In 1999, the Latin Arts Association of Fort Worth was born. In 2003, it got a permanent home when the historic Rose Marine Theater on the North Side was remodeled. Since then, the organization has presented programs of music, dance, film, festivals and visual art in its theater, gallery and outdoor plaza. But theater has had a rough road.
For a while, there was Teatro de la Rosa, which attempted some experimental work (such as Peter Brook's The Conference of the Birds) and tried to revive the Hispanic Playwrights Festival, which began in the 1990s at the now-defunct Fort Worth Theatre. But the group found its successes in more family-friendly, traditional fare. Then theater producitons at the Rose Marine went on hiatus, not long after the Latin Arts Association's name was changed to the more culturally relevant Artes de la Rosa.
Then came Adam Adolfo, a Corpus Christi native and Stephen F. Austin University graduate who had worked professionally in Ohio and Arizona, and had some administrative experience. He started as executive director, and then moved to the title of artistic director when the organization hired Jorge Varela as executive director in May 2011.
Adolfo has created buzz for the group's programming, which includes a new Latino Film Festival and the return of live theater. In the 2010-'11 season, Adolfo also introduced the American Classics Initiative, in which the group, over five years, will revive masterpieces of 20th century American theater with a Latino spin.
It began last year with Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, moved to a Florida plantation with a Cuban-American family. The series continues with Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge, which opens Artes' 2011-'12 season on Friday. In Adolfo's version, the characters of Red Hook in Brooklyn, New York, are not Italian immigrants. They emigrated from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
Artes' new season, by the way, has twice as many theater productions as last season (to four, from two), with an ambitious lineup that includes a contemporary play, a Latino take on a Greek classic (Sophocles' Electra), and a "tango operita."
TheaterJones talked to Adolfo about his plans for theater at the Rose Marine, what he has already accomplished and what he hopes to bring to the table.
TheaterJones: You've been at Artes de la Rosa for two years, and the second season for the theatrical arm is about to start. What kind of shows are you looking for when building a season?
Adam Adolfo: We're trying to tap into that young urban Latino quality. What does the modern Latino look for? We are proud and humbled by the dedication of the tried-and-true demographic—the older, family-based, North Side community; but it's now about trying to attract the younger demographic that doesn't always come to us. In another year, I hope to do a full-fledged opera, a new opera; and bring back Shakespeare, too. We're looking at something very traditional Latino, in the "tortilla lady" family, but we're looking for it in different places and in the names we haven't heard.
We're trying to do things that tie that demographic into our history. I'm proud of this season because I think it's the most balanced season we've done in a long time. "Balance" is a big word in our programmatic world.
Our first year with me here we were trying to determine voice, scope and style, and stop thinking like a community theater and behaving like a professional theater.
The Rose Marine is an interesting venue. It has the type of sterile, proscenium stage that many theater directors don't like to work on. It's somewhere between a big performance hall and a small, black box space. What have you learned about it?
I've learned to make it work and I feel much more at home in it than I did a year ago. It has limitations, but it does offer great acoustics, and there's a sense of scope. In what is a rather intimate space we can do some large things.
Where did the idea for the American Classics Initiative start?
It came from me being a frustrated actor. I would audition for shows like Death of a Salesman…and then it dawned on me that there was no family for me to be put into. In high school and middle school, I remember feeling that things like Glass Menagerie and Death of a Salesman and Our Town were old, white people theater. That was not theater for me.
But they're great plays. I didn't know how to access them for me. I hit upon the idea, 10 years ago, that I wanted to do an all-Latino Death of a Salesman, and I held onto it. This is before there was the all African-American Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway. With that success, it re-sparked that idea.
Is that why you did Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as the first one?
I had no intention of Cat being one of them, because I have an idea of what the five classics will be in my head, although they change every day. In the reviews [of Broadway's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof], they said it was interesting, but there was no open acknowledgement of the culture in the show. You can't do that in all shows, you have to find which ones lend themselves to it. They're called a classic because of their universality; it transcends the period and its locale. So we started looking at themes that are very Latino themes.
I thought the first would be Death of a Salesman set in an Arizona border town. These classics all have this sense of detachment from the community around them, in terms of the immigrant aspect.
Cat hit us because we wanted something about a family. Family in crisis was a big deal. Also, the fact that there was homophobia, which is something we don't talk about in the Latino community. It's not discussed in the play, either, but it's hinted at. The idea of a dying patriarch—Latino families are very patriarchal. Big Daddy was a worker who achieved success, and there's the idea that Latinos come here and work hard and build something.
What are the other plays you want to do?
We'll do a [Eugene] O'Neill and a Kaufman and Hart comedy—we weren't sure we'd be able to find a classic comedy that would work—and we may revisit Miller, because I still want to do Death of a Salesman. It was the inspiration for what we're doing.
How did you decide on A View From the Bridge?
I wanted to direct something about immigration. I don't care about the politics, I wanted something about how it affects families. I have been in A View From the Bridge myself. One night, it was 11:30 p.m. and I picked it up and started reading.
The immigrants of the play are Italians. [Our verson is] the same setting, same period. In researching Red Hook, 1957, there were four dominant ethnic cultures. Italian was predominant, and then there were Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Irish. We're treating them as Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. They were jumping from an island, much like Sicily. They were leaving places that were poor and had government dictatorships. We do a lot a research, because we want to be historically accurate.
We made great strides in researching and in the process, we found out that there was a famous production of View done in a Dominican setting that Arthur Miller approved, in the early '80s, in Washington, D.C. Miller had been very proud of it. He had worked with the director, and there just minor changes.
Does switching the ethnicity change anything fundamental with the play?
The ethnicity changes delivery. [The lines in] Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in a white [Southern] family came off with a drawl and were slow. In a Latino family it was rapid-fire. We do occasionally drop lines in Spanish. I go to the certified Spanish translation scripts to find it, to stay true. With Miller, we've done very little to it, just changing the ethnicity.
Aside from the ethnicity change, how are you approaching the play?
The thing I kept hearing as a critique was of Miller, of him using the lawyer as a Greek chorus in a kitchen sink drama. So we're treating it like Greek theater. What Miller has written is with larger-than-life characters. They're massive, and if you don't give them a world to inhabit that equals what we want in the performance, something will seem out of place. I want the grandeur of opera with the scope of Greek theater.
Visually it will look like Greek theater? Or is that the performance style you're going for?
I'm doing the performance style. I've staged a modern Greek theater piece siphoned through Arthur Miller. There are moments that are very Greek, and moments that are realistic, and I've allowed them to flow in and out of each other. He was attempting to define a sense of the common man as the tragic hero. He wasn't writing about kings and gods, but about a longshoreman, and his tragic fall was just as great as Electra's.
At the end of the day, it's a story about a family in crisis. Would you betray your family for the one you love? The immigration is just a backdrop. This is the perfect show for us right now. It has nothing to with Mexican border crossings, but it's about us wanting to be part of the American dream. For immigrants, the American dream isn't about becoming rich. It's about coming here and working. People want to work. No one's asking for it to be easy. They want the opportunity.
◊ You can also read Mark Lowry's feature on Adolfo and A View From the Bridge in DFW.com.