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Navigation and Innovation: A conversation with Francis Parra

Francis Parra

Those of us in the performing arts are finding ourselves facing a new reality. As a member of the theater community, I’m lucky enough to be able to speak with leaders of artistic organizations all over the state about how they’re coping and what their plans are for the future, and I think it’s important that we start having those conversations in more open forums, which is why I’m grateful to speak with Francis Parra this week. Parra is the founder and artistic director of Teatro ECAS, Rhode Island’s leading Latino theater that’s been operating since 1997 in Providence.

Kevin Broccoli (Motif): First off, how are you doing right now?

Francis Parra: Considering everything that is happening in the world, I am okay. There are so many people suffering as a result of this pandemic, the economy is struggling and long-standing racial inequities have once again raised painful issues that need to be addressed right away. So many people have lost loved ones. My family has not been directly impacted, but we have lost friends, and watching people go through that is very difficult. The theater has been closed for months now, so there’s that. It has made me think a lot about being at peace with the world and with myself. 

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KB: Can you talk a little bit about the projects that were affected by the shutdown and whether you plan to bring them back once it’s safe to do so?

FP: Teatro ECAS closed on March 13, causing us to suspend the two remaining plays in our season: La Dama Duende (The Phantom Lady), a classic Spanish masterpiece by Pedro Calderon de la Barca, and the contemporary comedy Soltero, Casado, Viudo y Divorciado (Single, Married, Widowed and Divorced), by Roman Sarmentero. We were really looking forward to ending the season with these two remarkable and very different stagings. 

KB: I know that you recently hosted a virtual conversation about racism and theater with Dominican playwright and sociologist Haffe Serulle. Do you plan on having further conversations on your social media platforms?

FP: Yes! We started a virtual interview series called ECAS en Casa (ECAS at Home) featuring prominent Latin American theater leaders. Serulle gave a fascinating exposition about the history of racism in theater and answered more than a dozen questions from people watching on Facebook Live. This past week, we had a great conversation with Cuban actor Francisco Gattorno, who is a renowned theater, television and film star and who was a leading Latin American soap opera star for more than two decades. Our next guest for ECAS at Home will be Marco Antonio Rodriguez, a director out of New York who adapted and directed Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, as a very successful play in Manhattan’s Repertorio Español theater.  

KB: How much of you work do you think could be moved online as we see more and more theaters pushing back their reopening dates?  Is expanding your digital offerings something you’re interested in?

FP: We are being innovative under the circumstances. We have developed a series of dramatic readings that will be broadcast via radio and online simultaneously. The first will be La Lupe, Exito y Gloria, a musical play that I wrote about a very famous Latin singer from the 1970s. The reading will also feature vocal and musical performances by the very talented singer Violeta Cruz del Valle and singer-songwriter Czesare Santana. We have also moved our youth theater classes online and have had a lot of success with those. However, there is no substitute for being in a room full of creative energy watching a live performance. So, we are working on a variety of projects to develop virtual performances as well as prepare for a future where live performances will be possible, despite serious restrictions to conform with social distancing and other measures. 

KB: How is Teatro ECAS doing financially while not doing in-person programming? 

FP: Teatro ECAS is suffering due to loss of earned revenues, such as ticket sales and advertising. However, we have been nimble and creative and are taking some of our shows to the airwaves to Radio Drama and Radio Comedy thanks to longtime supporters, Power 102.1 FM Southern New England’s Spanish language radio. We are able to give our actors opportunities to continue to work with us. Both La Lupe, Exito y Gloria and Tributo a Tres Patines will be on the air shortly. Our educational programs, Improving Young Lives Through the Arts in Providence/Pawtucket (ILAP) continue first through a Virtual ILAP and a six-week two sessions of Summer ILAP.

Many of our donors and funding partners have come to the rescue so that these educational programs can remain free. We thank the NEA, the Cares Act, PPP, RISCA, The Rhode Island Foundation, the City of Providence, the Champlin Foundation, and many others for their financial help. 

KB: What are your own feelings about being inside a theater again? Do you worry for yourself and the other artists you work with?

FP: It’s painful to walk into an empty theater that routinely welcomes 250 people every week yet has been closed for the past four months. Every day I hear from actors, patrons, volunteers and others and they always greet me with the same question: When will Teatro ECAS reopen? During the height of the pandemic, we held a weekly get-together on Zoom for our actors and collaborators, and I think that served as a valuable outlet for us all. We remain in constant contact over text messages and social media, and that has kept our spirits high and looking forward to getting back on stage whether in person or virtually. 

KB: Can you talk about the community impact of not having Teatro ECAS available to audiences right now? I know your theater is such a vital part of the lives of those who go to see your shows. Have you heard from them as all of this has been transpiring?

FP: We like to say that Teatro ECAS tells stories that aren’t being told anywhere else. We have developed a very strong following in the community, from the children and teens who take part in our education programming to senior citizens who have their own dedicated performances of our plays. We also have a growing number of schools that are interested in learning more about the many facts of Latinx cultural expression through theater. Last year we started offering English-language super-titles so that non-Spanish speaking patrons could follow along, and this helped expand our audience even more. We have heard loud and clear from the public that Teatro ECAS is missed and that people are anxious to catch one of our performances. This is very gratifying, yet it also represents a serious responsibility that we must continue to fulfill as we navigate the “new” normal. 

KB: Theaters all over the country are at this reckoning point where they’re being asked to consider who they want to be when they return. Have you had those organizational identity discussions as well? How much thought have you given to what kind of work you want to make on the other side of this crisis, and how different is it from the work you’d been doing before if at all?

FP: We’re having a lot of thoughtful conversations internally, with our patrons and with our peers in the greater creative community. However, it’s very difficult to predict the future of live performances in the COVID-19 era for an intimate, 50-seat community theater. Social distancing requirements effectively reduce our capacity to a negligible, unsustainable number. If there’s a second surge, this could adversely impact people’s willingness to attend events where they are in close proximity to strangers. We are making every effort to be innovative, but it certainly is not easy. We have moved our classes and some programming onto the cloud, with success, yet the fundamental questions over live in-person performances remain unanswered. 

KB: As an artist, how do you keep yourself creatively active during this time? 

FP: I like to meditate in the morning and stay very active both physically and mentally. This is how I cope with everything that is happening now. I really enjoy nature and try to make the most of it at every opportunity, even if only by sitting outside and gazing at the sky for a moment. I also find that the music of Nina Simone sparks a lot of emotion and creativity in me. I recently saw the powerful James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, and it really had an impact on me. It helped me think a lot about how the work being done at Teatro ECAS can serve as a catalyst to improve race relations and, more importantly, to teach future generations to treat everyone with dignity, respect and empathy. 

KB: How can people help ECAS? Do you have a donation link and other ways for them to support you? 

FP: If you would like to help pay for the free educational programs, or support actor salaries in “Radio Drama” or “ECAS en Casa,” please use the link here: teatroecas.org/support

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