” teatro milagro

Vision 2020: Dañel Malán

Teatro Milagro's leader talks about bilingual arts, using theater to build community, and the joys and perils of taking the show on the road

Dañel Malán’s path from her planned career as a visual artist and toward her future as the co-founder of Milagro Theatre, the Pacific Northwest’s only Latino theater company, led through a grove of Eucalyptus trees.

“I was probably around 16 when I had my first visual arts exhibit and I thought that was going to be my destiny,” Malán says. That changed at the University of California San Diego, where a mentor suggested that she switch to theatre. “I went over to [the theatre department], crossed the divide—there’s a grove of Eucalyptus trees that you have to hike through—and never turned back,” she remembers.


It’s a decision that continues to define her. Since co-founding the non-profit Milagro Theatre in 1985 with her husband, Jose Eduardo Gonzalez, Malán has helped transform the company into a colossus of creativity. As the artistic director of Teatro Milagro, the company’s touring arm, she’s responsible for taking Milagro’s shows to schools, colleges and universities across the country.

During a lengthy conversation (which has been edited and condensed for clarity), Malán spoke about her achievements in the 2010s, her ambitions for the 2020s and how she plans to ensure that Milagro endures beyond its looming fiftieth anniversary.

Dañel Malan. Photo courtesy Milagro

Tell me about some of your earliest memories of theater and how you became interested in performing.


A wolf left howling at the door

A new Rolling World Premiere at Milagro blends fairy tale and Aztec myth in a visually seductive but overly simplistic tale

Marisela Treviño Orta’s new play Wolf at the Door at Milagro Theatre is a blend of fairy tale and Aztec myth. Its heroine, Isadora, is in an abusive relationship with Séptimo. Séptimo has kidnapped Yolot, a pregnant Wolf-Spirit-Person, and wants to steal her baby. Wolves howl in the distance throughout the show, communicating with Yolot. Isadora (Marian Mendez), Yolot (Maya Malán-González), and the Wolves all plot to take down Séptimo (Matthew Sepeda). Human, Spirit, and Animal come together to triumph over an abuser. As an idea, that’s pretty awesome. On stage, it dosn’t land so well.

Wolf at the Door – it’s part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere program, with companies in New Jersey, Dallas, and Chicago also producing it – opens with Isadora’s baby dying in childbirth. Then Rocío (Patricia Alvitez), a maternal sage figure, digs a hole in the ground to bury the corpse. That’s an intense image at the top of any play. And the intensity only goes up from there.

Patricia Alvitez as Rocío. Photo: Russell J Young

The ancient stories that Treviño Orta used as sources, and which are outlined in the study guide Milagro provides its audience, are compelling. One reason fairy tales and myths have good shelf lives is their simplicity: They succinctly impart the profound. For example, fairy-tale characters are often clearly delineated as either good or bad. That lack of more complex definition works well in storytelling/oral traditions, but here it makes the action onstage fall flat.


Art Harvest Studio Tour of Yamhill County reaps as it sows

The art, in many media, is for sale, but the real bounty lies in the dialogue between artists and visitors about the creative process

Given the confluence of autumn colors and great art, it’s tempting to employ hyperbole when talking about Yamhill County’s Art Harvest Studio Tour, but I’ll spare you a Thesaurus Drop and just lay out the facts.

The 26th annual event includes 40 artists, working in virtually every medium imaginable: watercolor, oil, acrylic, bronze, copper, steel, glass, stone, pastels, charcoal, silver, wood, paper, clay, fiber, tiles, beeswax, digital, and mixed media. It kicks off Friday and runs six days over two weekends. You can visit one, a dozen or all 40 artists if you have time. They’re concentrated in Yamhill County’s two largest cities, McMinnville and Newberg, but you’ll also find artists in Amity, Dundee, Carlton, Yamhill, Sheridan, and Willamina.

The cost to jump into this self-guided tour of local color and creativity? Eight bucks.

Sure, on any weekend, you can spend a day visiting galleries and exhibitions, but this is the one time of year when local artists invite the public into their studios (which often are also their homes), where they answer questions, educate, do demonstrations. Yes, you can buy stuff, but that’s not ultimately the point.

