Latino Festival looks to define its mission

Times Staff Writer

It was the morning after the opening-night party, and the organizers of the second International Latino Theatre Festival of Los Angeles were clearly feeling the effects. Not just of dancing, talking and noshing hors d'oeuvres until 2 a.m., mind you.

Jorge Folgueira, William Flores and Flavia Saravalli still were emotionally hung over from the opening of "Our Lady of the Clouds" (Nuestra Senora de las Nubes), a raucous but meditative two-character piece from Ecuador.

The night before, a full house at the Los Angeles Theatre Center had offered up melancholy sighs as well as shrieking laughter during the play, written and performed in Spanish by the acclaimed troupe Malayerba.

Full of tragicomic antics, "Our Lady" orbits around themes of political upheaval, exile and cultural dislocation. Parts recall Samuel Beckett's absurdist metaphysical slapstick -- yet from a decidedly South American angle. And it struck a chord with the L.A. audience.

"What made me the happiest was when I went backstage and the actors were absolutely amazed by the reaction," said Folgueira, the festival's Cuban born-and-bred artistic director and president, speaking in Spanish. "They've been performing the show for seven years but never had a reception like that."

It's probably true that Los Angeles, despite being one of the planet's largest Spanish-speaking metropolises, has never had an event quite like the International Latino Theatre Festival. The festival, known by its Spanish-language acronym FITLA, is a 10-day marathon of theater, film screenings, dance and performance pieces.

In its second year, the festival is trying to position itself as a premier U.S. showcase for a wide spectrum of Spanish- and Portuguese-language expression. The busy schedule includes workshops, an academic symposium, an educational program and art exhibitions, culminating this Sunday in an awards ceremony and closing-night party.

Folgueira, who worked in Mexico City for five years after leaving Cuba and before emigrating to Los Angeles, aspires to create a festival that is both cosmopolitan and inclusive, one that presents theatrical styles from around the world, but also mixes in homegrown fare. A related aim, he said, is to expose both Latino and non-Latino audiences to theatrical traditions that are very different from the ostensibly "realist" plays of canonical U.S. playwrights such as Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. "My idea of theater, it ranges from classical theater to vanguard to performance and to scenic art," Folgueira said.

The core of this year's festival, titled "Escena Latina," consists of performances by 10 visiting theater companies and artists from Cuba, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Puerto Rico and others. Some of these groups, such as Malayerba, have international reputations. All the performances are taking place at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, housed in a cavernous beaux-arts building -- a former bank -- on Spring Street in downtown L.A.

Bringing these types of performers to Los Angeles is costly and requires months or even years of planning, and individual acts sometimes are derailed. This year, one group from Portuguese-speaking Angola, Kapa-Kapa Estudio de Promocoes Culturais, had to cancel its appearance so last-minute that its name still appears on the printed programs. The Cuban avant-garde choreographer Marianela Boan was the only member of her company, DanzAbierta, who obtained entry into the United States, after a recent tightening of visa restrictions.

The festival also is hosting a Los Angeles Theater Scene Showcase of L.A.-based performers at various venues around town. Most of these tend to be dramatic works with fairly large casts, though individual groups' performance styles vary widely.

One L.A.-based ensemble, Havfama, is taking a gender-flopping look at "The House of Bernarda Alba," Federico Garcia Lorca's classic about a domineering Spanish matriarch and her daughters. The all-male cast will perform at Cara a Cara Theater in Hollywood.

In "August 29" (Agosto 29), which is being staged at Casa 0101 in Boyle Heights, a young Chicano studies professor must choose between pursuing his career or speaking out against police oppression in Los Angeles during the Vietnam War era. The play's title refers to the date of a Chicano antiwar protest at which Los Angeles Times journalist Ruben Salazar was killed when police fired tear gas into a cafe. It's being put on by Courage & Hermosa Productions, a nonprofit group developed by Josefina Lopez, author of the play and movie "Real Women Have Curves."

And the East Los Angeles Repertory Theatre Company will premiere "Dancing With the Missing" (Bailando Con Los Desaparecidos), a play inspired by detective fiction and film noir, at Casa Del Mexicano, 2900 Pedro Infante St.

Los Angeles already is home to a few established Spanish-language theater companies as well as a handful of presenters that host experimental theater from around the world. But FITLA's organizers want their festival to gather all these types of theater under one big tent. This inclusive approach, they say, will allow local groups to gain wider exposure while encouraging local Latino and non-Latino audiences to see types of theater they normally wouldn't.

"If we just work within ourselves we're not going to grow," Folgueira said. "And I believe it is necessary not just for the [theater] groups here in L.A. but for the audiences, so we can expand our minds."

Last year's inaugural showcase pushed the envelope by including a number of conceptual pieces, including one, "Etno-Tecno" by Guillermo Gomez-Pena, whose frequently dazzling, love-it-or-hate-it performance and installation work has been seen in museums and arts venues throughout the world. Some audience members walked out of the show. Another piece that provoked strong reactions was by the Colombian group Mapa Teatro, "Prometheus-in-the-Making," which took place on a stage covered with 2,000 eggs.

"That year was a little controversial," Flores, the festival's executive director, said with an understated smile.

In its second year, the festival has acquired an impressive list of corporate and noncorporate sponsors, including Mervyn's, Target, Goya, the Ricardo Montalban Foundation and the city of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. "We've gotten a great level of sponsorship, and we're very pleased that they are willing to trust us," Flores said.

Even so, much of the sponsorship is in the form of services, not cash. That means the production staff is all volunteer, and none of the festival organizers receives a salary, said Saravalli, the event's coordinator, who declined to disclose the festival budget.

Although the festival still is busy defining itself, it already seems to reflect a subtle but significant change occurring in the Los Angeles region. While the vast majority of the area's Spanish-speaking residents are Mexican or Mexican American, greater Los Angeles also is home to hundreds of thousands of Central and South Americans, Cubans and Puerto Ricans, whose cultural backgrounds and consumer tastes gradually are broadening local perceptions of what it means to be Latino.

That shift is echoed in the festival's programming as well as in its leadership: Folgueira hails from central Cuba, Flores came to Los Angeles from El Salvador in the early 1990s, and Saravalli is an Argentine of Italian extraction who spent some of her formative years in Spain.

Ultimately, getting audience members to examine their personal and cultural identities through theater and language is a big part of what FITLA is all about, Flores said. "We give you this and then it's up to you to think, 'Is this Latino?' "


International Latino Theatre Festival of Los Angeles

Where: Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. Performances also at other venues.

When: Through Sunday. Call for individual show times.

Price: $12-$15

Contact: (213) 473-0623 or

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