Last weekend, LA Stage Alliance hosted their not so annual, possibly bi-annual LA Stage Day. It had panels and theater companies and food trucks. How could I say no to that?
Jose Luis Valenzuela was the Keynote Speaker. He is the Director of the new Los Angeles Theater Center downtown, is a theater and film director and a Professor at UCLA. I know him by reputation but have never heard him speak before.
Jose Luis spoke with a poetry that elicited pride around the keynote subject. Los Angeles. This is a beautiful town, and it is easy to strike a chord doing what LA does best--talking about itself. However, when it comes to talking about the Los Angeles Theatre Scene, it is not as highly-regarded, much to the chagrin of the numerous artists and entire communities that work and exist within and around Los Angeles, and who feel strongly how vital an art form it is. Even those of us who’ve poured our hearts and souls into this community can still balk at how to best express what makes Los Angeles theatre so unique.
As Jose Luis ardently expressed, "We suffer from an identity crisis. We are a reluctant metropolis fighting our own identity.”
This, he explained, is partly because we think we have to qualify our right to make art, as a result of still not making a living at it, but mostly because we are at war with our true self as a town. With so many different communities, one of the most diverse melting pot Metropolises in the entire world, we don’t know quite how to classify ourselves.
We in La-La Land (he said) are home to an industry known for giving value to what is monetarily successful, yet we are populated by a majority of people doing whatever they need to do to survive. There is a clash in the disparity between the two--and often our need to be on one side or the other, if only for appearance’s sake, furthers the distance and the internal struggle. But doing whatever you need to do to survive breeds a different ethos, one that gives a different kind of pride--the kind that cannot be taken away, even when you try to give it away to get to "the next level”.
In perfect Keynote Speaker fashion, Jose Luis encouraged us: “Let’s stop trying to be something we are not.”
We are not another city. We are not like another city. If we were, we would be another city.
And he added a rallying cry:
Now, more than ever when we are under attack, be louder!!!
When our minorities and women and basic truth itself are under attack.”
Jose Luis said that in Spanish there is no word for talented. The closest translation is “gifted”. To have a gift. And gifts are meant to be given. They are not ours to keep locked up.
What we can classify ourselves with total authenticity as being, he explained, is a “By Any Means Necessary” theater town. From the woman on the corner selling oranges to the dancer on the corner collecting an audience, we will do it however we have to. Happily starting from square one, or from one audience member, and then magically transforming that into a following, one tiny show can blossom into international touring show traveling the world.
Numerous shows that many of us have been a part of have grown into Equity shows that find global audiences. We, the Los Angeles Theater community, deserve to be global. Our stories -bred out of our community--are of equal value to that of the touring shows that make stops in our own theaters here.
The questions we can ask ourselves now is how can we use our gifts to become part of the resistance? How can we unite and fight? How can we embrace who we are to weave our cultural tapestry together?
After Jose Luis's speech, there was a panel discussion. It dovetailed beautifully with the keynote speech.
It posed the question: does theater have to mean something or can it just be entertainment? Art vs. commerce and how they are woven together.
Steven Leigh Morris reminded us of a Samuel Goldwyn quote about how the only message he wanted to receive was from Western Union. The panel reminded us that out of great turmoil comes great art and that the Arts have always provided an alternative to just entertainment. And how, if we are not the ones who will shine a light onto what is happening around us and how that affects us, then who will?
In the light of our current political climate, where rights are disposable as well as Arts and the funding for them, we face a larger identity crisis. That of humanity and seeing the face of it. Los Angeles faces its own uncharted territory with our struggles with Equity contracts, and the threat of our local institutions losing funding and keeping their doors open. The tenor here was that we can be grateful for being shaken from any complacency that we were in and utilize this new urgency for art as a way of continuing to build trust and community, as we build bridges for our humanity. We can allow these changes to galvanize us as a community, and to speak for truth. By Any Means Necessary.
Jose Luis brought up a very engaging thought--that we as a country don’t have an ideology. So, religion has become our identity, and we don’t yet know how to fight religion.
It was so refreshing to be reminded by the discussion that as artists, we get to bring clarity to issues that are muddled by political shenanigans. We don’t have to tell people what to think. As artists we get to invite audiences to think for themselves about what's important, and in turn to share their thoughts and then take them to the streets.
After the panel I went out to sprinkling rain and a windy corridor where tables set up for each theatre company represented. Apparently the last LA Stage Day was 2 years ago and there were about 50 companies, however only a dozen or so this day. There were also open auditions with the companies that were present, but those 50 slots were booked up with another 100+ on the waiting list. I asked when they thought they might do another for those who wouldn’t get in, but no plan was in place just yet.
Oh well. I was still delighted to be greeted by the many friends I’ve grown to know over the last 20 years. And to talk with companies that I’ve always been curious about. It was just great to know that in our town you can come as a stranger and find other theater artists who will talk to you about what we do here. Who will tell you how we do it and see if you want to come and play with us.
I never even made it to the food trucks. Everyone I chatted with offered me food. Because that is how we do it here. We will give you the food off our plates.