L.A. Performance Artist's Childhood Memories Inspire Personal Portrait of 'Downtown'

Arkatov writes regularly about theater for Calendar

Luis Alfaro is making theater like crazy.

"In the last six months, I've done like 30 projects," said the local writer-performer whose latest effort, "Downtown," opens Friday at Highways in Santa Monica.

"Usually, I'll write something on Monday, then work it, work it, work it. On Thursday, I memorize it; on Friday, I work it onstage; on Saturday, I perform it." The pace, he said, is largely fueled by request: "I'm always thrilled when people ask me to do my stuff. It's like an alcoholic--I want to do everything anybody asks me to."

"I think he does perform compulsively," said fellow performer Eduardo Santiago, who collaborated with Alfaro on "Peliculas Prohibidas" ("Forbidden Movies") at Power House in 1989. "The most interesting thing about Luis' work is that he performs all the time. Any night of the week you'll find him off doing something, somewhere. But he doesn't perform out of vanity, to showcase himself. After the show, he's not waiting around in the lobby for compliments. He's off to another performance."

Alfaro's recent burst of performance activity follows several quiet years behind the scenes, studying acting with Michael Kearns and Scott Kelman. Alfaro said he spent many years at the Wallenboyd, a now-defunct downtown theater, "working on technical stuff: lighting design, stage managing, watching other people work. So I had a long gestation period. Now that I'm not studying with anybody, the training really comes from being onstage. It's also great training for me to able to write quickly--and get the work out."

"Downtown" has taken far longer to create. It's been in the making for seven months. A solo paean to Alfaro's growing up in the Pico-Union District, it is a montage of urban rhythms, movement and characters (eight in all, including tour guide Smiley, seamstress Lupe, the junkie and the father).

Alfaro, whose works usually develop in the form of a short story or poem, performed earlier versions of "Downtown" during the year; the final version, he said, has "four new characters and a lot of new text."

It also contains a segment about himself--a persona and voice he generally avoids in performance.

"I usually do the investigation through other characters," said Alfaro, 29, who includes in his performance a childhood recollection of his mother furiously battering a rat with a broom. "The image is so much the reality of growing up in downtown and being poor and living with that kind of desperation."

The memories are not all gloomy, however. A latchkey kid, Alfaro recalls riding the bus downtown with his brother every day after school. "We spent our lives with people--not people we necessarily knew--but in the community, in large, open spaces--and not being afraid of what that means," he said.

His adult perspective has changed somewhat. For the past six months, Alfaro has been living in the tranquil high-rise setting of Park La Brea in the Fairfax area.

"Coming here was a release from having been robbed so many times, being held up in my home," he said with a sigh. "For the last six years, I lived on Sunset and Alvarado. I'd go down to Burrito King, walk to Pioneer Market. I'm very neighborhoody. I miss the neighbor who'd come over every day with soup, the old lady whose trash you'd pick up. Here, you don't talk to your neighbors; it's very sterile. I know I have to go back. But it was also a good thing to get away, distance myself from it. I think a lot of good writing came from it."

His credits this year include "Smiley and Other Vatos Like Me" at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, "Retablo" at L.A. Contemporary Exhibitions, "Learning the Language" at the Saxon-Lee Gallery and "Relationships" at the Zeta Collective. Alfaro also has made numerous appearances in other people's work (including the acclaimed L.A. Festival entry "The Undead"), readings, writings and fund-raising performances for, among others, VIVA Latino Artists Collective, the Homeless Writers Coalition and Act Up L.A.

Earlier this year, Alfaro was arrested downtown with a "chain gang" of artists, who were protesting the withdrawal of federal funding for the arts. "Part of me was really torn by this action of marching into downtown, being arrested at the Federal Building," Alfaro said. "A lot of the images I have of downtown are as a very nurturing place. In 'Downtown,' I pay homage to it; I speak of the buildings as 'big, long, tall, beautiful women.' So the idea of questioning power, going back and marching through that neighborhood--it affected me deeply."

Alfaro doesn't shun the mantle of a political agenda, nor does he court it. The same goes for his homosexuality. In "Downtown," he tells the story of a Virgin Mary figurine that's passed through the family. "At the end, I say, 'I met this guy who had a Virgin Mary doll that lit up, and I fell in love'--and there's a naturalness about it. It's like, 'Oh, he fell in love. Oh, he's gay.' I'm not holding up a neon sign, throwing it in people's faces. I talk about family, I talk about Latino culture, I talk about being gay--and it's all one big thing."

Alfaro's attraction to words started early. He recalls being the only child in his family who'd ask for books for Christmas. He was also a big talker, in spite of having to undergo speech therapy for a stutter. After high school, Alfaro attended Inner City Cultural Center, and has supported himself with a succession of jobs--most recently working for a labor union and currently teaching performance art to grade-schoolers at the Los Angeles Children's Museum. "I get fed a lot by the kids," he said earnestly. "It also keeps me very contemporary."

And honest.

"I'm constantly having to hand myself warning signs, keep myself in check," he said of performing. "So much of what I do is internal. So the balance is how to get all those things out externally without losing the power they have inside of me. I'm dealing with themes that are real important to me: family, the culture I'm tied to, the problems I see growing up in an urban environment. A lot of the work is getting that stuff out without making yourself too precious, too overbearing. It's also allowing yourself to be ugly--and vulnerable."

"Downtown" plays at 8:30 p.m. Fridays through Sundays at Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica, through Dec. 9. Tickets are $10. (213) 453-1755.

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