Monday, November 18, 2019

Three Questions for Erlina Ortiz

Erlina Ortiz is a Dominican-American playwright, performer, and theatre maker from Reading, Pennsylvania, and now based in Philadelphia. She graduated with a BA in Theatre from Temple University. Ortiz’s plays address gentrification, domestic violence, and rape culture and have been produced with Power Street Theatre where she is a resident playwright. She is a member of New Pages, a professional writer’s group with Azuka Theatre Company, and an alumna of The Foundry at Playpenn. Ortiz is the recipient of the Amtrak Writer’s residency and the Signal Fire Outpost Residency. Her play She Wore Those Shoes had a developmental reading at Theatre Exile’s Studio X-hibition Series.

In 2018, Ortiz’s play, Las Mujeres, premiered with Power Street Theatre to sold out houses and rave reviews picking up a Bonaly Award for Creation of Community Joy. This spring, her play, Morir Sonyando, was nominated for six Barrymore Awards. She teaches with University of the Arts, Power Street Theatre, and Blue Stoop. Despite a very busy schedule, Ortiz kindly agreed to answer a few questions for La Bloga.

DANIEL OLIVAS: On your website, you proclaim: “I believe that everyone has a voice no matter age, race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation. I believe being an artist is a super power. I believe in using my powers for good.” Can you talk a little about this artistic statement of purpose and how you define “good”?

ERLINA ORTIZ: Doing good to me in this moment means leaving this world better than how I found it. We can get overwhelmed with all the problems of the world and it's easy to feel like doing art is the least important thing we should be focusing our energies on. But in my statement, I make it clear that being an artist is a super power. Making people feel things, making people think things they haven't before, encouraging people to take action based off a painting or piece of writing is incredibly powerful.

And if you believe that all people, whether you have anything in common with them or not, deserve to have art in their lives either as consumers or creators or both from the moment they are born until the moment they die, if you believe this would make our world an infinitely better place, then you believe what I believe.

DO: Your play MinorityLand that was produced this fall at the Power Street Theatre Company explores gentrification and how people come together to preserve their community. Gentrification is a serious, existential crisis for many communities across this country, and your play would resonate as much in my home of Los Angeles as it does in your city. How did you develop this play and what do you want audiences to “get” from it?

EO: This play was created with my resident collective Power Street. It was our first show and much of what solidified the mission for Power Street. I had been asked to join by its founder and now my very good friend Gabriela Sanchez. We had paid to be in the Philly Fringe, and rented space, but we had no show. We did a casting call basically letting people know we had no money, but if they wanted to come create something amazing with us, if they had ever felt like a “minority” and wanted to share their story to come to a meeting. A good number of people showed up. From that group we created the show. I took on the role of playwright and director. I guided the actors into creating their characters and shaped the story. It was thrilling. I had just graduated from Temple University so I was putting all my skills to the test. I also did the lights for that show actually.

Power Street has hosted nine community conversations through our outreach program Communidades Conectadas, so I know that what people “get” out of the show is a wide range. The overarching message is that all these very different people come together to support each other against injustice. But for our predominantly Latinx participants gentrification was just the backdrop to bigger issues of privilege, sexuality, identity, forgiveness, and what defines a community.

DO: You are a playwright, director, actor, and educator. How do you integrate these different roles into your life, and do you identify more strongly with one role over any other?

EO: I've always been a multidisciplinary artist. Growing up I always entertained myself by writing stories, I directed my brothers and friends in skits and sketches, I starred in the high school musical. So I always knew that I didn't want to just do ONE thing. I like Temple for that reason, because I felt I could learn a lot about theatre in general beyond acting which was my original concentration. Playwright has been where I have gained the most traction, I think because it is the thing I have the most control over, and because I've had my resident collective behind me presenting and helping me develop my work.

But I think I'll be happiest if I can cycle through doing all the things I like to do. If I'm in a show I have a great time and then I'm over it and I can't wait to direct something then I can't wait to teach, but underneath it all I'm always writing. And I think doing all these other things makes me a better writer as well. I learn a lot from my students, I learn a lot being on stage. I won't write a role I wouldn't be excited to play, and I won't write a play I wouldn't be excited to direct.

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