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Teatro Luna Manifesto: Ensemble Collective Work and Our Place in 21st Century Latin@ Theater.

Teatro Luna was founded in 2000 as a response to the lack of multiplicity and range of representation of the Latina in the arts and media. It was founded as a political act--without entirely knowing it at the time. Fifteen years later in our story--four ensembles later--and tremendous growth, struggle, and love, we think we are better equipped to know that every choice we make, no matter its magnitude, is political. Expanding our definition from Pan-Latina to Pan-Latina/All-Women of Color ensemble provoked racially charged questions and expressions of a sense of loss. Yet, our move recognized the quickly shifting demographics in the United States. To not expand our circle, our safe space, would not only exclude important voices in our story, but would perpetuate the denial about who and what it is to be Latina today--anthropologically and politically speaking. As we enter this quinceanera year we have a much better idea of where we need to strategically carve out our own space within the ecology of The American Theatre in the USA. Most importantly, we have developed through trial and error, through risk-taking, and through sheer rebellion an organization that is fluid by nature and structurally ever-responsive in its shifts to the mainstream.

Who we are now, today, at 15 does not deny the heritage of the movement/s that have come before us--although lately we have been getting questioned more and more about this as we expand the style of work we do. It is oddly comical to us that we are criticized precisely for our resistance to limitations and the kind of art and experimentation in which we engage. What sets us free is sometimes seen by others as the gate we cannot cross. We acknowledge our indebtedness to the Teatro movement and are most dedicated to our continued work inside of and for la causa, but we also and with the same weight have to honor the reality that a good portion of the Lunas past and present are seemingly assimilated, most definitely bilingual, upwardly mobile, college educated, Latina millennial teatreras. Also true is that many (definitely not all!) of these women, when first beginning to work with us might never have heard of the Latino Theatre Movement of the 60's, Luis Valdez and Teatro Campesino, and are probably not familiar with the implications of what being Chicano means. Without this knowledge they are still being called forth from somewhere inside to make change through their art. They are called to share their gifts with a larger whole, and Teatro Luna is that playground.

None of that makes us any less rooted in the US Latino Theater tradition and movement. In fact, we think it's the diversity of our nationalities and our experiences that makes us quintessentially Pan-Latina. The fact that we are an entry point for many young women who are just starting to learn about intersectionality, about identity politics, about feminism, about Latina/o history, grounds us as the place where women (who did and didn't have access to that history) can both learn it and choose to embrace their latinidad; we are the place where they are finally able to see themselves on stage and in American history. Most importantly, we must plainly state that we are the result of the work of those who came before. We were born into a certain level of freedom and with a certain access because our historic teatros had figured out how to dip their toe into the institutional mechanisms of funding and grants and touring. We were born with the freedom of doing culturally specific work inside the systems of the regional theatre (and all the complications therein).

Our most crucial relationship to the teatros of the past, besides a dedication to work that is political, is that structurally we are steadfastly and unequivocally a collective of artists, an ensemble of fierce women with varied strengths and talents in an even wider pool of artistic genres. Collective and ensemble work is challenging and intensely personal. It is a practice that requires a group mindset that challenges us to our very core: putting the interest of the other before our own in order to bring to life art that matters to our marginalized communities. It requires self-awareness and a commitment to keep our eyes always open to what we seek to represent. It is, therefore, a significant and radical political practice.

Because of this commitment, we find ourselves many times struggling with the tensions that intimate group work of this nature can ignite. Unlike the images of the "sleepover" and the "catfight" that get referenced so often, when there is tension or disagreement in an all-women's group, it happens over ideology and methodology more so than lipstick choice. In 2010, Teatro Luna faced a moment of ultimate change. Our co-founders had reached the place of no return, having wildly different perspectives on the future of the organization, on ethics, and the meaning of feminist work. With strikingly varied definitions of theatre and performance and what a dedication to social justice work meant, the house of Teatro Luna was almost brought down for good. But the blame cannot fully lie with the individuals who held this tension: the field's inability to fully place collective creation inside the larger narrative of the American Theatre, its inability to recognize a body of people as creators, and its need to single out the "genius behind" and the "single visionary force" not only consistently disenfranchised the women that made up Teatro Luna through its varied generations of ensembles, but fundamentally placed the co-founders and co-artistic directors at odds. Complicate those external forces with one's life-time dedication to social justice as a mission and the other's devotion to always being at the center and a penchant for divide and conquer tactics and you have a lethal combination that was eventually going to burst and erode the very premise of our founding: sisterhood.

