WELCOME AUDIENCE!: an Interview with Alex Torra, Director of Upcoming Cooper Series Play

“BIENVENIDOS BLANCOS! OR WELCOME WHITE PEOPLE!,” a play about Cuban and Cuban-American identity which had its world premiere at the Philadelphia FringeArts Festival in 2018, is coming to the LPAC mainstage on Feb. 14 as part of the Cooper Series: a program of lectures, performances and exhibitions from leaders in fields such as education, science, politics, and art, designed to enrich the academic work of Swarthmore College. The performance will be accompanied by a number of performance workshops open to all students taking place on Feb., 8 and 18. We sat down with Alex Torra, the show’s director and Professor of Theater here at the college, to talk about the show’s Swarthmore debut and his life as an educator and artist.

A:

How do you think an audience of Swarthmore residents and students is going to respond to the show, having seen how it was received at its opening two years ago in Philadelphia?

T:

I think the responses [in Philadelphia] are really varied … I think the thing that we really learned at the premiere is that with this show — people have different entry points and different relationships to the different entry points of the piece; [people also have] different moments and characters and actors that they resonate with and feel connected to. You see a lot of different looking people on stage; there are people who identify as a white American and people who identify as Latin or Latino or Latina or Cuban or Cuban dash American. I think [that the piece] tries to move the camera angle on how we look at Cuba. For many people, I feel like it’s a really U.S.-based view of Cuba. And then the piece I think ultimately tries to begins by saying, ‘let’s look at Cuba and, and being Cuban and Cuban-American from a U.S.-based perspective and then swivels the camera so that it begins to give Cubans and Cuban-Americans that opportunity to present themselves.’ I think especially in the last ten years or so because Cuba has opened up to tourism, there’s a way in which a lot of Americans treat Cuba and many parts of the world, as places for vacation. There can be an education component to this kind of vacationing, but it really is still a vacation. It’s a break. And so there’s a way in which that place becomes a place that is ‘good’ for the American. The thing that you don’t see as a tourist in Cuba is what the experience is on the ground — the complexities of what it means to be Cuban. And in the U.S. as a Cuban-American, you don’t see that very often and it just became important for us to do that. So I guess that’s what white people get out of it. Yeah, there is a kind of an introduction and a deepening view of the Cuban. Right?

A:

Yeah. It’s fascinating though. You mentioned white people kind of going out and seeking out that ‘Cuban experience’ as something like a vacation or a break of sorts, but it’s comparable to going to the theater, isn’t it? It’s an educational experience, but it’s also a break for them, like you said.

T:

Yes it is. But the theater at its core is about empathy, right? There’s an emotional experience to it. And we’re crafting the experience not to make any money. If you’re coming to Miami or to Cuba as a tourist and I am entertaining you, then my first priority is to make some money. But I know the theater setting, the artistic setting, is a different transaction. It’s a human transaction. It’s ultimately an empathetic transaction where we ask you in the audience to feel for us or the characters we create. I mean, there’s an incredible thing that we do as artists, which is we do not participate in most of the artistic product in the world which is actually created to make money through advertising or film or whatever it is. But those of us who don’t do that, it’s a very small bandwidth of people.

A:

You’re also teaching a course this semester on Latinx next performance. How would you define that? What is that Latinx performance?

T:

One thing I’ll say is that this is a class created with Désirée [Díaz]  who is a professor in the Spanish department.. When I was educated about Latinx performance, it was the story of people who recently came to the U.S. who had a deep connection to their roots that [are more strongly correlated with] the immigrant experience or…poverty or…workers’ rights. Some of that’s my parents’ experience, but it’s not my experience, and I feel pretty distant from what I’ve always understood to be the more conventional LA Latino experience. In the last few years I decided to begin to look at it and to excavate what it means to be Cuban for me and to be Cuban-American and to be a white Cuban-American. And so it’s where the show came from and … the experience inside of that has been really pretty beautiful and pretty empowering. And I think one of the results of the show … was that people came up to me and said they felt like I did. They saw themselves in my experience and in and the experiences that the play is talking about. And so that gave me real encouragement and yeah, I found power. I found empowerment inside of it, an identity that for a long time I kind of shoved aside or used for entertainment for party jokes. I would imitate my dad or do a kind of cliche Cuban voice or things like that. They were late parts of my life, but I didn’t know that moving through them and looking at moving through this identity and looking at it closely and making and accepting my version of it would feel so good. And so the class comes out of my interest in looking at other work that gets defined under this umbrella of Latinx and learning from both the artists that we’re looking at and the theorists and the students participating in the class. I think that I’m interested in continuing to move through this identity of being Latino and being like, how do I continue to find that empowerment? And so the class is the kind of research that actually started, um, that actually started with Bienvenidos.

A:

Okay. Last question. What, if anything, are you looking forward to right now?

T:

Oh, a lot of things. We have our first performing Latinidad class tonight [Jan. 29]. Because it’s the first time we teach it, it’s a total experiment.  I’m looking forward to the show happening here and making another show that is about Mexico. Mexico, Mexican identity, queerness and spiritual ecstasy. And I’m starting to work on that a little more in earnest in March. During spring break and the summer.

“BIENVENIDOS BLANCOS! OR WELCOME WHITE PEOPLE!” comes to LPAC on Feb. 14. There will be a public conversation about Cuban immigration (in Spanish) on Feb. 6 from 8:30 to 9:45 a.m. in LPAC 301 and one remaining performance workshop: Feb. 18, 1:15 – 4:15 p.m. in the Kuharski Studio below the Matchbox. The workshop will be led by members of the show’s ensemble.

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