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.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


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.

My first job as a teenager was in a Halloween costume shop, making monkey suits and things like that. One of my professors in the art department at UCSD was a performance artist and she was like, “Can you help me make these costumes for my performance piece?” so I did. My career plans were kind of getting dashed for various reasons and she said, “You know, you should go to the theater department.”

There are so many exciting theatrical productions in the Portland area and they represent so many different kinds of experiences. But you’ve been talking about theaters closing and the gentrification of the city itself. Is it both easier and harder to do theater in Portland now?

I feel that the challenge is that being a theater of color, statistically, we are not in the top tier for funding. We just have to work harder at it and be more diversified. We like to see ourselves as more than just a theatre. In our building, we have a lot of activities. We have poetry readings, we have dance projects and visual arts workshops. That’s kind of how we’ve found our niche—being theatre-plus.

Theater as a stand-alone thing is a dying art form. If you look at the percentage of the population that goes to theater and then you extract from that the percentage of those theatergoers who make a choice to go see Latino-centric theater, you’re looking at a small niche, right? The important part is to find out what other interests those theatergoers have beyond just going to see a play.

Ajai Terrazas Tripathi’s play “¡Corre! ¡Corre!” has been on tour last year and this. It’s about a Tarahumara girl from northern Mexico and her coach, who thinks her long-distance running talents have Olympics potential. © Liana Rose Photography 

Could you talk about some of the challenges of taking the shows on tour and why it’s important to bring them to a wider audience?

The number one important reason to do it is, that no matter how hard it is—and it is hard, you’re right about that—we are the only Latino cultural center in the four states of the Northwest that is producing theater, particularly bilingual theater. When we go to a school to do a residency and my artists of color are there working in the classroom, you just see the kids’ faces light up. That’s the next generation and they need to see people like themselves onstage or in the classroom leading arts activities.

I did a two-year case study out in Hillsboro on the positive effects of bilingual arts integration in the middle-school classroom with language learners. We were able to show through pre- and post-testing that we increased engagement and reading by 50 percent in a three-day school residency.

But getting back to your original question about the difficulty, I go to these different auditions where you meet young adults who are just graduating from college with their theatre degree and they’ll sign up to be in my program for a year. At the end of the year after touring around the country and being in three plays and doing all the work, some of them go on to graduate school and others end up going to other theaters where they get paid more, which is always a little disappointing.

It seems like in some of the places where you go on tour—like Texas and Indiana—it would be even harder to find something like Milagro there than it is here.

We get some really awesome stories. We were down in Salem at Chemeketa Community College and this guy sitting in the front row said during the talkback, “You know what? I just got out of prison today. I was going to kill myself, but I came to this play instead. You saved my life.”

Do you ever face challenges when you take a play to a part of the country that’s less welcoming?

We did a play about Federico García Lorca and we were in Roseburg. We didn’t know it, but there was a very Christian group in the audience. In the play, there’s a scene where Salvador Dalí leans over to say goodbye to Lorca. They’re going to break up as friends and he kisses him on the forehead. That’s it. And this woman ran from the theater crying.

Afterwards, her priest came up to us and apologized and thanked us and told us that we’re all part of God’s universe and God’s creatures and that we shouldn’t worry about her response. Apparently, she thought she was going to go to Hell for seeing two men kiss and we were like, “That’s when you really know that your program’s really going to have an impact and expose people to something they haven’t seen before.”

Marilo Nuñez’ play “Huinca” is on tour this month through November. It’s a drama about a wrongful jailing of a member of Chile’s indigenous Tarahumara people. © Liana Rose Photography

What are you most proud of that you accomplished at Milagro in the 2010s and what are you most excited to accomplish in the 2020s?

Being able to actually record data that demonstrated how our program improved outcomes in schools. I know that doesn’t sound sexy or interesting, but from a funder’s perspective it’s very interesting. I feel like for the 2010s, that was the greatest accomplishment.

For the 2020s, we’re going to be really working on sustainability and succession—really trying to get the younger people who want to stay and get really involved in the institution and look at how the next generation of leaders is going to ensure that Milagro makes it past 50 years. We’re going to make it to 50 and we will be remembered. That’s our goal.

