Beginning Sunday, May 6, the Downey Arts Coalition will add an ambitious dramatic series to its calendar of events for the arts. The DAC, in partnership with the critically acclaimed Urban Theater Movement, will premier the first of four staged readings of original plays by contemporary playwrights about urban issues. Adding to the spirit of creativity and innovation surrounding this new venture is the fact that none of the readings will be presented in a traditional theater. The venues include an arty barbershop, a popular restaurant, an edgy nightspot, and a well-known church.
The dramatic focus on issues such as graffiti and the clash of cultures gave the series its name: Urban Acts: New Plays From the Street. The staged readings will be free to the public on four Sunday evenings (except for Mother's Day), and provide an opportunity for the audience to ask questions.
Downey actress and theater professional Lana Joy said the DAC hopes these productions will serve to build a broader audience for theater in Downey and surrounding communities and for new works by contemporary playwrights. Ultimately, Joy says, the organizers hope the series will "spark more public discourse and bring people together as we talk."
The first play, In Case You Forget by Ben Snyder, examines the world outlook and problems of a young graffiti artist in New York who is about to be incarcerated for vandalism.
Snyder is a prolific writer and an educator who has used theater to explore social issues with high school and college-aged students throughout New York City. He is currently an MFA Playwright at the University of Texas in Austin.
Local businessman Ronnie Contreras is hosting this first production at his barbershop, Number 34, at Arrington Square near Florence and Lakewood; and to underscore the significance of this new artistic venture, the reading will also be the occasion of the barbershop's official gala opening. A portable stage and seating will be arranged outside for the performance, and Contreras is inviting the public to stay afterwards for refreshments, live music inside, and an art show featuring street art.
"I'm glad I have a space that can enrich other people's lives," says Contreras, "and add to the cultural activities in Downey."
Contreras, who grew up in Downey, does more than just cut hair. His professional work includes teaching classes on hair styling for photo shoots, and he has worked with Taboo from the music group Black Eyed Peas.
Two months ago Contreras made his shop available for a one-day art installation featuring the work of ten artists, and curated by Roy Shabla, that was very well attended despite being held on Super Bowl Sunday. The barbershop has also become the home of monthly poetry readings, Hair Club For Poets.
The second play, La Vida Lucky (1974) by Daniel Houston Davila, will be presented on May 20 at the popular Granata's & Tapas restaurant on Downey Avenue. Davila is a published writer and Chicano Studies professor who adapted this play from his novel Malenche's Children. The setting is a barrio in the working class city of Norwalk where a tough young man considers the question of a vasectomy.
Restaurant owner Frank White says that he is excited about the performance. "I'm happy to provide such a service to the community," he comments, "and it should be fun." People can come early for dinner if they chose, but no cover charge is required if they just wish to attend the reading.
Granata's & Tapas is also well-known as a center for weekend entertainment. In addition to live musical performances during the dinner hour, White features a comedy show at 10 pm on Friday evenings once a month.
The third play in the series, Handball by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld, will be read on May 27 at the Epic Lounge on Second Street. In addition to being a playwright, Rosenfeld is also a screenwriter and director who has taught at Columbia University's MFA Film School. His work often deals with the collision of cultures in urban environments, and this play follows the gentrification of a Bronx neighborhood that once was a destination for handball enthusiasts.
The final play in the series will be hosted by the Moravian Church in Downey on June 3, and it is the work of Downey's own Forrest Hartl. Alexander the Greatest is a dark comedy about a narcissistic young actor who lies, cheats, and steals his way to the top in Hollywood. Hartl earned his MFA from USC and currently teaches theater at Cerritos Community College and the International City Theater in Long Beach.
Since its inception a year ago by public-spirited residents, the Downey Arts Coalition has continued to grow and add new members as it seeks to fulfill its mission to support and publicize the creative energies in the local community. It is structured as an umbrella organization and, according to founder Andrew Wahlquist, "open to anyone with a passion for the arts and a call to be involved in our community."
It was a chance meeting with producer/director Paul Tully that provided the impetus for the staged reading series of Urban Acts. Tully is a Downey resident who attended several of the DAC meetings to publicize his company, Urban Theater Movement, and its production of Short Eyes by playwright Miguel PiÃ±ero. The performance was so well-received that the Los Angeles Arts Commission took the play to Miami as a representative of LA theater works.
The upcoming reading series Urban Acts is the result of collaboration between Urban Theater Movement and the Downey Arts Coalition.
In addition to the planned theater series, the DAC sponsors a monthly art gallery for local artists at Mari's Wine Bar, Art of the Vine, and monthly poetry nights Wine+Words. The DAC can be contacted through the website: downeyarts.org.
Urban Acts: New Plays from the Street Four Different Locations. Free Admission Sunday, May 6, 7 pm
IN CASE YOU FORGET * by Ben Snyder @ Number 34, 9029 Florence Avenue Sunday, May 20, 7 pm
LA VIDA LUCKY by Daniel Houston Davila @ Granata's & Tapas, 11032 Downey Avenue Sunday, May 27, 7 pm
HANDBALL * by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld @ Epic Lounge, 8239 2nd Street Sunday, June 3, 7 pm
ALEXANDER THE GREATEST by Forrest Hartl @ Downey Moravian Church, 10337 Old River School Road * Some Explicit Language