Every so often I meet someone and have… a moment of instant recognition; a feeling that this person and I have crossed paths before, that we are connected, or that we will reconnect much further in the future. The moments I am privileged to have with these individuals are almost always filled with some sort of shared growth or learning and are some of the most pleasant moments of my life. I almost always wish these moments could last longer than they do, but then I remember to just be grateful. I met Erlina Ortiz 4 years ago, we were both interning at a theater in center city Philadelphia, and I can still remember the moment I saw her smiling face walk up the stairs of the theater. We spent countless hours in a tiny office doing administrative work, walking around the city in all sorts of weather hanging posters and delivering postcards, discussing our hopes and dreams, and crushing over Stromae. And any moment I am blessed to run into her and see her smiling face, I am grateful. Erlina is one of the strongest, most ambitious young people I know, I am proud to know her. So, of course I had to catch up with her, see how things were. So, I went to the one place I knew she’d be… Inside The Green Room.
Erlina! I know this is a typical question, but can you tell us how you first got involved in Theatre?
Well, I always wanted to perform ever since I was a little girl. My favorite artist was Selena and I wanted to be a singer! Ha.
When I realized I was a much better actor I knew that theatre was the path I wanted to take. I actually lied about it for years because it wasn’t seen as respectable by my traditional Dominican family.
During her Inside The Actors Studio, I believe Meryl Streep admitted she originally wanted to be a singer as well. She thought she was pretty good too…. until she overheard a session her vocal coach had with another student… then she quit. I think she has recovered from that experience, though. But, no, I can totally relate to not wanting to tell my family about my true ambitions. I think I lied about it until I made Dean’s List and a letter came in the mail… My parents wear all black on that day every year… hmmmm. What were your initial goals and ambitions for your career in Theatre?
I was very much focused on acting. Luckily my undergrad program also had us take playwriting and directing courses and I realized I really liked those two things as well. Playwriting came about as a need when I realized their were not enough roles out there for people like me, so I sought to create those roles.
Rising to the occasion, I can appreciate that!
You’ve had the opportunity to intern and work for Theatre companies in Philly, what did you gain from those experiences that still helps you to this day?
The main gain I think has been to be present in many rehearsals spaces, and new play development spaces. Making the connections with artists in Philly who believe in new diverse work helped shape me as an artist.
How is the reality of the the Theatre world different from your early expectations and hopes?
It’s completely different. Growing up I didn’t realize how much of a role my cultural background would play in my career. I only knew about musicals about white people in high school, and college wasn’t much better. Oh sure, they would do the one “black” play every semester but their was literally nothing for Latinos. And when their was a role for a Latino often a white person would get it. It was so very frustrating. I’m glad I’ve moved past frustration and into doing what I can to ameliorate the situation. I guess when I first became interested in theatre I didn’t realize how much politics would be behind it and how much harder I’d have to work to be taken seriously as a young Latina woman.
Girl, you better soulja boy tell’em! I know that’s right! I had no idea that my background was going to be so important, I grew up thinking all these things were equally available to everyone and then, I’m not sure what age it happened, but reality started setting in; no one’s gonna give it to you, so you gotta take it.
Tell us of your journey leading to Power Street Theatre Company and your role as Artistic Director. What do you want to accomplish?
My being a part of Power Street has been an absolute blessing. I wrote our first play because we had two months to put on a show for fringe and our playwright dropped out. Power Street members probably thought I was crazy when I said I would write (and the direct) our first show but they trusted me, and MinorityLand was a huge success. Now we have several full productions under our belt, with three more coming up!
Power Street has big dreams and we don’t doubt for a second we will accomplish them because we are needed in Philadelphia. We have done so much with so little, and the underrepresented community really believes in us. I’m so excited for more people to experience the powerful messages in our productions.
I am so excited for you and the company!
How do you deal with the crippling fear of failure many of us artists face? How is it that you keep pushing forward?
Ha! Well I honestly don’t think about failing. It’s just not a productive thought process. And I feel so strongly about our mission and my personal goals that even just working towards that goal feels like an accomplishment. I’ve had people come up to me after shows in tears telling me how they have never heard Spanish on a stage, or that the issues the characters were dealing with mirrored their own experiences.
That in itself is a success and if the center city folks never realize that, well, their loss.
What advice would you want to give someone just getting their start in Theatre?
Find out what you are really passionate about and what type of work you want to bring to the world.
Don’t be afraid to take administrative and technical theatre jobs if you are a performer or playwright or whatever. Learning about all aspects of the stage from different points of view will only help you in the long run, and keep you paying the bills.
Also, don’t wait for someone to give you an opportunity, create them for yourself.
Yes! Create those opportunities!
What is the greatest struggle you have overcome in your life?
In September 2014 during Philly Fringe, and half way through the run of the show I wrote and starred in, my intestine burst and I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. We had to cancel the rest of the run which was devastating, and I spent two weeks in the hospital. I was on a liquid diet for months. I had 3.5 surgeries, was 30 pounds under weight, and spent a total of something like 70 days in the hospital between September 2014 and September 2015.
And that’s only really the half of the story of that nightmare experience. Still, Gabby Sanchez and the other Power Street members stuck by my side, and I wrote my latest play She Wore Those Shoes during that time. I’m still struggling with some of the body insecurities that multiple surgeries cause. But through a lot of hard work my health is much better. Keeping my spirits (and creativity up) during that challenge was a struggle but I made it through and truthfully now I feel invincible.
I am so happy you made it through that experience with such a positive outlook. I am always rooting for you and occasionally, take a moment to stop what I am doing and send positive energy in your direction. I’ve been surprised with the need to have major corrective surgery in my life and it was not the most exciting thing, but these obstacles are great opportunities to make us stronger, and I think you are an exceptionally strong woman.
What is love?
Love is all you need.
What do you most enjoy about this thing called life?
Learning new things everyday and laughing as much as possible.
(This is starting to fee like okcupid…lol)
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In 10 years career wise I would hope that Power Street has its own building and a regular season with the members as full time staff. I would hope that my plays would be getting produced around the country and that I am working on something I’m passionate about. I’d also like to have a family and babies and a that jazz.
Yes, I hope you get all those things and ALL that jazz. Keep up with Power Street Theatre Company and Ms. Ortiz! I know I will!