In Dialogue with José Luis Valenzuela
Jamie Gahlon, Associate Director of HowlRound, sat down with friend and colleague, José Luis Valenzuela, to talk about his work at the LATC and the upcoming Encuentro 2014: A National Latina/o Theatre Festival.
Jamie Gahlon: The Latino Theater Company was originally housed at the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC) until 1991, then left. In 2006 you were awarded the twenty-year lease to operate the LATC. What made you return at that time?
José Luis Valenzuela: We felt that the LATC was a space that would allow us to bring communities together—because the landscape in Los Angeles is very sad for people of color. We have many tiny companies that have small budgets and don’t produce a lot. We could either get a theatre for ourselves, alone, or we could get a complex where we can bring the whole community together. That’s really our mission—to bring cultures together in dialogue—we want to believe that theatre matters to everyone. Our stages should look like the city of LA.
Jamie: What was it about the LATC that made you feel like it would be a place where this could happen?
José Luis: When the LATC was born in the 1980s, the lobby was full of people from all cultures and classes. So we wanted to bring it back to that original mission. It was designed much like the West Coast version of what New York’s Public Theater was when Joseph Papp ran it. And of course, with four theatres, we have the space to do it.
Jamie: What is your role as operator of the LATC, as separate from your role as Artistic Director of the Latino Theater Company?
José Luis: The city gave us the building, but we have to maintain it, which means paying for repairs, security, cleaning. A large part of our role is to fundraise for this purpose—it’s about a half a million dollars just to keep the doors open for the year. We also manage the calendar. We often collaborate or co-produce with younger companies. We’ll sometimes help them financially. We hire the technicians, the technical directors, and we do a promotion for all of the companies that perform at the LATC. We produce a fall and a spring season of five plays each. We try to create a way of doing theatre so it isn’t seen or felt as an impossible thing.
The Latino Theater Company grew up inside the regional theatres and when we left the Mark Taper Forum, we had nothing. We didn’t have a name, we didn’t have a legacy, and we didn’t have a fundraising arm, because everything prior had come through these other institutions. So we thought, we can create a new model where the companies are still independent, and they may grow to be a great company and have their own fundraising arms, their own board, and their own infrastructure—everything we lost. That way if and when they choose, they can move and have their own theatres later on.
Theatre makes us better people; it makes us understand love and humanity and relationships. Theatre stays with us, it feeds us in a way that we change as human beings.
Jamie: When I was visiting the LATC in April and we toured the building, I was blown away by the number of partnerships you have with other artists and companies who are in residence at the LATC. Who are they and how do they fit into the fabric of what you’re trying to do?
José Luis: We have a cultural roundtable with four small companies in residence—The Robey Theatre Company, Playwrights’ Arena, and American Indian Dance Theatre. We bring them together to think about why we’re doing what we’re doing, what plays should be produced, and how the work lives together. Their contribution is vital to the ecology of the LATC and LA community. We also have the Los Angeles Dance Project, Benjamin Millepied’s company, in residence.
We see dance, music, and theatre as forms that are always in dialogue. We have a composer who has an office on the fifth floor. Ideally, we want a group of designers in the building. Not necessarily to even design all of the shows, but to be here as a greater part of our artistic community Even if it’s just a simple conversation over coffee, or a quick talk in the lobby when you’re going out after the show, it just creates a different perception of what we need to do as artists in our world.
I met a great costume designer through her work with the Robey Theatre Company, and asked her to work on Premeditation. I was so proud that for the show I had a Mexican lighting designer, a Portuguese sound designer, a Brazilian sound designer, a French-Canadian set designer—and it’s a Latino play! To bring this community together has been so exciting because each of our cultural sensibilities informs American culture, and that’s what I’m interested in. I believe that Los Angeles is the city of the twenty-first century. And I think great theatre is going to be created in this city because of the diversity of people that live here.
A local writer recently came to me and asked if I would help him propose to his girlfriend. I said okay, and we made an elaborate plan for the proposal, using LATC’s Theater One. Music, lights, rose petals falling from the catwalk, the whole thing. Why did I do this? Because I feel like theatre has to be part of people’s everyday reality. To propose to somebody is a theatrical event. No matter where you do it. Theatre makes us better people; it makes us understand love and humanity and relationships. Theatre stays with us, it feeds us in a way that we change as human beings.
Jamie: How has the LATC’s presence in downtown changed the surrounding area? How has downtown LA influenced your work?
José Luis: The LATC attracts around forty-five thousand people a year into the downtown. They go to dinner, have coffee, or grab wine—it’s so vibrant now. Eight years ago it was hard to walk on the streets—it was empty, it was dangerous—there was like one restaurant. When we first opened, we put twenty-eight tall, beautiful plants outside the theatre. They lasted a weekend; by Monday they had all been stolen. I walked up to the theatre and somebody was on the front steps, smoking crack while getting a blowjob.
