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Beauty in Latinidad: Miracle Theater's Olga Sánchez creates memorable works

“Working within an ethnically identified theater really resonates in my heart,” says Olga Sánchez, the artistic director of Miracle Theatre Group’s MainStage and Bellas Artes companies. “That’s where I’m from, that’s where my blood is.”

Inspired by performances she witnessed while traveling in Latin America, Olga joined Miracle five years ago. Miracle Theater Group is the Northwest’s premiere Latino arts and culture organization, and presents Latino theatre, arts, and cultural experiences for both urban and rural audiences.

Olga took center stage this fall in Miracle Theater’s production of “Mariela in the Desert.” In early 2007, she directed the critically acclaimed “Frida, un retablo.” Her directorial work has been seen in Seattle, New York City, Martha’s Vineyard, Peru, Venezuela and Cuba.

This year, Olga’s contributions to theater were recognized through her appointment on the board of directors of Theatre Communications Group, a national organization that represents nonprofit theaters across the country. CoI caught up with Olga to discuss the board appointment and her work at Miracle Theater.

Why is the appointment significant?

Miracle is the only ethnically identified theater in the Northwest that is represented on TCG’s board of directors. Through the appointment, TCG is truly seeking to represent and serve the broad range of American theater. As an ethnically identified theater, we’re doing work that the majority of theaters in the country don’t do. As a smaller company, our concerns are also different.

For TCG to make sure that voices of smaller theaters are heard at the table is really wise, and speaks highly of the organization. TCG is looking to ensure the health of smaller theaters, knowing that we’re part of the larger ecology of American theater and important in the development of the art form. They want to make sure that the definition American theater covers a broad spectrum. I hope to be able to speak on behalf of companies that operate like us.

Why is the work of Miracle Theatre important?

The company was founded 23 years ago by Executive Director José Gonzales and Dañel Malán, artistic director of Teatro Milagro. Their impetus to focus on Latino theater and culture came out of their hearts, out of their history, their experience and passion for the culture, and the desire to share it.

As artists, we want to create excellent experiences that reflect the beauty and frailty of the human experience. We want to illuminate our audiences about Latino culture and history, and create works that move people with a visceral, passionate experience.

Being ethnically identified, we also work on bridge-building or demystification. Popular media presents images that are narrow and often negative, images that oversimplify the Latino experience. As we know, Latino culture is a very broad field. We have many different nations and cultures, and cultures within nations. These cultures have a variety of influences: indigenous, African, Spanish, and European. There’s so much diversity within Latino culture all over Latin America and the United States.

The history of Latin America and the history of Latinos in the United States are vast and complex. For audiences that don’t share that experience, it’s especially important to shed light on the diversity of experience. As our communities continue to change, we’re also working to build understanding with our new neighbors.

For the Latino community, Miracle provides an opportunity for creative expression. In the mainstream media, and even in our communities, there aren’t a whole lot of positive expressions. In many cases, there is no avenue for expression of the diversity of our cultures and experiences. There are stark differences in experience, for example, between folks from Puerto Rico and Cuba, even though both countries are in the Caribbean. It’s really different, coming from Northern Mexico, Southern Mexico, even if it’s Mexico. It’s important for us to be very respectful of these nuances, honor our heritage and reflect back images of beauty.

We’re not trying to sugarcoat anything or say that our people are perfect. And we believe that there is value in beauty, in Latinidad. At the same time, we provide a political and social forum for many issues faced by the Latino community. Issues like discrimination, social services, bilingualism, biculturalism, indigenous issues, and immigration issues. We’re the only theater in the area that is presenting and addressing those issues.

What accomplishments make you most proud?

Longevity. In theater in general, being around for this many years is remarkable, especially for an ethnic theater. The theater has consistently grown: 23 years of positive momentum. So many new works have been created by our company.

How does the theater address societal issues with its programs?

The fact that we’re doing ethnically identified theater automatically puts an aesthetic and sociopolitical lens on the work. We’re coming from an ethnic point of view. We’re really careful about picking our season – the mix of productions. How are we addressing what’s going on?

One example is this year’scarpa del ausente, which was presented during the annual El Dia de Los Muertos Festival (Day of the Dead). Way back when, carpas were the people’s theater. People didn’t have time to stop what they’re doing middle of the day, so theater came to them by way of a Vaudeville traveling show. In addition to being raucous and wild, the message is also often very political.

In 2006, our carpa focused on immigration issues. This season our carpa honored soldiers, as a commentary on current conflicts. The setting was in the 1940s, during World War II. We want to move the art with the message.

In early 2008, we will present Zapatista, a work that seeks to illuminate the issue of indigenous rights in Mexico. The message has to do with post-modern revolution, which is now being handled on the Internet and through blogs. Word about revolution is getting out electronically. People are aware of what’s going on in their communities and able to be more proactive.

What aspect of your work do you find most fulfilling?

Working with youth is insanely fulfilling. We have a program called Pluma Nueva – writing and performance workshops for bilingual students from all over Portland. It’s always extremely exciting, watching the kids grow their own faith and sense of power through the process, then get up there and perform their original works.

Opening nights are incredibly rewarding. Everybody churns and churns, and works so hard to get to that opening night. The whole process is one of questions. You’re creating something that doesn’t exist. The whole event of creating a new show: there are so many variables that are coming together, often for the first time.

It’s like creating this big meal with many people, and you’ve never done the recipe before. Yet, by opening night – it all comes together and you find yourself in union with an audience that’s embracing the work. That’s an incredible feeling.

Winter 2008



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QUOTABLES

"We want to illuminate our audiences about Latino culture and history, and create works that move people with a visceral, passionate experience."

"Popular media presents images that are narrow and often negative, images that oversimplify the Latino experience."

"We’re coming from an ethnic point of view. We’re really careful about picking our season – the mix of productions. How are we addressing what’s going on?"

 

 

Scenes from Mariela in the Desert

 

 

 

 

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