When an on-reservation protest pits Northeast Indians against the U.S. government, a young Native National Guardsman, fresh off the Rez, must choose between his people, and his sworn military duty, a duty he believes in. What does he decide?
This dilemma, as well as others, speak to the cultural clashes addressed in "Stand-Off at Highway 37," a play in development recently showcased in Native Voices at the Autry's Festival of New Plays.
On this night, 45-year-old Vickie Ramirez (Tuscarora), a former actor turned playwright, sat in the audience of about 40 at University of California, San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse as seven actors performed a reading of her full-length play. Ramirez watched behind big-rimmed glasses, doing her best to present a calm front, as actors animated the words she had labored over. The actors, reading from scripts propped on music stands, performed the lines, inflecting characters' emotions: sorrow, vehemence, jaw-dropping disbelief at a character's dumb move. As the play unfolded, momentum built. And even though the actors remained in place, the audience got pulled into the conflict: the Indians' desire to stop a proposed road which would dissect the reservation and steal land by way of easements.
As the reading ended, Randy Reinholz, the director, asked Ramirez to sit with him in front of the audience. He invited comments and questions, so it turned into a workshop for the playwright, people evaluating her work. One audience member thought the arrival of more protesters needed buildup. Another thought the young activist character could use more "fleshing out."
"It's very awkward. It feels like people are going through your underwear drawer," Ramirez said. "It's very emotional, but it's part of the process. And as the audience shared ideas, sometimes problems in the script opened up to me, things I didn't see before."
But Ramirez must discern between comments that helped and those that muddied her intent. "If you feel you're right, you've got stand firm and stick to your guns," she said.
Ramirez works in New York's hotel industry, but she dreams of a full-time theater career. A couple of years ago, she heard New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg make a crack about enforcing cigarette tax laws by donning a cowboy hat and wielding a shotgun to uphold the law of the land. It was supposed to be Old-West funny, but Ramirez found it off-putting. That remark planted the seed for "Stand-Off at Highway 37."
Standoff started as a one-act play written for Ohio Northern University. Students there performed the play, and it went well, so she submitted it to Native Voices for Festival of New Plays consideration. Everyone in Indian Country who writes plays knows about Native Voices, she said. It's a unique opportunity to get a play in shape for full stage production. She sent the play to Randy Reinholz and Jean Bruce Scott, the married couple who co-founded Native Voices more than 20 years ago.
Reinholz said they get about 40 scripts a year from Indian writers. The scripts are about Natives, written by Natives. That's the major criterion. The intent of Native Voices is to give Indians a leg up in the theater arts, where they are often overlooked. Native Voices narrows the field to a short list of about 10 for inclusion in the First Look Series, a script development process where writers get to work with directors, dramaturgs (script editors) and actors. The next step is the Playwrights Retreat and Festival of New Plays. This is an intensive 8 to 10-day retreat to further work on the plays, smoothing out rough spots, then offering run-through readings in Los Angeles and San Diego. Many plays go from Festival of New Plays to full-scale production on the Autry's main stage and elsewhere.
It's not been an easy road. The Native oral tradition has had storytelling at its heart, but for too long, too many Indian people have stayed in the back of the room unwilling to talk. Native Voices at the Autry, a Native American theater company, seeks to remedy that, not only providing opportunity, but encouraging Indian stories to be told up front on a stage.
"We see mask-makers, basket-makers, singers, dancers, poets, and all the rest, as storytellers," said Jean Bruce Scott, Native Voices co-founder and producing executive director. "It's the work of Native Voices to develop those stories
and ready them for the stage."
Since inception in 1993, Native Voices has gone from a small, word-of-mouth effort to a nationwide campaign that includes Alaska, getting the word out via the "Moccasin Telegraph" to prospective writers, reading their scripts, bringing them in for workshops, taking plays step by step from early concept to full-scale, Equity (Actors Equity
Association, the union for actors and stage management) production on a stage. On the strength of her one-act play, Ramirez was invited to Los Angeles for a 10-day workshop to revise and expand her play, and intensively work on dramatic techniques hopefully to get it strong enough for an Equity production.
Native Voices relies on funding from a variety of private and public sources, including the National Endowment for the Arts. Its most significant support comes from the Autry National Center which has been its artistic home since 1999.
With a tight budget, Native Voices put Ramirez and two other playwrights up at a nearby hotel and set up workshops with dramaturgs that worked individually with each playwright to fine-tune their plays. They lined up actors and staged readings so playwrights could hear what their words sounded like when spoken. "Los Angeles is rich with talent and we have a pool of about 150 actors we can call on at a moment's notice when we are ready for readings," Reinholz said.
Native Voices has emerged as a go-to hub for Native American theater. "This represents 20 years of my life's work, and I'm still very excited about it," Jean Bruce Scott said. "We try to get the word out to Indian people. We say, 'If this is something you're interested in, we want to help you figure it out.'"
Scott knows a good story when she hears it. She's spent much of her life on stage or in front of cameras. A partial list of her TV credits include: "Days of our Lives," "Magnum P.I.," "Port Charles," "Newhart," "Matlock," "Airwolf," and "St. Elsewhere." Along with her acting, she's heavily involved with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists' (AFTRA) Los Angeles board of directors and Screen Actors Guild's (SAG) Local Hollywood American Indian Committee, and a long list of others.
When Scott and Reinholz launched Native Voices, things had quieted down since the swirl of Native plays in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those were rebellious years that fomented interest in Native plays, here and in Canada. But times changed, and opportunities for Natives in the theater dried up. Since the 1990s, Scott and Reinholz have logged countless hours trying to turn that trend around, working to get Native voices heard.
Native Voices has produced 22 new plays, including 15 world premieres. They've hosted 10 Playwright retreats, 20 New Play Festivals, two Short Play Festivals and more than 150 workshops and public staged readings of new plays. Though the reach of Native Voices grows, Scott says the emphasis remains on creating a feeling of family. "We're an extended family of theater rats that works long and hard through the nights."
Reinholz, a Choctaw, teaches at San Diego State University, where he is also Director of Community Engagement and Innovative Programs at the College of Professional Studies & Fine Arts. Yes, academia lurks in background, but he tries to keep Native Voices grassroots, a place where Natives can meet other Natives, a place where Natives can feel like they belong. "I seek to develop and produce new artists, championing broader attention for them because they deserve broader attention," he said. Toward that end, Native Voices does behind-the-scenes work trying to get Native plays turned into films,
lobbying for more Indian parts in movies, so Indian actors and stage hands can get work.
Reinholz sits in the catbird seat as stories come to him, hundreds of Indian stories from all over the country and Canada flowing into the Native Voices inbox. Part of his role is keeping tabs on the evolution of Indian stories, and Scott, by her project-oriented nature, has come up with a system to archive the material.
Of primary concern is keeping the feeling of authenticity in a story. "We are looking for raw ideas written with passion," Reinholz said. With more than 500 nations in Indian Country, the geography and the cultures are very broad. But certain themes continue to emerge in Indian stories: violence, domestic and substance abuse, "Who's really native?", "What are we doing as Native people, and who is doing the heavy lifting?", "How can Native and non-Native culture coexist?"
Nothing, however, lasts forever. Reinholz and Scott have been doing this for more than 20 years. Now they are looking for a protege, someone with the commitment to carry on when they step down. It's not easy, but they know that someday, a day not too far off, they'll be handing over the Native Voices reins to new blood.