Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.
The town of Numantia is Spain’s version of the Alamo — its own story of heroic, last-ditch defiance. Numantia held out for years against the Roman Empire until the townspeople chose suicide over getting dragged off to Rome as trophies and slaves. In rehearsal at Teatro Dallas, Omar Padilla plays the last man left alive in Numantia. On the city wall, he sings to the Roman general Scipio Africanus, asking him, why are you Romans even here? There’s no triumph left for you.
Miguel Cervantes, author of ‘Don Quixote,’ wrote this drama, ‘The Siege of Numantia,’ in 1585. So it’s natural Teatro Dallas would stage the play, given that this year is the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death.
But consider another probably unintended connection: If there’s a heroic holdout in North Texas theater, it’s Cora Cardona. She co-founded Teatro Dallas 31 years ago with her husband, lighting designer Jeff Hurst. They’d moved here — ironically enough — because they hoped for work in the growing film and TV production industry. Instead, she wound up building her own theater company.
“At first, I wasn’t looking to become a director,” Cardona says, “but I saw that there were no Latinos represented, or actors or directors or literature. So that’s what inspired me to say, ‘OK, this is a nice city — and there is something they’re missing.’”
“She was a pioneer as the first professional Latino theater company in Dallas,” says David Lozano, the head of Cara Mia Theatre. In the 1990s, Lozano was a member of Teatro Dallas — Cardona gave him his first acting job. “And so people like me are able to benefit from Cora’s struggles and her heroism.” And not just Lozano — people like Chris Carlos, co-artistic director of Kitchen Dog Theater, or Christina Vela, former member of the Dallas Theater Center’s Brierley acting ensemble. They all started in Cardona’s ensemble.
But for Cardona, what Dallas had been missing wasn’t simply Mexican-Americans on stage telling Mexican-American stories. Teatro Dallas has presented plenty of plays on the Mexican-American experience. Dramas about Cesar Chavez, for instance, or ‘Santos,’ Teatro’s landmark drama about a 1973 shooting of a Chicano youth by a Dallas police officer.
But Cardona grew up in Mexico City, the daughter of a poet and radical journalist. She’s a graduate of the esteemed National Institute of Fine Arts. So she brought with her an entire array of Latin-American theater, especially avant-garde theater. ‘The Siege of Numantia’ is actually rare for her because it’s done in Spanish. Much more often, her little company has presented the American premieres — the English-language premieres — some of the Latin world’s leading writers: Aristides Vargas. Tomas Urtusastegui. Victor Hugo Rascon Banda.
“Mexicans, Argentinians, Chileans, Peruvians, Costa Ricans,” she says, “and they’re luminaries in the world, even in Europe but not in the United States.”
So to direct such plays, Cardona has often had to translate them herself. Or her daughter has. Or her late uncle. Now her hope is getting these debut translations published.
“This is really a cutting-edge, political theater,” says Lozano. “And it is a treasure to have a theater company that produces those kinds of plays.”
Those ‘kinds of plays’ often don’t fit American expectations of stage realism. ‘Magic realism’ is closer to it — and Cardona comes out of the Latin-American generation of artists who created that literary approach. But ‘magic realism’ conjures the affectionate surrealism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez writing about his hometown in Colombia. For Cardona, real drama often lies in the extremes. She’s clearly drawn to the fantastical, the flamboyant and violent. It’s not enough for Don Juan to be a cold-hearted seducer. In Don Juan Tenorio, Cardona made him a vampire — and brought the annual theater tradition of a Dia de los muertos production to Dallas. (“Some people come see us just for that one show,” she says.) That flourish of the macabre is typical. Year-round, Cardona’s productions are filled with tyrants, mysteries, bloodshed, ghosts —
“And fog! Fog theater! — as my actors call it,” Cardona says, laughing. “And I love it because the lights look better with fog.”
Lozano explains, to appreciate Cardona’s aesthetic, it helps to realize the ’70s was “the age of the Latin-American dictators,” an age of violent political extremes and oppression. It also helps to know that Cardona spent years as a student and actor with Alejandro Jodorowsky, the writer-director behind such surrealist, fantasy-horror cult films as ‘El Topo’ and ‘Santa Sangre’ — films that remain landmarks in how truly trippy early ’70s cinema could get.
“He was very daring,” says Cardona. “And so he influenced me in not being intimidated about breaking rules within the script. ‘Don’t be afraid’ is how he influenced me. Be whatever you want to be with the script.”
And then there’s Teatro’s international festival. Even with her tight budget, Cardona has brought us performing artists from Argentina, Spain, Brazil, Belgium. She’s also gone the other way — taking her Dallas productions overseas. This November, she, Jeff Hurst and their daughter Elena will be performing “C’mon Raul Write me a Monologue” by Tomas Urtusastegui at the Festival de la Mujer in Santander, Spain. Previous trips have gone to France and Venezuela. With the exception of a major importer/presenter like TITAS, little Teatro Dallas is one of the few reasons Dallas stages have some true international flavor.
But the heroism of Cardona’s that Lozano cited has been offstage: the years she and her husband have spent fighting for increased city support for minority arts groups – an exhausting struggle, Cardona says, that’s included frustration over how inadequate the theater in the Latino Cultural Center turned out to be for live drama. With the audience area wide and distant from the stage, with acoustics that require actors being miked for anything, it’s more like a high school auditorium, suitable for speeches or community meetings.
“We are always,” says Cardona, “always fighting for funding and space.”
Usable, affordable performance space is The Single Biggest Hurdle for Almost Every Theater Not in a City Facility in North Texas. Teatro Dallas hit upon one, welcome solution when it turned the upstairs in a red-brick building on downtown Commerce Street into a theater. It was downtown, it was near Deep Ellum, and it was a funky, effective, atmospheric black-box theater. The whole feel was appropriately off-off-Broadway.
