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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/FLIP PUTTHOFF Fernando Valdez (left) sings in Spanish June 13 while on stage with Damian Dena during a rehearsal at Northwest Arkansas Community College.

Rogers resident Damian Dena studied to become an actor in Texas and played roles traditionally filled by white people -- Dracula, for example -- despite his brown skin and Hispanic ethnicity, he said.

He said he wants to see that become the usual method of casting in Arkansas so Hispanic performers could play any character.

"I've seen that [colorblind casting] works, and it gives the next generation something to look up to," Dena said.

The Hispanic population in Northwest Arkansas continues to increase, leading to more interest in Latino-influenced theater, said Joe Randel, senior programming officer for arts and culture in the Walton Family Foundation home region program.

"I think with that growth in the population at large and in the region, the demand for culture and arts is going up," Randel said.

The LatinX Theatre Project and Hamlet Grupo de Teatro are two groups striving to meet the demand by gaining nonprofit status and applying for grants with the Walton Family Foundation.

The LatinX Theatre Project developed in late 2016 as a group that would bring light to issues prevalent in the Hispanic community and in the community as a whole through performing arts, said David Jolliffe, executive director. Founders decided to use LatinX as a gender-inclusive term for Latinos and Latinas.

As of July 2017, 16.8 percent of Washington County's population and 16.7 percent of Benton County's population were Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The NWA Council's most recent diversity report predicts the Hispanic population in Springdale will grow from 36.4 percent to 39.6 percent by 2022.

Onstage Diversity

Joining the LatinX Theatre Project allowed Dena and other locals to create and perform plays that reflect their diverse experiences in Northwest Arkansas, company members said. Most of the group's performers identify as Latino or Latina, and characters are based on the actors and actresses, increasing visibility for Latino performers not often seen onstage.

The Actors' Equity Association, a U.S. labor union representing stage managers, actors and actresses, reported that of approximately 43,891 members who disclosed their ethnic or racial identity, 2.9 percent identified as Hispanic.

Dena studied theater at the University of Texas at El Paso and earned his master's of fine arts in drama from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. In El Paso, most of the student performers were Latino, so he did not feel restricted by his appearance, he said. Dena said people at the University of Arkansas are open minded, but he thinks his brown skin restricted him from being cast in some roles.

Michael Riha, chairman of the UA theater department, said his staff members take a colorblind casting approach except in productions sensitive to race such as A Raisin in the Sun, which chronicles a black family's struggle with poverty and racism in the 1950s.

"Our policy has and will always be to cast the most talented and most appropriate [actor or actress]," Riha said.

The majority of the pool of student actors are white, limiting opportunities to present a racially and ethnically diverse cast, Riha said.

Dena enrolled at the university in fall 2013 when 75.2 percent of theater students identified as white and 9.7 percent identified as Hispanic and any race, according to UA enrollment reports. In the 2018 spring semester, 76.4 percent of theater students identified as white and 8.5 percent identified as Hispanic and any race.

Educational Approach

Martin Garay, an actor with LatinX Theatre Project, thinks participation in theater among the Hispanic community is low because of a misconception of what theater is, he said.

"I feel like we, in the Latino community, are not exposed to theater the way that [we] should be," Garay said. "We're shown Shakespeare and taught that's the only way theater should be."

The Walton Arts Center partners with schools through the Colgate Classroom Series, which allows students to attend shows for a $2-$5 ticket cost to the school, said Sallie Zazal , learning coordinator for the Walton Arts Center.

Performances vary to include elements of dance, theater, puppetry and world music, according to the Walton Arts Center website. The 2017-2018 series brought a bilingual children's show to the Arts Center of the Ozarks in Springdale, Zazal said.

About one-third of Springdale schools are registered, but Zazal hopes that involvement grows in the upcoming season, she said.

Garay and Sativa Vela, an actress with the LatinX troupe, graduated from Springdale High School in 2017 and agreed the school lacked diverse roles in its theater program, which discouraged them from pursuing theater, they said.

