Embracing Community Arts
Believe it or not, in the 1970s public media like KQED-TV was federally mandated to give public access to community groups. Seeing artist Jane Norling’s flyer for my bilingual acting workshops from the 1970’s evoked my memories of Latin American influences in San Francisco theatre local art scene. It was a time of great opportunity for community and minority artists to find training and performing around the Bay Area. KQED, our local public television station, broadcast the performances that our workshops created.
Jane Norling worked for the Neighborhood Arts Program, part of the San Francisco City Arts Commission. The city hired talented artists like Jane Norling and Joe Ramos among others, to help community arts groups reach larger audiences. In those days before the internet, flyers and posters were our major outreach tool. Xerox copying had just become widely available and we could print as many as 100 or 5000 flyers depending on our budgets.
Latin American Influences
My Latino focus came with me in my role as Artistic Director and Chief Administrator of Community Theater Arts Workshop, a non-profit always scrambling for small grants. The workshop announced in this flyer taught theater techniques popular in the people’s theater movement in Latin America. I had learned them working with two Latin American theatre artists: Cuban Huberto LLamas and Argentine Humberto Martinez, whose works deeply influenced and inspired me. I was eager to use them to mobilize people for change and help awaken to the world around them.
I first learned some of these techniques in Cuba in 1974-75 working with Huberto Llamas in rural theater. We trained peasants and dairy workers to use theater to solve their concrete daily problems by creating and acting in theaters productions for the local community. Working with Llamas among the cows, cowboys, and milkmaids was not so different theatrically from my earlier experience in San Francisco before and after the Summer of Love (1967-1968). I was developing and directing an agitprop truck theatre that roamed the streets performing musical skits for peace during the Viet Nam War from the back of a pickup truck. We had to gather an audience on the sidewalk, get our message out fast, using a sound generator for the music and signs for the dialog and then, take off pronto before the police showed up.
In Cuba, where we did not have to run from the police, I joined Llamas in leading group discussions that included a community social worker to pin point the issues. We used improvisation, movement exercises, and theater games to explore the problems and to build the actor’s craft. Slowly a storyline with themes would emerge and we would create a play. The larger community would support our work building beautiful outdoor stages bedecked with palm fronds and greenery. I was always amazed at their great enthusiasm and skills. The beautiful Caribbean sky was the backdrop.
When I returned to San Francisco, I met Argentine political refugee and theater artist Humberto Martinez. He came from Argentina during the years of the dirty war (1976-83) because of his association with the outlawed leftist Monteneros group. He was forced to flee to San Francisco after he had produced the Chilean miner’s strike story “La Cantata de Santa Maria de Iquique” in Argentina performed by a group of workers. We met through my association with a trio of impoverished Argentine refugees. They were avant-garde theater performers who I fed and housed briefly. They introduced me to Humberto while he was recreating La Cantata again here in the Bay Area. This time he was working with a group of local Chicano and Chilean immigrant cannery workers in a church in San Jose. Unlike Llamas who created his scripts from the community to help solve their problems, Martinez worked from the recording of Quilapayún’s “La Cantata de Santa Maria de Iquique” to create the physical movements for the cannery workers performing La Cantata. In my work with Llamas and Martinez, the theatre proved to an effective way to mobilize people for change and help awaken them to the world around them.
Jane Norling’s flyer announced a series of long ago classes that I remember with great satisfaction. In the days before the digital revolution, Latin American theater influences traveled with me in stacks of flyers I carried to post at cafes, laundromats, and other places where the flood of Latin American immigrants gathered as I went through my days. Those cluttered billboards kept me in tune with the local arts scene and helped recruit students and actors to appear on our KQED Open Studio productions by Community Theater Arts. They helped create today’s rich multicultural arts community here in the San Francisco Bay Area that is a lively part of the resistance movement and makes San Francisco a sanctuary city.
For more information about Jane Norling’s work check out janenorling.com
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