Actors are accustomed to rejection, trying out for roles they don't get. But some rejections stick in the craw of Felipe Alejandro. It's galling, the actor from East L.A. says, to hear casting directors turn away local Latinos bidding for Latino roles, simply because they're from the Southwest.
"You often hear that they went to New York to cast the Latino roles because they say that's where all the trained actors are," explains Alejandro. "I'm a classically trained actor, and hearing that kind of hurts. You have a lot of people who moved out here to look for opportunities, and the industry is going over there to look for talent. That does have a sting to it."
The problem is just another hurdle facing some Latinos in Los Angeles trying to get a foothold in Hollywood. But Alejandro is not just complaining — he's busy doing something about it.
Teamed with fellow thespian David Llauger-Meiselman, Alejandro recently launched Nosotros American Latino Theater. The upstart company has more moxie than money, but it aims to prove to Hollywood that Latino talent exists in its own backyard.
And while they're at it, the pair promises to bring new life to the recently restored but underused Ricardo MontalbĂˇn Theatre, their home base. In recent months, they have emerged as new leaders in the effort to realize the goals of the classic old theater named for one of Hollywood's most successful Mexican actors.
Their mission mirrors MontalbĂˇn's own: to showcase Latino talent and create opportunities for actors, directors, writers, producers and technicians.
The company has already staged its first production, "Transformations," at the 1,200-seat venue on Vine Street, and it has plans for three more in 2007. If realized, this would constitute the first full season of original productions at the MontalbĂˇn.
"When any theater lies dormant, it makes you wonder: What do we need to do to get this place full?" says Alejandro. "Our goal is to build this up to where it becomes one of the premier theater houses in the city, known for producing quality Latino theater."
Their plans may be modest, but the company's scrappy, can-do attitude has started to make a difference. For the first time in a long while, there's new energy at the MontalbĂˇn Theatre and people are expressing optimism, albeit cautiously.
"They are such a breath of fresh air," said Margarita Cannon, the theater's new artistic director. "They've taken it on, getting new lights and helping me develop a season for next year. To me, this is the most exciting part of this theater: the development of new emerging voices."
A DREAM QUICKLY DIMMED
Operated by the nonprofit Ricardo MontalbĂˇn Foundation, the theater got off to a shaky start after a flashy Hollywood opening in May 2004. It was billed as a dream come true for MontalbĂˇn, a lifelong advocate for Latino talent. But his foundation had no money to produce the plays it promised, and it quickly got bogged down in fiscal mismanagement.
Last year, The Times reported that the theater had failed to file tax returns since it was founded in 1999 by MontalbĂˇn and his longtime associate Jerry Velasco. With its paperwork in disarray, the foundation was unable to pursue grants that could have helped the theater get off the ground.
Today, those troubles are a thing of the past, says Velasco, who is also president of Nosotros, the advocacy group founded 36 years ago by MontalbĂˇn as a voice for Latinos in the industry. Tax returns are up to date, and the theater has started submitting applications for 20 potential grants.
"It's been hard, very hard," Velasco says. "We want to be able to influence the future of the American theater, but we must do it professionally, and we must do it right…. Not for me, but for Ricardo. I want him to see his baby in good hands."
Though some object to Velasco's autocratic management style, his associates stop short of publicly blaming him for the theater's past problems. For years, they say, Velasco has been a one-man show as the theater's chief cheerleader, fundraiser, manager and even occasional janitor.
"For a long time, people were relying on Jerry to do everything," Alejandro says. "They were content to sit back and let him do the work, with less and less people willing to pick up the slack."
"What Jerry really needed was to clone himself," adds Cannon, "but I'm as close as he's going to get for a while."
Cannon, who has both a business degree and extensive experience as a producer and casting director for theater and television, came on board in April as the foundation's new treasurer. In that capacity, she set about updating the tax and corporate records for the past six years.
She reconciled bank accounts and made sure "every deposit matched every rental." The returns show that the foundation's finances fluctuated widely from year to year, with operating revenues ranging from $64,000 to $401,000. (Those figures don't include 2001's "Selena," a $1.5-million co-production that lost money.)
"Now, I'm like the nagging housewife," Cannon says. "If there's five cents missing, everybody hears about it."
In August, Cannon took on the added title of artistic director and managing producer, exploiting her experience in writing proposals.
"They're lucky to have somebody like me because I can wear many hats," she says. "But I have a short shelf life, so I have to focus on developing people. That's my job more than anything else. That's the only way you ensure the longevity of the organization."
