Published in KPBS On Air Magazine October 1991
These are days of multicultural awareness and cultural pluralism. Organizations are forming all over the country, to promote the mythology, beliefs or cultural history of particular non-mainstream groups, which no longer comprise an American minority, especially in California .
San Diego has its share of cultural theater groups, one of which is Teatro Mascara Magica (Magic Mask Theatre), started two years ago by Southwestern College ‘s Bill Virchis and UCSD’s Jorge Huerta. Now Mascara Magica is coming into the mainstream for a spell, as Virchis directs an Argentine sit-com, “Metered Phone”, at the Coronado Playhouse (October 18-November 23). It’s part of Coronado ‘s “All American Season,” a celebration of fifty years of play-production on Glorietta Bay .
When Paul Ward took over as managing director of the Playhouse, he began to notice Coronado ‘s changing demographics, and he became interested in serving the local Latino population. He naturally gravitated toward San Diego ‘s first Latino theater company, Mascara Magica. Virchis’ choice of “Metered Phone” was, he says, “perfect for the Coronado Playhouse. It’s a style of play that I think complements their season and their philosophy. It’s got broad audience appeal, not a Chicano genre. It’s very much like ‘All in the Family,’ but with a grotesque, ironic humor. The story line makes sense today, too. It’s about a young married couple who are forced, by a depressed economy, to move in with their parents. It’s a really funny play, relevant but light, without being frothy.”
Virchis is not content to be a primary local voice of the Latino cultural and theatrical experience. He has a multicultural dream. Five years ago, he got together a group of high-powered theater people representing various cultural perspectives: Latino (Virchis and Huerta), African-American (Anasa Briggs-Graves), Chinese-American (Kent Brisby) and Anglo (Steve Pearson and Robyn Hunt). They planted the seeds for a multicultural theater company called The Common Ground Theater Group.
“At the time,” says the affable, outgoing Virchis with a laugh, “people thought we were nuts. No one was talking about cultural diversity then. People were funding generic theater. We thought, ‘What better way to build an audience and obtain funding and support than by getting all the ‘satellite’ communities together under one umbrella?’ If we all come together, we can show — politically as well as theatrically — that we’re interested in celebrating our own differences, but we have a common ritual, voice and art form: the theater.”
Unfortunately, the plan ground to a halt, as the individuals or theater groups pursued their own agendas. But now, momentum is building again. The Metropolitan Arts Advisory Council, the largest non-profit social service organization in the county, has been a primary fiscal agent. “Their philosophy,” says Virchis, “is also to serve a wide audience. They were pleased with the idea of cultural diversity. They know all these voices need to be heard. It would be great to have one home base where everyone gets a chance.”
So a season is being created, under the aegis of Mascara Magica, with Virchis as Producing Artistic Director and all six original members on the Board of Directors. There will be four Artistic Directors: Floyd Gaffney, Anasa Briggs-Graves , Kent Brisby, Jorge Huerta. There are four projects on tap for 1992.
The first play, “The Joker of Seville”, a large project with 27 characters and musicians, will open in March 1992 at the Educational Cultural Complex. Virchis will direct. “”It’s a great venue for our first venture,” says Virchis of the multicultural center of the Community College District, “and what could be a more multicultural piece? It takes place in Trinidad , and includes Moors, Spanish, Caribbean blacks and Calypso music.” ECC will take a partnership role, including the project in its educational programming.
Next, Huerta directs “The Toothbrush” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, Gaffney will do an African-American play and Brisby will direct a Chinese piece. “They’ll be doing ethno-specific plays,” explains Virchis, “but bringing in some mixed-blood casting. Collaboration is the way of the future. We saw that five years ago. Theater is too small of a world. It’s like a family. Personal and political agendas have nothing to do with the art. We’ve ghettoized our theaters enough. Now we need to speak to a broader audience. We have a bigger inventory, because of our individual cultural experiences. We need to look at all the colors on our palette. But we have to be careful in choosing our projects. When you go to someone’s house, you have to respect that house.
“The Globe is opening their house (for “Pastorela” at Christmas time, co-directed by Virchis and Executive Producer Craig Noel), and then there’s the Rep (Virchis collaborates with San Diego Repertory Theatre producing director Sam Woodhouse on a new version of Calderon’s “Life is a Dream”). And maybe we’ll go into the Sixth Avenue Playhouse. Floyd (Gaffney) continues his “Black Nativity” every Christmas. With great parts, you can’t help but get a tremendous whole. We’re seeding the Common Ground with good soil…”
Despite the metaphor, Virchis is no patient farmer. He and his group are hacking away at the briars and brambles: “In our culture, a kid jumps into the bull-ring. If he comes out alive, he’s a great bullfighter.”
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.