But in 1998, that space caught fire. And that calamity spun Teatro Dallas off into years of debilitating drift. It wasn’t until 2003 that Teatro adapted the tiny, 65-seat storefront they use now, near I-35 and Mockingbird.
“I mean, I’m lucky to have this shoebox,” Cardona says. “We do wonders with it. We just manipulate it to make it work.”
Through all the wanderings and ruckus, Cardona and Hurst have managed to raise three daughters. Now that they’re adults, Cardona says, Sara, Paloma and Elena tease her about their bohemian childhoods. Teatro Dallas’ cast parties, for one thing, have been legendary affairs with music and dancing all night.
Cardona’s daughters even told her they figured out her musical programming; they could practically tell time by it. “They told me, ‘When you played the Doors, then we knew the party was coming to an end,'” she says, laughing. “It was the Rolling Stones, then it was Perez Prado’s ‘Mambo’ and all this, and then when you got to the Doors, we were all lying on the bed going, ‘Soon we will be able to go to sleep!’”
Of her three daughters, only one, Elena, has followed Cardona into theater. She’s currently successful – acting in New York and LA.
“And I tip my hat to her,” says Cardona, “because I tell her, ‘It’s not about being famous. It’s about making a living from something you love.’ And she does.”
Like her mother – the queen of Latino theater in North Texas.
Are you artistically satisfied?
Are we ever satisfied, Jerome — with life in general? No. It’s a challenge constantly.
I’m satisfied sometimes with certain results and productions, but I’m famous among some actors because I keep changing things even after we’ve opened. Because it’s a diamond you keep polishing until the show closes. And sometimes I go, ‘Oh, maybe she should do this or say that,’ and so I keep changing things. But I try to do all of that at rehearsal and then with some actors who like to challenge themselves, they go for it.
But in terms of being satisfied completely, no, there is always something to learn until the day you die.
How has being in North Texas affected your art?
Dallas is a beautiful, very welcoming city, especially if you have something unique to give. People are very welcoming to new ideas and new artists, new voices. The infrastructure of the city — now that’s an issue to me. I grew up in an incredibly urban place. So when I go to New York [City], I feel immediately at home. And I’ve now been spending a month and a half or two in Mexico City and traveling around and seeing a lot of theater. And when I come back to Dallas, having to drive kills me because I hate driving.
The truth of the matter is that theater is more of an urban art. And the streets, the energy I gain walking the streets in Mexico City or New York, is very inspiring. I don’t even feel the time just walking and getting lost in galleries and coffee shops and 16th-century buildings, it just enriches me.
That’s the only thing about Dallas. But when you’re here, you find the best of it and there are wonderful, stimulating things as well. You know, the wonderful landscape of the plains and all the massive sky, they inspire you because it’s all beautiful. I embrace, as much as possible, the sophistication of Dallas as well as its folklore and the richness of all these different cultures that you find here.
I often find myself going to Richardson or Plano to a Lebanese café or to a Vietnamese diner, and especially the Vietnamese population in Dallas, they inspired me to go to Vietnam. And the theater community is pretty wonderful in Dallas. I’ve seen it grow, and we’ve become the parents of other new groups. I think just having been here 31 years has made me love all the things that Dallas doesn’t have. I have found other things that keep me here.
When did you first consider yourself a professional theater artist?
I think I did that in Mexico City in the ’60s, especially 1967, 1968, when I was part of the national company there. And I pretty much have always been making my living from acting and directing and teaching. I was still going to school and doing other things, but I knew then. I was about 18 or 19 years old.
Do you have any rituals, any practices, you go through — either before a rehearsal or a performance or even starting to work on a script?
Yes, I like to read different styles of literature, short stories, poetry, you know just different authors. I like to go see some theater as well to see what other people are doing. And then, of course, I read my script several times. I get ideas and I get to see imagery that maybe wasn’t there when I first read it.
I also listen to music a lot. I go to museums and I don’t do this in a routine way. I like to go and take photos of certain paintings that I know later will probably be inspiring during the staging of something. Dance, particularly dance, really inspires me, the movement. The way somebody moves their fingers and the details of dance are very good to me and especially because I do quite a bit of physical theater, whenever the script allows it.
What did you give up to follow a life in the theater?
[Chuckles.] I think that it’s not that I’ve become selective, but nurturing friendships sometimes is hard because theater is very absorbing. Thankfully, I have my husband. Jeff is very flexible with me. But oftentimes, my grandchildren’s special occasions, I’m running late. I try not to.
But somebody brought me a bag from Mexico City, they went to a theater down there, and the bag said, ‘I can’t. I have rehearsal. [Laughs.] ‘No puedo tengo ensayo.’ And I thought, yeah, that’s pretty much the world of theater.
I guess you’re married to theater. That’s the thing. And you can’t help but be faithful to it. And you need it. You know, it just fulfills my life on many levels. And yeah, it gets to be a family with the actors you’re working with and you adore them and that’s who you are, and they’re your identity and you’re theirs.
But then again, they go their own ways and that’s pretty much how it works.
What has it been like raising a family while running a theater company?
Well, they’ve all been exposed to it and all have been actors. And they were all very good, but Sara, my oldest daughter, and Paloma, decided to go a different way. The only one who stuck with it is Elena who makes her living as an actress in New York City.
And she does very well to live in such an expensive city and also travels to LA off and on. Her agency has another branch there, and she works both markets. I tip my hat to her because I tell her, ‘It’s not about being famous, it’s about making a living from something you love,’ and she does.