The La Jolla Playhouse in California has recently announced that Native Voices, a theater program that focuses on developing work by Native American, Alaska Native, and First Nations playwrights, will be the resident theater company for the Playhouse’s 2016-17 season.
Beginning their work in 1993 at Illinois State University, co-founders of Native Voices at the Autry Jean Bruce Scott, (Executive Director/Producer) and Randy Reinholz (Choctaw, Artistic Director) realized there weren't many Native published plays from which to choose.
Randy Reinholz Choctaw, Artistic Director) and Jean Bruce Scott, Executive Director/Producer) are the co-founders of Native Voices
After putting out a national call for scripts, they received about 30 submissions and selected five playwrights that first year. One of the plays was written by a Native playwright, which kicked off the idea for “Native Voices.”
“We did a big reading festival on campus,” Scott told ICTMN. “It was very successful and the selection committee chose one of those plays for production the next year. That play, Now Look What You Made Me Do, was written by Marie Clements (First Nations/Métis).
"I guess that was a good metaphor for us at Native Voices. Once they let us get our foot in the door, oh boy, now look what you made us do. We've been working with, and for, Native theater artists and Native playwrights ever since. We did it in Illinois for a few years. We did a festival in New York City.
The theater company has been primarily doing plays in L.A. since 1999, but they were recently invited to also be the resident theater company at the La Jolla Playhouse (LPJ) in 2016-17.
“We came to the Autry in 1999, the resident theater company here. We've workshopped and developed over 200 scripts. We've produced thirty features in Hollywood. We've toured plays across the United States. We've gone to Canada and Mexico and we took productions to London and Australia."
"From 2008 until now, we've talked about various ways we could do more at La Jolla Playhouse and we've developed a three-year Native Theater initiative,” says Scott, who adds that the initiative will include outreach to local Tribal communities, storytelling and theater acting workshops in an effort “to make sure that we bring the local community to the La Jolla Playhouse campus to see the plays and support the plays, and move Native theater forward.
“The La Jolla Playhouse has made a pretty big commitment to strengthen their community connections. They established a leadership council to discuss how the community can be involved in what's happening at the Playhouse and identify barriers for why the community would not be coming to the Playhouse. Is it ticket prices? Is it the kinds of food available? Do they feel welcome? Should we create social events connected to the plays? I think their idea is how to make the theater, and all the arts institutions in San Diego, a place where all people are welcomed."
There are still significant barriers to getting Native works in front of the masses. One of the biggest, and longest standing, barriers is financing.
"Unfortunately, it often comes down to economics and the regional theaters fear of audience share," says Scott. “The quote/unquote market share for theaters of color and diversity is on the low end of the scale. So, many of the larger, nationally and internationally-recognized theaters are nervous to do a play that doesn't bring in a large audience. That's a simplistic explanation, but I think that's a big part of it. What's interesting is that these theaters are discovering that this equation isn't true -- that a good story, well told, will bring in all audiences, represent the real world and translate into ticket sales.
"What we've done for twenty-something years is to keep knocking at those doors. And, to keep asking them to look beyond the demographics and consider the quality of the work. As soon as they start to look at the stories, themselves, [they realize] you don't have to be a Native person to understand or enjoy them. These stories have languages and messages and ideas that everybody is going to want to see. That's a big part of what happened with us at Native Voices. I think it's just a matter of continuing to knock on those doors. And, continuing to put quality work in front of the [decision-makers] and growing Native American theater."
Reinholz adds "I think, too, this group of artists that makes up Native Voices has grown up here in Los Angeles. They're in films, they're in plays and sometimes they are cast as Native people. Sometimes they're just contemporary people in either comic or dramatic situations.They become more desirable on all kinds of levels. It becomes a circle and they can take people back into Native-specific stories. Our people come from performing traditions and telling stories. Those stories are infused with dance and song and laughter. And, they have thousands of years of history behind them."
Scott and Reinholz both say they enthusiastically invite new submissions from a wide variety of sources and hold 3-4 open auditions every year at the Autry for anyone at any level of training and ability. Native Voices also offers workshops in playwriting, acting, or an improvisations and are free to the community.
To view auditions, calls for scripts and workshop opportunities, visit their website at https://theautry.org/native-voices/theatre-native-voices or their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/NativeVoices