(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)
TCG Online Conference Salon: Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc–Latina/o Theatre series
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
FANNY GARCIA: Today, I work primarily as a writer. I started a magazine called pLAywriting in the city. It began as a personal blog to document the workshop production of my play The Rosalila which was directed by Luis Alfaro in L.A. Three months into documenting the workshop, I stopped posting. It was hard to keep up with all the writing required for a blog so I recruited friends to submit stories, eventually hired some of them permanently and now we are building a magazine.
We review theater and soon we will be diversifying our content and will publish film reviews, fiction, non-fiction and poetry. All the writers are people of color and Los Angeles based. We want the narrative of Los Angeles to be written by people who were actually born and raised in L.A and making art in L.A.
I also work for the Lark Play Development Center and the Latino Theater Company as the Story Teller for their Launching New Plays collaboration. Latino Theater Company is producing the road weeps, the well runs dry by Marcus Gardley in Los Angeles. It’s a beautiful story about Black Seminoles who founded the first black town in Oklahoma. I’ve been given the opportunity to write six stories to be published in The Road Weeps website, which is documenting the L.A. production. The play is being produced in four states across the U.S – California, Florida, Alaska, and Minnesota!
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
FG: I was born in Honduras, raised in Mexico and the U.S. I am Honduran by birth and American by naturalization. And I like to say I’m an honorary Mexican. I came to the U.S as an undocumented immigrant and once we crossed the border into San Diego, California my mother made me promise to always identify as Mexican. Her fear was that if I.N.S. or “La Migra” caught us and deported us, we’d only get sent to Tijuana and not all the way back to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, which would have made it a lot harder to return to the U.S.
Although, I’ve come to value my nomadic childhood it’s caused an alienation from my Honduran roots. I don’t have a Central American accent, I don’t dance bachata or punta and I realized recently that I’ve lived outside of Honduras longer than I ever lived there. But every fiber of my being misses it. It’s like this umbilical cord that has never been severed. The first thing I did when I got my green card was to travel back to Honduras and reconnect to the culture and heritage I had lost. I found it the moment I stepped off the airplane. A tremendous sense of belonging engulfed me as soon as I breathed the hot and humid air and saw the tropical lushness of my birthplace. I belonged to that land. The earth was the same color as my skin. And even though I didn’t know what bachata was, my hips moved!
The stories I write have a foundation in where I’ve come from and the experiences I’ve lived. I feel like I have a responsibility to do so. My stories are the women who have influenced me. Whether I like it or not, my mother is my muse. She’s my hero and anti-hero. I don’t write about men because they haven’t been in my life in any substantial way. Actually, this has changed recently. Today, most of my mentors are male but when I was growing up, men were specters – unpleasant or dangerous occurrences that I feared. It’s what I know. How can I write about anything else?
JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?
FG: I was lucky to have found a community of artists at the beginning of my work in theater. In 2002 or so, I met Jesus A. Reyes from East LA Rep and he taught me all he knew and wanted me to do something with it. I was eager to learn and eager to do. It didn’t matter whether I had experience in theater. For the next ten years, East LA Rep would be my theater university.
I didn’t have professional acting training but I got to play Lady MacDuff in Macbeth and Martirio in The House of Bernarda Alba. I didn’t have any experience as I writer but East LA Rep commissioned my first play, which was about Latinas living with HIV. I’d never produced a season but together we staged four or five shows a year. I would never have been hired at a large regional theater to do any of this because I didn’t have the education, experience or contacts. And in theater, you need to have at least one of these things to even be seen or acknowledged.
I’ve learned that my brown skin is not ever going to go away. I don’t want it to go away. I look for grants and opportunities that have the “person of color” or “multicultural” tag attached to it. I don’t mind sharing my talent and ideas in this context. It is who I am. Does it separate me? I don’t think so. Since launching pLAywriting in the city as a magazine written by people of color in Los Angeles – the doors have been opened wider for us by publicists from shows and events in the city. Why? Because most people recognize the need for the unique voice that a review written by a person of color will have. And even though we’re living in a doomsday era that proclaims legitimate theater critique is dying because blogs and online publications are taking over, people still want to see their shows and their names in print.
