2005 was a banner year for GALAas it moved into its long-awaited home at the Tivoli and became a permanent national Hispanic theater. 2006 marks GALA’s 30th year in existence as it celebrates its transition from Act One, as a groundbreaking yet somewhat nomadic theater, to Act Two, as a national center for Latino performing arts.
The following two-part article appeared in GALA’s “Home at Last” commemorative program book in January 2005.
In its nearly three decades, GALA has become what many consider the country’s leading Spanish-language theater, winning a loyal following and scores of awards. GALA has produced nearly 150 plays in Spanish and English and provided a diverse program of the theater (from classical to contemporary), poetry, music, and dance to a wide audience. GALA has cultivated relationships with actors in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Spain, Argentina, Cuba, Peru, Venezuela, and a number of other Latin American countries while providing a cultural focal point for the growing Hispanic community in Washington.
For founders Hugo and Rebecca Medrano, this is an exciting and momentous time, but they know many more challenges lay ahead. Hugo and Rebecca have been the driving forces all along, he is producing artistic director, she is the managing director. They’ve had dedicated and passionate help along the way, but they are the ones who have spent 29 years literally fighting for GALA’s life.
Flashback to the early 1970s: Argentine-born Hugo Medrano, who came to Washington after spending five years directing and acting in Spain, was working for Teatro Doble, a bilingual children’s theater. Performing out of Back Alley, a theater serving primarily African- American audiences and artists, Teatro Doble was Washington’s only theater catering to a Spanish-speaking audience. There was no other Latin American theater program in the city except for the occasional church-group performance or a special one-time event. Hugo saw a great need for a legitimate Spanish-speaking theater to fill this cultural void.
It wasn’t long before Hugo and his friends at Teatro Doble – including Rebecca Read, who came to Washington from New York City where she had been a dancer -- began talking about starting a theater of their own. Operating out of a townhouse in Adams Morgan, which had a bohemian, artist’s colony atmosphere at the time, it all came together in 1976. GALA – the acronym for Grupo de Artistas Latino Americanos – was born as a consortium of visual artists, writers, dancers, singers, musicians, and actors.
From the beginning, GALA had two goals: to bring Spanish and Latin American plays to the attention of the Spanish-speaking people in Washington; and to make the English-speaking public aware of the richness and variety of Hispanic theater.
With their very first play, La Fiaca by Argentine Ricardo Talesnik, Hugo and company confirmed what they already suspected: Washington was ripe and ready for a Hispanic theater.
“There was nothing like it, that’s why it fulfilled such an incredible need,” Rebecca recalls. “But the extent of it really surprised us. We founded this group, did the first show, then woke up the next day to a six-column headline in the Washington Post about our new troupe – without us even calling the press. It was a huge surprise to people that a Spanish language group all of a sudden did this great show and they wondered what was going to happen next. There was a real buzz and people just flocked to us. It was an exciting, spirited time.”
“It was obvious there was a need,” Hugo adds. “But there were also not as many theaters around. There were about eight groups then, now there are over eighty.”
Shortly after forming GALA, Hugo and Rebecca went to Argentina to marry. They traveled throughout the country to see as much theater as possible and gather information to use for GALA. They returned to Washington “inspired and ready” and modeled workshops after those they had seen in Argentina where groups of artists could work on, hone, advance, and combine their various skills.
“The Latinos who came to Washington at that time were often professionals fleeing dictatorships and oppression. They came here for human rights reasons,” Rebecca explains. “There were painters, artists, poets, writers who needed a place to express themselves. It was very rich for Hugo to be able to work around those people, to get feedback from them.”
Hugo agrees, “It gave us the reason to work in theater or in art because we had a very specific audience. We knew what they wanted. One of our themes in an early brochure was ‘You know who we are, we know what you want.’ We managed to capture their tastes, their needs. We could create a season that was immediately embraced by our audience.”
Unlike many areas in the United States, Washington has never been representative of one Hispanic culture. GALA’s principal audience, as well as its actors, have been Argentines, Mexicans, Spaniards, Chileans, Uruguayans, Paraguayans, Peruvians, etc. As a result, GALA has had to respond to issues and concerns of the Latino world at large. For GALA, the unification of its audience has been a paramount objective. “GALA is not Spanish, nor Argentine, nor Puerto Rican,” Hugo has said. “It is Latino in the fullest sense.” As such, each season GALA has included productions that appeal to a wide range of nationalities and backgrounds.
