Mirroring a movement that was transpiring across the country, members of the Latina/o theatre community of Southern California came together to found the Latino Theater Alliance of Los Angeles (LTA/LA) in 2012. Actors, designers, directors, scholars, playwrights, and allies began to meet and to discuss what the different “constituencies” were looking for—why they joined this alliance. The consensus: everybody wanted more opportunities to network and to ply their craft(s) prompting the leadership of the Alliance to address these needs through programming, including panels, public lectures, workshops, and, to date, two major gatherings.
In ensuing discussions from 2012–2014, it was clear there was a need for new play development; especially plays that reflected the diversity of the Latina/o communities in Los Angeles and beyond. In response, in early 2014, the LTA/LA launched a new works lab called the Writers Circle to foster and promote the writing of emerging and emerged Los Angeles-based Latina/o theatre artists. The participants would share their work with one another over several months, leading to a three-day festival of readings. As participants in this project, the three of us are intimate with the process, and we are pleased to submit this record of the project for our other regional alliances to use as a possible model, understanding that the material and human conditions vary from region-to-region; city-to-city.
The structure of the Writers Circle called for seven months of bi-weekly meetings of eight playwrights facilitated by Christina Hjelm (MFA Playwriting, University of New Mexico) and Armando Huipe (Arts Administrator and Cultural Producer) and complemented with guest artists. The program culminated in a three-day festival of readings of the eight plays, produced by the LTA/LA and the Latino Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Jose Luis Valenzuela, Artistic Director and Dr. Chantal Rodriguez, Programming Director/Literary Manager. The weekend event was titled the “Playwrights’ Nest Festival”; an appropriate metaphor, the accompanying circular image harkening back to the Writers Circle while also suggesting the safety of a nest, a place where young spirits are nurtured to fly free. And judging from the results of the entire process, fly they did, as we will discuss below.
The call for playwriting proposals went-out via the LTA/LA website and a selection panel was appointed. Huerta was one of the five people on the panel along with Denise Blasor (Artistic Director, Bilingual Foundation for the Arts), Christina Hjelm, Armando Huipe, and Adam Jacobo (independent actor, director, and teacher). They were charged with selecting six-to-eight participants from a list of twenty-three applications. The submissions came from a wide variety of applicants; some with little experience, others with advanced training. Some of the applicants submitted drafts of plays-in-process; others submitted synopses. The Committee was delighted to select eight applicants, four women and four men: (in alphabetical order): Augusto Amador, Diana Burbano, Estela Garcia, Gabe Rivas-Gomez, Kyra Huete, Israel Lopez, Sal Lopez, and Zury Ruiz.
Facilitated by dramaturge Christina Hjelm, the playwrights shared their developing scripts in evening meetings every other Tuesday. It is very important to note that East LA Rep has been the home of LTA/LA and opened its doors to the Circle for their sessions. The group met in the Rep’s intimate library surrounded by books about the theatre in general as well as the writings of Chicana/o/Latina/o theatre artists and scholars. The sessions were highlighted by a variety of distinguished guest artists who donated their time and wisdom to the process: Luis Alfaro, Evelina Fernandez, Jorge Huerta, Tiffany Ana Lopez, Rose Portillo, Alice Tuan, and Chantal Rodriguez. Each of the guests brought distinct perspectives to the Circle as directors, playwrights, dramaturges, scholars, actors, and/or producers. All of the members of the Circle were committed to the process and grew into a familiar, familial unit, supporting one another as each shared her/his writing. Los Angeles boasts an incredible pool of professional Latina/o theatre artists and scholars and each of the guests enhanced the process.
The three-day Playwrights’ Nest Festival featuring public readings of the plays developed by the Writers Circle was well-coordinated by LTA/LA, giving each play four hours of rehearsal on the day of the reading and creating a schedule which allowed all playwrights to see one another’s work. For the most part, the playwrights selected their directors or were assigned one, and together the director and playwrights cast the actors for their reading. Individual tickets were sold online and allowed people to buy a $10 pass in order to see all eight plays or pay a suggested donation of $10 per reading at the door. Each of the actors received a stipend of $25 and each director received a stipend of $50.
The readings began at 7:00 p.m. on Friday evening, February 6, and all of the plays were performed in the LATC’s Theater 4 or Theater 3, an intimate space ideal for such a project. The first play, which was presented in Spanish, was titled Remedios Varo: La Alquimista, by Estela Garcia, directed by Juan Parada. Remedios Varo was a visual artist who could transform things magically (alchemy), as the play’s title suggests. Garcia, who is herself a well-known performance artist, brought Varo’s vision(s) and words to life in a Lorca-esque poetry. The playwright quotes Varo who wrote, “No temo la muerte; le tengo miedo a la vida (I don’t fear Death; it’s Life I am afraid of).” The lyrical text was enhanced by projections and animations of Varos’ surreal art as well as her writings. Garcia’s training as a mask and movement artist also informed the sense of physical artistry brought to the work.
At 8:30 p.m. the second reading, written and performed by Sal Lopez and titled This Is A Man’s World was directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela. Lopez, a professional actor, had never written a play but was well-versed in the collective process of creating a play as a founding member of the Latino Theater Company, noted for their ensemble work. He was eager to create a one-man play about the expectations and experiences of being a Latino; the varied challenges and opportunities he has experienced in over thirty-five years as a professional actor, husband, and father of two grown sons. His years as an actor on stage and screen gave Lopez a distinct perspective as the senior member of the Circle. Rather than keeping the actor in one place, behind a music stand, Valenzuela enhanced the performance with projections, physical movement, music, and songs, which showed the full range of what would become an effective one-man piece. Opening the festival with two solo offerings from well-known Los Angeles artists proved effective as evidenced by sold-out houses and the need to add extra seating to accommodate large audiences of more than ninety people.
