A 2011 "Meet Me @Metro" Watts Village Theater Company performance. (Jolene Deatherage )
The Watts Village Theater Company's signature for the past three years has been "Meet Me @Metro," a traveling show in which the small nonprofit company rode L.A.'s light rail system, with actors and audiences disembarking and reboarding for performances related to the history and issues of neighborhoods along the route.
But after last summer's production along the Metro Gold Line from Union Station to the East L.A. Civic Center, artistic director Guillermo Aviles-Rodriguez's ambitions for "Meet Me @Metro" became a sore spot for the theater's board of directors.
The result has been a rancorous parting.
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Aviles-Rodriguez said he resigned after seven years as artistic director because, without his knowledge, the board had changed the company's mission to focus solely on South Los Angeles and began trying to force him to comply with a philosophy he didn't share.
The new mission — not yet formally adopted, according to board chairwoman Karen Lascaris but quoted in an email she sent in December to Aviles-Rodriguez — says the company now aims to "inspire dialogue about contemporary social issues, and honor the rich history, cultural diversity and under-served populations of South Los Angeles."
Since 2010, Aviles-Rodriguez, an assistant professor of theater and cinema at Los Angeles Mission College, had operated under a more open-ended mission statement that said the company's aim was to "inspire its community with an appreciation of all cultures." He saw "Meet Me @Metro" as a way for the company to distinguish itself and eventually have a citywide impact.
Last summer's edition began and ended at Union Station with plays about the history of the Watts Towers that evoked the company's home turf. Two stops in Boyle Heights offered plays that suggested resonance between its Jewish past and Latino present; characters included the ghosts of gangster Mickey Cohen and of soldiers from the neighborhood who had died in World War II, Vietnam and Afghanistan.
Lascaris said that worrisome cost overruns for the production and Aviles-Rodriguez's unwillingness to accept spending limits prompted the board to revisit the mission statement and other policies last fall. "We needed to make it clear we were here to serve an underserved community" in South Los Angeles, she said.
Aviles-Rodriguez said the board acted precipitously, keeping him and most of an advisory committee of former board members in the dark.
He contrasted the current board's approach to the previous mission statement revision in 2010, when he said a board with a substantially different membership took care to solicit input not only from key staff members but from donors and community leaders. A nonprofit organization's mission statement crystallizes its core philosophy and public purpose and serves as an initial calling card to potential donors.
Lascaris denied that the change was pursued without Aviles-Rodriguez's knowledge, saying he was invited to an initial discussion in November but did not attend. He strongly disputes that, saying he first learned of the effort in early December, when the board presented the changed mission to him as a fait accompli.
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Aviles-Rodriguez shared a Dec. 13 email from Lascaris, asking him to change a grant application for the 2014 "Meet Me @Metro" production, to make it consistent with "our new working mission."
She complained that two performance companies he had proposed as collaborators were "not representative of the underserved communities of South Los Angeles which we say we represent" and should be replaced by more suitable artistic partners.
She also objected to the production's proposed theme, which called for adapting stories from Hollywood films that would have "historical, geographical or cultural relevance" to neighborhoods along the show's route. Hollywood, wrote Lascaris, "has historically (and even currently) been guilty" of not telling stories relevant to the company's "core audience" in South Los Angeles.
Aviles-Rodriguez took the email as a violation of his authority as artistic director and submitted a resignation letter eight days later.
"The leadership was trying to limit and atrophy my artistic vision in order to make it fit inside a tiny, parochial box," Aviles-Rodriguez said. If that's what the board wanted, he said, it should have simply fired him rather than secretly changing the company's mission, then insisting he comply.
Lascaris and Aviles-Rodriguez dispute each other's accounts of last year's "Meet Me @Metro" cost overruns. The former artistic director said it ran $7,000 over its $32,000 budget but did not jeopardize the company's financial health. The board chair said it cost $50,000 and caused financial problems serious enough to demand immediate changes.