I experience art the way I experience life: through the lens of a Costa Rican-American and self-proclaimed “Pennsylrican” that straddles two cultures, two languages, and a multitude of intersecting identities.
When I see a colorful set welcoming me into the world of a play; when I hear the tuning of an orchestra; when I taste a meal that tells a story; when I smell the pages of a new book; and when I touch a fresh skein of yarn as I crochet a scarf, my senses fuse with my memories and observations of the world up to that moment. Filtering these experiences through my life, I react by laughing, crying, empathizing, cheering, screaming, and reflecting. These reactions, in turn, compel me to dance, act, sing, write, and create my own art.
Of all the arts, theatre holds a special space within me. I first experienced it as an audience member, watching my older cousin perform in her high school’s musical each year. There I was, witnessing so many people and separate pieces moving in carefully rehearsed synchronicity; actors, costumes, stage crew, sets, props, music, dancing, and more, all with the objective of giving me and the audience the best performance possible.
Then, between the elementary school play with my first lead role as a rooster, and my transition to backstage controlling the lights for the middle school musical, I began to experience theatre through actively making it. During high school and college—especially after getting a job and having my own disposable income to take advantage of every student discount ticket offer I could find!—I ebbed and flowed between the roles of audience member and artist before graduating with a degree in theatre and music. From here, I acknowledged that for me to fulfill my artistic needs and my financial needs, I must add the role of “arts administrator,” in turn experiencing art through new roles like grant writer, group sales manager, education director, and more.
In my mid-20s, I served as stage manager for The Duende Cycle. For this theatre project, we presented two plays in repertory, where the same group of actors performed multiple plays in rotation. This was the first time in my theatre career where a project centered and amplified stories of the Latin diaspora and was brought to life by a cast and creative team that was majority Latinx, reflecting the diversity within our community across nationality, skin complexion, hair texture, age, fluency in Spanish, and more.
I was both grateful to have this opportunity and I was terrified at the same time because I knew this was going to push my knowledge of the Spanish language to its limits. Yes, my father was an immigrant from Costa Rica and Spanish was his first language, but I acquired Spanish almost exclusively through Spanish class in school. This was in large part due to my stubbornness about the need to learn Spanish in my Pennsylrican household where my mother, Elaine, was an English-speaking Pennsylvanian and my father, also named Gilberto, was a bilingual tico (the colloquialism for what Costa Ricans call ourselves).
As stage manager for The Duende Cycle, the job responsibility that gave me the most anxiety was helping the actors remember their lines when we reached the point during rehearsals where they were “off-book” and no longer using their scripts. Whenever an actor would forget their line, they would say the word “line,” and I would then say their line from the script to help jog their memory.
This meant that at any given moment, I would be on the spot to say whatever line the actor was forgetting, whether it was in English or Spanish. At first, when speaking Spanish, my tongue would usually stumble over itself in trying to say a line. Eventually, with support and patience from the cast and crew and as I became more familiar with the script, I was able to do this with ease and precision, something I have always lacked when it came to my confidence with my Spanish. This theatre experience even helped me with acquiring new vocabulary; I will now forever remember the meaning of the word “navaja” because of this knife’s importance in one of the plays.
A couple years later, I had my first theatre experience in Costa Rica—a presentation of stories, songs, and dances from tico folklore and history—as part of El Festival Internacional de las Artes (FIA). My first time at FIA also marked my first theatre experience that was entirely in Spanish from beginning to end: from seeking information on productions that would be happening when I was visiting; to determining which bus routes I needed to take to get to the theater; to locating the theater’s entrance by asking people on the street or reading signage; to perusing the program book while waiting for the show to start; and finally, listening to the dialogue and lyrics during the performance, all in Spanish.
For a tico like me that struggles to read, write, and listen in Spanish, finding theatre was way more challenging for me in Costa Rica than in the US, but also well worth it because I witnessed tico theatre artists in abundance and infinite varieties creating art through our shared humanity, history, culture, and customs.
While my experience being in a predominantly-Latinx theatre production in the US was transformative and allowed me to see parts of my identity reflected on stage as I’d never seen before, there was something even more magical about experiencing tico theatre in Costa Rica featuring tico actors and tico dancers and a tico production crew and tico designers and a tico marketing team and tico audiences. Although I have since returned from Costa Rica, these new theatrical memories now live within me and have reignited my commitment to sharing tico and Pennsylrican stories, particularly here in Pennsylvania.
And this brings me to how I experience theatre today. As an audience member, I prioritize productions centering mi gente and theatre companies that are Latinx-led and -serving. As an educator, I have collaborated on writing original plays with students of all ages in English, Spanish, and, most often, both languages (and also learned from the students when I didn’t know a certain word in Spanish or needed a reminder on how to conjugate a verb). As someone committed to making theatre more accessible to Hispanics, I have read aloud live Spanish translations for a play, speaking almost 200 words per minute over two hours in rapid-fire Spanish to keep up with the fast-paced dialogue happening on stage.
Most recently, I now experience theatre as a playwright by writing my first full-length play with a tico protagonist. Thanks to working at Theatre Horizon in Norristown and being welcomed into community hubs like CCATE, I have developed an improved sense of self-worth and confidence when it comes to how my many intersecting identities and languages come together and manifest in the art I create and experience. I imagine and dream that in the future, I will continue to experience art that makes me feel seen and heard and valued and recognized in all my beautiful, vibrant, intricate complexity—here in the United States, in Costa Rica, and around the world.
Gilberto Vega is a queer Costa Rican-American creator, educator, and administrator for music and theatre. A proud “Pennsylrican” from Lancaster, PA and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Gilberto serves as the Director of External Relations at Theatre Horizon and is a freelance writer, director, and dramaturg.