A Conversation with Teaching Artist Francisco Garcia about his Work with L.A’s Youth
By Fanny Garcia
Teaching artists are one of the many unsung heroes of the theater community. In teaching theater to youth they are not only building awareness about the importance of the arts in society but also shaping the audiences of tomorrow. The CalArts CAP program is one of the few afterschool arts programs that provide free education and training in the theater arts to youth in Los Angeles.
Francisco Garcia is an actor and teaching artist and this weekend his play Fuente Ovejuna: The Legend of Lauren Lopez will be performed at REDCAT on Friday, May 24th and Saturday, May 25th. The play was created in partnership with the CalArts Community Arts Program and Plaza de la Raza.
What’s interesting about his story is that he didn’t know anyone when he moved to Los Angeles from Portland but through a couple of key connections he has been able to build his artistic home in L.A. He has established a career as an actor, teaching artist, and now playwright in a city that many believe is not conducive to providing employment opportunities for artists. His journey into the Los Angeles theater arts scene is evidence that a career in the arts can be forged in this city.
Francisco, you moved from Oregon to California to pursue a career and education in the arts, what was that transition like for you? It was very difficult at first but I was very fortunate to meet Diane Rodriguez and Jesus Reyes shortly after moving here from Portland. They kind of gave me the lowdown on which theater companies did work that I might be interested in and who to contact. I also emailed Richard Azurdia who also steered me in the right direction in terms of what was going on in Los Angeles. I ended up getting cast in a production of Romeo and Juliet for East LA Rep that Jesus was directing and that kind of got the ball rolling.
What is the difference between working as an actor in Portland vs. Los Angeles? The theater and film scene in Portland is very tight knit and people really love and cherish art in that city. After I graduated from Portland State University, I was able to get a job working for Teatro Milagro/Miracle Theater acting in their touring company as well as working in their office; it taught me so much in terms of how nonprofit theaters function, and in Teatro Milagro’s case, flourish in their communities. After leaving the Miracle, I continued to act for various theaters in Portland, taught theater workshops and occasionally worked in commercials and films. While living in Portland didn’t offer me as many opportunities for work as, say, Los Angeles, I really loved the work I did with the vibrant theater community. Did you hear that Damaso Rodriguez just moved there? He is the new Artistic Director at Artists Repertory Theater, the second largest Equity Theater in Portland. They have an amazing and beautiful space. I performed in their production of Night of the Iguana.
How did you get your Equity Card? In 2008, I was cast as an understudy in Octavio Solis’ Lydia at the Mark Taper Forum. I was already an Equity Membership Candidate and had been earning points for some time so when the Taper offered me a contract for the show, I told them I would be going Equity for the production. I went down to the Equity office on the first day of rehearsal, paid my dues and got my card. Growing up in Portland, there was not a lot of Equity actors and even fewer Equity actors of color. I think that is starting to change now with more Equity theaters emerging there but at the time I lived there, it was hard to get your card and the opportunities were few and far between. If you had your card, it meant you earned it and there was a sense of pride and accomplishment in that. So when I finally had the opportunity to go Equity while working at the Taper, it really meant a lot to me.
Why did you pursue a Masters in Playwriting? My Master’s is actually in Theater Arts with my emphasis being on playwriting. When I started going to CSULA [Cal State University, Los Angeles], I was just taking a few classes post-bac. After accumulating a handful of credits there and realizing that I could transfer some of my previous credits from my undergrad at Portland State University, I decided to talk to an advisor about applying for CSULA’s Master’s program, this was before they offered an MFA in acting dramatic writing. I was then accepted and shortly after I began my program at CSULA, they started offering an MFA in acting and writing. I remember Jose Cruz Gonzalez telling me that I should consider applying for the MFA in writing but by then I was already half way done with my degree. Plus I had just gotten my Equity card and I was already acting and teaching professionally so at that point I just wanted to finish my degree and continue working.
While at Cal State, Los Angeles you worked with playwright Jose Cruz Gonzalez, what was that like? Working with Jose Cruz Gonzalez was wonderful; he was the main reason that I went to school at CSULA. He really pushed me to pursue playwriting and helped lay the foundation for my writing. Also, structurally, he taught me a lot. The majority of my writing has been working with theater for young audiences, and Jose also happens to be a leader in that field. So to be able to study under him and witness how he works was inspirational. In addition to the playwriting courses I took from Jose, I also worked with him one-on-one over the course of a year developing my play Seventeen, which was directed by Laurie Woolery. Seventeen was workshopped in the winter of 2007 and then received a full production in 2008 at CSULA’s State Playhouse. I was also invited to participate in the Bonderman playwright’s Slam at Indiana Repertory Theater in 2009. But even today, so much of my work is still influenced by Jose and I still find myself going back and remembering the notes and advice he would give me when we were working together.
