The Circle Then, The Circle Now
The Latinx Theatre Commons at Four Years
Four years ago, on Halloween night in 2013, nearly eighty Latinx actors, playwrights, directors, designers, producers, administrators, and scholars formed a grand circle in an empty theatre space at Boston’s Emerson College. In so doing, they commenced the first national convening of what we now know as the Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC). These Latinx theatremakers arrived from across the United States, taking time away from their work in not-for-profit, community-based, and academic theatre organizations, and from their endeavors as independent artists. Over the next three days, this intergenerational and interdisciplinary group of Latinx theatremakers listened to and laughed with each other as they collectively reported on the contemporary realities of Latinx theatremaking in the United States. Long-standing relationships and collaborations were rekindled. New ones were sparked. And by the convening’s third and final day, as wild schemes unfurled and bold visions burst, the group’s collective effort turned to the drafting of strategy statements.
It took a couple of hours of focused (and occasionally frustrating) work, but somehow this unruly band of Latinx teatristas articulated vision in four areas—Advocacy, Artmaking, Networking, and Scholarship—that they collectively agreed should be the foundational pillars for all future work undertaken by the LTC. Right about then, one of the weekend’s facilitators—Olga Sanchez-Saltveit, then the artistic director of Portland’s Milagro Theatre—challenged the group to take out their phones and to call or text someone. “Tell them ‘I need to talk to you when I get back about something that came up at the LTC Convening.’”
My memory of this moment at the first LTC Convening is vivid. I remember the hum of activity. The murmurs of hushed conversation. The sounds of fingers clicking on smartphone screens. I remember sending a simple email to the chairs of my two home departments (with the subject line “Latino Theatre Commons” and a simple message “Two BIG ideas to run by you from this weekend. FYI. More soon.”). But my memory of this moment is not vivid because of the email I sent. (Honestly, I cannot recall with certainty what “big ideas” I was warning them about.) Rather, this moment in the convening stands out because it was the first time we turned our energy and attention outward, beyond the circle we had created together that weekend, and to the much larger world of Latinx theatremaking beyond that conjured in that one room in Boston.
Four years after the fact, it is this moment—the moment when everyone at the 2013 LTC Convening turned to include a broader community of Latinx theatremakers—that strikes me as the most auspicious. For it was in that moment that the work of the LTC truly began. And this was the moment when those of us gathered in that room took on the challenge, obligation, and opportunity of making these four pillars—advocacy, artmaking, networking, and scholarship— into a movement.
This moment also reminds me how confused people often were when we first told them about this new thing…this “Latino Theatre Commons.” I recall how folks seemed to want to know where to “fit” this LTC thing within existing categories of arts organizations. Was LTC a producing organization? A presenting one? An annual conference? A publisher? A funding entity? A lobbying group? A union? An honor society? The notion of an open, decentralized yet activated national community of Latinx theatremakers dedicated to updating the narrative of the American theatre was hard to comprehend for many outside the circle of that first convening. And, if my experience is any indication, it wasn’t much easier for those of us who were there to understand, let alone explain it clearly. (For my full account of this first convening, you can read The Latina/o Theatre Commons 2013 National Convening: a Narrative Report.)
Four years later, I am astounded (and a bit amused) that even though plenty of folks still might not entirely understand how the LTC works, there is little doubt that the LTC exists, or that it is undeniably one of the most important resources for of Latinx theatremakers today. Which leads me to wonder: how did that happen? How, in just four years, did the LTC transform from a mere notion into a national movement?
Perhaps because I live and work in an educational environment, where four-year cycles of comings and goings and of beginnings and endings chart so many of the rhythms of the work I do, I have come to believe that there is something noteworthy about four years passing.
In four years, so much happens, so many projects are undertaken. Some undertakings are breakaway successes, some more halting in their accomplishment. With growth and maturity measured along the way, and always with so much growing and maturing yet to do. In educational settings, we routinely mark such four-year cycles with much pomp and circumstance. Perhaps that is why—as I reflect on the four-year anniversary of the LTC—I find myself thinking of it as a commencement of sorts, as an opportunity to pause and to mark the occasion and accomplishments of the previous four years.
