A Conversation with Gabriela Ortega
Though New York still has yet to embark on its Fringe Season, the Pacific coast is already underway. The Hollywood Fringe Festival provides a platform for developing artists in the Los Angeles area to bring their work to an audience hungry for new voices – a mission that is furthered by the Hollywood Fringe Festival Scholarship, which was awarded to five productions that “features the participation of ethnically diverse artists; the production will enrich audience experience through the presentation of unique, underrepresented themes…” One recipient of the first inaugural scholarship is Gabriela Ortega, a native of the Dominican Republic and BFA Acting student at University of Southern California who has written, produced, and stars in a one-woman show entitled Las Garcia, currently running at the 2016 Hollywood Fringe Festival. In this conversation, we discuss the process of writing a solo performance piece, fighting for your space, embodying personal history in your work, and how Disney Movies can make a difference in a person’s life.
Alicia Carroll: If you could, start by telling me a little about the production you have created!
Gabriela Ortega: Well, the production that I am doing at the Hollywood Fringe Festival is called Las Garcia. It’s a solo performance inspired by my heritage in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. I wanted to write a show about how I felt when I moved to the States, which was sort of split in two because I felt like I was drawing inspiration from this place that I left. So it was sort of like the representation of discovering myself as a Latina in [another] country rather than my town. But I didn’t want to write it just about me, and I wanted it to be more universal. The story came to me in different pieces, and basically what it is right now – it follows two women of the same bloodline from different generations. One is in 1960s Dominican Republic, and one is in 2016, or present day, in Los Angeles. They both are struggling with a literal war in DR and the other is struggling with a war against herself. It’s a coming of age about how generations pass on that culture, and sort of my coming of age -which is kind of half true, half not – but because it’s part of the creative process, I was able to draw from my experience and my imagination. So it was kind of fun to have those two aspects of storytelling.
AC: How was it moving to the United States from The Dominican Republic?
GO: I came to the US at 17 to start college. I had visited the US multiple times before I got to go school at USC [University of Southern California] for acting. I had done a few summer programs and I sort of got my feet wet in terms of what it was to get a degree in acting. I wasn’t sure what four years of that was going to be. So I moved here and USC was kind of a reach school for me; I didn’t think I was going to get in. So when I did get in, I was like, “of course I’m coming here.” But I’d never visited California, nor the school. So, I kind of thought, “Ok, I am going to wing it and go to this place” and it was really shocking to me to see how independent people are here, you know? You move out of your house when you get married in Dominican Republic, or at least when you had a really steady job. I mean, my sister moved out of the house at 28, when she was about to get married and she had a full-time job – like a whole career, and an MFA everything – and it’s just how we do it there. You don’t have dorms or roommates; you just live in your house and commute to school. And everything just stays like that, you go to school with the same people you’ve known since you were three, and I came here and there were so many people from so many places, and so many languages, and so many…labels and perceptions. And the most amazing thing was, I think, being identified as a Latina for the first time in my life because I didn’t really have to deal with that back home, you know. Because we were all Dominicans, we were all there. There were people who were black, or white, or sort of in between, like my color, and that’s just how it was. But, here, you have “what are you?” “Are you mixed?” “Are you ethnically ambiguous?” “Are you Middle Eastern?”… and it was really shocking. It took me leaving my country in order to realize what it really meant to be a Latino woman. So, it was kind of this whole new discovery, which was both scary and exciting.
AC: And so now are you the only person in your family who has left the Dominican Republic for an extended period of time?
GO: My sister went to grad school. She went to Georgetown for Law, and that was only a year. And then some of my cousins have gone to grad school – that’s usually how you do it; you go to grad school. But for undergraduate, I actually moved here and lived here – for sure, I am probably the only one. I have family in the States like in New York and stuff, but they moved there when they were really young, so they were already there, but definitely even in my close friend group, I was probably the only person who left. And not only left, but also pursued a creative career. A lot of my friends and family members are lawyers or doctors or architects and…not something that necessarily has to do with the arts – or the performing arts I would say.
