When playwright and MacArthur “Genius” Luis Alfaro was a child, his mother would bring him to shows at the Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum—but she would wait in the parking lot of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power while he sat in the audience, enraptured. Alfaro became an usher in 1979 and eventually became part of Center Theatre Group’s artistic staff. In 2000, his mother made it into the Taper to see his play Black Butterfly, Jaguar Girl, Piñata Woman and Other Superhero Girls Like Me, which was followed by 2005’s Electricidad (also at the Taper), and 2013’s St. Jude at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Alfaro is a Los Angeles native who grew up in the Pico-Union neighborhood. He’s also collaborated with theatres around the country to create pieces that reflect their community. All this made him the perfect playwright to commission a new work from as part of Center Theatre Group’s 50th anniversary celebration—one that reflects the community we work in. Over the next two years, Alfaro will be working in conjunction with our free bilingual Play Reading series at Boyle Heights libraries. He’ll interview community members, including librarians, about their lives and experiences. And he’ll create six mini-plays that will debut as part of the Play Reading series, which may later be woven together into a mainstage production. Center Theatre Group Community Partnerships Director Jesus Reyes, who runs the Play Reading series and our Boyle Heights programming, sat down to talk with Alfaro about the project as they began their work.
- Jesus Reyes: How do you engage a community that is really local? I always thought of it as an earthquake with an epicenter. Where does that earthquake start?
Luis Alfaro: Well you know, theatre is a ritual. Theatre is the ancient place where we hear our stories. It’s where we learn to be better people. How do we build this ritual as a great sport, as a live-action event? You can convince people that this is a way to hear stories, and to engage yourself and become a better human being.
- How do I convey to a community that they are going to be moved by art, whatever that community is?
I think that if we go back to Indian theatre, which was religious festivals, it’s not emotion so much; it’s catharsis. Tonight you’re going to experience something that is going to be a journey, and in that journey you hear a story, you feel something about that story, and it drives you. It’s the thing that’s going to keep you invested. So I always think, how does community get catharsis? How does it experience that?
The community can be part of the art-making in that they are community dramaturgs. They’re telling you about language, they’re telling you about the appropriateness of events and environments.
Our art, our stories are the most valuable things we have. It’s the way we don’t die, through our oral histories. We learn about ourselves and our cultures, and we learn about our rituals through stories. That’s amazing. The other side of it is that when we bring it to the theatre, it becomes the art that you want to see in a fully produced, professional environment. But I think we are always battling to make both of those things happen. How do we speak to the man on the street and how do you speak to the person who’s going to spend $112 for a ticket? Both of those people should get the same thing out of the experience. If we were just talking to our people, our people being Latinos, I think we would be doing ourselves a disservice. I think the language of our people is the most beautiful poetry, but this play has to be the language of Los Angeles, and it also has to speak to the people on the Westside the same way it speaks to people on the Eastside. How do you do that? That’s the challenge.
- That’s why it’s been important for me with the library Play Readings that our partners are made up of theatre companies and groups throughout Los Angeles—from Watts Village Theater Company to Off The Tracks Theater Company to Artists at Play. It’s a slew of Los Angeles.
You know, East L.A. was once Jewish, and before that it was Chinese, and before that it was Japanese, so you see the Buddhist temples, you see the corner of Brooklyn and Soto, now Cesar Chavez. All of that is underneath the land. All we’re doing is excavating. You and I are just pulling back the end of the rug to see what’s underneath. That’s all we do with our playwriting. We aren’t even digging a tunnel; we’re just lifting up a corner because in Los Angeles, our histories are really recent.
- And we see that history in the makeup of the people who decide to listen to our stories at each library reading. Where does this fit into your history with Center Theatre Group?
My years here at the Taper were my most productive. I think building story then was about influencing the regional theatre movement. Now we have a goal to build something for the local community. How do you keep coming back to something much more local, much more community-oriented? The play we are working on has to take place somewhere around here. And that’s one way of saying we’re not going to run away from it, and if we center it here, we have to deal with what’s going on here.
- I think part of where Center Theatre Group is moving in the next 50 years is toward that localization.
One of the biggest challenges we face is that the 50th Anniversary has to be a sort of charge. How do you reinvent theatre so it speaks to everybody in Los Angeles County? If you tell the stories of this time and this place, you become central or essential to the history and the vitality of the city, but also, you become the central organization to filter the story of Los Angeles. I think that’s where social and political will and change happen. And that’s where theatre becomes interesting again.