Name: Erlina Ortiz
Hometown: Reading, PA
Current Town: West Philly
Affiliations: Resident Playwright with Power Street Theatre Company; Playwright with The Foundry, a Philadelphia Playwrights Lab; BA Theatre Temple University
Q: How do you self-identify?
A: Dominican, Dominican-American, Latina, Latinx, Human.
Q: Tell me about She Wore Those Shoes.
A: Just you asking me that now hurt my heart! The sting of a show being done (on pause really) is so hard. We only ran for three days due to budget restrictions; you know how that is. I feel the play has so much more life to breathe so I’m excited for future possible touring opportunities or productions. The story is of a young Latina woman who enlists in the Army where she seeks independence and opportunity. Her older brother is a high-ranking officer and she has much respect for the institution. However, as happens alarmingly too often in our Armed forces, she is assaulted and raped by a “comrade.” Per usual, she is silenced and betrayed even by those she thought would protect her. She has to return to the real world and deal with her fractured soul and some serious PTSD.
I learned about this terrible issue through the documentary The Invisible War and knew I had to write about it. It was a way in for me to open the conversation on rape culture and how often women are not believed when they are assaulted. Power Street has a tradition that we always have talk backs after our shows because it gives the audience a chance to digest the difficult topics we tackle. We want to leave our audience with tools to further the conversation outside of the theatre. The talk backs for She Wore Those Shoes were provoking and at times painful. We had Warrior Writers come and perform after the show on a Sunday. They are a writers group made up of veterans and survivors. The women shared their poetry, and we had an open, and frank discussion about rape culture and misogyny with an audience of women, men, young, old, black, brown, and white. It was a beautiful thing.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: Where to begin. I’m super excited for my play Las Mujeres which should be getting at least a reading next year and hopefully a production at some point in the next year as well. It is my adaption of Carol Churchill’s Top Girls with an all Latina cast and the characters of: Frida Kahlo, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Minerva Mirabal, and Rita Hayworth. It is a feminist play at heart, I guess if we are labeling things, but with the perspective of these inspiring artists and revolutionaries from all different countries and points in history.
I am also working on a musical that was inspired by the Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta which is still in its nascent stages but brimming with exciting possibility and very talented collaborators.
I have the Amtrak Writer’s Residency coming up in January! I will have 10 days to just write! I’m so excited.
Q: What have been the defining moments of your journey as a playwright?
A: I always tell everyone that the first full-length play I ever wrote with Power Street was a goddamn miracle. MinorityLand, a play about gentrification in North Philadelphia. The cast was all volunteers who basically just believed in our company’s mission and in the play. What was our budget? Maybe five dollars, six tops. I still can’t believe the sequence of events that led to that play actually going up and then having basically sold-out, mixed race audiences every night. Every night it was as if an angel flew into the space and graced us with its presence. And I, the playwright and director, had the best seat in the house all the way in the back where I was also doing the lights. I mostly watched the audience, seeing that…the connection, the laughter, the crying… It was like a drug, I mean I was hooked. I knew that no matter what I was going to have to keep finding a way to have that feeling again. So, I guess that’s a pretty defining moment.
Q: Who have been your playwriting mentors and heroes?
A: I’m extremely lucky that Quiara Alegria Hudes and I have both been Philly residents at one time or another and that through a series of lucky circumstances I’ve been able to get to know her and her family. Quiara’s sister, and my best friend and biggest supporter is Gabriela Sanchez the founder of Power Street Theatre Company. Gaby and I were classmates at Temple. Getting to know Quiara’s work was the first time that I even seriously considered a career as a playwright, it seemed like something impossible. The first time I ever saw In the Heights I cried from beginning to end. It isn’t a particularly overtly tragic story, but hearing words in Spanish on stage and seeing the huge multicultural ensemble had me overwhelmed with joy and possibility. Then speaking with Quiara I realized that she was a real live human being who just worked really hard and was trying to do her best just like the rest of us. It made it seem less like a fantasy and more like a tangible and important career path.
Q: What advice do you have for Latin@ playwrights at the beginning of their career?
A: Well, I basically still see myself as an early career playwright. I’ve been lucky that my work has been produced because I have my Power Street Theatre family that has so much faith in me and my plays. So, I don’t know how I’d give advice but…if I could tell a recent grad who isn’t finding work and questioning their abilities anything it would be: Do NOT wait for someone to give you an opportunity. You have to make them for yourself. And if you can, bring some friends along because having a good team by your side is essential. Not just to success, but to your sanity and well being.
Q: What else should we know about you?
A: I have two cats that I adore. Desmond and Molli. I love science theoretically, especially concepts on space and time, but I can’t comprehend the math. I love stand-up comedy. I believe there is a compassion crisis in the world and in this country and the only way to fight it is with our art.
***For more on Erlina Ortiz, see:
- “Inside the Green Room with Erlina Ortiz” – Sebastian Cummings
- “For theater company, a take on social change” – Ashley Caldwell (The Temple News)
- “Dominicana Dreamin’: Erlina Ortiz on Latin American theater and her new play, MORIR SONYANDO” – Christopher Munden (phindie.)
- “Riding and writing on a slow train to San Francisco” – Darnelle Radford (Broad Street Review)
- Read Erlina Ortiz’s plays at the New Play Exchange
- Read Erlina Ortiz’s bio at The Foundry
- Check out the work of Erlina Ortiz and Power Street Theatre Company
- Erlina Ortiz wins an Amtrack Residency