Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A letter from a member of the lost tribe

As the Artistic Director of Watts Village Theater Company, a multicultural urban theater company that seeks to inspire positive social change through innovative theatrical work, I read “Small Theaters: Having Impact” with great interest. I wanted to read what Steven Leigh Morris and Charles McNulty consider impactful and was a little disturbed that none of the theaters in the article make their home south of the 10 Freeway. It would appear that the “collective myopia” Mr. Morris so eloquently talked about was in full display. Now granted I do not know what the criteria used to form the list was, but I do know that if impact is important then there were a handful of companies that should have been on the list.

Here are some theaters to think about when thinking about having an impact in Los Angeles Theater.

Cornerstone Theater Company: With their more than twenty years in existence, they are head and shoulders above us all in L.A. theater when it comes to the development of new work with and in highly impacted communities. Their most recent production in Pacoima “It’s All Bueno” a show written by one of Los Angeles’ most promising playwrights Sigred Gilmer played to sold out audiences.

24th Street Theater: Like the REDCAT this is a theater venue that mostly hosts productions, but since the loss of the FITLA (Festival of Latin-American Theater) has taken it upon itself to fan the embers of international theatrical collaboration in Los Angeles. Through theirTeatro Nuevo initiative they have managed to stage the hugely popular touring bilingual production of “El Ogrito” and will next be offering “The Armored Reason”, written and directed by one of Latin America’s premier theater practitioners Arístides Vargas.

Watts Village Theater Company: In May spearheaded “Meet Me @Metro”, a theatrical extravaganza in collaboration with six other impactful companies and artists including the OBIE award winning Composer/Director Rick

 ~I could go on but as Mr. McNulty and Mr. Morris know you can’t include them all. 
Guillermo Aviles-Rodriguez
Artistic Director 
Watts Village Theater Company

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Being Broke Is Not All Bad

As a young kid I hated buying milk; I was ashamed but I was also resourceful, when my mom would call out to me, I would hide in the bathroom or say, “too much homework mom”. We did not run out of milk every day but we ran out enough for it to be one of the things I remember most about growing up in Watts. See, my mom was a single parent with three kids and a six-grade education, and we were on food stamps. In those days technology was not as advanced as it is now, no fancy EBT cards no direct deposit nothing like that. If you were on welfare and got food stamps you literally got “Stamps” and you had to tear them out of a little booklet in front of the cashier at the store, “to cut down on fraud,” we were told.  So what does this have to do with theater?

Well, a few weeks ago I was sitting at the Actor’s Gang with fifty people or so, in solidarity with the California Arts Advocates. We were there to absorb a State Advocacy Legislative Briefing delivered by Kathy Lynch, a real life California State lobbyist. I was impressed with the whole event.  It’s not every day you run into a California lobbyist (outside of Sacramento). The event itself was well thought out and complete with handouts, cupcakes and coffee. During the briefing Ms. Lynch spoke amicably of budgets and of deficits in the billions and it made me think of when I was a kid and I was growing up poor.

Like most things in life, poverty’s road is bifurcated. In one direction the path can make you proud of how tough you are, of how not many people could deal with the things you have to deal with, how the richest person in the world could not survive if they were put in your place, but in the other direction the path is one of shame, shame at not being smart enough to get yourself out of poverty, shame that you do not know the secret to being successful or are to lazy to find it. Sometimes people go back and forth from one path to the other and sometime they can’t or choose not to. And so I sat and listened to how hard things were and how much harder they would get, but I was not afraid, and I don’t think anyone in the theater was either.  They were more motivated and some even inspired to run out and start the “To Do” list Ms. Lynch gave us. The one thing that made me feel safe was that the question was not, “whether or not the arts will be cut?” but “when and by how much?” There is something ironically liberating about embracing the inevitable. We can now start planning instead of just hoping, and more than that we can start to work together to collaborate to co-produce. Ms Lynch says the old days of sitting back writing grants and waiting for the cash to roll in are gone, the model is broken and we better embrace this reality or move to Canada.

But back to my lactose intolerance, one of the good things about not having as much as you are used to having is that you use what little you have more efficiently. People learn to drink less milk or get over their shame. I am unabashedly excited for the next few years; I believe they will bring us the best theater we have seen in some time. The theatre to come will be leaner, hungrier more relevant, in a word: Better... just like the people who will have the compulsion to keep creating it. Less will be more or it wont be at all. Today my days of food stamps are far behind me but I still keep a one-dollar food stamp in a gold leaf frame in my office to remind me. 

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Who is Indispensable?

