FSU professor bridges cultures with art
Alejandra Gutierrez cannot resist a good post-apocalyptic novel. One of her favorites is “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel which follows a theater group trying to keep the art alive in a world nearly wiped out by a virus. As an actress and FSU professor of Spanish language and literature, Gutierrez finds a kinship to this kind of story, as she strives to keep her culture alive through theater and teaching. It’s through literature that she is able to share customs, celebrations, and values with her students, connecting them and opening their eyes to a world not so different from their own.
“I think the arts are a vehicle to see things in a different way,” says Gutierrez, who has a role in upcoming Tallahassee Hispanic Theater production. “Literature and theater help you to see things through new eyes and open your mind and heart. It’s a beautiful tool to see what you’re missing.”
The Hispanic Theater is excited to debut “Anna in the Tropics,” this February at Goodwood Museum and in March in Monticello. The play follows a family running their Cuban cigar factory at the turn of the century in Ybor City, Tampa. Gutierrez will play the part of Conchita who decides to turn her life around thanks to this book. Because of the play’s strong ties to Hispanic culture, Gutierrez finds ease into slipping into her role, which shares characteristics with people she’s known.
She’s thankful for the support of the Tallahassee community and the generosity of those who volunteer with the organization like Director, Kevin Carr, who has focused on exploring the relationships between characters and immersing the cast into the era, even learning how to smoke cigars and roll tobacco. Gutierrez especially enjoys this work as the main characters are influenced by the readings of the novel “Anna Karenina” and begin seeing parallels to the story in their own lives.
“It’s a beautiful play about family and literature,” says Gutierrez, who deeply connects with both. “For me, it especially speaks to the impact and the power that literature can have to provoke change in our lives.”
Gutierrez’s hometown in Venezuela didn’t have a movie theater or many opportunities to participate in the arts. After graduating high school at age 16, she moved to the capital, Caracas, for college, and spent much of her first year going to every event she could. She still recalls being enchanted by Alfonso Plou’s “Laberinto de cristal” as it followed five young people and their journeys in the arts as writers and actors. Studying journalism, Gutierrez related to the characters and enrolled in a theater class that required a performance by the end of the semester. Though she had never performed before, when the play’s leading lady dropped out, Gutierrez stepped into her role and fell in love with the stage.
For six years, Gutierrez worked during the day as a journalist and spent her evenings acting with groups like Grupo Actoral 80, founded by Argentinean playwright and actor Juan Carlos Gené. The group performed in Venezuela during the era of Argentina’s dictatorship, and under Gené’s tutelage, a whole generation of actors was formed, including Gutierrez. After coming to the U.S., she continues to be motivated by her colleagues back home, and their tenacity for using the power of story and theater.
“I’m always inspired by the people doing theater in Venezuela right now because they’re still trying to do theater even though it’s so hard to do it,” explains Gutierrez. “Theater helps us to talk about our reality. They don’t have any support, but they’re still trying to find ways of making meaningful plays and universal stories that speak to their moment.”
Fully immersed in the theater community, Gutierrez was the special events coordinator for Venezuela’s international theater festival, which hosted groups from Spain, Germany, Italy, Latin America, and more. She continued acting and was greatly influenced by another of her mentors, Giovanni Reali, who directed August Strindberg’s play “The Stronger.” Gutierrez played the lead that spends the entire show in monologue with another silent actress. She was grateful for the chance to work with Realli who coached and improved her skills in character work.
Alejandra Gutierrez joined the teaching faculty in Florida State University’s Modern Languages Department, Gutierrez brought along her ambition, and in June 2016 founded the non-profit organization, Tallahassee Hispanic Theater. (Photo: Alejandra Gutierrez.)
“He had a wonderful way of helping you to know your character,” says Gutierrez. “We did a lot of visualization and internal searching since I was only 22 and playing a woman who was married with kids. It was a beautiful experience that I will always remember and I admire him so much.”
In 2004, Gutierrez pursued her PhD, working and acting with University of Virginia professor Fernando Operé who inspired her to want to start a Hispanic theater company similar to the University of Virginia’s program. When she moved to Tallahassee and joined the teaching faculty in Florida State University’s Modern Languages Department, Gutierrez brought along her ambition, and in June 2016 founded the non-profit organization, Tallahassee Hispanic Theater.
Their first show featured one-act plays by Spanish contemporary playwright Paloma Pedrero, and subsequent performances have been at the HOLA Tallahassee festival and the School of Math and Science. The theater’s mission is to get the entire community involved with all performances spoken in English to allow anyone to audition and direct.
“With this theater group, I would like to let people know about my culture,” says Gutierrez. “I think we have a really rich and long tradition of theater in the Hispanic world that is unknown here in the U.S. and those are the stories I want to tell.”
As president, one of Gutierrez’s future goals is to translate new plays happening in Latin America currently into English to expose Tallahassee to what’s going on abroad in Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, and beyond. As a professor, she enjoys combining her love of words with her passion in theater, though she’s only translated books thus far. The creative process is one of finesse, as the translator cannot take poetic license with every work.
“I’m teaching a translation class right now and I tell the students that you have to resist the temptation to improve the work or the writing,” explains Gutierrez. “When it’s a good piece of literature it’s easy and you want to convey their ideas and find the right words to express what that person is trying to say. When I finally come up with the right sentence, verb, or adjective I should use, it’s wonderful. I love it.”