if you understand. But it’s not that. The show is so visual. The actors are good. There have actually been people who have said more than once, that they don’t remember it being in Spanish.” Response from the show was amazing and actually the subscriber audience ended up bringing Latino audience members through their own word of mouth. As Thaddeus pointed out, “They would bring their doorman and then word of mouth spread to more Spanish-speaking audiences.”

Varin Ayala is an actor who has worked with Pregones Theatre, and noted the unique work they do in successfully creating shows in both Spanish and English. “At the end of the work, people come up and say things like, ‘Thanks for keeping our culture alive. I’ve never seen theatre before and this was amazing.’ It’s like doing two plays and I love that I get to do that.” Clearly, in some communities, it’s the Spanish language that gives them access to theatre. The participants were quick to point out the growing demographic of Spanish speakers in this country and how this alone will affect audiences in theatre overall.

El Conquistador—This show was a topic in and of itself due to the development and performance of the piece. The reaction to the show cross-referenced every topic in the discussion—from audience to accents, to marketing, to what is considered Latino work. The creators pointed out that this story—a Colombian doorman living in Colombia and his interaction with his tenants—was performed in Spanish simply because that is the language of that world. This is consistent with how Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental does all of their work. Thaddeus, who does not speak Spanish but learned words as he went along would, at times, literally react without knowledge of what was said to him. The show is a comment on the class system in Colombia.

“But it’s interesting because language and accents bring up for me more about who is behind the work. Like when I was watching your show, El Conquistador. Half the show, I was battling with your accent to death. I was like, ‘But why?’ But then I thought, ‘OK, wait. What about all the Colombians who don’t have a Colombian accent but live in Colombia?’ So it opened a whole different door for me that maybe you did or you meant or didn’t mean; and I don’t care if you meant it or not. I care about how I’m relating to it. And that made the play, for me, really interesting. To find out how it is that this play is coming from the perspective of someone from the United States. El español que hablaba. Is this Spanish that is influenced by an experience in the United States? So it just opened up a whole different doorway. I said to myself, “OK, that’s his accent!” In the same way that I do not ask an actor, in any other play, to shed his/her accent, I wouldn’t ask you to use accent.” — Jorge Merced

Who’s directing?—Topics included: Who gets to steer our work? Introducing our work to mainstream houses, and collaborative ventures between producing organizations. One interesting example was shared by Quiara regarding the production of her play, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue. It was directed by a non-Latino and she felt it was wonderful. An even more interesting example from her described how the same director shopped the play to a major regional Shakespeare theatre. But when Quiara spoke to them, they offered to bring a different director for it, and suggested a couple of Latina directors they had in mind. She felt uncomfortable with going with someone else and recommended using the Latina director for another show in their season. The theatre made it pretty clear that the possibility of one of the Latinas directing another of their shows was not really an option. “And they had two people specifically in mind who I know and whose work I love. I said you should definitely bring them in. But they’re a Shakespeare theatre and I was talking to them and I was like, ‘Well, why don’t you bring them in to do one of your Shakespeare’s? Because I’ve worked with both of them. I think they’re great!’…and it didn’t fly. That was so frustrating because, again I was like, why? I was happy that they wanted to be responsible, that they were asking me all these questions about how I feel about having a Latina director and that’s a great conversation to have with a producer. But by the same token, the tone of the conversation was a little bit like, that my play would be their [the Latina directors’] only opportunity, to be the only work offered to a Latina director this season.” It was further noted that more often than not, it is still non-Latinos who are hired to direct Latino work on regional stages.

Grants/Grant Language—How does grant language support checkbox mentality? For example, Latinos fulfill one piece in a season and after that, diversity may not be a viable option, or even considered. “I think there’s something in the way grant language is set up these days,” Quiara noted. “It kind of supports a ‘checkbox mentality,’ a structure where, say, if you can really easily package something and say we have all these Latinos working on this one piece in the season, it’s very easily marketable for grants. As opposed to saying, ‘Here’s who’s working in our organization on every production.’” She continued by citing the aforementioned Shakespeare theatre and bringing in a Latina director.