AC: So I know something I have talked about – and we have probably discussed in the past – is the privilege of being able to study the arts. How has going to school for Theater, and the relationship between you and your family and the “lawyer-doctor tradition” – because it’s the same in my family I am the only one. So how does that dynamic work, or how do they view your studies?
GO: Well, I am very persistent. I have always had an affinity towards the arts. Like I started painting early on, so they thought I have always been creative. And I talk a lot and I wanted to be a comedian when I was little. So not that they didn’t take it seriously in my young age, but they just thought it would develop into something else. So in high school I thought I was going to be a lawyer because, honestly, I was more ignorant than that. Because I had been taking classes as an extracurricular program outside of school, in acting and theater. But I didn’t know you could major in this. I thought if by the time you were 14 if you weren’t on Disney Channel, you were done. So I thought, “Well, I am not Hannah Montana, that means I am going to be a lawyer.” So realizing how young I was and how much more there is to the arts was so crazy – like I went to a camp at AADA when I was a junior. And then things started changing because some of the kids there, in New York, they were like, “I go to a performing arts high school” and I said, “What is that?” Then, I started doing the research. I think once I started taking it seriously and saying, “Okay, I gotta find a way to get myself there. I gotta get my grades up. I’ve gotta get good scores on the SATs, I gotta get extracurriculars, and my essays and everything. My parents started to say, “Oh, she’s actually serious about this” and, I mean getting into USC helped, but I guess my commitment to doing this really opened their eyes to like, “Well maybe, that is what she does” and, you know, I always believed that they were supportive, but as soon as I started seeing a little bit of a result and me getting it together and going for it, they were like, “Let’s let her do this and support her fully.” And now, they’re not anything but excited, you know? And they have faith that this is what I came into this world to do, and that is not, honestly, a privilege that a lot of people share, but it’s not something I am going to take for granted you know? It sort of opens your eyes when you study theater. It makes you a better person because you start seeing different perspectives.Just being able to learn about other people’s stories, and maybe sometimes you shut up and listen and see what the other person is about before coming in with your own perspective. That has definitely helped me, at least.
AC: Well, speaking of other people’s stories, did you see yourself in the media or culture you consumed when you were little? Growing up with television, you mentioned Disney Channel and stuff; how did that affect you?
GO: I think now I am realizing stuff, looking back. Because I remember when I would dress up for Halloween, I wanted to be Little Mermaid but people would be like, “You’re not a redhead,” and stuff like that. You know the little things that you realize – like I was almost always a pumpkin or a random witch. [Laughs] My mom would joke around, “You’re going to be a pumpkin this year” like, thanks, Mom. So it was always a pumpkin or something. I was thinking, you know what changed for me? What you just asked made me be like, “Of course, this made me see those things differently, High School Musical. A girl named Gabriella, and Vanessa Hudgens cast, she looks a little bit Hispanic, I don’t know if she has any [in her heritage]. But when I saw her in that musical, I was like, “She has my name, and she can sing and she is doing it.” And I saw the staged version in the Dominican Republic – the girl that played her in the DR, she was Dominican, and she looked like me too, and I was with my cousin and it was the first musical that I saw…and I was like, “I wanna do this.” And after that I started taking acting classes, to be honest. It was really astonishing to me that someone could have my name and be up there and do that.
AC: Wow, that’s so true; I understand. For Las Garcia, how does it embody your experience and how does it portray history? It’s two characters, but obviously a solo show, so how do you think each character reflects you and reflects the history after writing it?
