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Theater In Conversation

Building a New House of the Spirits: Jose Zayas and Beatriz Córdoba

A new play with songs is being rehearsed in New York City in a rehearsal hall much like any other. What is different is that the play is in Spanish even though its author has previously worked only in English-language venues. Commissioned by Repertorio Español/Spanish Rep, my stage adaptation of Isabel Allende’s contemporary classic The House of the Spirits/La Casa de Los Espíritus premieres in February 2009 under Jose Zayas’ direction. The cast is comprised of some of the most esteemed bilingual actors in New York City: Nelson Landriu, Selenis Leyva, Denise Quiñónes and Beatriz Córdoba. I recently chatted with Córdoba, who plays a lead role, and Zayas about working on this unique production.

Caridad Svich (Rail): As a director, what is the process like for you on this premiere at Repertorio?

Jose Zayas: Repertorio is one of the few genuine Reps left in the United States. At any given week the company might be performing three to six different shows with a cast that rotates through all of them. One of my biggest challenges has been to direct the company of actors into places that work outside their comfort zones—I want them to stretch their imaginations and skills and to experiment with new ways of telling stories to each other. Years of working together means that they share a common language and a short hand. As a new director to the company I have to figure out how to speak this language while creating a new one that brings us together. Interestingly enough, the idea of language is a fascinating element in the room. Though my first language is Spanish, I feel more comfortable directing in English. At first, this led to many moments of anxiety. This of course brings up interesting questions about authenticity and cultural divides. Another unique aspect of Repertorio is the question of nationalities. The Spanish speaking acting pool in New York is quite large but it is also quite broad in its cultural make-up. In our cast alone we have actors from Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Unifying all of these accents and experiences is another awesome obstacle in the room and parallels the audience demographic.

Your adaptation of The House of the Spirits spans fifty years, fifty scenes, many locations and 11 performers playing over twenty roles! The theater has no wings and a limited backstage, and it stores the sets for all of its shows in the basement. The director cannot think literally; you have to figure out how to create multiple worlds out of nothingness. When approaching your adaptation I wanted to focus on keeping the stage world fluid, so I began with the image you set up in the first scene of Alba in the torture chamber. There is a visual reference in one of your stage directions to “La parilla,” which was a common device used by the Pinochet regime in which a prisoner would be tied to a metal bed frame and subjected to electroshocks. The challenge for me was finding the truth of this image and using it to tell the story. Everything that happens on stage happens on or around that bed. Once I figured that out then everything has slowly fallen into place. 

Rail: So much of my recent work explores virtual space and the dramaturgical grammar of multimedia, especially the use of pre-recorded video, live digital feed and stills. But when I sent you my first draft I remember there was this pause because Repertorio had never worked with video or projections before!

JZ: The use of projections (the video designer for this production is Alex Koch) is a new challenge for the theater—though the company has pretty much done everything that could be done on a stage in its forty year history; their aesthetic has pretty much developed around the idea of the empty space, and they tend to avoid technically demanding projects. With projections we hope to create a landscape that enhances the idea of the empty space and nothingness; your script allows for a fluidity of imagery, and the evanescent quality of a projected image is a way of emphasizing the theme of memory in the play.

Rail: As an actor, are there different ways of working for you when you work in Spanish than when you work in English only?

Beatriz Córdoba: I believe the use of my “instrument” is the same whether I work in a play in English or Spanish. However, an actor generates most of their images from a cultural perspective, and as such, it becomes imbued with meaning which might be accessible and “readable” to every audience, or it might only resonate to an audience who shares the same cultural source. Regardless, I believe that the essence of emotions knows no culture, and if the moment is real for the actor it crosses borders and it connects to the human oneness that we share. The relationship that one establishes with the audience is very much based on a true connection with the character and its reality. The audience, in any language, interprets and is transformed by truth, and it doesn’t matter how much technique, methodology, or training an actor might have, if they can’t vibrate with their character’s soul, neither will the audience.

I believe Isabel Allende is one of the best writers Latin America has. The story that she tells is very close to stories I witnessed in Argentina during the last military dictatorship. Things have a very sad familiarity with my own experiences, and I feel very drawn to tell this particular story. The character of Clara (which I play) is magical, and she moves the world. Our magical realism in literature is what sometimes saves the oppressive realities of Latin America, as a way to compensate for our impotence in the face of historical injustice. When embarking on a project of this magnitude, one only hopes to share it with as many people as possible. I think it’s always on our mind—the importance of having people who never came to Repertorio Español gives us a chance to show them a world which I can guarantee will transform them. The high quality of the artists that work in our theater company is remarkable, and the fact that we come from all over the Spanish speaking world makes us truly unique.

La Casa de los Espíritus/The House of the Spirits by Caridad Svich (based on the novel by Isabel Allende) starts performances February 13 at Repertorio Español, 138 East 27th Street. It plays in repertory through June 2009. For more information, visit


Caridad Svich

Caridad Svich is a playwright-lyricist-translator-editor and founder of theater alliance NoPassport. Her play Instructions for Breathing premieres this spring at Passage Theater in NJ under Daniella Topol's direction.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2009

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