The following remarks are selected and edited from a transcript of a panel discussion, titled "Difference and Light: Latina/o Theatre Now," hosted by INTAR and New Dramatists this past October in New York City. The conversation centered on several playwrights' responses to the recent disbanding of the Hispanic Playwrights Project at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., after 19 years of existence, with HPP's former artistic director, Juliette Carrillo, Migdalia Cruz, Anne Garcia-Romero and Edwin Sanchez contributing their responses via e-mail. The questions and concerns which were raised by the participants, however, go beyond the singular issue of the loss of a developmental program and have national implications.
For the past 19 years, SCR was one of less than a handful of major U.S. theatres that operated a program exclusively devoted to incubating new works for emerging Latino and Latina playwrights. During the 1970s, at the invitation of Max Ferra, INTAR's former artistic director, Maria Irene Fornes began her search for a "Hispanic sensibility" and taught many aspiring writers in the highly influential, now-defunct INTAR Hispanic Playwrights in Residence Laboratory in New York City. Working from this early understanding of the importance of widening access for Latino theatre in the U.S, the Public Theater, during the early '90s, hosted a Latino Playwrights Reading Workshops, co-founded by the late Raul Julia, but that New York City-based program was disbanded for budgetary reasons in the mid-1990s. Today the only comparable program still operating is the Latino Theatre Initiative at the Mark Taper Forum, headed by Diane Rodriguez. Some playwrights argue that LTI's presence is insufficiently visible unless a Latino play transfers to the main stage, second stage or the new-works festival.
Founded in 1985 by Jose Cruz Gonzalez, HPP was the longest-running and the most visible showcase for Latino/a writers. But with Nilo Cruz becoming the first Hispanic playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and the Latino/a voices of Luis Alfaro, Lisa Loomer, Eduardo Machado, Jose Rivera and Octavio Solis now being given mainstream entree, has the model of a developmental laboratory exclusively devoted to Latino/a writers run its natural course?
David Emmes, SCR's producing artistic director, thinks it has. "How would you know when a project was completely successful? The answer was when it was no longer needed," Emmes says. "One could argue, of course, that there are many needs that deserve to be addressed. But, for us, a great deal of what we had wanted to accomplish with HPP was, in fact, accomplished. Rather we should continue to support emerging artists of whatever background, and certainly Latino."
SCR's commitment to Latino/a writers, Emmes says, "has not changed one bit," although its broader-based emerging artists initiative, funded in part by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has the aim of nurturing writers of all backgrounds. "This is not an exclusion or abandonment in any way," Emmes adds. "We have chosen a way of putting everything under one large umbrella. The need for a specific leg up for Hispanic writers has diminished considerably. Things have changed greatly in the past 20 years in the whole American theatre understanding that its strength is in its diversity."
After 12 years of existence, the Taper's Latino Theatre Initiative has, of late, been re-evaluating its own mission and purpose. "What's next after the lab idea?" asks Diane Rodriguez. "Whatever the next phase is, these programs can't be ghettos. They need to be integral and meaningful. The notion of a lab is an old 1970s model. …