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In its 38-year history, the GALA Hispanic Theatre has seen a lot of changes, both within the company and in the city it calls home. But one thing has remained unchanged, the theater's dedication to sharing Latino arts and cultures with its diverse audience.
Artistic director Hugo Medrano co-founded the theater in 1976 with his wife, Rebecca. GALA stands for Grupo de Artistas Latino Americanos, and that sense of cross-cultural unity is a big part of the group's identity. Medrano says the actors hail from countries all over the world, which accounts for the different accents audiences can hear during the theater's performances.
"We have guest artists from Spain, from Argentina, from Mexico, Venezuela, Peru," he says. "I mean we really try to reach out, not only in D.C., but reach out to other countries, because that's what we are: a group of Latin-American artists, and I think that's the essence of our peculiar kind of identity that we have in the city."
During the years, the company moved from theater to theater, before finally finding a permanent home in the historic Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights. The 1920s building had been repurposed for commercial use, but the Medranos saw an opportunity to buy part of the space and build their nest.
In the former mezzanine of the original theater, GALA built its stage. "It's very interesting," Medrano says. "It's a theater within a theater."
But acquiring the space wasn't easy. GALA had to come up with $4 million, and fast.
"We never were dealing with that kind of money or budgets, but we decided to go blindly and it was very successful," Medrano says. "We have a lot of help from the D.C. Commission on the Arts, the city, and other private foundations."
In its early years, Medrano says GALA focused on "serious" theater that required audiences to come in with a certain education and prior knowledge of drama. But he says there was a precise moment when D.C.'s Latino population started to shift, and GALA changed with it.
"Somebody had to keep in mind this huge audience of workers that they were not having any kind of outlet for entertainment or whatever," Medrano says, "so we thought about it and we tried to make programs that they will attract them and it will also help us to understand this new situation, this new society."
As more and more refugees fled from conflicts in Central American countries such as El Salvador, Medrano and the folks at GALA were confronted by a new target audience, and the question of how to draw these newcomers into the theater.
"They were much more kind of peasant community, much more interested toward the music than the theater in itself," he says. "So we had to accommodate our season to introduce some kind of plays that were much more musical-oriented, much more immediate community oriented."
But as GALA switched things up to reflect an evolving Latino audience, it also kept its English-speaking patrons in mind.
"We did theater in Spanish with simultaneous translation, through headphones at the beginning, and also we... did one performance in Spanish, the next day in English," he says. "We did also bilingual children's theater, which is simultaneous English and Spanish during the performance."
The theater eventually traded the headphones in for surtítulos, translations of the text that run above the stage.
A new play, Cabaret Barroco: Interludes of Spain's Golden Age, opens this week at GALA Hispanic Theatre. José Luis Arellano lives in Madrid, but came all the way to D.C. to direct the world premiere play.
He says that English-speaking audiences don't need the surtitles in order to understand Spanish-language plays such as Cabaret Barroco. "The plays speak about love, about passion, about jealousy, about truth, and I think it's the same language for all countries and for all of people," he says. "The language of theater is universal."
Celia Wren is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Washington Post. She's been covering GALA for several years and says even though she doesn't speak Spanish, it hasn't prevented her from understanding or enjoying the plays.
"A play is much more than a series of words," she says. "It's the visuals, it's lighting, the costumes, the scenic design, the movement, the stage composition, you've got the sound."
She says that those elements, combined with the actors' body language, facial expression and tone of voice, help communicate meaning in a way that bypasses language.
"I know that I've seen at GALA some productions where the visuals were so powerful that they made the hair at the back of my neck stand up."
She says American theater tends to be really Anglo-centric. But she predicts Spanish-language plays will be more common in the future.
GALA in D.C.
David Peralto co-wrote an original score for Cabaret Barroco with Alberto Granados. He says GALA is well known in Spanish theater circles, mainly because, in addition to presenting high-quality productions, the theater is one of the few venues bringing Spanish-language theater to an American audience.
"The lack of theaters that do plays in Spanish in the United States, it's amazing," he says.
Peralto says having GALA in D.C. is a gift that should be preserved. "To have a theater producing in Spanish in a country where there are 50 million Spanish speakers, it's a need, and it is something that you really have to defend and support," he says.
Medrano says that theater is an important vehicle for commercial, professional, philosophical, existential and political advancement. He says GALA has to be part of the fight for recognition.
"We still need to be recognized as Latinos, and as Latinos that not only create, but that give something to this country at the same time." He says. "I think that by keeping an image, keeping a very important presence in the capital of this country, it's important for Latinos at large."
Chilean actress Natalia Miranda Guzman is a cast member of Cabaret Barroco, her third play at GALA. The petite, curly-haired actress says the unique theater not only brings people from different backgrounds together on stage, but also in the audience.
"I've met ambassadors, people from the consulate, and at the same time, my friends from the cafeteria in front of the theater come to see me because... in between rehearsals I get to know them," she says. "Everybody comes here, and I think that's the power of this theater."
Before joining the GALA family, Guzman spent three years working exclusively with English-language plays. But she says there's something special about acting in her native tongue.
"When you come back to Spanish-speaking theater, I don't know, you get, you get... It's your culture, you know? You were born there. You just feel it differently," she says. "It's freedom."
Cabaret Barroco runs through October 6 at GALA Hispanic Theatre.
[Music: "Take Five" by Jorge Morel from 1960 to 1980 Recordings]
Photos: Gala Hispanic