Volume 76, Number 51 | May 16 -22, 2007

Villager photo by Geoff Smith

Manuel A. Morán Martínez, founder of Teatro Sea

Little Red Riding Hood, with a Latin beat

Teatro Sea brings children’s theater to Spanish speakers

By Bonnie Rosenstock

On any given Saturday afternoon at Teatro Sea, you might find Cinderella dancing tango at the ball, a strong-minded Little Red Riding Hood plotting to eat the wolf, or Papa Bear lecturing Baby Bear on the importance of self-esteem and the power of forgiveness as a way to achieve inner peace. These are definitely not your mother’s fairy tales or even Grimms’, but at New York’s only Latino, bilingual children’s theatre, neither children nor adults seem to mind the differences.

Teatro Sea, housed in the Clemente Soto Velez building at 107 Suffolk Street, was founded by Manuel A. Morán Martínez, who wears many hats, some of them funny. As is his rule, the artistic director, producer and sometime director performs in every other production. In addition, Morán co-writes about 70% of the shows, which are full of elaborate musical numbers. He enjoys Latinizing and changing the endings to classic fairy tales and tries to include jokes for parents and kids. “Kids are clever, too,” he says. “We can’t just go with a red nose and that’s it.”

Far from the red nose school of theater, Morán painstakingly adapts children’s classics from Spanish-speaking countries, like “The Billy-Club Puppets” (“Los Títeres de Cachiporra”), García Lorca’s Andalusian Punch and Judy-style love triangle, for which Morán commissioned the resident designer of the Teatro Clásico de Madrid to design the puppets and costumes and brought over a guest director from Madrid. Morán also writes original material, such as “My Magical Colombian Bus” (“Mi Chivita Mágica”), which is a musical jaunt through the traditions of the Colombian heartland.

The company presents about ten shows a season, from September to June, which coincide with the school year, along with eighteen shows in repertory, all suitable for three- to twelve-year olds. Every performance is bilingual, with an actor or puppet speaking or singing one line in one language, and the same character or another one translating in a natural, unobtrusive way. None of actors or singers have to be Latino. “The only requirement to work here is that you are a good artist and you are bilingual,” says Morán. “We have many people with accents in English and Spanish,” he says with his own slight accent.

While Teatro Sea is now in its eleventh year, the charming, boyish-looking Morán is celebrating his 22nd anniversary in the business. His grand debut began in 1985, the International Year of Children, when the municipality of his native Vega Baja, Puerto Rico wanted to establish a community theater group and was looking to hire directors. Morán, a 15-year-old high school student, was given the job, beating out his school’s theater teacher. “They said this was going to be great, a kid doing children’s theater with other children,” he recalls. “I cast 70 people. It was outrageous.”

Morán, now 37, then came to New York in 1993 to create his own company, and to attend New York University, where he received his Master’s and Ph.D. in the philosophy of education, with a concentration in educational theater. Today, in addition to managing Teatro Sea in New York, the entrepreneurial Morán runs a company in San Juan, Puerto Rico, traveling there every six weeks or so. The theaters share shows, puppets, costumes and scenery, but have their own local actors. In September 2007, Teatro Sea will also debut a kid’s theater in Miami, Florida to serve all of southern Florida.

“Sea” — Society of the Educational Arts, Inc. — is the Spanish conditional form of the verb to be. “One of our main goals is to empower the Latino community, especially the kids, and to make them feel their cultural identity and self-esteem,” says Moran. “We are inviting them to be whatever you want to be, but to be something.”

However, Teatro Sea’s appeal is not restricted to Spanish speakers. At the sold-out shows in their 65-seat theater or the 80-seat La Tea, which they rent in the same building, about half the audience is not Latino. For Chris Matyszewski, who lives on the Lower East Side, it’s a reasonably priced off-Broadway option. His daughter, Josephine, 5, takes Spanish in school. “It’s slightly educational as well as entertaining,” he says. “In the city you are limited with your choices. You can either drop $100 on entertainment, or sit all day in Tompkins Square Park.”

Explains Annette Cortés, head of Teatro Sea’s education department, as well as press liaison and performer, “It’s about getting children exposed to theater, Latino children especially. You’re creating audiences for the future, so they understand the arts and culture and have a respect and love for it.”

As an arts and educational organization, Teatro Sea has always had two main components: its acclaimed children’s theater and its dedication to providing educational outreach in public schools. They send bilingual teaching artists of all disciplines (and ethnicities) to New York City public schools. “The schools call us and use the arts to enhance the curriculum that’s already in place,” Cortés says. “We’ll also teach the arts as a skill, or teach an enrichment or after school program where they learn the art for its own sake.”

They have also developed a well-received musical dropout prevention program called “The Dropouts” that they tour to schools. The play, which rocks with reggaetón and has a live band onstage, is about six fictional Latino high schoolers in New York City who face the option of dropping out or staying in school. They choose one or the other, and we see their lives and the consequences of their decision. “Because Latinos have the highest dropout rate in the U.S., we decided we needed to do something about that,” says Queens-born Cortés, who is of Cuban/Columbian parentage. “When Manuel co-wrote it, he took stories from people he knew. The play is fiction, but it’s based on events he experienced himself or saw.”

After the show, there is a Q&A. One of the most frequently asked questions is who in the cast dropped out. “None of us,” says Cortés, 28, who has a Master’s degree in educational theater from NYU. “We stayed in school and pursued our dreams.”

Not one to rest on its laurels, the company takes to the city’s streets, parks and festivals in the summer, performing in Latino and non-Latino venues. “That’s a lot of fun,” says Cortés, “but we sweat like crazy.”

Every year Teatro Sea adds a new production to their repertoire. Premiering this September is Morán’s dream project, which he has been working on for two and a half years. It is a Spanish zarzuela for children, “La Muela del Rey Farfán,” or in Morán’s translation, “The Toothache of King Farfán.” Written around 1909 by Joaquín Serafín Álvarez Quintero, it tells the story of the lessons learned by a king who refuses to love and respect others. Morán couldn’t find the original score, so he and a collaborator co-wrote new music and lyrics. It will feature 20 life-size puppets, a handful of actors/singers and a live orchestra.

“We will run it for more weeks and do evening performances, too,” says Morán enthusiastically. “Even though it was written for children, since Spanish operetta is a specialized art form which is appreciated for its music and singing, we know it will appeal to adults as well. And we are thrilled to introduce this genre to kids,” he says.

Teatro Sea has long outgrown its own space, but they have just been granted seed money to expand into half of the second floor of the Clemente Soto Velez Building, thanks to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the efforts of City Council Member Alan Gerson. There is still a lot of fundraising to do, but Morán is confident that construction will begin in 2008.

“Gerson has supported us ever since he took office,” says Morán. “We are delighted that the city is investing in these kinds of companies. The new center has such potential for the future of Latino children’s theater.”

For information and tickets to Teatro SEA shows, call 212-529-1545, or visit www.SEA-ONLINE.info.


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