Reflecting the United States Latinx Experience on Stage
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.
So, why did you focus specifically on Latine theatre?
José Luis: Really my purpose was a need to change. I'm from Mexico City, Mexico. I had no idea about the stereotypes of Mexicans that existed in the United States.
Nidia: Yeah. Mexico City is a gigantic, gorgeous, very international place.
José Luis: Yeah. So, that was really my vision. We have to change the perception. We have to really talk to the community about what the issues are. Our company only does theatre that reflects the United States Latinx experience. We want to elevate that dialogue and nurture the Latino talent in the United States. I love Latino theatre. It's our mission as a company; it's my mission as a director.
Nidia: Yeah. I feel like Los Angeles/Chicano culture is so influential to Latine culture in the rest of the United States for sure. I think it's always going to be that way, such a force, and such an important voice in America.
José Luis: To me, specificity is so important in the art world. We have to know who we're talking to as artists.
Nidia: Who were your mentors?
José Luis: Well, I must say I have a lot of mentors. I think Jorge Huerta was a big influence in the theatre for me. But during the Chicano theatre movement, a lot of people from around the world came and were with us and directed us, gave us workshops and trained us. People like Enrique Buenaventura, Santiago Garcia from Colombia, Mariano Leyva from Los Mascarones from Mexico, Luis Valdez, Peter Brook. We had a lot of influence from great Latin American theatre.
But now, how I met my mentor, Stein Winge, who was my real mentor for forty years, and who I still talk to at least once a month… When I was fifteen years old and I was living in a little town in Mexico, the tarot cards were read to me, and they told me a lot of things that have come true. One of the things that they told me was that I was going to meet this man and his name was going to be Stein and said that he was going to be a very important person in my life. So, I was hired at the LATC first as an accountant.
Nidia: Did you actually know how to do accounting, or did you just say you were a great accountant?
José Luis: I have a great mind for math. In El Teatro de la Esperanza, we did the accounting, the productions, the costumes, everything. So we learned things.
I was working at the LATC and then doing my theatre work at night in the rehearsal rooms. They allowed me to do a reading of La Victima and they liked the play, so they produced it. So I was directing La Victima, and I went to ask where the producer was, and someone said, "Oh, she went to pick up Stein at the airport." And I go, "Oh wow, that's the man who's going to be important to me."
I had no idea who he was or what he was coming to do. I went to his office and I said, "You don't know me and I don't know you but you're supposed to be a very important man in my life. So here I am. I'm José Luis"
Nidia: Yes, I love that!
When I think about people that I consider to be my mentors, it goes far beyond just being a person you look up to who is teaching you or taking you under their wing in the profession.
José Luis: He was here to direct Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters and I said, "I can just sit in your rehearsal. I can bring you coffee. I can do whatever.” And he says, "No, no, I don't need assistance." Somehow we went to a party together, we drank, and he said, "Yeah, why don't you come over and we can start something?" That began my process with him.
He came back and did a play called Barabbas, and after that he said he was going to Europe and wanted to know if I would go. He didn't have any money to pay me, so he asked the cast if they would help me buy my plane ticket. They all put money in, and they bought my plane ticket. And I told my wife, "I'm going to be gone for six weeks, and let's try to figure it out."
Nine years after that, he was able to find the production company to hire me. We did all kinds of operas and plays in Europe for many, many years. I would direct in LA at the LATC, and then for a few months I would go and assist him anywhere in the world that he wanted me to be. He would come to my rehearsals and give me notes. I would go to his rehearsal and give him notes.
We had a great relationship, a beautiful relationship, and we still do. He's old now and fragile, but I still call him once a month at least to see how he's doing and talk about theatre and our dreams or what we should be doing.
Nidia: The way you talk about your relationship with your mentor resonates with me. When I think about people that I consider to be my mentors, it goes far beyond just being a person you look up to who is teaching you or taking you under their wing in the profession. You become friends and collaborators as well. It grows into much more of an exchange of ideas and thoughts and guidance. I think that's what a mentor is meant to be.
José Luis: Yeah, and it's a lifetime mentorship. What happens with a mentor is they grow as much as you do. They keep growing. You need to keep up.
Nidia: That's amazing.
José Luis: Something really important is that I don't want people to think that it's me who did all of this. It's not. It’s the Latino Theater Company that has really helped me to be here. We've been together for thirty-seven years, the same group of people. All this growth that I’m talking about, it’s not myself doing it. It is Latino Theater Company moving forward as a company. I happen to be the face of it.