JL: Do we need racial, ethnic and gender based culturally specific theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?
FG: I recently attended a production of The Bird House by Cherokee playwright Diane Glancy at Native Voices at the Autry. It is the only Equity theater company dedicated solely to producing new work by Native American, Alaska Native and First Nation playwrights. And it’s in Los Angeles! The theater is literally 10 minutes from my home.
Before the play began, the production’s lighting designer acknowledged the land on which the Autry National Center had been built and the people who inhabited it – the Los Angeles Basin was first settled by the Tongva (or Gabrielino) and Chumash Native American tribes. The audience was comprised of members of the Choctaw, Seneca, Mohawk, French Canadian, Lakota, Ojibway, and Shuswap nations who had come in groups to support the play.
It was beautiful to be among such a diverse audience. It reminded me about how little I know about Los Angeles’ Native American history and I would venture to say that I’m not alone. We need to expand our knowledge about other cultures not just by reading about it but by experiencing it as well. Art provides us the opportunity to engage with another culture. It has the ability to reflect back to us all that is good and bad about our society. In this case it reminded me of my own ignorance. I am person of color who has placed little to no interest in learning about the Native American history that exists in my own city. Visiting Native Voices provided me with an urgency to learn more about it.
JL: What is the current state of Latino/a Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)
FG: We are having some growing pains right now. There are several strong groups within the Latino community who are organizing from coast to coast and figuring out how to document the next chapter in our contributions to American Theatre. Latinos have been in this industry for many years so it’s not a question about how much we have contributed. Instead, it’s a question of how much does the general public know about it. How are we documenting our contributions? How are we promoting them? How do we inspire and support the next generation?
One of the main obstacles is that some of the elders in our community are uncertain about how to mentor. They are weary that their suggestions and contributions will be regarded as meddling. On the other hand, the youth feel that they are dismissed as unseasoned and untrained. Many have received degrees in the theater arts but they haven’t worked in the industry as long as their elder counterparts. Some have experience in small black box theaters but not large regional theaters. Neither party is having an honest conversation about the value of each of their contributions. We would not be where we are now without the trailblazing that came before us. And the new generation needs guidance for the task of carrying the torch into the future.
Then there’s the whole issue of critiquing each other’s work. How do we do that when just producing it was an accomplishment in and of itself? Every production has its merits, but what is good and what is not? We need to figure out what rubric we are using to measure the plays that are produced by Latinos. Are we using a rubric based on European influences or do we need to use our own to measure our unique voice? Once we answer this, we have to commit to be being honest about what we think of each other’s work.
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
FG: I think most theaters have good intentions and they try to engage audiences in many different and creative ways. Talkbacks before and after the show are essential to making an audience feel they have ownership to the topics and themes onstage.
The real work, however, comes after they leave the theater with the experience and knowledge, from the conversation that was facilitated. The task that is the most challenging is the retention of these newly engaged audience members. How can we get them to come back to the next show? Do we call them personally or do we have the ticketing department call them? How many times to we invite them back?
I think hiring individuals who can meet and greet and follow up with audience members after shows is crucial to recruitment and retention of audiences. Eventually this engaged community will be the one to carry the theater forward to the next production.
Fanny García is the Founding Editor of pLAywriting in the city, a Los Angeles based arts magazine. The magazine aims to build a portfolio of art criticism written by people of color and increase the coverage of work that is neglected by the mainstream media. She was a 2011 TCG Young Leader of Color and was featured in Theater Communication Group’s I AM THEATRE campaign. Last year, she worked with Individual Artist Collective to send a delegation of artists to TCG’s 2012 conference in Boston. She recently served as Associate Curator/Dramaturg for Watts Village Theater Company’s Meet Me @Metro III. As one of the co-founders of the original East LA Rep, she served as Managing Director and Literary Manager. She is currently the Los Angeles based Story Teller for the Lark Play Development Center’s Launching New Plays collaboration with the Latino Theater Company. She has written several plays including Portrait of Ten Women, which chronicles the lives of Latina women living with HIV/AIDS. Her play The Rosalila received a workshop production directed by Luis Alfaro in 2010. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com