But who has time for bitterness in the non-profit theatre? We barely have time to learn our lessons. And so, we try to live in love (however hard that sometimes is). Eventually, we came to recognize that the years that led up to our co-founders departure, which lead to the almost total dissolution of the organization, were also what brought in a new era and a rededication to the original founding principles. In this case, crazy and chaos begot a desire for clarity and transparency. Women have been and continue to be central to the nurture, creation, development and relevance of collaborative theatrical practices so we see ourselves as an integral part of this larger history of collective work. Regrettably, we have been apologizing for our experimentation with theatrical forms, trying to balance multiple conversations on gendered and racialized identities from within and from without. We have been apologizing for way too much: for our approach to our work, for experimentation, for our modes and techniques, for our revolving door of women who always leave with more than what they came with, even for our development and growth as we struggle to redefine our place in the theater community. Entonces, ya no mas.

We embrace the fact that we are a bridge between audiences and teatristas of many traditions, from resistance to mainstream. We have come to a time in our history when we don't shy away from naming our place in the larger context of US Latino Theater as fluid. We are unapologetically community based, community centric. We are also professional. We are American and we are Latino. We blend community and professional artists in everything we do. We blend serious and hilarious too. We are experimental. We develop new single author work and we devise original performances through collective creation. We don't operate with traditional hierarchies. We exist in more than one city at the same time. We are always attempting to expand current business models of theatre so that artists have a shot at financial security one day. We view technology as a tool that is inseparable from how we make theatre, and it has expanded for us the definitions of what is performance, who is the audience. As we look to our future we want to deepen our relationship to creating and presenting work with new media. We embrace technology as the best vehicle to continue dialogue and build relationships with fans, artists and audiences we meet on tour. We have worked entirely remotely with sound designers and even choreographers. We play fast and loose with rules and regulations and filings and structures out of a sometimes lack of capacity. No somos de aqui, ni de alla, and instead of feeling loss over not entirely belonging, we embrace those multiplicities.

We belong to a theatrical movement that is not only US American (americano estadounidense) but a Latin American one as well. Even as we place ourselves firmly in a tradition of Teatro and, as we review our body of work for the last fifteen years, we see the Principles of the "Actos" strongly present and active in all of our work. In his Early Works: Actos, Bernabe and Pensamiento Serpentino, published by Arte Publico Press in 1971, Luis Valdez defines the Actos concisely as theatrical acts that: "Inspire the audience to social action. Illuminate specific points about social problems. Satirize the opposition. Show or hint at a solution. Express what people are feeling." We also see our work as deeply personal and political. Our work honors the feminine and seeks to create a positive attitude towards the privileging of the domestic, private and intimate spaces of our shows and performances in ways that most mainstream US American theater has preferred not to produce.

We do not wish, as a Pan-Latina theatre company, to limit the scope of our inquiry to the prescriptive or expected by a class of critics that for the most part has very little knowledge of the trajectory of our art and a narrow view of our history in this country. We have seen the limitations of focusing on border politics poised for the consumption of a dominant audience. Remaining true to a theatre of resistance, our aim is to resist the commodification of our culture, our bodies, and our issues and transform feelings into actions into solutions.

As we enter our 15th season we decided we should articulate and share some of our core beliefs, our "golden (or hot pink if you will) rules," on how to live an ensemble practice, our prescriptive notions on best practices for how to make change in collaborative or co-creative all-female setting.

