The Dominican-American playwright changing the narrative of what it means to be an artist
Erlina Ortiz is an award-winning artistic director, and the journey to getting there has been about finding herself and her community.
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From a very young age, Erlina Ortiz knew that she wanted to do something in the creative arts industry.
Growing up, you could often find her writing poems, stapling pieces of paper together, creating books, putting on shows with her younger brother, making puppets, or designing little outfits.
“I was always that one that was very creative, and always kind of bored and engaging myself in random activities,” Ortiz said in an interview with AL DÍA.
Those random activities soon grew to become hobbies, and later would spur her professional career, as well.
Throughout the majority of Ortiz’s upbringing, diversity and multiculturalism were huge parts of her life.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Ortiz moved to the United States when she was just four years old, initially settling in a diverse community in New Jersey.
She grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, during the mid-1990s and 2000s, when an influx of immigrants were coming into the city due to its robust job market.
“My family was part of that,” said Ortiz. “I grew up in a town where everybody was from someplace else.”
That dynamic remained uniform throughout her formative years — from the neighborhoods she grew up in, to the schools she attended.
She was used to being in environments where everyone had a different background and life experiences to share.
“I kind of just always felt like that was what the world looked like, and that’s what I was comfortable with,” Ortiz said.
As she got older, she started to realize how much big of a role it played in the spaces she wanted to be in.
However, Ortiz also came to see that not every environment is like this.
A New Home and Driving Her Passion
When it came time for her to start thinking about colleges, Ortiz decided she wanted to go somewhere outside of Reading, but not too far from the area.
During an 11th-grade field trip, she visited Philadelphia and immediately felt that was the city she wanted to go to for college.
“So, I immediately went to my guidance counselor, and I was like, ‘what are the colleges in the Philly area,’” Ortiz reflected.
She visited several campuses, most of which were in the suburbs and away from the city — which is where she is most comfortable.
Ortiz eventually visited Temple University’s campus, and it immediately became her number-one choice.
So much so, that, she said, “if I don’t get into Temple for whatever reason, I’m not going to college.”
When entering college, Ortiz studied theatre with a concentration in acting.
While going through the program, she realized that she really liked acting, directing, and playwriting.
Her first playwriting course immediately gave her inspiration that it was something she could do beyond the confines of the classroom or for assignments.
Her experience in college, however, was also the first time she didn’t often see a very diverse set of faces.
“I was one of very few other Latinas in the department,” said Ortiz. “All of my professors, except one, were white.”
Given that dynamic, there were very few shows and projects where she felt she could truly shine and showcase her skills.
“I never really found a community within the department,” she added.
However, Ortiz managed to find her community after joining Lambda Theta Alpha, Temple’s Latina sorority.
Her classroom and extracurriculars represented two different ends of the spectrum, allowing her to fully explore her path.
“Thankfully, Temple was a diverse enough school that it had a Latina sorority,” Ortiz underscored.
“If that hadn’t existed, if I hadn’t gotten information about that and joined and been a part of that community, I think I would have been a lot more lost about who I was or what I stood for,” she added.
Entering the World of Power Street Theatre
Upon graduating from college in 2012, Ortiz knew she wanted to continue on the theater track. However, just as important to her was that she also had a community around her as she navigated her post-college life.
Just a few months before graduation, Ortiz was approached by Gabriela Sanchez, who like Ortiz, was one of the only Latinas in Temple’s theater program at the time.
Both Sanchez and Ortiz were able to relate to the fact that they had to find their communities outside of the theater department.
Community is critically important, and Sanchez was eager to do something about it.
Just acquaintances at the time, Sanchez invited Ortiz to join a multicultural theater company that she was preparing to launch.
Hearing the words “multicultural theater company” immediately piqued her interest, and it didn’t take very long for her to come to see Sanchez’s commitment to this effort.
“Gabi has always been a visionary… the type of person that can just see beyond what other people can see,” said Ortiz.
That multicultural theater company is known today as Power Street Theatre, whose mission is to create meaningful change in the theater world through diverse voices and increased representation.
