Plays about drug cartel killings and the vanishing of factory workers south of the border may not be the kind of thing you can see every day.
To organizers of a unique theater festival in downtown Los Angeles, that's just the point.
The Encuentro festival, which begins Thursday at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, brings together more than 150 artists from theater companies across the country to perform 17 plays in a month. The goal is not simply to bring attention to Latino theater in America but to foment a revolution of change in theater at large.
"We are still somehow the invisible people," says organizer Jose Luis Valenzuela, founder and artistic director of Latino Theater Company, which has operated the city-owned L.A. Theatre Center as a space for arts organizations and cultural events since 2006. "In the entertainment mainstream, we do not exist."
Sitting on a red folding seat inside the center, dressed in black and sporting a neatly trimmed gray goatee and a smooth sweep of short white hair, Valenzuela says Encuentro comes at a transformative moment for Los Angeles.
"This city will define theater for the 21st century because of its diversity," says Valenzuela, also a professor at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television and among the founders of the Latina/o Theater Commons, a national network of theater professionals. "To me, culture is not static. It changes every day — we make a decision, and it becomes part of culture."
The decision to create Encuentro (which means "encounter" in Spanish) has energized the country's Latino theater companies, says Alex Meda, 29, artistic director of Chicago's all-Latina theater company, Teatro Luna. Meda is flying to L.A. with members of her company to direct a production about the tumult of love and marriage titled "Your Problem With Men."
"The artist-to-artist interaction is priceless and can't be replicated on a peer-to-peer basis," Meda says. "The magic will happen when 150 people enter the same room."
It will also happen when they enter the same hotel, which, in this case is the Stay on Main Hotel in downtown L.A., where participants will live for the month. Funding for the festival, which is costing more than $1 million in airfare, housing, per diems, production costs and marketing, was provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Ford Foundation, among others.
Unlike other theater festivals, it will be mandatory for each participant to see every play on offer. The companies also will be broken up into 10 new companies that will each create a 20-minute piece to be performed at the end of the festival.
"It's not that the piece has to be great," Valenzuela says of the exercise. "It's the artistic conversation and collaboration that happens that's important."
Other conversations will include nine of what Valenzuela calls "around the teapot" dialogues dealing with issues facing the Latino community, including LGBT concerns, domestic violence and immigration.
In addition, a fellowship program has been created for future leaders in the field. The 10 fellows, chosen through a process that included interviews with members of the Latino Theater Company and the L.A. Theatre Center staff, will take part in a two-month Encuentro program. Like the festival, the fellowship is not limited to Latinos. One fellow is Monterey Park resident Ricky Pak, the Asian artistic director of the Circle Squared Collective, a Latino theater company in Montebello.
Among the concerns of leaders in Latino theater is the idea of succession. There was a renaissance in Latino theater in the 1960s and '70s, with the umbrella organization El Teatro Nacional de Aztlan throwing 10-day Latino theater festivals across the country. The companies were mainly made up of Chicano college students and community members who used theater as a medium to create political dialogue and social change in the United States, Valenzuela says. But funding cuts and the recession in the early '80s brought that group down, and nothing as expansive filled the void until now.
"It's quite an exciting moment to begin building those bridges for future generations," says Encuentro fellow Kinan Valdez, the producing artistic director of El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, Calif. "The demographics in the country are changing and audiences are changing. Part of this is to place Latino theater into the larger context of American theater."
Throughout Encuentro's monthlong run, 10,000 high school students from the Los Angeles Unified School District will be bused in to see the shows during special matinees, the tickets subsidized by the L.A. Theatre Center.
"Young people need to see theater they can relate to," Valenzuela says. "They'll say, 'Oh, my God, these people look like me.'"
They also will notice how many women are involved, says Latino Theater Company member Evelina Fernandez, who wrote the Encuentro play "Premeditation." The Chicano-noir-inspired piece is about a woman who hires a hit man to kill her husband because he's driving her crazy.
"At least half the plays are either written by, directed by or about women," she says. "I don't think the selection committee set out to do it that way, but that was the theater out there."
Valenzuela says he had no idea there were more than 70 full-fledged, travel-ready Latino theater companies in the country until 75 applied to be a part of Encuentro.
The festival had no specific guidelines for what kinds of shows it would accept, and the resulting selection presents the "many facets of Latino theater and community," says Valenzuela, adding that he hopes to hold the festival every other year.
Shows were selected by a national committee made up of members of the Latina/o Theatre Commons steering committee and Valenzuela's company. Among the picks were "Maria's Circular Dance," Medardo Treviño's show about violence on the U.S.-Mexico border; "Juárez, a Documentary Mythology," conceived by New York-based Theater Mitu; and the true story of a Honduran boy's journey to join his mother in the U.S., based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning series "Enrique's Journey" by then-Times staff writer Sonia Nazario.
"We do have maids, gardeners, janitors and road builders," Valenzuela says. "But we have many other things besides — we have lawyers and professors and artists. That narrative hasn't changed yet in the American psyche, and we have to change it. That's what Latino theater means in this country."
What: A Latino theater festival consisting of 17 productions by artists from across the country
Where: Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., L.A.
When: Thursday-Nov. 12
Tickets: $35 per show