reFRAME: Watts Village Theater Company

In partnership with Arts for LAArts for LA helps communities throughout Los Angeles County advocate for greater investment in the arts.

Arts for LA presents a series of first-person explorations of projects, places, and principles that demonstrate the ways arts and culture are building the future of Los Angeles. Each installment in this series showcases ways in which arts, culture, and arts education can be employed as tools to address issues facing Angelenos in all aspects of our lives and ultimately contribute to a higher quality of life for all residents.

By Guillermo Aviles-Rodriguez, Artistic Director of the Watts Village Theater Company

Watts is a small community that sits on two square miles of land in South Los Angeles. It covers a tiny area in geographic terms, but somehow it has managed to establish a lingering legacy of being a nexus of important people, events, and ideas reshaping the way America -- and even the world -- views art, sports, and science. While many Angelenos have heard of the neighborhood's historic Watts Towers, many have never visited them. However, thousands of tourists from around the world visit this National Historic Landmark, created by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia, every year. Watts has given the world many valuable gifts throughout its history, including jazz musician Charles Mingus, Olympic track and field gold medalist Florence Griffith-Joyner, Nobel Laureate Glenn T. Seaborg, and, sixteen years ago, Watts Village Theater Company (WVTC).

Our theater was co-founded in 1996 by actor and Watts community activist Quentin Drew and actor/playwright Lynn Manning. We are the only arts organization that regularly produces live theater in Watts. It has established itself in the Los Angeles theater scene through artistic excellence and the social values of its performances. On the cutting edge of cultural depictions of race relations, socio-political tensions and historical adaptations, we conceive of ourselves as neither an "ethnic" nor a "neighborhood" company, but as a professional theater company that speaks to the greater Los Angeles and United States community through themes shaped by the Watts experience. Our theater is primarily an arts organization, although it takes pride in its history of addressing social needs within the community. In keeping with WVTC's mission to produce work that speaks to the experience of all the Watts community, past and present, our artistic team sought to solve the problem of low audience attendance.

We reflected on this troubling trend and realized it was a problem for many theaters our size. When we set out to do something about it, we found four main factors that kept audiences away: quality, price, geography, and habit. People who attend theatrical performances are sometimes disappointed with the quality of what they see. Perhaps this is why when other opportunities to see live theater arises, so many people opt out. Alternatively, when there is an interesting production, people check on the ticket price and realize they cannot afford the art. Then we have the reality that Los Angeles is not an easy city to travel in, so people stay home rather than driving three hours roundtrip to see a two-hour show. Lastly, if one did not go to the theater as a young person, it is difficult or unlikely one will make theater a priority later in life. All of these factors compelled us to conceive a type of theater that would help overcome these obstacles as well provide a new way to deliver that theater to an audience. If people were not coming to the theater, then theater would come to the people.

Photo: Courtesy Watts Village Theater Company.

WVTC believes when the theater that exists around us starts to lose its relevance for a vast majority of people, it becomes a duty to search for ways to make theater more relevant again. We set out to construct a theater that could only exist if people actively engaged and participated in it, a theater that strives to make a partner of all who witness it, a theater we hand crafted for people whose participation is limited because of geography, habit, or economics. It is a theater not belonging, limited, or pertaining to an inner or select circle. You will find no disciples or intimates in our work, only an open creation suitable for and communicated to the masses. We call it Exoteric Theater. Meet Me @Metro (MM@M) is the project that best illustrates what Exoteric Theater looks, moves, and acts like.

MM@M is WVTC's two-pronged attempt to explore the theme of isolationism in Los Angeles, an effort to break down walls of isolation in multiple ways--geographic, economic, demographic, and cultural--thereby deepening connections between many different entities and disciplines. It brings powerful stories to people in an innovative and iconoclastic way, people who would otherwise not be able to see theater and to inveigle traditional theatergoers out of the theater to places they may not go otherwise. The site-specific nature of this project provides the added benefit of reaching incidental audience members who will stumble upon the performances during their commute. Motivated by several interactions with many Watts youth who, despite being in their late teens, had never traveled outside a ten-mile radius of their community, the idea for MM@M became a further exploration of this phenomenon. Our work revealed that just as youth seldom ventured outside of Watts, many Los Angeles residents never travel to Watts.

