Art is risky. Lisa Steindler, an almost 30 year veteran of the theater industry and the artistic director of Z Space, embraces that risk on the stage of the massive warehouse that used to be Project Artaud.
“I could put Chicago or Grease in there and sell it really well. I don’t do it,” Steindler said.
Instead, the canning-factory-turned-art-commune-turned-theater is filled with new productions, shows that blur the lines between mediums, between styles, and between performer and audience.
“Touch,” which runs April 2-4 this week, does all of these. It’s a dance performance about families getting separated during their immigration journeys. If that’s not risk-taking enough for you, the show also separates audience members by color-coded ticket as they enter the space. Friends are split up and seated instead amidst the performers, who weave among them during the performance.
Risk is also evident in the mix of productions slated for the next few months at Z Space and its black box theater, Z Below. There’s “Hookman”, a “quasi-horror comedy” about the split seconds before, during and after a car crash; Cornerstone Theater’s “Tempest,” a variant on the Shakespeare classic that will source its cast entirely from the local community; and “Juarez,” a piece of documentary theater that will use filmed interviews with politicians, gang members, and other key players in the Mexican city, intermingled with live performance.
The challenge now is keeping it going. Steindler says Z-space maintains strong relationship with solid funders, and performances regularly fill over 80 percent of seats or sell out completely, sending thousands of people a month streaming through the doors. But Steindler says many well-heeled newcomers aren’t investing in art.
Z Space is pursuing all sorts of creative methods to hook the new elite. The theater lobby is now a bar, and Steindler is toying with the idea of having live music there every Friday afternoon. She’s even hosted a wrestling match. But at the core of it all, the real draw will always have to be work with artistic integrity.
Members of the David Herrera Dance Company, the group behind “Touch,” traveled to Los Angeles to interview immigrant students whose lives have been shaped by their often traumatic separation from family members over the course of their immigration.
“I told the dancers that I don’t want them to just perform, I want them to feel and live the experience,” Herrera said. “That’s what I think it’s about, living the experience in the moment, for themselves, and then the audience will relate to that.”
Herrera’s company is something relatively new to the dance scene. He started it with the explicit purpose of creating a dance company by and for minorities – people well represented in the dance community as tokens of diversity rather than artistic pioneers.
“There are plenty of people of color dancers sprinkled among the many companies,” Herrera said. “I thought, I can continue doing this or I can build a company that will focus on bringing the experiences of my neighborhood and my community to the forefront of our work.”
Immigration is one of those experiences. Herrera recalled hearing from students who grew up seeing their mothers or fathers as strangers because they had been separated for so long, students who were afraid to form relationships with others because of their separation from their families early on, students who were hesitant to say anything at all because they were still technically illegal immigrants.
After the interviews, Herrera said, his company returned to find the movements they used to convey the stories they wanted to tell changed completely. The dancers, recalling the very real experiences of the students they interviewed, came up with a new vocabulary of dance movement to pass them on.
Perhaps this is what Steindler means when she talks about selecting work of “artistic excellence” to be showcased at Z-Space: Shows with substance, created not just for the sake of beautiful form and expressive motion, but to get people talking about something real.
“The best political theater is when you don’t know it’s political, but you walk out afterward and have an argument,” Steindler said. “I’m more interested in creating conversation than creating entertainment, but if you can do both, that’s a successful show.”