Inaugural 'Encuentro 2014' Theatre Festival the Largest of Its Kind

Chris Bartelski

19 theatre companies converging all at once

Three years ago, a group of eight Latino theatre artists, led by Karen Zacaria and including UCLA professor and veteran director Jose Luis Valenzuela, gathered in Boston to take the pulse of Latin-American theatre and found a steady beat in a balkanized body. Out of that group came Latina/o Theatre Commons (LTC), dedicated to reaching out to theatre groups and forming a steering committee of over 30 practitioners, which a year later grew to 50, working on initiatives all over the country. This weekend, the LTC turns talk into action presenting Encuentro 2014, the largest Latino theatre festival ever, at downtown’s L.A. Theatre Center October 12 through November 10.

“We put a call out there and said we’re going to have a festival and you can apply,” Valenzuela tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We got 75 applicants, which is amazing.” 19 theatre companies from around the country, including 150 performers, will be converging to present a wide range of works mostly in English or Spanish with subtitles. Among them is Enrique’s Journey, based on Sonia Nazarlo’s Pulitzer Prize-winner about a boy’s trip from Honduras to the United States. Mariela in the Desert is about an artist and his model while Juarez, a Documentary Mythology is an avant-garde multimedia mash-up by New York’s Theater Mitu. Another Pulitzer Prize-winner, Agua a Cucharadas focuses on drug addiction and chat rooms, and L.A’s own Casa 0101 will present Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. “Very little about identity,” notes Valenzuela. “Individual voices about concerns and about the form and about issues of immigration, social issues, but not anymore about identity,” which he says indicates Latino theatre is coming into its own.

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A veteran of theatre conferences, Valenzuela grew tired of all the talk and insisted Encuentro 2014 not be a place where practitioners gather, drink and blab, but commune through workshops. 10 new plays will be created over the course of the month and presented over the festival’s final weekend.

“We’re trying to see the breadth that is out there and say okay, this is where we are,” Valenzuela says. “What we need to see is how can we move it forward. What are the missing links if there are any?”

The good news is there are enough Latino theatregoers in places like Denver and Atlanta to support a company. The bad news LTC has no real gauge on the level of interest beyond that. While ticket buyers on Broadway are overwhelmingly white (78 percent), and average $187 thousand per year in income (not really the kind of audience LTC expects to attract), the real competition is the Cineplex where Latinos make up make up 25 percent of the audience despite comprising only 17 percent of the general population.

“Going to the movies is a cultural event for many. Americans in general don’t think that going to the theater is a cultural event. It’s part of the entertainment industry,” notes Valenzuela. “Most countries have a Minister of Culture. The closest we have to a Minister of Culture is the NEA, and they want to do away with that. Quite a few people don’t go to the theatre because they’ve never gone to the theatre. Hopefully that will change. The face of America is changing so much. I’m talking the Asian community, African-American community, Latino community; this is the city of L.A. This is the future.”