`Magical Realism' and the Latino Theatre Lab. A three-year Ford Foundation grant will enable the troupe to expand its activities, strengthen its marketing, and commission new Latino plays

`WE have to somehow create our own theater from the voice within us,'' says Jos'e Luis Valenzuela. ``We think that is the strongest way to build and contribute to the American theater.'' Sitting in a backstage rehearsal room at the Los Angeles Theatre Center here, this Mexican-American theater director has spread before him the mixed reviews of his latest production, ``Stone Wedding,'' which one critic has termed ``totally incoherent.''

``[This critic] doesn't understand that we are intentionally aiming more at the senses than the rational: a nonlinear way of theater that obliterates the line between the conscious and the subconscious,'' he says.

Helping his American audiences understand the different perspectives, sensibilities, rhythms, and underpinnings of Hispanic culture is just one part of what Mr. Valenzuela and his Latino Theatre Lab are all about.

The above review notwithstanding, this unique, nine-year-old program is achieving burgeoning critical success in its four goals: helping Latino actors master their craft through workshops, rehearsals, and performances; providing opportunities for Latino directors, designers, and musicians to collaborate with other artists; creating Latino-authored works for the stage; and developing new audiences for the work of Latino artists.

``We want to build the best Latino theatre in the US,'' says LATC director Bill Bushnell, who began the lab in 1979 for productions that would more accurately reflect the makeup of his L.A. audience, which is 65 percent Hispanic.

The field is wide open. Of 185 theaters nationwide recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, only five are Hispanic. And with three critical successes under its belt in the last two seasons, the lab is now poised for a great leap forward, thanks to a three-year, $200,000 Ford Foundation grant to expand activities, hire marketing personnel, and commission 11 new Latino-authored plays.

``This is a very, very necessary measure to help fill the gap in bringing [Latino] actors up from their stereotypes in agitprop, live TV, and film,'' says Milcha Sanchez-Scott, author of two of the lab's recent productions.

``This will help us erase our hackneyed images as just prostitutes, street-jivers, and low lifes,'' says Lupe Ontiveros, a local film, TV, and theater actress, who has starred in three recent productions.

The tradition of Hispanic theater in the US goes all the way back to a production in 1598, near El Paso, Texas, according to Jorge Huerta, artistic director of Teatro Meta, an Hispanic development theater project at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego.

``But hundreds of years of Spanish theater presence have been totally ignored by historians,'' he says. In 1965, Mexican-American writer Luis Valdez launched a ``Chicano Theater Movement'' to call for unity among playwrights, actors, and directors. A handful of prominent theaters now exist.

One of the primarily Hispanic theatrical techniques explored here in the past two seasons has been ``magical realism.'' It is a device that runs throughout Latin American literature in such authors as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Luis Borges, and others.

It is perhaps best described in a book by Seymour Menton as ``the oxymoronic combination of realism and magic [that] captures the artists' and authors' efforts to portray the strange, the uncanny, the eerie, and the dreamlike - though not the fantastic - aspects of everyday reality.''

``I have gravitated toward magical realism as a matter of personal taste, but also as a means of portraying the Hispanic's poetic soul,'' says Valenzuela. In his ``Roosters,'' roosters become men; a young girl sees the world in a peach. In ``The Promise,'' cornstalks bleed; flowers fall from the sky. In ``Stone Wedding,'' a single man becomes the voice of the Aztec war god Huitzilopochtli.

``[The technique] is harder for the critics and audiences to grasp because they expect us to act and talk like gang members from east L.A.,'' says Valenzuela. ``They don't understand when they find this wealth of imagery and mythology. They think we are just trying to be pretentious.'' Mr. Menton believes that the flowering of magical realism can be attributed to man's ``search for an alternative to the limitations of an overly rational and technological society.''

``We need to find out how to best portray magical realism,'' says Ms. Sanchez-Scott, whose plays have been produced from here to New York - and who has been tapped to write another play for the lab.

She says the way to find out is to maintain a body of good actors that can develop together over time with a particular author to solve such problems. ``It's very hard to have a lab in L.A. with such industrial-strength competition from film and TV,'' she says. ``We have to find a way to offer something different, not only as Hispanics, but theater people in general.''

For the current staging of ``Stone Wedding,'' Valenzuela, Sanchez-Scott, and the actors all collaborated from the first rehearsal in defining plot, character, and staging. With a space provided to practice the voicing and characterizations under nurturing conditions, actors and actresses can achieve the confidence to play roles in mainstage productions, Latino or not.

``Latinos are too used to secondary roles and not the leads,'' says Valenzuela, who toured the US and Latin America for a decade as an actor and director with Santa Barbara-based El Teatro de la Esperanza. ``This gives them the opportunity to play the leading roles they really want.'' Mr. Valenzuela was also assistant director for Pantegleize at Norske Teatret in Norway and Wagner's ``Die Walk"ure'' at the Geneva Opera in Switzerland.

For the audiences, the ultimate goal of the Latino Theatre Lab, according to Valenzuela, is to ``show that, yes, culturally we are different, but humanly we are the same,'' and to ``close the cultural gap by looking for universal premises.'' Future collaborations, he promises, will include more contemporary situations, with more subtle renderings of character and drama.

Valenzuela (a Mexican-American) and Sanchez-Scott (of Colombian/Indonesian parentage) also point up the obvious fallacy of looking for one voice under the umbrella terms ``Hispanic'' or ``Latino.'' For instance, ``the Mexicans have far stronger views on God than the rest of us [Latin Americans],'' Sanchez-Scott says, ``and they have their Aztec heritage.''

The ``differentness'' of Hispanic theater also raises the question, especially in the South and Southwest, of what it means to be ``American.'' There are enough third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation Latinos that they are as much ``Americanized'' as anyone else, says Sanchez-Scott.

The gravitation toward magical realism is but one manifestation of the ``Latino'' soul, says Valenzuela. But the greater common theatrical thread that works its way through so many productions may best be described, he says, in this definition by writer Jos'e Rivera: ``...Latin America's reaction against poverty, political repression, emotional starvation, cultural assimilation.....''

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