Jorge added, “I’m sure there are times when theatres need to make their outreach quota. I find more interesting, whenever I sit on a panel and I come across someone like Quiara. I say, OK, here’s a Latina playwright who we have to support, your work is saying something so, first I trust you and your judgment. If you choose to allow someone to use your name in a proposal, there must be something there; a conversation between them took place. Because I know she’s a responsible artist. I have no idea who these people [the theatre company] are, but if this artist is choosing this particular stage to be a place where that work is going to be produced, then yes. That is something that to me says a lot as to who it is and why it is that works are performed on stages that I just think would never think of being mixed together.”

Language as Political/“The Other”—Latino voices are still on the periphery. We live in times where people are voting for “English-only sectors.” This is an interesting juxtaposition to a growing Spanish-speaking population.

“The moment you introduce a language, like Spanish, you become like “the other.” We just came from Slovakia and over there, we were a Puerto Rican Theatre Company from the Bronx. The work we saw, the theatre companies we saw, over here, they would be considered the other. You know, the work that needs some type of filter or translator, or ‘this is our politically correct pill for the month; I went to see the ‘Latino’ play’ or what have you. Overseas, we were a community-based work. It’s not community trying to emulate the mainstream community, but community that is coming from a specific point of view. I was astounded by what I saw, the languages. You know this could never happen in this city. [This type of work.] It does happen, but it’s outside the mainstream. [Theatre community]” — Jorge Merced

“That’s what was so interesting about doing El Conquistador. Because doing it at The Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, doing it in Denver, doing it in Holland, Scotland, and Slovenia, it was an international work from Colombia, not like the other Latino work. When it came to New York, it started to feel more like that, which is funny because I’m from Denver and I don’t even speak Spanish that well.” —Thaddeus Phillips

“Look at the migrations of Spanish-speaking people saying, ‘We want to see our cultural institutions as central as well. It’s a different world now and there are a whole bunch of communities speaking out and demanding to be heard.” —Jorge Merced

Barriers to Acceptance—Barriers come from both the mainstream as well as the Latino community. There can be more freedom of expression artistically within the Latino community. We should stop thinking of ourselves as the “Little Latino Theatres.”

Tatianna stated, “I think that Latino people themselves are a little bit responsible for creating those barriers for grants and things like that. Maybe those boxes made sense when no Latinos were getting hired because there were those times, right? But it’s all of our responsibility to be people first, before Latinos, I think.” We can see examples of broken barriers. Recently the company Universes, who has its roots in the urban-American experience, was accepted as a Latino theatre at a conference in Texas.

Actors/Casting/Latino enough?/Accents—What work is available/seems to be available to Latino actors? How do you define a Latino actor? Advantages/Disadvantages? There are definite advantages to working with both languages. There comes a point where as an actor (and a person) you decide what you’re comfortable with. Do you or do you not play the illegal immigrant with the accent, for example? A lot of Latino perception is imposed from within the community as well. We must respect all examples of the Latino experience. This topic also explored the issues that accents bring up, in either language. Some examples included: Casting, accents and specific actors, advantages and disadvantages, prejudices, art vs. money, accents and perceptions of beauty, misconceptions, stereotypes, and writers’ considerations regarding accents in their work.  Here are some quotes:

“When you’re an actor and you want to have a soul-satisfying artistic life and also make money, how are you going to accomplish that if you’re Latino? It’s going to take a mix of things…Raul Esparza is Cuban, but he’s like American, he does American work. Raul Julia is probably one of the more notable examples of someone who came from Puerto Rico, had the accent, Joseph Papp believed in him, he was doing Shakespeare out of a flatbed truck in the boroughs and then became this huge star.” —Varin Ayala

“Because my plays deal a lot with people who have come over from the island this generation or last generation, or five years ago, the accents are always a question. It’s the first question an actor asks, ‘Do you want an accent?’ And for me, just because of my family background—even the same group of people who came over on the same plane together—all have different accents. I’d rather hear what comes naturally. I like actors who are comfortable in their own accents and don’t feel the need to put something on.” —Quiara Hudes

“When I am sitting in auditions, for me, it’s like inviting someone to share work and I want to see what the dynamic of this artist is. I’m not thinking of an accent. I’m thinking about how it is this individual is contributing to this piece and how he/she is living though the piece as opposed to, ‘Oh, this doesn’t sound Bronx enough!’ Why ask the actor to shed his or her skin?”

