How "Small" Theater Companies are Transforming Los Angeles
By Ramona Pilar Gonzales
When I saw a listing for a FREE screenwriting class on Latino LA (which was only an email listserv at the time), I didn't hesitate and registered immediately. It wasn't until that first day of class that I'd set foot inside a "small" theater. Casa 0101 had recently opened and I was one of two students learning the basics of screenwriting and storytelling from playwright Josefina López.
Right around that time my father became ill. He lived less than five minutes from that theater on First Street, so it was convenient for me to attend class and then go take care of him. When his health worsened, he was admitted to the ICU at White Memorial Hospital. Casa 0101 became a refuge to me, a place where my father's impending death didn't hang in the air, and every class or production meeting reinforced for me, that even though my dad's life was ending, I still had mine to live.
There was no way I could have afforded the screenwriting classes offered by UCLA extension at the time. Because Casa 0101 existed in my community, I found a community, a network of people, and the support I needed without even looking for it.
This is how the "small" theaters in Los Angeles serve their geographic and demographic communities and this work was the topic of discussion of the first symposium on January 22 at Inner-City Arts. The Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) gave a presentation on their work in Skid Row with the Recovery community. For almost 30 years, LAPD has been dedicated to "creat[ing] change by telling the story of the community in a way that supports the initiatives of community residents." By financial accounts they are a "small" organization, but their actual impact is anything but small. Challenges arise when trying to quantify this type of impact for potential funders.
There's a point of view that LA has no viable theater scene compared to cities like New York or Chicago, where theater practitioners can make a living working in the theater industry. However, assigning value to theater based on a dollar amount is limiting. Financial viability is not an accurate barometer for measuring the a) quality of work or b) impact of that work on the surrounding communities. Small theater companies are constantly having to prove and re-prove their worth in a society that values the arts less and less.
What's frustrating is that these theater companies do provide services to their communities. Some companies have developed in-school programs where they use theater techniques to improve literacy and increase student attendance and retention rates. Others, by virtue or having a brick and mortar location in the community that they serve, are able to provide an alternative place for youth and young adults to congregate, instead of just roaming the neighborhood. With these classes, people learn about theater, theater production, acting, and writing, while developing intangible skills that are elemental to personal and professional success. Skills like project planning, goal setting, prioritizing, time management, interdependence and communication, socialization, teamwork and team building, and how to prepare, refine, and present one's best self to the world, all of which results in increased self-esteem.
It is in this way that small theater companies are transforming Los Angeles – bit-by-bit, community-by-community – and empowering those who did not make the mainstream cut for whatever reason. The beauty of Los Angeles is that there is not one voice and one story to tell. The nature of Los Angeles is cacophonic harmony, several voices speaking at once to several different needs across a huge sprawl. This first symposium provided the forum for some artists to reconnect, others to meet for the first time, and hear about the work being done across the city. And now comes the exchange of ideas, communicating and learning how different companies deal with audience development, examining the assumed "need" for ticket sales as a gage for financial and artistic success, and how to continue evolving.