Providing a unique creative force for social awareness and advancement in the South Bronx
Written by Julianne Geary and Sofia Mojica
Pregones Theater was founded in 1979 by Rosalba Rolón, David Crommet, and Luis Melendez, a group of actors who set out to create a theater modeled after those in the Caribbean and Latin American that worked in the form of a “colectivo,” or performing ensembles. When Pregones began, it could not afford to set up a permanent home. The troupe decided to tour, performing plays in Spanish and bringing them to marginalized communities throughout New York City and the Tri-state area. By performing for many decades, Pregones accumulated an audience and received enough donations to open a theatre in the South Bronx. Over the years, the Bronx-based company has featured 80 premieres in English and Spanish, 350 visiting artist presentations, and it has accrued more than 500 touring credits. Pregones Theater is also a leader and innovator in urban contemporary performing arts. Drawing tactics...
Written by Julianne Geary and Sofia Mojica
Pregones Theater was founded in 1979 by Rosalba Rolón, David Crommet, and Luis Melendez, a group of actors who set out to create a theater modeled after those in the Caribbean and Latin American that worked in the form of a “colectivo,” or performing ensembles. When Pregones began, it could not afford to set up a permanent home. The troupe decided to tour, performing plays in Spanish and bringing them to marginalized communities throughout New York City and the Tri-state area. By performing for many decades, Pregones accumulated an audience and received enough donations to open a theatre in the South Bronx. Over the years, the Bronx-based company has featured 80 premieres in English and Spanish, 350 visiting artist presentations, and it has accrued more than 500 touring credits. Pregones Theater is also a leader and innovator in urban contemporary performing arts. Drawing tactics from Bertolt Brecht’s epic or dialectical theater, this company brings the unique experience of Puerto Rican theatre to New Yorkers, many of whom have Puerto Rican roots. By doing so, Pregones acts not just as entertainment, but as a force for social awareness and advancement in a historically marginalized and low income neighborhood, and as a catalyst for change of the negative stereotypical media representations of the Puerto Rican people.
Pregones Theater is the antithesis of Lincoln Center in Manhattan. It did not require that buildings be bulldozed and communities relocated so that a large-scale performing arts center could be erected. Instead, Pregones is an example of how “the Bronx is developing into a community by itself, with its own amusements” (Edison Monthly, 268). By gaining traction through their performances and utilizing donated or repurposed spaces, Pregones emerged through a bottom up approach to institution building. By piecing together resources for decades, they eventually were able to open their own theatre in the South Bronx. As an entity and emblem of Puerto Rican identity, Pregones Theater symbolizes the triumph of sustaining heritage, defeating the odds of being located in a low-income neighborhood, and of serving an underprivileged community. The theater is a center for creative expression and networking in the area. Pregones is committed to performing high quality art and cultivating refined talent, and presents a positive and empowered image of what it means to be Puerto Rican in the South Bronx, an image that is often odds with the racist and stereotypical representations of Latinos seen in mass media.
Pregones Theater, located at 571-575 Walton Avenue, is in the Mott Haven area of the South Bronx. This neighborhood has been a magnet for Puerto Ricans since the late 1940s. This community has infused the neighborhood with creative expressions of their own urban migrant experience. In 1955, the New York Times described the influx of Black and Puerto Rican residents to the Bronx, claiming that, “for most people, it is a way stop on the social and economic ladder; the lower Bronx has always been a low-income area, whether its people were white or non-white, native-born or immigrants” (Gruson, New York Times, 1955). Regardless of whether the neighborhood acts as “way stop,” Mott Haven is a unique community with its own culture. The theater provides an outlet for creativity and entertainment unlike anything else available in the area.
The theater is located between 150th and 149th Streets, just blocks away from the 145th street Manhattan-Bronx Bridge, the 149th Street and Grand Concourse 2/4/5 subway stop, and Hostos Community College. Pregones Theater is located in the area of the Bronx known as “The Hub” due to its close proximity to Manhattan and its accessibility to many busses and trains. The theater is located across the street from a small garage that operates as an auto body shop, and next door to the home of Julio Sanchez, known as “el hombre con los pajaros” (the man with the birds) because of the vine covered, giant iron cage built alongside his stoop where he keeps his chirping pets.
The front facade of the theater displays colorful posters and banners of their name, logo, and seasonal shows. Inside, the lobby is narrow and long, with a small ticket booth, 12 seats, and a bar area. The ground level includes the lobby and the theater itself, which seats 130 people and has a 20’ x 40’ un-elevated stage. The stage is covered in black vinyl flooring with theater curtains set along the left, right, and back edges. There is a small sound booth located at the top of the last row. In the basement level, Pregones has two dressing rooms, each equipped with a full bathroom including showers, as well as a prop room and a set design studio. This former refrigerator equipment warehouse was successfully gutted and redesigned to house an entire theater company. The building is of a modest scale, but craftily and neatly repurposed for Pregones’ needs. As a company, they have mastered the art of accommodating themselves within any space they can get. Their current home is cozy, bright, and highlight of the neighborhood.
