Friday, April 18, 2014

The Tony Garcia Interview

Anthony J. "Tony" Garcia
Today we hear from Anthony "Tony" Garcia, long-time Artistic Director at the world-famous El Centro Su Teatro. Tony is the driving force behind many of Denver's cultural highlights, recognized and honored by the local, national, and international cultural elite, as well as respected and loved by the community he so ably represents with his hard-work and intense commitment. Tony recently managed to squeeze in a few minutes for La Bloga -  and we are grateful;  he's a busy guy. Tony offers his opinion about a wide range of subjects including the current state of Chicano theater, Su Teatro's plans for the immediate future, what Su Teatro offers in the way of opportunities for writers, and key lessons taught to all of us by César Chávez.

[from Su Teatro's website]
Tony Garcia, Executive Artistic Director: Tony has been the Executive Artistic Director of El Centro Su Teatro since 1989 and has been a member of Su Teatro since 1972. He received his BA in Theater from the University of Colorado at Denver. Tony has received numerous awards and accolades for his artistic vision, including the 1989 University of California, Irvine Chicano Literary Award, a 2006 United States Artists Fellowship, an artist residency at the Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska, and was named the Denver Post 2010 Theater Person of the Year. Most recently, he received the prestigious Livingston Fellowship from the Bonfils Stanton Foundation. Tony is a past faculty member for the National Association of Latino Art and Culture (NALAC) Leadership Institute as well as a past board member, he is a peer trainer for the Colorado Creative Industries’ Peer Assistance Network, and a member of the Western State Arts Federation’s (WESTAF) Board of Trustees. Tony also is an adjunct professor at Metro State University in Denver.

La Carpa de los Rasquachis, written by Luis Valdez, directed by Anthony J. Garcia

And a little bit about Su Teatro, also from Su Teatro's website:
Su Teatro began in 1971 as a student-organized theater group at the University of Colorado at Denver. In 1989, Su Teatro purchased the old Elyria School in Northeast Denver and became El Centro Su Teatro, a multidisciplinary cultural arts center. 

Twenty-one years later in September, 2010 Su Teatro purchased The Denver Civic Theater at 721 Santa Fe Dr.

Over 40 years, Su Teatro has established a national reputation for homegrown productions that speak to the history and experience of Chicanos. Su Teatro has created more than 15 original full length productions that have toured widely to venues such as New York’s Public Theater, The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, San Antonio, TX and Plaza de la Raza, Los Angeles, CA. 

The artistic excellence of our programs and our relevance to the field has been recognized nationally through funding from The Shubert Foundation, Theatre Communications Group, the National Performance Network, The National Endowment for the Arts, the Kresge Foundation, and the American Composers Forum.


Manuel Ramos:     At one time there were Chicano teatros all over the place. What's the state of this type of theater today?  How big is this club?

Tony Garcia:  In the mid-70s there were as many as ten teatros in Colorado alone. In 1976 we brought them together in a festival. There were probably 50-70 and many would participate in national and international festivals, often hosted by a group called TENAZ ( Teatros Nacionales de Aztlan. ) Just recently there was a call for entries for a national gathering of Latino theater ensembles and more than 70 groups responded. This does not include the individual artists and spoken word performers. The Latino Commons was a gathering of individual Latino theater artists in Boston and an invited list of 67 showed up. The variety is great, we created a circle of our experience as teatristas, and we ran from Luis Valdez of El Teatro Campesino, whose company was formed in 1965, to college performers with less than two years in the field. I would say we are as healthy as we can be for artists. The work is less politically and socially driven then it was when we began. It is, though, no less important. We are still working our way through identity issues as our identities evolve. We are no longer just telling stories about Chicanos, because we are no longer just Mexican-Americans. We are Mexican-African-Americans, Mexican-Japanese-Pilipino-Americans. We are Puerto Rican-Cuban-Irish-Americans, so all of those elements are getting mixed into the stew. What we have in common is a real claim to the Americas. We see ourselves as in our native country, although we preserve the memory of another country. Of course the twist is that we are connected to a subculture of hybridity, which is second nature to us. Because that is what being a Chicano was all about.

MR:  Why has Su Teatro survived?  How would you describe the evolution of Su Teatro?

