SCR disbands Latino showcase

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Times Staff Writer

South Coast Repertory is using the fruits of a projected new $1.5-million endowment to step up its already considerable work in commissioning and developing new plays. But it has shut down the Hispanic Playwrights Project, an annual festival showcase that brought national attention to works-in-progress by Latino writers.

The new “Emerging Artists Initiative” at the Costa Mesa theater will ensure that about $75,000 annually goes toward incubating work by lesser-known playwrights, producing artistic director David Emmes said Monday. SCR aims to commission four to six new plays by relative newcomers each year, he said -- instead of the one or two commissions that unknowns usually won in the past. Now the newcomers won’t have to compete for the play development pie with SCR’s stable of established writers, including Tony award winner Richard Greenberg and Pulitzer Prize honoree Donald Margulies, whose SCR-commissioned “Brooklyn Boy” premieres Sept. 10.

A $750,000 combined grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will help finance the initiative; SCR is obligated to match that, and Emmes expects the entire $1.5 million to be in place by 2006. Although just announced Monday, the grant money began coming in last year, and SCR already has used some of it for commissions.


A main thrust of the new program is to nurture “writers of different backgrounds and cultures,” including Latinos, Emmes said. But Latino writers no longer will enjoy the special attention they received starting in 1985 under the Hispanic Playwrights Project, the longest-running and highest-profile Latino playwrights’ showcase among major regional theaters. Three or four plays were featured each year in public, staged readings or workshop productions. The event helped writers such as Jose Rivera, Lisa Loomer, Luis Alfaro and Pulitzer winner Nilo Cruz gain entree into the mainstream.

“It’s a very bittersweet time; it’s a very sad time,” said Juliette Carrillo, director of the Hispanic Playwrights Project since 1997. Carrillo said she learned nine days ago that the festival was being discontinued, and with it her halftime staff position at SCR. “They told me it was an expense, a budgetary decision. I do appreciate the loyalty they have had for 19 years” in supporting Latino writers’ work.

Emmes said that Cruz’s 2003 Pulitzer for “Anna in the Tropics” -- the first time a Latino won the prize for drama -- showed “how far Latino writers have grown in their ability to be part of the fabric of American theater. We don’t feel it needs that spotlight and focus it’s had in the past. We’ll be able to broaden the focus to writers of other backgrounds, whether African American or Asian American or whatever.” Nevertheless, he added, “we don’t regard this as being able to serve Latino playwrights any less. We’re just serving them differently.”

Alfaro, director of new play development at the Mark Taper Forum, said South Coast gave him an alternative artistic home as the Hispanic Playwrights Project helped him develop a succession of works, including “Electricidad,” recently seen at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and scheduled to open at the Taper in April 2005.

“I’m saddened,” Alfaro said, noting that the festival fostered a sense of community among Latino theater artists from around the country and provided a special draw for Latino audiences in Southern California. “People are going to lament the loss of it.”

Despite successes such as Cruz’s Pulitzer and his own breakthrough onto major regional stages, Alfaro said, “I don’t think we’re overwhelming the American regional theater yet with Latino voices.” Still, he praised SCR’s long commitment to Latino writers and was hopeful that it would outlive the now-defunct festival. “I believe in their artistic vision. They believe in diverse voices, and because of that I believe they’re going to continue.”