An Interview with Playwright, Erlina Ortiz

I can’t believe that nearly two months have passed since I saw Las Mujeres, a captivating play by Erlina Ortiz, which premiered at Power Street Theatre Company in Philadelphia.

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Cast of Las Mujeres. Photo by Corem Coreano

I caught up with Erlina with some interview questions. These are her responses.

Deslumbrar: When did you know you wanted to be a playwright? How did that come about? 

Erlina Ortiz: The first time I proudly introduced myself as a playwright without feeling like a fraud was two years ago. I had been accepted into The Foundry, a Philly Playwright’s collective and for me that meant I was an official playwright now. I have always been a writer. When I was a little girl I would staple pieces of paper together and make little books. When I was in middle school I would come home from school everyday and plop in front of our family computer and commandeer it for the whole night while I worked on my ‘novel’. I still have that book I wrote and you know what, it is not that bad. My secret passion however had always been performing. I wanted to perform. Stage, film, tv, it didn’t matter. I loved assuming characters and getting that possessed feeling. My best path for this was Temple University. It was the only school I applied for and met a few important criteria for me; multidisciplinary program (I knew I needed to be a well-rounded artist and not just an actor), in a big city with lots of theatre going on, and relatively affordable compared to my other options. I had a fairly good experience at Temple, I wouldn’t take it back. However, I soon felt the sting of exclusion in my theatre department. At the most diverse university in the country I was one of 3 Latina’s in the department, and I soon realized that there was very little opportunity for me to showcase my talent on a Temple stage. The shows were either always an almost all white cast, or there would be the one ‘black show’ which I of course wasn’t right for either. I was stuck, and I realized as soon as I started seeing more shows in the city that the problem was not limited to my university. Around this same time I was taking a playwriting course. I found a strange power in writing my own characters. It was like acting, getting possessed by these voices that demanded to speak through me. It was more fun even because I wasn’t limited to one character. I got to be all the characters! A little while after that I was approached by Power Street Founder Gabriela Sanchez. Gaby told me she was starting a multicultural theatre company and I was like UM YES. So I joined, and I started writing the characters that I had so longed to see on stage. I started writing the stories that I thought mattered to my people, and the rest is herstory.

Deslumbrar: Tell me about your experience writing “Las Mujeres.” When did you start? What was your inspiration? etc.

Erlina Ortiz: Las Mujeres was quite the journey. I actually wrote the first one act version of it when I was a senior at Temple yet. It was the first piece of theatre I ever wrote to be seen in front of an audience. I was president of Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, Inc at the time so I was able to rent space and hire a few of my friends to present it (something I was not able to do through my theatre department). It was not very good, but it was a great experience writing, casting, directing, producing etc and I knew that there was a lot of potential. I remember telling myself, one day you will produce a full length version of this play when you are a better writer. About 2 years ago I mentioned this to Gaby and she was like, OKAY, LET”S DO IT. So, I got to work on re-writing it as a full length piece, and Gaby got to work finding grants that would support readings of the play as it progressed. This was essential to the process and so helpful having clear deadlines with the goal of a production coming up. The inspiration for the piece is hard to remember since it was so long ago. It had mostly to do with me being angry at my theatre department and being like OKAY I’m going to do my own thing and I’m gonna write 6 Latina’s so ha! Later… As I researched the women I was writing about I felt an intense urgency to tell their stories. When I picked the play back up to rewrite it 2 years ago, I knew that I wanted it to be about what it means to be a Latinx Woman in 2018, and the sacrifices that women have to make to survive in male dominated work spaces. I wanted to educate people on the true lives of these courageous women, and I wanted my audience to see themselves in them and be inspired to take action. I hope I accomplished those things!

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Cast of Las Mujeres. Photo by Corem Coreano

Deslumbrar: What writing projects do you have coming up?

Erlina Ortiz: Currently I am working on a piece with Pig Iron Theatre called The Caregivers. This is a community based project led by Nell Bang-Jensen starring real life people who are taking care of ill loved ones. It is a story that does not get told, and it has been so beautiful being in the room with these big-hearted people. I am also working on a project with Power Street called Hidden Disabilities. I have Crohn’s disease, and other PSTC members have hidden disabilities as well. We wanted to break the stigma around these topics and offer an experience to our audience to consider what their own hidden disabilities are, or that of the person next to them. Both of these projects are premiering in June. I am also writing the book for a musical called Silueta about a Cuban- American immigrant and a Syrian- American refugee living together as roommates in NYC during the year 2016. I am so excited about all of these projects!

Deslumbrar: Describe your role in Power Street Theatre Company. What are goals of the company, and what plans are in store for the future? 

My role in the company is multifaceted. First and foremost I am Resident Playwright. So, I’m always writing with Power Street in mind. I am also artistic director, so I help plan out our seasons with Gaby, and am independently always thinking of ways we can meet the companies artistic vision. I am also an administrative member. We are small so we all play A LOT of roles. I help with grants, I make connections with artists we may want to work with in the future,  I represent Power Street wherever I go. We just had our three year planning meeting and I’m so excited for what’s to come! Gaby Sanchez quit her full time job for the start of this year to focus on Power Street, one of the main reasons Las Mujeres was such a success. We want to keep growing, at a reasonable pace so we can learn as we grow. We want to keep producing dynamic and important theatre in North Philly. We want to continue touring to universities and schools. We plan on starting two adult classes, one in playwriting, one in performance, within the next year (grants pending). Eventually we want some type of structure to call our Home.

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The altar that community youth made for Las Mujeres. Photo by Corem Coreano

Deslumbrar: Erlina, Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I’m sure readers out there are grateful too! For more information about Power Street Theatre Company, and upcoming productions visit their website:  https://www.powerstreettheatre.com/

 

Edna Santiago: Painting Puerto Rico!

No hay mal que por bien no venga is often translated in English as “Every cloud has a silver lining.” This is the expression that came to my mind as I conversed with Puerto Rican artist Edna Santiago at her recent exhibition “To Print or Not To Print” at DVAA (Da Vinci Art Alliance) in Philadelphia.

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Santiago was compelled to start making art after the death of her only son, 11 years ago.  She worked for 40 years as a physical therapist as well as tending to her family, so art was put on the backburner. But after her loss, she began painting and proceeded to experiment with different media. Today Santiago specializes in printmaking, painting, and crafting lampshades from gourds. She maintains a studio and gallery in Puerto Rico, but is moving back to the Philadelphia area for most of the year, due to the recent storms and damage in Puerto Rico.

I saw some of Santiago’s work in person at DVAA. She is inspired by the sea, by the nature and people of Puerto Rico. I love her prints, which follow a long tradition of woodcut prints in Latin America. She showed me one of her plates made out of a softer material than wood. We discussed how important it was to determine the values (darkness and light) in a print. Santiago sometimes adds color to her prints–this happens  in the printing process itself or she paints a “finished” print.

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Santiago is upbeat, optimistic and inpirational to me as an emerging visual artist. She said that we  might not realize what talents we have inside of us that haven’t yet manifested. I was impressed by her printing technique and knowledge, and her creativity wih the lamps. Her paintings of people communicated tremendous feeling and those of Puerto Rico’s landscape were enchanting and unique. Santiago has several exhibitions/showings coming up in the Philadelphia area. The next one is at the Mainline Art Center on May 5, 2018 in the Spring Craft Show. For more information on her exhibitions and art please visit her website: http://www.ednasantiago.com

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