GO: It reflects the history because – sister here had to do some research. It was going back and reading all these stories about our dictatorship in the 1930s and the 30 years of oppression and the women, and my own family. It was calling up my mom and my sister in the middle of the night and asking, “Could you tell me what were you doing around this time,” and putting the pieces together – how can I create this character, this woman? The character in the 1960s is a singer and she has this larger than life personality. I wanted to challenge this perception that people have of Latinos: like the Sofia Vergara, over-the-top accent, and that only means you’re funny, and you have big boobs. And, I mean, I love her, but people think that’s the only thing. And I wondered how can I have something like that, but challenges us to flip the coin. And how could I have a woman – she could be a delinquent. She could be a fighter on her own terms. She could be a singer. She could be fighting a war we didn’t even know about. And she has a thick accent and moves her hips and sings, but she’s so much more than that. And I wanted to make these characters different than just a stereotype you know?
And it reflects me because…I am the 1%. I’m the exception,you know? I am lucky enough to go to school for theater, to have an education, to have a different perspective and to be in the arts. And back home, a lot of them cannot necessarily do that, so I, as a Latina, have privilege. We have this character in the play that is a version of me and what was really most interesting about it was really exploring my own dark sides and the things that sometimes I don’t want to talk about. And how do I not make that indulgent, and how can I make that relatable? It’s really when you look at your story, and you don’t judge it, and you talk to the truth that… and in this play I am talking about growing up with nannies and I’m addressing that privilege – I mean, there’s a line in the play that goes:
“Look around, there are 101 paintings in this house. I know that because I have the privilege of being bored. So bored, that I counted them.”
I’m looking into the privilege that I have and the disadvantage that I have as a latino woman, putting those two together and seeing which one ends up on top. But the reality is that they’re both part of me and I can’t just bring you a story about how sad it is to be a latino, or how lucky I am to have everything I have. But I can bring you a story about how I was at times inside a bubble and how I had to see past myself, and grow up. I mean, we’re not all perfect you know? We all have lightness and darkness about ourselves, you know? It was very scary to tap into that. And then have people read the script and be like, “You’re afraid of this line, that’s why you’re paraphrasing. You’re subconsciously moving away from it,” and realize, “Oh, you’re finding subtext in something I wrote.” It’s been really an interesting experience, doing this type of work. It’s like driving a car in the middle of a raid and you can’t stop because you have to get to the finish line. It’s just you.
AC: What made you choose to make it a solo show versus having a partner on stage?
GO: I wanted to challenge myself – well, first of all, it’s cheap [laughs] – but also it’s my own past and my own story. But, I will say that the best discovery in the solo work, is that it truly is the story about women, and the women in my family so it should be played by a woman. And they’re related, so the fact that it’s me, you know, I am able to play into that and you can see the different generations without needing the male characters to come up. I wanted to make it a solo show because I wanted you to see the women and the generational aspects of it. And I think it could extend to a play, I mean, I believe in the story so much, I would love to see if I could turn it into a script for a film because I think there is some cinematic quality to it. But I really think of it as a first step; I think a solo show was the way to go because of that. We don’t see stories about women often…so you gotta force yourself to make it about the women because you’re a woman and you’re doing it on your own, you know? So it really challenged me to enhance these two female characters beyond a box, beyond the stereotype, or beyond a circumstance.
AC: Something that I don’t think writers get asked often enough, so as a playwright, if it were to get published right now and the rights were to become available, what do you hope for people to take away from the play, at its core? And what do you hope for potential future productions of the work? Especially something so personal and intimate. Like eventually some high school is going to do Hamilton – is there anything you’d nervous for?
GO: First of all, the only man who could play it is Lin-Manuel Miranda. [Laughs] Maybe Leslie [Odom Jr.] who knows? I mean, I think the show should be played by a woman…I think that there is a specific song in, it it’s called “Dondé es?” It’s sort of a theme in the show of “Where is your life hiding” I would like that song to be in it, as a guiding tool. I wouldn’t be opposed to – I wrote the whole thing as if it were a script, like the scenes between men and women, they are written as dialogue [as opposed to monologue] so I’d be interested in seeing it developed into a play opposed to a solo show; I would like to give people the chance to work with it and workshop it whatever way they would like, but definitely keeping mind the people and their ethnicities – because so many shows take advantage of that…because they think that “yes art is for everyone,” but there are certain stories that may need to be told by the people who can really tell them, and can give them justice.