Last week I reached out to a handful of participating artists, both new and returning, to get their take. Of those, none illustrated the point quite so well as paper carver Doug Roy. He’s been working his magic with paper for more than a quarter-century and has participated in Art Harvest for two decades.

Paper carver Doug Roy cuts colored paper into impossibly tiny pieces and turns them into intricate pictures such as this one, titled “Reefers.”

He told me this story.


‘The Mermaid Hour’ rolls around

Preview: The author of Milagro's new national "rolling premiere"--“I want to make sure the diversity I see in life is represented on stage.”

When David Valdes Greenwood was workshopping The Mermaid Hour back in 2014 one piece of feedback he got was that the play would be “impossible to cast” because it was “too diverse.” The show centers on a 12-year-old transgender girl and features a very ethnically diverse cast.

But that didn’t deter Greenwood. “I want to make sure the diversity I see in life is represented on stage,” he said during a “getting to know” visit to Milagro Theatre in early March. His commitment to diversity hasn’t deterred theater companies, either. Later this month, Milagro will be staging the world premiere of The Mermaid Hour, along with three other companies, as part of the Rolling World Premiere Program of the National New Play Network.

Playwright David Valdes Greenwood

Each year the Play Network puts on a showcase of selected unpublished scripts for its Rolling Premiere. Theater companies from all over the country attend, looking for new work to put onstage. If three or more companies decide to produce a show, NNPN provides financial support for the theaters to bring the playwrights to the theaters for some rehearsals and a night of the production. The plays must be produced within a 12-month period.

The Mermaid Hour first appeared in the Rolling World Premiere 2016 showcase. Borderlands Theater in Tucson, Arizona, opens the first run this week, opening March 15. Milagro follows on March 22. Mixed Blood Theatre, in Minneapolis, and Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, in North Carolina, will produce the play as well.


Spotlight on: Robi Arce and The Lost Play

In Milagro's 18th century lost comedy "Astucias por heredar," the director finds a link between today's issues and commedia's craft

Heritage, art, purpose: Robi Arce is a man on fire. These driving passions have merged to make Arce, who is Puerto Rican by birth and a physical theater artist by training, a man on a mission. Very little of anything he says is casual. He knows what he thinks, he knows why he thinks it, and perhaps most importantly, he knows what he plans to do about it all. Arce is very clear: He wants to change the world. “The physical theater work I do is fueled by social justice. I come from a colony. I know what oppression looks like.”

It’s not hard to understand where this serious mien comes from. As you read this, roughly forty percent of Puerto Ricans are still without power following the stumbling U.S. federal and local recovery response to the devastation of last fall’s Hurricanes Irma and Maria. For Arce, that’s a reality that’s personal. His family is still there. When he’s talking about their plight and he says, “the struggle is real,” there’s not a whiff of irony about it. That’s real talk.

Robi Arce: director, physical theater artist.

His love for his people and his culture is palpable. Time and again Arce, who directed El Teatro Milagro’s current hit Astucias por heredar un sobrino a un tío, talks about how he wants to be the engine behind theater by, for and about the Latino community, particularly the youth. He’s developing curriculum for this explicit purpose, for which he’ll be applying for a grant from the Regional Arts and Cultural Council. It’s not about excluding other people, he stresses. It’s about helping his own. “I know what the issues we go through back home look like. Being here, it’s a whole different world. I just want to focus on Latinos because I know the struggle, especially in these times, with what we are going through.”


The beautiful North, and back again

Milagro's "Into the Beautiful North" tells a wild tale of a band of outsiders on a journey to rediscover home


Dorothy Gale once said while clicking her heels, “There’s no place like home.” But she had to travel far and wide, down the yellow brick road, through the Emerald City, against all strange odds, to get back where she started and belonged. Milagro Theatre’s Into the Beautiful North is a similarly wild tale of a band of outsiders on a journey to discover that the golden and kaleidoscope-feathered Aztlán, legendary ancestral home of the Aztec peoples, is a state of mind.

