The Washington Diplomat / March 2004
By Larry Luxner
After 28 years, Washington's leading venue for Hispanic performing arts will get its own home — thanks to the generosity of area Fortune 500 companies, individual donors and the embassies of half a dozen Spanish-speaking countries.
Abel López is chairman of the board of directors at Washington's GALA Hispanic Theatre (whose name is formed by the acronym Grupo Artistas Latinoamericanos)
He says the project, to cost $3.3 million in its first phase, will consist of a state-of-the-art, 275-seat complex in the Columbia Heights neighborhood that will present theatrical, music and dance productions in both English and Spanish.
"We view this not only as a home for GALA but also as a national performing arts center for the Latino community, because we present lots of U.S. and international artists," he said. "In addition to our own productions, we'll host other companies such as the Washington Performing Arts Society. We'll also add a film series, working with the Washington International Film Fest and the Americas Film Festival."
GALA was founded in 1976 by Argentine-born Hugo Medrano and his wife Rebecca, who's currently editor of Américas, the official bimonthly magazine of the Organization of American States.
López, who grew up in Texas, joined GALA four years later. Since its establishment, GALA has produced over 100 plays in Spanish and English (and at least three dealing with Brazil in Portuguese).
"When I came to the theater, I didn't speak Spanish," López recalled. "I didn't even know they performed in Spanish."
At the time, he says, there wasn't a single theater in Washington putting on plays for the city's Hispanic population.
"The other stages in Washington were producing hardly any art from Latin America, so we filled that need," said López, who in 1991 received a Helen Hayes Award for distinguished community service. "Within a few years, we began to focus on theater, although GALA continued to present music and poetry, and would always exhibit the work of visual artists."
Typical of GALA's productions is "La Dama Duende," which opened Feb. 5 and runs until Mar. 7. The comedy, translated as "The Phantom Lady," was written by Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca and is being supported with funds from the Embassy of Spain. It's performed in Spanish, with simultaneous English interpretation through headsets.
Medrano, who won a 1994 Helen Hayes Award for his portrayal of a gay window dresser in "Kiss of the Spider Woman," says he's very excited about GALA's latest move. "We'll stop being gypsies and will finally have our own home," he told the Diplomat. "We'll be much more comfortable in our own theatre instead of doing whatever the theatre owners want us to do."
In addition, he said, Columbia Heights has a dynamic cultural mix. "Our new neighborhood is much more varied in terms of who lives there — black Americans, Latinos and gays — so it's a very interesting barrio that is itself in a process of change."
GALA started out life in a Georgetown church, then eventually moved into a townhouse in Adams-Morgan. It then moved downtown, to a location at 7th and E Streets — current site of the Shakespeare Theater — and from there to Sacred Heart Church at 16th Street and Park Road.
"We stayed there for 16 years, until the diocese needed the space back, so we moved to the Warehouse at 7th and New York Avenue," he said. "At the same time, we began to realize that it was important to us — particularly as a Latino arts organization with a recognized history of artistic excellence — to have a home to secure our future. After 25 years, it was time for the next generation of Latino theaters to have a foundation from which to work. And that's when we began to seriously look for space to develop."
Construction at the new site, located at 14th and Park Road, will begin this spring, with the work expected to be finished by year's end. The theatre is rising on city-owned land. In addition to the Tivoli Square project being developed by Horning Brothers, the complex will also boast a Giant supermarket, 23 townhouses and 96,000 square feet of retail and office space.
At the moment, said López, over $2 billion is being invested in capital projects aimed at elevating cultural life throughout the Washington area. In addition to GALA, these projects include the Kennedy Center, the Studio Theatre and Strathmore Hall.
"We've been very fortunate to secure the support of major foundations," he said, naming as major donors the Eugene & Agnes Meyer Foundation, the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, the Sprenger Lang Foundation, the Corning Family Fund and various individuals.
Target Corp. is also kicking in $250,000 for programming, with significant amounts of cash also coming from Citibank, the Dorsey Whitney law firm, the Mexican Cultural Institute and the Embassy of Spain.
Help is also coming from famed Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno, says López.
"Rita came to a GALA production 12 years ago and was so impressed that she wanted to help us in some way. So she served on our board of directors for a time," he said. "We have maintained contact with Rita. She agreed to serve as our honorary chair for this campaign to build a theater."
In addition, the city of Washington has awarded GALA a $500,000 grant for the project, and its Office of Latino Affairs will kick in $56,000 toward educational programs.
"We believe this theater will not only be a postiive economic investment but more importantly an investment in the community. Many embassies have been very generous with funding throughout the years," he said, singling out for special recognition the embassies of Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Peru and Venezuela, as well as the Cuban Interests Section.
"One of our desires is to encourage the embassies to support our campaign, because we bring so many artists from Latin America, and we believe this is another opportunity for these embassies to receive more visibility," he said. "We have had exchanges regularly with Venezuela, Mexico and Argentina. This season we will be bringing artists from Uruguay. Every season we bring new actors and directors."
For example, said López, GALA recently sponsored the stars of Cuba's award-winning film "Fresas y Chocolate" (Strawberries and Chocolate), Vladimir Cruz and Jorge Ali. Last year, the theatre brought a Chilean set designer to Washington, and for many years has had an active exchange with the Teatro San Martín in Caracas, Venezuela.
Once it moves into its new home, GALA will increase its annual budget from the current $700,000 to around $1 million. It'll also be add two or three more staffers; at present, GALA has four full-time employees. Theatre officials haven't yet decided whether to raise ticket prices, which currently run $20 and $28 depending on seating.
For more information, contact GALA at the Warehouse, 1021 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20001. Tel: (202) 234-7174. Internet: www.galatheatre.org.