This Storyteller Is Subverting What We Know About Theater
Who gets to tell — and own — their stories?
It’s a question that’s long been at the heart of the artistic works of Raquel Almazan, a playwright, director, producer, and activist who is of Costa Rican descent, Spanish-born, Miami-raised, and New York-based and has made opening doors for the telling of untold stories by unspoken voices her life’s mission.
The big, best-known world of theater — Broadway in New York — has only recently gotten back to business after marquees went dark during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. But Almazan has been on a quest during that entire time of darkness to uplift vulnerable and new voices in theater. They include LGBTQIA women emerging from immigration detainment, Latinx storytellers, and independent theater-makers from Black, Indigenous, and Asian American backgrounds.
Currently, the co-president of the Indie Theater Fund in New York, Almazan and her partners in the organization have given away more than $900,000 in grants in the last 18 months to hundreds of theater-makers. Many of those creators were largely confined to practicing and performing in virtual spaces in order to avoid in-person gatherings. Some of them have just recently begun to perform in-person.
While some would describe virtual theater as a restrictive way of doing art, Almazan sees things differently.
“My idea of theater has changed this last year,” she says. “Theater-making typically makes you think about gathering people together in a very specific kind of space. But my idea of space has changed. When you’re thinking about equity, it means breaking the borders that exist. So instead of meeting in a physical space, you might meet online on video or audio while someone is multitasking — they’re walking, working their day job, on the subway, or maybe sitting in the car as a passenger while making theater.”
Almazan’s history as a storyteller and her take on the power of theater traces itself to an upbringing in which she was surrounded by domestic violence. Looking back on her youth, “I realized the scenarios, those cycles of domestic violence I was in, I could see it as a performance narrative,” she says, drawing a link between her own personal experience and what led her to earn degrees from Columbia University, University of Florida New World School of the Arts in Miami and Miami-Dade College in, respectively, playwriting, theater performance/playwriting, and film directing.
“When I saw myself as an active agent in that narrative, I stepped into it as I had never before and broke that cycle," she says. Such a perspective did not alone help her out of the situation but was one part of many aspects of her journey, Almazan says.
Another part of her upbringing — from living in Spain to south Florida and Texas — also influenced one of her longest-term projects, Latin Is America, a series of plays she began 17 years ago to reconceptualize the stories of Latin American cultures and nations through the lens of women’s history and contributions.
“We tell the history of Colombia through the voices of incarcerated women. We look at the story of Guatemala through female coffee farmers,” says Almazan, who has put on the shows through her company, La Lucha Arts. “I seek to create roles and identities that Latinx folks would rarely have the chance to audition for or be considered for in North American theater and to support opportunities to flourish and be seen.”
The plays include The River’s Edge (Haiti), La Negra (Mexico), Cafė (Guatemala), El Odio de Un Pais (Costa Rica), Azamemno (El Salvador) and La Paloma Prisoner (Colombia)
“The power of theater is being able to see a person beyond a one-word profile,” Almazan says. “To see me beyond me being a Latina or to see a person beyond them being labeled an immigrant or a criminal.”
One of her most recent efforts was with the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, which works with LGBTQIA undocumented immigrants who are detained or coming out of detention. Almazan worked alongside others to collaborate with immigrant communities on how to share their life stories via short documentary videos that live exclusively online.
“Whether you do theater online, on a street corner, in a shelter, or a community center, that doesn’t determine its value. It’s all about engagement, representation, and being heard,” Almazan says. “If you expand the definition and ways of theater-making, we center transformative experiences, we support people on their journeys to cultivate a liberating practice. It’s not about Broadway or what you see on TV or the big stages. It’s about individual people and communities coming together to support creativity, learning, and discovery.”