Olga Sanchez and Daniel Jáquez direct Karen Zacarías’s new adaptation of Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel by the same name. It’s not magical realism, but it creates a surreal and vivid dreamscape, from the tiny town of Tres Camarones (translated as Three Shrimps), across the Tijuana/United States border, to a brief pit stop in San Diego, through the dusty and dry desert of Nevada (where’s the snow?), Colorado, and a small town named Kankakee, Illinois, with two gazebos donated by David Letterman, and finally back again to Tres Camarones.

Taking a magnificent quest into the beautiful North. Photo: Russell J Young

Taking a magnificent quest into the beautiful North. Photo: Russell J Young

The three heroes are led by Nayeli, played by Michelle Escobar, who on the outside is a pretty but plain girl who waitresses at a cafe with the only internet connection in town. But, as with Dorothy, don’t let appearances fool you: Nayeli has an unbridled imagination. Her best friend, Vampi (Michelle Caughlin), is the small-town Goth chick complete with corset, hot pants, patterned stockings, and maroon black lipstick. Vampi is one of the tale’s least romantic characters, despite her appearance, and adds a little restraint to Nayeli’s stargazing. Tacho (Danny Mareno) is Nayeli’s boss, and one of the last men who live in Tres Camarones. He faces constant tiny aggressions because he’s gay. The exodus of men to the United States has left the fishing village open to threats from narcos and other highway bandidos. Nayeli is inspired by the ’60s classic western film The Magnificent Seven to find seven equal warriors to protect Tres Camarones.



The cast of Teatro Milagro's "B'aktun 13"/Courtesy Miracle Theatre

Fertile Ground started sprouting this weekend, but I found myself reeling from the scorpion’s tail of a cold bug of some sort, which scuttled my careful plans (just to use three, maybe even four, different metaphors in a single sentence, a construction I blame on the bug.)

I managed to rally Saturday afternoon for Claire Willett’s “Dear Galileo,” running into organizer Nicole Lane in the process, and she said that the early reports were positive. By which she meant large crowds were showing up, and presumably, rioting audiences hadn’t seized any of the stages. If any audiences DO plan to seize the stage, please let me know in advance. I want to see that.

Last weekend I saw the opening of Teatro Milagro’s “B’aktun 13” by Danel Malan, which was technically part of Fertile Ground, and Friday night I saw Third Angle Ensemble’s “Hearing Voices,” which technically was NOT part of the festival, though it qualified, with its two world premieres. I knew things were pitting out for me during “Hearing Voices,” because I found myself concentrating on how to time my coughs to natural breaks in the musical action.

So, just to get our Fertile Ground coverage off to some kind of start, I’m going to write a little about each of these shows. Understand: I was taking some over-the-counter cold medication before I ventured forth. In fact, some of it’s rattling around my system right now. I’ll try to time my coughs to the paragraph breaks.

One more caveat: Some of the productions in this year’s Fertile Ground festival are full-scale, formal stagings. So, for example, both “The North Plan” at Portland Center Stage and “(I Am Still) The Duchess of Malfi,” which Bob Hicks wrote about last week, are world premieres and part of the festival. We’ll feel free to take a full run at those shows. But many (maybe most) Fertile Ground plays and dances are in a preliminary state and performed as readings. So, we’ll speak in more general terms about those — we know how much they can change as they make their way toward full productions.

Willett’s “Dear Galileo” was a staged reading with some very good actors peopling the cast, so the audience could get a pretty good idea of what it might be like in future incarnations. It starts with a little girl named Haley who writes letters to the Renaissance astronomer, mostly because her Creationist father has removed her from her Catholic school, where actual science is taught, and placed her with fundamentalists who probably don’t have much time for Galileo but save most of their ire for Darwin. But quickly it becomes apparent that this is just one of three different stories that Willett is going to tell, and it doesn’t take too long figure out that they are going to be linked somehow, even though one features Galileo himself and Haley is living in the present day.

Willett is up-to-date on her science — I bet she’ll change her script if the Hadron supercollider near Geneva actually locates the Higgs bosun, or “God particle,” which theoretically gives particles their mass. Look, I don’t understand that either, but I bet Willett does, and a lot of present-day and Renaissance astrophysics makes its way smoothly into her script, and it even provides a central metaphor, one of connection at the most basic sub-atomic levels.

