For the 25th National Conference in Cleveland, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship and the SPARK Leadership Programs. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we feel the time is right to expand the Spotlight On brand beyond the Conference. With this in mind, we are excited to be hosting the Spotlight On Series throughout May and June—all content leading up to the Conference.
TCG: When was the moment that you decided to become a professional theatre actor?
Evelina: I never set out to be a professional theatre actor. It came to me through a series of opportunities and choices that were placed in my lap like gifts. Okay, maybe not. Maybe I’ve worked my ass off to get here. But, all in all, it feels like a gift and a blessing to be able to do the work that I love.
Unlike others who dreamed of a life in the theater, I did not. People like me— poor, brown, and uneducated—didn’t go on to become theater artists. Like so many, I was abandoned by my father, raised by a single mom, and rescued by my grandparents. There was no talk of college or of what I wanted to “be.” Mom was busy working, leaving me in the loving care of Nana and Tata and that’s about all she could do. So, I dropped out of high school, and at 19, married my high school sweetheart—a rock musician—and figured that was that: I’d get a job and live the same kind of life my mother did.
Then, fate threw me into a government sponsored job program (they existed back then) with a job at Cal State, LA working for leftist professors who ran the Latin American Studies Program—and my life changed. My job was to provide clerical assistance for forums about the military coup in Chile, classes about the Cuban Revolution, concerts by Chilean exiled musicians like Inti-Ilimani and Quilapayun and an array of other issues and concerns about Latin America. It was like I fell asleep in East LA and woke up in Izquierdalandia (Leftlandia). It was amazing! It opened my eyes to new possibilities and a new worldview, and thanks to affirmative action, I got into college. Oh, and I divorced the rock musician.
While in college, I got involved in the immigrants rights movement and found my niche in the Chicano theater movement at it’s height when hundreds of groups were forming at universities and communities throughout the country and creating plays about issues directly affecting Chicano/a communities. Our theater training came from Luis Valdéz and El Teatro Campesino, and from Latin American maestros like Colombia’s Enrique Buenaventura and Santiago Garcia who came to our festivals and taught us “la creacion colectiva;” what we now call “devised” work.
While at Cal State, LA, I heard about auditions for a play by Luis Valdez at the Mark Taper Forum. I guess there’s something to be said about authenticity as it sometimes trumps professional training and experience. In other words, sometimes a director has to choose what is more important for the play and sometimes, even the best training can’t substitute an understanding of character at its core. And that was the case when Luis Valdez cast me as “Della,” the female lead in Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum.
The historical significance of Zoot Suit has followed me throughout my theatrical career. This production caused a profound change in the city, the electricity in the audience was palpable as this was the first time “our “ story was being told on the main stage. As part of Gordon Davidson’s “New Theater for Now” Season in 1978 and then the main stage production that followed, Zoot Suit sent ripples of new promise throughout California and the Southwest. Along with my Chicano theater training, that experience has defined me as a theater artist that does “theater that matters.” The success of Zoot Suit in Los Angeles (it ran for over a year and helped CTG purchase the Aquarius Theater where it continued to run), its eventual run on Broadway, (I was not part of the Broadway cast as I stayed in Los Angeles to have my son, Fidel Ernesto) and its ultimate rejection by the New York theater scene, sent us out into the world like warriors that fought the first battle and came out of it bruised and battered but determined to continue the fight to get our stories on the stage. That determination is what has defined my life in the theater.
It’s impossible to separate my work as an actor from my work as an ensemble member of the Latino Theater Company. Being part of an artistic family is what generates most of my work as an actor. Created in 1985 as the Latino Theatre Lab during the first incarnation of the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC), we as a company have been together for almost 30 years. The progressive vision of Bill Bushnell, Diane white and Alan Mandell to create a theater diverse in cultures, aesthetics, and genres was decades ahead of its time and its demise in 1991, in my opinion, set the American Theater back years when it comes to diversity. However, the LATC gave the Latino Theater Company the opportunity to work on the main stage in AEA productions, and we’ve been there ever since.
After the closure of the LATC, we jointly figured out that the way to guarantee work in the type of theatre we wanted to do as actors, was in creating our own. Under the artistic directorship of José Luis Valenzuela, we have been creating and producing work independent of the regional theaters for over 20 years. We experiment with new theatrical vocabularies and are in the constant search for innovative and authentic ways to tell stories that matter to the Latino/a community by honoring our traditions in language, music, dance, and movement and placing them within a contemporary American context. We explore the U.S. Latino/a experience, we are Mexican-Americans and, yes, we perform in English. We will have a production in the fall of 2016 at ArtsEmerson, and are happy to share our work with the East Coast.
