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November 10, 2002

Mavericks bow to change

From: Calendar Live, CA
Nov. 10, 2002

Alternative theaters, born to serve specific communities, adapt to new circumstances by entering the mainstream.

By Jan Breslauer , Special to The Times

A theater of one's own: Since the 1960s, that dream has launched scores of companies coast to coast. From L.A.'s Bilingual Foundation of the Arts to New York's Pan Asian Repertory Theater to the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, community-specific troupes have long functioned as an important alternative voice on the American stage.

But times change, and so do the politics of making theater. The separatist ideology of the '60s and '70s that helped give rise to these nonprofit companies has gone the way of much of the public arts funding that nourished these groups. At a time when the line between commercial and nonprofit theater has blurred and multiculturalism has become a part of institutional theater rhetoric, there's much less support for maverick groups that put the needs of a limited constituency first. Where once they rode the tide of social change, they now swim against it.

As a result, community-specific theaters of more recent vintage trade not in separatism but assimilation. They aim not to be an antidote to the mainstream, but to become a part of it. A case in point is Deaf West Theatre, which brings its production of the Roger Miller-William Hauptman musical "Big River" to the Mark Taper Forum on Thursday. Directed by Jeff Calhoun and first staged at the company's North Hollywood home last year, "Big River" mixes deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing actors in the company's trademark style, which interweaves voice and sign language. The co-production represents the first time the Music Center venue has imported a production from one of L.A.'s myriad smaller theaters.

Deaf West's aspirations don't end with the Taper. The group is also working toward a national tour and perhaps even a tilt at New York. "It's just really the right time and the right place for us to be mainstreaming," says Deaf West artistic director Ed Waterstreet, who started the company in 1991. "We're hoping that someday we'll have a deaf theater that is only for the deaf. But we haven't been able to do that yet, because right now we've been very busy with more mainstream work."

Yet such a cozy relationship between special-interest troupes and the bigger houses raises questions about an increasingly homogenized American theater. Minority self-determination and diversity of expression could be the costs if control of what's on stage is consolidated in fewer hands -- particularly given that those hands still belong overwhelmingly to white men.

"I believe in the theater it's our biggest problem when it comes to the work of 'the Other,' " says actor-director L. Kenneth Richardson, co-founder of New Jersey's Crossroads Theatre, which is devoted to African American work. "The idea of the black or the Asian theater is a thing of the past. A young producer who comes along may be black, but he's thinking it may not be viable to have a black company. "Why are we trying to shape it for this amorphous thing we call mainstream? Mainstream will follow our lead, but we have to lead," Richardson continues. "What concerns me is that these theaters are all but dead. We can't let them die. We can't let go of that mission."

The rise of minority theater

The social upheaval of the '60s gave rise to a related movement in the American theater. Minority actors, directors, writers and others who had long suffered a dearth of creative opportunities sought empowerment by creating their own companies -- separate, if not equal.

L.A.'s East West Players was one of the pioneering groups. The oldest Asian American theater in the U.S., it was founded in 1965 by a group of actors frustrated by their limited opportunities in Hollywood and commercial theater.

"We wanted to break out of stereotypic molds we were placed under," recalls Mako, the veteran Broadway and film actor who led the group and served as its artistic director until 1989. "We wanted to prove to the world and the community and the industry that we were capable of doing more than that."

Indeed, many of this country's Asian American theaters, such as Seattle's Northwest Asian-American Theater and San Francisco's Asian-American Theater, were launched in the '70s on the model of East West's early success.

New York's Negro Ensemble Company, founded in 1967, was dedicated to nurturing the work of black theater artists. Like East West Players, it inspired a second generation of similarly committed companies, including Crossroads, founded in 1978.

The intention was to serve African American audiences and artists. "When we started Crossroads, the idea was to serve a black community, to create a company that would speak specifically to this community," says Richardson, who served as Crossroads' artistic director until 1988, when he came to L.A. to direct "The Colored Museum" at the Taper.

