Starting this Thursday, the Bag & Baggage theater company in Hillsboro will stage free weekend performances of “The Tempest” in city parks. But in this retelling of William Shakespeare’s comedy, Prospero, the magician and exiled Duke of Milan, speaks Spanish as well as English, primarily with his daughter, Miranda, as the timeless story of treachery, revenge and love unfolds. Yasmin Ruvalcaba is a writer, community arts advocate and the director of “The Tempest.” She and actor Demetri Tostado, who plays Prospero, join us to talk about adding a bilingual dimension to the play, and what effect they think that might have on the audience’s engagement with and appreciation of it.
Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud, I’m Dave Miller. ‘Oh, brave new world that has such people in it;’ People who come from various parts of the world and speak languages, in addition to English. The first sentence was Shakespeare. The second wasn’t, but it helps to explain the motivation behind a new production of The Tempest, Shakespeare’s final play. It is a bilingual production, in English and Spanish that’ll be put on in three Hillsboro parks over the next three weekends. It is free and opens tomorrow at eight pm, at Rood Bridge Park. Yasmin Ruvalcaba is a writer and arts advocate and the director of the production. Demetri Tostado is an actor and writer and director who plays Prospero in this production. They both join me now, welcome to the show.
Yasmin Ruvalcaba: Hi, great to be here.
Demetri Tostado: Hello, friend.
Miller: Yasmin first. What excited you about doing The Tempest?
Ruvalcaba: A couple of different factors. I think one of the big things was my initial kind of background and relationship with Bag and Baggage. I’ve had the fortune of working there for a bit before and COVID kind of really shut everything down and then getting this invitation to do something, get actors in-person work again, with Bag and Baggage, be in the community that I love, I think was one of the very first things that excited me about the production. I do a lot of work in Washington County, a lot of my artistic work, and now a lot of my arts programming work as well. So being able to do something that is free and accessible to the community and that really pushes art into the community spaces rather than asking them to come to us was very exciting. And then when looking at The Tempest itself, I’m gonna be honest, I’m not the most knowledgeable Shakespearean Director out there, I know my text, I know the basics, but having the chance to play with something and introduce a slight language component to it and creating a slightly different world from what traditional, you know, the full length Shakespeare play was an exciting and a little daunting, as well, concept. I was really looking forward to playing with all of that.
Miller: Demetri What about you? What drew you to this production? Why did you want to audition and take part?
Demetri Tostado: You know, initially just all starving artists need work basically.
Miller: [Laughing] Good job.
Tostado: I remember reading The Tempest long time ago in high school, so that was about 75 years ago, it feels like, and not fully, I didn’t grasp it as well as I do now. It was mandatory reading and in English, you know, Lit. Then coming across the opportunity to do this and then when I saw it was bilingual, I thought that was actually kind of fascinating because I always felt that there was a pretty certain bridge in sort of, cadence and metaphor and how Shakespeare puts words together and how Spanish puts words together and what they mean is, even if they’re translated. So it’s a pretty fascinating challenge, and I haven’t done Shakespeare in a little over a decade, so it was a pretty, very interesting challenge to do it live, especially after the craziness that was the pandemic.
Miller: Or to come back to theater and then to have this new linguistic challenge?
Miller: Yasmin, my understanding is that you started with an adaptation of The Tempest that already had some Spanish in it. What did you do with that text that you were given?
Ruvalcaba: So we drew this text, it was already shortened, it gave us the base of the world to work with, but I had no knowledge of the previous production that I kind of worked with that adaptation, so I really was coming into it with a blank slate, and one of the big things I noticed right away was there was Spanish, it was a little minimal, so I wanted to work in adding a little bit more and just playing with the language a bit and who gets to speak it. I had, in the first one, it was very much just Prospero speaking Spanish, so when I got the text and you know, some basic working on it because sadly this wasn’t a full playwright adaptation commission moment, that could have been a slightly different story, but it was, you know, a space note, to add the language in a little bit more. I really wanted to build up Prospero speaking a bit more Spanish, but then also adding Miranda into that mix and having it be where, you know, it’s very much the father and daughter that have a little more control over the language and the way they were presented in the world.
Miller: What is it about this father - daughter relationship that made you think that having them speak Spanish together would add a new layer to the story?