At such an auspicious moment as this commencement, what might we count as the breakaway successes and halting accomplishments of the LTC? What have we achieved? What have we learned? What have we yet to do?
Four years after the fact, it is this moment—the moment when everyone at the 2013 LTC Convening turned to include a broader community of Latinx theatremakers—that strikes me as the most auspicious. For it was in that moment that the work of the LTC truly began.
If we go back to that final strategy session at the 2013 convening, to the moment that immediately followed the invitation to reach beyond the circle, we might also remember that Olga Sanchez-Saltveit then challenged us to answer a simple question for ourselves: “Where do you think you could commit?” Convening participants were then asked to write their commitments on a piece of paper, which were placed into a basket, creating the ritual that closed the convening. Undertaken largely in silence, the ritual confirmed many of the commitments made throughout the convening, and which propelled the work of the LTC in the following years.
As the 2013 convening of the LTC resolved, a vision for the succeeding several years came into focus. We knew we would be reconvening in Los Angeles a year later for Encuentro: A National Latina/o Theatre Festival, hosted by the Latino Theatre Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 2014 November. We knew we would gather again the following summer in Chicago in 2015 July for the Carnaval of New Latina/o Plays, hosted by DePaul University. We were ready for the imminent launch of a digital publishing platform, Café Onda, in collaboration with the LTC’s producing partner HowlRound. We could feel the rumblings of regional organizing around the country and were captivated by an idea—something called “The Fornés Institute”—that bloomed amidst our brainstorming. But how would all that happen? Especially with no established organizational structure, no track record, and no budget? This is where our strategizing pillars—advocacy, artmaking, networking, and scholarship—served us so well. These four pillars have proven foundational for every LTC undertaking since 2013, with every LTC project defined by its commitment to all four pillars. Indeed, to look back upon the last four years through the lens of these pillars reveals not only LTC’s clarity of purpose but also the robust dynamism of each pillar as guiding principle of LTC practice.
To plan and execute that first 2013 convening in Boston, a team of more than thirty volunteer Latinx theatre practitioners from across the country came together (mostly via conference call) in the months leading up to October and formed the first steering committee for the LTC. In the last four years, the LTC Steering Committee has grown to create a national network of more than one hundred past and present members. Because the LTC has always been a volunteer-driven, commons-based enterprise, each of these “committee members” has also carried substantial responsibility not only for organizing LTC programs and events, but for being advocates for the LTC as a national movement to transform the narrative of the American theatre and to amplify the visibility of Latinx theatre and Latinx theatremakers. As both principle and practice, the shared advocacy for contemporary Latinx theatremaking has provided the foundational premise of every undertaking of the LTC since 2013.
In 2014, Encuentro: A National Latina/o Theatre Festival brought together Latinx theatre artists from across the country to share their work, as well as their approaches and methodologies, with other theatremakers in the pursuit of a common, multi-faceted understanding of the field at large. By so centering the vocabularies and processes of performance-making, the 2014 Encuentro modeled how artmaking itself could activate new understandings of and new narratives for the American theatre. Building upon the success of the 2014 Encuentro, the 2017 Encuentro de las Americas is being held 8 November through 12 November 2017. The 2017 Encuentro features thirteen guest companies (seven from the USA and six from the Americas, including Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean) hosted by the Latino Theatre Company, operators of the Los Angeles Theatre Center. These companies will perform fourteen shows in repertory, while sharing artistic methodologies through a collaborative devised rehearsal process over the three weeks. This cross-company sharing is then multiplied by the LTC International Convening, which, like the LTC Convening in 2014, will bring together an additional 160 practitioners to Los Angeles this weekend to see work at the Encuentro, meet each other, and build artistic bridges across nations.
Another comparably collaborative initiative conjured during the first LTC convening (and subsequently incubated within the LTC’s principles and premises with an initial New York City meeting in 2014 August) was The Sol Project, an initiative dedicated to producing the work by Latinx playwrights in New York City and beyond. (The Sol Project premiered its first production, Alligator by Hilary Bettis, in tandem with the 2016 New York City regional convening). The artistic reverberations and organizational impact of both the Encuentros (as LTC-sponsored projects) and Sol (as one of the independent projects nurtured directly and indirectly by the LTC) affirm the potential of centering artmaking within the collective effort to transform the narrative of the American theatre.
