West Side Story and Latinx Artists

As I sat at my computer, doing anything but write up my review of Ordway’s production of West Side Story, I realized that I simply couldn’t write the review. I opted to focus on choreography as a way to discuss the layers of feelings I had about the production. But I couldn’t write. I had local actor Ricardo Vazquez’s words, who spoke about the show at a birthday part I attended last fall, of “This is not a show about Latinos that needs to be done anymore” ringing in my head.

This morning I came across a post from ALMA, the Alliance of Latinx Minnesota Artists, on Facebook in response to this article from the Star Tribune. Instead of writing my own post, I am instead sharing their words from their original post which can be found on their Facebook page. I hope that by sharing their post and their words that more people will be aware of the issues in place of this production and wider problems in our theater community.

‘We are the Alliance of Latinx MN Artists (ALMA). Below is our statement in response to the unfortunate words printed in the Star Tribune on April 6th, 2017 in regards to our local Latinx community of artists.

This letter is in response to the article To stage ‘West Side Story,’ Ordway Center decided to grow Latino talents by Rohan Preston published in the Star Tribune on Thursday, April 6, 2017. The article implies our local Latinx artist community is lacking the necessary ability to appear on the Ordway stage in a musical. Ordway Artistic Director James Rocco states, “There are not a whole lot of Latino musical theater artists in town…” More than one year ago our local Latinx community was promised a strong commitment by James Rocco and the Ordway to partner with Teatro del Pueblo to ensure our representation on stage. The only catch was we would need to be trained through weeks of workshops, classes, and seminars in order to be ready for the first round of standard auditions.

Suddenly, Latinx artists ranging in experience from professional union actors with over 30 years of credits to recent BFA graduates were asked to attend the workshops, but told by Teatro del Pueblo that the Ordway was accustomed to a certain standard of excellence. We were told our local Latinx community needed to prove its own value for the wonderful opportunity to play gang members in a 60-year-old musical written by two white men that ends with one of our people shooting the romantic lead and being placed in handcuffs.

In the end, this “commitment to growth” by the Ordway yielded only two local Latinx artists cast, while more than 10 additional roles were filled with out of town actors, clearly stating through action that the Ordway was embarrassed of our local Latinx talent. This was supported by Rohan Preston’s unverified assertion, “There’s a wealth of musical theater artists among African-Americans in the Twin Cities, and to a lesser degree, Asian-Americans. But Latinos? Not so much.”

We are the Latinx actors, directors, producers, dancers, singers, playwrights, educators, and theater artists that seem to be non-existent in the eyes of Mr. Preston, The Ordway Center and, unfortunately, even Teatro del Pueblo.

We are professional artists. We are not in need of charity, workshops or instructions on the fundamentals, but rather regular and consistent opportunities. It is a fact that our presence on stage is not as visible as in other major theater towns, though not due to the lack of talent or unwillingness, but because opportunities to play roles are infrequent and inconsistent. We will not tolerate organizations who feel they have the right to label an entire community as unworthy to be represented on stage.

While we are pleased that the Ordway is helping new actors learn how to become professionals, we are not all new at this. Just because the Ordway and Teatro del Pueblo, for very different reasons, do not see us work, it does not mean that we are all amateurs in need of fundamental skill development. This community of Latinx theater artists ranges from members of Actors Equity to more recent graduates of excellent conservatories and training programs including our own University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA.

We would also like to speak about the Ordway’s partnership with Teatro del Pueblo. The onus of finding local talent was solely placed on Teatro-a smaller less-resourced organization. This assumes that only Latinx organizations can know Latinx talent and if they are unable to provide a roster, then it is Teatro’s fault and not the Ordway’s. In addition, no one organization such as Teatro del Pueblo represents the Latinx community nor should any individual such as Al Justiniano ever feel the right to speak for an entire community of people.

The Ordway has a track record of contentious relationships with local communities of color. The 2013 production of Miss Saigon drew widespread condemnation from members of the Asian American community and eventually elicited an apology from then President and CEO Patricia Mitchell: “I want to acknowledge and apologize for the hurt that presenting this work has caused.” The Ordway’s ethics have been called into question more recently by organizations such as Mu Performing Arts (this was covered by Marianne Combs in her article Smaller, diverse groups swim against arts-funding tide.) If the Ordway is truly trying to reach our communities, it is time to listen to us about how these issues can be addressed and eliminated.

We wish the cast of West Side Story a successful run. Moving forward, we hope the Ordway, Teatro del Pueblo, and Star Tribune recognize and embrace the incredible wealth of talent of our Twin Cities Latinx community. We also hope James Rocco, Al Justiniano, and Rohan Preston continue to discuss this article with us because the only way to true community empowerment is by working together through conflict and disagreement. We invite all of you to join us in a panel discussion on Monday June 5th to expand on this letter (more details to follow). We look forward to the opportunity to develop real partnerships, exhibit our talents, bring authenticity to the stage, and help institutions like the Ordway be proud to showcase local talent in order to combat the larger issue of systematic exclusion.

In this together,

The Alliance of Latinx MN Artists (ALMA)
AllianceofmnLatinxartists@gmail.com

#RULooking?’

