Considering & challenging “Excellence” in American Theater
In the last three weeks Culture Clash closed the sprawling CHAVEZ RAVINE under the fine direction of comrade Lisa Peterson at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City/LA and opened the more muted and self directed MUSE & MORROS at ArtsEmerson in downtown Boston. While CHAVEZ spanned five decades of LA history M&M required smaller brush strokes from the CC toolbox to etch in detail monologues of real people and true stories from the margins of America. Three CC brothers of a certain age moving swift across the US keeping pace with the day’s headlines on race and class. In this our speeded up time and endless news cycles we’re reporting our excavations back to an audience as fast as we can. There are three Latino men in the American Theater tonight and they’re not the janitorial crew! Though we very much respect all the maintenance sciences and custodial facilitators even making their stories a part of our theater. Please Google: Proyecto Carrito at Emerson College!
While Chavez played to sold out houses fostering nightly discussions about race, class, gentrification, communism, gender, baseball and in the end a sense of shared activism or justice inherent in the body of our work – we were often perplexed by a sort of riddle: If a show could unite and inspire an audience how then do we better understand and dialogue with critics, donors, board members and front-line technical staff who are often the very ones defining, running, measuring and holding up the gold bar of excellence from which much of American regional theater is measured? How do we as the hot-blooded creators of our own work better assert ourselves clearly without offending those whom we work closely with who’s political views may differ from ours and who react to our nation’s crisis differently than we? Do they care? Can we make them care? This we call the show inside the show – the play within the play – full of actors who yes, look differently than us.
David Dower was recently helping us dissect this riddle over a cocktail following one of our previews in Boston as we were bracing him for impending bad reviews for Muse & Morros, we’ve been receiving horrible notices for a decade now complete with some borderline racists language like the reviewer who entitled himself to use the term “Chink-y-face” in a New Haven review of American Night at Yale Rep.
Mr. Dower began to break down the very apparatuses of American Theater and an institutional notion of excellence that theater-makers like Culture Clash may not neatly fit. A culture of excellence built by and maintained by critics, donors, subscribers, academia and carried out by theater staff.
Mr. Dower unlocked for us something we were doing without realizing perhaps: along with others we challenge and question the very apparatuses that hold up US regional theater. I suspect we may be carrying different measuring sticks in which we measure the importance of our works as well. It’s a many fronted battle too, nuanced, polite yet bloodied at times.
Luis Valdez asked recently following a Chavez Ravine KDT town-hall moderated nightly by the excellent and committed Public Engagement Crew at CTG – and I paraphrase here: Valdez asked us to consider what theater or playwrights define us most as a nation(?) Noting Kabuki Theater of Japan and its early masters, Shakespeare for the UK, the Greeks and Brecht certainly flashed in my mind and I wondered who WE are as a nation through the prism of our theater? Certainly Wilson, Albee, Miller, Shepard make sense but so too must Lori Parks, Kron, Valdez, Lin-Manuel, Guenvere-Smith and Son!
We’ll continue to take to the nations stages as we did the nations streets to claim OUR history, our justice, until we see ourselves reflected in our nations history and in her theater which was one Valdez’ sharp points.
Building and sustaining audiences will always be a challenge – but so too is demanding diversity of those who review those who sit in the board room, those in stage management and in those in the Ivy League MFA theater programs.
Every regional theater is a culture. Some cultures are vibrant and inviting and some are dead zones of old ideas so set and rigid in their ways they push you out the stage door before final tech is completed. Some operate on a near pay to play basis – if the resident artistic director does not direct your play your (new) work will never see the light of stage specials – whether you wanted that director or not.
Culture Clash flourishes in the vibrant cultures of theaters and institutions that invite us to contribute and challenge a more fluid and changing definition of excellence as is true of Michael Ritchie and CTG.
ArtsEmerson is also such a fluid space to work and may be leading and inviting the conversation. Their idea of excellence still evolving allowing Culture Clash to be a part of a definition with what is on stage but also in public engagement, community outreach even marketing. The excellent Trystan & Ysalt just left here with a singular production while the much smaller Muse & Morros was allowed to shine along side it, we received no less attention and support from the artistic, academic and amazing technical staffs here.
Neither were we looking over our shoulder or worried so much about comparisons so much as enjoying a presenter allowing us to BE. To do our thing, strut, engage, build and find an audience here.
And we leave here better artists, energized and a spirit renewed in the power of theater and those that create, produce and manage. David Dower, Polly Carl allowed us to contribute to their idea of excellence with our nightly ritualistic and ceremonial wrestling with Ferguson, Isis, Washington State and the borders of countries and gender.
Transforming the Theater is what I mostly saw at ArtsEmerson under this leadership. Honest and ethical too in their transformation. Our comrades from ArtsErmerson and HowlRound.com expanding our grasp – deepening our work – our voice – the depth of their toolbox, wisdom and educational capacity freely offered UP giving us agency and tapping our shared authenticity and commitment which
The People in the outlining neighborhoods & barrios sense and feel with a wisdom all their own. Boston can still a tough town on people of color. We’ve known David Dower nearly all of our thirty years and we owe him a cocktail and a salut along with the young brilliant kids we met from Roxbury to Hyde Square and the Latino Theater Commons – a huge thank you for a true and rooted exchange. GRACIAS!
Hey Father Greg Boyle the tireless Jesuit/Angel of East LA and former roommate of Bill Cain is a knowledgeable theatergoer, surely we can trust his higher notion of excellence. He recently sent this note back stage:
“Give my felicidades to everyone at Chavez Ravine. It was a tremendous evening… Thrilling, moving, hilarious and a completely engaging time… A sacrament and liturgy… Everyone felt called to connect once again to each other and to their own awakened hearts.
As always, I’m humbled by the kindness you guys extend to me [and the Homey’s].
Count on me for anything. Ever. Much love, G!
Father Boyle’s words embolden us to consider, challenge and create our own notions of excellence in American Theater.
Richard Montoya is co- founder of culture clash performance trio (1984) He has written plays for CTG, OSF, Arena Stage and many others. His feature film is based on his play Water & Power and he worked for 5 minutes on the NBC cop show Southland w Diana Son. Montoya lives and raises Cain in Los Angeles CA!
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.