Voices of the East Valley: The McCallum Theatre Spent Two Years Finding and Promoting the East Valley's Creative Talents—and Is Showcasing Them on May 14Written by Brian Blueskye
The McCallum Theatre, the venue, is well-known for top-notch Broadway musicals, concerts by world-class musicians, and a wide variety of other arts programming.
However, the McCallum Theatre, the institution, does much more than host shows. The McCallum has an education wing, the McCallum Theatre Institute, that has served hundreds of thousands of locals over the years—and through its Crisalida Community Arts Project, the McCallum has spent the last two-plus years seeking out the artistic voices of the Eastern Coachella Valley.
Some of the results of that search will be presented on Saturday, May 14, at the McCallum in a showcase titled East Valley Voices Out Loud, which will feature singers, rappers, poets, storytellers, musicians, actors, playwrights and visual artists—all from the Eastern Coachella Valley.
Jeffrey Norman, the director of communications and public affairs at the McCallum Theatre, said the Crisalida Community Arts Project came to be thanks to inspiration from McCallum president/CEO Mitch Gershenfeld, and funding from the James Irvine Foundation.
“Mitch Gershenfeld got this idea in his head,” Norman said. “We knew that the James Irvine Foundation had funds available, but that they wouldn’t be necessarily for the conventional presentations that the McCallum does.”
The McCallum asked David Gonzalez—a professional storyteller, poet, playwright and musician who is a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department—to spearhead the effort. The McCallum had worked with Gonzalez before, Norman said.
“David Gonzalez had appeared through the McCallum Theatre Institute several times and visited classrooms throughout the valley as part of our education program. He just seemed like the guy we could partner with,” Norman said.
The grant from the James Irvine Foundation is the largest ever received by the McCallum.
“I have a history of grant-writing, and Mitch, David and I were all going to be in New York at the same time,” Norman said. “We sat at some restaurant and just kind of riffed on this for a couple of hours. I went home and wrote the grant application. We submitted it, and they asked us to change a couple of things. It’s a very competitive grant, and we got it.”
Art’s role in building community is an important topic to Norman. Before arriving at the McCallum, he was the vice president for public affairs at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, N.J., a city that was victimized by riots in 1967.
“We built a $187 million theater in downtown Newark. It was very important to us that this performing-arts center be built, because so many things were promised to Newark after the riots that never came to fruition,” Norman said. “My boss had a professor (back in 1967), and the professor said, ‘It’s going to be 30 years before anything happens.’ We opened 30 years later, on Oct. 18, 1997. It was important that we build a place that appealed to the Mozart and Beethoven crowd, but also to the residents of the community. As it turned out, at our best, we had an audience that was 28 percent other than Caucasian, which is unheard of in the arts. … We did a lot of stuff in the Newark schools and the urban schools throughout the state. This kind of stuff, about making the arts available to disparate communities, is my passion.”
When Gonzalez arrived in the Coachella Valley and began work on the Crisalida Community Arts Project, he immediately started finding talent.
“It seems like every rock I picked up, there was a creative voice,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve met so many fabulously talented people in visual arts, music, poetry and the theater arts. It’s just been a wonderful experience for me to make so many artistic friends and collaborators.”
Gonzalez said some widely held perceptions of the East Valley—an area which includes some of the most economically disadvantaged areas in the state—are not accurate.
“It’s certainly not a monolith, and there’s certainly a lot of diversity in the population out there,” Gonzalez said. “Some families I’ve met have been in that valley and on the land for a couple hundred years. There are some of the pioneer families, who are the old Mexican families that go way back before there was even big agriculture. There are also families who just arrived a year or two ago.
“There’s also a lot of diversity when it comes to economic status. Some of those towns have a healthy middle class, and even in the places where there is lower income, there’s so much dignity. If you go to Mecca, the median income is less than standard, but the quality of life is good: The streets are clean, and there’s so much community spirit—but there are some problems. I think there’s a misconception about the monolithic, uneducated poverty out there, and it’s simply not true.”
Both Norman and Gonzalez said it was not always easy to gain trust in the East Valley.
“The first year was about relationship-building,” Norman. “We expected some skepticism. I think a lot of people have promised a lot of things to the east side of the valley and have walked away.”
Fortunately, Gonzalez was up to the task.
