Ten years ago, an effort to sustain a Latino theater in Orange County failed--as all of them have, sooner or later. But Pablo Eduardo Rivera remembers making a promise then, and he is sweating to keep it now.
Rivera spent his Labor Day holiday trying to turn a sparse, nondescript auditorium in a Santa Ana community center into his vision, Teatro Indigena. In a few days, Rivera and his paint-spattered co-producer, Sara Guerrero, would be on the newly refurbished, black box stage playing Aztec gods who are transported to modern-day Los Angeles in "Buscando America (Seeking America)."
Playwright Roy Conboy's seriocomic parable reclaims an ancient Mexican myth to comment on how those who enjoy bounty get lost in their own pleasures and forget those struggling to get by.
It's the kind of work, based in Latino culture and stories and acted mainly by Latino players, that has been solidly entrenched in Los Angeles for more than 30 years. But in Orange County, attempts to launch teatros inevitably have withered because there wasn't enough money or a broad enough organizational base.
One fleeting effort was Cucucuevez, a Latino theater at Santa Ana's Rancho Santiago College in 1990-91 that disbanded when Conboy and Jose Cruz Gonzalez, the two playwright-director-teachers who started the company, left for jobs at bigger universities. Rivera, now 37, got his early training as an actor from Conboy and Gonzalez--including a part in the original 1990 Cucucuevez production of "Buscando America."
"We all parted with a tear in our eye, saying, 'This isn't goodbye, we'll be back someday,"' Rivera recalled of Cucucuevez' demise. "It never happened. But I vowed to come back."
And now he is. Rivera, as founder and artistic director, and Guerrero, the associate director who trained at CalArts, want to prove in their hometown of Santa Ana that indigenous Latino theater can sustain itself in Orange County.
Among their models are such L.A. venues as the 98-seat Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, founded in 1972, and Grupo de Teatro Sinergia, which began in 1987. Nosotros, the Latino performing arts support organization started by Ricardo Montalban in 1970, ran a small theater in Hollywood for nearly 30 years as a showcase for Latino talent until it lost its lease and closed in 1999.
Teatro Indigena has to think modestly. After pilot productions in 1999 and 2000, the nonprofit is mounting its first full season of four plays. It has no significant donors yet, but rents free of charge the city-owned El Salvador Center; it can't afford to pay its actors and technicians, and its season consists mainly of plays that Rivera and Guerrero wrote because they can't afford author royalties for established works.
Conboy, now chairman of the theater arts department at San Francisco State, is waiving his fee for "Buscando America" (he also is the author of "Drive My Coche," seen last year as part of the Mark Taper Forum's Taper, Too program).
Putting on shows in both Spanish and English is out of the question for now for Teatro Indigena; "Buscando America" is in English sprinkled with Spanish.
This year's first production, Guerrero's drama "Cascara" ("Shell"), about a troubled woman's struggle against isolation, cost $1,000. Rivera is trying to bring in "Buscando America" for no more than $800. A pack-rat, he has been able to cut costs by exhuming some props and outfits he and the show's costume designer saved from the original 1990 run.
Part of his desire to perform, Rivera says, came from watching his grandmother, mother and aunt, all of whom worked as maids, having fun mimicking their bosses.
After Cucucuevez folded, Rivera tried for a career in Hollywood. He gave up in disgust around 1993--not because he couldn't get roles, but because everything he was offered was a gross stereotype, the young Latino as gangster.
Rivera turned to writing to tell stories with his own vision of what it is to be Latino. One of his early efforts, "Abuelito's Mexican Christmas Carol," became the first show Teatro Indigena staged two years ago in Santa Ana.
Guerrero, now 26, joined the company last year for another production. "I had grown up as this kind of whitewashed Chicana," she said, with little Spanish in her background. But during a post-high school stay in South America, she got to see Federico Garcia Lorca's plays done in Spanish. "Something clicked," and she was soon at CalArts.
For Orange County--and the Latino community Teatro Indigena aims to serve--the question is what it will take to sustain this new theater.
Louie Olivos Jr., the dean of grassroots Latino theater in Orange County, stopped producing shows with his Actores de Santa Ana two years ago. After training at the Nosotros Theater in Los Angeles, Olivos launched his company in 1971. He had a venue and a built-in audience: His family owned the Yost Theater in Santa Ana, a Spanish-language movie house, and Actores began staging plays after cinematic double bills. But the family lost control of the Yost in 1985. Actores de Santa Ana survived, putting on two shows a year at local college campuses and museums, often performing plays Olivos wrote himself.
"I was dead tired. I wore too many hats," Olivos said, so he stopped producing plays and concentrated instead on his acting. The Actores de Santa Ana will return, however, performing historical sketches for Hispanic Heritage Month.
Olivos played a part last year in "Carmelita's Birthday," a Rivera-penned children's play that was the second production by Teatro Indigena.
"I'm proud of [Rivera]," Olivos said. He hopes that Teatro Indigena can turn into the stable, broad-based Latino theater that Orange County has lacked. Some 875,000 Orange County residents are Latino, according to Census 2000--just under a third of the total population of 2.8 million.
"There are Hispanics here who are economically set" and could make the donations a theater needs to prosper, Olivos said.
In their cash-starved reality, he and Guerrero still find things to be positive about--notably, that "Cascara," their first show at the El Salvador Center last April, packed the utilitarian room's 133 folding chairs for six of the seven performances.
Teatro , says Rivera, "is a beautiful art form that we don't want to see die.... It's just different, not something you would normally see at some of your bigger theaters, and I think people are starting to take notice."
"Buscando America (Seeking America)," Teatro Indigena at El Salvador Center, 1825 W. Civic Center Drive, Santa Ana. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 4 p.m. Ends Sunday. $8-$10. (714) 569-6888.