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So Much Potential, So Few Offerings

The state of Latino theater in L.A. isn't as robust as you'd think. But there's hope.

September 29, 2002|DON SHIRLEY

theseDonde esta el teatro latino?

With Los Angeles' enormous Latino population and the city's thousand-plus stage productions each year, it's logical that L.A. would be a Latino theater center.

But consider:

The city's most venerable Spanish- and English-language company, Bilingual Foundation for the Arts, has retreated to its 99-seat theater in Lincoln Heights after several years of producing half of its plays at a larger venue in downtown's Los Angeles Theatre Center. Its hopes of creating a mid-size home on Olvera Street are dormant.

A two-year attempt to turn Hollywood's Doolittle Theatre into a Latino performance center has yielded only one production that lasted more than a couple of weeks, "Selena," which lost more than $1 million in its April-June 2001 run.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 01, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 7 inches; 261 words Type of Material: Correction
Theater director--An article on Latino theater in Sunday Calendar incorrectly referred to adapter Chay Yew as director of "The House of Bernarda Alba." Lisa Peterson directed the production at the Mark Taper Forum.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 06, 2002 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part F Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 79 words Type of Material: Correction
Theater director--An article on Latino theater in last Sunday's Calendar incorrectly referred to adapter Chay Yew as director of "The House of Bernarda Alba." Lisa Peterson directed the production at the Mark Taper Forum.

The track record of Latino-oriented productions on the main stages of the county's major nonprofit theaters is sporadic at best. Even the recent production of Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca's "The House of Bernarda Alba," at the Mark Taper Forum, used an Asian American director and a number of non-Latina actresses.

The 800-seat Teatro Los Pinos in South Gate, which is generally described as the most commercially successful Spanish-language theater in the county, imports its mostly frothy productions from other countries and is off the radar of the larger Los Angeles theatrical scene.

Officials of El Portal Center for the Arts, the organization that ran the mid-size El Portal Theatre, had pledged to include Latino-oriented programming at their North Hollywood venue but didn't do much before the group collapsed earlier this year.

All is not bleak on the Latino theater front; there are a few signs of ferment. The Mark Taper Forum plans two productions that can be considered Latino-oriented for its main-stage season. The county-run John Anson Ford Amphitheatre sponsored a brief festival of imported Latin productions in June. The International Latino Theatre Festival, Nov. 1-10, will offer 14 performances by U.S. and foreign companies, including East L.A. Classic Theatre, in downtown L.A. and Echo Park. In the sub-100-seat arena, Grupo Teatro de Sinergia performs all-Latino work in Spanish and English, and About Productions' plays are frequently Latino-themed.

And look who's back--Jose Luis Valenzuela, whose Latino Theatre Company will open its first play in six years, "Dementia," at Los Angeles Theatre Center's largest theater Thursday.

Valenzuela's group began as an in-house wing of the L.A. Theatre Center resident company in the mid-'80s, and it presented several productions on LATC stages. In 1991, Valenzuela moved to the Taper, where from 1993 to 1994 he headed the well-endowed Latino Theatre Initiative. The Taper presented three Latino productions on its main stage that were generated by the initiative when he was there. "Bandido," though not critically successful, was the Taper's highest-grossing show of the 1993-94 season. But Valenzuela left in 1994, citing the complexity of trying to secure main-stage projects at the Taper.

He then created his own Latino Theatre Company, which briefly operated out of Plaza de la Raza in Lincoln Heights but returned to LATC to do "Luminarias," by his wife, Evelina Fernandez, in 1996.

Although the company originally planned to present regular subscription seasons, Valenzuela soon concluded that without the infrastructure of larger organizations, he would have to spend too much of his time producing instead of creating new work. The company then spent the next few years turning "Luminarias" into a feature film, which was released in 2000. Fernandez is also the author of "Dementia," which addresses AIDS from a Latino perspective.

Just before a recent rehearsal of "Dementia," Valenzuela discussed the state of his company and Latino theater in L.A. He sat at a table in the LATC lobby, the same place where he and his group mounted a short-lived squatters' demonstration after the resident company closed, in which they emphasized the importance of keeping the space available for Latino work.

"I always loved LATC," he said. "We cannot go too far east or too far west, but my audience has no problem coming to LATC."

Valenzuela is adamant that his company is a part of the larger American theater. Only once did he produce a show in Spanish. He believes his primary audience consists mostly of assimilated Latinos, some of whom aren't especially familiar with Spanish. "We would write about a Latino family in L.A. like another playwright would write about a Jewish family in New York," he said. "But I don't think the world saw us that way."

That last comment reflects his frustration from working within mainstream theaters. "If we have to satisfy the dramaturges of those institutions," he said, "we begin to shape plays to their taste. The voices of the playwrights diminish. Latino theater is suffering because the good writers have to write for the regular theaters."

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