The Thalia Spanish Theatre, the first and only bilingual, Hispanic theater in Queens, is a beloved Sunnyside institution — and now, after 43 years, they’re in search of a permanent home in the neighborhood.
“Mostly, what we do is world premieres or American premieres of the best writers and composers from Spain, Latin America and Hispanics in the United States,” Angel Gil Orrios, the Thalia Spanish Theatre’s executive director for 20 years, told QNS. “So that’s what makes our productions somehow unique, because if you don’t come to see them here, you won’t see them.”
With more than 230 productions and 222 awards locally and nationally, Thalia (located at 41-17 Greenpoint Ave.) certainly stands out for its original and endearing Spanish and English language productions.
Gil became the executive director following the retirement of the Thalia’s founder, Cuban actress and director Silvia Brito, in 1999. He recounted how in 1977, when the theater was first established, Sunnyside’s population was mainly Irish.
“When my predecessor started this theater, there weren’t really many [Hispanics] around here at all, so much so that people thought that she was crazy for establishing a theatre here,'” Gil said. “But she proved everybody wrong.”
The Spanish director likes to think of their intimate stage as a “lab,” where they get to take risks, present interesting stories with modern day issues and support the best talent they can find.
That talent spans from world-renowned artists to first-time actors and playwrights.
One of their longtime collaborators is Uruguayan Bandoneon Maestro Raúl Jaurena, who won a Latin Grammy for Best Tango Album (“Te Amo Tango” or “I love you, tango”) in 2007, after recording it live in the Thalia.
Thalia usually has six productions per season: four musicals and two plays that are either dramas or comedies.
The bilingual productions alternate from English and Spanish performances, but it’s essential to have both languages available, as their audience is 60 percent Latin or Hispanic with Spanish being their first or main language.
Their work organically find ways to present issues and fresh takes that the Latin community faces. One example is their “Queens of the Night/Reinas de la Noche” production, a play by Txemi Parra that presents the hardships as well as the beauty of the lives of transgender people who immigrate to the United States.
Their hit comedy, “We Women Do It Better Than Men” (“Las Mujeres lo hacemos mejor que los hombres”), by distinguished Puerto Rican playwright Roberto Ramos-Perea and an award-winning performance by longtime Thalia actress Soledad López, will be back for its third season before it heads to Guatemala in April.
“We are invited many times to take our productions to international theater festivals, representing not only Queens and not only New York, but also the United States as sometimes we are the only productions from the country in international film festivals,” Gil said.
The theater also gives back to their immediate community.
They host an annual free Outdoor Festival (“Thalia al aire libre” ) in June at the nearby Thomson Hill Park/Noonan Playground, where they typically feature Spanish flamenco, Mexican folkloric music and dance with a mariachi or Indigenous band, and Colombian music and dance. They also have workshops, with acting and dance classes for youth and adults, throughout the year.
Some might say that it’s because of the Thalia’s quaint, yet inviting space (it has 74 seats with eight rows) that it’s managed to become a New York City staple.
But Gil and his team have bigger plans for the future of the Thalia.
For as long as the theater’s been around, it has leased their space in Sunnyside. And after the Amazon HQ2 debacle in Long Island City, Gil realized they needed to find a place that’s all their own if they wanted to stay in the neighborhood.
“It was clear to us when this whole thing of the Amazon fiasco came in, that was the time we were really aware that if we were not buying something to have a permanent home, we were going to be out,” Gil said. “We could even do much better because by having a larger space, we could at some point have town halls or community meetings for the Hispanic community.”
Gil mentioned District 26 City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer is helping their vision of having a larger cultural center for the Sunnyside community come to life within the next five years.
“The Thalia Spanish Theatre is one of those incredible hidden gems in the city of New York, where you could go to Greenpoint Avenue and and go into this small, nonprofit theater company and see some of the most amazing performances that you’ll ever see,” Van Bramer said.
Van Bramer told QNS that he remembers visiting the Thalia many times while growing up in Sunnyside, and has increased their funding in the 10 years that he’s been in City Council.
“It’s a place that should be bigger,” he said. “We should have a cultural center for the Latinx community in Queens.”
The Thalia Spanish Theatre has several new productions coming up this season, including “Flamenco al son Latino,” a vibrant musical of flamenco performances mixed with Latin American rhythms, premiering on Friday, March 13.
If you want to keep up with the Thalia Spanish Theatre, where “every month is Hispanic Heritage Month,” visit www.thaliatheatre.org.