A life dedicated to theater brings Alma Martinez to ULV
by Gabriella Chikhani
photography by Terrence Lewis
With a blood-stained shirt and tears streaking down his cheeks, Orestes collapses into his sister’s arms and the two sob together until the fiery orange stage lights fade out. The audience jumps out of their red seats and gives the actors a roaring applause. The theatre has been living in the world of “Electricidad” for the last two hours, laughing and experiencing life in the Chicano barrios. The actors smile at one another before taking their bows, while the director, Alma Martinez, watches the scene unravel from the far left corner of the theatre, scribbling in her last bit of notes before the lights go up and the theater empties. She has a smile on her face as her peers and students approach her with praise and congratulations.
Alma has completed her first play at the University of La Verne, but instead of taking her usual place on stage, she has taken the role of director and teacher, helping aspiring actors work on the craft that she fell in love with as a high school student in Pico Rivera, California. Alma got her break in acting in 1979 in the film and play “Zoot Suit.” Now, she sits on the panel for the Academy Awards and has had roles in recent and upcoming films such as: “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “The Darkness,” “Selling Rosario,” “Transpecos,” “People v OJ Simpson,” and “Stevie D.” Her life and career path are far from what her parents had intended for her, but true to what she always envisioned herself doing.
Theater through education
Alma began acting in high school, performing in plays such as “Spoon River Anthology,” “America Hurrah” and “Hat Full of Rain.” “The opportunity to experience different kinds of artistic career paths only broadens as you move through school. Depending on where your school is, you get exposed to more things, so consequently I got exposed to theater in high school and that is where I got bit by the bug,” she says. When it was time to attend college, Alma knew theater was her calling and knew that she was going to use her education as a catalyst.
“My parents didn’t want me to study theater because, as immigrants, you come to this country to have your children get a real career, but I’m finding that every young person who comes to college now, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic status, has parents who generally want them to study something that will get you a paying job,” Alma says. She received a full scholarship to the University of Southern California and decided to major in the performing arts. But when she arrived on campus, she experienced culture shock.
“I got a full scholarship, but no one told me it didn’t pay for books, and my parents couldn’t afford them, so I tried to get a part-time job, but I had to go to school, and I was doing theater…I just didn’t understand the system, and there was no one to explain it to me,” Alma says.
Alma was born in Mexico and immigrated to Illinois with her family when she was 2 years old. While living in an apartment with an uncle, her father had two jobs. During the day he worked as a mechanic, then at midnight, he would grind liver in a company basement to make liver pills. With that money, he built a small house, and her mom planted tulips around it with a white picket fence. In 1960, they sold the house and moved out west to California. Alma knew one thing for sure, that she wanted to keep doing theater. With that thought solidified in her heart, she moved back to Mexico. “I thought, perhaps I wasn’t meant to go to college, and that the fault was mine, in the sense that I wasn’t able to cope with or handle the change,” Alma says.
Alma was at the University of Guadalajara for about a year and a half when her parents told her they would not pay for her education if she were to stay in Mexico, and with that, they enrolled her in secretary school. “My first act of disobedience was going to the theater until 11 p.m. I would do my homework for the entire week during the day, so I could go to different villages with the theater to perform our plays in small towns for the community. I had to do all my secretarial homework during the week, all of it, so I could have my weekends free,” Alma says.
For her parents, secretary school would support her in her old age, but Alma saw school as her ticket into the theater. “I was just pursuing what I loved and the only way for me to get training or to do theater, as far as I (knew), was school, college, community theater — those were the only ways I knew how to do theater,” she said.
After completing secretary school, Alma returned to California and enrolled in Whittier College. During her time with its theater department, she participated in an exchange program in Mexico with the Centro Universidad de Teatro. She was the first Mexican-American woman accepted to the conservatory in Mexico City. When she returned home, a friend of hers told her about El Teatro Campesino, a theater company that needed actors for a European tour. “As a Latina, that’s when I found my voice. There were so few Latinos, I didn’t know if there was a place for me, but I knew I was good and was getting my confidence,” Alma says.
