“They can’t see a person. They only hear an accent,” said Virginia Blanco, founder of La Lengua Teatro en Español.
Virginia Blanco kept thinking that surely someone else would create a bilingual Spanish-English theater company in San Francisco. She knew about Teatro Visión in San Jose, but that was too far away for her.
She’d come to know many Latino and Spanish theater artists since she moved to the Bay Area from Argentina a decade ago, and their language abilities felt like an untapped theatrical treasure, especially for such a diverse metropolitan area.
Time and again, she and other Hispanics spoke vaguely of doing a San Francisco show in Spanish together, but plans never materialized. She saw herself as an immigrant with no connections, trying to navigate a foreign system in a foreign language, so she kept waiting.
Yet years later, when she eventually founded La Lengua Teatro en Español, which is about to mount its first in-person show, “Las Azurduy,” Blanco had much experience to draw upon.
She was practically born in the theater: Her father directed shows in Argentina, in a town called Madariaga, when she was a child, and her first memories are of a dark stage. According to family lore, her father’s actors changed her diapers.
Still, theater wasn’t a default. At first, she said, “theater was that thing that kept away my father on weekends.” Curiosity led her to help create a couple of youth theater companies when she was a little older, but at the University of Buenos Aires, she decided, “I want to be serious, professional,” and studied communications, eventually pursuing journalism.
But after she moved to the Bay Area, following a spouse’s job, she had a realization. “Look, I never thought I would say what I’m going to say, but I want to go back to theater,” she remembers telling her then-husband.
“I felt I had this thing pressing on me,” she recalled. “If I watch a movie or I read a book or I hear a song, I start, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could stage this?’ I was always casting people in my mind. I was like, ‘I have to do something with this.’ ”
With the added determination of someone who left theater then actively chose to come back, Blanco started taking classes at Studio ACT. For the first time, she was acting in English — or trying to.
“I didn’t feel confident doing something (where) I have to use my whole self, my body, my voice, my everything. For me, speaking in English was like being a character, like being another person. I noticed that my voice changes,” noting that she believes its tone is higher in English. “My gestures change in my body.”
To start auditioning, Blanco hired dialect coach Lynne Soffer to work on her accent. She avoided cold readings, where she’d have no chance to prepare with the text.
“If you are going to judge me for a cold reading, I know I’m not getting the part,” she said.
Eventually, she developed a system where she wrote all her lines in three languages: English, Spanish and the International Phonetic Alphabet.
She’s known English since she was a kid, but her brain still works in Spanish, and even now, at 41, her speaking muscles are a Spanish speaker’s, which means there’s only so much she can do about her accent. That didn’t defeat her, though. What’s harder is that with some people, “They can’t see a person. They only hear an accent,” she said.
“I wish I had the chance to change places,” she went on, “and for people that doesn’t speak Spanish, trying to speak Spanish, to perform in Spanish, to see that it takes work, emotion and investment. But also the fact that one person has an accent speaking in another language is not a stigma.” She wishes monolingual people would realize that she has to operate at a much higher level just to meet them.
Working with instructor and mentor Patrick Russell at the American Conservatory Theater, she decided she “didn’t have to try to make anyone happy, meaning that I was enough. My role is not to change what others think. If I am being cast, I am being cast because of what I am and how I sound.”
Blanco eventually got roles at TheatreFirst and Cutting Ball Theater, among other companies. But soon she realized that if she kept waiting for others to create a Spanish-speaking theater, it would never happen.
So she founded La Lengua Teatro en Español in 2019, producing readings and audio plays during the pandemic’s early days.
Berkeley actor Deborah Cortez, who’s originally from Peru, recalls reaching out to La Lengua the first time she saw an advertisement for the company. When she rehearses in “Las Azurduy,” she said, “it’s like I’m picking up the pieces I left when I moved.”
Her parents have seen her perform in English many times, but this production will mark the first time they see her perform in the family’s native language.
“I don’t have to explain to them before or after the show what happened and what was I saying,” Cortez said. “They’ll be able to understand it fully.”
The play, by Argentine playwright Florencia Aroldi, is about Juana Azurduy (1780-1862), a heroine of Latin American independence. Even in Argentina, Azurduy is still not widely known, partly because of racism and colonialism, Blanco said, though that’s slowly changing. She commissioned Aroldi to help further that effort.
“If the American people know about Frida Kahlo, about La Malinche, why they don’t know about Juana Azurduy?” she said.
In the course of creating the company, Blanco has developed multiple defenses of performing in Spanish, with English supertitles, in a country that presumes English.
“People go to the opera, and no one questions why the opera has supertitles,” she pointed out. “I grew up watching movies, listening to music in English, and no one questioned that, why it’s OK to consume culture in English in Latin American countries. Why not the other way around?”
The cost of presuming or insisting upon English is huge, she said. “How many generations of Latinos didn’t try theater because there was not any on offer in their language? We probably lost a lot of amazing artists.”