The Big Weekend at the Los Angeles Theatre Center is over, but its reverberations linger.
In this centerpiece of the AT&T Performing Arts Festival, (umbrella sponsor of the eight-week Eighth Los Angeles Theatre Center Festival), there were opportunities to "work the room," four staged readings and two symposia.
The first of these ("Six Directors in Search of an Audience," reported on in Monday's Calendar) involved some of the regional theater's most prominent artistic directors--LATC's Bill Bushnell, La Jolla's Des McAnuff, the Goodman Theatre's Robert Falls, Peter Sellars (lately of the American National Theatre), Steppenwolf's Gary Sinise and Baltimore Center Stage's Stan Wojewodski. Each offered a deeply personal view. As usual, despair and optimism prevailed in about equal measure.
The second symposium, "Do We Have to Show You Our Stinking Badges?" attempted to spot the direction Hispanica theater might be taking in the 1990s. A lot of rhetoric went down among participants about the "mainstreaming" of Hispanic theater in the '80s--and the opportunities, or lack of, for Latino artists--without much resolution. The panel examined how far Hispanic theater has come, but was guarded in its predictions.
Panelists were Bushnell, Jose Luis Valenzuela (director of "La Victima" and LATC's Latino Actors' Lab), South Coast Rep's David Emmes, Jose Cruz Gonzalez (project director for SCR's Hispanic Playwrights' Project) and the Theatre Communications Group's Jim Leverett (who heads its Hispanic Translation Project).
The consensus? Things are better but far from good. Moderator Jorge Huerta (of UC San Diego and the Old Globe's Teatro Meta) reminded everyone that of 185 theaters funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, five are Hispanic and only two of those "west of the Hudson."
About efforts at nontraditional casting, Leverett said, "It has to become traditional casting. (Our theater) has to look like our streets, our newspapers, our lives . . . "
All agreed there's a dearth of Hispanic playwrights and difficulty attracting Hispanics into theater programs that is unlikely to improve as long as those programs remain ancillary.
"If (they do) not become a part of (a theater's) central impulse," Leverett warned, "they will fall away," adding (while the others agreed), "We're talking about mainstreaming and that's one thing . . . but Hispanic theater is localized in its culture. That sense of tradition and language, that needs to remain."
Thus the subtext to "infiltrating the mainstream" reads as infiltrating artistic ranks without losing one's cultural DNA. Huerta concluded, "We're all frustrated by the lack of opportunities for Chicano actors and writers to develop, but remember: Tijuana is the second largest city on the West Coast. It has a big new cultural center and we have carte blanche . . . "
The four new plays read last weekend had a subtext of their own. Label it violence. Thomas Babe's "Demon Wine," Donald Freed's "Vets," Marlane Meyer's "Etta Jenks" and Erin Cressida Wilson's "Dakota's Belly, Wyoming" all dealt with the casualness of brutality in America.
Even making allowances for a theater's political/dramaturgical preferences ("La Victima" and "The Stick Wife" at LATC, tell us plenty about its politics), the artistic preoccupation with violence as a fact of American life goes well beyond one theater. Its alienations and bewildering dispassion have become pervasive and insistent.
"Etta Jenks' " riffles through the underbelly of the sleaziest of entertainment worlds--the slugs who trade with equal comfort in the business of degradation and the business of death. It's a staccato piece, with glaring emotional vacancies reminiscent of the blankness in the low-lifes who prowl John Steppling's plays. (Meyer studied with Steppling.)
Babe's "Demon Wine" is not much different, though its surfaces are more finely chiseled, its suspense better sustained and its lowlifes (whose ills are more the result of accident than even rudimentary design) have slightly redder blood in their veins. It takes a while psychologically to enter their world, but it takes just as long to leave it. The menace is unsettling.
"Dakota's Belly," on the other hand, plumbs new depths of randomness and static absorption in self. It's about people not just lost in their tracks but paralyzed in them. Enough plays like that will kill an audience. Theater, like life, needs to be about something.
As for "Vets," its problems differ radically from those of the others. This tri-generational piece about changing military attitudes is, if anything, too self-consciously stacked. Freed, who leaves little to chance, paradoxically needs to tighten the weave in his web. Structurally, there should be a meeting ground somewhere between "Dakota's" aimless drifting and "Vets' " calculated moves.