It’s been a full six months since Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, but the island is still in recovery mode. Parts of it remain without electricity, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency remains on the ground. The pressure to rebuild only intensifies as this year’s hurricane season creeps closer and closer.
But while the devastation is no longer front-page news, these theatre artists are determined to keep a spotlight shining on their island. Read on to learn how they are lending a creative helping hand—and find out how you can give back too.
Putting on a Show to Save Lives
When news of the hurricane hit, Janio Marrero, a Puerto Rican native and co-artistic director of the Cherry Lane Theatre, was in the middle of a reading festival with Labyrinth Theater Company, who had a residency in his space at the time. Labyrinth got its start as a Latino company, and many members are also Puerto Rican.
“It was heartbreaking hanging out with them,” recalled Marrero. “Many of us had family in Puerto Rico, but we hadn’t heard from any of them in 48 or even 72 hours.” He mentioned that he wanted to do something to help, and the group jumped to support him. When Marrero tossed around the idea of a benefit show, it was met with overwhelming encouragement, and the Indestructible campaign was born. Its tagline: “Our buildings may crumble but our spirit is indestructible.”
Marrero knew that he wanted to create a fundraising event that featured a range of acts—from song and dance to comedy and spoken word—and he wanted it to also benefit Mexico, which had just been rocked by the deadly earthquake. What he wasn’t yet sure about was what he’d do with the money. “I noticed that people were organizing fundraisers immediately without any forethought,” he said. “It wasn’t particularly clear where the money would go or how it would be used.”
With reports of donations becoming lost or damaged, shipping items to Puerto Rico wasn’t an option, so Marrero decided he’d figure out what people needed most and then hand deliver those items; clean water and access to electricity topped the list.
The Indestructible fundraiser was held on the stages of Cherry Lane Theatre on Oct. 22, a little over a month after the hurricane first made landfall. “I thought that by the time I did my event we’d no longer be trending, but the opposite was true,” Marrero noted. “The devastation was so bad that we were still relevant.”
The benefit, which featured more than 20 artists, including names like David Zayas (HBO’s “Oz” ), Tony Plana (“Ugly Betty”), and Elizabeth Rodríguez (“Orange Is the New Black”), drew a strong audience, and Marrero says that the outpouring of gratitude was humbling. “People were thanking me, but I was thanking them for showing up and donating.”
Two weeks later Marrero headed to Puerto Rico with boxes of solar-powered lanterns and water filters. The items had been chosen carefully and were intended to last beyond the aftermath of Maria. “Hurricanes are getting stronger and sea levels are rising,” he said. “Now we have to prepare knowing that it’s getting worse The supplies we’re delivering aren’t just immediate aid but aid that will last and help people survive upcoming disasters. It’s an ecologically savvy approach to hurricane relief.”
To date the Indestructible campaign has raised more than $30,000, and Marrero doesn’t intend to put the brakes on his fundraising efforts. Next he plans to partner with other initiatives to help bring theatre back to the island, considering that “the arts are the first thing to go and the last thing to come back.”
Providing Personalized Support
Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre in the Bronx has Puerto Rican roots, so when Maria ravaged the island, the organization braced for bad news. “We knew that many of our friends and colleagues who we hold dear to our hearts and work with were deeply affected,” said Arnaldo López, the development officer at Pregones.
López and his colleagues listened as those on the island told them about the agony of waiting week after week for the much-needed $500-per-household advance from FEMA to arrive. “One day we said, what if we created a $500 micro-grant for these artists? What if we were more responsive than the government?” said Rosalba Rolón, Pregones’ artistic director.
And with that lightbulb moment, the Hurricane Maria Relief Drive for Musicians & Artists was created, with $4,000 collected in just the first weekend. But a question hung in the air: Who would receive the money?
To identify recipients, Pregones reached out to 10 artists on the island who they worked closely with. They then asked each artist to give the name of another artist, and repeated that process until the network grew to more than 200 people. “We received many names we recognized and many we did not, and we ended with a list that’s truly multi-generational and multi-disciplinary,” said López.
Because the island’s electrical grid was down, automated payments or PayPal weren’t an option, so the staff at Pregones tracked down people in Puerto Rico who could get in their vehicles and deliver the money orders by hand. Despite that barrier, artists waited no more than 10 days between hearing that they were receiving the micro-grant and being handed the money order.
The grants were unrestricted and could be used for both personal and artistic reasons. One recipient was an artist whose wife had given birth to twins the day of the hurricane. She had been stuck at the hospital ever since, as they didn’t have car seats to bring the babies home, so that artist put the money toward the purchase of car seats. Others used it for medical emergencies or to buy gas to keep their generators humming.
The Hurricane Maria Relief Drive for Musicians & Artists has now raised more than $100,000, and Pregones is gearing up for a second wave of response. This time they plan to address the loss of income in Puerto Rico’s performing arts community. “I call the artists on the island the first responders,” said Rolón. “They didn’t have a roof over their heads themselves but they were doing their work to make sure that spirits were up.”
Keeping the Arts Alive
For years, R.Evolución Latina has been exposing the Latino community to the arts, through performance workshops, free summer camps, and productions. So when Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, it was no surprise that the organization stepped in to help. However, they were careful not to jump in too soon. “Our very first response was, let’s not be stupid,” said R.Evolución Latina’s founding artistic director Luis Salgado. “All of us individually trying to do 20,000 things doesn’t guarantee that we’ll be of service.”
Thankfully, the organization already had an annual fundraiser in place, so rather than planning a new event, they dedicated the 2017 fundraiser to benefit Puerto Rico as well as Mexico. The event raised $75,000, and Salgado and his staff decided that the portion for Puerto Rico, $10,000, would go toward supporting artists who were already out there rebuilding the island. “They’re the first people going out and wanting to do more,” says Salgado.
Salgado and his team first went out to Puerto Rico in November for 10 days. In addition to handing out necessities like food and water, they also gave artists a stipend so that they could take care of their own needs while working to engage and better their communities. “It’s like being on an airplane—you need to put your own mask on before helping others,” says Salgado.
The artists who received the money gave back in a number of ways, from handing out toys to putting on theatrical and musical performances that helped to lighten the mood. Many of the artists also used their platform to educate audiences. For example, at one show, puppeteers and clowns discussed why it’s important to replenish the trees destroyed in the storm. At the end of the show, they gave the kids in the audience seeds to help make up for what was lost.
Then in January, R.Evolución Latina worked on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Toys 4 Puerto Rico drive, distributing 40,000 toys around the island. The theatre plans to continue working in Puerto Rico this year. In July, Puerto Rican children will be able to attend a free local performing arts camp, where professional actors will teach them acting and dancing.
“In times like these, whether it’s in Puerto Rico or another part of the world, we see more of what unites us than what divides us,” said Salgado. “What helps us go forward is neighbors helping neighbors, or the artist going out to help rebuild even without having water himself. It’s a beautiful gesture of humankind.”
Rachel Morris is is a New York City-based writer, editor, and content strategist whose work has appeared in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, REDBOOK, and Martha Stewart Living. Her Twitter handle is @Rachel_L_Morris.