From attending distanced costume fittings and doing remote musical direction to assembling players logging on from different locations who have never met, actors and theater workers like Leticia Duarte have spent the pandemic adapting their stagecraft.
“It’s been amazing to see the resilience and determination to create art, no matter what,” said Duarte. “It’s a real testament to artists and innovation.”
Initially she had doubts about remote acting and directing.
“When it first hit, I spent three months doing nothing,” she said of the shock in pandemic’s early days when all live performance was suddenly suspended. “I heard about Zoom but was really resistant.”
A year later she’s been in eight Zoom plays, booked several commercials and is currently on a film set. Whether acting at home with additional equipment, working with an ensemble remotely or in an audience-less space, filming for live and later streaming, each project comes with challenges and radically different technical and safety requirements.
“One costumer left the stuff inside the space, and then the actors picked it up,” said Duarte. “Zoom rehearsals are bizarre and hard, but there are some benefits. Like you finally get to invite your aunt Lola who lives in Mexico to a performance.”
Duarte comes from what she called a long line of theater. Her uncle is Rodrigo Duarte Clark, founder of El Teatro de la Esperienza, once located at the historic Women’s Building on 18th Street in the Mission District.
“I was thrown onstage really young, I loved it. Who wouldn’t at age 5?” she said, though pursuing the actor’s craft wasn’t yet on her radar.
“I come from a really working class family” she said of her California, Mexican-American heritage. “My mom was a lemon picker as a child.”
Duarte set out to pursue teaching, and it was while studying English literature at University of California, Los Angeles that she encountered Shakespeare. “I had never seen a Shakespeare play at the time,” she said and didn’t initially take to him on the page. But when one of her instructors suggested experiencing Shakespeare live was the key to understanding it, she dove into the deep end of her department’s study abroad program.
“It prompted me to study at Stratford-upon-Avon,” she said, referring to Shakespeare’s birth home. “I attended almost every performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was such an intimate setting, you could literally get spit on.”
The whole experience — “the production values, the being in the town where he lived, interacting with the actors at the local pub afterward” — and a particular performance of “Coriolanus” stayed with her. Though she still hadn’t considered acting as a profession, the die was cast.
“I found my way back through a couple of classes as a hobby and never looked back,” she said. Becoming involved with California Shakespeare Theatre (Cal Shakes), which retools the classics for contemporary audiences, was an important stepping stone. She’s since turned in hundreds of performances in Shakespeare plays, from “Hamlet” to “Measure for Measure,” — “hands down my favorite piece ever” — she said of the role of Isabella and the theme of turning power on its head.
Duarte’s performed with The Theater of Others, a free theater space in the Tenderloin that presents “21st Century Shakespeare for Our Times,” though she’s well aware Shakespeare is a no-go area for some folks.
“He wasn’t perfect. There are some problematic characters. There is almost an erasure of women. In light of what it is we put on a pedestal, even Shakespeare and his basic themes on the complexities of man are going to have to take a back seat to more contemporary plays,” said Duarte, in her newest role is as a change maker in theater.
A co-founder of the Latinx Mafia, Duarte and her fellow performers have created an organization that reclaims Latinx representation in theater and the media, confronts racism in the profession and provides support and resources to empower emerging talent.
“In the early part of my career I wouldn’t have thought about what it meant to be a woman of color, a BIPOC working in theater. Little Leticia was finding a way to get there,” she said.
She pointed to the open letter from Black, Indigenous and people of color theater makers, We See You White American Theatre, which spells out demands for parity, cultural competency and fair hiring practices in the wider theater industry.
“Now that there are so many of us, there is a renaissance and mind opening as a community. As a nation, we’re thinking of inclusion and accessibility and what that means for everyone,” she said – including seniors.
Duarte will be directing two mature actors in an upcoming production of Edward Albee’s two-person play “The Occupant” to be presented by Too Soon Old Productions at Sutter Street’s Shelton Theater, as soon as venues are cleared to go live again.
“After a certain age women are often shut out of theater. They’re almost always never Black, almost always never Latina and it’s a just a few of the same white women. Why has this particular demographic been closed out?”
Duarte was among the actors in the Creative Corps, a pilot program funded by San Francisco and led by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Paint the Void, which put visual and performing artists, dubbed Community Health Ambassadors, to work on the street serving the public with theater and information.
“The project really addressed the idea that artists could literally be starving without it,” said Duarte, who has turned her initial pandemic resistance into a steady stream of opportunity. Last month she appeared in a live online production of “The Review: Or How to Eat Your Opposition” at the Castro’s Theatre Rhinoceros. And as a self-described “burgeoning playwright and writer of monologues,” she was recently recognized by In Full Color, a national organization which provides a platform for women of color to tell stories, develop and present their own material for the stage.
“It’s the first time I’ll be paid to perform my writing,” she said.
Living “in and around Oakland” for most of her life, Duarte said living in The City has remained out of reach on her actor’s pay scale, though if she had a choice, she’d live here.
“The majority of my teaching and theater career has always been in San Francisco,” she said. “There is so much talent and opportunity in the Bay Area. You may not always see us,” said Duarte.
Though the actors are here, it remains to be seen if there will be an audience again once the house lights go up, and down again, as the case may be. Duarte is optimistic.
“There will never be a time and place that we don’t need live theater.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.