Diversity, Risky Plays and Mentorship: A Conversation with José Luis Valenzuela

by Fanny Garcia
of The Los Angeles Theatre Center in Los Angeles, CA
Volume XI. Mar-April 2014
José Luis Valenzuela

José Luis Valenzuela

I recently met with José Luis Valenzuela, Artistic Director of the Latino Theater Company. Our conversation focused on three main topics – the delicate task of producing plays of a culture not your own, the economics involved in storytelling, and mentorship in the arts community.

Garcia: How did participating in this program help you diversify productions at the LATC?

Valenzuela: We’ve co-produced work written by writers that are not Latino and that tackle concerns about other communities of color but the Latino Theater Company had never produced a play about another community of color on their own. We had only focused on Latino/Chicano subject matters. We had never thought about producing an African-American play but this program provided an incentive to do so. It helped us realize that what we should really be looking at is the story. Of course, you have to be sensitive to the needs of the play. That is why we brought in an African-American director for Marcus and worked with Native Voices at the Autry to help us find Native American actors.

Garcia: What was “risky” about producing this play?

Valenzuela: It’s a new play, and it’s a mythological play. The language is complex. It requires a large cast. This play was probably the most expensive production we have ever tackled, mainly because it has a lot of actors, and an Equity show is very expensive. Also for us, not co-producing with a theater that already had an African-American audience was really risky. It was challenging because sometimes there’s a sense that you can’t produce an African-American play if you’re not an African-American theater company; that, I thought, was a bit ridiculous. I want anyone, regardless of ethnicity to help with a production. We did however have a difficult time engaging the community in this play (because of its homoerotic theme). Homosexuality is not something we talk about openly in the Latino community, so I can imagine how hard it must be for other communities as well. We also had some criticism from our own Latino community for producing a play that was not Latino. So yes, producing the road weeps, the well runs dry was risky, but it was worth it on many levels. Now I know how to handle controversial, risky plays and produce them well.

Garcia: How did the Launching New Plays Into the Repertoire program facilitate mentorship?

Valenzuela: This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I was even talking to my class about it today. In the past, I feel that I’ve been reluctant to mentor or give advice to other directors doing productions at the Los Angeles Theater Center, mostly because I don’t want to intrude on anyone’s creative process. We forget that artistic directors and theater producers need mentorship too. Discussions about the creative aspects of theater, as well as the business side of it, are needed. The Lark’s program provides an infrastructure for the playwright and artistic directors to dialogue about each production and ultimately facilitates a mentorship community for the playwright with various points of view. There is confusion in the American theater and society that our aim in creating work is to end up in commercial theaters on Broadway. There is less of an interest in the art form. And when a theater’s board of directors has no understanding of the separation between the business side of theater and the art form, it becomes difficult and perhaps impossible to produce new stories. Making money and going to Broadway has never been my goal. My passion is the art form. The production of the road weeps, the well runs dry prompted more thought about this because we didn’t turn a profit with the production, but we gave birth to a beautiful play and facilitated collaboration with many artists and theater companies in Los Angeles and in Juneau, Minneapolis, and Tampa where the play was produced.

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