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Equity, Equality, and the Need for Evolution

The state of funding for Latinx Theatre Companies in the City of Angels

Café Onda offers this three-part series on equity in funding for Latinx theatre companies. Each theatremaker, from different geographical regions, provides their perspective on obtaining grant dollars while large established institutions in their cities are vying for the same resources. The first article is by Armando Molina, Artistic Director of Company of Angels in Los Angeles.—Gregory Ramos, series curator.

I have been pondering the state of culturally specific theatres in Los Angeles, California for quite some time. With an administration hostile to the arts, I am especially disheartened. Latinx theatres in Los Angeles are struggling. They are under-funded, priced out of spaces, and do not receive the press attention of other theatres in Los Angeles. And yet their importance and necessity in Los Angeles far outweigh the resources they have to realize their missions. The theatres in Los Angeles that include the production of works by and for Latinx people as at least part of their mission are Latino Theater Company, Casa 0101, Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, Playwrights Arena, Teatro Frida Kahlo Theater, and Company of Angels Theater (where I am Artistic Director).

I believe the most productive response is to seek ways to transform the paradigm for funding from one that measures the size of the organization, to one that recognizes who is being served by an organization.

One reason that the existence of these theatres is so important is that the County of Los Angeles is over 48.4 percent Latino and 26 percent White. Yet the two major regional theatres located in the County serve almost exclusively white audiences—as evidenced in their season selections—thus ignoring Latinx and other underrepresented groups. A recent article published on curious.kcrw.com provides data on the gender and racial makeup of playwrights in the fifty-year history of the Mark Taper Forum, one venue of The Center Theater Group. Of the two hundred and ninety-eight plays produced, two hundred and forty-nine were written by white authors (only thirty-three of these female). Yet only twelve of the two hundred and ninety-eight plays produced were written by Latinx playwrights. The LA County Arts Commission has recently released their Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative which states: "While Los Angeles County has invested in arts and culture for more than a century, there are concerns that all County residents do not have equal and meaningful access to the arts and the benefits they provide.” The report also states that “Program decision are driven by ticket sales and diverse cultural offerings are not financially viable.”

Adding to the lack of diverse representation, a growing number of plays presented at regional theatres here are first produced in New York. While that model provides audiences in Los Angeles with a recent popular and critically acclaimed product, most of these reflect white US American culture. At the same time, such plays take up slots in production seasons that might, in an alternative model, provide production opportunities for local Latinx writers and other writers of color, which would more accurately reflect the demographics of the population in Los Angeles County. The Geffen Playhouse—the other regional theatre in Los Angeles—has produced even fewer plays by writers of color based on past productions listed on their website. As a result, these theatres struggle to get people of color in their seats. In contrast, the Latinx-specific theatres demonstrate that Latinx audiences are here and are healthy. Company of Angels’ audiences are consistently around 80 percent people of color.

Professional Development of Artists of Color
Another reason Latinx-specific theatres are vital is that since the dismantling of the culturally specific labs at Center Theater Group ten years ago, the Latinx theatres in Los Angeles are the only theatres dedicated to developing young Latinx playwrights, and other theatre artists. By this, I mean providing a space for writers to work with actors to develop and showcase their work, oftentimes before a live audience. At Company of Angels, we run a playwrights group that meets monthly and we produce a play festival of their work every year, in addition to giving many playwrights their first professional production. Playwrights Arena was an early producer of the work of Luis Alfaro, and Casa 0101 and the Latino Theater Company hold classes and workshops for young aspiring writers and actors. These theatres’ professional productions provide Latinx actors with the opportunity to hone their craft, build a resume, and get exposure.

Advancement of the American Theatre
According to the Pew Research Center, it is estimated that by 2040, groups that have historically been termed “minorities” will in fact comprise the majority of the US population. It is reasonable and logical to believe that the “American” stage should accurately and fairly reflect America in all its diversity. But this is not just an equity issue. In order for theatre to remain relevant into that near future, we need to infuse the American theatre canon with specific stories of those underrepresented communities who will soon make-up a majority of the nation’s population. In addition to creating a theatre that more accurately depicts the city and nation where we live, and thus maintains its relevance, new voices from these under-represented communities provide a vital prism through which to explore the human experience, giving us new insights to what it means to be American at this historical moment in time. This is important so that as America evolves and changes, theatre as an art form and tool of communication remains relevant and accessible. My goal as Artistic Director of Company of Angels Theater is to work to implement this vision. In the last ten years we have produced over forty original plays by artists of color. Seventeen of these plays were by Latinx playwrights, including Virginia Grise, Gabe Rivas Gomez, Ricardo Bracho, Jonathan Ceniceroz, Evangeline Ordaz, Cris Franco, Bernardo Solano and Oliver Mayer. The Latino Theater Company ensemble produces at least two plays a year. And this year they are producing plays by Diane Rodriguez and Jonathan Ceniceroz. Casa 0101 also produces a steady stream of Latinx written plays, which often include plays by founder Josefina Lopez. And Bilingual Foundation of the Arts is famous for its mounting of Spanish language classics including Federico Garcia Lorca, Lope de Vega, and Calderon de la Barca.

