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Theater | PLAYWRIGHTS ON WRITING

Ah, those stinking badges

Responsibility is a burden, and we in Culture Clash often feel its weight. But would we be true to ourselves if we settled for a song and dance?

August 06, 2006|Richard Montoya | Special to The Times

With his thick Mexican accent, he would drill this mantra into our heads night after night. A Mexican director extolling two Salvadorans and a radical Chicano to be brilliant for an audience that held white, black, brown and Asian audiences within its doors. That was the mandate then, it remains the mandate now.

"Water & Power" is my responsibility. Responsibility entwined with promises.

I have a responsibility to myself -- to constantly challenge my writing; to work with the best directors, like Peterson and Valenzuela, who demand every drop of focused energy; to infuse the comedy with darkness, lyricism and poetry. Whatever it takes to tell a compelling story.

For audiences that love theater and storytelling, I feel a responsibility. For those looking for a showcase in a Fairfax Avenue cafe, chances are you probably won't see me there. At least, not this month.

I write plays -- it's an ancient form, like making puppets. Sometimes I write a play for no fee or commission. It can be a thankless job, so I often find myself wondering how it is that I am strapped with a certain responsibility for every project while the better-paid sitcom writers seemingly feel none? The all-white sitcom is alive and well.

Do the writers, creators and producers of such fare feel no responsibility to reflect a world in which we all live? Conversely, do the creators of, say, the hit musical "The Drowsy Chaperone" feel a certain responsibility to their audiences? I would assume yes. But for Culture Clash and other dramatists of color, it remains a loaded and constant question. I must admit I sometimes suffer from responsibility fatigue.

Bob Dylan said it best: "Mama, take this badge off of me." As artists, we do not shirk our responsibility when removing our "badges"; we just put them down long enough to delve deeper into our work and, at the other end, find something of deeper meaning for more people. Sometimes putting responsibility down for a moment frees us up.

There are times in my weakness I must confess a desire to write show tunes and musicals. I imagine a Culture Clash headquarters, crowded with orchestras and chorus girls. In that milieu, I would certainly be free from my "responsibility" to our audience.

But then again, I would want to write a politically charged musical satire about a certain news anchorman. You got it: "Lou Dobbs -- The Musical!" Here we go again.

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Montoya is a founding member of Culture Clash and a member of the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Commission. Send comments to calendar.letters@latimes.com.

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