Understanding Theatre as Service, Part One
Olga Sanchez Saltveit is the artistic director emerita for Milagro Theatre, the Pacific Northwest’s premier Latinx arts and culture organization, following her service as the company’s artistic director from 2003 until 2015. She is now also assistant professor of theatre at Middlebury College. Shayna Schlosberg is the equity leader at Oregon Public Broadcasting and moved to Portland, Oregon last summer after many years in Houston, Texas. These two leaders have spent their careers in service of the Latinx community. In this first part of their two-part conversation, they speak about their differing experiences living and working in the Pacific Northwest, how they came to their work, and the experiences that are still with them today.
Olga Sanchez Saltveit: Was there a moment when you knew this is the field you wanted to be in?
Shayna Schlosberg: My mom is a Mexican folkloric dancer. The arts were a big part of my childhood. It became a space for me to feel seen. I'm half Mexican, half white Jewish, so I don't fit in a lot of spaces. I couldn't name what I was experiencing as a kid, but in hindsight it was a lack of belonging. Theatre really became a community where I found freedom of expression. That was what drove me into a career in theatre, wanting to stay connected to that kind of community.
Olga: I loved being on stage and I loved the theatre. My family didn't go to the theatre. We didn't go to see dance or go to the museum. My parents were immigrants, so that wasn’t the kind of thing that they did in the United States. In elementary school, the best thing that could happen for me was the school play. It didn't matter if I was in it. I just was like, "When is the play?" I remember in the second grade I was playing this cat, and my tail fell off. My teacher was so happy that I kept going. It just kind of made me feel like, "Oh, my instincts were right." It was the best thing in the world. The theatre program was canceled in high school, so my friends and I decided to put on a play anyway: Waiting for Godot.
Shayna: Oh my God.
Some people make shoes and some people bake bread and some people make theatre. I consider it a necessary part of society.
Olga: Yeah, right? When I went to college, I thought, "I speak Spanish at home, and I'm studying French, so I'll go into languages because that makes sense.” But I took an acting class and went, "Oh no, this is what I want to do with my life." I remember telling my dad I wanted to major in theatre. He said, "How are you going to make a living?” I said, "I don't know, but I know it's done. I know that people do it, so I'll just try to figure it out."
In New York, I started a theatre company with friends. A friend of ours was working for a real estate person, and they had access to a building that was one of those $1 a year rents because it was basically gutted. So we went in and took down bricks and made a theatre. It was a hot and gritty summer. As I was doing that work, I thought, I’m not into theatre because of the applause. It needs to be about service. I continue to frame it as, some people make shoes and some people bake bread and some people make theatre. I consider it a necessary part of society.
Shayna: Absolutely. That resonates with me.
Olga: I think theatre is a calling because it's not a guarantee of any kind of wealth or fame or anything except maybe some happiness.
How did you begin to focus on Latine theatre?
Shayna: My mom pushed me to be aware of the heavy hitting Latin American writers. If there were ever opportunities to engage with Latine theatre, I was there. I sought opportunities out, even though they were few and far between. I became more focused after I moved into an administrative and producing role in my career. I was working for the large regional theatre in Houston, Texas, which at the time didn't have an adequate amount of programming to serve the Latine audience there. When I was hired in a general management position, I made it clear that this is work that I was interested in doing, something that I saw was missing from the theatre. The managing director was on board with that. In some ways it was great because I was a young emerging administrator and general manager, but it was a bit of a double-edged sword because I found myself doing two or three jobs. Because I cared, right?
I was one of the few there paying attention to this community. I learned a lot about community engagement and building programs for audiences that haven't felt welcome in predominantly white theatres. But it was a lot of hard work and a lot of tough lessons learned.
Olga: I'm so proud of you, that you would have a powerful job and the that you would use that power for good.
I went to Hunter College and was majoring in theatre. It was all very Eurocentric, and I didn't think there was a space for Latine theatre. It didn't cross my mind. One day a person in the advanced directing course asked if I would act in her scene. She was a Spanish speaker as well, and she wanted to do Federico García Lorca’s La casa de Bernarda Alba in English and in Spanish. I thought, "Yeah, sure. I could do that." As we rehearsed, things would turn up for me when I did the scene in Spanish. A flood of tears would emerge. It was just this big moment of seeing myself in the mirror.
