The Latina/o Theatre Commons National Convening at Boston's Emerson College marks the first large-scale formal gathering of Latina/o theater artists since 1986. Teatro Luna and Goodman Theatre hosted the Chicago satellite event that was live-streamed to the national conference, jioned by similar events in New York, Dallas and Miami. The live interview was broadcast via HowlRound TV. Most inspiring was the energy and passion of everyone involved. I came away with a strong sense of how Latina/o artists in Chicago see the state of their scene and some specific issues and barriers that stand in their way. These artists were gathering to talk—but also to act—together.
The issues that brought participants together were a lack of Latino/a representation in theater nationwide. As was made apparent by the convening, there is a wealth of artists making efforts to make their voices heard, but there are many institutional and social challenges that cannot be tackled by individual groups acting alone. The convening sought to lay the groundwork for a national identity for the Latino/a theater community, increasing the visibility of those organizations and the movement as a whole, and establishing greater solidarity among these disparate communities.
Prior to our national live-interview session on Skype, we engaged in a group discussion of our own. We began with a "popcorn" brainstorm, generating our answers associatively. The first step was to define Latino/a theater, which provided an intriguing sketch of the scene. A sampling of terms from this exercise includes:
flavor, inclusive, refreshing, sexy, raw, crispy, hide-and-seek, too humble, hidden, spread out, not allowed to fail, own world, segregated, low attendance, work in progress, cheap, untapped, rare, hidden language, migration, community empowerment, persistent, regeneration, evolution, technology, new works, unconventional spaces
The predisposition towards the sensory was especially intriguing, and told me more than a purely academic analysis would. "Refreshing" "raw" "sexy" "crispy" belong to a particularly a vivid aesthetic missing from the current mainstream Chicago theater scene. As we got deeper into terms like "untapped" and "hidden language," we touched on the elements that make a vibrant Latina/o theater community indispensable. We began to identify places where the community could start to capitalize on the energy ("community empowerment," "evolution," "technology"). There was also the issue of the politicization of the "brown body"—a sense that the very act of a Latino/a actor taking the stage is a statement, so that even a Latino/a actor filling a more traditionally role in the Western canon alone can alter an audience's conception of it.
Theater artists, Latino/a or not, must be comfortable justifying their worth.
None of the participants seemed content with merely identifying problems. The discussion also yielded specific, positive steps to be taken: more solidarity and communication between Latino/a artists, as well as across ethnic and cultural divides; connecting a new generation of Latino/a theater artists and audience members with previous generations; more diversity in theater management and administration, including casting directors. We discussed using social media as a platform not only for competitive promotion, but also as a medium for support and cooperation—an equalizing force for companies and artists with disparate funding and resources.
Acquiring resources is a major challenge, requiring not only cost-cutting measures and business savvy, but also an understanding of how to communicate with potential donors. This requires a strong, clearly defined mission and intended outcome. Often companies wait for resources to trickle down from larger theaters, but this is not realistic for the much more pressing need among grassroots storefront theaters. Theater artists, Latino/a or not, must be comfortable finding ways to justify their worth. Fair or not, these are the realities of the current system. artists must inevitably contend with these issues in order to survive, or else create new, more just models.
Throughout the discussion, exploration of issues was tempered with an occasional "so what?" What do we do about it? The true test will come after the event. Will this exercise translate into meaningful action? Will the discussion continue, or even expand? In the meantime, organizations are capitalizing on this momentum. Goodman Theatre's annual New Stages featured all Latina/o playwrights, and in the Summer of 2015, The Theatre School at DePaul University in collaboration with the Latino Theatre Commons will host a festival of new Latina/o theatrical work, spearheaded by Lisa Portes, Head of Directing at DePaul University.
The Latina/o Theatre Commons, a new national advocacy initiative, will host an historical convening of 75 Latina/o actors, directors, producers, playwrights, designers, and scholars representing all regions of the United States. They will gather to explore the history, current challenges, opportunities, and visions for Latina/o theatre-makers in the 21st century. Over the course of the convening, those gathered will seek to advance the state of Latina/o theatre-making through sharing artistic, organizing, and institutional wisdom. Strategies will be identified to seed collaborations and strengthen the burgeoning network of Latina/o theatre artists. In partnership with HowlRound, the Latina/o Theatre Commons recently launched Café Onda, an online gathering place featuring regular content by and for Latina/o theatre-makers located on HowlRound. Rooted in a commons- based approach, Café Onda is a shared knowledge platform that features essays and promotes discourse within the Latina/o theatre community curated by stage director Tlaloc Rivas, Assistant Professor of Theater, The University of Iowa, and co-chair of the Latino Theatre Commons Steering Committee.