Live telenovela part of Austin’s growing bilingual arts, comedy scenes

Scandal is universal. Start with some passion, add a dash of backstabbing, shake it all up and you have the recipe for a proper telenovela. Only you don’t need a television to catch this story. The Hideout Theatre presents “¡Escándalo! La Telenovela Improvisada!” (“Scandal: The Improvised Telenovela”), a completely improvised, bilingual comedy show running through May. A special all-Spanish performance for Cinco de Mayo is already sold out.

“¡Escándalo!” is inspired by the runaway success of telenovelas like “Jane the Virgin” and “Teresa.” Director Jessica Von Schramm, who grew up in a Mexican-American household in Corpus Christi, fondly recalls her aunt’s obsession with Mexican telenovelas. But there haven’t always been many options for bilingual or Spanish-speaking audiences in American culture. 

“I’m from a generation where speaking Spanish was looked down upon,” Von Schramm said. “It’s hard to imagine, but it’s true. I remember my fourth-grade teacher asking us to raise our hands if we spoke Spanish. No one of us did, even those who were very fluent. Thankfully, times have changed.”

The Hideout show is already a success, having sold out its initial April run weeks in advance before adding four more performances in May.

Other troupes in Austin such as Shades of Brown, Teatro Vivo and the B. Iden Payne Award-winning Latinauts make up a growing number of ensembles providing bilingual comedy and theater in Austin.

“¡Escándalo!” cast member Cristy Salinas Lynch said she has been particularly inspired by the work of Austin’s Emmy-nominated Latino Comedy Project. That group’s artistic director, Adrian Villegas, said he has seen some positive changes in the project’s 20-year run.

“I think the more voices and communities are represented, the better, especially if those communities are under-represented,” Villegas said. “I love what the cast of ‘¡Escándalo!’ has achieved. The show’s been successful, so obviously there’s a large and hungry audience for it. Representation is important and necessary. Creating is an act of faith, so we should support anyone doing the hard work expanding the narrow scope of voices being heard.

“I think there’s a lot more Latino talent visible and active in Austin than there once was. I think that’s true of local minority performers in general. It’s really a beautiful thing to see.” 

Cast member Andy Gonzalez-Bendiksen agrees. “I have been lucky enough to perform at Coldtowne, Hideout and Institution theaters pretty regularly, and I agree that the disparity (in Spanish-speaking audiences) is apparent. However, I’ve also seen efforts from each of the theaters to change that. I was gifted a diversity scholarship from the Hideout Theatre, and if it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t have ended up in ‘¡Escándalo!’”

Producing a show like “¡Escándalo!” is not without its challenges. The diverse cast had to work with one another’s dialects, Von Schramm said: “We have people of Colombian, Mexican, Venezuelan and Spanish descents. So some Spanish words mean different things to different people.”

Promoting the show also has been a learning curve for Hideout Theatre’s artistic director, Roy Janik — things like getting news releases translated and relying on a bilingual copywriter for the website. But, Janik said, “excitement surrounding the show has outweighed any challenges.”

For those non-Spanish speakers afraid of missing something, fear not, assistant director Luke Wallens said.

“The actors and tech do their jobs well and convey everything you need to know,” said Wallens, who brought the concept of a live telenovela to Von Schramm. “This can also help build connections between people. Talking with fellow audience members before and after the show is a great way to start a conversation with a new friend.”

In September and October, the Hideout mainstage show will be “World of the Dead,” inspired by Día de los Muertos and directed by J.R. Zambrano. In addition, the Hideout is planning an all-Spanish-language version of its long-running show “Maestro.”

“‘¡Escándalo!’ is reaching new audiences and laying a foundation for more bilingual shows in the future,” Janik said. “I’m excited to see where it all leads.”

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