At last summer’s JAW new play festival, a couple of plays had a science orientation, too, and now I’m thinking that the city may need a “science theater” to stage them all. “Dear Galileo” should be in its first season.

In a way, “B’aktun 13” is also a science play, except that the science is courtesy of the Mayans, who apparently predicted that 2012 (well, they didn’t think of it as 2012, they thought of it as B’aktun 13) would be year of chaos and rebirth on earth. I say apparently simply because I’m no expert in Mayan culture or the Mayan Long Count calendar, which is fascinating but complicated.

The Teatro Milagro production, which the company will tour and so is fairly simply staged, is a mixture of archaeology, myth and the present-day stories of three Hispanic young adults, each of whom is struggling to integrate their Mexican heritage with their North American home. Malan focuses on the Mayan part of it to emphasize the ideas of chaos and rebirth, but the play is a good reminder that a modern day Mexican or Guatemalan is connected to cultural practices that go back possibly 10,000 years or so.

I was taken by the energy and commitment of the cast — Tricia Castaneda-Gonzalez, Malan, Daniel Moreno and Ajai Terrazas-Tripathi — as they moved from the prosaic reality of Woodburn, Oregon, to the whirlwind of the climax of Mayan civilization, B’aktun 13.

Even under the influence of powerful decongesting and pain-relieving agents, I could go on at great length about “Hearing Voices,” the three-part program that Third Angle performed at Kaul Auditorium on Friday night. I won’t, but I could, so long count yourself lucky!

I’m a big fan of the poetic Dickman brothers, Matthew and Michael, and they contributed the long poem “Shadows” to the good graces of composer Nalin Silva, an old classmate of theirs from high school. Silva’s soundscape, which he executed with violinist Ron Blessinger (Third Angle’s artistic director), was mostly atmospheric and abstract, melancholy like the poem, though occasionally Blessinger tossed in a recognizable melody that seemed to fit a particular section of the poem. Maybe.

So the focus was on the words, which told autobiographical stories and speculated about life in these parts. I like how rich and gooey the language is, how physical and immediate. If “Shadows” was an oil painting painted by a local painter, it would be one by Henk Pander (who opened a show with Esther Podemski at the Oregon Jewish Museum last week, by the way) — so lush it can be a little scary. And the scary opens us up to ever-deeper descriptions and speculations about our fears and our obsessions, or at least those of the Dickmans.

Mostly, I wanted to read the poem, after they finished. And then I thought: Supertitles! We need supertitles for these Third Angle experiments in music and the word.

We got a decent-sized chunk of Stephen Andrew Taylor’s opera “Paradise Lost,” libretto by Marcia Johnson from a short novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, which DID have supertitles! So, yes, we could piece together Le Guin’s cool story about a 7-generation voyage between a failed Earth and a new planet. Six generations is a long time to hold things together among a few thousand humans aboard a spacecraft. Some pretty weird stuff might happen, stuff that threatens the mission, no matter how well Zero Generation planned things.

That’s a great premise for a piece of fiction and Taylor gives it voice and orchestration as an opera. I enjoyed the urgency of the music and its construction, though a full production and some reporting would be necessary for me to understand how it works exactly. Taylor teaches at the University of Illinois, and he brought the four singers in the concert with him, all of whom performed well. The orchestra was full of Third Angle regulars, so the music was in good hands.

The opener of the concert was Tom Johnson’s “Failing, A Very Difficult Piece for Solo String Bass,” played by Jason Schooler. It’s a delight, not so much because Johnson’s composition is THAT difficult to play, but because he asks the musician to speak as he plays, and speak normally, no matter how agitated or soothing the music becomes. And the conceit that it’s all about how the bassist fails to do this, either muffing the notes or the reading. And really, even if the bassist does both well enough to consider it a success, the bassist fails, because the piece is about “failing” not “succeeding.”

I know: Paradox. Actually, it reminded me of my Bob Dylan: “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” That one managed to trip me up most of sophomore year.