Ortiz recalls attending the first meeting she attended with Power Street Theatre, and seeing such a diverse group of individuals showing interest and participating.
Ortiz thought, “This is my chance now to shine as an actor… I’m going to get a chance to perform finally.”
Along with Sanchez and the rest of the team, Power Street Theatre started to take off.
In February 2023, Sanchez was announced as the next executive director of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, where she will continue advocating for diversity and increased funding in the arts and culture scene in the region.
A Strong Leader in the Making
As time went by and Ortiz continued immersing herself into Power Street Theatre, she came to a realization.
After serving as President of her sorority for more than a year, she realized that she had developed key leadership and organizational skills.
Ortiz started to see that her and Sanchez’s leadership styles complemented each other well to the point where she and Sanchez shared duties as Power Street Theatre’s co-artistic directors.
The first play that Ortiz wrote and directed with Power Street Theatre was called, “Minority Land.”
It touches on the topic of gentrification, where a local university begins buying houses in the North Philadelphia area and pushes longtime residents out of their homes.
For Ortiz, the first play she wrote was a personal one as in college, her campus housing was just two blocks away from a diverse community reminiscent of the one she grew up in while in Reading.
It is always important for Power Street Theatre’s plays to speak to the audience in attendance and cover topics that are relatable to their communities.
“There’s beauty in that,” said Ortiz.
Art As a Superpower
As a stream of emotions befell Ortiz after how the audience reacted to her first play, it brought her a revelation.
It made her feel like she had a superpower.
“To be able to affect people emotionally, mentally [and] even change their lives… I remember thinking, ‘this is so powerful,’” said Ortiz.
“Being an artist is to be able to look at the world and to define something differently out of it, to be able to affect people and the frequencies of their heart,” she continued.
While those same powers can be used for evil, Ortiz has set out to use her powers for good.
While that holds true, the arts have often been an underfunded part of the education system across the region.
One of the initiatives of Power Street Theatre has been to run campaigns and fundraising efforts to support and advocate for the arts. Power Street Theatre has toured elementary schools in the city to promote their work and the value of a creative arts education, and features adult theatre classes, as well.
In Ortiz’s experience in the field, creative arts and theater can teach individuals important qualities like empathy and communication.
“Those are some of the many things needed for a functioning society that we’re lacking right now,” she noted.
While many schools and districts have defunded the arts as part of their curriculum, Ortiz believes that young people having access to these classes can lead to them having a positive impact on their lives, as well as their overall communities.
Being allowed and encouraged to flex her creative muscles helped Ortiz throughout her formative years, and it continues to have a positive influence on her life today.
Today, Ortiz is an award-winning artistic director and playwright, receiving national recognition.
A big reason why is that she was afforded the opportunity to delve into this genre and be the best version of herself within it.
It’s an opportunity she hopes more young people who are interested will also have the chance to get.
Find Your Community, Always Keep Learning
This year, Power Street Theatre is celebrating 10 years. With the milestone anniversary, the company has launched a $10 in 10 days for 10 years campaign.
All proceeds will go toward the mission of making art a vehicle for social change.
As more individuals seek to enter the arts and theater world or get involved with Power Street Theatre, Ortiz has a few key pieces of advice.
“Find your community,” she said. “Build it and cultivate it.”
Over the years, Ortiz has found that each failure and every success can be addressed in a more holistic and productive manner when you’re surrounded by a supportive community.
From the ups of winning an award to the downs of being rejected for grant funding, Ortiz has been able to navigate both the triumphs and the setbacks thanks to the community she has found and built within this realm.
In addition, Ortiz credits her success to her never-ending dedication and determination to learn.
Having gathered experience through her college years, as well as her time with Power Street Theatre, Ortiz hasn’t stopped there.
Ortiz is currently working on a musical, and as a result, has spent months reading plays and musicals to gain more knowledge and inspiration that then goes into her work.
This musical, Siluetas, will premiere with Power Street Theatre in 2024.
“Keep your education going,” said Ortiz. “Don’t ever feel like, ‘I’ve learned enough.’”
In addition, Ortiz advises others not to compare their path or journey to anyone else’s “because none of them looks the same.”