1. Radical Collaboration Creates Better Work, No Matter What

Equality in an ensemble cannot exist if we privilege one singular "genius" or one singular point of view. We acknowledge there are truly visionary artists at various points of development in their work that perhaps thrive in solitary creation. But at our company, the vision is plural and we thrive in plurality. We are committed to creating and perpetuating: a safe space to fail. Not every single movement, scene, design element, joke, or even entire production or program is going to work. To arrive at excellence, we have to try and keep trying. We also can't escape that failure by just cutting the cord when we think it's not working. We actually have to live through the failure.

* A space to grow: We believe that every show, every season, every experience changes the artist, changes the company. We believe that any past experience with an artist is unique to that moment, that show, that time. As colleagues, we must allow each other space and a belief that you never "know" an artist's limits or full potential.

* Mutual mentorship: We are a multi-generational company with different experiences in diverse areas. We all need the support and guidance that another can provide. The oldest is not always the wisest and the youngest not always the most green. Respect must always be what we move with.

2. Relationships over Opportunities

We cultivate the notion of sisterhood. One of the greatest challenges we have encountered is our own struggle with the power dynamics between women (and our culture's obsession with constantly stuffing images of women pitted against each other down our throats). Even if we tend to profess community over individualism, we still have to grapple with the reality that our theatrical community is no different from the Westernized capitalist individualistic system that dominates us. In order to get ahead, or to succeed, we may replicate those practices. We strive to focus on relationships instead. Privileging sisterhood is a decolonizing belief in action. This principle is one of the hardest to live in, and it is also the one that hurts the most when we aren't able to accomplish it collectively. We cannot be deterred every time an individual leverages our organizational relationships for self-interest (fake a dedication to the movement in order to fast-track a career in the theatre). The culmination of these moments cannot be used as evidence that the grand experiment of ensemble is impossible. Instead, we must interpret them as a reflection of the strength of our history and legacy, as part of our belief in service to women of color at all costs. It is evidence we have built our own table and have shared an open invitation to all artists to join us and feast. We cannot let these hiccups scare us into not trusting and asking others to join our tribe.

3. Story and Authentic Storytelling

We privilege storytelling in ways not limited to the word. Teatro Luna started with the written word, and we will always launch projects with written story as a touchstone. However, we include the expression of story in the body, movement, gesture, image and sound as part of our aesthetic. We find it important to create access to art-making and to challenge the notion that high aesthetics equals white aesthetics.

* The play is never finished: Fluidity in text and pop culture updates--our modern existence and technological experience demand that we move fluidly and quickly. Our storytelling incorporates these demands and reality. The world is constantly moving and changing, our plays must do the same.

* Audience interaction: Every performance is special. As we tell our stories, our audience in some way is also telling theirs. We now build our shows looking for new spaces to allow for this evolving exchange. Technology helps, but sometimes, it can be as simple as just breaking the fourth wall.

* There is no such thing as a professional story: There is an oft-promoted myth of "community" vs "professional rigor" and the divide between these two is artificial. Professional rigor and community are not mutually exclusive. RESIST! It is not just the dominant culture that places that falsehood on us. Our own brothers and sisters on the culturally specific side of things have internalized this oppression quite deeply.

4. Honoring our roots while fearlessly engaging with the present and designing our future

Yes, we will talk about our abuelitas and rant about our mothers, honoring their sacrifice so that we could have the opportunities and access to resources that they never had. It is our duty, then, to engage fully with the present we have today, as ugly and precious as it may be, and take the risks necessary to design a future for ourselves and the generations that may come after us. Community is our standard and social justice is our goal. All traditions remain vital when these are allowed to transform with the people it serves. Therefore, to honor our past does not make us stagnant; honoring our past strengthens our present and allows us to design a future that will continue to serve future generations.

