Post image for STELLAAAAAAAA!

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich. )

A flash is like a spark that can ignite a fire and igniting a fire in theatre is a wondrous thing.

That is the inspiration behind Los Angeles-based Playwrights’ Arena’s FLASH Theater LA, a take-it-to-the-streets theatre that connects theatre with community in visceral ways.  According to Playwrights’ Arena’s Artistic Director Jon Lawrence Rivera, FLASH Theater LA’s mission is “to develop, nurture and present devised work by writers/directors/designers/actors that highlights not only epic, theatrical performance but the natural beauty of the site-specific location.”  FLASH Theater LA’s theatrical events are always free and are for the people of Los Angeles by the artists of Los Angeles.  Community audiences find out about a FLASH Theater LA event via Twitter (@flashtheaterLA), word-of-mouth, or by being present at a location where FLASH emerges.

Playwrights’ Arena’s new dimension breaks theatre out of the traditional theatre space and takes it directly to the community.  “Where” always changes and that is part of the “flash.”

The presence of community members at a FLASH Theater LA event can have an impact on the performance of the play because boundaries are dissolved.  The community is part of the process of the theatrical event occurring, thereby giving it an organic investment in the experience.

The best way to illustrate the power of FLASH Theater LA to transform relationships between theatres and communities is to relate my personal experience with the phenomenon.

About two years ago, my husband and I went to Los Angeles animal services to adopt a cat.  We chose one (or she chose us) and I named her Hanako. Just as we were about to leave, a black and white cat with a black nose and green eyes, stuck her paw out of her cage and beckoned to us.  My husband, who didn’t used to like cats, stopped to gaze at her.  She meowed and purred with a squeak, and kept beckoning with her paw.  So we took a second cat.  My husband immediately said that the second cat should have a Western name since I had given Hanako a Japanese name.  Initially, I conceded until he said what he wanted it to be:  Stella.

Immediately, I began imagining the cat escaping from the house and me out in the cul-de-sac shouting, “STELLA!  STELLAAAAAAAAAA!!!” a la Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.  I tried to explain this to him and offered other equally as interesting Western names, but he wanted Stella.  And so she became Stella and came home with us.

Of course, it took about a week for the very situation that I had imagined to come to fruition.  She not only ran outside, but she went on the roof of the house.  It was 6:30 a.m.  I told my husband to go outside and call her.  He had his boxer shorts on, but out he went.  Except he only whispered her name.  So, yes, I had to go out and imitate Mr. Kowalski.

I told Jon Lawrence Rivera about all of this.  Then of course the bits and pieces started worming their way into my literary consciousness.  Long story short, I ended up in the parking lot of a pet store in West Los Angeles with a group of actors that Jon had gathered, a director (Ben Yalom), and even a singer for a short background song that I had written (with music by Brent Crayon) to go along with the story of Stella in my play Animal. As the singer sang accompanied by meowing actors, the dogs in the pet store howled in response.  They were restless and curious.  They wanted to be a part of the human chorus of meows. Customers coming in and out of the pet store stopped. Customers who were looking at the pets for adoption stopped.  People driving by in cars looked and men at a construction site stopped constructing to observe.

Theatre was right there before them.  It had become a part of their lives, art in action, organic and real.  They had stumbled upon it and it had stumbled upon them.  It was living art as theatre always was, but, like having a meal outdoors, their appetites seemed invigorated.

My hope is to integrate that energy into traditional theatre spaces and cultivate a hybridity of exchange that can spark audiences and art, drawing the community into the theatre as much as taking theatre to the community.

Internationally produced playwright Velina Hasu Houston also writes opera, television, and film and is a published poet and essayist.  The recipient of seventeen commissions, her archives are located at the Library of Congress and Huntington Library.  Producers of her work include Manhattan Theatre Club, the Old Globe Theatre, Pittsburgh Public Theatre, The Pasadena Playhouse, George Street Playhouse, the Negro Ensemble Company, and others.  Her plays are studied globally throughout Asia, Europe, and the US; and published with Dramatists Play Service, Smith and Kraus, Vintage Books/Random House, and others.  She has written journalistically for the Los Angeles Times, American TheatreThe Rafu ShimpoPacific Citizen, and the Kansas City Star; and for film and television with Columbia Pictures, PBS, and several independent producers.  She co-produced the documentary Desert Dreamers (narration by Peter Fonda) and served as Multicultural Consultant for Disney for Hayao Miyazaki’s film Kiki’s Delivery Service.  She has received numerous honors (Kennedy Center, Rockefeller Foundation, Japan Foundation, American Film Institute, Pinter Review Prize for Drama, and others). At the USC School of Dramatic Arts, she is creator/director of the Master of Fine Arts in Dramatic Writing, Professor of Theatre, Associate Dean, and Resident Playwright as well as an inaugural member of the USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions & Cultures. She served on the Japan-US Friendship Commission (US Department of State) for six years.  Her archives are at The Library of Congress and The Huntington Library.

  • Nathan

    Beautifully and intelligently written. Love reading Dr. Houston’s works, whether they be reviews, articles or her plays. Always scintillating, no matter what!