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THEATER NOTES : Taking the Initiative at the Taper

<i> Don Shirley is a Times staff writer</i>

Luis Alfaro was an usher at the Mark Taper Forum in the late ‘70s. Diane Rodriguez appeared onstage at the Taper back in 1974, when she was on tour with El Teatro Campesino.

Now the two are on staff at the Taper, working as a team, running the company’s Latino Theatre Initiative, with its $2.27 million endowment.

They’re taking over the four-year Initiative after a first year that was--by many accounts--an artistic disappointment. The Initiative’s mainstage shows, “Bandido!” and “Floating Islands,” were panned. The project’s first director, Jose Luis Valenzuela, resigned in between the two shows. However, the new directors point out that the Initiative’s primary mission is to develop Latino audiences, and at least “Bandido!” succeeded in that.

Both of last year’s shows were written by non-Angelenos (though Eduardo Machado of “Floating Islands” grew up in L.A., he has lived in New York since 1980). Alfaro, 33, born and raised in Los Angeles, emphasized that he is “a community-based artist” and he hopes to bring more local artists into the Initiative. “We know everybody here,” Alfaro said.

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San Jose-reared Rodriguez, who declined to give her age, moved to L.A. in 1985 and became best known here for her work with Latins Anonymous. She and Alfaro need no L.A. orientation, she said, thanks to their “grass-roots training.” However, she didn’t rule out using non-Angeleno artists, noting that the Taper “deals within a national arena.”

Some Angeleno artists are, of course, nationally known, and Alfaro rattled off a list of L.A.-based Latinos--Milcha Sanchez-Scott, Oliver Mayer, Jose Rivera--whose new plays are being produced in other cities but might find a second home at the Taper.

Alfaro and Rodriguez themselves perform and write. The Taper gave them a joint commission last fall to develop a piece about a middle-class Latina. Alfaro would direct Rodriguez. Though conceived as a solo, the piece might expand.

They won’t disqualify their own works from the Initiative they now run. Rodriguez pointed out that the Taper artistic director still feels free to direct occasionally at the theaters he runs. However, she added that the Initiative will not turn into “The Luis Alfaro and Diane Rodriguez Show.”

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“Back for their fourth year on the mainstage,” joked Alfaro.

Although Alfaro is best known as a solo artist, he has written larger plays, which have been through workshops but never a full production. He said the Initiative will “aim for something that’s going to be produced.” That means deadlines for writers and involving the Taper production staff in the process, Rodriguez added.

Alfaro believes some of his solo artist colleagues, such as Texas soloist Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, might write “wonderful” larger-scale plays if given access to the resources of the Taper. However, don’t expect plays on the scale of the two-part “Floating Islands” soon; Diane Rodriguez said last year’s ambitious productions needed more development time.

Alfaro and Rodriguez have experience beyond their performance credits. Alfaro rose from being a teen-age assembly-line worker at a Vernon factory to being the director of personnel there; he’s a founder and project director of VIVA/Lesbian and Gay Latino Artists. Rodriguez produced and designed costumes as well as performed for El Teatro Campesino; she and her husband, Jose Delgado, did much of the original L.A. research for the groundbreaking Teatro/Taper production of “Zoot Suit.” However, at the Taper administrator-producer Rosamaria Marquez will manage the Initiative while Alfaro and Rodriguez concentrate on the artistic side.

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Besides developing Latino work, the pair said they will consult on the selection of other Taper shows and try to get Latinos to see them, just as they hope non-Latinos see the Latino projects. Rodriguez denounced “segregation and tribalism” in audiences--and in society.

Asked about productions in Spanish, Alfaro sounded open to the idea, but Rodriguez said many U.S.-born Latinos don’t write in Spanish and that such productions might exclude too much of the Taper audience. Rodriguez and Alfaro are Mexican American, but they vowed not to exclude non-Chicano Latinos.

Alfaro and Rodriguez met while doing the satirical “Platform” at Los Angeles Theatre Center. They got to know each other better while preparing for an evening of performance art at the Taper. Their past areas of expertise are different, but they submitted a joint proposal to run the Initiative, and they doubt they’ll have any major conflicts with each other.

Playfully assuming the role of a blushing bride, Rodriguez said, “We’re on our honeymoon and it’s been wonderful so far.”

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