At the core of the company was a belief in a vital link between cultural identity and creativity. "I come out of a black theater tradition," explains Richardson, who from 1994 to 1999 was leader of the Mark Taper Forum's Blacksmyths, a development lab for African American playwrights and other theater artists. "It gives me a point of identification. I know where I stand, who I am as an artist."

To be sure, there was disagreement over just how staunchly separatist these groups were to be. Companies such as the Negro Ensemble were criticized within their own communities for collaborating with white theater artists and taking money from white funders. And although Richardson and his collaborators didn't consciously make integration a goal, Crossroads often had racially mixed audiences anyway.

The National Theatre of the Deaf, founded in 1967, is a touring company that has helped the careers of many deaf or hard-of-hearing theater artists, including Waterstreet. Inspired by his experiences with that troupe, he sought to bring something similar to deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences in L.A.

"When we started the theater, I was really surprised that there was no theater in Los Angeles for the deaf, and the deaf community really seemed starved to have that opportunity," says Waterstreet, speaking through an interpreter as he sits in an upstairs office at the Deaf West complex. "So my original vision was based on the intention of developing a theater that was only for deaf culture."

Surprisingly, those who first came out to support that vision weren't the ones Waterstreet had expected. "We only had about 5% of our audiences that were deaf in our first year, which was very puzzling to me," he recalls. "So I expanded my vision to include both deaf and hearing so that we could also include mainstream audiences and artists."

At first, Waterstreet encountered resistance to this inclusive approach. "The deaf community initially was offended," he says. "So I was very, very torn at the beginning, I must admit. I had to juggle between my hearing and my deaf audiences."

Funding goes mainstream

Since then, Waterstreet has begun to win over the deaf and hard-of-hearing. "Now our deaf audiences are 25%," he says. Yet he has not abandoned Deaf West's hearing audiences. Instead the troupe has catered to them, forging a hybrid form that includes spoken text.

Partly, it's a matter of survival. Today it would be hard to find the funding that launched theaters such as Crossroads, which was started with a $220,000 grant from the Comprehensive Employment Training Act. Says Richardson, "Figuring how much that would be with 24 years of inflation, where are you going to get that money today?"

Funding sources both public and private are now more inclined to give grants to programs that operate under the umbrella of mainstream institutions, such as the Taper, which has development labs devoted to black, Asian American, Latino and disabled artists. When scarce money does go to community-specific theaters, it's often for outreach. Deaf West, for example, is the recipient of a $4-million, five-year grant from the federal Department of Education, earmarked for a national touring production, a summer professional training program and the production of videos of their shows. Deaf West will use some of that federal money to cover its share of "Big River," which amounts to one-third of the total cost of the Taper production.

Clearly, it's a symbiotic relationship between the Taper, which has diversity goals to meet, and groups like Deaf West. "If we go into, for example, the Taper, we can also collaborate in other ways," Deaf West managing director Bill O'Brien says. "They have lots of educational programs, and we can help open those up so that they're accessible to deaf kids. We can send signers in there."

And yet, for all the benefits of collaboration, there are also dangers. "I still have a concern for this black theater that will speak directly to the community," says Richardson, who recently appeared locally in the Black Dahlia production of Oliver Mayer's "Ragged Time." "If we did good work, we would hope others would come. And now I think it's the reverse. We're too concerned about who's coming and patterning the work based on that.

"There's nothing wrong with a company like Deaf West getting the opportunity to perform at the Taper," he says. "But how do you take that step without losing the urgency, the artistry?"

Concurs Mako: "My concept of East West or any ethnic theater is that joining forces with mainstream theater is fine, but we still have to maintain our own identity. He points to San Francisco's Asian-American Theater losing its space in 1996 as but one casualty of the changing times. "I don't think we've finished what we set out to do."

"Big River"

Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Also plays Nov. 25, Dec. 23,8 p.m.; Dec. 26, 2:30 p.m.; dark Nov. 19-22, Nov. 28,Dec. 24-25.

Ends: Dec. 29

Price: $35-$50

Contact: (213) 628-2772; deaf community information and charge: (TDD) (213) 680-4017