Go Deeper

Tatiana Mallarino on Colombia, America, and the Making of ¡EL CONQUISTADOR!

Posted June 14th, 2010

You won’t see Tatiana Mallarino onstage in this September’s Live Arts presentation of ¡EL CONQUISTADOR!—but you will spot her onscreen, thanks to the show’s seamless blend of filmed and live performance. And there’s much more of Tatiana’s creative touch to be found behind the scenes, where she serves as co-creator, co-director, and the link to a brilliant inner circle of Colombian performers who appear in the show. ¡EL CONQUISTADOR! is usually billed as a one-man show, since theatrical Renaissance man Thaddeus Phillips performs as the sole live actor within the intricate set of his own design. But it wouldn’t be the same without Tatiana, his wife and artistic collaborator at Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental, whose Colombian heritage shines through this performance.

The show is in part an homage to the Colombian doorman, a symbolic underdog of society. The service industry is where many of the country’s poor find work, and in downtown apartment buildings, the doorman is at the bottom of the food chain, catering to the tenants’ whims. In a way, though, these workers run the city. People can’t come and go from their homes without them. ¡EL CONQUISTADOR! casts the dreams of the overlooked into the spotlight.

The show also draws on the international popularity of the telenovela—we might translate “soap opera,” but it the Latin American version is a different animal than our General Hospital fare. Much of the telenovela’s appeal as a genre is that it holds out the promise that society’s downtrodden can somehow make it to the top. Usually that means escaping poverty, but there are variations. In Betty La Fea, for example (where American hit Ugly Betty got its start), the protagonist is ugly, not poor. Still, explains Tatiana, “it’s a way of telling people it’s possible.”

And it’s not just a Latin American thing–Tatiana describes a time in the 90s when the Venezuelan series Kassandra had quite a fan following in eastern Europe. Apparently, Serbian programming was 20 episodes ahead of neighboring countries’ Kassandra schedules. So, Serbians would cross the border with signs that proclaimed their knowledge–by heart–of entire episodes of the show. Like ancient poets traveling to perform the works of Homer from memory, these modern storytellers met with audiences eager to hear what happened next.

(What does happen next? Click for more!)

¡EL CONQUISTADOR! roots for the underdog, but the show is also an homage to Colombia itself, and to the land and culture that Tatiana misses. Though she now lives in Philadelphia with Phillips, Tatiana was born in Bogotá, the city where ¡EL CONQUISTADOR! is set and was filmed, to a family of bankers on one side and artists on the other. Her uncle Víctor Mallarino (who also collaborated on and appears via video in ¡EL CONQUISTADOR!) is a bona fide movie star, with a distinguished résumé stretching back to the 1960s.

Growing up with family in the entertainment business wasn’t always easy for Tatiana. “Dealing with stars is . . .” She pauses. “Complicated. There are intense personalities. It’s not as simple as the bankers.” Still, she felt a connection to the artistic side that the financial side of the family didn’t quite understand.

She studied literature and theater in college, then worked as a teacher, and later joined the production crew of one of her uncle Víctor’s television projects. He was directing Leche (Milk), a show Tatiana describes as a parody of the television world.

In 2000, Tatiana was working at a Colombian theater festival when a new character entered the scene. Thaddeus Phillips, traveling with Canadian company Ex Machina, grabbed her attention with a performance in which he tap danced on top of a table, spelling out a letter to his secretary with the clicks and clacks of his feet. “I thought, ‘Who is that guy?'” she remembers, smiling. They met, and Phillips was enchanted. When the festival ended and he had to leave Tatiana, he told her very solemnly, “Don’t worry.”

“Don’t worry?” she laughs now. “I wasn’t worried, it was fun, bye!” But Phillips is a persistent man, says his wife.

There’s one word for what it’s like to work with your spouse as an artistic duo: “Hard.” One plus is that while the rest of us can only fantasize about wringing our coworkers’ necks, “I can actually wring my husband’s neck,” says Tatiana. “But we have the advantage of being able to tell each other everything, and keep the respect. Sometimes it’s really exciting.” But sometimes, there have to be rules: “Like during dinner, we’re not going to talk about it.” She says when they put their heads together for a show, Phillips is more about the visual elements, and she’s interested in getting the structure right: “I’m about the why, the how.”

Traveling with Phillips and Lucidity Suitcase has been an adventure, but Tatiana is a little homesick, and she admits her feelings about the US have been mixed since childhood. In grade school, she and her classmates in Bogotá envisioned places like Disney World as utopia, but an experience there in her early teen years dispelled the All-American mirage. She was vacationing with her family when her mother let her have a sip of beer at a restaurant—not a big deal in Colombia, or most other countries, really. “All of a sudden there were three cops in my face, yelling ‘No, no, no!'” she says. “It was awful. And to be honest, that’s kind of how I think about this country.”

She says she hopes to spend more time in Colombia in the future, but for now, she can live vicariously through ¡EL CONQUISTADOR! It’s a way for Tatiana to go back, if just for a little while, to the language and energy of Bogotá, and the unsung doormen who are always there to greet you when you come home.

–Mara Miller

Photos by Josh McIlvain

To read past blog coverage of Lucidity Suitcase and Thaddeus Phillips, click here.