TG:  Su Teatro has survived because we know what we are, and there is a need for what we are. If our community did not need us then we would be gone very shortly. Very few artists and artistic organizations have been embraced as firmly as has Su Teatro and yours truly. Our community has watched us grow and our growth and successes are successes of our community. We are the conveyors of our community’s history, but not just in a sense that we regurgitate what the community wants to hear, we are fortunate to be in a position to challenge and inspire. So people don’t always hear what they want, but we work hard to engage them, to provoke them and to reflect well on them. We have been at this for a long time, and we have gotten better at telling stories. We have more tools than we had in the past. Our new space rivals many facilities in larger cities. People can come here and see a show that has solid acting, good production values and yet has an environment that feels like you are visiting family. The facility is very welcoming, we serve among other things tamales that people can take into the theater with them. It adds to the comfort level. We really want to challenge the idea that art is something that is out of the reach of most people. We call ourselves community theater, and some people in the arts community look down upon this, as somehow that means a diminished quality. But what we mean is that it is a community space, it is a space that is about giving access to our community. It is not easy to get on our main stage, only one or two new actors make it in those shows each year. That speaks to the quality of the actors in our shows. We do, though, offer a number of other opportunities in smaller and touring shows to help get you to the level of our main stage.

 As for our own evolution, we have really grown with our community. We have also been fortunate enough to have interacted on an international and national level with other groups; we have been exposed to models that work and models that may not work as well. This has helped a lot. We have also been exposed to the work on these levels and been able to gauge ourselves, get inspired by the others and be challenged as well. This has helped us to grow as artists, which is really important in being able to carry out your work. I get inspired from above, artists I feel are doing great work, and I also get inspired from below, people who are just starting out and growing. Bobby LeFebre and Jose Guerrero inspire me, two young spoken word artists in the company. Rudy Anaya inspires me as does Luis Valdez.  And Debra Gallegos and Yolanda Ortega ( two veteranas from our company) caused me to rewrite their characters based on the great elements they brought to the parts. 

MR:  How many plays have you written or co-written?  Where can our audience find these plays to read them? Anyone more special than the others?

Daniel Valdez
TG:  I have probably written around 20-25, I have tried to count them a number of times but I always end up getting distracted and don’t finish. The problem is that I am in a highly productive period, a lot because of my collaboration with Daniel Valdez (composer/musician director/actor) and it seems like every conversation becomes a new play that we begin building.  Danny has pushed me to write more music as well. I always wrote songs but I never really felt I had the skills or talent to polish them. So I left them to others to do that. But I know now that if it is good Danny will use it in the play. If it isn’t, meaning if I haven’t polished it, he won’t. If he uses the music, it usually sounds very good. That is motivation. So that output has grown. I am used to walking around with characters and dialogue occupying my brain; now I have melodies, harmonies, bridges and segues that run together and sound like every song I have ever heard. It is really torturous to have that much activity going on in your brain. I have to be careful when I drive.

I have published a first Anthology, it has four plays and a short film script. One of the projects I was supposed to do when I received the United States Artist Felllowship was to publish the completed collections. But I ended up writing much since that time.  We have talked about making them available on line. But in the meantime I have a full length script due by May 1st, a four part telenovela by the end of June, and the second story in a children’s trilogy called El Espiritu Natural. The first story, El Rio: Las Lagrimas de la Llorona, we ran in February and will tour in the fall. The second story is La Tierra. Artists, like parents, love all their children equally. There is something that we find endearing in all of them. I like Ludlow: El Grito de las Minas, because I like the story and the lead character reminds me of my mother. I like When Pigs Fly and Men Have Babies because it is so obnoxious. I like El Sol Que Tu Eres because it really was a beautiful production.  And of course we are always in love with the next one. And if people have an interest I will be glad to send someone a script

MR:  I heard you speak at the recent César Chávez celebration here in Denver. You made some excellent points about what Chávez should mean to us. And I know that working with youth is one focus of the work that Su Teatro undertakes. Is Chávez someone that today's Chicano or Mexicano youth cares about, or even knows? I worry about our lost history and am curious about what you see happening today with Latino youth in terms of cultural and political history, as well as changing the future.

