MARIA, La De Improv

By Christina E. Rodriguez

The auditorium is dark. But the shapes of four women walking around the stage emerge and their hand up to their ear. ” Hello?!
“I can’t hear you!”
“No te e’cucho!”
“Whaaat?”
The women walk around aimlessly, screaming into their empty hands held up to their ear, almost like a… a… phone.
“What? I’m sorry! I can’t hear you! I’m going to have to call you back!”

This was just one transitional part of MARIA’s act for Sketchfest 2011, based on the 1960’s television series The Twilight Zone. MARIA is Chicago’s all-Latina improv group, who created their own culturally relevant twist of The Twilight Zone, complete with a voice over by the tallest Latina in the group, Lorena Diaz.

This Twilight Zone episode looked at the emerging separation of human relationships and the closer-evolving relationship between humans and their gadgets, particularly cell phones, and social media. The ideas that formed this sketch emerged from improv shows the women performed together at Teatro Luna, the Playground Theater and the iO Theater, which lead them to writing their own sketches, a spin-off of improv that they’re all used to.

Although Diaz and Wendy Mateo run the company that house MARIA, along with their own comedy sketch duo Dominizuelan, the idea came from Diane Herrera Piña, who had the idea of creating an all Latina improv comedy group while she was involved with an improv group called Midtown along with Claudia Martinez and Marla Caceres.

A native of Chicago and a DePaul University alumna, Herrera Piña decided to study acting while in college. “My grandmother probably wore out a rosary, praying that I’d come to my senses,” she said. “I lived with my grandparents as WE do.” She was referring to Latinos, who stereotypically live with their parents and grandparents all the same, as one big collective family. Stereotypes are embraced by MARIA, not shunned. It’s the stereotypes that create who they are and what they are as a group of performers.

“The point of MARIA, if we had to give it one, is that we like to use comedy to challenge common stereotypes,” explained Mateo, “or present them in a new way.”

But it was at a point when Herrera Piña was with a mostly Latino improv group that she had the idea, telling Martinez, and Caceres about it.

“I thought she was kidding,” said Martinez, who started her comedic and acting career by taking Second City acting courses. “People say ‘We should do a show together’ all the time! I didn’t think she was serious about it.”

Martinez, who had previously worked with Herrera Piña, Mateo and Diaz, took the chance with one performance for Teatro Luna at Chicago Dramatists. The chemistry among the five women was great and they all felt comfortable, they’ve collectively, at one time or another, said. Except for Cacerers who is currently at sea performing on a cruise ship for Second City and was not available for an interview.

“Did Lori tell you about the email?” asked Herrera Piña. “I call it the Manifesto.” She explained that it was hardly a few days later when Diaz and Mateo took it upon themselves to outline and brainstorm ideas for MARIA. Where they would go and where they would end up, ideas that weren’t unpractical.

“It wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies. But I looked at it and said, ‘OK, this is possible,’” explained Herrera Piña. It was then that MARIA was born.

Besides the stereotypical reason for calling it MARIA (many Latinas have Maria somewhere in their name), Diaz explains it in a more theatrical sense. “MARIA is named MARIA because we’re mocking the fact that on average 95 percent of the roles we audition for, whether they be  a role for a national commercial or a local one, the name of the role for the Latina actress is ‘Maria,’” she explains.

The group performs improv and sketch comedy for a wide variety of audiences, opening for better-known improv groups in the Chicago scene. They have also hit the digital waves through videos that are posted on UrbanoTV.com, a site dedicated to the Latino community hosting everything from videos to blog feeds.

For more on MARIA and performances visit www.dominizuelan.com

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