As soon as her one-year tour was over, another opportunity became available right at her fingertips. The play “Zoot Suit” was looking for actors, and Alma snagged her break out role. “It is essential to know the position you’re coming from, to know that you fit, but that you fit in this new identity that’s called the Mexican-American,” Alma says. The play started as a two-week workshop and quickly gained attention. “We were doing interviews, we were doing television shows, and we were on top of the world for a whole year,” Alma says. It went to Broadway as the first Mexican-Chicano play to ever hit the stage. Two years later, Universal Studios decided to make an film adaptation of the play, and Alma made her first appearance on the big screen. “It’s an underground classic and I’m so glad to be a part of it,” she says. In 2005, Alma took the play to the National Theatre Company of Mexico, where it won best Mexican musical.
Life after ‘Zoot Suit’
After the hype of “Zoot Suit” in the 1980s, Alma went back to Whittier College to finish her education. With a B.A. from Whittier College, an M.F.A. from USC and a doctorate from Stanford, she was ready to take on the University of La Verne’s theater department. As the director for “Electricidad,” Alma made her La Verne debut April 26. The play is a spinoff of the Greek tragedy, “Electra,” written in 400 B.C. by Sophocles. The tragedy about family, blood, revenge, violence is told through gang members and cholas. “I love ‘Electricidad,’” Alma says. “It has really strong female roles, and maybe I’m a little bit selfish, but I love plays that have really strong female roles.”
Alma is using her many years of experience as an actor, her educational and professional background, and her role as a Latina within academia and the television industry to help La Verne students. “If you have the passion, you find a way, then you have a good and successful career. It’s important to follow the passion if students have a gift in the arts. I feel it’s my job to recognize it, to nurture it and to encourage it,” she says. In April, her efforts were recognized by the University at the Spirit of La Verne awards.
Alma was awarded the Community Engagement: Engaged Scholarship & Diversity and Inclusivity award. “There’s a strong foundation of passion, social justice and education in the work she does. It’s not just to put on a show, but it’s to make a statement, to educate the community, and bring everybody together,” says Rosalilia Gradilla, coordinator for the ULV Engagement Program. Rosalilia met Alma when she sat in on a presentation she was giving for a January term class on grassroots farm workers in 2015. “You could tell she was an actress because of the way she would describe things and the times back then. She was just so expressive.” Rosalilia says. The Spirit of La Verne Recognition Ceremony had occurred just two hours before the play.The Civic and Community Engagement department purchased a bouquet of flowers to give Alma on the opening night of “Electricidad.”
Jesica Kim, freshman communications major who played Ifigenia “Ifi” in “Electricidad” recalls her first encounter with Alma early in the spring semester. “I didn’t know she was the director. I was just sitting in the theater, looking at the lines, and she came up to me and asked me if I was auditioning too,” Jesica says. “She looked at me then said, ‘Oh wow, you look like exactly what we need.’” Jesica says that Alma strives to treat each rehearsal and encounter professionally. “She’s a teacher in the right way, she actually helps you learn, instead of getting upset. She keeps things professional, but she understands that we’re not professionals.”
During their nighttime rehearsals, Alma sits in the front row of the Dailey Theatre as she watches the young actors become familiar with the stage. She pauses often to give stage direction and tells her actors to evoke as much emotion as possible. “Until we get to the level of energy that she wants, we don’t stop rehearsing a line, and when we finally get to it, she says, ‘This is it,’“ Jesica says. Sitting right next to Alma is Joseph Baum, freshman theater major and assistant stage manager for the play. Joseph sits quietly on his laptop during rehearsals, with the script opened and his eyes fixated on the screen as he follows along to ensure the actors know their lines. Alma often glances at Joseph with a questioning look etched on her face, waiting for her sidekick to confirm that her actors are hitting their cues. “She treats us like professionals, but she teaches us like we’re students,” Joseph says.
As the last few members of the audience make their way out of the Dailey Theatre, Alma tosses her shawl around her shoulders and strides past the sea of chairs toward the front of the stage, where her smiling actors wait to hear her feedback. Some are still in costume, but most have transformed back into ULV students.
“I can teach you how to act, but I can’t give you passion. So you have to believe what you’re doing, like in life. You’re going to go through the motions and you’re going to get passionate about what you’re doing, and that’s what acting teaches you,” Alma says.