An outreach initiative to the Hispanic community in Houston, one started by the Alley Theatre a few years ago that was kind of in stall mode thanks to other intervening events, has been reinvigorated recently, partly because of the pandemic conditions the area is in right now.
Since the Alley isn't spending its time and efforts on live stage performances so what better time to fill the gap with new initiatives? Especially when Alley personnel were standing by ready and willing to go into high gear.
Baldemar Rodriguez, who was brought in as manager of Community Partnerships in January after leaving his position as Artistic Director at Talento Bilingue De Houston, says with COVID-19 restrictions, the Alley moved into the virtual world beginning in March like so many other performing arts organizations — which gave them the chance to display the Hispanic programming they were already working on to a larger audience.
"Two months down the line we saw Hispanic Heritage Month is coming and I thought well this is going to be the perfect time to start releasing the work that we've been doing over the past several months," he says. "We wanted an opportunity to be able to go out into the community and reach the Hispanic and Spanish-language community and so Hispanic Heritage Month was right at the right time and the right place."
And the Alley was fortunate in this first-time effort, in that Rodriguez has decades-long professional experience in radio, TV, film, bringing a much-needed skill set into moving from live performance into the virtual world. He even has a recently-acquired unmanned aerial pilot license which allows him to do drone shots.
All of this has been wrapped into El Zócalo, which takes its name from the Spanish phrase referring to a meeting place at the center of many Latin American communities, which presents programming in English and Spanish. And unlike some smaller theater group's efforts in this area, the Alley still has the kind of funds to develop more ambitious content and to let potential audience members know what it is doing.
The initial idea for El Zócalo began in 2016 with Alley Managing Director Dean Gladden wanting to introduce international plays to the Houston community, Rodriguez said. Gladden attended a conference in 2016 in Bogota and began working to expand the Alley's programming to more cultures. In 2017, two staff members were hired and an advisory committee was established. And then, of course, Hurricane Harvey hit in August 2017. Longtime Alley Artistic Director Gregory Boyd left abruptly in January 2018. "There was a lot of controversy so they didn't know how to make Zocalo go forward," Rodriguez said.
Eventually the Alley got funding to pay for Rodriguez's position in the Alley's education department. He's very proud of the fact that the Alley produced Quixote Nuevo by Octavio Solis. "A big-budget project with a Latino writer, a Latina director and an all Latino cast. Now we have our feet firmly grounded and have created a five year strategic plan on how to make it bigger and better."
The Alley's Hispanic Heritage month effort started on September 15 and will continue through October 15. It will feature readings from Latinx writers. Also scheduled are stories from Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border by playwright Solis. These will be read by Houston-area actors and guests including Texas Representative Christina Morales (District 145), Houston Council Member Robert Gallegos, Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia - Precinct 2 and media personality Tony Diaz.
Rodriguez knows he's got some work to do to connect Houston's Hispanic community with theater. In the past, there hasn't been a lot of content for them to take in. Part of his strategy is to figure out a different ticketing approach, because he says it is common in the Hispanic culture not to attend performances as a couple but to bring along the whole family including grandma.
"Part of my strategic plan is to connect with these communities to find out what they can afford. What is their price range. To come up with new ticketing. Because Hispanics, they don't just come in as couples. Hispanics come with the family with grandma. That is our culture."
This was one of the first concerns he raised with the Alley leadership." We have to figure out the costs, what families can afford," he says.
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Another key point in the effort is "constant communication" he says. That's why their press releases and newsletters are bilingual, their content bilingual. When the content is in English then subtitles should be in Spanish and vice versa.
The offerings during Hispanic Heritage month are free. "We can’t charge a community that we’re trying to let them them know that we’re here.
"I think the Alley has seen that this is another way for us to communicate for those who may not like to go out to the theater or for whatever reason they may not feel comfortable when things start opening up," Rodriguez says. "We realize that this is going to be a part of our future and ongoing programming. "
A full list of events celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month will be updated on the Alley’s website at alleytheatre.org/ElZocalo-NHHM.