One evening last month, eight Southern California theater professionals met in a book-lined room at East LA Rep theater company to talk about the reasoning behind the new Latino Theater Network/Los Angeles.
To begin with, they said, the alliance aims to assess the range of Latino theater offerings across the region: what's being done as well as what's missing. The network's member companies — which include Casa 0101 in Boyle Heights, East L.A. Rep, Grupo de Teatro Sinergia/Frida Kahlo, the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts and Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble in Santa Ana — also seek to encourage more collaborations and sharing of resources.
In addition, the group wants to help foster future generations of artistic leadership through mentorship and fellowship programs and to further integrate Latino stage work into the broader fabric of U.S. theater.
"We think the American theater narrative needs to be updated," said Chantal Rodríguez, a scholar and the programming director and literary manager of the Latino Theater Company in downtown Los Angeles, one of the participating groups.
But perhaps the network's raison d'être was most pithily put by Jorge Huerta, a UC San Diego professor emeritus and pioneer of Chicano theater. "We don't want to be the invisible Mexicans anymore," he said.
These objectives will be embedded in the agenda on Saturday, when around 100 Latino theater professionals from metropolitan L.A. will attend an all-day encuentro (encounter) at the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College.
One of the gathering's implicit tasks, participants say, will be trying to come up with a reasonable working concept of what Latino theater is, particularly in a region as culturally complex as Southern California. Besides the new network's "core" theaters, which focus largely or exclusively on producing Latino work, a number of other local theaters such as Cornerstone Theater Company, Company of Angels and 24th Street Theatre regularly stage plays that use Latino talent and attract Latino audiences.
Then there are a number of non-Latino stages and presenters that occasionally offer important shows either written by Latinos or Latin American authors, and/or with heavily Latino or Latin American casts, such as REDCAT, South Coast Repertory and the Fountain Theatre.
"That's totally been the most surprising thing, is how much work there really is," said Cynthia DeCure, an actor, playwright, voice teacher and adjunct professor at USC and Cal State LA.
Tiffany Ana López, a dramaturge and theater professor at UC Riverside, said that by coming together the network will be able to take stock of the work that's already being done locally and to make more people aware of "the contributions we're making to American theater. Some might look at what we're doing and see us as somehow identifying a movement," she said. "But it's not a movement. Actually, we have an established tradition."
At present, the network is focused on gathering information about member theaters and sharing resources. Later will come specific projects, such as evaluating whether the traditional theater subscription-based sale model needs to be revised for Latino audiences, who tend to prefer buying single tickets.
The Saturday encounter partly grew out of a nationwide initiative to encourage Latino theaters and theater artists to work more closely together, said Jose Luis Valenzuela, artistic director of the Latino Theater Company and a professor of theater at UCLA. Valenzuela said that the initiative arose during summer 2011, when Theatre Communications Group, the national support organization for the U.S. professional not-for-profit theater, held its annual conference in Los Angeles.
That led to a round of semi-formal meetings among various Latino theater companies around the country, Valenzuela said, including a convocation in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Center for the Theater Commons. A spinoff group, the Latino/a Theater Commons, was launched with the goal of developing an initial national agenda, including plans to produce a biannual conference and a festival of 10 new works under Valenzuela's direction.
In recent months, Latino theater entities in other metropolitan areas such as Chicago, New York, the Bay Area, Dallas-Forth Worth and Miami have begun to form their own networks and launch their own initiatives. A national meeting is being planned for this fall in Boston.
"Very few Latino theater companies travel to other cities," Valenzuela said by phone from Norway, where he is directing a production of Ibsen's "Peer Gynt." "We don't see each other's work."
Saturday's event at the Vincent Price Art Museum theater will open with a keynote address by Diane Rodriguez, director of new play production for Center Theatre Group. That will be followed by a scholars' panel in which Huerta, López and Chantal Rodríguez will discuss the current state of Latino theater in the L.A./Orange County area. Other activities will include an artistic directors' round table led by Jesus A. Reyes, creative artistic director of East LA Rep.
A generation ago, some L.A. Latino theater artists were trying to build their fledgling companies around the nonprofit regional theater model. But the new network has a more immediate, grass-roots focus, said Rodríguez.
"We were sort of tired of existing on the fringes of the American theater, in terms of regional theater stages," she said. "It's always been about, 'How do we get there?' And now it's becoming about, 'We don't need to get to the regional level to have arrived. We have companies that are 50 years old, that are 30 years old, that are making impacts in communities.'"