Fifty-five thousand people have moved into downtown in the last five years. And they’re very young. And they have money. For us, the question now is, how are we going to engage these residents? How can this be the place where they find culture, where they find entertainment, and where they can talk about their issues?
Jamie: What is your utopian vision for the LATC and the Latino Theater Company? What would it look like in twenty years?
José Luis: The Latino Theater Company—the five of us—has been together for twenty-eight years. As professional actors in the company, everyone does television or film work to make additional money, but each also has a volunteer job in the theatre: production, facility management, and public relations. How can we inspire a whole new group of young people to do that? It’s really my dream that in the next five, six, seven years we can help create a cohort of younger people who believe in our mission and take a it further. Because what’s so interesting about younger people to me is that they don’t have the same issues around race as we do. That’s not their conversation. They will create a new theatrical language, which I’m sure will need a different infrastructure from anything we’ve prepared. Ideally, we would build a kind of an institute for young people to jump into the professional world with their ideas for the American theatre.
Jamie: We first met through the work of the Latina/o Theatre Commons. I recently reread notes from the very first meeting in May 2012. In our final session, you said: “I want to create a space where artists can come together and share their work.” Two years later, the 2014 Encuentro: A National Latina/o Theatre Festival (featuring fourteen full productions, in repertory, over one month) will replace the traditional LATC fall season. How does the Encuentro speak to your original vision?
José Luis: We don’t see each other’s work because we’re all so busy, or because we’re in different parts of the country, so we don’t even know the real landscape of Latina/o Theater. My hope is that the Encuentro will help change this. The Encuentro is only the beginning, a way to create relationships between artists who don’t know each other, or who may have misperceptions about each other. We are basically asking over one hundred artists to be married for a month. To be together, work together, talk, make love, get drinks, fight, and create something with each other. These types of exchanges between artists are crucial.
I’ve been doing American theatre for forty years, and in the last twenty years it feels like it has changed a lot. People feel that they have the authority or the knowledge to say this is good, this is bad. And this is irrelevant, and this is not important. We all do that in our daily life, but we’re in an artistic crisis in the country, and I believe we cannot begin a meaningful dialogue until we understand the why. Why do we do what we do? I don’t think we have had enough of that dialogue. If I go and see a play and judge it only through my own prisma (prism), I can be very critical. But I have to understand the why in order to create an assessment of the work. We all have tastes, but how do we discuss taste? We have to understand the why and look at it through that point of view and say, “Okay, I get you, it’s not what I do, but I understand why you do it and I appreciate it.”
We live in a society that elevates the individual because it’s easier to crush us one at a time. If we’re whole, however, we’re harder to destroy.
Jamie: How will the Encuentro help participants get to the why?
José Luis: If I don’t know you and you come and say something off the wall about my work, it turns me off. I don’t listen. You may be right, but I don’t listen. I want you to tell me what you really think, but we need that relationship first.
All of the Encuentro companies will spend the month working together during the day to create new cross-company collaborations that will be presented at the end of the festival. We are pulling inspiration from a workshop I attended in Cuba in 1980, where they invited ten directors and they gave us fifty actors, designers, and a book of poetry and said “Choose one poem, and make a fifteen-minute piece.” The first conversation that happens is around the why—why are we doing this? The group is instantly in relationship to the text and to each other through their own conversation, as an ensemble.
Making a play requires an ensemble. No part matters more than another. Everyone contributes to the whole. We live in a society that elevates the individual because it’s easier to crush us one at a time. If we’re whole, however, we’re harder to destroy.
Jamie: What would a successful Encuentro mean to you? What would happen?
José Luis: First, we would be able to create relationships that continue beyond the Encuentro so that we start working together in an artistic way, not purely based on conversations around how “I want you to produce my play.” The second wish is that we collectively began moving our plays to each other’s theatres. Many Latina/o companies have their own theatre, but there is not a common practice of touring productions around.
I hope the Encuentro helps us to validate ourselves. We have to understand that we matter in the world as companies, as artists, as theatre. We all have different skills. I believe in human capital. Our most important capital is our own ensemble. Imagine a national ensemble! That’s huge. Creating that whole, creating that community, understanding we all are on the in this together. Some of us may have more resources than others, but we are all in the same boat. This is what we’re trying to do: Create unity.
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This is exactly the sort of thing I have been dreaming of. A national ensemble - small theater companies that work with each other - taking it to the people and involving them, so that they are a part of it. I hope to do this eventually in Santa Fe. I've had a theatre in NYC for 9 years, Stage Left Studio, and it's impossible to keep going. Too much competition, rents going up, ticket sales going down. I have to close next summer when my lease runs out. We are fragmented here. Your ideas are great. I will be following your progress and cheering you on.