Theater Director Visits Bakersfield for Fellowship


Theater director Olatz Gorrotxategi and CSU Bakersfield Prof. Steve Gamboa

Nancy Zubiri, Editor

Olatz Gorrotxategi, a playwright, director, performer, and drama teacher in the Basque Country, was selected for the Frank Bidart Fellowship at Cal State Bakersfield. Gorrotxategi recently completed the fellowship of one month. Her subject of investigation was the Basque diaspora of Bakersfield, Calif.

Steve Gamboa, one of the directors of the Institute of Basque Studies at Cal State Bakersfield, said Gorrotxategi is the program’s first Frank Bidart Fellow. The fellowship, which is co-sponsored by the Etxepare Basque Institute, aims to promote research projects related to culture and art and fellows can be professors or artists.

Towards the end of her visit, Gorrotxategi presented a short comedic skit as part of the annual Basque Studies Symposium May 26. She used migratory birds as a metaphor to represent the immigrants who have left the Basque Country. The birds are an especially good parallel for Basque immigrants, she said, because the Basque Country is a location where many different birds pass through on their annual migrations.

“It was a talk that wasn’t a talk, a play that wasn’t a play,” said Gamboa. “It was really clever and people enjoyed it.”

Her objective during her month-long stay in Bakersfield was to meet people who had immigrated from the Basque Country and talk to them about their experiences. She had anticipated that she would be doing lots of one-on-one interviews. But she found observation was more appropriate.

“I didn’t want to be intrusive,” she noted. “I just needed to understand. I’m not writing a book.” She spent time observing Basques in some of their traditional activities, like at events at the Kern County Basque Club, at local Basque restaurants and at the Basque festivals in Bakersfield and Los Banos.

“She tried to meet people where they were,” said Gamboa, who worked with her during the fellowship.

While Gorrotxategi has visited the U.S. before, this was the first time she came for a project related to her work and also the first time she interacted with the Basque American community.

She admits that her initial expectation of what she would discover changed a lot during her month in the U.S. Because of movies and reports she’s seen over the years, she had a preconceived notion that the immigrant experience could be nostalgic and sad. But in fact, she realized the opposite was true. “It’s a much happier situation than what I thought,” she said.


She calls the type of theater she works in “documentary theater,” because she uses primary sources, like photos or historical memories she culls from interviews, as part of her theater work. She said this genre of avant garde theater is not that well known in the U.S. It’s also known as verbatim theater or investigative theater. She typically writes about social struggles and people’s rights. She has her own theater company and writes her own plays, but also collaborates with other groups.

Her next step, of course, is to write a play about the Basque diaspora. She plans to reflect on how Basques have kept their traditions, their culture and their language in their new country, and at the same time make the play “poetic and funny.” She hopes to reach audiences through the universal theme of immigration. The idea is “to take a local issue and make it global,” she said.

Gorrotxategi intends to develop the skit in Euskera with English subtitles. Her current plan is to have it performed in the U.S. and the Basque Country, but she also has to get funding. If all goes well, she will develop and present it within the next two years.

The fellowship is named in honor of the poet Frank Bidart, a Bakersfield native who is among the most important American poets of his generation. His book, Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016, won both the 2018 National Book Award and the 2018 Pulitzer Prize. Bidart is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and Professor of English at Wellesley College. To buy his latest poetry book on Amazon, click here.

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