Do you consider yourself a writer of color? What are some of the advantages or disadvantages of this label? I do consider myself a writer of color and I feel that I have a responsibility to create plays that I think reflect the culture and environment that I live in. I love writing for young audiences and providing them with material that I think is challenging and not condescending. As far as advantages in general go though, I love creating roles for actors of color because we need to have more roles out there for us. Each year, TCG releases a list of the most produced plays in American Theater magazine. In the 2012-2013 season, out of the top eleven produced living playwrights in this country, only two writers of color and one woman were listed.
What is the CalArts Community Arts Partnership Program and how did you become involved? The CalArts Community Arts Partnership (CAP), a program of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), offers tuition-free, after-school, summer, and school-based arts programs for youth. It offers arts training programs in the visual, performing, literary and media arts, is now in its 23rd year and is headed up the amazing Glenna Avila. The particular theater program that I have worked for with CAP is also in partnership with Plaza de la Raza in Lincoln Heights. I first started working with CAP/Plaza in 2008 as a theater instructor assisting BJ Dodge who is the director of the CAP/Plaza Theater Program. At time I was also working with BJ at Center Theater Group teaching theater classes, so she was very familiar with the work that I did. When she asked me if I was interested at working at Plaza, I immediately said yes. I love the work that they do there and it still remains one of my favorite places in all of Los Angeles.
As someone who grew up in another state, why did the history of the 1968 walkouts in East Los Angeles inspire you to write your play? My mother was very active in the Chicano/Chicana movement when we lived in Oregon so I was always aware of the history of the Walkouts in East LA. Shortly after I moved to Los Angeles I ended up auditioning for the film Walkout. When they sent me my sides for the audition, I started researching the events that had transpired. Although I didn’t end up getting cast in the film, the experience really sparked an interest in terms of learning the history and the key players involved in the 1968 walkouts.
I’ve always been a huge fan of the play Fuenteovejuna. I was always fascinated with the character of Laurencia in Fuenteovejuna; she is such a powerhouse and force of nature. When I was writing the play, I knew I wanted to continue exploring that rebellious spirit of Laurencia except in a contemporary setting and at a younger age. The subject matter is timeless, dealing with issues of social injustice and how people are able to act against it in the face of tyranny.
To me it seemed to reflect some of the issues that at the core of the walkouts. My vision was to set the play in a contemporary high school in East Los Angeles in which Lope de Vega’s peasant uprising becomes a student protest against the loss of Arts programming. In my play the students are inspired by the history of the Walkouts to take a stand for what they believe in and value. This is reflected by their need to be able to have access to arts education regardless of where a person attends school, whether it be on the east or west side.
What was the most challenging aspect about working with youth? What was the most surprising and/or rewarding? Attendance or rather lack of attendance can always be a challenge. Also, having to deal with scheduling and coordinating with the school’s administration as well as gaining the support of the school you are working at can also at times present many challenges. The actual work that I do with the student is what makes me love my job. When I was teaching for the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, I was always surprised at how students who had no previous experience or exposure to classical theater would pick up and understand the text. Well, perhaps not so much surprised but rather impressed. I love working with text and when you’re reading and acting with students and they get it, they make that connection to the material that they’re working with, it’s an amazing feeling.
What was it like to have your play presented at Plaza de la Raza? Do you think the play will take on a different dynamic when presented at Plaza de la Raza vs. REDCAT? I started out working at CAP/Plaza de la Raza as a theater instructor so I was able to see the process that the students, faculty and playwrights go through each year when they create these productions. In the past, CAP has invited Herbert Sigüenza of Culture Clash, Jose Cruz Gonzalez, Rose Portillo and Virginia Grise just to name a few. So to be given the opportunity to add my name to the list and create a play for CAP has been a blessing. I love the work that goes on at Plaza de la Raza, it’s truly a magical place. I love that when you walk through those giant doors you see young students playing mariachi music, dancing folklorico, painting, singing and rehearsing scenes. It’s a constant reminder to me of how important arts education is in our community and how we need to support it.
We opened the show a few weeks ago at Plaza and so far the response has been really wonderful. We’ve had large audiences for all our shows and feedback has been great. Plus the students have had a fabulous time working on the production, which to me is what matters the most. I do think that as the show transfers to REDCAT starting next week that the play will start to take on a different dynamic but in a positive way. The students have been performing for several weeks now and they really are staring to take ownership of the material.
Honestly, It’s a hard play to do; lots of singing, music, movement, dance and text, clocking in at just over two hours. The work ethic and talent that these young actors posses just floors me at times, I love watching them work. I also think that the excitement of having the show performed at REDCAT really makes the actors work even that much harder. REDCAT has always been one of my favorite performance venues in Los Angeles, I’ve seen so many show’s there that I’ve lost count. I’m really excited for the REDCAT audience to see all the hard work that we’ve all put into this production, I think they are going to be blown away. The best is yet to come.
Fuente Ovejuna: The Legend of Lauren Lopez
Written By Francisco Garcia
In collaboration with: The students and staff of CalArts Community Arts Partnership and Plaza de la Raza
631 West 2nd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Friday, May 24th at 7:30 pm
Saturday, May 25th at 7:30 pm
Click here to make a reservation or call Plaza de la Raza at (323) 223-2475.