Julian Acosta, artistic director ofÂ Urban Theatre Movement, says he hopes LA theater becomes a little more “dangerous.” His current contribution to that cause is his upcoming directorial debut, staging Miguel Pinero’s rarely produced Short Eyes at Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC).
“The first thing everyone wants to tell you is “˜no’,” Acosta tosses out. “There are so many rules that people try to impose on others which don’t really matter,” he presses. “We’re not following rules. We shouldn’t be doing any of this. We’re at LATC with this show! How did this happen? It’s ridiculous!”
A Director Makes His Own Luck
Born in Puerto Rico, with a move to Texas as a teenager, Acosta exudes 100% American cowboy. He’s tall and laid back with a cup of coffee, but once he’s talking about his passion for theater and tackling an artistic process with a strong worth ethic””you’re suddenly toe-to-toe with a sharp-shooter.
He describes how he discovered theater during his undergraduate studies (in Texas and Florida), was instantly hooked and constantly hungry for more. As a student actor, he first sought out plays written by Puerto Rican playwrights, and there weren’t very many. But the dearth of plays available brought him directly to Short Eyes, which became the first play he ever read “cover to cover.”
In fact, his first foray into rule breaking occurred when he tried to direct a scene from Short Eyes in his undergraduate directing class and, due to the controversial subject matter, none of his classmates would act in it. Rather than change his material, Acosta recruited an administrator from the school and a lighting designer to be his classroom actors. “And they were great,” Acosta recounts the memory. This theme of meeting challenges with creative solutions repeats itself throughout his narrative.
Acosta emphasizes several times that he was “lucky” and “blessed” with good fortune that exposed him to influential teachers and extraordinary artistic opportunities. Among them was William Esper in the Rutgers MFA acting program, who didn’t just invite the young actor into the program. “He changed my life,” says Acosta. “Maggie Flanigan (also at Rutgers) and Bill Esper both changed my life. Bill was the first person who made me feel like acting was something worth doing.”
Once armed with his MFA, Acosta joined New York’s acclaimed LAByrinth Theatre Company and dove headfirst into its development process. There, he became part of Peter Sellars’ 2009 re-imagining of Othello (co-produced with the Public Theater) which starred Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz. Acosta relays it as a life-changing experience both personally and professionally. “[He is] a man who has the capability of inspiring you to be the very best version of yourself,” he says of Sellars. “Someone who never gives up; who keeps pushing.”
Acosta’s own desire for a demanding process feeds into his passion for theater to always provide the “bigger expectations” to audiences. “Because theater should be a little dangerous, a little out of control, a little”¦” He thinks a moment, then, “I don’t like nice. I don’t like polite.”
At the same time, when it comes to decision-making, he talks about listening””“as corny as it sounds””with the heart.”
Acosta now lives in LA and makes his living as an actor on stage and screen. His credits include several recurring roles on popular series, from hard-hitting attorneys to a particularly amusing turn as Jesus on Scrubs. You wouldn’t guess by reading his IMDB profile that his heart remains firmly planted in the American theater scene. But it’s not only planted, it has embedded roots and is here to stay.
He’s been seen at South Coast Rep in Anna and the Tropics and Lovers and Executioners (he received an LA Drama Critics Circle nomination for the latter). And now his directing debut brings his introduction to theater full circle, as he mounts the first production of Short Eyes to be seen here in a decade.
The West Coast rights to produce Pinero’s prison drama had been held back for a variety of reasons. But after a two-year wait, UTM’s request was granted, and the search was on for a venue.
Remembering his first scouting visit to LATC, Acosta recalls that “we were basically just taking a tour, knowing we couldn’t afford it.” But then a chance encounter with a former colleague found Acosta and UTM’s producing director Paul Tully in LATC artistic director Jose Luis Valenzuela’s office, discussing the show and their hopes to find a terrific venue.
