José Luis Valenzuela is Director of the New Los Angeles Theater Center, located in downtown Los Angeles. The center produces plays reflecting all the communities in Los Angeles. Valenzuela’s roots are in the Chicano Theater movement of the 1970s. Latinopia asked him about how the New Los Angeles Theater Center came about.
JOSÉ LUIS VALENZUELA
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
I was born in San Francisco, California but grew up in Los Mochis, Sinoloa and I came back to San Jose State in 1969. And I went to the University there. I didn’t know anything about Chicanos or Chicano Theater. I took a class from Adrian Vargas who had a theater called El Teatro de la Gente. I used to sing in Mexico with Mariachis, so I sang for Adrian Vargas and he asked me to join the group.
I was with the Teatro de la Gente for two or three years then I decided to move to be part of El Teatro de la Esperanza in Santa Barbara. In 1976 I moved to be part of El Teatro de la Esperanza. The Teatro de la Esperanza created the play Guadalupe with its director Jorge Huerta and then when he moved to San Diego, the group created La Victima.
When I came into the group they were a collective company. It was a great process for training. Because I was just an actor but when you work in a collective process you have to do everything, you have to direct, to write, you have to do everything in the company as well as administrative work. So it is a great training process for everyone.
Evelina [Fernandez}came into the company in 1980. We became a couple and we were together with the Esperanza for many years.
In 1984 we moved from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles when the Teatro del la Esperanza moved to San Francisco. When we got to Los Angeles we had 150 dollars in the bank and decided to put a play together in a little tiny theater in L.A. called Jorge Negrete. We staged a play in L.A. and the play was a big success. We won many awards. It was called Hijos, Once a Family. The people from this theater (Los Angeles Theater Center) went to see the play and Bill Bushnell went to see the play and I met them and they told me they were building the Los Angeles Theater Center.
So I came back and they asked me what do you want? And I told them I wanted a rehearsal room. I asked them for a job and the only job they had was in accounting so I took the job as an accountant. During the day I was an accountant and at night I began the Theater company laboratory.
When I came to the LATC in 1985, I had auditions for the theater lab. A place where we can gather and talk about what we should do as actors an build a community. So I had about 25 actors when I began. Some left but Lupe Ontiveros, Kiki Castillo, Sal López, Angela Moya, Trinidad Silva…all them decided to stay with the company. We did a production of La Victima and it was huge success. The idea of creating the Latino Theater Company is to give work to our company of actors and to do it in a different light, to showcase their talent and to really do work that shows that Latino actors are good actors. I did nine plays at this theater from 85 to 91.
We worked at the Los Angeles Theater Center from 1985 to 1991 when they closed the building. The old LATC company declared bankruptcy. I went to teach at UCLA and then I did a play called Dementia. One of my friends had died of AIDS and we were very concerned about AIDS in the Latino community and how little attention it was getting. People were dying and the community wasn’t talking about it.
And we cam back to the Los Angeles Theater Center building and did the play here, Dementia. And when we came the building was in ruins. The carpets were stained and smelled bad, the lighting was old and nothing worked right. There was no box office. But we did the play and it was very successful. And Moctesuma Esparza came to see the play and said to me, “José Luis you should take over the theater because it is going to be destroyed.” And I said, “are you crazy? That is not possible. But if you help me , maybe we can do that.”
So we invited Latinos who were in the industry and we proposed the idea to them and we created a board. Then there was an RFP (Request For Proposal) from the city asking for someone to take over the building. And the deadline was June 17th. We had two weeks. Someone called me and said, I hear you are interested in the theater. I know someone who is also interested in the theater. Why don’t you get together? And this was a developer in downtown. I sat with him and I told him yes, let’s do this. You’re the guy with the money and I am the guy with the art, we can get together and it will be a great marriage. Fine, fine.
But then he wasn’t responding to my phone calls and on June 14th, just before the submission was due, he decided that he didn’t want to do the application with me and that he was going to do it by himself. But I had already done my own application, just in case. So we both applied. So he got it. But then I said, what do you mean? Let’s analyze this.
So then there was four years of a huge struggle because I was a small company and he was a big developer but I wanted it for the right reasons. It was a center of art and it should be come an institution for artists in the city of LA. We had pro bono lawyers that were with us. We secured $4 million from the state , from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment to restore the building. Finally, they granted us a lease for 20 years beginning in 2006. It was a great victory, it was like David and Goliath.