COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Bringing Latino Tradition to the Theater – An Interview with Jose Luis Valenzuela

Elaine L. Mura - LA Splash

Registered Critic, Writer

Born in the U.S. and raised in Mexico until the age of 21, Jose Luis Valenzuela got his first taste of acting in school productions in Mexico. Eventually, he returned to the U.S. to pursue a graduate program in social studies. But the acting bug bit deep, and Jose soon began his professional acting career in Chicano Theater in 1970. He moved to Los Angeles in 1984 and became a founding member of the Latino Theater Lab.

In 1984, he was invited by Los Angeles Theater Center founding members Bill Bushnell and Duane White to their new theater in the former Security Pacific National Bank building – which by then had been converted by the City into a theater space as part of a plan to revitalize downtown Los Angeles. In 1986, the company finally presented its first full production, a play about immigration called La Victima. In 1995, the Latino Theater Lab changed its name to the Latino Theater Company and has been operating as a non-profit ever since. In 1995, Jose Luis Valenzuela also became their first artistic director, a role he has had for the past 25 years. Over the years, multi-talented Jose has been an actor, director, and producer. Jose took time from his busy schedule to interview in April 2020.

Cast of “La Victima” – Photo by Jintak Han

Tell us more about the Latino Theater Company. What is your mission? How big a group are you? 

Jose Luis Valenzuela: The actual company is small. Six members are left from the original group 35 years ago. We have 11 full time people, and we hire part timers as we need them. Our mission is to bring people from different cultures together to make the world better and aid in mutual understanding. We produce the entire season. Now we have lots of departments. We have educational programs, theater productions, and a writing festival in the summer. Mostly, we produce new plays.

We have a 20-year lease with the City. It expires in 2026, and we hope to get a long extension then. We pay $1 a year, but we do all the maintenance. It costs us $350,000 just to open the doors, and that’s not counting repairs. That’s just for the basics. To some extent, we depend on ticket sales, so you can imagine how the theater shut-down in March affected us.

Cast of “Dementia” – Photo by Christopher Ash

When did you close the theater due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run?

JLV:  We shut down on March 14. We were rehearsing La Victima, a play we first did in 1986. We brought back the original version about immigration because it remains as relevant today as it did in the 1970s. We were going to tour local high schools and colleges with a free presentation. We planned to open our new season on April 16. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

Marta Carrasco in “Perra De Nadie” – Photo by David Ruano

Over the past weeks, how has COVID-19 impacted your theater?

JLV:  We had to postpone our 2020 season and cancel entirely our presentation of two companies which were going to come from Spain. Barcelona’s Marta Carrassco was supposed to present two plays in repertory (Perra de Nadie and Jo, Dona, a Lili Elbe). Kulunka Teatro was supposed to return with their Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award-winning production of Andre and Dorine.

It’s been very difficult financially. Even if our rent is low, we need to keep up the building. That’s really expensive. We’re also trying to hold on to our staff, but that’s hard to do under these circumstances. Now our hourly employees are without jobs.

“Andre & Dorine” – Photo by Gonzalo Jerez and Manuel D.

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Streaming? Having virtual meetings? Planning for your next show when you reopen? Auditioning?

JLV:  We’re having a lot of virtual staff meetings. All the full time employees are working remotely from home and still on salary. At this point, I don’t know when we will re-open; but we’re all set up to begin as soon as we can. Hopefully, that will be in the fall. We would like to open on August 29, 2020, with a play called August 29. It’s about a journalist in LA who was killed in 1970. The play marks a 50-year celebration, a City and County remembrance. We have the director and designers, and we’re supposed to be auditioning right now – but we’re not because everything is up in the air.

We want to put shows on the internet, and we’re trying to stream a play we did before – but it’s complicated because of the union. We’re putting things on our Facebook website. Beginning next week, we want to have conversations about a play; it will be streamed live and available for people from the website. Maybe we can show a little bit of a show, and people can read the script before the live stream. We plan to send emails to everyone telling them how to get into the scripts and some video scenes. We’d like to do whole shows, but we can’t afford all the costs that would entail.

Esperanza America in “The Mother of Henry” – Photo by Andrew Vasquez

What do you think will be the impact of COVID-19 on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you foresee any permanent changes?

JLV:   It’s really hard to say. Right now, most people are watching television and films and using the internet while quarantined in their homes. I wonder what will happen in this society if the shut-down lasts a long time. But I think we’ll find a way through it. There’s something about people looking at humans doing things and having intellectual conversations face-to-face. Somehow, people are attracted to being with other people. We are social beings, and theater offers dialog with each other on an intimate level. I think people will always find that important and appealing.

Sam Golzari, Esperanza America, Olivia Cristina Delgado, Ella Saldana North, Julio Macias, Kenneth Miles, and Ellington Lopez in “A Mexican Trilogy” – Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography

What do you need right now to keep going forward? What would you like from the theater public?

JLV:  The public should know that we are planning to open as soon as they tell us it’s safe. We need people to come to the theater when we have the opening.  We are going to need people to support us.

What are some of your future plans?

JLV:  When we’re allowed to reopen, we’re planning on presenting several shows. I already mentioned “August 29.” We’re also planning on Sleep with the Angels, a story about a young boy with Mexican parents who’s trying to decide his gender. Another show we want to do is The Last Angry Brown Hat. It’s about the Mexican Brown Berets in the 1970s; that’s a Mexican group a lot like the Black Panthers. We also have Ravine on our agenda. The play tells what happens when the city decides to build Dodgers Stadium and forces the Mexicans living in that area to re-locate. We’re also working on La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin, our annual Christmas play.

So you can see that we have lots of plans and want to grow and bring our message to every Angelino. In the meantime, we’ll keep planning and hoping for the end of the pandemic.

This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Elaine Mura moved to New York City as an adult, where she completed her doctorate in psychology and worked in one of New York’s many State hospitals. Subsequently, she decided to scratch a persistent itch to travel and spent ten years living and working in Denmark, Germany, Portugal, and Iran – with shorter stops in the many scenic spots in between. She aplied her skills all over the world doing research, clinical practice, and academic pursuits. Since relocating to Los Angeles, she taught students in the graduate program at Pepperdine University for many years and spent the last 20 years as a forensic psychologist with the California State prison system. But the writing bug forever lay just beneath the surface, and she is currently writing magazine articles and theater reviews while working on a play, a novel, and a book of short stories.