— Jorge Merced

“Your example is of someone who speaks English with a Spanish accent who isn’t getting a certain kind of either commercial or theatre work. But if that person keeps pushing over time, he or she is going to get a part where they’re looking especially for someone with that accent. And then that person is going to be fabulous, again, this is in a Utopia, and be known [for that accent. Then everyone will be looking for a million people who have that accent to do a commercial. That’s just the way the business works. And either you want to play the game or you don’t.”                                                                                                               — Varin Ayala

“Ultimately what separates you from the other people who are in the waiting room is what you, and only you, bring to that part. So you end up doing yourself a disservice by trying to sound like something else.” — Varin Ayala

“One of the pieces I did that took place on the islands, Yemaya’s Belly—it doesn’t specifically indicate what island they’re from, although it’s clearly Cuba, because they’re talking about a dictator and they’re all trying to leave the island—there’s a lot of Spanish thrown in and they talk about the Orisha and other culturally specific things. So you can figure it out easily. But because it’s allegorical and I didn’t specify a place, what happened was, a lot of them really loved the play, but didn’t really know about Orishas or anything like that, or what they signified culturally. So then casting notices would go out. This is where writing and casting intersect. Casting notices would go out saying things like, ‘Island role’ or ‘Caribbean.’ And basically, we would get a lot of African Americans. I sat through days of auditions where we wouldn’t see a single Latino. I would try to pump up the Spanish a bit more so that would weed out a bit of the casting in a way I thought was appropriate, but I still had productions where one out of five actors would be Latino.” — Quiara Hudes

Race/Language/Skin color—This grouping of topics intersected much of the discussion, particularly casting and new plays in development. How race is perceived and the different shades of Latinos were examined. When is language important? Jorge is working on a new Latino piece where skin color and being bilingual is absolutely specific for each role being cast. Quiara just finished a draft of a new play with a biracial Latina. Quiara defines herself as biracial, Jewish, and Puerto Rican. The stories of that experience are important to her.

Culture Clash—Racism and prejudicial issues can sometimes be a factor when it comes to the acceptance of work in another language.  People can feel threatened by things and words they do not understand.  We must not be afraid to march on despite this anticipated response by some.

“We did the show [Yemaya’s Belly] in Portland, Maine, where I was scared out of my mind, because I didn’t see a single Latino there. It was a nice place and a beautiful production, but the pre-show music was some cachao, some very nice danzones, and some very nice classic Cuban music, and the audience would flip out. Sitting through previews I would hear people saying, ‘Why do we have to listen to this noise?’” — Quiara Hudes

Owning our Work—There was a huge consensus among participants regarding the need to own our work—from finding stories to tell that are relevant, to committing to yourself as an artist, to letting go.

“I think part of owning your work is also—you were talking about different audiences—about just getting used to the fact that if you’re putting an issue on the table, no matter how big or small, or even if you don’t view something as an issue, you are opening the door. A lot of times the person in the audience who is the most critical, who has a very specific opinion about the issue, will be the loudest. My play, The Adventures of Barrio Girl, deals with a lot of adult and controversial subject matter. When I first started hearing comments, that I felt, were very racist, it was so hard for me to deal with that at first and it was very personally upsetting. But you know what? I wrote that play and I feel passionate about it and I put that out in the world as part of the dialogue. I think that is part of owning your work, putting it out there, and accepting that people for whom it has a lot of meaning are going to have something to say, and also accepting it when it starts a conversation you’re not really thrilled with. But that is part of putting it out there into the world. Understanding that it’s not about you then, but it’s about their experience.”

— Quiara Hudes

Clearly we are just beginning the dialogue on how language affects the work. As Jorge Merced said, “It comes with a history and it cannot be divorced from that.” Something as simple as language can renew and even bring new purpose to the stories that we want to tell. The Alliance will continue to explore the many facets of this topic in further roundtable discussions and public events.

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