Sensory Friendly Performance for the Lion King

A great interest of mine in theater is accessibility, so I was extremely excited to hear about a new opportunity at Hennepin Theatre Trust  with the tour of The Lion King that will be playing there starting July 5th. On July 30th at 2pm, a sensory-friendly performance will be offered, geared towards patrons with sensory, social, and learning disabilities, particularly those on the autism spectrum, and their friends and family. Minneapolis is only the fifth city to provide such a performance for the tour (including New York, Boston, Houston, and Pittsburgh) and it’s the first time such a show has come on a Broadway tour in Minnesota.

Accommodations in this performance includes:

  • house lights left at a low level
  • designated quiet spaces and activity areas, as well as standing and movement accessibility throughout the theater
  • lower sound levels (especially for loud and sudden/startling sounds)
  • trained volunteers and professionals on hand
  • sensory objects including fidgets, earplugs, and noise-cancelling earmuffs available

Theater should be accessible to everyone and I love that “traditional” presentations of theater are being adapted and changed to be more open and accepting to audiences who are neurodivergent. Sitting in a dark room, in small spaces with loud noises is not everyone’s ideal way to watch a show and offering different ways to experience theater – especially for children – is a wonderful way to broaden a patron’s experiences and introduced them to theater, broaden a theater’s audience base, and broaden the experience of other patrons to a larger community in the theater. If you or someone you know are interested in seeing this performance, tickets can be purchased at HTT’s page for the performance, which also includes more information about the services offered. Hopefully we’ll see more performances like these, both here in the Twin Cities and nation-wide!

Audience Development

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Source: heidibphoto.blogspot.com

When I said I wanted to write about audience development, a co-worker replied, “What do you mean when you say that?” As an emerging dramaturg, I’ve come to understand it as providing additional resources and opportunities for theater audiences, from play guides to post-show discussions to behind the scenes workshops and/or panel discussions with experts about the content of a show.

I’m deeply invested in using audience development as a way to facilitate social change, through opening up theater to broader audiences and supporting shows that ask thought-provoking questions. The Wallace Foundation describes in terms of expanding the audience base in terms of age and ethnicity. By allowing new audiences to see shows, fears about the death of theater can be negated and it supports the principle values the Wallace Foundation puts in place: namely, that art is crucial “as individuals…to experience beauty and insight, to help us make sense of our lives, and to envision not what is but what could be. As communities…to forge social bonds, strengthen our economies, and deepen our understanding of each other.” Audiences come to shows with their own perspectives, wanting to be entertained but also to see how the characters onstage can relate to their own experiences, and to also learn something about themselves and the world around them. This is easy when audiences see something they can relate to or enjoy. But how do we get audiences to connect to shows that portray experiences different from their own or are difficult to enjoy?

Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! lies outside the experiences of the usual American audience. The history of apartheid South Africa is dense and complex on its own and may be hard for audiences to get a grasp on even through Fugard’s powerful play. As a dramaturg for the production at Park Square, I provided photographs and quotes related to the themes of the show to inspire the cast and turned this a lobby display. Audiences could look at these collages before and after the show and draw connections between what they were seeing onstage and what these outside sources stated on the issues. On opening night, many audience members stopped by to look at them. I chatted with one couple in particular who shared with me their experiences of visiting Africa. By the end of the show run, the marketing staff told me that the display had been popular throughout the performances and stirred conversation.

The Amish Project in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio is a show that deals with an issue well-known to audiences but is not easy to deal with. Part of the Singular Voices/Plural Perspective Series, the post-show discussions after each performance allowed audiences to respond and work through what they had seen with the creator, Jessica Dickey. During one such discussion, an audience member told Dickey how it evoked the Civil Rights Movement for him. Moved by this compliment, Dickey thanked him and told him how much it touched her that he saw that correlation.

These sorts of interactions not only allow audiences to talk about the show to creators themselves but also can influence how artists see their own work. By creating dialogue and two-way communication, collaboration between artists and audience members can help “forge social bonds…and deepen our understanding of communities” that are a powerful part of what art can do.

The trouble with audience development is that it often gets lumped into the market and financial part of theater, where it starts to sound an awful lot like people trying to sell something. I work in a box office, and I know all too well how ticket sales make or break a fiscal year, but audience development in my experience has always extended beyond something that is quantitative and into something more qualitative. When audience development isn’t given a clear definition, the goals can easily become focused on entirely different goals and begin to care more about filling seats rather than working more constructively. It begins to revolve around the idea that there is only one kind of theater that counts and works to include audience development focused on social change – especially in terms of reaching out to diversity – only twice a year.

There is also a lack of clarity at to who should be creating these opportunities. Does it fall to audience services departments, if such a department exists in theaters? Should people on the creative team take initiative if others haven’t? In a perfect world, a balance would be found between productions and the theaters they are presented in to create a position that focus on these tasks. But as of now it falls to independent self-starters who create these opportunities for themselves.

I recently saw Theatre Latte Da’s Lullaby at the Ritz Theater and was moved beyond words. Never before had a show personally affected me quite the way this one did. Flabbergasted, I continued to think about it for the next few weeks until, bottled up with my response, I emailed the theater to tell them how grateful I was for producing the show. Perhaps through remembering what it feels like to be an audience member ourselves, we can better define audience development, work towards better serving both patrons and productions, and building stronger relationships with our community.