The first year of Meet Me @Metro, we were able to provide the production free of charge. It attracted an audience of over 5,000; the vast majority of that audience was non-ticketed. MM@M also commissioned Obie Award winner Rick Burkhardt, five Los Angeles based theater companies, and employed over 100 local artists and staff. The theatrical journey for MM@M began at the historic Union Station, headed south along the Red and Blue Line, and ended at the 103rd Station. With colorful and inspiring performances happening all along the way, audiences were immersed in theater, dance, puppetry, music and spectacle--all highlighting the historical, cultural and artistic significance of Downtown and South Los Angeles. Each theater company performed a five to ten minute piece to engage the community. Many companies used theater, dance, puppetry, music, spectacle, and comedy to do it. Perhaps the most memorable moment of our first year was having members of the St. John's United Methodist Church Choir come out and serenade our audience with spiritual hymns.

For Meet Me @Metro II, we expanded the show route from four performance locations to six and from five theater companies to eight cutting-edge professional Long Beach and Los Angeles-based theater companies as well as a dazzling array of solo performers. Rick Burkhardt returned to lead his eclectic Meet Me @Metro Band this time augmented by Killsonic (a Los Angeles 24-plus member band at the time). The audience for MM@M II traveled inside a circus style journey complete with festive balloons, puppets, dance, clowning, and music. They went from the Watts Towers to Long Beach and back. The audiences experienced colorful and inspiring performances at or near stations along the way as they became part of a sideshow caravan. The second year's highlight were the "Real Ridaz," a community low-rider bike club who came out to form an honor guard for the audience as they completed their journey from the 103rd Street station to the Watts Towers.

Through the support of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas' Office, and the Los Angeles County's Metropolitan Transportation Authority as well as many more endorsements from public officials, Meet Me @Metro is fast becoming an LA institution achieving the important task of highlighting the most talented and innovative performance groups in Los Angeles along with the most secreted communities. Even more important than this task is the shift in audience demographics we have achieved over the last three years of MM@M productions. On average audiences have included over 50% ethnic minorities with over 70% female and over 50% from underserved communities throughout the Greater Los Angeles area. Audience ages ranged from under 5 to over 65! This year's performances Meet Me @Metro III: Uncovering LA's Hidden Treasures saw the artistic vision expand to include visual art (through the work of artist Ramiro Gomez Jr.) that helps to spotlight the seemingly invisible mass who work as gardeners, nannies, and street vendors in Los Angeles. MM@M III was performed over two weekends and featured concurrent performances that traveled from Union Station on the southeast Gold Line to the East Los Angeles Civic Center and back again. As it has from the beginning, WVTC was able to secure the best and brightest artists who live and work in the community that MM@M highlights. East Los Angeles based Ollin Band brought their music and energy to the audience all along the route along with composer Rick Burkhardt, who has been a part of MM@M since its inception, again scored an original score for the project. Thu Tran from the music duo Ampersand and Rhythm Child who both engaged artists on the ride by teaching a drumming class during the route entertained the second wave of audience members.

Photo: Courtesy Watts Village Theater Company.
Photo: Courtesy Watts Village Theater Company.

Last year the James Irvine Foundation published a study titled Getting in on the Act: How Arts Groups are Creating Opportunities for Active Participation, featuring research findings on how arts groups are creating opportunities for active participation. One of the things that struck me about this study was the implication that the audience of tomorrow not only wants, but also needs to be a part of the creation of work. This study validates the approach that WVTC has taken and it is our hope that more arts organizations will search for creative ways to bring art to the people who need it most. In surveys we conducted after the productions of MM@M, over 90% of audience members stated they would recommend the show to a friend and over 96% stated they would see the show again the next year. With this data behind us, Meet Me @Metro IV promises to be even better than the last and it will give Los Angeles an even deeper appreciation for theater and our growing transportation system. Ultimately, Meet Me @Metro will reinforce the message that art lives everywhere and within us all and that the people who witness art forming are as much a part of the process as the ones who craft it.

Photo: Courtesy Watts Village Theater Company.
Photo: Courtesy Watts Village Theater Company.
Photo: Courtesy Watts Village Theater Company.

Guillermo Aviles-Rodriguez.
Guillermo Avilés-Rodríguez is an Assistant Professor of Theater and Cinema at Los Angeles Mission College and the Artistic Director of the Watts Village Theater Company. He holds a Bachelors of Fine Arts from the University of Utah and a Masters of Fine Arts from UC San Diego. Guillermo grew up in Watts and holds the distinction of being the first Chicana/o ever to star in a main-stage production at the University of Utah. Some of Guillermo's directorial and literary highlights include two commissions from Center Theatre Group to write Student Discovery Guides for En Un Sol Amarillo and Culture Clash's Palestine, New Mexico.

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Top image: Courtesy Watts Village Theater Company.

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