Little did I know that there was a theater just down the street from USC that would provide me with an international experience that is universal enough to touch anyone who sees it. 24th Street Theatre, now celebrating its 15th anniversary, brings to the LA community Roma al final de la vía, an award-winning Mexican play from playwright Daniel Serrano.
Norma Angélica and Julieta Ortiz star as two best friends from a small town in Mexico who go together to the train tracks with the 7-year-old fantasy of boarding the train and traveling to Rome. They return to the same spot five more times—at ages 13, 20, 40, 60, and 80—and share with each other and the audience their triumphs, failures, and life stories.
The story, told entirely in Spanish with English supertitles, is communicated through minimal set and props. I had the fortune of speaking with the two actresses after the show and hearing their thoughts on this unique experience.
AMANDA CHARNEY: Throughout the play we see your characters at 6 different points in their lives. Which age did you enjoy portraying the most?
NORMA ANGELICA: For me it was the 80's. I said "Wow, it's so far away, we don't have movement, maybe it's not too good." But all the premieres and shows, the audience was laughing. And so it's so much fun because for me, when the audience laughs, the actors are happy.
JULIET ORTIZ: For me, it's hard…each one of the stages has something. But there are some that are harder for me, and there are some that are just like, "YEAH!" like the first one for me, the 7-year-old—I could do the whole play at 7 years old, I had a lot of fun and I liked the character.
AC: How does having supertitles in the back affect your performance?
JO: My experience is you have to be conscious about the supertitles because they can't improvise. Sometimes in theater, the words can change around to be more natural, but when you have the supertitles you can't do that. When you know you cut or jump, part of you panics and says "Oh my god, what's going to happen to the supertitles??" Part of your mind is there; it's another part of concentration you have to be dealing with.
AC: How different is it performing in front of an American audience rather than a Mexican one?
NA: Well—the story happens in the middle of nowhere in the third world, a country like Mexico. So the people there laugh all the time because they recognize their lives and their experiences. The countries are totally different, so it's good for us. Different things happen that are new for us. And we are talking after the show and saying, "Oh, did you hear that?" and we are laughing also.
JO: I feel that the story is not just what it says, but how it says it. The author plays a lot with words and has a wonderful sense of the Mexican small town way of saying things. The way they talk to each other, that's funny in itself, not as much as what they're saying. So all of that is lost in translation.
And the other thing is that humor has a lot to do with culture. I've experienced that here when I went to take a workshop at Groundlings and I suffered like a pig cause they were all laughing and I was like "What are they laughing at? That's not funny for me." Because it's the way they say it. So here it's funny because you have to get used to saying a joke and hearing no one laughing. It's like "TA DA!"… and silence.
AC: Do you have any advice for students who are studying theater?
NA: I always tell my students they have to wake up every day and say, "What is my dream?" Then get out there and get it! When you are an actor, the most important thing is not how much you know, but how much you understand. You have to understand the stage, you have to understand the audience, you have to understand your partner, and then all the chemistry is happening inside you. That's my dream: understand everything.
JO: For someone that wants to do this, have it really clear what you want: if you want to be famous, if you want to be seen as someone special or recognized, or have a lot of money -- and be HONEST with yourself. And if it's just you wanting to keep on imagining and playing seriously, then never stop studying and preparing yourself. I believe that once you stop challenging yourself to learn new things, that's when you get stuck not growing.
And you don't have to wait until somebody discovers you. You create it, you do it. [Norma and I] had never worked together, and we said "Let's just do it." She found this play and sent it to me, and I read it and said "This is it!" We had to pay with our money, we co-produced, but now it's our baby, it belongs to us. You have to do a huge part of it yourself. And now here we are!