Patricia Garza - "Theatre Changes Lives!"

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Jun 11, 2014
by Alex Jackson
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Patricia Garza - "Theatre Changes Lives!"

Salzburg Global Young Cultural Leader on how her works helps heal and build tolerance for under-served communities Patricia Garza during the Young Cultural Innovators session in October 2013

If there were a young Fellow of Salzburg Global Seminar who knew a thing or two about innovation, Patricia Garza would certainly be amongst the most notable alum. Not simply satisfied with her role in theatre work, she goes into the community to challenge preconceptions of the arts and drama, engages young people in group projects, advocates for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) rights and, when she has time, dabbles in fashion design. 

“I don’t sleep,” she jokes in an interview with Salzburg Global Seminar at 8:30 in the morning Los Angeles time. She has a coffee to hand, ready to kick-start another day crammed full of activities.

For the last seven years, Garza has been at Center Theatre Group, the largest non-profit theatre company on the West Coast of the United States. Since first attending Salzburg Global Seminar in 2012 as part of the inaugural Young Cultural Leaders (now Young Cultural Innovators) Forum, Garza has carried her torch of responsibility out into the Greater Los Angeles area, encouraging arts participation across various social backgrounds. In her career with Center Theatre Group, she has moved on from working in their education and community partnerships department (her work with which was part of the reason for her nomination as a Young Cultural Leader) to take on a role as New Play Production Manager, where she is helping to integrate the themes and practices of diversity and inclusion into CTG’s new plays.

“My experience with the Seminar was to say the least life changing. It really humbled me in a way that really opened my eyes to the bigger picture of the world, and allowed me to discuss what it means to be part of an arts movement or culture movement in a global society. That really informed my work to expand it very wide: It is not just about exposure and access, but it is also communicating and making sure that as artists we are working as people who are socially conscious and have something to say,” says Garza.

In order to accomplish this, Garza’s work portfolio is constantly diversifying: from the LGBTQ community to Latinos, she actively seeks out those who might not be traditionally involved in theatre or the arts, to provide alternative media of expression. 

“Theatre changes lives!” exclaims Garza. “It’s about an access and entry point of acceptance, because with theatre you’re able to try somebody else’s life on for size or express yourself in a way that you wouldn’t normally do with your friends or family. It’s very healing for young people and even for ordinary community members. So even if you’re not necessarily at risk, or even a young person at risk—if you’re just a mom that has never taken a moment to think about the arts in their life—you do it every day with very small things that we do, so everyone identifies. For me, theatre already is integrated in our lives: It’s really just about giving people the opportunity to build community and giving them the opportunity to express themselves in ways that are very healing.”

In the United States, a country whose constitution is based upon values of equality, there is still a great need for therapeutic arts and means of healing—especially with regards to the LGBTQ community, with whom Garza works. A study published last November by UCLA suggested that as many as 21% of the LGBTQ workforce in the United States report being discriminated against because of their sexuality, and orientation could account for a pay discrepancy of a third compared to the wage of a heterosexual man in the same position.

“One of the big reasons why through my work at the Centre Theatre Group I have been focusing on outreach with LGBTQ communities is because it can be very equalizing and I think for us we want to ensure that every community group is represented and has their voice. 

“Through some of my national work with [the] Theatre Communications Group, I am also a Young Leader of Color, and something we talk about a lot is diversity and making sure the American theatre scene is diverse… not just racially but also regarding ability, gender identity, race, age… To really make sure that what is reflected on our stages is really what is happening in our communities.”

If any part of the US were synonymous with the idea of the “American Dream,” it would be LA, with its beaches, film industry and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It is a shining beacon, a testament to consumerism, capitalism and media stereotypes that restrict expression and identities of certain groups. Garza tackles these issues head on, using theatre as a means by which to inject change into the fashion industry too. She hopes to introduce a new clothing line that would help transgender or gender neutral persons in expressing their gender identity. A recent study reported that approximately 41% of those who identified as transgender or non-conforming in their gender identity had attempted suicide – nine times the heterosexual average. In this light, it is not difficult to see why Garza takes her work seriously.

