Josean Ortiz: Married to the Theater
Josean Ortiz loves to talk. As a producer, director, and an actor, he is certainly never at a loss of things to talk about. His hands fly around in excitement as he describes his upcoming work, two shows which feature only him on stage. While most would shy away from hour long monologues, Josean welcomes the pressure. We sat down with him to learn more about the inspiration behind Matiné y noche and his vision for more diverse theater in Boston.
IBA: Josean, we know you’ve been doing theater for a long time now. How did you get your start?
Josean: I’ve been in professional theater for 37 years now, but I’ve been doing theater since I was a kid, my whole life, so at this point it’s like breathing. In high school I went to a performing arts school with a specialized music program in Puerto Rico. While I was studying music, I was taking theater classes and decided to continue with theater when I went on to the University of Puerto Rico. My approach to theater [comes from] being very connected to music. As a director, I’m always considering from the start how I can use the music to help the script or the staging–I love that. I learned if I wanted to do things, instead of waiting for people to offer me roles, I could just produce my own work. In 1982 I did my first production and since then I’ve been producing and creating my own catalog of work.
IBA: Can you speak to some of your experience with theater here in Boston? I know you’re the Community Programs Manager at The Theater Offensive.
Josean: In 1994, I was invited to perform at the Speak Out festival for The Theater Offensive, which is where I’m working now. I came with a production of “Strawberry & Chocolate”, which was not yet a film a the time–it was just a short tale. I adapted that and performed it in Puerto Rico. It turned out to be a success there and so someone from here saw it and that’s how I was invited to perform in Boston. We performed it all in Spanish to start and then the next year when Abe Rybeck invited us to come back, we performed at the Calderwood Pavilion, which was my first time performing in English. I ran a cultural center in Puerto Rico for three years but the government suddenly decided to shut down the project, so after that I really needed a change and I’ve been working with The Theater Offensive for a year and a half since. It’s been a new experience because the Theater Offensive I knew back then is not the Theater Offensive I know now. At the beginning they only had two people; now it’s a company of about fifteen people working on the staff with a bigger budget. Abe gave me the chance to explore a new Boston and work directly with the community, which goes right along with [the company’s] mission. I’m in an interesting moment of my life. I’m single, I don’t have kids, I don’t have a wife, I don’t have a husband, I’m married to the theater. That’s my passion, so I have to follow where it goes.
IBA: We’re looking forward to seeing Matiné y noche next week. Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind it?
Josean: It was written by a Puerto Rican playwright named Leo Cabranes-Grant who lives and teaches in Santa Barbara, CA. I’ve been blessed in my career because I’ve always had very good relationships with playwrights and good playwrights that write a lot of works specifically for me. If I want something, I know I can say “I want to do this kind of work” and he will write something for me to work on. I think this is the 15th or 16th play that he’s written to me. He’s a very good who knows a lot of me and when I moved back to Boston last year, he said he would write me a monologue that could be portable that you can perform wherever you want. This is a combination of my personal experiences, Leo’s personal experiences, but also certain elements that have nothing to do with either of us. I like to play with fact, to walk that thin line of what is true and what is not, but there’s definitely a lot of me and what happened in my life in the text.
IBA: You’ve said that Matiné y noche is somewhat biographical. Can you expand on that?
Josean: I had two mothers, my birth mother and my other mother who raised me, but unlike the character in the play, I knew it since I was old enough to understand such things. I never lived with my birth mother but I was in touch with her and for me that was good that my parents taught me about my life; it was never a secret. My birth mother actually died ten years ago, so doing this play for me is very emotional. But it gives me the chance to portray a gay character, a gay man with his own conflicts and experiences that are in some way partly my experience, partly not, but I hope my tale will help others to come out, to talk more, or to make decisions about their life. I think that will be good contribution.
IBA: You also have Bola de Nieve coming up, which is a long-time passion project for you, right?
Josean: Yes, I’ve been doing that play since 1989. I perform sitting down the whole time and then there are a lot of projections, so it’s not necessarily physically demanding or challenging, but it’s difficult in the way that I have to perform the piano. I studied piano, but that was a long time ago, and I have to make people believe that I’m performing live. I know that if I’m going to sell that I’m playing, I have to be focused the entire time while I’m synchronizing to his [Bola’s] voice so it’s a simple show, but not an easy one. To have the chance to do two of my productions, which are like babies to me at this point, here in Boston, is really special. I think it’s going to open the door to continue doing other things. I want to keep doing Spanish theater here, which I think is important for the community, so hopefully this will be a success.
IBA: What’s up next for you after this season?
Josean: I’ve recently been invited to represent Massachusetts at the Latin Theater Commons International Convening, where all sorts of Latin theater people meet in Los Angeles. They’re inviting 150 people from all over the US and Latin America of all different backgrounds and experiences, so that’s where I’ll be in November. I know that good things are gonna come from that.
IBA: Lastly, how do you think your work will forward IBA’s mission to bring the arts to community?
Since I started working with the theater Offensive, I’ve been in touch with IBA because this is part of the neighborhood that The Theater Offensive serves and it’s been amazing to grow the relationship between the two groups and have to opportunity to do my own works. I don’t understand why, but I still feel like we need professional Spanish theater in Boston. We simply don’t have it. We have some small groups that have been struggling for years, but nothing close to the professional caliber that would allow people to come here to pursue professional theater in Spanish. It doesn’t make sense because there’s a huge Spanish community so that’s why it’s important for me to do my work here, to see if that could be another way of living for me, if I choose to stay in Boston for a while. I would love to work more with the Latino community here and use theater as a tool.
If you wish to purchase tickets, Matiné y noche will be performed on September 22nd at 7pm and September 23rd at 6:30pm and 9pm.