We refuse to tell only the stories that depict women solely as super mom, super activist, super wife, super mujer, siempre. We are bruised and can bruise each other. Not all of us are nurturing future madres or esposas and that is ok. To deny the "less appealing" parts of womanhood, to whitewash it, to sanitize it, is our biggest threat. We also owe it to ourselves, our relatives, our partners to show our ugly crying, uncertain of what to do next. All Latinas are not the same, and Latinidad is beyond tight definition. Our work is an act of resistance to any attempt to limit the fullness of our spectrum.

As a self-proclaimed activist body, sometimes we are pigeonholed when some of our performances don't always tell the hard sad stories that place us firmly in the role of victim. When our work doesn't feel overly politicized, or when we privilege alternative approaches to what many are comfortable labeling as "performance activism," we just have to keep reminding ourselves that sometimes the creation of beauty and its promotion into the mainstream is the most radical form of activism we can engage in.

We remain vital when we are open to and see:

* risk taking

* smash-up of forms and ideas, genres and periods, and

* social justice in art, and art and beauty as activism as the avenues to a better world and society.

5. Allow for an Ever-Expanding Definition of Identity

Intersectionality is key. Five years ago we would have never entertained the notion of being an all women of color company. Still today we get questions such as "doesn't that water down the mission to be so expansive?," "Don't you lose the specificity?" Or our favorite: "you can't be everything to everyone." We challenge the various "isms" that tear us apart. By challenging prejudices (ageism, racism, sexism, ableism) and other patriarchal binary systems, we intend to help put the pieces of ourselves back together to make us whole.

We acknowledge the categories people place on themselves. Not born a biological female, but identify as one, come join us. Don't speak Spanish but grew up being reminded you aren't white on the daily? Andale pues, get on our stage. Struggle with "passing" and so people are always telling you you can't possible understand the "real" struggle "real" Latinos endure? Girl, you better share your story in our show.

6. Extending Grace as Everyday Ritual

This is by far the most altruistic guidepost. But in a place where there are few boundaries regarding personal and professional life, where funerals, weddings, births of children, and of course, perceived betrayals are shared to varying degrees--it can be difficult to always extend grace to each other. For those of us that still tour rasquachi style (two, or sometimes four people to a single hotel room, long flights and car rides all week, almost no privacy) it can be a challenge to not fulfill fantasies of murder.

The trying moments remind us to come from grace and love. It is in the moments a sister gets up and leaves after years of service because she realized she didn't need to be with the group to be known anymore. It is in the moments when someone feels betrayed and airs dirty laundry to the wrong person, or the press! It is in the moments where we recognize that to grow as an artist you have to take some time away from the group (mental health is a real need). It is in the moments when we are hurt or jealous or finding it impossible to listen to one more bad idea that we must come from grace. And not just for each other, but for ourselves. Because, really, who is meaner to us than us?

Grace as deep listening is a practice to aspire to. More often than not, we do not listen deeply enough: to ourselves, to compliments, to our fellow collaborators voicing what they need. It is just as important to listen to what is said as it is to listen to what is not said, what is left unspoken, what can only be communicated through the body and through vibration. To come from grace is to trust, to trust is to have faith, and in order to have faith we must be vulnerable. We must accept we are not the center of anything.

7. You Will Never Be Ready, or Prepared, or Fully Resourced. You Will Never Be Fully Right

If we waited to do shows until we had all the money secured or waited to build a strategic plan until we had the next office space, or that perfect final board of directors, we would always be waiting. And we aren't very patient ladies! When Teatro Luna was on the verge of closing we weren't ready to move forward.

Upon the departure of our co-founders, reimagining our work without the women who had led us for so long, but knowing deeply that our mission of "exploring the varied experiences and cultures of Latina/Hispana women; showcasing the creative talents of Latina, Hispana, and/or Pan-Latina artists; and providing a forum for artistic, social, political, and educational outreach into our communities" as well as "expanding the range of opportunities for Latina/Hispana artists on Chicago stages and beyond" needed to be fought for, was fraught with difficulties. It was hard, at first, to find our footing again in this new era. We wanted to expand, we wanted to collaborate. We wanted to reach out to like-minded people in the Chicago stage map because we knew that would be key to the next decade of our work. But we didn't necessarily have all the skills yet to accomplish these things without some major learning curves.