There were three readings on Saturday, February 7, beginning with a 1:00 p.m. reading of It Runs in the Family, by Kyra Huete, directed by Latino Theater Company member, Geoffrey Rivas. This two-act play centers on a young girl, Mila, living with her working-class Nicaraguan family in Los Angeles, as she prepares for the Academic Decathlon. Plays about Nicaraguans in the US are rare, and this piece explores issues of gambling addiction, mental health, and the harsh realities of achieving the “American Dream.” Flashbacks unveil the political strife in their home country with exposition about the hope that the Sandinistas offered.
At 3:30 Diana Burbano’s Fabulous Monsters was staged, directed by Alexandra Meda, Artistic Director of Teatro Luna. This play explored the world of punk while also addressing fluid sexualities, mother-daughter relationships, the challenges of aging, and the importance of female friendships. Saturday evening Gabriel Rivas-Gomez’s Carnivores, which Huerta directed, concluded the day’s full program. With an MFA in playwriting from the University of Southern California and several productions of his plays under his belt, Rivas-Gomez was the most experienced playwright in the Circle. This play-in-process, tentatively titled Carnivores, takes place in the children’s waiting room of family court. The five adult actors all play various characters from their individual backstories in a transformational style of theatre that becomes fantastical as the characters’ stories are revealed.
Sunday was another full day with three readings beginning with Karina Played Pachanga Music (the dallas slasher marathon) by Israel Lopez and directed by Gary Perez. This two-act play is based on an actual event in Dallas, Texas, exploring the underground world of techno-rancheras, poverty, and party crews in West Dallas. Karina must escape a manhunt and save her missing brother from a dark party crew rival. The play is a dark murder mystery with much action and a fascinating look into a subculture mainstream audiences may not know. The work brought much enthusiasm for the playwright’s exciting presentation of dialogue.
At 3:30 Augusto Federico Amador’s The Book of Leonidas was directed by Chantal Rodriguez. This two-act play is important because we have very few plays by or about Dominicans, the fourth-largest population of Latinas/os living in the US. Further, few people outside of the Dominican population are aware of the history of relations between the Dominican Republic and this country. The play centers on Leonidas, the son of the now-deceased senior Leonidas, whose life is told through flashbacks that reveal not only General Rafael Trujillo’s atrocities but also those of his henchman, the senior Leonidas. Thus, the “book” of the title is a biography; an intense study of what makes a man a killer and the never-ending cycle of violence that many people cannot escape.
The final play of the festival was Bottle Blonde: A Latino Tragicomedy by Zuri Ruiz, directed by Dan Guerrero. This is an absurdist play centering on Adonis Malcriado, a master hair colorist, his two teenage children and his boss. Adonis’s very last name, “malcriado,” elicits laughter from the Spanish-speakers because it (literally) means “poorly bred” and is a term commonly used to describe a child who behaves badly. In fact, all of the characters in this farcical play are “brats.” The major action revolves around Adonis attempting to steal his boss’s clients and her business, working out of his living room as a colorist. The play is comical and ridiculous; reminiscent of early Chicano actos satirizing “vendidos,” or sellouts that do everything they can to hide their indigenous roots (pun intended). However, these characters do not deny their heritage as much as fall for the dominant society’s Eurocentric image of beauty: blonde. And that perhaps is the real tragedy.
In conclusion, the three-day festival was a memorable marathon. The weekend was incredibly satisfying, seeing the mixture of audience members and enjoying the results of seven months work fostered by the LTA Writers Circle. In order to assess the efficacy of the project, we sent out a questionnaire to the playwrights for their feedback on the entire process from beginning to the culminating Playwrights’ Nest Festival. We received six responses (out of eight) and the playwrights were most pleased with the final product. Most were happy with their directors, cast, and production staff. A few wanted fewer people in the Circle, which is understandable. But ultimately the responses lead us to believe that the experience was positive in most aspects.
Confirming the value of this project, the playwrights and plays developed in the Writers’ Circle have enjoyed much success since the festival. The Book of Leonidas by Augusto Federico Amador was published by Proscenium Journal. Amador was also recently named a playwriting fellow with the Center Theatre Group/ The HUMANITAS Prize. Sal Lopez’s This is a Man’s World received a world premiere production at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in May/June 2015 as part of the East of Broadway Spring Season, directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela. The production was recommended by Stage Raw as a Top Ten pick. Gabriel Rivas Gomez’ Carnivores was selected as a finalist for the Black and Latino Playwrights Conference at Texas State University and was also selected for a professional reading at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2016, presented by the USC School of Dramatic Arts. Estela Garcia’s solo work Remedios Varo: La Alquimista was selected as a finalist for the Latina/o Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Latina/o Works, as was Diana Burbano’s Fabulous Monsters. Burbano was also recently awarded a #WriteChange scholarship from Dramatists Guild Fund, Inc.
This report illustrates the role of organized programming in fostering and advancing new work and building exciting platforms for the development of Latino theatre artists and the new American theatre.