Do you ever wish that as a kid, you were able to see plays like the kind of stuff you’re doing now?

Probably, because when we first moved to Portland, Imago Theatre was performing free shows in the park of the children’s museum and I used to take my kids to those. I think that’s when I started thinking about having an educational theater company—and this notion that theater should be free and accessible to the community. I have four employees in my education department, which is pretty incredible. There aren’t too many theaters across the country that can say that. 

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This is the twentieth and final in a series of twenty interviews in twenty days with arts and cultural figures around Oregon, creating a group portrait of the state of the arts in the state. It looks at where we’ve been, where we are, and what might or should happen culturally in the 2020s.

Previously:

  • Rachel Barreras-Kleemann. The “small” goals of the Newport dance teacher, who learned African-Brazilian dance forms in Brazil and performed with the marching samba band Lions of Batucuda: keep kids motivated to dance, give low-income kids a place to go.
     
  • Niel DePonte. The Portland percussionist, composer, and conductor for more than 40 years thinks about thorny issues ahead, and how to tackle them.
     
  • Darcy Dolge, Sarah West, and Nancy Knowles. Three leaders of La Grande’s Art Center East, which helps serve a sprawling ten-county stretch of Eastern Oregon, say funding cuts could have been dire in their rural area, but the community stepped up to keep arts thriving.
     
  • Maya Vivas and Leila Haile. The founders of North Mississippi Avenue’s Ori Gallery “often joke about how we would love to not be the only Queer, Black-run art space in town.”
     
  • Christopher Acebo. The longtime key figure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and recent chair of the Oregon Arts Commission talks about diversity, funding, and who controls the gate to the castle.
     
  • Yulia Arakelyan and Erik Ferguson. Beyond the arts bubble, the Wobbly duo see a dangerous world: “Hate based crime directed against people with disabilities has gone up.”
     
  • John Olbrantz. The director of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art talks about the museum, Salem’s lively arts community, and its “blessing and curse” of being near Portland.
     
  • Joamette Gil. The lowdown on the Power & Magic of creating an indie comics universe that tells tales of life, love, and adventure in a nonbinary culture of color.
     
  • Rachael Carnes. The Eugene playwright, who’s written more than 80 plays in three years, praises her city’s bubbling arts community but fears it’s getting harder to break in: “Access is the foundation for a vibrant arts scene.”

  • Molly Alloy and Nathanael Andreini. “There’s a notion in Portland that anyone living outside Portland is a Klan member. … in fact the small towns and rural communities here are incredibly vibrant and resilient.” A new generation of leaders takes Washington County’s renamed Five Oaks Museum deeper into the arts and into the diversity of culture around it.

  • Ella Ray. “There is this level of resistance coming from formerly colonized people who are marginalized, and I feel something bubbling under the surface,” the art historian and museum activist declares.

  • Martin Majkut. “The current generation of concert-goers is the last one with solid music education in schools.” Rogue Symphony Orchestra’s conductor talks about audiences, money, and music for troubled times.

  • Ka’ila Farrell-Smith. The Southern Oregon artist, mentor, and anti-fracking activist creates visual art “rooted in Indigenous aesthetics and abstract formalism.”

  • Sean Andries and Carissa Burkett. The leaders of Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center provide “a fertile ground for people of all walks of life to cross paths and connect,” from performances to visual and culinary arts.

  • Yaelle Amir. A promising curator makes her mark and then her job disappears. She rolls up her sleeves and makes her mark again.

  • Connie Carley and Jerry Foster. Almost four decades in, the leaders of PassinArt: A Theatre Company continue to set a strong stage for Black theater in Portland.

  • Brenna Crotty. Women have read male-centered stories their whole lives, the CALYX editor says: “Men would benefit a lot from reading female-centered narratives as well.”

  • Kristin Shauck. The artist and teacher/curator at Clatsop Community College loves Astoria’s grittiness, but sees gentrification putting the squeeze on her students: “We have a huge amount of poverty. We have students who are homeless. It’s a very difficult environment to survive in.”

  • Raúl Gómez. The Metropolitan Youth Symphony leader engages the big issues: In a troubled world, he says, schools need to teach the empathy of the arts.


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