 TG:  I wrote Papi, Me and Cesar Chavez because I was concerned that young people knew the latest reality show stars more than they knew César. I wanted people to understand the story. Being asked to speak put me in a position to think about the values and lessons that I learned from César Chávez. For the first time in my life I placed them in categories. Sacrifice:  César taught that we should be willing to sacrifice everything to achieve our goals. It is pretty hard to hear this when you have nothing. But the idea of sacrifice forces you to think about what has value. And we learn it is not the monetary things that make or change us. Discipline:  The discipline that was necessary to resist violence. As strange as it sounds, it is much more difficult to refrain from harming someone who harmed you. We learned that discipline is the value that will make the change needed in our lives. Discipline is what makes us better artists. If it was so easy everyone would do it. Memory:  César taught us to preserve memory. History is memory preserved. Memory is what connects us to our ancestors and our descendants. That connection is what allows us to outlive our lifetimes. Teach: César taught us to teach. The moment we learn something, we are responsible to teach it. This is how we move the next generation forward. I had an actor tell me,  "I don’t want to be a mentor." My response was that perhaps this was not the place for him. Someone who can not teach is probably someone who will never know. The last is to Honor: Although I really have built my career on sarcasm, we need to always remember to honor the gifts that we have been given. Whether it is an art, a skill, or an emotion, some people have a tremendous capacity to care, to be empathetic. Some people can love deeply or are eternally hopeful. Those are gifts that we may have received genetically, but they were given to us. We also must honor the sacrifices, the lessons, the discipline, and the history that brought us to this place. In our work with young people in addition to telling them about César Chávez, we teach them that the sacrifice was for them to have opportunity, and that their payback was to take advantage of those opportunities. Telling our stories is one of the greatest ways of preserving memory. I was fortunate that my mother was such a great story teller. But now more than ever we have so many great storytellers out there. We also need to teach our children to tell their stories, because in the end their stories will connect with ours.

MR:  What does Su Teatro have planned for this year?

TG:  Actually our season is winding down, but we will finish strong and then start off with a lot of momentum. In June we will stage Cuarenta y Ocho, a fictional telling of the 48 hours between the two explosions in Boulder in 1974 that left six people dead. It begins with an explosion and ends with an explosion that we all know is coming. We will remount Enrique’s Journey, my adaptation of the Sonia Nazario Pulitzer Prize winning story of a young boy who rides the top of the trains from Honduras to the United States to reunite with his mother. We are anticipating that the show will run in Denver for three weeks and then move on to Los Angeles for another three weeks, with a possibility of continuing into Seattle and then returning through Albuquerque. We will remount The Westside Oratorio, the musical retelling of the seven generations that inhabited Denver’s Westside neighborhood, before they were forced to move in order to build the Auraria Campus. We have a great opportunity to stage Real Women Have Curves by Josefina López, and then we will finish off the season with a gift to our audiences and we will once again present Chicanos Sing the Blues. It is a season of revivals, but every one of the shows will have a very different look than previously presented.

MR:  Many writers, hundreds actually, established and upcoming, read La Bloga. Are there opportunities for writers with your company? Any advice for aspiring playwrights?

TG:   We accept submissions all the time, but frankly many are not ready for production. And we don’t always have the resources to invest in the development. We receive a lot of plays that have significantly large casts ( six to eight is a good size. ) We are interested in plays about Latinos; we often get plays by non-Latinos that are really about how non-Latinos see us. I am not big on Latino adaptations of a Shakespeare, Chekov or that sort. We have done adaptations of the Greeks which we like, going back to the root. We have done bilingual versions of Spanish and Latin American writers.  Mostly though we are a company that develops its own work, that is primarily what we do. But we are into relationships as it is through relationships that we find out if there is a fit. These interactions take time. So I would say send me a script, keep in contact, keep me up to date on your activities. Come to a show if you are in town. See what it is we do. And most of all don’t take it personally. I also would suggest that you get your script read aloud, do this before you send it in. Get some friends - they don’t have to be actors. Plays are meant to be heard (not just in your head),  it will really affect the dynamic of what you write.

Tony Garcia Brings Theater to the People

MR:  Thank you, Tony. It's been a pleasure and all of us here at La Bloga appreciate your willingness to speak to our readers. People in Denver know that a night at Su Teatro is guaranteed to be an evening well-spent. Your work is always enlightening, entertaining, and passionate. And often belly-shaking funny. I encourage anyone who has a chance to watch a Su Teatro production to seize the opportunity. You won't regret it.




Mario Acevedo said...

Great interview with a lot of perspective. Thanks.

Manuel Ramos said...

Thank you, Mario. Tony is a very interesting guy.

Unknown said...

Good questions and responses. Gracias. Tony is such an asset to Theater and the arts. Great insight to Su Teatro!