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The Brown Theatre Collective brings diverse voices to theatre and art at Illinois
By Alejandro Ortiz, LLS student outreach and media coordinator
Mateo Hurtado, a junior Theatre Studies major and Founder of the Brown Theatre Collective, on why he helped to found the organization:
In the spring of 2014, I had a meeting with one of my classmates in the Theatre Department, and we were talking about how the lack of Latino students in the department was very concerning. Not only that, but how that correlates with the programing of what’s selected and what shows are being chosen to produce at the Krannert Center and [we saw] how there’s a disconnect between cultural representation as well as the demographics of students who are actually participating in these art forms.
So throughout the entire semester, we would be brainstorming and figuring out different plans and what resources were available for us to attack this problem and to create some sort of different outlet. We couldn’t really come up with anything. So towards the end of that semester, we realized that one strong way to start would be to find a connection between La Casa Cultural Latina and the Department of Theatre by having play readings at La Casa. These plays would be ones that are written by Latino playwrights and that focus on stories on youth violence or identity or topics of difference that are very relevant today so that they connect to theatre and non-theatre audiences and bridge the gap between Latinos and the Department of Theatre. That was our plan of action at that point.
But jump to the Fall of 2014, during which I was chosen to be the Dramaturg [for West Side Story], which is a key component of the production team when putting on the show because of how much research is required when you’re a Dramaturg. You inform the actors about the historical context and historical relevance and important information, which affects the director and the actors and the storytelling of the production. I was the Dramaturg for West Side Story, which is what the Illini Student Musicals [a Registered Student Organization] chose for their Fall production.
So as that was going on, this same issue came up again in a different context because this was through student-produced theatre and we noticed that the director was not necessarily concerned with how cultural representation functioned in this context of West Side Story even though that changes the entire conflict. Race is the key issue that drives the action forward in West Side Story. But for some reason that was not the priority when this production was being developed.
Basically once the casting was announced for West Side Story, it was very homogenous and a lot of white students were the majority of the cast, which was very alarming for me and basically very insulting and very insensitive. So I decided to leave the production based on my personal values and my basic ideas that I have as an artist. It was very offensive to my cultural heritage as well and I knew that it would be very harmful to show to audiences, so I decided to leave very early on from the production.
I decided to write a letter to the editor of the Daily Illini stating what sort of events affected each other for this to happen. And then at the end of the letter I mentioned that in order for this not to happen again and in order for us to move forward as students at the U of I, we need to have a very strong student-driven organization that prioritizes multicultural storytelling and authenticity and the exploration of the arts that aren’t necessarily limited to theatre, playing with different disciplines and figuring things out like that. So at the end of the letter, I mentioned that I’m starting this new organization called the Brown Theatre Collective. And that’s what I did. (Daily Illini letter http://www.dailyillini.com/opinion/letters_to_editor/article_9b3b911a-6dca-11e4-8748-c3ee3f77a222.html)
To this day, it’s really exciting, because now we have a lot of people that are really excited about this organization because it consists of people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual orientations. And not only that, but it’s graduate students who are interested and active in this organization, as well as professors and faculty across the board, not just from theatre.
I think that’s where we’re at. At this point, we’re organizing our thoughts, refining our goals, figuring out how we could incorporate activism and interdisciplinary work into approachable and engaging art and work to reach out to the masses and reach out to college students and people nationwide to know that this is an issue and that there are alternatives to combat this.
For more information on the Brown Theatre Collective, you can “Like” them on Facebook at facebook.com/browntheatrecollective and follow them on Twitter @_theBTC. You can also email them at email@example.com.