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Alex Torra. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Pew Fellow of the Week: An Interview with Theater Artist Alex Torra

Our “Pew Fellow of the Week” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.

Theater artist Alex Torra (2018) spoke to us about his concentration on physical theater and why language sometimes feels “limiting,” as well as his in-progress work rooted in his Cuban American familial history. Torra’s ensemble-created, experimental performance work blends theater, dance, and music and invites audiences to consider the complexities of contemporary cultural identity, community, and humanity. At Philadelphia’s FringeArts June 4–8, 2019 Torra’s company, Team Sunshine Performance Corporation, will stage The Sincerity Project #3, the third installment in a 12-part, 24-year performance project featuring the same ensemble of performer-creators in each iteration.


What is your biggest motivator as an artist? What is your biggest fear?

I work on a lot of different kinds of projects, but for the projects that I initiate, what tends to happen is that I get hooked on some thing I can’t quite wrap my brain around, some issue, some trouble, something that I gotta deal with. It rattles around in my mind for a while, and eventually, if it feels like something that’s good for the devising form that I engage with, I go for it. I gather a bunch of folks and ask them to join me in wrestling with the aforementioned thing. My rehearsal room is a place of processing, like a creative think tank, and so we battle with it, dissecting, analyzing, playing with it, trying to see and feel all of its complexities, and then we try to make it into theater. I get motivated by knowing that my way of making art is very simply the way I process my world: collectively, physically, artistically.

There are other motivators, of course. I get motivated by amazing artists, and seeing their work makes me want to make my own. I get motivated by potential—it’s really so, so seductive, the possibility of what something could be. I get motivated by ambition—I’ve worked really hard in my life and want my work to succeed and be seen. I get motivated by impossible things—I like when projects feel like they are way too big or too hard to make happen.

What do I fear? Time, or rather, running out of it. I’m always nervous that there isn’t enough time to properly do a thing, and deadlines make me crazy, and every once in a while, I get a moment to breathe and look around at my life, and it makes me sad that so much time in my life has passed already. It’s a little melancholic, but true.

How did you become an artist? Is there a particular experience that drove you to this choice?

I was one of those high school theater nerds, but my high school (an all-boys Catholic school in Miami) didn’t have musicals. We did speech and debate, and we did unusual plays, including experimental plays from New York’s downtown era of the 60s. (Who does that when they’re 16 years old?) At some point, I got hooked—or maybe addicted—to theater. Something just made sense, or made me really happy. I liked other theater nerds, I liked my friends who were doing it, I liked pretending. There was a lot of affirmation, it was something I was good at, but it was also so, so scary. There was something super thrilling about being scared out of my mind and then getting on a stage and just doing it. The same things carried on as I got to college.

I think I became a professional theater artist because of two things: stubbornness and luck. I was told by the world that it was foolish to become a theater artist, that there was no money and no pathway to a good life, and I just didn’t believe it. And I wanted it, and I’m stubborn. So I went for it. At that time in my life I also had a lot of luck. I caught a few breaks that encouraged me forward, including getting into grad school just a couple of years after college. It felt like things were aligning for me to enter a life in the arts, and so I followed.

You often create highly physical theater work. What drew you to this style of theater making? What can this physicality convey to audiences that more traditional script-based theater cannot?

Physical theater came into my sphere when I first worked with Pig Iron Theatre Company, where I began to work in Spring 2001 in my last semester of college, on a play called Anodyne. I then left Philadelphia, returning to work with Pig Iron in 2007. In the intervening years, I went to grad school and trained in fairly mainstream theater. As I did this work, something didn’t quite feel like it was fitting—I trained as a director, and sometimes my shows worked and sometimes they didn’t, and I didn’t know why. I didn’t feel very good at directing ‘normal’ plays at the time. When I came back to Pig Iron in 2007, it was a full-throttle encounter with devised work that had a physical theater core. Making original things started to make sense to me. It felt good to release normal narrative structures, to play with style and ensemble actions, and it felt so good that the work that would be presented was created by those who were performing it. And so Pig Iron became my training ground. The company’s approach in many ways became my own, with a basis in Lecoq physical training, but the company’s work has also been heavily influenced by collaborations with local dance-theater folks like Nichole Canuso and Headlong Dance Theater.

I don’t know exactly why I’m drawn to the body as a vehicle for story. Language hasn’t always been my friend. It took me a long time to learn how to articulate myself and to write well, and even now, when I get tired, it’s really hard for me to use my words. I think that language, to me, sometimes feels really limiting. Working with the body, working without words, provides a pathway for a broader interpretation, perhaps it cuts past the logic-making/need-to-define quality of our brains and makes an impression or indentation on our minds or hearts. And there is so much pleasure, even magic, when physical performance is precise and virtuosic, but simultaneously, when language disappears, it creates the space for mystery and abstraction, and I find that really appealing. Also, I always like when there’s a real thing happening on the stage—I have a real love-hate relationship with the spectacle of fiction—and when bodies on stage are pushed, breathing, sweating, working hard, exhausted. I find it utterly compelling.

If you could collaborate with anyone alive today, who would it be?

I’m making a big ol’ theatrical triptych about Latin America that is rooted in my personal, cultural, and familial history. I know that I’m not answering this question in the way that it’s asked, but I’m really looking for artists of Venezuelan and Mexican descent who want to make experimental, devised performance. Finding Latinx collaborators to work on devised performance is really challenging in Philadelphia.

Why do you choose to work and live in the Philadelphia area? In your experience, what makes this arts scene distinctive?

When I came back to Philadelphia in 2007, I wasn’t sure I was going to stay. But I went to the Fringe Festival that year, and I saw work like I’ve never seen in my life. I was so enthralled by the physical work, the experimentation, the desire to make something new. And in that first year, I met amazing artists and started to build a community. It’s where my people are, and that’s really why I’ve stayed.

What music are you listening to and/or which books are on your bedside table?

I have periods of time when I listen to the same artist or album over and over, and they become the background for my life. At the moment (actually for the last year, on and off) I’ve been on a big Fleetwood Mac kick. On my bedside table, I’ve got some Federico García Lorca plays, a guide book to Mexico, bell hooks’ all about love, and a novel by Cuban author G. Cabrera Infante called Three Trapped Tigers.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

For a long time my alternative career plan was to go into the Foreign Service, maybe as like a cultural attaché or to serve as part of the diplomatic core, but I don’t know if I could feel comfortable representing our nation at the moment.

I did a lot of music as a kid, and ended up in theater because I was at a school that didn’t really have a music program. There’s a little part of me that always dreamed of being a conductor. I remember watching, as a kid, a TV program of Leonard Bernstein conducting the album recording of West Side Story, and I was totally enthralled. A little part of me has always been sad to not have pursued that path, but maybe what I do now isn’t all that different.