“I think this is a common story: When an arts institution that’s seen … in a way as elitist tries a new hand in being a community partner, there’s a lot of suspicion and doubt,” Gonzalez said. “My job was to go and meet folks and listen to folks, because nothing communicates a willingness to partner better than listening to the concerns and interests, as well as seeing what’s there instead of telling people what they need. The grant was written in such a way where we could use the first eight to 10 months to go out and meet folks and see what was there.”
Gonzalez said not everybody he encountered was willing to participate in the Crisalida Community Arts Project.
“Because the grant is only a two-year grant, I couldn’t spend too much time trying to convince them that they should,” he said. “We did partner up with some wonderful community organizations like the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition, the Indio Teen Center, the Indio Senior Center, the (Coachella Valley History) Museum, and Pueblo Unido.”
One example of the talent Gonzalez (right in photo to the right) found is Francisco Rodriguez (left).
“Francisco Rodriguez has a degree in creative writing and poetry from UC Riverside,” Gonzalez said. “He’s from Mecca, and he’s a brilliant young man. I’ve hired him to do a series of interviews with community elders and in some of the housing projects. He did one poem with Leonardo Espinosa (center), who worked for 40-plus years as a farm worker and was quite active in the farm-worker strikes back in the day with Cesar Chavez and others. Francisco brought his listening ear to Leonardo’s house, and Leonardo told him, in two installments, part of his life story. Francisco memorialized it into a poem, and that will be presented at our event.”
Rodriguez said he was delighted to take part in the Crisalida Community Arts Project.
“It was really beautiful and really nice to be able to hear the voices of the valley,” Rodriguez said. “… Being able to hear different people’s stories, experiences, things they’ve been through, and even things they’re going through right now that are good or bad—it’s part of life, and to see them being passionate and moving on, it’s really refreshing.”
Rodriguez said even he didn’t realize how much talent could be found in the East Valley.
“I’ve lived here in the valley just about all my life,” Rodriguez said. “When I met David Gonzalez and became part of the Crisalida Community Arts Project, I was able to meet different people, and it wasn’t as isolated as I thought it was. There are so many artists here, so many writers, and so many musicians. It was really refreshing to discover that part of the valley and to see how things tend to be a little obscure—but you see and get to know they exist, too.”
Gonzalez said he played a role in developing a theater group.
“Something we noticed in the East Valley was the interest in developing theater,” Gonzalez said. “I collaborated with Carlos Garcia, a retired drama teacher from Desert Mirage High School, to create the East Valley Repertory Company, which is bilingual theater, and its focus is to encourage people in the theater arts from the East Valley to participate in community theater. We’ve had a number of successful events, such as a 10-minute play festival (first photo below), which was very well-attended. We published seven 10-minute plays in a book.”
Gonzalez said the East Valley Voices Out Loud event should be fantastic.
“It’s going to be a really thrilling event, because you’re going to hear, see and come and touch a very wide variety of artists in the East Valley,” he said, “everything from hip-hop artists to a brand-new band of seniors who sing bolero with themes of social justice and how they see their communities. There are also going to be singer-songwriters and documentary videos, and it’s going to be a kaleidoscopic night where you can experience a lot of artists who are vibrant in the East Valley.”
Gonzalez said the Crisalida Community Arts Project has had numerous positive effects—both at the McCallum and in the East Valley.
“The McCallum is, along with a couple of other institutions in the valley, the premier cultural beacon,” Gonzalez said. “Its credibility, its pool of talent and its brain trust are a tremendous resource for the broader community. I’ve watched the staff of the McCallum grow in their interest in the community, and it’s been a thrill to see the leadership and the board get behind a new initiative that brings the McCallum out into the community, so it’s appreciated and understood in a way it hadn’t been before.”
Gonzalez said the Crisalida Community Arts Project proved the arts can make a positive difference in the East Valley.
“Art is a critical component to a healthy society,” Gonzalez said. “Art connects us through dialogue around intellectual challenges and beauty. There’s a tremendous vitality and aliveness in the East Valley, and they have enjoyed traditions for a very long time. The influence of this grant has been to support the impulses that were already there and bring them to greater fruition. There have been a couple of instances where this was a first-time experience for people. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily saving lives, but it’s giving people the opportunity to see themselves as creative people and contributors to the creative dialogue in their community.”
East Valley Voices Out Loud will take place at 8 p.m., Saturday, May 14, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $9 to $22. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.
Below: A scene from Tacos, Teardrops and Tequila, a 10-minute play festival produced by East Valley Repertory Company and the Crisalida Community Arts Project; Arturo Castellanos will be performing as part of the East Valley Voices Out Loud show at the McCallum.