Que Onda? with Arlene Martínez

Que Onda? (“What’s up?”) are interviews with comadres and compadres meant to shine a light on what small or large companies; independent artists or ensembles are doing around the country. Café Onda is an evolving publication. Sit back, take a break, and catch up on what's up in the Latina/o theatre scene. 

Maria Enriquez: You moved to Seattle, WA, in 2009 after obtaining your MFA in Directing and living in England as an educator and director for four years. What are some of your significant artistic experiences that you’ve had as a Latino artist working in the Pacific Northwest?

Arlene Martínez: Being a founding member of eSe Teatro in 2010 definitely connected me with the Latina/o theatre community in Seattle. For the inaugural presentation of eSe Teatro’s partnership with A Contemporary Theatre (ACT), I directed a bilingual staged reading of Gustavo Ott’s Passport. This reading was also presented at Burien Actors Theatre to a community of first generation Latina/o immigrants, and then at Shorecrest High School to ELL students. It was powerful to see how much people connected with the story, even when it had a character who spoke solely in Spanish with no translation.

The work with eSe Teatro and its Artistic Director, Rose Cano, connected me to the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC). This allowed me to attend their 2012 National Conference in Philadelphia, as well as the Leadership Institute in San Antonio on 2014. These experiences have truly helped me connect my practice to the national movement, as I have also been in the organizing committee of the PNW Latino Actors Auditions and now for the LTC Convening. Largely due to the energy and motivation of this national movement, in 2015 I was able to translate, produce, and direct The Passion as Told by Antígona Pérez, by Luis Rafael Sánchez. This play featured an all-Latina/o cast and played for three weeks in the theatre district here in Seattle, before transferring to the Arts & Academics Academy where it was performed for 700 students (56 percent Hispanic). This presentation launched an after-school drama class that is now about to go into its second cycle.

It is wonderful that we have a demand for Latina/o theatre and bilingual arts education and that I am in a place where I can comfortably work bilingually and produce Latina/o plays that I think the world should know. I can also focus on the work I want to do and not feel like I need to jump at opportunities where I am approached because of my language skills.

Maria: Do you feel artistic opportunities in Seattle have changed for Latina/o artists in the last three to five years? If so, how has this affected your work?

Arlene: Definitely. eSe Teatro has opened doors for Latina/o actors and created visibility for Latina/o theatre in general. After eSe Teatro was founded in 2010, other Latina/o companies emerged, such as Latino Theatre Projects, offering yet more opportunities to Latina/o actors. This past year, we have seen a larger number of Latina/o plays presented by non-Latina/o theatres than I have seen in any given year since 2009.

I think this has affected my work in that I have been identified as a bilingual, Latina/o theatre artist in Seattle and I have started to be approached by established companies for bilingual work as both a director and teaching artist. It is wonderful that we have a demand for Latina/o theatre and bilingual arts education and that I am in a place where I can comfortably work bilingually and produce Latina/o plays that I think the world should know. I can also focus on the work I want to do and not feel like I need to jump at opportunities where I am approached because of my language skills.

wedding scene
The Passion as Told by Antígona Pérez by Luis Rafael Sánchez, translated and directed by Arlene Martínez-Vázquez. From left to right: Steve Gallion, Angela Maestas, and Carter Rodriquez. Photo by Marquicia Domingue.

Maria: When I talk to people from other parts of the country, they are sometimes surprised at the thought of Latina/o theatre in Seattle, let alone bilingual theatre. Can you speak about the audiences that are seeing these performances, and how they receive them? Also, were you surprised that there was a demand for bilingual artists in the Seattle area?

Arlene: Actually, yes. I did not expect to use Spanish in Seattle nearly as much as I do. I think that, in my diverse communities, I end up speaking Spanish almost every day. I am also surprised at how fulfilled I feel by it.

In my bilingual work with eSe Teatro, we performed the reading for a mixed audience at ACT, where most people didn’t understand Spanish. Some people commented that they “switched off” during the long monologues, but to their surprise and delight, most people remarked on discovering that emotion transcends language and that they could actually follow the action. We then performed the same play for a group of ELL students at Shorecrest (not all of them Hispanic) and it was beautiful to see the students relate the bilingual aspect of the play to the dynamics they face at home when trying to communicate with the older generations.

As a teaching artist, I have done bilingual work for immersion programs and communities who don’t speak English. In this case, the bilingual aspect is purely practical and very much about access. It is about being able to deliver a service that these communities don’t access because of a lack of monetary resources, because of where their communities are located, and because they don’t speak English.

Maria: Do you see relationships building between non-Latina/o theatre companies and Latina/o companies in Seattle?

Arlene: Yes. ACT has been in partnership with eSe Teatro since 2011. This last year, eSe Teatro also entered partnerships with Theatre 22 and Washington Ensemble Theatre for their productions of Water by the Spoonful and Motherfucker with the Hat. Latino Theatre Projects is presenting Mariela in the Dessert in partnership with Theatre Off Jackson. Theatres are entering co-production models as a more affordable way of doing theatre. These cost-effective models, as well as the newly gained visibility of Latina/o theatre, have paved the way for these partnerships to happen.

woman on stage in front of a group of screens
The Passion as Told by Antígona Pérez by Luis Rafael Sánchez, translated and directed by Arlene Martínez-Vázquez. Javonna Arriaga on the role of Antígona. Photo by Marquicia Domingue.

Maria: What role has the Latina/o Theatre Commons played in local relationship building and in the local movement?

Arlene: Thanks to the genesis of the Latina/o Theatre Commons, eSe Teatro was inspired to do the Regional Pacific North West Latino Theatre Actors Auditions and we held a regional meeting in 2013. I think that, while “the movement” kind of comes and goes, as individual theatremakers are always too busy to be in constant communication, we are certainly more aware of each other and unafraid to call on one another when we need any sort of support.

To practitioners who don’t live here, I’d say that there is a need, a demand, and a hunger for Latina/o theatre here in Seattle, and that they should come here to Seattle to join their voices with ours and make a bigger impact.

Maria: Do you have any upcoming directing projects?

Arlene: Yes! I’ll be directing a short excerpt from one of Maria Irene Fornes’ play at the LTC Seattle convening in April, and I am currently planning a series of staged readings for this summer with my company, Thriving Artists. The series will allow our audiences to vote on which play they’d like us to produce next.

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Thank you, Arlene, for sharing your knowledge of the Latin@ theatre scene in Seattle! I can't wait to get to Seattle in a few weeks to connect with the local community and experience it first-hand!