RADAR L.A. Symposium on Theater’s Future: An Idea Plus Terror

Right in the middle of a presentation of manifestos at RADAR L.A. on the Future of Theater, Shawn Sides from Austin’s Rude Mechs subverted the whole idea of the panel discussion. In the future, she said, there would be no manifestos. She then went on to give the most concise definition of the festival’s most confounding subject:  devised theater = an idea + terror. Ultimately, she said, “We’ll admit we have no fucking idea what we’re doing.”

Manifesto destiny: RADAR L.A. symposium panel, left to right, Richard Montoya, Raelle Myrick Hodges, Shawn Sides, moderator Mark Valdez, Guillermo Calderon.

It was all part of the cheers, laughs, and even a few tears as the RADAR L.A. theater festival kicked off its two-day symposium with a celebratory morning of speakers and panel discussions on Wednesday.

Keynote speaker Olga Garay, executive director for the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, started the session by blowing a kiss to the appreciative crowd that packed the Los Angeles Theatre Center. While relating the genesis of the festival, more than four years in the making, she defined devised theater as “ensemble-based” and “not playwright-driven.” More important to her than the “what” was the “where:” half of the RADAR L.A. productions were developed in L.A.. The rest reflect the western U.S. as well as both sides of the Pacific Rim, i.e., Latin America and East Asia.

Garay’s address tumbled directly into the “Future of Theater” panel. Raelle Myrick Hodges, artistic director of San Francisco’s Brava! For Women in the Arts, came ready to play with a bullet list, asserting that theater in the future would ask the tough questions, would celebrate technicians as much as actors and directors, and would ultimately transcend the need for “diversity” programming and replace it with theater that was simply a reflection of the real world around us.

After apologizing for his thick Chilean accent, Guillermo Calderon, the director of Teatro en el Blanco, said that devised theater was about ideas first and form second, challenging attendees to be “uncool, unhip, old, ugly, and unfashionable.”

Building peace: Sudanese actor Ali Mahdi brings the RADAR L.A. crowd to its feet.

Wrapping up the panel presentation, co-founder of Culture Clash Richard Montoya quipped that devised theater was “like Chicano pedagogy, I really don’t understand it.”

In a electric address that sometimes teetered on the verge of rant, Montoya name-checked David Mamet, Jesus, Bradjelina, Oskar Eustis, and the Tea Party, even teasing his fellow panel mate from Rude Mechs by feigning surprise that there are so many white people in South Texas. He ended with a passionate statement of universality: “Todos somos chicanos, todos somos queers.” This is the line that brought him and several audience members to tears.

The panel ended with a moment seemingly right out of the devised theater playbook as Sudanese actor Ali Mahdi rose from the audience and encouraged all participants to make the future of theater be about building peace. He then asked the audience to rise and join him in a group roar and then the call, “Ou-ee-ou-ee-ou!” Thus energized, the crowd was primed, both for lunch and to redefine the future of theater as we know it.


David Timberline

Theatre critic for Style Weekly in Richmond, VA, for more than 12 years. Former regional correspondent for Backstage, theater correspondent for 64 magazine, and arts correspondent for Family Style. Co-founder Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. Business Analyst for C. F. Sauer Company. Duke University graduate, married with four kids.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Facebook


  1. This was bound to be written.


    Nice write-up, David.

  2. Pat MacKay says:

    In fact Sudanese actor Ali Mahdi brought a moment of poignant reality to our proceedings that cast our discussions about “art” “creation” “funding” “presenting” in a positively trivial light. It hard to take what we’re doing seriously when he is quite literally trying to save lives with his art.

    • Agreed to a point, Pat, but I mostly subscribe to Deleuze: the job of the writer is to diagnose, not necessarily to cure. If the job of the writer or performer becomes also to cure, that’s a lot of energy not as a political diagnostician but more directly as a political figure, and perhaps the art becomes too marginalized, not only by the usual marginalizing forces in art but also by political forces too. I applaud the effort while remaining sensitive to the theory that most art is created in the hope that the diagnosis it offers will affect those in position to cure.