A space of their own: The curtain will rise on LatinUS Theater Company’s Blackbox Theater

When the curtain rises on the LatinUS Theater Company’s production of the play “La Casa de Bernarda Alba” in September, it will mark a couple firsts for the Cleveland theater company that was formed in 2018.

Not only will it be the first production performed in its new home, the Blackbox Theater, but it will make it the first independent Latino theater company with its own dedicated theater in Ohio. 

LatinUs Theater Company - The unusual case of Miss Piña Colada, September 2020It’s a huge relief for Monica Torres, executive artistic director for LatinUS Theater Company, which highlights works by Latino playwrights and celebrates Hispanic culture. After all, since founding the company more than three years ago, Torres and the rest of the company have been bouncing between area theaters for each production—packing up sets and costumes and moving them from its Clark-Fulton rehearsal space to Playhouse Square, Kent State University, or even to theaters in Akron.

“It's so hard moving the whole production to different venues,” says Torres, a physician who moved to Cleveland from Puerto Rico 14 years ago. “But being here in Clark-Fulton, we're in the middle of the Latino community. For us, it’s a dream come true.”

This time though, the company doesn’t have to move far—the Blackbox Theater is located in the same building as the company’s rehearsal space and office in the interconnected Astrup Buildings, now known as the Pivot Center for Art, Dance and Expression, at the corner of West 25th Street and Seymour Avenue.

In late 2019, the building’s developer, Rick Foran, offered to rent the space to the LatinUS Theater. Right after its production of “Divorciadas, Evangelicas y Vegetarianas” (“Divorced, Evangelical and Vegetarians”) wrapped last March, the company was able to shift its focus from productions to opening the theater.

Foran began construction in January 2020 and Torres got keys to the space in December. The group then quickly got to work painting floors, building out the space above the stage for lighting and curtains, and building a backstage bathroom for the actors. When it’s completed in June, the proscenium-style theater will hold 200 people.

With Foran fronting much of the cost of development, LatinUS also received a $5,000 2021 Project Support grant from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC) to help produce “La Casa de Bernarda Alba.” The theater has received CAC project grants since 2019. The remaining costs will be paid for through its rental income. Funds for its productions have been raised through individual donations, tax-deductible memberships (the company is a 501c3 non-profit), and Eaton Corporation.

LatinUS Theater Company’s production will be performed in its new home, the Blackbox TheaterA Nuestro Teatro, Curtains Up Fundraising event will serve as a sneak peek for the Blackbox Theater on August 7th (tickets start at $50). To keep crowds small, the event will offer two time slots for up to 50 people each with Latino food, live Latino music, and six-foot circles marked out for socially-distanced dancing.

Beyond the benefits of having a permanent home for the theater company, Torres is excited to offer Latino-led theater to the Clark-Fulton community—an area that while primarily Latino, hasn’t had many opportunities to experience art that reflects its culture.

“We can transmit our culture, as we are Latinos showing how theater is done in other countries,’ she says. “And we have the experience of what we're talking about. We have lived these things that we talk about in the shows.”

Torres wants the performances to attract folks from all around northeast Ohio, and since the shows are performed in Spanish with English supertitles, she also hopes they will allow recent immigrants with limited English a chance to enjoy theater. She’s also been working on appealing to the hearing impaired.

LatinUS Theater plans to continue its tradition of offering one fee show to neighborhood residents during each production. Future plans include hosting theater classes like drama or set painting for neighborhood kids at the Blackbox Theater.

“We want the community to be exposed to this experience of theater,” Says Torres. “Most of our people here, they haven't had that available up until now really.”

Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman, April 2019Torres hopes the theater (and its neighbors in the Pivot Center) can help to bring a sort of positivity through arts and culture to a community that was the site of the Ariel Castro kidnappings. The Pivot Center, in fact, abuts the vacant lot where Castro’s house used to be.

“When you get there in the building, you feel the energy of the arts and the good people that are in here,” says Torres.

Theatergoers can feel that energy for themselves when the Blackbox Theater hosts its inaugural production, “La Casa de Bernarda Alba” (“The House of Bernarda Alba”) by Federico García Lorca, September 17th through October 3rd.

The show, a heavy drama dealing with themes of repression and intergenerational conflicts, will be followed by a comedy (Torres likes to alternate between dramas and comedies to mix things up), “Baños Públicos” (“Public Toilets”) by Esther Suárez Durán. The full schedule for 2022 has already been decided as well.

While construction continues on the theater, the company is keeping busy in its role as a community partner with the Cleveland International Film Festival, sponsoring an online streaming of the film "Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It."

It’s also showcasing its work in August with the Hudson Library, which reached out to Torres for its virtual theater program, with a live Q&A with the cast of “La Casa de Bernarda Alba."

“We are very proud of what we have achieved,” says Torres. “We’re happy our community can have this—the first theater that is independent and 100% Latino in Ohio. We are here by our own work and very proud. We can not wait to open the theater.”

Read more articles by Ilona Westfall.

Ilona Westfall is a Cleveland-based freelance writer. When she's not penning articles for a variety of Ohio publications, she's roller skating with Burning River Roller Derby, rolling d20s with her D&D group, or getting muddy in the woods. Follow her on twitter @IlonaWestfall.