an actor and an actress performing a scene
Justin Huen and Marissa Garcia in Visitors Guide to Arivaca by Evangeline Ordaz, directed by Armando Molina. Photo via Company of Angels,

The Latinx-specific theatres in Los Angeles are working with a tiny fraction of the resources the large regional theatres have, though these regional theatres ultimately serve only a fraction of the city’s population. The two large regional theatres combined receive grants and contributions of $29 million dollars, while the Latinx specific theatres receive funding in the amount of $1.2 million dollars. (These numbers are from IRS public records and do not include ticket sales.)

There are many reasons for this imbalance. One is the Latinx theatres’ lack of access to resources. Smaller culturally-specific theatres that serve under-resourced communities do not in most cases have a deep-pocket donor base. These theatres’ smaller budgets lead to a Catch-22 situation where foundations will only grant a certain percentage of the theatre’s budget, insuring that their grants will always remain small. Small budgets can only sustain small theatres so ticket sales are also limited. And since maintaining access is often a priority, ticket prices at these theatres must remain low. The Latino Theater Company has four very large theatres, their largest being 496 seats. But the expense of producing in a theatre of this size has meant that the company has historically produced only two plays a year. The company rents out the space to other theatre companies for the rest of the year in order to shore up expenses and cover their costs of operation. It’s hopeful to note that this year the company is able to produce more than two Latinx play in their venues.

Should the larger theatre institutions in Los Angeles that receive the lion’s share of both government and foundation support bear the responsibility of reflecting the demographics of Los Angeles through their programming (and on their boards and staffs)? Or should the smaller culturally-specific theatres in Los Angeles receive a larger percentage of government and foundation support commensurate with the size of the population they serve? I believe the most productive response is to seek ways to transform the paradigm for funding from one that measures the size of the organization, to one that recognizes who is being served by an organization. It is incumbent upon all of us to hold the purveyors of government and foundation support accountable for allocation of grant dollars. Trying to make the larger regional theatres more responsive and to reflect the communities they reside in is a struggle that has been going on for decades. And the recent KCRW study states that with regard to the representation of people of color at The Taper, “Data is particularly depressing not only for its lack of representation but also for the lack of discernible historical progress.” However, it is significant to point out the current Taper season includes four out of five plays by writers of color. Is this an anomaly or a sign of discernable progress? Past data portends the Taper’s current season will provide nothing more than a spike for this year in a future graph. Our goals must involve the equitable distribution of financial support to the theatres that serve the 48.6 percent of Latinx residents of Los Angeles. Grants should fund those theatres that are currently doing what we are seeking from the larger regional theatres.

Theatre artists in Los Angeles are accustomed to the struggle for financial support that I describe here. It’s the norm for us. But we are sustained by our allegiance to the audiences who are hungry to see their stories told on Los Angeles stages. If we provide a space for these voices, we have an opportunity to animate and excite US American theatre, enrich its aesthetic, and thereby expand our reach to a more diverse audience. Such efforts can be met with financial support from those institutions that believe in the future of theatre in the US, and that include the vital element of equity in allocating their funding.

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Excellent article. I would like to remind you of the amazing work of About... Productions. They don't have a permanent home, but they do produce Latinx work like "They Shoot Mexicans don't they" and The Latin Wave. Also, add The Pasadena Playhouse as another Los Angeles regional theatre who have tried not always successfully to bring more diversity to their stage. Also San Gabriel Mission Playhouse has been trying to interject Native American voices into their programming.

Question for Armando or any others in the know: What impact do you think the 3 time extension of Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum this spring has had on regional theaters' and funders' awareness and motivation to fund Latinx theater? It sold out through the last extension. I went 3 times and it looked like the Latinx community was 75% of the audience. There is no better illustration of the hunger to see ourselves on stage that you talked about, Armando. The play fed our souls and our community made a lot of money for the Taper. I couldn't find any stats online, but someone in the field told me it was the Taper's highest ticket sales ever. Anyone know if this is true?

It's important to remember that the government doesn't have any money of it's own; any money it has is taken by force (via taxes).

And while it is tempting to believe that such funds (ill-gotten or not) should be distributed based on current racial percentages, such a simplistic system does not take into account how much each member of the population pays in taxes or for how many years they have been paying.

I'd guess that the average Latinx resident has put in far less than the average non-Latinx. But I admit I could be wrong. The fundamental point is that such disputes can be avoided by simply having people support the theatrical institutions they wish to directly, rather than having the government act as a middle-man.