Selecting their plays has always been a challenge. Classics and musicals tend to draw a larger audience than contemporary plays by unknown writers. But they have always tried to present a variety of genres, theatrical styles, and themes while providing a comprehensive view of Hispanic theater. While some have labeled GALA as a political theater, Hugo maintains that they have never defined themselves as political.
From the beginning, GALA’s approach has been totally bilingual. For several years, most of the plays were presented in Spanish and English, sometimes back-to-back, sometimes on alternate days. As Rebecca recounts, “Many of the actors were bilingual, but it got confusing sometimes about which version we were doing. Occasionally an actor would come out and speak the wrong language. Or the audience would come to the wrong performance.”
“Because some of the actors couldn’t speak English,” Hugo says, “sometimes we would have one actor in the Spanish version, another in the English version. If the actors weren’t the same size, we needed two sets of costumes. We were dealing with two simultaneous productions of the same play. For one play, we even had two directors because one didn’t speak English.”
They eventually abandoned the alternating-language idea and have almost exclusively presented plays in Spanish, providing headphones with English translations. This season brings another switch; GALA plans to project surtitles, with the aim of enhancing accessibility and impact.
Hugo and Rebecca recount the memorable day they brought Joseph Papp, the renowned New York theatrical director-producer, to GALA.
“He was interested in seeing our production of La Casa de Bernarda Alba,” Hugo says. “We were at the Lansburgh Building -- where we had created a black box theater as part of a city-backed arts cooperative -- and that day the guards didn’t show up so we were locked out. The elevator was not working, the stairway was filled with trash, and the stairway lights were out. Fortunately, the lights in the theater were working so we could do the play, but the building was freezing cold.”
Rebecca adds, “The production he saw that day was in English. Joe Papp said he thought the actors were very good, but he would have preferred to see it in Spanish. So, I’m thinking… OK, we’re locked out, no lights, no heat, and we should have done it in Spanish!”
“But,” Hugo finishes, “he liked the play! We went to eat afterward and he invited us to perform this piece at the New York Festival Latino.”
While GALA began as a group of artists of various media, over time it narrowed its focus. Rather than trying to include all of the arts within its limited means, the group reorganized and developed into GALA Hispanic Theatre. The core group remained the same with Hugo and Rebecca at the center. In 1980 and 1988, two new members joined, both of whom were crucial to GALA’s evolution: Abel Lopez and Sonia Castel.
Abel Lopez, a fourth-generation Mexican-American/Chicano, spoke no Spanish when he joined GALA. Moving from walk-on actor to production assistant to associate producing director, he assumed a leading role at GALA, as well as in Washington theater and in the Hispanic theater on a national level. He remains a driving force at GALA today.
Sonia Castel came to GALA in 1988 as Public Relations Director. As the director of Teatro Doble, where Hugo and Rebecca met, and the only Cultural Director of Washington’s Latino Festival, she had been partly responsible for GALA’s genesis. Born in Panama to a prominent Sephardic Jewish family, and raised in England, Sonia was trained in professional theater and was passionate about her craft. At GALA, she broadened the audience to include all sectors of the Spanish-speaking public, Latino and otherwise. Sadly, Sonia passed away in 1991.
Unquestionably, one of GALA’s biggest challenges has been finding a home. It’s been a tough road: moving from Hugo and Rebecca’s Adams Morgan townhouse to the All Souls Church at 16th and Harvard Streets to the Lansburgh Arts Center at 7th and E (where the Shakespeare Theatre is now) to the Sacred Heart Catholic School in Mount Pleasant to the Warehouse Theater downtown. Fortunately, wherever GALA went, its loyal audience followed.
For Hugo and Rebecca, moving into a permanent home is a dream come true. “We were always in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Rebecca. “We have continually been on the frontier, on the fringe. At the Tivoli, we’re finally in the right place at the right time. It’s an area that is changing rapidly and that is one of the most dynamic and culturally diverse neighborhoods in the city. We couldn’t be happier.”
As they now focus on developing their art and growing audiences, Hugo and Rebecca look back on what they’ve accomplished. “Creating GALA was very exciting for me,” Hugo says. “I love the excitement of one production after another, creating the company, keeping the company alive with different productions.”
“With any growth and change, you’re leaving some things behind,” Rebecca says. “Some of the creative time is always lost when you have a huge project and you have to manage space. What we’ve been most excited about is the work. I learn something new every time a show opens, whether it’s about the background of that writer or the culture. There are so many different aspects to Latin American or Hispanic culture that are unknown or untapped. The plays, the music, and poetry have such a rich tradition. How can it not inspire you?”