“In my own work, I have explored LGBTQ rights so a big project of mine is definitely exploring some of this backlash,” explains Garza.

“A new project I have been brewing up with my partner and some colleagues is how we gender express ourselves through our clothing and how that can have ramifications in our everyday lives. 

“Something I have been trying to get off the ground as a fashion line is clothing that is gender neutral. So for people that do not specifically identify as male or as female, they are able to wear something that is very similar and is comfortable and really fits their personality. That is another walking art piece to really have LGBTQ people join in on the fashion dialogue.”

Much of Garza’s work is aimed at building tolerance and trust of diverse community groups. She feels that theatre is intrinsically linked in breaking down these ideas of prejudice espoused by Hollywood executives, as the media is a powerful tool. Being able to probe difficult issues via the arts allows people the opportunity to dispel their ignorance or misconceptions. Her Salzburg experience helped in shaping this approach: the key is innovation. 

“Salzburg made you think ‘How am I innovative in my work or how am I innovative through my art?’ and this dialogue that I have been having about LGBTQ gender identities through fashion, my collaborative partnership with some alums, through young people and their inclusiveness are informed through this.” 

Garza’s continuing enthusiasm for the “Salzburg Global experience” led her to be chosen to return for a strategy meeting at Schloss Leopoldskron in 2013 to critique and fine-tune the 10-year plan for the Forum, and help with the evolution of the Young Cultural Leaders Program into the new “Young Culture Innovators Program”.

Building on her own work with underserved communities, Garza is now collaborating on a project with fellow Salzburg Global Seminar Young Cultural Leaders Cecily Hardy, associate producer for Big hART Inc., working with Aboriginal Australians, and Yona Wade, director of the Chief Joyce Dugan Cultural Arts Center and Public Relations at Cherokee Central Schools in Cherokee, North Carolina, working with Native Americans. 

“There is a project that I am working on with some Salzburg alums which has really been impacted by the [Young Cultural Leaders/Innovators] Program. I wanted to really shift the dialogue with young people in particular about careers in the arts and awareness of their circumstances,” she explains.

“We want to make sure we form a trio of youth that can talk to one another and build cultural exchange and dialogue in order to create social change and awareness and to expose them to different cultures,” explains Garza. “Just as we got opportunities as adults to experience [Salzburg Global Seminar], we want to mini-deliver that experience to youth in [our] local communities so as they’re aware of global issues.”

As is evidenced by her global projects, Garza appreciates that her Salzburg Global experience has allowed her unprecedented access to a network of other innovative, creative talents. She believes that this accountability in the arts community and the need to share and collaborate on projects is something which encourages engagement with the public and maintains a dynamic relationship between artist and consumer. Salzburg Global Seminar has helped Garza to change her outlook on her work and see its political potentials.

“It was also very informative to be able to tap into a network of young cultural leaders that are doing such outstanding work out in the community and feed that into my own work. It helps politically so that your view can never get too narrow, and to be able to use this network as sounding boards to question: Is this going deep enough? Is this what we are all dealing with?”

All art is political of course, shaped out of the pressures of certain social, economic and governmental contexts. Ultimately, Garza’s vision is one of empowerment through the arts; a mode of expression that can move to galvanize an entire community to change the dialogue around currency to be about time exchange for artistic experiences, like with a project she consults for East LA Rep, or looking at the integration of bilingual theatre for the large Spanish-speaking community in LA. 

“We’re really shifting our focus in the next couple of years to be participatory and reach out to these communities. We don’t want to just put on theatre and you buy our ticket, end of sentence. It is about changing the dynamic and paradigm to say ‘you are arts makers and creators and we want to be part of that process with you,’” she says.

However, for Garza, it is the psychological elements of theatre, a space in which to be able to be wrong and make mistakes, that proffers the most innovative therapeutic retreats, and provides a space without restrictions. 

“It is about finding a space where you belong,” she explains. “Finding a space where people are going to love and accept you for who you are, mistakes and all. In theatre it is all about making mistakes over and over, until we get it right. And actually there is no right—and that is what makes theatre such a great haven.”


You can see more about Patricia’s work and how Salzburg Global has changed her outlook in our Faces of Leadership video series: