José Luis Valenzuela and Evelina Fernández are an all-in-one husband and wife theatrical team. José Luis Valenzuela is The Latino Theater Company Artistic Director and the head of the UCLA MFA Director Program. Evelina Fernández is writer of The Mexican Trilogy which opens this month with José directing. The pair recently sat down with me to discuss the evolving role of theater in Los Angeles:
The Latino Theater Company is 30 years old. Since 1985, its home has been the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC). How have things changed over time?
Evelina Fernández: Running the actual LATC. We walked into this building in 1985 and we never left. Years ago the City tried to close the original LATC. We held a sit-in for 10 days and wouldn’t leave. There was a big press conference in the lobby and all the city council people came. But they couldn’t get rid of us. It’s why LATC is still a theater. Otherwise, it would have been something else by now.
José Luis Valenzuela: Theater doesn’t make money. So it’s perceived as having no value. And, right now, it’s all about making money in people’s brain. But theater provides a service. It creates community and engagement. It creates intellectual thought. We learn something about humanity and that brings cultures together. This is what theater was, starting from the Greeks.
Evelina Fernández: That’s what the regionals were supposed to be when they first started out – theater for communities.
Latino communities have youth who are very different from their elders. Does that represent a special challenge?
Evelina Fernández: Our demographics are very different from other theaters because our audience is young. 70% of them are college graduates. And regardless of their status or income, they come to our theater. Maybe what we do isn’t as edgy as what they’re used to but the Latino Theater Company is probably one of the few places where they can see something of themselves that they can relate too.
How we get them to become lifetime theater goers is another thing. We do have what we call the Chicano/Mexican-American middle class, a Circle of Friends, who are our donors. They are attorneys or the children of farm workers or whose parents were undocumented and from really humble beginnings. That’s the audience that really supports us. We tell their stories. So if we can appeal to these younger people through their cultural stories, I believe they will become theater goers and life-long supporters.
Another part is figuring out how to bring them into the theater as creators. Young people want to create new works in their own way. Not ours. Our job is to be open to that.
Last year 12,000 people came to the Latino Theater Company. Many of them are millennials who like alternative experiences. We have 6,000 who see two or three plays a year partly because our ticket prices have been low. Financially that’s a complication. Two $10 tickets you can sell. But we’ve now started charging $30 and ticket sales potentially diminish. So we’re trying to integrate new experiences into what we do in theater in order to keep interest.
Speaking of finances, congratulations on the $500,000 grant you were just awarded. What does that do for your Company?
José Luis Valenzuela: The grant gives us the capacity to do what we’ve always wanted to do like put together an artistic five-year plan and devise a real strategy for the “big idea.”
Evelina Fernández: We’ve also been working on our national profile because we’ve been so busy with the work that we haven’t been good about letting people outside of Los Angeles know who we are.
We’ve launched an archive of all of our work in order to document our history as part of a fellowship project. In 2017, we will be remounting the Festival De Las Americas, something we did in 2014 for Latin America, the U.S., and Canada to celebrate Latino theater throughout the continent. We’re also currently working with a diverse group of playwrights called The Temblors. We’ll be producing their shows in the big houses, something we’ve not been able to do before.
We’re an Equity company. So every time you do an Equity show, it costs a lot of money. You need a big budget. We now have that.
José Luis Valenzuela: It’s important right now to transform the Latino Theater Company. We’re getting older and we need a succession plan. The theater is bigger than just us.
As a Latino company, we are also trying to alter American theater and the perception of Latinos in theater. Latinos are often thought of as community players or non-professional amateurs. That has to change. Even at the Latino Theater Company, when we created ourselves we had no awareness of other Latino theaters around the country. We felt we didn’t have permission to reach beyond L.A. Now we have the opportunity to think nationally and globally. That’s why we’re starting with The Mexican Trilogy.
How does The Mexican Trilogy meet these goals?
Evelina Fernández: The majority of Latino’s in L.A. County have Mexican roots and they are just so hungry for something that represents them. But this isn’t just for Mexicans. It’s the story of coming, hoping, dreaming, growing – and sometimes growing apart – for all peoples who came as immigrants.
I think often Latinos are seen through a certain lens. That we’re new comers. A lot of immigration stories. We’d like to alter that with the The Mexican Trilogy.
These plays are set within an American context because we did live through the Depression. We did live through World Wars I and II, Vietnam and Iraq. We have been part of American history all this time. Yet many people don’t know that or don’t acknowledge it. American history is our history.
José Luis Valenzuela: We are all Americans. But it’s like we have this complex. I don’t know, man, that’s a big conversation in the theater itself. We as Latinos are trying to say: “Hey look! This is who we are. We are different. We create different, our goals are different, our community is different.”
We recognize that Los Angeles’ diversity is not just about ourselves being included in somebody else’s narrative but that everybody else is included in ours. We Latinos are going to be the majority of the people in L.A. We have to work on creating for the entire community, people from all cultures, to come together and make one story. This is where we’re going. That is the future.