[BEST OF OC] Las Directoras (the Directors): Sara Guerrero and Elsa Martinez Phillips
Forget the vagina talk and Chicana diatribes; Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble is forging an innovative theater experience that engagingly subverts any and all stereotypes about Latinas and theater. A few months ago, the Santa Ana-based troupe produced Lysistrata, an adaptation of the Greek comedy by Aristophanes, with Korean-American Ernest Lee as director.
Although the outward goal of the feisty little theater that could is “to promote Latinas to take leadership roles,” says Sara Guerrero, co-founder and visionary, this means a lot more than throwing a cute Latina actress onstage or running shows that are strictly about Latinas’ experiences.
“We’re open to producing a play written by a dead white man about predominantly men,” Guerrero says. “If we have a female director or a female producer, predominantly female designers—Latinas in leadership roles who are doing this work—then we’re fulfilling our mission.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean the theater ensemble, founded in 2003, doesn’t produce, write, direct and help incubate plays about the Latino experience. For the past two years, Breath of Fire’s New Works Festival has drawn on the creativity of more than a dozen playwrights from around the country. They’ve produced one-woman shows, new works, classic works and experimental plays with seasoned writers such as Josefina Lopez and emerging playwrights such as René Solivan.
After several years of teaching, acting and directing, Guerrero says she had her epiphany about Breath of Fire at a businesswomen’s luncheon several years ago. “It dawned on me that, okay, all these women are doing stuff because they felt there was a need. Either they had to feed their families, or their community was not serving them. So they did something about it. . . . I thought, ‘I want to expose kids in the community to theater. I want to show them that there are other options out there.’”
Guerrero recruited Elsa Martinez Phillips, with whom she had worked on another theater project, and convinced her they could add something new to Orange County—and Southern California—theater. Their first project was The “Mexican” OC, a now-legendary critical success that was based on dozens of true-life interviews and historical references to the county’s deep-rooted Mexican history, including Mendez v. Westminster, the landmark case that set the precedent for Brown v. Board of Education.
With a nearly nonexistent budget, a committed group of volunteers and enough tenacity to fill a stage of any size, Guerrero and Martinez Phillips have breathed life into something that didn’t exist before. Guerrero, who was born and raised in Santa Ana and pursued acting before falling in love with directing and producing, says she always knew she wanted some part of her theater-related work to be based in the county seat. She also teaches theater and works at South Coast Repertory. Martinez Phillips, who has lived in the county for the past 10 years, says she also feels like the heart of the group’s work should be in Santa Ana.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that the two say their quintessential OC icon is The City of Santa Ana itself—and they’ve got a problem with the misperception that it has only recently become an arts-centered city. “I wish the city wouldn’t act like the Artists Village is the thing that’s ‘saving’ Santa Ana,” Guerrero says. “Things have been happening here all along and will continue to happen here.”
Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble, 310 W. Fifth St., Santa Ana, (714) 600-0129; www.breathoffire.org.
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