(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.
AMPARO GARCIA-CROW: I am an inter-disciplinary artist who acts, directs, sings, writes plays, screenplays and songs; I am also a film artist currently working on a documentary film and supplement all of these delights by being a teaching artist at Austin Community College where I teach playwriting, intro to theatre and stage movement. A strong focus (and area of employment) for the last few years has been in storytelling and the development of solo work; I direct and coach a handful of performance artist/storytellers.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
AGC:I am Mexican American with a Chinese Mexican great grandmother and I am also a Tejana. (original Texan of Mexican descent) As a writer my race, ethnicity, culture and heritage became “a burden of representation” at the beginning, meaning I was committed to giving expression to every nuance of being exactly the combination I embody; as I mature I no longer limit what I write to any one focus, I let the muse dictate what wants to be created; as a professional actor, I still struggle with the narrow opportunities available to what used to be termed in film and television as “the exotic”; thankfully the breakdowns are finally stating after the name of the character– “all ethnicities considered”, however, the reality is that they still do not cast outside the box kind of the way Latino plays might be read at new work stage reading events but rarely produced; the most freedom I experience is in directing (and dramaturgy) where I get to cross all boundaries, bringing to life what the piece requires with the added awareness I have that I wish to create realities that are not bound by race, in fact the more I can push the expectations in any of these areas, the better.
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?
AGC: When my play Under a Western Sky was produced Off-Broadway and received a stellar New York Times review, I was disappointed to receive letters from mainstream publishers (Broadway Play Publishing, Samuel French and Dramatists Play Service) to whom I submitted the play for publication–in essence they were saying similar things: “We think this is a provocative play but we do not think it will have a big enough audience” which was essentially saying, “we don’t think a play about a small Mexican American town in Texas where all but one of the characters is white” will sell. This was in the 1990s, don’t know that I would get that response now but it certainly was telling at the time that they had unquestioned beliefs about what an audience is willing to view if it involves characters outside the mainstream “ethnic” and racial demographics. I personally have never thought of plays that way–I’ve never said, “I don’t want to read or see Chekhov cause he writes about Russians.” It is assumed that plays are about humans and then we go from there.
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?
AGC: We need everything–especially stories about certain communities told to EVERY community. And I know the power of seeing characters close to my own background. I will never forget the first time I saw a Mexican American character portrayed on the stage. It was emotional, inspiring and it brought up sadness for me because I became keenly aware at that moment that I had never “seen” anything that close to home ever on the mainstream stage. I became a writer when the Los Angeles Times ran a story in 1991 about the women in the Screen Actor’s Union demanding equal pay for “lead and supporting” roles. Because up until that point the Jack Nicholsons were making a significant amount of money over the Meryl Streeps so the activists in the union decided to do a study of characters portrayed on television at the time to support their cause. They took every character seen that year on television and essentially made a graph of how many were female vs. male, what they did for a living, what was their ethnicity, race etc. and when the results of that study were published, my attention of course went to “Hispanics” as published. They were represented 1% of the time. And–they were equal to extra-terrestials. I was stunned in a significant way because I had directly been experiencing this reality as an actress that was auditioning for “day player” parts like “Prostitute #1″ and/ or “Housekeeper” when my white friends were going out for supporting or guest starring roles. It made me decide right then and there that I would have to ‘write’ in order to create more roles not just for women (and myself) but particularly for Latino/a.
JL: What is the current state of Latino/a Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)
AGC: I am sorry to say that it hasn’t changed much in my neck of the woods. When I was younger I had the energy to produce more and create and shape that universe so that I was constantly working to create Latino/a Theatre. But after I became a parent and continued to be a full-time working artist, I had, by necessity, to surrender to work as it comes. As the equity guest artist recently at a local university (St. Edwards University), I played the ‘white’ lead in The Spitfire Grill a musical which cast half of the leads as Latino, so that the family written as “white” became Mexican American instead. That’s progress or at least awareness on the director’s part to be inclusive and train their students effectively by offering them ‘equal opportunities’ as leading characters. That was certainly conscious. In the mainstream media arena, (which I mention only because it has a wider audience and it influences the larger masses, shaping the next generation of stereotypes)–I was offered two more “housekeeping” roles but one was a supporting role (STRAIGHT A’s) and the other a guest artist role in an ABC family series. And just when I thought I wouldn’t get called in to read for another prostitute role ever again because of my age–I got a call for exactly that in a big star movie. Is that progress? No–but it’s work since I am a full time artist. One improvement was –the characters for the first time had “development”–a real life beyond the nameless day player. On a personal level, I have made a commitment to avoid judging any character and to do everything I can to bring dignity to it, regardless, whether I am portraying it as an actor or writing it.
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
AGC: Educate, educate and educate even above the mission to entertain. And more importantly, to educate themselves first about where they could broaden their choices to include diversity. Just like the political world discovered this year that to win an election in the coming years, Latinos are now a community to reckon with. When it also translates into money, change occurs on its own. However, during this transition and rapid change period it would also be to any theatre’s credit to be vanguards of consciousness and begin the process of what the long term benefits are of serving any or all of the untapped communities waiting to see themselves on stage. When I was a professor at the University of Texas I was an advisor of the “Drive By Players” which was a student producing organization dedicated to minority voices. The work created by this dynamic group of students (which included you Jackie, as I recall!)–is still in my memory some of the most exciting student generated work I have ever seen. Anywhere! I recall Soham Mehta’s plays in particular, a Hindu American student who still holds the record for the largest audiences he brought to that little Laboratory Theatre. They stood in line for a mile it seems to try to get in to see his plays. And in his case, he went on to create the first Hindu American Theatre company in Houston, Texas. The large groups that came were testaments to the kind of success any theatre can have when it sets out to serve a larger, more inclusive community. Inclusive by definition means “comprehensive” (or wide-ranging), and when you have that as your mission statement you are going to have equal success in attracting those kinds of numbers and audiences.
Amparo Garcia-Crow is a multi-disciplinary artist who acts, sings, directs and writes plays, screenplays and songs. As a playwright, Garcia-Crow has been developed at South Coast Repertory Theatre and has had world premieres Off-Broadway by the Women’s Project and INTAR, Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, Latino Chicago and various theaters and universities in the Southwest. Her films have premiered at SXSW and the Los Angeles International Film Festivals. Recently she was an artist in residence with NYC’s Mabou Mines developing “Strip” a new musical. Her previous musical work: “The Unknown Soldier: The New American Musical of Mexican Descent” is featured in Hector Galen’s PBS documentary: “Visiones (Visions): Latino Art and Culture” on PBS. A former James Michener Fellow, Amparo won the Larry King Playwriting Award for her play, “Cocks Have Claws and Wings to Fly and the national Mae West Festival’s “Best Female Protagonist” award for “Esmeralda Blue: La Mujer Moderna.”” As a director, Amparo has received the prestigious NEA/TCG Director’s Fellowship and was the inaugurall Program Manager for the City of Austin’s long awaited sixteen million dollar Mexican American Cultural Center. A collection of her work entitled: “Between Misery and the Sun: The South Texas Plays” is published by No Passport Press.
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