LOOKING AHEAD WITH VISION
Enter Alejandro and Meiselman.
The catalysts behind NALT have a combined 40 years of theatrical experience between them. They also share a passion for the theater.
Yet on first impression, they seem like opposites. Where Alejandro is reserved, diplomatic and deliberate in his speech, his partner is imposing, impulsive and outspoken, with a ready laugh.
Meiselman, 42, was raised in Chicago in a politically active theatrical family. His Russian Jewish father is a well-known playwright; his Puerto Rican mother was an accomplished dancer. Cofounder of Boricua Films with his brother Erik, Meiselman has produced and directed numerous plays, poetry slams, television pilots, radio shows and films.
Alejandro, 35, was born in Mexicali and raised in East L.A. by blue-collar Mexican immigrants. He studied political science and theater at UC Riverside before getting his master's degree from Arizona State's professional actor training program. He has appeared on television and has branched into writing and producing.
This summer, the partners launched Nosotros American Latino Theater, working within Nosotros, where Alejandro is first vice president. Within weeks, they debuted at the MontalbĂˇn with "Transformations," two one-act comedies written by Jake Meyers, directed by Meiselman and produced by Alejandro for $26,000 — with a $741 profit.
For that show, they converted the 1,200-seat MontalbĂˇn into a 99-seat house by seating the audience on the stage and sealing off the auditorium. Ironically, that format was a throwback to when Nosotros used to operate a 99-seat theater, at Wilton and Sunset, where it regularly staged its own productions, a performance regimen forgotten in the single-minded drive to acquire the larger theater, formerly the Doolittle.
"We really want to revive what Nosotros had before in that smaller theater," said Alejandro. "It made it very easy to produce stuff there…. Let's make a step forward by reviving the tradition that it had."
Cannon says she's excited about the theater's future. "I haven't had enough time to sit down with everybody who wants to participate," she says.
First on the agenda is "El Ermitano" (The Hermit), a Christmas play by Mexican playwright and director Miguel Sabido. It opens Dec. 7, with excerpts performed during Nosotros' annual fundraiser, the Golden Eagle Awards, to be held at the theater Dec. 1.
The MontalbĂˇn is partnering with Sabido's Teatro Mexico to bring more plays from the 44-year-old Mexico City-based company to Los Angeles, Cannon said. Also in the works for next year is a proposal to stage "Zorro in Hell," the latest show from Culture Clash.
Meiselman has already penciled in the budget for next year: three plays for $200,000. He's most excited about the possibility of staging — for the full house — a piece by Piri Thomas, the Puerto Rican playwright best known for his 1967 memoir of growing up in Spanish Harlem, "Down These Mean Streets."
For Meiselman, the East Coast/West Coast divide among Latinos cuts both ways. While at Chicago's Whitney Young High School, he tried out for the role of the Puerto Rican gang leader in "West Side Story." But because of his fair skin, he got the part as leader of the rival Anglo gang.
"I wanted to play Bernardo, but I'm white, so I got Riff instead," he says, still miffed.
When he protested that he was the only Puerto Rican in the predominantly black cast, he was told: "But you don't look Puerto Rican."
Naturally, Meiselman doesn't get too upset about Jennifer Lopez, a Puerto Rican New Yorker, being cast for the lead in the film "Selena," about the Mexican American singing star from Texas. What goes around, comes around.
And he doesn't blame Hollywood alone for the problems of Latino theater, either. Latinos have held themselves back too by inner squabbles, politics and egos. Some, he says, are more worried about accolades than acting.
"Just do the work, man, forget about that other stuff," he said over lunch near his office on the Lot, the historic Warner Hollywood Studios. "Ricardo never went out to get his name on a theater. Years later, other people did it for him because of who he is and what he represents. Somewhere between him and us, the ones who are doing this now, that message got lost, with people's own personal agendas getting in the way. And that's the thing that really upsets me and makes me want to do it more now….
"I have all this time and experience and knowledge that I want to pass on. Now I have this opportunity to provide a place for other people to display their talent. That's what really fuels me. The opportunity, not just for myself, but for other people to get in there and do some really cool things."
Cover Image - Erik Llauger-Meiselman
Agustin Gurza is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times
This article was originally written for and published in the Los Angeles Times. Copyright©Los Angeles Times
©2006 Publication Scene4 Magazine