Argentine-born Hugo Medrano, who came to Washington after spending five years directing and acting in Spain, was working for Teatro Doble, a bilingual children’s theater. Teatro Doble was Washington’s only theater catering to a Spanish-speaking audience. There was no other Latin American theater program in the city except for the occasional church-group performance or special one-time event. Hugo saw a great need for a legitimate Spanish-speaking theater to fill this cultural void.
It wasn’t long before Hugo and his friends at Teatro Doble – including Rebecca Read, who came to Washington from New York City where she had been a dancer -- began talking about starting a theater of their own. Operating out of a townhouse in Adams Morgan, which had a bohemian, artist’s colony atmosphere at the time, it all came together in 1976. GALA – the acronym for Grupo de Artistas LatinoAmericanos – was born as a consortium of visual artists, writers, dancers, singers, musicians, and actors.
From the beginning, GALA had two goals: to bring Spanish and Latin American plays to the attention of the Spanish-speaking people in Washington; and to make the English-speaking public aware of the richness and variety of Hispanic theater.
With their very first play, La Fiaca by Argentine Ricardo Talesnik, Hugo and company confirmed what they already suspected: Washington was ripe and ready for a Hispanic theater.
“There was nothing like it, that’s why it fulfilled such an incredible need,” Rebecca recalls. “But the extent of it really surprised us. We founded this group, did the first show, then woke up the next day to a six-column headline in the Washington Post about our new troupe – without us even calling the press. It was a huge surprise to people that a Spanish language group all of a sudden did this great show and they wondered what was going to happen next. There was a real buzz and people just flocked to us. It was an exciting, spirited time.”
“It was obvious there was a need,” Hugo adds. “But there were also not as many theaters around. There were about eight groups then, now there are over eighty.”
Shortly after forming GALA, Hugo and Rebecca went to Argentina to marry. They traveled throughout the country to see as much theater as possible and gather information to use for GALA. They returned to Washington “inspired and ready” and modeled workshops after those they had seen in Argentina where groups of artists could work on, hone, advance, and combine their various skills.
Unlike many areas in the United States, Washington has never been representative of one Hispanic culture. GALA’s principal audience, as well as its actors, have been Argentines, Mexicans, Spaniards, Chileans, Uruguayans, Paraguayans, Peruvians, etc. As a result, GALA has had to respond to issues and concerns of the Latino world at large. For GALA, the unification of its audience has been a paramount objective. “GALA is not Spanish, nor Argentine, nor Puerto Rican,” Hugo has said. “It is Latino in the fullest sense.”
From the beginning, GALA’s approach was totally bilingual. For several years, most of the plays were presented in Spanish and English, sometimes back-to-back, sometimes on alternate days. As Rebecca recounts, “Many of the actors were bilingual, but it got confusing sometimes about which version we were doing. Occasionally an actor would come out and speak the wrong language. Or the audience would come to the wrong performance.”
“Because some of the actors couldn’t speak English,” Hugo says, “sometimes we would have one actor in the Spanish version, another in the English version. If the actors weren’t the same size, we needed two sets of costumes. We were dealing with two simultaneous productions of the same play. For one play, we even had two directors because one didn’t speak English.” That is why they eventually abandoned the alternating-language idea and have almost exclusively presented plays in Spanish, providing headphones with English translations.
While GALA began as a group of artists of various media, over time it narrowed its focus. Rather than trying to include all of the arts within its limited means, the group reorganized and developed into GALA Hispanic Theatre. The core group remained the same with Hugo and Rebecca at the center. In 1980 and 1988, two new members joined, both of whom were crucial to GALA’s evolution: Abel López and Sonia Castel.
Abel López, a fourth generation Mexican-American/Chicano, spoke no Spanish when he joined GALA. Moving from walk-on actor to production assistant to associate producing director, he assumed a leading role at GALA, as well as in Washington theater and in Hispanic theater on a national level. He remains a driving force at GALA today.
Sonia Castel came to GALA in 1988 as Public Relations Director. As the director of Teatro Doble, where Hugo and Rebecca met, and the only Cultural Director of Washington’s Latino Festival, she had been partly responsible for GALA’s genesis. Born in Panama to a prominent Sephardic Jewish family, and raised in England, Sonia was trained in professional theater and was passionate about her craft. At GALA, she broadened the audience to include all sectors of the Spanish-speaking public, Latino and otherwise. Sadly, Sonia passed away in 1991.
In its first three decades, GALA became what many consider the country’s leading Spanish-language theater, winning a loyal following and scores of awards. GALA has produced nearly 150 plays in Spanish and English and provided a diverse program of theater (from classical to contemporary), poetry, music, and dance to a wide audience. GALA cultivated relationships with actors in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Spain, Argentina, Cuba, Peru, Venezuela, and a number of other Latin American countries while providing a cultural focal point for the growing Hispanic community in Washington.
For founders Hugo and Rebecca Medrano, this was an exciting and momentous time, but they knew many more challenges would lay ahead.
Unquestionably, one of GALA’s biggest challenges was finding a home. It was a tough road: moving from Hugo and Rebecca’s Adams Morgan townhouse to the All Souls Church at 16th and Harvard Streets to the Lansburgh Arts Center at 7th and E (where the Shakespeare Theatre is now) to the Sacred Heart Catholic School in Mount Pleasant to the Warehouse Theater downtown. Fortunately, wherever GALA went, its loyal audience followed.
For Hugo and Rebecca, moving into a permanent home would be a dream come true. With a lot of help and hard work, they had brought this rich and unique artistry to an eager Washington public.
As GALA took its place in the Tivoli in 2005, it was not the end of the story, but rather the beginning of the next act. “At the Tivoli, we’re finally in the right place at the right time. It’s an area that is changing rapidly and that is one of the most dynamic and culturally diverse neighborhoods in the city. We couldn’t be happier,” says Rebecca.
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