Helena de Crespo’s “Shirley Valentine” has found overwhelming success at Oregon Stage Works. However, Helena is more than an actress. Fluent in Spanish and English, she has established theaters in Colombia, Costa Rica and in the United States. She currently is building a theater in Cambodia and organizing a multicultural theatrical experience here in the Rogue Valley. She regularly acts and directs in Portland.
As we dined on Callahan’s garden deck, Helena told me how she happened upon her remarkable career as an international theater director.
EH: You seem to be a person who has had a mission.
HdC: It turned into that, and I don’t know that that was conscious on my part. I was teaching at the University and the National Drama School in Bogota, Colombia. One day this guy came to me from Peace Corps.
The south of Bogota is where the poor barrios are; they have no running water and no transportation. The men usually leave the barrios very early in the morning to go and work and leave the women there to look after the children with no water and no money.
This guy had set up a little factory in the barrio to make knotted rugs out of old nylons. He said to me, “I’ve got to raise money to help them.” And out of nowhere I said, “I’ll do a show for you,” not knowing what I was saying really. When I went to my students at the National Drama School and the university, they all wanted to do it. One of the students brought in this little play, written back in the time of Moliere, “Las Convulsiones.” I agreed to direct the play if we could do it not only at the American Embassy but also in the barrio for the ladies. They loved it. We raised enough money to install a drinking water pipe into the barrio. I suppose it filtered into my conscience that my craft could serve other purposes.
Then I was invited to Costa Rica, where I worked for the Department of Culture, the National Theatre and the theater department of the university. I was put in charge of a program for UNESCO directing a play in another poor barrio. It was Easter and they wanted “The Passion.”
EH: How did you find your actors?
HdC: They just came, breaking down the doors. These people came in off the street; they were fabulous. I was directing over 300 people a night. We wrote the script together. We used the whole barrio. The sewers were open and the houses were falling apart. A certain scene would take place on this street corner and then we’d all tra-la-la to the next corner. People came from all over to see it.
EH: How did your Read Aloud theater come into being?
HdC: When I was in Washington D.C., I was asked for a production to go into schools to encourage the reading of good literature by young people. So I put together Read Aloud, based entirely on the Newberry and Caldecott winners. I dramatized them. We were booked all over the United States. Theater has taken me around the world.
EH: You are now building a theater in Cambodia?
HdC: That has had a huge effect on me. I learned about this ancient heritage of drama that they have in that country, older than anywhere else, nearly 4,000 years old. Whatever else I may seem, I am really an itinerant player. And to meet these actors, knowing that Cambodian actors were killed for doing what has sustained my life, I wanted to help them survive.
You may contact Helena de Crespo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Evalyn Hansen is a resident of Ashland. She has a bachelor's degree in dramatic arts from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master's degree from San Francisco State University. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre, and is a founding member of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Contact her at email@example.com.