TCG: What is one challenge in the acting profession that you would like to change? How would you do so?
Evelina: It almost feels redundant to say that there should be more work for actors of color, women, LGBTQ and interfaith communities in theater. But, it’s important to keep saying it. It is now, in fact, that this is essential for the survival of the American Theater. When I began my career, regional theaters were not-for-profit alternatives to Broadway or “commercial” theater where artists were allowed to create without the pressures of commercial ventures and given the support to tell the new stories of our time. Today, we know that the regional theaters are not what they used to be. The audiences that once supported them are blowing away like a sea of white dandelions in the wind. For years I’ve wondered how different the audiences would be today if, for example, Zoot Suit were to be quickly followed by more Latino/a plays in Los Angeles—a place Latino/as are now almost 50% of the population.
Living in Los Angeles where “minorities” are the majority, I realize that the rest of the country doesn’t look like this… but it will very soon and it’s time to make way for the New American Theater. The New American Theater is diverse, inclusive, reflects the new demographics of the U.S., tells the stories of “our” times, and guarantees future audiences. I don’t just mean immigrant stories or dangerous stories or stories about our hardships and victimization. I mean, POC, women, LGBTQ folks in every kind of story imaginable because we live every kind of story imaginable.
TCG: Talk about a game changing moment in your career – a “big break” where you felt you could create a lasting legacy through your work as an actor?
Evelina: One of our most significant accomplishments is hosting the LATC Encuentro in 2014. This historical festival and convening was the largest U.S. Latina/o theater festival in over 25 years. The Encuentro gathered 150 artists from throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico, dozens of scholars, nearly 3,000 students, and more than 12,000 audience members to celebrate U.S. Latina/o theater, while charting a course for its future. More than half of the work presented at Encuentro 2014 was by women playwrights: Karen Zacarias, Marissa Chibas, Theresa Chavez, Rose Portillo, Mariana Carreno King, Magdalena Gomez, Rosalba Rolon, Quiara Algeria Hudes, Evelina Fernandez. We received the 50/50 Applause Award for at least 50% of our programming being by women playwrights for our 2013 seasons.We realize that the Latino/a voice is just one of many in Los Angeles and our mission is to put those voices, those stories and the stories of “our” time on our stages and we have. Our seasons have included Velina Houston, Alice Tuan, Anne Garcia Romero, Lina Gallegos, Karen Anzoategui, Donald Jolly, Marcus Gardley, Boni Alvarez, Rickerby Hinds, stories about gender identity, interfaith relationships, police killings, growing old and more.
Not everyone has the opportunity to give opportunity. Not everyone gets the chance to give back what has been given to you. Not everyone has the opportunity to reciprocate. But we do—and now we give opportunities and choices to others. It’s a gift that we embrace and we work our ass off doing it, too.
Learn more about the Latino Theater Company here: http://thelatc.org/
Evelina Fernández was born and raised in East LA. She is a founding member of the Latino Theater Company (operators of the LATC) for close to 30 years. She is an playwright, screenwriter and actor. She was most recently a staff writer for the Emmy Nominated original Hulu series EAST LOS HIGH. In 2013 she won the LA Drama Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Writing of a World Premiere Play for A MEXICAN TRILOGY now being published by Samuel French. Her plays have made the LA Times Critic’s Choice list; SOLITUDE (2009), DEMENTIA (2010) and her holiday pageant play, LA VIRGEN DE GUADALUPE, DIOS INANTZIN have been featured in both the LA Times and the NY Times. She received a Best Playwright Ovation Award nomination for her stage play, HOPE: PART II OF A MEXICAN TRILOGY which premiered in October 2011 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center to critical acclaim. In 2003, DEMENTIA won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Theater Production in Los Angeles and received four L.A. Stage Alliance Ovation Award nominations, including Best World Premiere. CHARITY: PART III OF A MEXICAN TRILOGY premiered in May 2012 and was Back Stage’s Critic’s Pick and FAITH: PART I OF A MEXICAN TRILOGY premiered in October 2012 to critical acclaim. She is currently commissioned by the South Coast Rep and is part of the CTG Writers Workshop. Her most recent play, PREMEDITATION was nominated for 3 Ovation Awards including Best Theater Production in 2014. In March 2015, her adaptation of Plautus’s Pot of Gold, LA OLLA was staged at the Getty Villa Lab.
Photo 1 - Evelina Fernandez in Solitude at the Latino Theatre Company. Cristopher Ash
Photo 2 - L to R: Geoffrey Rivas, Lucy Rodriguez, Sal Lopez, Evelina Fernandez in Premeditation by Evelina Fernandez at the Latino Theater Company. Ed Krieger