In 2015, the LTC partnered with the Theatre School at DePaul University to produce the Carnaval of New Latinx Work. A weekend-long new play festival, Carnaval featured staged readings of the works of a dozen Latinx playwrights representing a broad diversity of style, form, cultural background, and professional experience. The festival offered its showcase of new Latinx plays as a networking opportunity for potential producing organizations to join the LTC’s efforts towards building a more equitable and inclusive system for theatremaking and to collaboratively create “pipelines” through which new Latinx plays might be fully and professionally produced nationally. Carnaval’s game-changing 2015 invitation engendered eighteen productions between Fall 2016 and Spring 2019 at a diverse cohort of partner theatres comprised of nationally recognized and predominantly Latinx-identified organizations, all working towards a more inclusive and innovative field.
LTC’s commitment to developing and supporting national, international, and local networks for Latinx theatremakers can be seen not only in Carnaval’s national impact but also in the importance of “convening” to every LTC event. In addition to the convenings staged adjacent to events like 2014 Encuentro and 2015 Carnaval, in 2016, the LTC also produced regional convenings in Seattle, Dallas, and New York City, and plans are underway for another regional gathering in Miami in 2020. For LTC, each national convening is a regional convening, and vice versa, with the event an essential opportunity for Latinx theateremakers to fortify their capacities within their localities and also to cultivate their connections to Latinx theatremakers nationally and internationally. The networks activated by these regional convenings guide the planning for national (and international) events like Carnaval 2018, which aims to extend and improve on its success in bridging artmaking and advocacy as it also activates new regional and national networks to amplify the contributions of Latinx theatremakers throughout the national landscape of the American theatre. Such networks also sustain the ongoing efforts of Latinx theatremakers as they transform the narrative of American theatre within their own regions and localities.
Perhaps the least expected yet most transformative impact of the 2013 Convening was the welcome it provided to Latinx scholars as coequal contributors to the practices and processes of Latinx theatremaking in the US. The active inclusion of scholars in LTC’s first three convenings (in Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago) inspired and empowered a rising generation of scholar-artists to embrace their instrumental role as advocates within and beyond their work as critics, scholars, documentarians, and as university-affiliated artists. These scholars quickly undertook the work of documenting the work of Latinx theatremaking across the country on Café Onda, the LTC’s dedicated online publishing platform on HowlRound, in addition to a range of both scholarly and popular media. This new visibility and activity of Latinx theatre-scholars was one of the reasons that Theatre Topics (one of the most prestigious scholarly journals dedicated to theatremaking) focused their entire 2017 March issue on issues and concerns relevant to Latinx theatremakers and their wider communities. As I write this, several other major projects—including an edited anthology documenting the plays of the 2014 Encuentro, and the first ever dossier on Chicanx/Latinx teatro to be published in the pioneering Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano studies—are presently in the publication pipeline. Several PhD dissertations documenting distinct aspects of the LTC as both organization and movement—are presently underway. At the same time, Latinx theatre organizations across the country are tapping into this activated network of committed scholar-advocates ready to lend their particular skills to the task of refashioning the narrative of American theatre by contributing to talkbacks, panel discussions, public conversations, and other modes of performance-adjacent programming.
As we enter the fifth year in which the LTC is undeniably a thing, it seems clear that the work of the LTC is not at all done. If anything, with new editions of both Encuentro this fall and Carnaval next summer, it seems that the LTC is readying for its boldest and biggest wave of activity yet.
