A Conversation about Theatres of Color in Los Angeles by NET Local Organizers Leilani Chan & Olivia Espinosa

“Theater is, of course, a reflection of life. Maybe we have to improve life before we can hope to improve theater.”- William Ralph Inge

Diversity. How many times have you had this conversation? Thankfully the theatre community at large is becoming aware that diversity in the arts is a problem. In fact conferences all around the country have affinity groups and panels specifically geared toward creating and sustaining diversity. In addition, large organizations like Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Grantmakers in the Arts, East West Players and Theatre Communications Group have responded to these calls by creating manifestos that hold their organizations to diversity standards.

All of these movements are a positive step forward in changing the landscape of theatre. However, if you are a theatre of color, this conversation has become repetitive. Many Leaders of Color are often asked to speak at these national gatherings to share practices but after the conversation takes place, motivation, passion and fight to change the lack of diversity in the arts drifts away. These arts leaders return home and are faced with the day to day survival needs of their organizations.

At a glance, 25% or less of NET membership in Los Angeles are theatres of color.  With many memberships expired and a deficit in African American groups, NET Local Organizers Leilani Chan, TeAda Productions and Olivia Espinosa, Native Voices at The Autry aimed to examine why it may be difficult for these theatres to join NET and see it as a viable support for their organization. Mentee, Olivia Espinosa sat down with mentor Leilani Chan to discuss observations and other findings after creating 2 events, gathering these local theaters.

Olivia:  Why was it important to you to bring together Los Angeles’ theatres of color?

Leilani: Over the many years of attending national conferences like TCG and NPN, I always found myself in the room when they are talking about diversity and I’ll see colleagues from LA but I never see them in LA. It feels like the same conversation all the time but it’s so broad that time runs out. I thought maybe we could move the conversation further and build stronger relationships.

 

Olivia: Tell me a little bit about the demands of being a leader of a well known theatre of color.

Leilani: Often times I am asked to speak on panels or contribute my expertise to large  organizations and theatres for the good of the cause. I am asked to share and take time out of my day by offering my mailing list, for example, but the same is not reciprocated. When in fact, my knowledge about my community has taken years of experience to accumulate and should be compensated.

 

Olivia: We’ve talked to a lot of ensembles of color over the past few months, what have you learned about being an ensemble from this experience?

Leilani: If the inherent definition of an ensemble is a group of people who work together over  a period of time, then diversity is a challenge to that. If your group is all one color and works together well, especially if it takes a long time to build, then it would be difficult to think of bringing other people into the group no matter what their race.

 

Olivia: What are you taking with you moving forward to continue the connections you  made in the LA community and the opportunity that NET gave us these past few months?

Leilani: I was validated by the similar needs and concerns that all of our groups have and the desire to support and help each others work. We also discovered ways to help other theatres of color by doing more than just exchanging subscriber lists. We planned a reception before Herbert Siguenza’s play and in doing that I didn’t realize that we were supporting one of the earliest and most successful ensembles of color- Culture Clash.

 

Olivia: What do you think our experience as local organizers can offer NET, moving forward?

Leilani: We now have tools to give to NET through a survey and notes that we gathered from the people we talked to. We asked, “What do people need from NET?” and “What can they do to help their local theatres of color?”.

 

Leilani: As a member of the next generation of theater practitioners and a new resident of L.A., what did you learn or gain from this “experiment”?

Olivia: Being new to L.A. from San Diego, I had a really hard time adjusting. Getting across town or connecting with people is more difficult in a city like Los Angeles and it’s hard not to feel isolated. However, this opportunity from NET and the events we put together have inspired and empowered me as an artist in this city. It was great to see the amount of support and attendance for our 2 events. To see that there is a community of people here who are seeking and wanting interaction with one another, just like me.  It’s an easy thing to forget when you are just trying to survive and thinking you are the only one feeling that way. We are all seeking connections with one another and our community, that’s part of the reason why we do what we do.

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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

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