Pregones’ first production was" La Coleccion: One Hundred Years of Puerto Rican Theatre," a medley of the most well-known Puerto Rican plays from the past century. The first version was performed in 1978 at Rutgers University, along with an overture of popular Puerto Rican songs. This early incorporation of music hints at the important role that song would play in the future of Pregones. Each scene was meant to examine the ways of life imposed by colonization from a specific angle. After several years of touring with this production, Pregones needed to create new performances to continue its evolution as a group. Soon the company acquired its first office space on 104th Street in East Harlem. Prior to this, they had transported props and costumes in garbage bags on the subway and carried out administrative tasks from their own homes. Puerto Rican painter Felix Cordero offered a space he was remodeling as his own studio to be used as Pregones first office space (Vásquez, 41). The unfinished office was cold and drafty, and soon Teatro Cuatro and Museo de Barrio donated rehearsal space. During the next phase of its evolution, Pregones incorporated professional musicians and dancers into the company. This decision was in line with the use of music since the first production of "La Coleccion," and the use of live music and dance continues to make Pregones distinctive to this day. Additionally, following one component of the Brechtian method, music is treated as another character in the play. During the first ten years of the theatre’s operation, Pregones performed productions only in Spanish as it catered initially to an audience primarily composed of recent migrants and immigrants. After ten years, the group started to incorporate English language plays, often alternating between performances.
In 1983, the company left Manhattan and moved to the South Bronx — the borough that it would call home from then onward. Their headquarters was initially in former P.S. 39 on Longwood Avenue, where the Bronx Council for the Arts had established the Longwood Arts Project. This location was near the audience that the group had started to establish as a traveling company in the Bronx. In 1985, St. Ann’s Church, located at 295 St. Ann’s Avenue near 149th Street, offered its gym as storage space, and a few months later offered its entire building to Pregones as a base of operations. Hudson Scenic, a company involved in many big-name Broadway productions, was located a few blocks away, with many of its employees residing in the Bronx. They donated lights, curtains, scaffolds, and labor. In 1994, a new administration took charge of St. Ann’s, eliminating many community programs, including the space allocated to Pregones. The group temporarily moved to 700 Grand Concourse, where they built a small theatre with a capacity of 50 to 60 audience members. At the same time, they used venues such as the nearby and newly built Hostos College Performing Arts Center, the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre on West 47th street, the auditorium at Lincoln Hospital, and the Bronx Museum (Vásquez, 41-45). The use of these various venues allowed Pregones to establish long lasting relationships with these nearby and thematically related institutions. In need of more space to accommodate its growing audiences, Pregones raised the funds to purchase its current home, the warehouse at 571 Walton Avenue, in 2004. The group continues the traditions of educational outreach performances, networks with other Puerto Rican and Latin American theaters, and hosts artistic residencies. In 2013, Pregones Theatre and the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre merged, coining their slogan, “Two Great Stages, One Great Theatre,” (Pregones).
The company has adapted its current Bronx space to new uses. As is common for residents and non-profit organizations in marginalized neighborhoods, they renewed, repurposed, and claimed space to build community. Following the course that peripheral non-profit institutions often take, Pregones started modestly by renting space. They subsequently grew support, expanded, received grants, and eventually bought their own building, all while establishing strong bonds rendering them an integral community institution. Pregones Theater owns the former warehouse and the wood frame building (formerly a single-family residence) next door to the theater. The warehouse has been converted to include a small lobby, booth, and bar, dressing rooms, restrooms, basement storage, and a 130-seat theater with a 50’ x 80’ stage. The wood frame building is used as office space and a recording studio. Pregones Theater raised the funds to purchase and renovate the two properties through government grants, donations, and revenue from performing art for the Puerto Rican community, showcasing both visiting performers and members of the company, and offering productions in both English and Spanish. Today their space is used for many community events such as lectures and meetings. The theater’s adaptation of space symbolizes achievement in sustaining the cultural integrity of an oppressed people.
The Bronx has a rich history of community building through theaters, music, and cultural venues. What makes Pregones unique is their adaptation of the Brechtian model, a result of performing in communities where theater is not a common pastime. “In short, the spectator is given the chance to criticize human behavior from a social point of view, and the scene is played as a piece of history. The idea is that the spectator should be put in a position where he can make comparisons about everything that influences the way in which human beings behave” (Brecht, 74).
