Interview: Off the Track’s Artistic Director Juan Parada on Teatro en Español
by Oscar Basulto
There is a great energy surrounding Off the Tracks Theater Company. Artistic director, Juan Parada’s optimism is evident when you speak to him about it. And with good reason. Off the Tracks is the result of the right combination of artists coming together to create their own space to play and create. It is home to a committed group of teatristas whose unique trajectories converge in an industrial strip of El Sereno. They are ragtag in the best sense of the word.
Parada recently sat with us to talk about his company and agreed to answer some questions for us as well:
Describe your theatrical training.
I have a BA in Theatre Arts from Cal State Long Beach and an MFA in Acting from CalArts. As an ensemble, Off The Tracks has had some of the most incredible teachers from Latin America: Pepe Acosta (Mexico), Jesus Castanos-Chima (24th Street Theater), Teresa Ralli (Yuyachkani), Jorge Folgueira (FITLA), Patricia Ariza (La Candelaria), Aristides Vargas (Malayerba), Angel Norzagaray (Mexicali a Secas). These teachers helped inspire our work and lead us to create our own ensemble.
When did you know you would become a theater artist?
When I was laid off from my corporate job in 2006. I took a year off, stopped working full time and decided to just do theater. It was amazing! I also decided to return to school and finish my undergrad. This time, however, I knew exactly that I wanted to study theatre. I took it a step further, more like 20 steps further in my world, and got my MFA.
What lead you to start Off the Tracks?
We began Off The Tracks because we always dreamed of having our own space to create, explore, triumph and fail. For many years we were nomads rehearsing wherever we could find a place (Churchs, parks, garages, back yards, living rooms). Not that it was a bad thing, as it forced us to become creative within the space we worked in. We found a stable rehearsal space at a neighborhood Methodist Church in South Whittier where we developed our first “creacion colectiva” 13:20. “La Iglesia,” as we called it was a great place to work in, however we felt limited as to the type of work we could explore within the grounds of the church. Having nuestra casa has opened up new possibilities to explore.
How is Off the Track’s mission unique compared to other theaters that serve the Latina/o community? How does your mission help shape the makeup of your ensemble and the works you will be producing?
We are a “grupo,” an ensemble focused on creating, producing and presenting Spanish Language theatre. We are in many ways just like other companies trying to do what we love, we just do it, mostly, in Spanish. Spanish Language works strengthen the group because we know there aren’t many companies doing this, especially in the mainstream. It also gives us a cultural identity to be proud of. Language and culture go hand in hand. We can’t escape it and when we lose the language well… I believe we lose part of the culture and develop a new one.
What challenges do you face as a company that focuses on Spanish language work?
One of the biggest challenges we have is getting reviewers to review our work. Mainly, I believe that has to do with offering Spanish language only shows. The reason we [did] supertitles for our current production, Our Dad is in Atlantis, [was] to get more people to see and hopefully, talk about our work.
Also, the community is slow to come to the theater and we haven’t quite found the key to bring them in. It is obvious that there is a need, there is an audience for it, but we need to show them the value that theater has on their lives. When we do this, that audience fills our seats.
Finally, we have the same challenges other companies have: little resources, little money, lots of work. We wouldn’t be doing theater if it were any easier.
Latinas/os are deservedly proud of the rich cultural and linguistic diversity of its community. Describe how this diversity helps to fulfill your mission. What challenges does it pose?
We have many stories to tell, from many different people. How we narrow things down is always a challenge. Do we tell stories of the immigrant experience or do we talk work conditions in factories? Narrowing things down is the most challenging. But, we have come to learn it usually happens naturally. The more work we do, the clearer the stories we want to tell become.
What type of community programs/ outreach are you planning to compliment the works you will be producing?
This is a tough question as we are still developing our community outreach program. A few things that we are doing and will continue to do is to offer low-cost adult acting classes, Folklorico classes for kids, and of course we will always offer low cost tickets for the El Sereno community to any of our shows. We also have our Dia de los Muertos dinner and show, and the Mother’s Day program that attracts many of the community members.
Given Los Angeles’ demographics, why do you think more theaters are not producing works in Spanish?
I don’t really know to be honest with you. It’s almost taboo, right? There are some obvious challenges such as where to find high quality successful Spanish language plays and or translations?
It’s difficult to reach out and market to this community. Most Spanish speakers are worried about the financial cost of attending a live theatrical performance and don’t see the value in live theater. TV and Film does such an incredible job at making folks feel that they need the product and the payoff will be immediate. Whereas in theater it takes a bit, there’s more work for the audience to do such drive to the theater, become an active participant, make a reservation, talk about the play. Art is a lot of work, but so important.
I also believe that most companies have an established audience who is expecting certain kinds of work and most of them are not Spanish language. That’s why this is an exciting time for Off The Tracks. We are a new company and that gives us a chance to educate and develop our audiences.
Also, again, getting reviewers to talk about the Spanish language work is pretty challenging.
What are some of the productions that are in the works at Off the Tracks?
In the works are: Opening September 6 and running through Sep 21 is Nuestra Senora de las Nubes by Arisitides Vargas. A poetic story about the many kinds of exiles our society faces.
In October we will be workshopping our first English language production called Leaving written in Spanish by Luis Ayhillon and translated by Daniel Jaquez. It’s the story of three men, 2 who are fighting for one position within the company, and the man who has to decide which one stays and which one goes. It’s a commentary on corporate life. We will have two workshop performances October 23, 24.
Our Dia de los Muertos event is happening, of course, on November 2. This is an intimate dinner with our dead. Imagine that?! [It’s] a free event for the community.
In 2014 we will revisit El Jardin de los Reyes, which we developed when we were Teatro Apolo. Also, our annual Mother’s Day show in the Spring. And we will end the year with a production of Luz Negra by Salvadoran playwright Alvaro Menedesleal. It’s a hilarious story about two men who have recently been executed. Their heads have been cut off and now they are trying to figure out if they are alive or not. We are also developing an adaptation of the Glass Menagerie to be produced early in 2014… Dates are TBD.
Where do you see Off the Tracks 10 years from now?
I see it as a major company employing theater artists of all kinds. I see the ensemble traveling through out the world sharing our work and teaching our method of creacion colectiva and continuing to do some great provocative work in Spanish.