Not only did UTM walk out with a home for their production, but they found a producing partner with Valenzuela’s Latino Theater Company and a support system, a community, within LATC.
It wasn’t all wave-of-the-wand fairy tale. UTM still had to cough up rent and production costs covered by “the usual insane fundraising” schemes. But the profile of the venue and the professional level of production it afforded inspired Acosta and his UTM artists to raise the bar.
“I can’t imagine walking into any other [major venue] and having them say, “˜You know what? I’m gonna give you guys a shot,’” continues Acosta. “It’s ridiculous.”
A Play Invites Danger
Though it opened in 1974, the story of Short Eyes could easily be pulled from a current national headline””a pedophile is sent to prison. PiÃ±ero wrote it while incarcerated in Sing Sing prison for armed robbery. He relates the politics of prison life and the justice system through the story of his mild-mannered sex offender surrounded by hard-core criminals.
After its premiere at Joe Papp’s Public Theater, it transferred to Broadway, where it was nominated for six Tony Awards. The Off-Broadway production won an Obie for “best play of the year,” the New York Drama Critics Circle named it best American play, and PiÃ±ero won a Drama Desk Award for outstanding new playwright. The play was later adapted into a 1977 film version, also penned by PiÃ±ero.
PiÃ±ero, who died at 41, left behind a diverse body of work that includes plays, poetry, screen and teleplays. He also gained attention as an actor, developing work with his theater company, Nuyorican Poets Café. UTM will dedicate an evening during the run to celebrate PiÃ±ero’s poetry, with a who’s who of Los Angeles Latino actors reading select poems at the LATC space.
Urban Theatre Movement Finds its Collaborative Voice
Acosta’s experiences and exploring temperament have prepared him to helm Urban Theatre Movement. He began working with the company only in February of this year, but he is already implementing different programs to engage the membership and inspire its artists to contribute, at any level.
With a mission statement that strives “to create accessible art and life changing experiences through innovative theatre.”¦,” the company lends itself to taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary. A bookkeeper becomes a stage manager; a warehouse clerk handles the lights or reads scripts. Whatever is needed is taken on by someone in the group. Everyone should be willing to take risks.
“It’s everyone doing everything,” he explains. “Understanding where you can fit and how you can serve the process is important.” Every member contributes to the reading and exploring of new work””and gets a chance to try new things such as acting, directing or writing. Such a system reflects how Acosta learned to develop work at LAByrinth in NYC.
“I do it this way because it’s what I know,” Acosta continues. “And what we’re moving toward as a company is all new work, only new work.”Â The ultimate goal is to not only do challenging work that excites audiences but to also grow new writers and develop that exciting work within the company.
But it’s the work ethic and heart of UTM as a company that drives it forward. Members work day jobs as far away as Norwalk and Downey, then drive into downtown LA for workshops and rehearsals. Acosta describes the dedication of the company with passion, “There’s something that happens magically””it happens every time””if you show up asking yourself, “˜What am I here to give?’”
When I ask if he’s amazed at how things have come about with this particular production, the laid-back, confident cowboy returns in Acosta’s response. “Nothing will ever speak louder than the work. Ever,” he states. “When we put our focus on that, then everything else just happens. And that’s what’s happening with this play.”
Short Eyes, presented by Urban Theatre Movement and Latino Theater Company. Opens November 18. Plays Thu. – Sat. 8 pm; Sun. 7 pm. Through December 11. Dark on Thursday November 24 (Thanksgiving). Tickets: general $30; student/senior/groups $20. Los Angeles Theatre Center, Theatre 4, 514 S. Spring Street, LA. www.thelatc.org. 866-811-4111.
***All Short Eyes production photos by Federico Mata
Amy Tofte is a Los Angeles playwright who received her MFA in Writing for Performance from CalArts (California Institute of the Arts). She has seen her work produced all over the country and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. She is a founding member of Fierce Backbone in Los Angeles (a theater dedicated to all levels of play development) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild of America.