Sometimes, the experience was painful. For example, we began a collaboration with a local company that was quite different from us in membership and strategies of devising work. We do not regret the experience. On the contrary, we learned a lot about ourselves and the process of collaboration with colleagues. We quickly learned that the enterprise was perhaps going to be doomed from the beginning: group sessions dominated by one white male voice, no understanding of the intersection of race, gender, and politics (we were quite surprised to hear the ease by which race was dismissed from our conversation on the development of a play about immigration); and the outright misogyny that we were too astounded to process at the time. This experience taught us not to shy away from difficult conversations and to stand for justice.

However painful, we learned something essential: Teatro Luna had to keep going in spite of the misunderstandings, mistakes, sudden departures, and missed opportunities. We could not abandon the social good that Teatro Luna produced, produces, and will produce just because the system doesn't yet make space for what we do. We could not stop trying to move forward even if we were often (and still do exist) without many of the necessary resources to do just that. Someone once told us, and it has remained a staying mantra: "If you wait until you are ready to travel to the moon, someone else, who is probably less ready, will get there first."

In this light, we continued to dream big dreams. Believing that Teatro Luna needed to make this space for itself, we decided that we needed to see the world and have the world see us. So, before we were ready, before we had the money to do so, before we gave ourselves enough time to be too scared to leap, we travelled. We performed in over 30 cities across the USA in less than two years. Took performances to Dublin, Edinburgh, and Glasgow and almost to Turkmenistan (to which we were disinvited for sexual content!). We immersed ourselves in cutting edge international work at festivals in New York City, Santiago de Chile, and Bogota, Colombia. We took on a whole new roster of people and we offered them opportunities for development and education. But the revolving door constantly turned (sometimes the fault of leadership, sometimes a reflection of a lack of resources necessary to support mothers, sometimes to better opportunities--in which case we so support that reason--and sometimes we believed in the wrong people). Yet, we accept that this is the nature of the work that we do in the individualistic society in which we do it. But the art remains. The art is what we have. The art is our reason for being.

In our work, we are a hybrid of many forms and approaches. Latino arts have always been an amalgamation of styles and forms that ensures its survival and relevance through generations. Having been conceived out of a necessity to create a space for Latina (and now all women of color) artists to tell our story and play characters that were relevant to our everyday life instead of the stereotypes we were forced to play, we continue to be true to that tradition, evolving with and for the women we represent, and looking to a future where we are the rule, rather than the exception. Ojala.

Liza Ann Acosta and Alexandra Meda

Teatro Luna (*)

(*) Liza Ann Acosta is Teatro Luna Ensemble Member since 2010; Artistic Associate 2006-2010; Literary Director 2011; Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Division Director and Associate Dean of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at North Park University. Alexandra Meda is Teatro Luna Ensemble Member since 2012; Intern 2007, Touring Director 2008, Managing Director 2009, Executive Director 2010, Senior Creative Producer 2014, Artistic Director 2015. The remaining 2015 Teatro Luna Ensemble is composed of Maya Malan-Gonzalez, Melissa Huerta, Christina Igaraividez, Elizabeth Nungaray. Teatro Luna Resident Designers & Artistic Associates are Ysaye Alma McKeever, Mark VanHare, Yee Eun Nam. Teatro Luna & Teatro Luna West have a long list of affiliates and associates we work with on a show by show basis, with ranging levels of involvement and commitment. This body ranges year to year in size but currently lives at 12 as of August 2015. A big deep and glorious thank you for all Lunas past and present for their time, service, dedication, and generous shaping of our organization and the future of a more equitable and diverse theatrical field in the USA. Photos: Courtesy of Teatro Luna.

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Author:Acosta, Liza Ann; Meda, Alexandra
Publication:GESTOS: Revista de teoria y practica del teatro hispanicos (Spanish)
Article Type:Ensayo
Date:Nov 1, 2015
Words:4347
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