Paso Nuevo/Next Step
The 36-year-old GALA Hispanic Theatre is probably best known for its efforts to bring the works of Latino playwrights to audiences in the Nation’s capital. But, in 2005, when the organization moved into a permanent home in the beautifully restored Tivoli Theatre in the center of Washington, DC, GALA was able to continue pursuing an endeavor that has long been close to its heart. Called Paso Nuevo (Next Step), the most current manifestation of the program is focused on teens and their younger siblings living in the lower-income, primarily Latino neighborhoods nearby. The program uses theater not as a way to develop future actors, directors, or playwrights, but as a means of helping young people “understand their cultural identities and gain the skills they need to cope with their lives,” explains GALA’s Executive Director Rebecca Medrano.
During each session, which lasts three or four months, students read works by Latino writers and receive training in playwriting, acting, and producing. Instructors conduct sessions in a mix of Spanish and English to help participants—who often come from poorly educated Central-American immigrant families—become more fluent in both languages. Sessions culminate in a bilingual performance on GALA’s main stage.
Material for the plays often relates to the young people’s lives. For a recent production, students interviewed family members to learn more about the wars and oppression that caused them to leave their homes. The result was La Família Lobato, a play about the secrets that an El Salvadoran immigrant family revealed during a family picnic.
Sometimes, the subjects can be even more emotionally raw. In one production, a teenaged girl delivered a riveting monologue about the loss of her best friend, who had been strangled by the friend’s mentally ill, financially stressed father. “You could have heard a pin drop” during the performance, recalls Medrano.
Although the young people’s lives can be challenging, the process of transforming their experiences into plays can help participants see their struggles within a larger context, Medrano explains. Most stay in the program for two years. As they continue with the workshops, instructors see improvements not only in the participants’ writing and speaking skills, but also in the truth and courage they bring to their performances on stage. “It’s quite extraordinary and uplifting when you see what they do,” she remarks.
The program gives the stage, literally, to young people to express what they have to say about their lives and communities in both Spanish and English. Paso Nuevo’s work is consistently polished and presents thought-provoking messages from young performers.Lionell Thomas, Executive Director, DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities