VIVA THEATER: New play projects are nothing new, but when the playwrights are all Latino and the event takes place in Orange County, it becomes news. Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory was host to just such a conclave last week and, according to Jose Gonzalez, the National Endowment for the Arts Director Fellow in residence who was project director, the event exceeded all expectations.
Three plays by Latin Americans were workshopped for a week, then done as staged readings for the public over the weekend: Eduardo Machado's "Once Removed" (directed by Gonzalez), Lisa Loomer's "Birds" (staged by the Los Angeles Theatre Center's Jose Luis Valenzuela) and "Charley Bacon and His Family" by Arthur Giron (directed by Jorge Huerta, artistic co-director of the San Diego Globe's Teatro Meta).
The directors and four dramaturges worked with the playwrights: South Coast's Jerry Patch and John Glore, Melia Bensussen from New York's Public Theatre and Dolores Prida from New York's Assn. of Hispanic Arts (who also served as project dramaturge). Five applicants whose plays were not selected were also brought in as writer-observers. By all accounts it was a heady, intense experience.
"Magical," Gonzalez said, who was especially excited about community response. "We had to move from the Second Stage to the Main Stage Friday and Saturday nights. More than 200 people showed up--Hispanic and non-Hispanic."
How did the playwrights feel?
Giron found the event "remarkable because, historically, it was the first time. The cross fertilization is so important and the level of work was serious--very high."
"People thought my play was too funny, which is a comment I'd never heard before," Machado said, "but the experience was terrific.
"There was no doubt that all three of these plays were American. Whatever problems they had were problems any play could have had. It had nothing to do with their being Hispanic. It had to do with different demands. An American Hispanic play is written in English. Hispanic theater has a different kind of rhythm--it wants more time to talk. English doesn't."
"One of the things we have to offer," Giron echoed, "is passion and theatricality. The beat comes from an emotional life. The three plays had to do with culture shock and family relationships. It's a different way of viewing America. And they were comedies--families that would do the craziest things."
"The best thing for me ," Loomer said, "is that the plays went way beyond the kind of stereotyping the electronic media has been feeding the public. They were not about violent low-life types. My play and Eduardo's dealt with middle-class families and relating to a new culture--finding one's place in terms of one's roots. Arthur's had a lot of fantasy. The exchange and the spirit were very exciting."
"We all got to know each other," Machado added. "As days went by we relaxed. There was a community spirit--much more about the work than about being Hispanic."
Said Giron, "David Emmes (artistic co-director of South Coast Rep) asked, 'Is it appropriate for us (gringos) to be doing this?' Everyone said yes! Orange County is full of Hispanics, so is Southern California. It was completely natural."
So what happens now?
"They have an option. They could do my play." quipped Machado, who has, in fact, been commissioned to write another play for South Coast. Will they repeat this project? "We have to start evaluating," Gonzalez said.
Giron, on the other hand is utterly confident: "It will go on."
With the Nederlander Organization it always seems to be feast or famine--and sometimes it's hard to tell which is which.
For instance, just when you think nothing's ever coming to the group's Wilshire Theatre again, that it's a write-off, a mirage at the corner of Wilshire and La Cienega, a show is announced.
It won't happen until Sept. 23, but are you ready for another round of "La Cage aux Folles"? Peter Marshall and Keene Curtis will headline this time. Nothing else is scheduled between now and then, but the Nederlanders' Stan Seiden insists that "A Chorus Line," canceled at the Wilshire earlier this year, remains a possibility for "some time in the fall."
Over at their Pantages, meanwhile, a subscription series of sorts is struggling to get out.
"Pippin" with Ben Vereen will visit Aug. 19-31, followed by Russia's Moiseyev Dancers in their first U.S. visit in 12 years (Oct. 7-19), "The Magic of David Copperfield" (a show that has nothing to do with Charles Dickens, everything to do with magic and is expected in November, dates unspecified) plus the national company of "Singin' in the Rain" (Dec. 9-27). Subscribers get to pick three out of four.
If you detect a cautionary tone in all this, it stems from the Nederlander track record. For example, isn't it summer now? Whatever happened to that springtime Playgoers series that was to take place at the Henry Fonda (following last fall's Playgoers that included "Aren't We All?," "Old Times" and "Glengarry Glen Ross")?
At least one subscriber--Corinne Windman of Los Angeles--has been wondering and wondering what happened to that $154.50 she sent in for the series last January.
Seiden acknowledged that it's taken "a little longer" to put the second three-play series together.
"We'll be bringing in 'I'm Not Rappaport,' " he said. "We're in negotiation with Elliot Martin for 'Arsenic and Old Lace,' and we're still working on the third show."
Seiden warned, however, that there was a handshake but no signed contract yet on "Rappaport"; Martin, when contacted Tuesday, said it may be "a while" before "Arsenic" leaves Broadway. And while "Benefactors," a Nederlander show, is a strong contender for the third slot, it can't be confirmed. So it doesn't sound like any of this is happening tomorrow.
What about the care and feeding of subscribers left in the lurch?
"There was a mailing, about the middle of May, saying we were running late but that the series would be coming in the near future and offering a refund to anybody who didn't want to wait."
Windman never received it.
Meanwhile, rumors that the partnership between Michael Forman and the Nederlanders in the two Hollywood theaters (the Pantages and the Fonda) had soured because of the prolonged dark periods experienced at both houses could not be confirmed.