Garay would have liked to play characters more like himself, he said. Vela struggled to relate to the characters and wanted to explore more complex characters as opposed to some that felt childish, she said.

The Hispanic student population at Springdale High School makes up at least half the student body, said Rick Schaeffer, communications director for the school district. Linda Button, the high school's theater teacher, has spoken with a Mexican theater company member about finding age-appropriate plays that appeal to the Latino community, and they found it difficult to find any, Schaeffer said on Button's behalf.

The LatinX Theatre Project's original scripts develop by using devised theater, which involves a collaborative process between the playwright and other company members, said Ashley Edwards, project playwright. Edwards writes the script using lines written by the actors and actresses and also derives inspiration from listening to their interactions, she said.

"With the LatinX theatre, I've gotten to play myself," Vela said. "I've gotten to have my own voice."

The group has performed three original productions at various venues and events, including the Bentonville Film Festival. Vela rapped about President Donald Trump and "kids who have dreams but no resources" during the company's most recent performance at the Arkansas New Play Festival, she said.

Ricardo Cardenas, a producer for local radio station La Zeta 95.7, said language can hinder Hispanic actors and actresses in the U.S. Born and raised in El Salvador, Cardenas learned to act in Centro Nacional de Artes school before he moved to Virginia with his family in the early 2000s, he said. Cardenas later got a radio job in Nashville where in 2006 he established a Spanish-speaking theater group, Hamlet Grupo de Teatro. He reestablished Hamlet Grupo de Teatro in Springdale when he moved to Arkansas in 2015.

The group of about 25 people, ranging in age from 6 to early 60s, rehearses two to three times each week. Cardenas does not require performers have prior acting experience or speak Spanish to join, he said. He only asks that they be on time, commit to learning and show improvement.

Rogers resident Pita Amor had some theater experience in Mexico and joined to act again in Spanish, she said.

Establishing A Lasting Presence

Hamlet Grupo de Teatro productions rarely focus on the local Hispanic community or current events, Amor said.

"In my opinion, the people need to enjoy the theater," Amor said. "I want people to enjoy, be happy and let go of stress."

Cardenas, Amor and Rogers resident Betty Salas will perform in the next month's production of The Vagina Monologues, an episodic play about sex and femininity. Their July 6 show will be invitation-only, but if the show is well-received, they hope to open additional shows to the public, Cardenas said.

Part of the Walton Family Foundation criteria for funding an arts organization requires a wide range of programming that provides greater community access to the arts, Randel said.

Cardenas registered his group as a nonprofit April 30 and is working through the process of applying for a Walton Family Foundation grant, he said. Ticket sales cover the majority of costs for venues, costumes and paying performers, but occasionally he must make personal contributions, he said.

"If you get something left after everything, then that's a plus," Cardenas said.

The LatinX Theatre Project received money from the University of Arkansas Brown Chair in English Literacy and various sponsoring groups to start the organization in 2016, as well as two grants from the Walton Family Foundation through the Arts Center of the Ozarks. The center serves as a fiscal agent in the development process, said Kathleen Trotter, executive director of the center.

As the LatinX Theatre Project approaches its third season, project leaders are working toward establishing an independent structure and finding financial support to sustain the organization long term, Edwards said. They are also planning to expand outreach efforts in the fall by performing at more community events and visiting Springdale High School and other schools in the area.

Dena views Northwest Arkansas as progressive and hopes that as Latino representation in local theater grows, the LatinX Theatre Project will be seen as a vital part of the artistic community, he said.

"We are just artists, but we are Latinx as well, and we have a pride in that," Dena said. "I think that the more the community sees what theater could be, it'll bring them in."

NWA Democrat-Gazette/FLIP PUTTHOFF Savannah Vaughan plays guitar June 13 while Martin Garay raps a song.
NWA Democrat-Gazette/FLIP PUTTHOFF Cast members Fernando Valdez (from left), Alex Nillson, Sativa Vela, Damian Dena and Svannah Vaughan rehearse June 13 at Northwest Arkansas Community College.

NW News on 06/24/2018

Print Headline: Latino performers seek representation in local theater

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