AC: Yes, I completely agree. Interesting. Well, also, congrats on the Fringe scholarship!
GO: Thank you.
AC: What does it mean to you, that you received the scholarship? And what do you think it will give you in terms of furthering your audience and telling your story?
GO: I think it means a welcome to me and as a reminder that we are here. And the fact that we got that scholarship is nothing to be cocky about, or to be to think “oh, we got somewhere” – no, it’s actually challenging us to tell this story to the best of our ability, and my ability. And Fringe is such a wonderful platform to workshop new work because it really is a very supportive community; everybody wants to see each other’s shows. It is a competition in the way that there are awards and stuff, but at its core it’s an opportunity for everyone who’s an artist in Los Angeles and wants to create new work and be bold and wants to put up things at no budget pretty much to have that opportunity and to showcase their work. And to me, this is my coming out party as a writer and a performer and to me that scholarship is me saying I will not conform, and I will write my own work and I will star in it and produce it and I will wear all the hats, and I am a woman and I’m Hispanic and I’m here. And I won’t let anyone or anything that believes I don’t fit in this medium – or that I’m too this or too that for this art form tell me I don’t belong. So, I am happy that the Fringe Festival community sees that and is encouraging that and are hungry for stories that are different. It’s the first year that they’re doing this scholarship and the five people who won are all people of color and women, three of them I think are written, directed, and starring women. And I think that’s telling of what people are hungry for and the stories they want to hear.
AC: Are there any last thoughts you’d like to get into the universe, or anything you’d like to say?
GO: Thank you, first of all, for reaching out to me and thank you for your support. For anyone that will read this and is a young artist or woman or girl who thinks they are too young to do something, don’t. Because honestly, if you look for space and if you fight for that space, the doors will open and people will come support you and people will be with you. The amount of gratitude I have for so many people who have reached out to me and offered their help and their services for me to create this piece of theater really gave me hope as to what I can do in the future and – you just gotta ask sometimes, you know? And just really fight for and go for it without judgment. So, I really encourage people to try this type of work and just get out there and figure it out.
AC: Absolutely. Awesome, well, thank you so much for speaking with us. And break a leg on your premiere!
GO: Thank you, thank you. I am trying to get it to New York, hopefully I can get it into the United Solo Festival. So, we will keep in touch, because I really want to travel with it. Thanks again, I really appreciate it.
AC: Yes of course, keep us posted!
Gabriela was born and raised in the Dominican Republic and is an LA based Actress, writer and Spoken word poet. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting at the University of Southern California.A proud Latina, Feminist and above all: a collaborator, Gabriela is thrilled to be returning to the Hollywood Fringe in 2016 with her own show. She is excited to bring her stories to life in her show inspired by her heritage and life in Santo Domingo. In 2014, Gabriela helped develop “The New Artist’s Festival” at the 13th Street Repertory Company in NYC. As part of the festival, she helped produce 7 original one-act plays (2 which she directed, 1 which she wrote), as well as two MainStage productions (Rabbit Hole, Dark Play/Stories for Boys). Some of her most recent roles include: HOMEFREE by Lisa Loomer at The Road*, SPIT! at HFF15, The House of Bernarda Alba with the Bilingual Foundation of The Arts (Magdalena), Grey Street, The Musical (Off-Broadway Workshop, Ensemble) and Blossoming readings with The Vagrancy. USC: Breath, Boom (Angel)**, Camille (Prudence), Marisol (Ensemble), Anna in the Tropics (Conchita), What We’re Up Against and other short plays (Lorna/Annie), Disappearing Act by Lena Ford (USC workshop/ Millie)
*WINNER: Noho Fringe Festival Best play/Best Ensemble
**WINNER: Aileen Stanley Memorial Award for excellence in Acting
Las Garcia (my solo show) won one of the 5 “2016 Fringe Scholarships”
manager: Nick Campbell
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