If the cultural scene in Los Angeles is a great, multicultural experiment-in-the-making, then theater is the central laboratory. The experiment requires regular infusions of new blood. That is particularly true in the theater, where high costs and subscription audiences tend to force companies into safe, conservative choices. Yet those same companies know that without young artists with fresh perspectives, they will petrify and the new blood will flow to more lucrative veins.
Not surprisingly, the Mark Taper Forum and the Los Angeles Theatre Center--theaters forever torn between feeding the art form and pleasing their subscribers--have recruited people with often startling notions of what theater can do. Plays which have more in common with musical structure than the usual rise and fall of dramatic action. Subjects which reflect Los Angeles' increasingly complex web of multiple cultures, languages and traditions.
Besides knowing each other (having collaborated on an LATC Latino Theatre Lab workshop of Cherie Moraga's "Heroes and Saints" last fall), the Taper's newest associate artist, Jose Guadalupe Saucedo, and LATC's new literary manager and dramaturge, Morgan Jenness, share a view of the city as a vast stage upon which the new multicultural drama is being played out. Robert Koehler interviewed both L.A. native Saucedo and New York expatriate Jenness.
Director Jose Guadalupe Saucedo was phoning from Santa Barbara, his artistic home for many years with El Teatro de la Esperanza. He was en route to his hometown, Los Angeles, moving all his possessions from San Francisco's Mission District, where he has lived since the Esperanza company moved there in the mid-'80s.
He wanted to know if he could wear a "No Blood for Oil" T-shirt for a newspaper photograph. He hoped to make a statement.
It was the first of many Saucedo wants to make as he returns home to become one of seven associate artists at the Mark Taper Forum. (He is the first Latino to hold such a title there.) If America has changed from a melting pot to a cultural salad--each ethnicity in the same bowl, each retaining its own flavor--Saucedo thinks it needs more ingredients. "I like some chiles in my salad," he jokes.
The Taper-Saucedo link represents a new (some say overdue) effort by institutional, resident theaters to infuse their artistic staffs with people of color. "It's time institutional theaters did this," Saucedo says, talking about his new move in a rather institutional-looking room at the Taper's offices. "Theater just can't be white, male and Eurocentric anymore. Look at our school districts and cities. There are a lot more colors there than white."
That theaters are now catching on to this obviously pleases Saucedo, but it amuses him too: "LATC has Jose Luis Valenzuela (as Latino Theatre Lab head and resident director) and South Coast Repertory has Jose Cruz (as literary associate and project director of their Hispanic Playwrights Project), so I guess the Taper wanted their own Jose."
What may be new for theaters, though, is the fruition of a long-held ambition by Latino artists such as Saucedo, who recalls how "Jose Luis and I and our friends at Esperanza sat around a table in 1984 and vowed that we were going to get inside the big theaters. What you're seeing is the result of a \o7 plan\f7 . We want to be artists placing a culture bigger than many countries in front of a large audience."
It's also a culture with a long history, which is filled, Saucedo notes, "with Latino theater groups all over the Southwest. One of L.A.'s oldest theaters is Teatro Merced (near Olvera Street). This isn't common knowledge because Latinos were long segregated, away from the attention of Anglo publicity. It didn't just start with 'Zoot Suit.' "
Ironically, Saucedo's own theatrical development was through institutions--namely, the University of California at Santa Barbara, whose Latin studies program in 1970, headed by Jorge Huerta, began Teatro Mecha. Huerta, now in charge of UC San Diego's Latino theater program and whom Saucedo calls "the closest thing I have to a godfather," encouraged Mecha members to take their work beyond the campus gates.
This led to Teatro de la Esperanza, which soon rivaled Luis Valdez's San Juan Bautista-based Teatro Campesino as a California Latino company with global reach: "We traveled to Poland, Yugoslavia, Sweden, Cuba, Mexico and South America. Campesino was also touring abroad, but," he adds, with no hidden pride, "we were also going into remoter areas of Eastern Europe and Latin America."
It was a long way from Compton, where the 38-year-old Saucedo was born, or Pico Rivera, where he came into contact with the growing Chicano movement of the late '60s and early '70s. But many of his Esperanza \o7 compadres \f7 had L.A. connections, above all Valenzuela, who calls Saucedo "my blood brother." Saucedo was Valenzuela's best man at his wedding and put baptismal water on Valenzuela's first son.