Award-winning director José Luis Valenzuela has been a visionary and an advocate for Chicanx/Latinx Theatre for over thirty years. He is the artistic director of the Latino Theater Company and the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC) and served as head of the MFA directing program at University of California, Los Angeles School of Theater, Film and Television. José Luis was one of the eight theatremakers who gathered in 2012 and created the Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC). Nidia Medina is a freelance theatre producer and artist based in New York City. She currently serves as the associate artistic director at INTAR Theatre. The two leaders from opposite coasts met on Zoom and shared their respective trajectories in the field, how it has changed over time, and the mentors who guided them.
Nidia Medina: Did you always know you wanted to be a director and artistic director?
José Luis Valenzuela: No, I never even thought about being a director or an artistic director. When I was really young, I was in San José, California working with a theatre company called El Teatro de la Gente. They asked me if I wanted to be an actor in the company full-time for $150 a month. It was a Chicano theatre company, which was a political theatre company. I remember thinking that since it was a political movement in a way, that I wanted to be part of history. So I said “Yes, this is what I want to do with my life. I want to participate in history-making through theatre work.”
Nidia: Then how did we get from that theatre to becoming an artistic director and director?
José Luis: I worked in that theatre for five or six years, and then I moved to a theatre that was a collective in Santa Barbara called El Teatro de la Esperanza. It was a full-time company. During the mornings we would train ourselves in many ways, and then we would rehearse in the afternoons. We usually chose to tour for around five months out of the year. We had our own little theatre in Santa Barbara, and we'd perform there at night. That's when I started really directing a lot more.
Then I got married. My wife, Evelina Fernandez, was from Los Angeles, and she had a career in LA as an actress. So after four years she said, "You can stay but I'm leaving." So I followed. I had only been working with companies for the last fifteen years or so, so I had no idea how to audition or what the business of being an actor was.
When I left the company, I asked them if they would give me a play to direct when I got to LA. They gave me a play called Hijos by El Teatro de la Esperanza, and I had found another play that I brought with me called the Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig. My wife and I went to every theatre and asked if somebody would produce them. Nobody liked the plays. We had $150 in our bank account and said, "Okay, we can produce a play with that." My wife started calling her friends to see if they wanted to be in a play. She was the casting director, the producer, everything. And I was the director.
We went to a tiny theatre in East LA and said, “We'll give you 50 percent of the money that comes in the box office and we can keep 50 percent." And we made a deal with the actors that we would divide the box office equally between everyone involved in the production. These people came to see it, and they had a meeting with me. They said they were building a theatre in downtown LA called the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC), and they wanted me to tell them what I needed. I said, "I really need a rehearsal room twice a week for four hours to train people and do readings." That's how the Latino Theater Company was created, as a lab. So, I was by default the artistic director of the company.
José Luis: And that's how I became an artistic director.
Nidia: That's amazing. So many companies started this way, companies like LAByrinth Theater Company that have deeply influenced our art form began as a group of artists who just said, “Actually we just need some space from a supportive larger company.” In LAByrinth’s case, that was INTAR Theatre.