The Watts Village Theater Company's signature for the past three years has been "Meet Me @Metro," a traveling show in which the small nonprofit company rode L.A.'s light rail system, with actors and audiences disembarking and reboarding for performances related to the history and issues of neighborhoods along the route.
But after last summer's production along the Metro Gold Line from Union Station to the East L.A. Civic Center, artistic director Guillermo Aviles-Rodriguez's ambitions for "Meet Me @Metro" became a sore spot for the theater's board of directors.
The result has been a rancorous parting.
Aviles-Rodriguez said he resigned after seven years as artistic director because, without his knowledge, the board had changed the company's mission to focus solely on South Los Angeles and began trying to force him to comply with a philosophy he didn't share.
The new mission — not yet formally adopted, according to board chairwoman Karen Lascaris but quoted in an email she sent in December to Aviles-Rodriguez — says the company now aims to "inspire dialogue about contemporary social issues, and honor the rich history, cultural diversity and under-served populations of South Los Angeles."
Since 2010, Aviles-Rodriguez, an assistant professor of theater and cinema at Los Angeles Mission College, had operated under a more open-ended mission statement that said the company's aim was to "inspire its community with an appreciation of all cultures." He saw "Meet Me @Metro" as a way for the company to distinguish itself and eventually have a citywide impact.
Last summer's edition began and ended at Union Station with plays about the history of the Watts Towers that evoked the company's home turf. Two stops in Boyle Heights offered plays that suggested resonance between its Jewish past and Latino present; characters included the ghosts of gangster Mickey Cohen and of soldiers from the neighborhood who had died in World War II, Vietnam and Afghanistan.
Lascaris said that worrisome cost overruns for the production and Aviles-Rodriguez's unwillingness to accept spending limits prompted the board to revisit the mission statement and other policies last fall. "We needed to make it clear we were here to serve an underserved community" in South Los Angeles, she said.
Aviles-Rodriguez said the board acted precipitously, keeping him and most of an advisory committee of former board members in the dark.
He contrasted the current board's approach to the previous mission statement revision in 2010, when he said a board with a substantially different membership took care to solicit input not only from key staff members but from donors and community leaders. A nonprofit organization's mission statement crystallizes its core philosophy and public purpose and serves as an initial calling card to potential donors.
Lascaris denied that the change was pursued without Aviles-Rodriguez's knowledge, saying he was invited to an initial discussion in November but did not attend. He strongly disputes that, saying he first learned of the effort in early December, when the board presented the changed mission to him as a fait accompli.
Aviles-Rodriguez shared a Dec. 13 email from Lascaris, asking him to change a grant application for the 2014 "Meet Me @Metro" production, to make it consistent with "our new working mission."
She complained that two performance companies he had proposed as collaborators were "not representative of the underserved communities of South Los Angeles which we say we represent" and should be replaced by more suitable artistic partners.
She also objected to the production's proposed theme, which called for adapting stories from Hollywood films that would have "historical, geographical or cultural relevance" to neighborhoods along the show's route. Hollywood, wrote Lascaris, "has historically (and even currently) been guilty" of not telling stories relevant to the company's "core audience" in South Los Angeles.
Aviles-Rodriguez took the email as a violation of his authority as artistic director and submitted a resignation letter eight days later.
"The leadership was trying to limit and atrophy my artistic vision in order to make it fit inside a tiny, parochial box," Aviles-Rodriguez said. If that's what the board wanted, he said, it should have simply fired him rather than secretly changing the company's mission, then insisting he comply.
Lascaris and Aviles-Rodriguez dispute each other's accounts of last year's "Meet Me @Metro" cost overruns. The former artistic director said it ran $7,000 over its $32,000 budget but did not jeopardize the company's financial health. The board chair said it cost $50,000 and caused financial problems serious enough to demand immediate changes.
The first public indication of a problem came Feb. 4, when the company announced that Lynn Manning, who had co-founded Watts Village Theater Company in 1996 and chaired its board until last spring, was returning as its artistic director. It gave no reason for Aviles-Rodriguez's exit.
Manning is a blind playwright and actor who has toured internationally with his autobiographical solo show, "Weights."
Both were involved in a mid-1990s effort by L.A.'s socially conscious Cornerstone Theater Company to help Watts residents tell their own stories, while sowing seeds for an ongoing, independent stage company in an area that had lacked a theater. Aviles-Rodriguez, then in his teens, said a Cornerstone stage director, Juliette Carillo, was crucial in persuading him to go to college for theater rather than join the Marines.
Aviles-Rodriguez's departure leaves Watts Village Theater Company with one Latino and five African Americans in its six top leadership positions, in a neighborhood predominantly Latino. The board's four-member executive committee has three African Americans and a Latina, and the managing director and artistic director are now both black.
That's troubling to Arturo Ybarra, founder and executive director of the Watts/Century Latino Organization, which helped the theater company secure a $35,000 James Irvine Foundation grant in 2010 for "Meet Me @Metro."
"We can no longer say that there is a real Latino representation within Watts Village Theater," Ybarra said. "They're changing the mission and getting rid of the Latino representatives it had."
Aviles-Rodriguez said that racism was not a factor in his difficulties with the board but that he thinks its leaders have an outdated "1965 vision" of Watts — a time when the community was synonymous with the struggles and pride of urban African Americans.
The U.S. Census Bureau's most recent estimate says the census tracts making up Watts and its immediate surroundings are 70% Latino and 24.3% black.
Manning said the company always has been inclusive of Latinos, regardless of the composition of the staff and board.
"It's not just because we had a Latino artistic director," he said. "That was going on even before Guillermo came to the company in 2003 as education director."
Lascaris rejected any focus on the racial or ethnic makeup of the company's leadership.
"I don't know why that kind of divisive idea would even come to the table," she said. "We're here to serve the community. To imply that people can't inspire people of other races is preposterous."
The 2013 season that Manning recently announced includes "Meet Me @Metro: Blue Line Home," a scaled-down, two-day staging in late May at the two Metro Blue Line stops in Watts and nearby Willowbrook. Manning said the cost will be about $10,000.
Aviles-Rodriguez said he thinks the "Meet Me @Metro" concept should belong to him because he initially conceived and developed it as an unpaid volunteer rather than a paid staffer or contractor whose work would belong to the theater company. He said it's OK if Watts Village Theater Company presents the show, but he plans to start his own nonprofit company and continue pursuing his vision for "Meet Me @Metro."
"They can do theirs, and I'll do mine, and people will see which one is authentic," he said.
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