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A half-dozen actors sat quietly in the seventh-floor actors’ lounge at ACT Theatre, waiting. They had every reason to be extremely nervous.

One by one, they would soon be called in to audition for casting representatives from almost every large and midsize theatrical outfit in Seattle (including Intiman Theatre, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Book-It Rep), and popular Oregon companies (Portland’s Milagro Theatre Group and the august Oregon Shakespeare Festival).

Each person had just two minutes to perform a monologue. Two minutes to make a good impression on a dozen watchful women and men seated at a long table — an impression vivid and lasting enough to get them considered, and ultimately hired, for upcoming roles.

But along with the inevitable anxiety, the last-minute adjusting of makeup and calming of nerves, there was excitement in the room about this chance to take part in the first Northwest Latino Regional Theatre Auditions.

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Presented Sunday by the local Latino troupe eSe Teatro, in conjunction with ACT, the event was a unique showcase for local Latino performers, who haven’t had much visibility in Seattle theaters of late.

“This is a great way to be seen by many theaters at the same time,” said Fernando Cavallo, a part-time actor in Seattle, who was awaiting his cue to recite a Shakespeare sonnet.

“Auditions are always weird,” said Chicana performer Xochitl Portillo-Moody, a graduating theater major at Cornish College of the Arts. “But this is a smart idea, and I feel very good about being here.”

According to organizer and eSe Teatro artistic director Rose Cano, who hopes to make this an annual event, the goals include providing more exposure for Latino actors, creating a database of their résumés and head shots, and “changing the way we think about Latino casting. Does it mean all Latinos must look a certain way?”

“This not an exclusionary thing,” Cano said. “We’re just trying to create a welcoming environment for actors who identify themselves as Latinos, and provide theaters with more access to Latino talent. It will take some time, but we want this region to be a hub for Latino theater.”

The theater reps on hand welcomed the opportunity, with several echoing Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Joy Dickson, who traveled from Ashland for the auditions. “This is a great chance to see more Latino actors, especially from this part of the country,” she said.

The actors taking part ranged in age and look, and hailed from diverse backgrounds linked mainly by their Spanish-language heritage. Actor-writer Cano has familial roots in Chile. Portillo-Moody’s father was born in Mexico. Cavallo comes from the Dominican Republic.

Many Latino actors face a double challenge. They want to be seriously considered and hired for roles that are not scripted as Latino but may be cast multiculturally (from a variety of ethnic groups and races). And they want to secure Latino-specific parts when they arise.

There is no shortage of scripts by respected Latino-American writers, whose works reflect the wide-ranging experiences of the largest ethnic minority group in the U.S., some 53 million people in 2012, according to current statistics. Yet in recent years, professional midsize and larger Seattle companies have produced few of those plays. (More have been presented locally by low-budget groups like eSe Teatro, Seattle Latino Theatre Projects, the new Collision Project, and by Portland’s well-established Milagro Theatre.)

Seattle Rep, the area’s flagship company, apparently has not had a mainstage production of a Latino-authored work since mounting “The Cook,” by Cuban-American dramatist Eduardo Machado, in 2007. At ACT, “The Language of Flowers” by Edit Villarreal,
was on the mainstage in 1995. (By contrast, plays by African Americans and Asian Americans are produced more often locally).

Theater staffers say they’re interested in offering Latino plays, but can have trouble casting them.

When ACT auditioned actors for a reading of Cano’s play “Don Quixote & Sancho Panza: Homeless in Seattle,” just one Latino actor tried out. (The play will get a full production in September.)

“The casting pool in Seattle is predominantly white,” noted ACT associate artistic director John Langs. “ACT, as a contemporary theater, has to reflect the stories of the world we live in. Unless we reach out with auditions like this, we won’t find the actors to tell those stories.”

Scott Nolte, artistic head of Taproot Theatre in Greenwood, concurred. “Casting can be difficult. But in North Seattle, there is a substantial Latino population. It’s prompted us to say, ‘What could we do better to reach out to that group?’ ”

National and local efforts are under way to give Latino theater a higher profile. Currently the 30/30 Project, a countrywide initiative of play readings by Hispanic authors devised by the arts group NoPassport, has resulted in dozens of events around the U.S. ACT, Cornish College, eSe and other Seattle companies have held 30/30 readings recently, with more planned. And there is a cluster of Latino-centered full productions on the horizon locally too, at ACT, Washington Ensemble Theatre, Village Theatre and other venues.

The heightened activity could provide more roles for hopefuls like Portillo-Moody, who wants to stay in Seattle if she can find stage work here. “I love Seattle theater,” she said. “But outside of eSe, there hasn’t been a lot of interest in Latino and bilingual work, which has limited our opportunities. I hope these auditions lead to more of those plays being done here, because there are a lot out there.”

Misha Berson: