Margaret Cortese is not a professional actress. That is, she does not make a living by pretending to be people other than herself. She is, by trade, a psychologist — has been for almost 30 years. But act she does. As a founding member of Teatro de las Americas, the 15-year-old Spanish-language theater group currently based out of the Petit Playhouse in downtown Oxnard, Cortese has appeared in 13 plays, portraying everything from maids to mother-in-laws. And sometimes, her vocation and her avocation intersect, often in ironic ways.
“I was in a play about seven years ago in which I go nuts,” Cortese says. “What I’m doing is, I’m onstage and I’m saying, ‘Loca, loca, loca,’ walking in a circle. For a year or two after that, I would see people on the street, and they’d see me and say, ‘Loca, loca, loca.’ I tell you, I think I’m more fulfilled and happier when I’m recognized on the street for my acting than I am for my psychologizing.”
Acting, however, is something Cortese has not been able to do as much as she would like lately. Since she took over as executive director of Teatro de las Americas, her energy has been consumed by the behind-the-scenes operations involved in running a small, independent theater company: choosing plays, raising funds, overseeing production, doing publicity. And now, with the group hoping to finally find a venue of its own, the time she has to spend pretending to be someone else is likely to diminish even more.
“It is not easy to do community theater,” she admits. “At least, I have not found it easy. Maybe the English-language theaters find it easy, though I seriously doubt it.”
Actually, there might be some truth to that. Although Cortese says the situation has improved, the amount of art in Ventura County aimed at the Latin American demographic remains disproportionate to the number of residents for whom Spanish is their first language, creating extra hurdles for a group like Teatro de las Americas other local theaters may not have to deal with.
And in 1992, when Teatro first came together, that was even more the case. The group began, unofficially, at the Santa Paula Theater Center (SPTC) in 1992. Wanting to appeal to the area’s large Latino population, the theater’s founder and artistic director Dana Elcar came up with the idea of alternating between languages for a single production: English one night, Spanish the next. Thus, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House became Casa de Muñecas; Cortese was recruited to play the role of the nanny, Ana Maria. It turned out to be a huge success. But when Christina Aerenlund, then the SPTC’s stage manager (now public information officer for the City of Oxnard), suggested following up with Mexican playwright Emilio Carbadillo’s Rosa de Dos Aromas (Rose of Two Scents), about two women unknowingly married to the same man, Elcar wavered, calling the play “too risqué.”
“We figured, ‘Well, if we’re going to do the plays we want to do, we just have to do it ourselves,’ ” Cortese says.
At that point, Aerenlund, Cortese and the rest of Casa de Muñeca’s cast and crew left Santa Paula, and for the next several years, the fledgling group was essentially homeless. They bounced around the county, from the Camarillo Airport Theater to Oxnard College to the Livery Theater in Ventura, performing plays from Latin America — such as Federico García Lorca’s Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding) — and European classics translated into Spanish, like Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (or La Importancia de Llamarse Ernesto). Like Cortese, the actors were culled from the community at large, from every walk of life — farm workers to college professors. (One early participant, Armando Rey, has gone on to become a member of the Screen Actors Guild.)
Finally, in 1996, the group struck a deal with the Elite Theatre Company allowing Teatro de las Americas to put on two productions per year at the Petit Playhouse, a 19th century Victorian mansion in Oxnard. Their choice for a debut was obvious: Rosa de Dos Aromas.
Ending their nomadic period, the group was able implement an essential element of their vision: translating Spanish plays into English and projecting super-titles above the stage, broadening their audience to include those who would not have otherwise understood — and thus not attended — their productions. “What inspires us are two things: the love for the art, and the desire to share this rich tradition with the whole community, not just the Spanish-language community,” Cortese says. “Doing translations is part of our commitment to try and make this accessible to the whole community.”
It took a while to smooth out some of the kinks, however.
“In the beginning, the super-titles were hysterical,” Cortese says. “We would do them with an overhead projector, the old fashioned kind. We would type it up, put it on a transparency, slice it in half, make it a roll and pull it through on a little window, so sometimes it would be shaking. And actors have the unfortunate habit of sometimes jumping lines, so we’d go back and forth looking for the translation. About four or five years ago, we got more technologically advanced and bought a digital projector. That’s been marvelous.”
Even after entering the digital age, however, some things still do not quite survive the leap across the language barrier. For last year’s production of ¿Dónde vas, Rámon Castillo?, for example, Cortese was faced with converting a bawdy, pun-filled sing-along between two drunken characters. “I just had a heck of a time translating it,” she says. “In Spanish, it has, ‘She lifted her skirt,’ and then this next line had, ‘let go a big fart.’ But the way it was done, the first line you have the first syllable, pe, and you think you’re going to get pedo, which is ‘fart,’ but below it, it has pedazo de pan — a piece of bread. So she didn’t let go a big fart, but that’s the pun. Translating that was impossible. I tried really hard. I think I said ‘farthing,’ but who’s going to know what that is?”
Over the last decade and a half, the group has presented plays from Chile, Peru, Venezuela, Spain and Cuba, as well as Spanish works from the United States and translations of A Streetcar Named Desire (Un Tranvía Lllamado Deseo) and Taming of the Shrew (Domando la Fiereza). But the recently completed run of Argentine writer Carlos Gorostiza’s Los Prójimos (The Neighbors) may be the group’s last production at Petit. After 15 years, Cortese feels it is time for Teatro de las Americas to get its own place.
Of course, that takes money, and Cortese is in the midst of a fundraising campaign. And so far, it is going well: She says the group has received “a fair amount” of private donations from theater aficionados, from $1 up to $1,000. She has also approached local businesses and arts foundations for grants. She wants the group to stay based in Oxnard, but if they cannot find a theater come September, Cortese says Teatro will return to its itinerant roots, performing a series of one-acts around the county. Eventually, she hopes the group’s spirit of theater without borders can spread even further.
“I was in Spain about 15 or 20 years ago. I spent about three weeks in Madrid, which is a wonderful theater town. And the first night we went to the theater, we’re sitting there, and all of a sudden, it’s in English. It was a Yale traveling repertory doing The Stag King,” Cortese says. “To me, the internationalism that shows is something I think this country needs to have as well.”