Ensembles can be the future of the American theatre. The Chicano theatre movement was really a movement of ensemble theatre companies beginning with El Teatro Campesino, El Teatro de la Esperanza, El Teatro de la Gente, Su Teatro, and on.
I love the Latinx Theatre Commons because it’s a huge ensemble of artists who are trying to work for the future of Latino theatre. This is what the Commons means. It's a collective group of people in benefit of a whole community of artists and a whole community who needs theatre. This idea is what creates a movement; it's what creates history. In an ensemble, it's not about you. It’s about the benefit of the other. It's about the benefit of the whole. That's what I feel the Commons is about: everybody's benefit.
Movements are complicated and difficult. That's why they're movements, because they keep evolving. You have to understand the Chicano theatre movement is a response to the American theatre that doesn’t acknowledge us or take into account who we are historically. We have to make our opportunities, our own work. Theatre is a dialogue with your community. That's the reason we do it: to have a dialogue with our community, with our people, and with the audience, whoever they are.
People say, "Well, we're not going to give money to the arts. We're going to give money to social justice." I say, "That's what we do."
The goal is not to mold our work to fit into what is traditionally recognized as the American theatrical canon, but for our work to be recognized as equally important and vital to the ecology of our field.
Nidia: Yeah. Theatre is vital to social change.
José Luis: That's right.
Nidia: It's all about humanity and community.
José Luis: It's exactly about it. We are observers of human behavior.
Nidia: I totally agree. We're talking about how much energy goes into working in Latine theatre. The goal is not to mold our work to fit into what is traditionally recognized as the American theatrical canon, but for our work to be recognized as equally important and vital to the ecology of our field.
This work in advocacy has been going on for decades, but that takes energy. How do you balance working for change while preserving your energy?
José Luis: Our goal has never been to be recognized by the American theatre. That's too much energy. We don't have time for that.
Nidia: Yeah, I hear that. Let’s just make our work.
José Luis: Yeah. We do our work and people say, "Well, that's a very LA play." It's okay, that's our community. I think we speak to many other communities, but it's not necessarily our goal. And it’s not our goal to please or to pander to people to produce our work.
Nidia: I absolutely agree, and I feel it's wonderfully transgressive to ultimately not seek validation from those power forces. That is an important part of change for our entire community.
What advice do you have for the next generation who's also passionate about the preservation and continued excess of Latinx teatro? How can we continue and honor your work?
José Luis: The best thing to do is to read all the Latino work that you can. Don't judge it, just read it. Do not try to compare it to what your perception of what the American theatre is. See it for its own value. I became a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) because I thought the worst thing we can do is lie to ourselves in order to achieve success. Everybody has their own goals and their own ideas. Put it up and do your own work. Tell your own stories. Create your own narrative.
Remember the ego is the enemy, and we all have it. We all have to have it in order to do this, but one has to be careful with it. Push forward, learn, be good to yourself, be honest, and take care of yourself. Because contemporary times are hard, harder than my times. So guard yourself. Don't listen to people who give you opinions even when you don't ask them.
Nidia: Oh yes, I experience that.
José Luis: So be careful. Be good to you. Some people give you opinions that are statements, "Oh, that was not good,” or, "This is not good. That's bad." Who cares?
The best legacy is that if we, as a company, and I, as Jose Luis, can leave a new generation that will continue doing the work for the next fifty years.
Nidia: Okay, the last question is a little bit morbid, yet I feel like Latinos can handle morbidity. What do you want people to remember you for?
José Luis: I've been thinking about that a lot. I'm not sure that I want people to remember me at all. I really want people to continue doing the work. The best legacy is that if we, as a company, and I, as José Luis, can leave a new generation that will continue doing the work for the next fifty years. We, as individuals, we're totally irrelevant, I believe. I always say that in the company, nobody is indispensable.
Nidia: I say that too. I just finished a job, and everyone was saying, "We're going to miss you so much," and I just replied, "You will forget me; I am forgettable. Don't worry about it. Somebody else will come in.”
José Luis: We're dispensable, but the work is not.
Nidia: That’s right.
José Luis: The important part is the work. Let's continue the work. Let's challenge everybody by doing work. Not work just to get me to the next job, but work with intentionality. We have so much to offer. Let's be generous with our talent and with our knowledge.
Nidia: Agreed. I will do that, and I know so many brilliant artists who will do the same.
José Luis: That's what I think people should remember me by.
Nidia: Carry the torch.
José Luis: That's right. Continue.
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