Q&A: Prof. Giovanni Ortega on Theatre, Identity and the Value of the Art

Giovanni Ortega teaches theatre remotely

Pandemic or not, Theatre Professor Giovanni Ortega may be one of the busiest professors—people?—you’ll find. Writing, directing and acting in a dizzying number of productions, Ortega is the inaugural artistic director for FilAm ARTS Teatro, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that amplifies and enhances Filipino and Filipina voices in the diaspora.  

As an Asian American Filipinx Latinx Queer Muslim, Ortega embodies a multiplex identity on and off stage. We sat down with Ortega to discuss identity and sexuality in relation to theatre and the importance of studying this art.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to be an Asian American, Asian and Pacific Islander in theatre at this moment in time?

It's challenging and invigorating at the same time.

Twenty years ago, I was either playing gang members, college students or Asian American tropes that are tokenized. I was constantly tokenized left and right. I identify as Filipinx, Asian American and Latinx and what was really interesting in hindsight was I felt that I didn't have a voice. But the only voice I could have was to pursue these opportunities, which were very lukewarm at that point.

Cut to today where there are more opportunities for POCs [persons of color] APA [Asian Pacific American]-identified performers. It's really exciting because there's more content being created but at the same time, there's still not enough, right? We have 2,000 years to get back on track with regards to equity and we must decolonize what has been taught and re-indigenize who we are as human beings. I found the shared experiences of people who are colonized intriguing. Specifically, as a Filipino, the Latino community who were colonized by the Spaniards because we have so many intricate shared experiences. At the same time, there’s the Asian American diaspora who also share experiences and culture with us. So what can we do to create this community that enhances as well as engages others to continue creating?

We are in the midst of a tectonic shift, I feel. The pandemic unearthed the xenophobia of humanity, but also showed us that there's more work to be done. The rise of anti-Asian sentiment was obviously prevalent, and the Black Lives Matter movement elevated the immense work that needs to be done for an equitable society. Therefore, I feel that it's a phenomenal time to be in the performing arts, specifically in theatre.

Asian American Performers Action Coalition recently released its annual Visibility Report which stated that on Broadway, 93.6 percent of producers were white, and 100 percent of general managers. In addition, out of the 18 largest Off-Broadway companies, virtually all had white artistic directors. That's just the reality of it.

What is really important is to put myself in the space of a leadership position because there are so many stories to be told. As a Filipino, Filipinx American, we're one of the top rising Asian American Pacific Islander populations in the country. My job is to elevate and enhance those narratives. I wrote a play called Allos:The Story of Carlos Bulosan based on the book America Is in the Heart written in 1946. Ever since it was commissioned by East West Players a decade ago, various theatre companies or organizations want it presented every other year, because something happens in our country that reflects upon the discrimination that Carlos Bulosan went through and the resilience he purported. I think to myself, “I guess it'll keep on living because there's still so much work to be done.”

Can you talk about theatre in relation to gender and sexuality?

In theatre, we are basically historians. We put a mirror in front of humanity and say, “This is who you are,” regardless if it's based on reality, fiction or a mixture of both. I'll speak for myself: I think it's so important to continuously share the narratives of marginalized people. For instance, when the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida happened, I was working in Singapore where being queer is illegal and next door in Malaysia, it's a crime. I always have to see the world from a global perspective whenever I go to those spaces. Before the pandemic, I was working with Scripps Professor Anne Harley and musician Yii Kah Hoe. We were invited to perform at the Melaka Arts Festival where I was performing in a space where my whole existence is a crime.…

In my piece, a queer Muslim character goes back home and re-envisions their identity as a queer person.  Entitled Nature is Speaking, the gender-fluid piece included a Southeast Asian dance called Malong Malong, popular in the southern part of the Philippines. Predominantly performed by women, the dance infuses a cloth that transforms, i.e., the fluidity of cloth to different uses. I realized that when I got there, this is a very queer piece. This is a very queer piece. At that moment I got really scared and nervous because I'm in a space where it is a crime to be me. The majority of the world still considers ‘homosexuality’ as illegal. It's still a crime. But what I realized is that in these spaces, queer people do exist, we exist. After the performances, we had a ceremonial piece where everybody gets to participate. While moving around the space, all these queer people started performing with me in celebration of who we are. That's the power of theatre, to really interrogate the space that you're in and say, “We are here. You can't just silence us.”

Continuously talking about the importance of visibility is key to equity.

After the Pulse nightclub shooting, I was commissioned to write a short play called “The Sea.” The impact on me was not only about being brown but also a queer person who has faith. The short play discusses being Christian, Muslim and Jewish in an intersectional way. When occurrences like Pulse happen or plays that inspired Moisés Kaufman's The Laramie Project about the assassination of Matthew Shepard, it's important to be a historian and create those narratives for such stories to be continuously told.

Why do you think a non-theatre major should take a theatre course?

Many students who take our courses don't necessarily major in theatre. Theatre allows you to have the tools in order to be human, to really dissect yourself as a human being, and see how you can go through life. My pedagogy is broken down to seven tenets in performance. It starts out with breath, then we get into voice. How do you speak? How are the sounds you make? Is your breath supported? Then we get into language. The process is linear, but not apparent when you put it all together: From voice to breath, from breath to voice, to language, followed by characterization, physicality, the sensorial world and then emotionality. I tell our students that ‘feelings are fleeting.’ As actors, it's so important for us to know that we are not our feelings. In Spanish, we say, “tengo miedo,” “I have fear.” You don't say, “I am scared.” I'm not a scared person all the time, I simply have fear at this moment. There’s a distinction. You get to open up in ways that you never would expect, because you think it's you. One of the magical things to see is when I'm teaching beginning acting for first-year students. It's wonderful to see them come out of their shell and become an authentic human being.

Our first-years have never been away from home. Some have done boarding schools, but most of them have never been away from home.  Suddenly, they're in this space where they have to fend for themselves and live on their own. Taking our courses is a great opportunity to breathe and find out who you are during your first year. But most of all we're laughing, jumping around and making fools of ourselves.  At the end of the day, it's called a ‘play’, so you get to play. What is most important during this process when teaching acting is the joy it gives to our students.