Ruvalcaba: From the beginning, I was really intrigued by the father-daughter relationship and one of the big things we took away from the script from our world of the script was having Prospero’s coming to this moment of wanting to let go of pain and grief and the trauma that’s been caused to him. We kind of saw it really being led by the way he sees joy and innocence in Miranda, and the way he sees her interact with the new world and you knew beings that are brought in which he views them with this anger and she just views them with these eyes of admiration and newfound joy. So, it really was first, that discovery that discovery really led some of that. Then, interesting enough, that I feel like a lot of the other discoveries were more once we had the actors, not even in the script writing. I think there was a room where there was some intentionality in the Spanish, but there was also a world where the Spanish, just needed to fit in a little bit. There was areas where it sounded pretty and there’s areas where it sounded strong and so I knew then having the actors in the room, we’re gonna learn more from that. And then it’s really fun where I see moments now that maybe I hadn’t even picked up on originally when working on translation that just kind of really bring home a little bit of that relationship. So there’s a couple of moments where Prospero scolds Miranda and those are predominantly in Spanish and it brings me back to like being scolded by my parents and the kind of different energy that goes behind it. So it’s a combination of what we kind of brought into the space to begin with. But then a lot of it was more discovery, once we had the actors in the space with us.
Miller: Demetri, you’re one of the actors, obviously one of the most prominent ones. My understanding is that you’re a Spanish speaker, but that English was your first language. What has it been like to act bilingually?
Tostado: Completely terrifying. I’m petrified, I can barely move when I’m on stage.
Miller: Really? [Laughing]
Tostado: No, no
Miller: I’m gullible.
Tostado: No, no, it’s okay. It’s is a very, very interesting challenge, especially because that wasn’t necessarily and just sort of current, you know, training for actors and performers, usually not bilingual, you usually tend to study more classical means of theater technique, and acting technique, at least here in the States I’m sure it’s different places across the world. So, doing it in Spanish alone was hard enough. I’ve done plays even so far as recently here in here in Portland that had, you know, it was bilingual, but this is now Spanish in Shakespearean elevation. So that’s a lovely little spice of challenge to throw on top of that.
Miller: Oh, because obviously, for English speakers, the Shakespearean English can be really challenging. And you’re saying that the Spanish in this play is similar in its kind of sometimes elevated or hard to follow way?
Tostado: I would say absolutely, it’s definitely not, if I’m not wrong, that like the colloquial word like how you speak normal conversational English or Spanish with families or friends or anything, whereas, Shakespeare has this very, very specific way he wrote the English and there’s a specific way and how the Spanish goes, which is just not how people normally speak it, so that that extra layer of trying to use that in the text and also in the performance was a lovely little, a lovely little challenge that pretty much gave me a few brain hemorrhages, but I’m good.
Miller: Yasmine, I imagine there’re going to be a number of people in the audience who only speak English or who only speak Spanish, what do you hope that monolingual people will get from this production?
Ruvalcaba: I really hope there’s a focus and I feel this way in general with a lot of like the Shakespeare that I go see where I’m like I understand half of what’s going on, but the actors embody the story, they showcase it in their movement, their body and then we see it in the set and the lighting, there’s so many elements that go into making the story.
Miller: I have to say it’s very reassuring to hear a theater director say that, because I think that’s the experience of a lot of people who understand English when they see Shakespeare, that a lot of stuff just happens fast and goes over your head and you just sort of hanging on and sort of get stuff from context, even if some lines just fly right by you.
Ruvalcaba: Yes, I think the best thing I can tell people is expect one of two things when seeing a Shakespeare show: you’re either going to expect a wedding or a death, and let’s ignore the problem plays in the middle there for a little bit, but it’s leading up to those big moments, it’s those expectations and then seeing them celebrated. So for example, one of the things that I was excited about again with the language aspect is that a lot of times we hear the simple excuse of, ‘Well, how are we going to have Spanish onstage if our audience is predominantly not Spanish-speaking and that’s a whole other conversation,’ and I just sit there and I’m like, we listen to Shakespeare and a couple other classical works and I don’t fully have a grasp on that language and I’m still sitting there enjoying it and having a phenomenal time because I appreciate the artist and the work that’s going into it. So I think this is a perfect example of showcasing that we can’t use the excuse of, ‘Well what if we don’t understand a bit of it or what if the text gets a little lost…’ because that is what we see in some of these traditional texts anyways, so we might as well have fun with them, we might as well bring another heightened language into it and really let the audiences see the storytelling through the actors see the joy, the sadness, all those feelings that really come through in the different stories, you know, represented onstage and having them be a part of that ecosystem and feel it in partnership with the actors as well.
Miller: Demetri, just have about 30 seconds left. But what are you most excited about for tomorrow night?
Tostado: Whew! Showtime! That’d be fun! Then, give people a lovely, lovely night in the park. I think that would be great. You bring a blanket, bring people you love and then just enjoy and have a good time out.
Miller: Demetri Tostado and Yasmin Ruvalcaba, thanks very much for joining us.
Ruvalcaba / Tostado, together: Thank you.
Miller: Demetri Tostado is an actor and writer and a director. He plays Prospero in Bag and Baggage’s new bilingual production of The Tempest. It’s going to put on at three Hillsboro parks over the next three weekends. It opens tomorrow night at eight pm at Rood Bridge Park, tickets are free. Yasmin Ruvalcaba is a writer and arts advocate and the director of this production.
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