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Stage Is Set for Complete Tales of the West

Theater * Autry Museum of Western Heritage teams with Native Voices company to nurture new works.

June 02, 2000|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Autry Museum of Western Heritage and the San Diego-based Native Voices Theatre Company have announced a three-year initiative to cultivate new stage work by--and about--Native Americans and provide opportunities for Native American talent.

The program, the largest of its kind, was launched with a $13,000 grant from the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. It is expected to cost about $100,000 a year in cash and in-kind contributions, plus the cost of productions.

Initial plans call for five readings a year in the museum's 215-seat Wells Fargo Theater, including three staged readings in March. If additional funds are raised, the group plans to hold a showcase featuring American Indian actors performing scenes from plays. That event would incorporate feedback from the audience, which would include casting directors. During the second and third years of the program, a new play would be mounted for full production, directed by a Native American, if possible.

The project is a "natural fit," said James Nottage vice president and chief curator of the museum, who organized the "Custer: Legends of the Little Big Horn" and "Powerful Images: Portrayals of Native America" exhibitions for the museum.

"Our mission is to look at the history of the region in the broadest way, rather than focusing on the mythological West," he said. "Native Americans have been represented, mostly unfairly, through the filter of music, art and theater, and we want to get away from the stereotypes."

The project's artistic director is Randy Reinholz, a 38-year-old part-Choctaw actor-director-producer who started Native Voices in 1993 with his wife, actress Jean Bruce Scott. The couple teaches acting at San Diego State University. The goal of Native Voices, a bare-bones, two-person play development operation, is to support Native American theater artists by creating teams of writers, directors, actors, designers and dramaturges.

"Few organizations have people on staff who understand the Native American voice," said Kym Eisner, executive director of A.S.K. Theater Projects, a Skirball Foundation-funded group that develops new stage work. "But these two have expertise. And, in the end, talent must be nurtured--no one starts at the top."

Reinholz and Scott's formal association with the museum began in 1995, when they were brought in to work on the Autry's "Powerful Images" resource guide. Last year, they presented "Urban Tattoo," a one-woman, multimedia play at the museum. Pleased with the success of "Urban Tattoo," Nottage invited the pair to submit a proposal for an ongoing theater project, and he committed to it almost immediately.

"Though Native American theater is performed from Alaska down to South America, this is the only venture of its kind involving a non-Native American or non-Native American-oriented institution," said Navajo Paul Apodaca, a professor of American Studies at Chapman University and member of the initiative's advisory council. "Southern California has the largest concentration of Indian tribes in the country, yet we're almost invisible."

A Focus on Contemporary Work

The initiative will focus more on contemporary work than on historical pieces, such as "Black Elk Speaks," presented at the Mark Taper Forum in 1995. Non-Native Americans writing about Native Americans are encouraged to submit material to the Autry Museum through its Web site at http://www.autry-museum.org, as are American Indians tackling subjects having nothing to do with their culture.

"Regional venues, such as the Taper, the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Manhattan's Public Theater express interest in American Indian material but say it's hard to find," Scott said. "We've turned up 30 to 40 scripts through the Web since putting out the word in March."

Finding trained American Indian directors and stage actors is the problem, notes Hanay Geiogamah, a UCLA professor of theater and American Indian studies who has worked in film, television and theater since 1970. Though the Autry collaboration is a positive step, he says, it's far from a solution.

"Native Americans haven't had the university training many others have and yet can't be judged by less critical standards," said Geiogamah, founder of the Native American Theatre Ensemble, thought to be the first American Indian theater company in the country. "Rather than waiting for funding, we should be channeling some of our gaming millions into community theater programs instead of into the San Diego Symphony, as one tribe did."

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