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

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