Last week GALA Hispanic Theater opened its world premiere production of “La Foto (A Selfie Affair),” written by the contemporary Venezuelan playwright Gustavo Ott and directed by Abel López. It is about relationships in the era of social media and explores how two families are affected by a photo that goes viral on social media, raising questions of responsibility and privacy.
Hola Cultura spoke with López about directing “La Foto”, his experience with contemporary plays, Latino-themed theater, and arts advocacy. He is GALA’s Associate Producing Director and an advocate for the arts, not just in Washington but nationwide, as the chair of Americans for the Arts, and several other national organizations.
“Who is a victim when something goes viral and who bears responsibility?”—Abel López, director “La Foto (A Selfie Affair)”
The plays you direct seem to have contemporary themes and explore issues that resonate with U.S. Latinos. How do you select the plays you direct? What is it like to direct contemporary plays?
I usually start with identifying playwrights whose work is addressing questions and themes facing society today. I like to read several plays by a playwright and see how they speak to me and identify ideas of interest to me; to explore more deeply with a group of other artists, actors and designers. I also look to see how the playwright poses questions that are universal, for it allows me to explore commonalities and differences among people today.
Although the structure of the language may be different from classical plays, I still like to analyze patterns and rhythms in a contemporary play that define the world of the specific play I choose to explore. I also like the urgency and directness of a contemporary play that may make it more accessible for audiences.
What do you think contemporary audiences are looking for in Latino-themed theater?
As with most audiences, they want to see themselves in the stories they see and how the themes of the play relate to them.
You have directed four other plays by Gustavo Ott. What has that been like? Did it make it easier for you to direct “La Foto (A Selfie Affair)”? How has the reception of GALA’s audience been in the past?
I have truly enjoyed working on all of them because each of the plays dealt with issues and characters to whom we could all relate. Although the stories may have appeared simple, the characters in the plays were multi-faceted, complex, and trying to deal with life. In addition, each story is told with humor, which allows one to tackle more serious subjects with an audience.
I don’t know if having directed several of Gustavo’s plays makes it easier. I may be more familiar with the way he approaches dialogue, its pace, and his use of humor, but there are still challenges indirecting each of the plays.
GALA audiences have responded well to Gustavo’s plays because they could identify with the characters and their situations. I think women have responded particularly well because many of the female characters in Gutavo’s plays are empowered during the course of the play.
The play seems to explore interactions with social media across generations. How did you approach the play and transmit this on stage?
I tried to show how characters of different generations demonstrated their familiarity and ease with which they used social media and apps. We also used projections to demonstrate how easy is to share information through social media and scenic elements that reflect a technological world.
There were several issues raised in “La Foto” that I wanted to explore, such as privacy and relationships in an era of social media. Who is a victim when something goes viral and who bears responsibility? What are the consequences of such an action? The characters allowed me to explore different perspectives on these questions without judging them.
What made you leave your legal field to go into theater? How has your background in the legal field helped you in the theater and arts scenes?
After I moved to Washington to practice law, I studied theater. In that process I discovered my creative side and how satisfying it was to explore and develop that part of myself. It was very challenging but I found that I could address issues of social justice through the arts as I could through the law. Working in theater and the arts also allowed me to experience, appreciate and learn about the diverse Latino cultures in our community and the rich cultural traditions that have existed for centuries. Unfortunately, I had little access to these cultures and traditions through our nation’s educational systems.
I have been able to apply the critical skills I developed in law school to the analysis of plays and to the business side of the arts and theater. Moreover, I think my legal skills have made me a better advocate for the arts in our communities and nation.
You hold or have held top posts in the Americans for the Arts; the Board of Governors of the Helen Hayes Awards; the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, among other local and national arts advocacy groups. What has this experience been like and what trends do you see in Latino theater scene in Washington?
Being involved with these and other arts service organizations has helped me appreciate and advocate for the importance of the arts to the vitality of communities and the nation. I have also learned of the necessity for the inclusion and equitable participation, promotion, and support of people, artists and organizations of diverse cultures in the nation. For it is that diversity that informs, shapes and defines the evolving arts in America.
I think that we will see more plays by Latino playwrights produced and more Latinos reflected in casts and staffs of organizations across the country. It is time for Latino stories to be told as part of the American story, even as we continue to acknowledge and honor the root cultures.
What would you recommend to other aspiring artists who are currently in a different field?
To follow your north star and what brings you happiness and still allows you to be active in civic life.
“La Foto (A Selfie Affair),” in Spanish with English surtitles, continues through Feb. 25 at GALA Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights.