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In less than two hours on a recent Friday night, about 100 people crammed into a downtown Santa Ana room and received the kind of crash course in theater production that usually takes months in a high school or college program. Many of the participants, ranging in age from 5 to viejito status, had never been involved in theater before yet were given an immersion into voice, movement, playwriting, lighting, sound, acting, costuming, directing and stage-managing techniques. And then they watched as their efforts took shape in a real production.
No, their particular scene from Hansel and Gretel won't be moving to Broadway any time soon, but the goal of this workshop—the first of 10 in Santa Ana over the next month—is to craft a full-length play using the stories, talent and, perhaps most important, the hearts of Santa Ana residents. Titled Dialogue/Diálogos, it's the most ambitious community-theater project in the county's history, one that partners organizations and individuals as varied as South Coast Repertory, Latino Health Alliance, Aztec dancers, homeless film documentarians, working theater professionals, archivists from the Santa Ana Library, and even a local señora who supplied the taquitos and pan dulce.
The bilingual series of workshops, all free, are open to people of all ages and backgrounds, but one of the chief organizers, Sara Guerrero, artistic director of the Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble, believes the focus will be "adults of the Santa Ana Latina/o community."
The project launched earlier this year with a series of story circles held at 12 locations throughout Santa Ana. Guerrero, playwright Jose Cruz Gonzalez and others visited residents in their neighborhoods and encouraged them to share their experiences, positive or negative.
"What we found in our interviews with more than 400 people from the Santa Ana community is that storytelling is central," says Gonzalez, who teaches theater at Cal State Los Angeles. "Everyone has a story to tell. When the community shared their stories, they were animated, dramatic, comical [and] heartbreaking, as well as inspiring and humbling. What they shared was theater."
The second phase is the 10 theater workshops that began Sept. 27 and are taught by Gonzalez and South Coast Rep educators from its adult conservancy.
In its final phase, Gonzalez will turn the collected stories into a play. Santa Ana residents who have participated in the workshops will collaborate to turn that play into a full-fledged production scheduled for next summer.
It's both an effort to expose members of the community to the art of theater, as well as to create a play that reflects and gives voice to that community. "I don't doubt the desire for theater in . . . Santa Ana," Guerrero says. "Everyone has a story to tell. The community has shared their stories, and it's important that we share back with how we come to create theater. I remember how successful and impactful [Breath of Fire's first production] The Mexican OC was and how many people and additional stories it brought out. I can only imagine what this production and play will bring."
Based on the first workshop, Dialogue/Diálogos will be anything but a stuffy, academic exercise. The model is one pioneered by the highly successful Cornerstone Theater Co. in Los Angeles, which works with communities throughout that city to create plays based on their stories. But there's a distinctly SanTana flavor to this one, one that recognizes many of the participants come from economically disadvantaged homes. With the free child care and food provided ("Many of these people work, and maybe they're missing their dinner, or maybe there is no dinner at home," Gonzalez says), the overall vibe was one of family, not formality.
"Once you invite the heart, you can train the brain," Gonzalez says of creating an atmosphere that encourages participants to trust and be honest with another.
"What I've found through the storytelling process it that a lot of these stories are not the types you find in books or newspapers or academic journals," says Manny Escamilla, Santa Ana Public Library archivist. "These are stories of neighborhoods and of people who realize, through sharing their stories, that they're not alone. The emotions they stir up, the sense that other people feel like they do—it's enlightening."
What the finished play will look and sound like is anyone's guess. But what is truly inspiring is the organization behind the project, South Coast Rep, which has given so many playwrights the chance to express their voices in its 50-year history, is giving a community that is often viewed as voiceless the same opportunity. (The funding comes from a grant from the James Irvine Foundation.)
"Projects like this are needed," Guerrero says. "It is apparent that arts exposure to both youth and adults is a challenge in the community. However, what I've suspected and confirmed, through our story circles, is that people are not waiting for things to happen, but are making things happen, including making art and advocating opportunities sometimes created and supported through groups like Latino Health Access and El Centro Cultural de Mexico. [While] you don't necessarily need money to make art, having funds to support opportunities like this is very wonderful and incredibly helpful."
For additional information about Dialogue/Diálogos, call (714) 708-5843, or visit www.scr.org/dialogos.