The Brechtian model can be seen in the way Pregones works within a community where performing plays is not a common practice, and in the way their adaptations offer critiques of the Puerto Rican condition to stimulate dialogue and action towards social and political reform. Some Brechtian techniques include: actors presenting stories in episodes and working with a narrator who connects the threads and seemingly disparate pieces of the story, using improvisation, collective theatre, which advocates for the abolishment of individual authorship, a bare and minimal stage set, and live music. Additionally, performances often contain short interludes where actors interrupt the action to create a Brechtian alienation effect—an experience through which the actors intend to present colonization as a topic of discussion. “By interrupting the action between scenes, direct identification with a particular situation in the play is hindered, thus allowing for a constant shift from comedy to tragedy, which allows the audience to observe the colonization experience from an emotional, yet detached point of view” (Vásquez, 74). The audience becomes active in the criticism of human behavior from a social standpoint, “and the scene is played as a piece of history” (Vásquez, 74). Although Pregones Theater diverges from Brecht, claiming that it creates art for art’s sake and does not identify as a political or educational theatre, many productions serve a didactic purpose—not overtly political, but instead producing theatre that provokes political thinking. As the mission states, “creating innovative and challenging theater rooted in Puerto Rican traditions and popular artistic expression” (Pregones). The theatre also serves a dialectical or demystifying purpose. “Our theatre is based on reality: the transfer of labor caused by capitalism, which has caused millions of workers, from around the world, to relocate here and forces us to transcend those isolating barriers.” (Vásquez, 45). The act of relocation does not mean that a loss of cultural heritage is imperitive.
Pregones’s mission follows in the tradition of Puerto Rican and Latin American theatre, offering education and entertainment of an oppressed and colonized people, while at the same time serving as a catalyst for social change and the (re)definition of Puerto Rican identity. The traditional media has long presented Puerto Rican people in a negative light. There is a disconnect from their cultural heritage stemming from a long history of colonization, which is further exacerbated by the constant movement between Puerto Rico and the United States (especially New York). One of the theatre’s founders Rosalba Rolón stated, “We realized our suitcases were always packed and we never went anywhere” (Vásquez, 41). Pregones began creating bilingual performances once the group realized New York City could be an extension of Puerto Rico, both culturally and as a physical place. “The crucial fact is that every day, five thousand of them are up in the air, coming and going to and from Puerto Rico and the United States. If there is one quality that characterizes us as a people, it is our imperative to commute, our transient nature” (Vásquez, 10).
During the 1940s and 1950s, the trend towards American theatre catering to the elite, which still resonates today, began with decreasing revenue from audiences. With the advent of television and radio as entertainment, the number of theaters in New York City dwindled from 68 to 30 between 1930 and 1951. (United States) “To justify the small audiences, the theatre makers began to convince themselves that theatre was a precious art form meant for an elite and not for the masses…effectively giving up its role as a vital force in the cultural life of the people” (Vásquez, 26). Although today theater is regaining popularity, most of the income goes to high profile, limited engagement, and celebrity performances on Broadway, which can cost up to $600 per ticket. (Thompson) Theaters such as Pregones attempt to reclaim that vital role in the community, and fill the gap left in the culture of the people.
Pregones Theater is a place that matters not because it is a uniquely grand or creatively innovative building, but because it provides a creative force for social awareness and advancement in the South Bronx. At the same time, its institution-building strategy, inhabiting everyday spaces along the way, and culminating in a theater of their own, is exemplary of the way in which marginalized communities take advantage of opportunities within the built environment. Rather than using a top-down approach and building a brand new building, the troupe has repurposed existing spaces to suit their needs, often in a piecemeal way. This method of building is in line with the group’s goals of providing a cultural identity for a traditionally marginalized people, providing historical awareness of their condition, and offering methods of transformation for those same people in a way that does not lose sight of their autochthonous identity. “Unlike the images on television or in commercial cinema, depicting a monocultural middle-class world existing outside of international crises, contemporary United States society is fundamentally multicultural, multilingual, and socially polarized” (Vásquez, 46). Pregones plays a pivotal role in bringing awareness to this fact, both to people outside of the Puerto Rican community, but more importantly to those within it—highlighting the ways that their culture is part of what makes the United States unique.
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Lopez, A. J. (2013, November 5). “Artists, Philanthropists, and Community Leaders Celebrate Latino Theater Merger, Call On Peers To Help Raise Remaining $1.4M”. Retrieved October 22, 2017, from http://www.pregones.org/Seasons/13-14/Two%20Great%20Stages%20One%20Great%20Theater.html
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Nominated through Dr. Marta Gutman’s Race, Space and Architecture course, Spitzer School of Architecture, City College, New York, Fall 2017