Unless, of course, the goal is to force non-Latinx members of the population to support Latinx theater whether they like it or not. Some may consider this a valid goal, but I think it is short-term thinking. As "Hamilton" as shown so well, people will voluntarily support quality theater no matter who puts it on -- but that could change if they become angry from being forced to support theater they aren't interested in.

Your assumption that "the average Latinx resident has put in far less than the average non-Latinx" is based on...what? Thorough demographic research from info released by the IRS? (Spoiler alert: nope.) Thanks to our tax system, I would venture to say that the very wealthy actually are paying the least equitable share of taxes, and those folks tend to be overwhelmingly not Latinx. So if you really wanted fairness...

What you're suggesting is an alternate paradigm where we don't pay taxes anymore? Your analysis hinges on a reality that won't come to pass anytime soon, and if you need help with seeing how racist your statement is, please let me know.

As a latino that pays a boatload of taxes, to the extent the government is funding the arts, I would prefer my tax dollars support communities that serve the 99%. Unfortunately, unlike other countries, we neither value the arts or basic human services. For being such a rich country, we rank bottom of the industrialized world in many areas, from higher infant mortality rates to lower STEM competence. Something is very broken.

Thank you for this article. You hit the nail on the head when you say, referring to The Latino Theater Company, that "the expense of producing in a theatre of this size has meant that the company has historically produced only two plays." The cost of turning on the lights at all the well-known performing arts spaces in LA is subject to, frankly, crushing costs. When you have a situation where just turning on the lights and putting six naked actors on stage at the Mark Taper Forum (739 seats) costs almost $1M because of union requirements, that's problematic. I am pro-union, but union houses pose a challenging economic model with fundamental sustainability concerns across all the performing arts genres--and of course there are hundreds of union professionals beyond AEA members to feed. Because we do not live in a society where the arts are so valued that they are deemed a government priority, for those few dollars that are available, I agree that organizational size should not be the king. Also, I think the exploration of more meaningful partnerships between small and large organizations could offer an additional solution. Seems like a lot of work needs to happen around access. We all need to work together to move the dial.

Explorations or more meaningful partnerships is an excellent suggestion and historically proven to be the best way to solve problems like the ones well described by Armando. Thank you, Kiki, for your observations. I also agree that we, as society members, could do much better about valuing and understanding the arts!

Armando, a great read on an important set of issues. Thank you for articulating your thoughts, both on the problems and possible solutions. The need for expanded equity and showcasing opportunities in the arts for Latinx and other creative people of color is greater than ever at this time of rapid demographic diversification and intergroup conflict. In this increasingly combustible moment, the arts offer a vital space for more thoughtful, constructive and socially-productive exchanges on the issues that most affect people's lives. This makes their practical relevance and value more timely than most conventional and established works. Theatre productions like "Westside Story" and "Native Son" may be among the few exceptions I can think of in this connection; and, of course, the emergence of Lin Manuel Miranda in recent years ("In the Heights" and "Hamilton") has begun to shift the prevailing paradigm in some exciting new directions that veer from traditional theatre norms. That is all to the good; because it seems increasingly likely the theatre as we know it will soon meet a sad and ugly end if there are not concerted efforts to make its content and reach more accessible to the audiences of today--audiences that are increasingly different in composition and taste versus the audiences that made the great standards of yester-year so popular. We need to nurture today's emerging populations of diverse young Americans now, so that they feel at home with and a part of the theatre and the larger arts community. They are the essential audiences and producers of the future for art to thrive in America. But sadly most contemporary theatre donors and sponsors still sadly lack an orientation to support and advance multicultural talent and perspectives. They tend to be more driven to support larger organizations that are committed to the old standards and thus too often are central to prolonging the status quo. So, I think you nailed it when you stated in your article: "I believe the most productive response is to seek ways to transform the paradigm for funding from one that measures the size of the organization, to one that recognizes who is being served by an organization." With the focus on the audience and the relevance of works presented, the theatre can gain new standing and relevance in our times and with that both more social impact and profitability going forward--something that would make all Americans winners--whatever our diverse backgrounds. Great article!

Meaningful board diversity work at larger organizations also is critical for moving the dial. When the lion's share of contributed income at llarger organizations does not come from government or foundation sources, this is another avenue for change if the goal is supporting diverse artists. (And BTW, Antaeus Theatre Company is producing Native Son during its 17-18 season, directed by the amazing and multi-talented Andi Chapman--she is the force behind the August Wilson Monologue Competion culminating at the Mark Taper Forum every year. )

Well articulated, Armando. So important to keep this conversation going and to identify new criteria for grant dollars! Now even more than ever,

Well done, Armando! We need more articles like this that speak to the funding challenges that different cities and regions are facing. Looking forward to this series curated by Gregory Ramos.