Inspiration in the Wings: A stage actress takes matters into her own hands and opens a theatre

Interview with Elisa Bocanegra

by Fanny Garcia

Editor

pLAywriting in the city

Why did you create Hero Theatre Company and why the classics?Just to clarify we not only do classics but new plays inspired by the classics.  I love playwrights.  Many of my friends are and they need opportunities as well. Why did HERO come about? Well, I did a show at the Roundabout Theatre Company with Olympia Dukakis last year.  In the wings of the theatre she asked me why I looked sad all the time (god I love her honesty). I mentioned to Olympia that I felt saddened by the lack of diversity in theatre, still to this day. I was also sad that many of my friends, of all ethnicities, who were trying to do more classics, were up against a wall because they didn’t have the resources to go to graduate school. I said to Olympia, “I just wish we had a place where we can all work together. Actors of all backgrounds and training.”  She looked at me and said “Elisa, I think it’s time for you to hustle and start your own theatre company.”  So I contacted my friend, actress Anya Migdal, who has a fierce pride in her Russian culture that I really admire and a theatre company was born.

Are you based in New York or Los Angeles?  I myself am based in Los Angeles.  I consider myself to be an “LA stage actress.” I had just gotten my Equity card before I moved out from NYC (where I am originally from).  I got cast in a 99-seat play directed by Diane Rodriguez and got some nice reviews and my theatre career took off. I started working at South Coast Rep and the Center Theatre Group and eventually some of those directors and writers brought me back to New York to work.  I mean it’s funny…who moves to LA to become a stage actress?  Well I guess I did!  HERO consists of actors based in Los Angeles who work in New York all the time, in addition to actors who happen to be based in New York and come to work in Los Angeles frequently.  More than ever now, due to the rough economy, actors have to bounce back and forth between the two cities to stay employed.  It’s a clear bridge that is being built.  I’m all for it.  It’ s about the work.  No competition between the cities.

How have you been able to get the support of such seasoned actors like Olympia Dukakis and William H. Macy?  That’s a question I’ve been asked a lot lately. My answer is this; we’re a company run by a bunch of hard working actors. We have giant hearts and really believe in our mission statement.  Many of us have asked for help from folks we have worked with or would like to eventually work with because we’re trying to do good.  We really want to help artists. I think folks recognize that and want to help.  We are so honored to have the support of actors, who long before they became stars were theater artists who had their own companies.  Olympia started two companies earlier in her career.  Inspiring.

King Lear with Olympia Dukakis in the title role was one of the first benefit staged readings by Hero Theatre Company. The event was hosted at The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/Laura Pels Theatre in New York.

What are the benefits of working with an ensemble and how is your ensemble chosen?  We have a small group of company members that have known each other and worked together for years and a rotating company of actors whose work we admire that we also use. We also have an apprentice acting company that consists of a few actors new in their careers.  It’s a mentorship program.  We are very excited about their future with HERO.

What has been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in the process of co-founding Hero Theatre Company?To work hard, never lose faith, forgive yourself when you do and never let your pride get in the way of asking for help.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman starting a non-profit business?  Being a woman in the entertainment industry is hard, period.  I must say though that starting this company has been a very positive experience, almost “healing” as some say. You don’t really have to worry about what you look like when you’re producing a play; it’s about getting the job done.

You are currently hosting some pretty amazing fundraisers such as a one-night performance of Tennessee William’s “Small Craft Warnings”, but when will audiences see a full production from Hero Theatre Company?Right now we have our first two commissions out, a world-premiere of a new translation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” by two incredible writers, playwright Migdalia Cruz and Russian novelist Tatyana Tolstaya.  A Russian and a Latina working together, so exciting! We also have a modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” by Nathan Louis Jackson.  New plays take time to put up, not to mention resources.  Readings and workshops are done before full productions are presented.  In the meantime my Producing Director Anya Migdal and I have been working hard fundraising for the company and creating awareness for our cause. In the future HERO would like to have an education program as well. We have only been around for 11 months; we’re not in a big rush to put productions out there before they are ready. We’re climbing a big mountain, one stone at a time.

Hero Theatre Company presents a benefit reading of Small Craft Warnings by Tennessee Williams at the Annenberg Community Beach House on Sunday, July 29th at 6 pm. For more information visit their website at www.herotheatre.org

Elisa Bocanegra is an actress, singer and Artistic Director of HERO.  Elisa began her theatre training with William Esper and working with respected playwright Migdalia Cruz. She spent two years as part of the prestigious Non-Equity company at the Williamstown Theatre Festival under the then leadership of Michael Ritchie.  It was Ritchie’s production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” that inspired her to pursue more training in the classics and soon after she completed a program with NYU MFA instructor and New York Shakespeare Festival voice coach Shane Ann Younts.  In her second season at Williamstown, between rehearsal days with director Nicholas Martin, she shot her first film “Girlfight” (Executive Producer John Sayles) which received the Grand Jury Prize for Best Film at the Sundance Film Festival. Elisa then relocated to Los Angeles and started working steadily in film and television and began even more extensive theatre training with revered acting coach Larry Moss as well as studying with world renown Shakespeare coach Patsy Rodenburg. Elisa’s many stage credits include the Roundabout Theatre’s production of ”The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” with Olympia Dukakis and directed by Michael Wilson, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum, Hartford Stage, the Huntington Theatre, South Coast Rep, Mabou Mines, Cornerstone Theatre, Crossroads Theatre, Ojai Playwrights Conference and INTAR.  She was selected to perform with Annette Bening and Dustin Hoffman in a benefit for Broad Stage in Los Angeles and most recently sang alongside Chita Rivera and Lila Downs at the Sundance Theatre Lab in “Like Water for Chocolate” the musical, written by “In The Heights” playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes.

About pLAywriting in the city

Expanding the portfolio of arts criticism written by people of color and covering work neglected by the mainstream media.

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