Olga: Then I moved to Seattle, Washington. One of my first gigs was at the Seattle Group Theatre, which is now defunct. It was a multicultural-identified theatre founded by Rubén Sierra, one of my mentors, may he rest in peace. I was in this reading of a play called Harvest Moon by José Cruz González, and it was pretty much an all Latine cast. After that project, one of the actors who played the grandfather, José Carrillo, may he rest in peace, was like, "You know what we should do? We should form some kind of a company." I'm like, "Yeah, let's do it." We formed Seattle Teatro Latino, and suddenly I was Latine enough.
That the work was not only important because it was joyful and it was serving a community, but that it was also a statement of belonging within the larger framework.
I had acting training and I had directing training, and I had done some dramaturgy. I had helped birth new plays in New York City. I had sketch comedy. I had clown. I could translate all of that into the work we were doing. By that point, I had joined a writer's group that was Latine identified. It was called Los Norteños. Nothing to do with the gang, just of the Pacific Northwest. We produced a bunch of readings. Most of the people were prose writers. They were novelists, short story writers, fiction writers, journalists. There was a screenwriter. They wanted to know about more about dialogue. We created this project called Una Noche de Liberación for Cinco de Mayo. The writers from Los Norteños wrote ten-minute one acts. The actors of Seattle Teatro Latino were the actors.
I remember there was a moment when we're in rehearsal, and someone was like, "We're not perfect.” One of the writers took me aside and he said, "You don't understand. This has to be perfect. They're watching us." Like here I was kind of enjoying myself, right? But there were political consequences to this act.
I hadn't experienced that in New York. This was a person who had come out of the farmworker life. He was very, very clear about oppression, about second class citizenship, all of these frameworks. Suddenly something clicked about the importance of the work. That the work was not only important because it was joyful and it was serving a community, but that it was also a statement of belonging within the larger framework.
Ultimately, I got this opportunity to go to Memphis, Tennessee, for a gathering among theatremakers of color. It was about diversity. This is in the nineties. We went around the circle. and they asked us to talk about our oppression, a time when we felt oppressed or discriminated against. And I couldn't think of one. Not because there were so many, I literally just did not have a moment where I felt like I was being targeted for my identity. So they kept going around the circle, and suddenly I just burst into tears. I realized that I had discriminated against myself because of my Latinidad, because I didn't see it as of value. I realized that my mission at that moment became to do my best to not allow another young person to grow up feeling like they were “lesser than” because of who they were. I felt was that the best place for me to do that in was within Latine theatre because that's where my tools were.
Shayna: That’s beautiful.
Olga: Another thing that influenced my work the was my Master's in Human Development with a focus on bicultural development. The program’s focus was peace and anti-bias. How do we create spaces of anti-bias? I was working with a group of people who wanted to create a thing called La Casa de Artes, which would've been a multidisciplinary cultural arts center focused on Latine arts and culture because there wasn't one in Seattle. We were all volunteer. We had a board. We did a lot of programming. So how do we create spaces that support our efforts and also build bridges to the community? It was where I began to understand systems of oppression.
I walked out of that with a mission toward courage.
When I was invited to become artistic director at Milagro for the main stage program, I was filled with this way of understanding the work that I was doing now. It was both an opportunity to do art but also understand why I was doing this art and how I was doing this art, engaging with our audiences, and engaging with the larger Portland community.
It was so influential to my understanding why, how, where, what the spaces were, the dramaturgy. I was invited to participate in artEquity's Women of Color in Leadership program. I walked away from that with both a sense of shared concerns and, ultimately, the word “courage.” I walked out of that with a mission toward courage. So not only do I have the tools with which to create change, but how do I step up? How do I make sure I always step up?
Shayna: That's such a rich journey. Growing up in the United States, the way we find our paths through the industry is such a personal and professional journey. That personal journey, that personal path towards acceptance and celebration and ultimately liberation, is such a crucial part of the story. It's a gift to be able to hear you share this.
Olga: I don't think that we can divorce our experiences with our identity from our choice to focus on our identity.
Shayna: It's very personal. There are so many similarities, too, which makes me feel more connected to you. And then it frustrates me. It’s upsetting that we have to experience that.
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