“And the uniqueness of certain artists we present,” Hugo adds. With a lot of help and hard work, they have brought this rich and unique artistry to an eager Washington public for 29 years. Now as GALA takes its place in the Tivoli, it is not the end of the story, but rather the beginning of the next act.
GALA begins its second act in a beautifully restored, state-of-the-art theater it can finally call home. No more scrambling every few years to find a new space. No more wondering where they’ll be next. The folks at GALA can breathe a sigh of relief.
But that sigh of relief is only temporary. While having a permanent home relieves enormous pressure, it also creates a whole new set of challenges. GALA has much work ahead on both the business and artistic sides of the house.
After a fundraising campaign that raised more than $3 million, thanks to supporting from a wide range of government and private sector partners and individual contributors, there is still more to be raised for a second renovation phase that includes the historic dome restoration and office build-out.
Creating a National Center for Latino Performing Arts is a huge undertaking, but one that has long been the objective of founders Hugo and Rebecca Medrano. In 1982, Hugo stated in The Washington Post: “With adequate financial support, our goal for the future is to establish a national Hispanic performing arts center that will unify us while at the same time recognize the diversity within our cultural heritage.” A year later, he said he envisioned building a small Kennedy Center for Hispanics. “It’s going to work,” he said. “GALA began as a cultural center. We’ve had to abandon that recently to concentrate on theater. But we will go full circle for all the Hispanic arts.”
Today Hugo says, “It is time for the nation’s largest minority to have a theater that honors and celebrates our rich dramatic tradition.”
With its expanded facility, GALA plans to diversify its programs to include film, concerts, dance, presentations by other arts groups, and provide opportunities for outstanding Hispanic artists from across the nation and abroad. They hope to attract local, national, and international audiences and visitors as GALA attains an increasingly national profile.
Hugo and Rebecca look forward to creating artistic networks and exchanges, expanding on what they’ve done in the past. They will bring together artists of different disciplines, with more groups and individual artists from across the United States and Latin America. They plan more residencies, exchanges, and symposiums and will focus on development and outreach, specifically geared to the Latino arts.
Hugo plans to launch an annual festival of Hispanic American artists where theater groups can show their work. “That would create a particular audience and attract national press and interest in general,” he says.
“The Latino media still do not consider Washington a prime market,” Rebecca explains. “So our artists who are incredibly talented get overlooked. They ask, ‘How are we going to get discovered?’ And I now say, ‘That’s what GALA-Tivoli is for!’ When we get national exposure, our artists will get national exposure. That’s part of what we owe them for working so hard and staying with us, rather than going to New York, Miami, or Los Angeles.” GALA’s inaugural season at the Tivoli features a mix of style and themes, with the classic Lorca play Yerma, the contemporary Poet in New York, and an English-language version of the comedy Real Women Have Curves, presented with Spanish subtitles.
One improvement they are already making is eliminating the headphones used for translation. Often problematic, the headphones are being replaced by projected surtitles intended to enhance accessibility and impact.
Hugo and Rebecca are excited about bringing GALA back to Columbia Heights and look forward to working with the community. Many people from other parts of the city will be visiting the neighborhood for the first time, creating a sense of excitement that’s been missing for more than 30 years. For long-time neighbors of the Tivoli, it will be a welcome return to a once-dynamic cultural venue.
"GALA’s programs will also bring audiences to the inner city from the suburbs, revitalizing the Columbia Heights neighborhood and encouraging economic growth and development," says associate producer Abel Lopez. "We are confident that GALA’s space will attract more private and public support to both the theater and the neighborhood, thus enhancing the lives of a great many underserved Hispanic and African-American families."
“I see our Act Two as a challenge with potentially dangerous waters,” Rebecca explains. “Sometimes you expand so much that you dilute your mission. I think that part of our success so far is that we have never lost sight of our mission – to preserve and promote Latino culture through the performing arts – and we must stick to that and not get distracted. The question is, as that population changes, what do they want to see?” Hugo adds, “We have to work specifically on our programming to meet the needs of the community as it changes, as well as our traditional audience. This will require careful selection of plays and groups to make it successful.”
Hugo and Rebecca remain deeply committed to their core audience. And if history holds true, their audience – that followed them to many locations throughout the city for the past 29 years – will remain loyal to GALA at the Tivoli as well.