Photo by Anne Fishbein

Why is poet-playwright Luis Alfaro so optimistic about the theater and the arts in this burg? Almost all evidence suggests things are not going well here, yet Alfaro, a big man who also serves as director of new play development at the Mark Taper Forum, squeals with laughter at cynical quips, then takes another sip of wine.

Gentrification in Hollywood is driving or threatening to drive at least five established theater companies (Actors’ Gang, West Coast Ensemble, Theatre/Theater, Open Fist Theater and — inevitably, though not immediately — Theater of NOTE) out of the region to make room for more apartment complexes, restaurants and video stores.

At the same time, the city presides over two potentially sizzling theater centers that, except for the occasional rental, stand vacant for lack of funds or private partners — Los Angeles Theater Center downtown and the Nate Holden Theater on Washington Boulevard. (The California Cultural and Historical Endowment has reserved a massive $4 million grant for Latino Theater Company to repair infrastructure at LATC, but those funds await approval by the CCHE board and are not to be used for programming.)

Consider also that for well over three years, our paper of record has not had a lead theater critic, sending a sorry message to local stage artists. (Explanations for this mystery range from the lack of qualified, interested applicants to a hiring freeze in the theater section mandated by the Times’ parent company, The Chicago Tribune.)

Meanwhile, nobody can quite figure out what Alfaro’s boss, Michael Ritchie, believes in. This is significant because Ritchie is replacing Gordon Davidson as the artistic head of Center Theater Group, among L.A.’s most prestigious and financially endowed arts organizations, which operates the Taper, the Ahmanson and the Kirk Douglas theaters. We know that Ritchie has said that the Taper is not a social service organization and that his favorite play is Stones in His Pockets. Neither statement is particularly encouraging.

And yet, here sits Luis Alfaro at Farmers Market kvelling — yes, a Latino artist can kvell if he’s in the Fairfax District — about the enormous, revolutionary possibilities of L.A. theater. Is he so upbeat because things are going well for him personally, or is L.A. theater really on the brink of enormous, revolutionary possibilities? One presumes Alfaro didn’t receive the Catherine T. MacArthur “genius” Award for nothing. Maybe he really sees something that we don’t. He is, after all, the only poet-playwright around who’s managed to sustain a national playwriting career while serving as an administrator at a regional theater that also happens to be hosting previews of his Lisa Peterson–directed play, Electricidad. Alfaro, like many at the Mark Taper Forum, doesn’t know if he’s going to have a job there in six months, during which time his new boss might or might not initiate staff changes. Not a cloud crosses Alfaro’s sky when he talks about such things. The man is either a saint or an actor quite adept at playing one.

Electricidad is a contemporary adaptation of Euripides’ Electra, set in Boyle Heights. (Electra’s brother, Orestes, is exiled in Las Vegas.) Alfaro’s adaptation was inspired by the story of a Tucson girl who murdered her mother — a story Alfaro absorbed while working with incarcerated youth as part of an NEA Playwrights Residency at Arizona’s Borderlands Theater.

“I was thinking about what’s going on with gangs in the community, so I made a cholo myth with the gods that counsel the old cholos, so much of the language I use in the play is the gang language. It’s so primal and it’s so Greek. In Arizona, these tattoo artists came to talk with us and they were confirming these ideas, and you think, you know, the Greeks hold up really well.”

While rewriting and rehearsing Electricidad, Alfaro put together a three-week New Theater for Now program of readings and workshops at the Kirk Douglas Theater, consisting of entirely local playwrights and directors. (It continues through April 10.)

“What L.A. is on the brink of now, artistically, I think there’s more muscle. I think there’s an age of experimentation,” explains Alfaro, “like when Highways was getting going. I like going to Open Fist. I like Evidence Room — it’s not always successful, but there’s a muscle to the experimentation. The more I’m here, the more it feels the art is getting better, a more refined and transcendent experience. I do think there is a general sense that artists want to be more excellent.” He’s particularly enthusiastic about local writers, including Jessica Goldberg, Bridget Carpenter, Naomi Iizuka and Sarah Ruhl.

“Hilly Hicks came out of Columbia, moved out here to work in TV, quit and started writing plays. Now he lives on Western and Melrose, so he does represent a voice of the city; he gets the irony of the city,” he adds.

Alfaro is more critical of talented local directors who keep using the same actors and theatrical devices, or who don’t read enough — all of which become impediments to growth. In the New Theater for Now Festival, he angered some of them by not allowing them to work with their favorite actors — forcing them to cast against type and broaden conceptual horizons. After their anger and frustration wore off, Alfaro says, they started to get really excited by their projects.

The third side of Alfaro’s artistic missionary work is developing audiences.

“The experience of creating an audience is part of the experience of making the art,” says Alfaro, “and I genuinely believe that the audience wants to be part of the process, they want to see the muscles flex. They want to see behind the curtain.”

Alfaro uses symposia and post-play discussions to open conceptual doors while encouraging excellence. Nothing delights Alfaro more than bringing people of varied stripes and colors together. “The obsession with trying to create community makes the desire for some kind of excellence,” Alfaro explains.

But by excellence, Alfaro isn’t necessarily referring to the quality of the product, but to “the emotional investment that the audience puts into it.”

Critics may never agree on what makes a play excellent, but if an audience is so emotionally invested in a theatrical experience from the passions of the artists, you have, in Alfaro’s view, the essences of both theater and community under one roof. And that’s what he sees occurring on more and more local stages — despite the barrage of investment in real estate, and the dearth of investment in the arts.

Take it from a man who knows, or, if he doesn’t know, has the faith of an actor — or a saint.

Electricidad is being performed at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave.,
downtown; through May 15. (213) 628-2772.

New Theater for Now is continuing at the Kirk Douglas Theater, 9820 Washington
Blvd., Culver City; through April 10. (213) 628-2772.

LA Weekly