El Fuego Committed Theatres Initiative
El Fuego is a multi-year project crafted to interrupt the current inequities the national new play development and production system perpetuate. Sparked at 2015 LTC Carnaval of New Latina/o Work, El Fuego has brought together a cohort of nearly twenty partner theatres and twelve Latinx playwrights in a new model of collaboration. An ambitiously strategic funding initiative, El Fuego works closely with its partner theatres to insure that ample resources are available so that both the produced playwright and a designated Latinx theatre scholar can participate during the rehearsal, production, and performance process. In so doing, El Fuego leverages its resources toward the building of relationships—playwright/theatre; scholar/playwright; theatre/scholar—so that, in both marketing materials and public-facing scholarship, the work of Latinx playwrights might be engaged with greater cultural literacy by audiences, critics, and the field as a whole. As El Fuego continues supporting partner-theatre productions of the playwrights featured at Carnaval 2015, preparations are likewise underway to cultivate the next flight of collaborations that will emerge from Carnaval 2018.
The Fornés Symposium
One of the grandest schemes conjured at the first national convening in 2013 was something called “The Fornés Institute,” an imagined locus for artmaking that would stand as tribute to the multi-faceted legacy of pioneering playwright and teacher María Irene Fornés. On 14 April 2018, building upon the multi-year efforts of two ongoing LTC subcommittees (the Fornés Institute and the Fornés Legacy Project), the Fornés Symposium will take place in Princeton, NJ. Produced in partnership with the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University, the Fornés Symposium will convene an intergenerational “community gathering” of artists, academics, students, and others for a weekend of vigorous, Fornés-inspired creativity, conversation, and conviviality. A mix of performances, plenary conversations, and “interludes” (or curated breakout sessions allowing participants to explore particular aspects of Fornés’s legacy) will invite all gathered to join in the work of the Fornés Institute, an “institute that defies institutionalization” as an evolving collective commitment to amplifying the living legacy of María Irene Fornés in as many ways as possible.
As we enter the fifth year [of the] LTC, it seems clear that the work of the LTC is not at all done. If anything, with new editions of both Encuentro this fall and Carnaval next summer, it seems that the LTC is readying for its boldest and biggest wave of activity yet.
TYA Sin Fronteras
The conspicuous absence of practitioners of theatre for youth and families from the first national convening in 2013 established a persistent pattern of underrepresentation and under-acknowledgment of the importance of “theatre for younger audiences (or TYA) among both the initiatives and the networks activated by the LTC. To address that gap, in early 2019 in Austin, Texas, the TYA Sin Fronteras Festival will spotlight the artistic, cultural, and community impact of theatre for youth and families throughout the Spanish-speaking Americas (including, of course, the United States). This unprecedented festival will bring together theatre companies, artists, scholars, and educators from throughout the hemisphere for the presentation of plays, interactive workshops, and scholarly panels, introducing the Latinx theatremaking community to high-quality TYA work in both English and Spanish. Sin Fronteras will also afford the LTC the opportunity to learn from Latinx youth not simply as audiences to be reached but as experts with lessons of their own to teach.
As the LTC marks its four year anniversary, and as I find myself in this reflective mood, I’m reminded that a commencement names not an ending but a beginning. Because it does seem that the LTC is entering into a new era of intentional growth and development. Just as those gathered at the 2013 Boston convening seized that moment to reach beyond their circle to the nation of Latinx theatremakers, Encuentro 2017 and TYA Sin Fronteras confirm LTC’s evolving investment in looking beyond the US to activate international networks among Latinx theatremakers hemispherically. At the same time, Carnaval 2018, El Fuego, and the Fornés Symposium—along with LTC’s ongoing capacity-building around confronting of racial and gender biases, as well as colorism and other divisions within Latinx communities and theatremaking traditions—signal the LTC’s continuing commitment to dig deeply into the problems of erasure, elision, and exclusion that must be addressed if we are to truly update the narrative of the American theatre.
On that Halloween night in 2013, the first thing those eighty or so Latinx theatremakers did was form a circle, a circle that first allowed us to see ourselves and which then inspired us to open to broader circles of Latinx theatremaking. Four years later, the circle represented by the LTC continues to grow, even as the work within that circle deepens. As we departed Boston in 2013, we knew the circle of the LTC would form again for the first Encuentro and Carnaval, but none of us could have predicted all that the circle of LTC would come to encompass in the space of just four years. So, as we make our plans for Princeton this spring, and for Chicago next summer, and for Austin in the new year after that, the one thing I know for certain is this: I cannot wait to see all that the circle of LTC holds when we finally get to Miami in 2020!