So Brecht has a quote that I have been thinking about since reading a steady stream of Los Angeles Times’ articles about how Los Angeles’ theaters are coping with these difficult economic times. Loosely translated the quote says that people who fight a day are good. People who fight a year are better. But people who fight a lifetime are indispensable. Now Brecht never really delves into who or what these people are fighting exactly but that’s not the point. If we substitute the word “Theaters” for “People” then we are on our way to seeing an interesting pattern in the way stories about theater and economic hardship have been told. It seems to me that the root of all this ink being dedicated to recounting the woes of a group of large Los Angeles theaters is resistance to the paradigm shift away from theater as a Noun towards theater as a Verb.
In a time when we should be looking to the theater companies who perfected the art of doing more with less, the LA Times and others seem to be hell bent on tugging our attention towards a different group of companies. All the companies highlighted as theaters in danger are large institutions with million dollar budgets and film industry support. No story that I have seen since this economic mess started has looked at what the small to mid sized theaters in Los Angeles are doing, and if some writer somewhere has, then their story is buried under the pile of articles about the LA theater big boys.
But back to this resistance.  How exactly did theaters the size of the Geffen Playhouse, or Pasadena Playhouse become Los Angeles’s best examples of dealing with hard economic times? How exactly do a handful of theaters with gargantuan budgets who have the flu become a bigger story than a plurality of small to mid-sized theaters in Los Angeles who have learned how to live with pneumonia? These questions are not meant to imply that  more established theaters don’t serve a vital purpose in our Los Angeles Theater eco-system, it is more to highlight that so do the small and mid sized theaters.
All this ink spent on the idea that any Los Angeles plus sized theater is (as the Times recently quoted) “living hand to mouth” would be insulting if it were not so bizarre and grotesque. Now if LA Theater needs a model on how to best cope with our financial situation then there are much better examples to choose from than the ones that are consistently being championed. It is the small and mid sized theaters in Los Angeles that have come up with the most creative ways to stay tough in these tough times, but what I keep reading makes me wonder if there are any theaters in Los Angeles other than the big who have come up with any smart, fresh, or creative ways to deal with the economic downturn? If so why don’t we talk about them a little? If anyone out there can think of one or two of them let me know, I’ll be sure to forward them to the times with a nice letter.
Till then small to mid sized theaters should hold their calls to the Geffen for recipes on how best to cook cat food.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

It's Not Who You Know

Being one of the only Neo-Chicano (think ambivalent Mexican American under 40) Artistic Directors in Los Angeles theater is a mixed blessing. On one side you get few non-Latinos at your shows and enjoy relative anonymity in the context of the wider Los Angeles theater community. But on the other side you get many calls from people wanting to double check the exact meaning or correct pronunciation of Spanish words and phrases. One also gets many calls when theater companies give the multicultural play wheel a spin and it lands on the Latino/Hispanic/Chicano/Mexican-American/Brown slot, it is then that people say “let’s be culturally sensitive and bring in a swarthy director pronto” but not in so many words. But by far the best things about being where and who I am is that a lot of smart hungry young brown actors who want to move to LA come to me for help and advice. They are typically right out of grad school, some of them are looking for guidance on what LA theater company is most likely to make them famous. Some just want to know where the best Latino themed work is being done. Many of these young people remind me of a time in my career when I was smart, hungry and young myself. When the list of things I could not or should not do was very short, I feel hope when I meet them and so when these young actors of color call to ask me for my words or my time, I always prioritize our next generation and talk to them about the way LA theater works but more to the point how they can best make it work for them. My advice is not particularly tailored to Latinos; it is advice cobbled together from my life experiences and my contact with Black, White and Brown teachers in whose shadow I dance.
My teachers or Art Fathers made a life-long iconoclast out of me and in my interactions with the next generation I proudly embrace many unpopular perspectives. When they come to me and say “but the white people are keeping us (actors of color) out” I gently remind them it has not helped that actors of color have inadvertently cultivated incentives for artistic isolationism. It’s a fact that multicultural theater has become compartmentalized, yes we are all in the same multicultural theater world but not of it. The Brown theater stays away from the Black theater and both stay as far away from the White theater as possible, and this dearth of collaboration, the lack of cross pollination sets off a long slow process of artistic inbreeding. The work becomes predictable and audiences become less and less diverse; we build work that only knows itself.
It is in this context that the next generation of actors (both brown and non-brown) must understand theater, if we all are to move forward. When the young person asks how to find theaters who are not inbred who collaborate and talk to others outside their circle, I tell them to look for the theaters calling for strategic partnerships with other companies; they are the ones doing new fresh dangerous work. They are the ones who ask “so what can we DO about this…” They are the theaters who when CTG “reconstituted” its minority theater development labs started their own play development series. In short the theaters who the next generation should look for and to, are the theaters who spend most of their time acting (as in doing). It is these theaters who best recognize the earth has shifted beneath our feet and the next generation of theater belongs to the people who define themselves by what they are for, not by what they are against. Whether what I say is helpful to the young, I do not know, but that it is real is undisputable. Things have changed in LA theater not just for actors of color but for everyone, the old model is broken and to continue looking for ways to fix it is fruitless, so artists of all ages races and creeds: It’s not who you know — it’s who knows you.
Guillermo Aviles-Rodriguez
Artistic Director
Watts Village Theater Company