Los Angeles - Part 1
February 26, 2013
LA was my last overseas visit for the World Shakespeare Festival. Our partnership there is with a unique organisation called Inner-City Arts (ICA), housed in an amazing and beautiful complex in the midst of a very unbeautiful area of Downtown.
We were joined last September for the Shakespeare World Conference seminar by Tray, a very talented poet, actor and dancer now at college; his mentor, performer and choreographer, Marissa (both pictured right); and Jennifer, the associate director of education and my main host for the week.
For many of us, Los Angeles is synonymous with a parallel reality: a world we know intimately through TV, film and songs - and therefore don't really know at all. Well, it's the second most populous city in the US after New York, with around four million people and is routinely ranked in the top five richest and most powerful cities in the world.
After being so recently in Kolkata, it seemed empty. In Kolkata, I had got used to traffic which allows only an inch of space around each car; from my hotel in LA I looked out on eight sparse lanes of SUVs. But the similarity with Kolkata - and what shocked me - was the level of poverty.
Just a few blocks from the ostentatious wealth around my hotel is the original Skid Row. These few streets are full of society's outcasts (approaching 5000 of them apparently), sitting beside their trolleys and suitcases loaded with their meagre possessions. Many are mentally ill, some are ex-military, some apparently prefer to be 'off-grid', but it's hard to believe that many really choose to live like this.
Homelessness is just one social issue. Californians, I was told, don't vote to spend their taxes on the poor. Nevertheless, there are non-government organisations doing their best. On my first day at ICA, my lunch came from the Homegirl cafe, part of an organisation called Homeboy Industries with a range of programmes and outlets to support ex-convicts, gang members and 'at risk' young people in finding jobs. Their slogan - 'Nothing stops a bullet like a job' - is a stark reminder of the stakes around here.
Inner-City Arts is just around the corner from Skid Row and provides an oasis for the wider, disadvantaged neighbourhood. Serving over 50 local schools and working with 10,000 young people each year, they provide arts education and arts opportunities to help students become 'independent problem solvers and active learners'. Groups of elementary and middle school kids are bussed in from the surrounding areas for workshops in dance, music, drama, animation, ceramics and media arts.
I had a fantastic introduction to the work of ICA on my first night in town. 'The Heart and Soul Youth Artist Collective' has only been running for a year but their show, My LA seemed to distil everything ICA is about. The Heart and Soul Collective is for 14 to 20 year olds, giving an opportunity for young people to independently continue their relationship with ICA, develop their talents and explore personal and social issues through different art forms.
The show emphasised the complexities of city experience with a mix of people struggling to make sense of each other and create a community. In the first section, a diverse group explored their identities, using a form of verbatim theatre to tell the stories of their grandparents, parents and how they arrived in LA. It wasn't Shakespeare but it could have been.
A local teacher later described to me her love of Shakespeare because he 'provides a broad palette and the precision of the brush'. That's what this show was doing, giving a broad sense of the city through the mix of personal stories that create it. The pride of the families in the audience was palpable, both for their own children and the community they had all created, very often against the odds.
During the day, I was free to dip in and out of the various classes taking place at Inner-City Arts. It was fantastic to see children so involved in so many different art forms. I spent some time with Kristy, the drama specialist who was in the midst of a 14-week programme of work on Macbeth with her groups.
When the first group walked in I was taken aback by the homogeneity of faces, so unlike the diversity of My LA. But there's a reason areas around Downtown are called Little Tokyo, El Pueblo de Los Angeles and Chinatown - LA is home to many contained communities of the world's diasporas. These particular children were from burgeoning Koreatown.
The LA team are partnered with a school in Essex, England - St Thomas Moore - and their particular project has been a collaboration on a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Marissa has been sending instructional videos and the plan is for the LA kids to be seen dancing on a big screen behind the stage while the St Thomas Moore students join in live, so that they are all dancing together.
Alongside the training videos there have been exchanges between the young people about their lives and environments and other contributions to the show. I heard the Essex boys were struggling with their rhythm, but I can't wait to see the show and how the collaboration all comes together.
Photo shows Tracy, Tray and Marissa in Los Angeles © RSC
by Tracy Irish
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