Eastside Stories: The Vision and Legacy of East L.A. Classic Theatre
by: Robin Kello
Before Latinx Shakespeares as dramatic method and object of study, and before Latinx itself as a term of identity and community, Tony Plana’s East L.A. Classic Theatre (ECT) toured schools and venues in the Los Angeles area in the late nineties and early aughts. With Latinx themed bilingual adaptations of what Plana calls Shakespeare’s “greatest hits”—A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and Much Ado about Nothing—ECT introduced classical theatre to new audiences while supporting BIPOC actors whose roles in the period were often limited to secondary parts rooted in pernicious cultural stereotypes. Though ECT disbanded following the recession of 2008 and scant evidence of their impact remains online, their work marks a transition in American theater and a valuable precedent for the current moment, in which Latinx and bilingual Shakespeares are becoming more widespread and have been supported by such major institutions as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and The Public Theater.
Inspired by his role in a 1992 production of Ariel Dorfman’s Widows at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles with a predominantly BIPOC cast, Plana, a Cuban-born actor trained at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), began to reflect on the general lack of Latinx representation in classical theater. While he had seen productions that challenged the default whiteness on stage in American repertory performance, such as the 1980 Death of a Salesman at Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts (PCPA) in Solvang that centered Blackness in casting and concept, Plana says that most regional theaters offered little opportunity for BIPOC actors. He wondered why he would return to Los Angeles after playing Richard II in London only to be offered bit parts on TV as “Gang Member #1” in yet another rehashing of “undocumented immigrant story,” “drug story,” “gang story,” or some other role that would only reinforce the ignorance in the mainstream about Latinx communities. Rather than waiting for the culture of the industry to change, Plana decided to found East L.A. Classic Theatre in 1995.
As the popular media of the time perpetuated an image of Los Angeles as poverty stricken, gang ridden, and dangerous, Plana enjoyed the “apparent oxymoronic resonance” of the name, which stakes a claim for “a classical theater where you least expect a classical theater to exist” in support of “actors of color interpreting the classics for people of color.” With the support of Cal State Los Angeles and the early involvement of fellow actors Julie Arenal, Robert Beltran, and Ruben Sierra, ECT first produced works by Carlo Goldoni, Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller, and Eugene O’Neill. Casting Latinx actors for Latinx-themed productions of classical theatre was only part of the objective, however, and Plana realized that these performances, on Cal State’s downtown campus, were not reaching their intended audience of bilingual and Latinx communities. It was then that ECT turned to the public school system and to the works of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits, On Stage and in the Classroom
From 1997 to 2008, ECT brought Latinx-themed Shakespeare adaptations to schools and theaters across Los Angeles County. Cutting radically from the text, altering the English verse for accessibility, and inserting Spanish, they first developed their adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2002), set in the time of the Spanish conquest. The play dramatized cultural difference by having the human characters represent the Spanish and the sprites as Indigenous Mesoamericans. With their zoot-suit Romeo and Juliet (2004), perhaps inspired by Plana’s own experience acting in Luiz Valdez’s Zoot Suit on Broadway and in the subsequent film, ECT hit on two elements that would be crucial for all their following adaptations: cross-cultural romance and musical accompaniment in accordance with the theme. ECT’s Romeo is a white American sailor involved in the riots, the Capulets are Zoot-suiters, and big-band, swing song and dance numbers mark the rising tensions between the families. Plana says that the company referred to the show, with a nod to the more famous Stephen Sondheim musical West Side Story, “Eastside Story.”
Their early Twelfth Night made Orsino into Latin pop star, an MTV version of Luis Miguel whose biggest hit is “If Music be the Food of Love,” and cast Black actors in the roles of Viola and Sebastian. ECT’s Much Ado about Nothing (1999) presented Claudio and Benedick as Mexican soldiers returning from victory at the Battle of Puebla to a Californian Messina where they fall in love unexpectedly with two white colonists, Hero and Beatrice. The soldiers travel with a mariachi band, José Hernández’s Mariachi Sol, which provides the score for the wit, deception, and romantic intrigue of Shakespeare’s comedy. Plana rates the show as the company’s “crowning achievement.”
While ECT received some attention from the New York Times, the LA Times, and other local press, their objective was always about offering classical theater to young people rather than garnering critical accolades. During my interview with Michael Goodfriend, an actor with the company for a few years in the late nineties, he said he would sometimes drive for hours at dawn to get to early morning performances in towns at the farthest eastern end of Los Angeles County says: “I totally believed in the mission of ECT, which was making classics accessible for bilingual kids, especially in East L.A.” Plana and the company would make the plays shorter and more compact, excise archaic words while trying to maintain the iambic meter, and introduce Spanglish to engage their audiences. Goodfriend, playing Bottom in the Aztec-themed Midsummer recalls improvising the line “Eyes, do you see?” as “Ojos, do you see?” To prepare the students for the performance, ECT would send a two-person team of actors to do a workshop on themes, context, and introduction to the story, who would then follow up after the show to ask comprehension questions and discuss the student response. The company would likewise place the plays in the context of the educational requirements for each year. Ninth graders, obligated to study Romeo and Juliet, were able to experience ECT’s zoot suit production. For Much Ado about Nothing, ECT aligned their performance to correspond with the fourth-grade curriculum’s focus on the missions of 19th-century California.
Beyond staging the greatest hits, ECT developed the Language in Play program for the Los Angeles county school system, which trained teachers in strategies of using theater for language acquisition. Students not only improved their scores on mandatory standardized tests but wrote and performed plays of their own in front of family and friends, while ECT moved from introducing theatre to bilingual students in California to encouraging them to practice theatre as language development and self-expression. Intertwining the reception and production of theatre, critical interpretation as well as creative writing and performance, this pedagogical model offers a template for public education. Plana is considering reviving the program.
The “Language in Play” program, and the rest of what Plana calls the “thrilling ride” of ECT, dissolved in 2008 with the economic fallout from the housing crisis and the drying up of public funds to support bilingual educational initiatives. Plana moved to New York to continue his acting career, including his most popular role, Ignacio Suarez, the father of the titular Betty Suarez on the hit ABC comedy “Ugly Betty.” After acting at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) for years, Goodfriend now works with podcast versions of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Play on!” translations, which render Shakespeare’s verse into a modern, idiomatic English. The project, Goodfriend explains, “is about making it immediate and accessible to listeners,” and is “very similar to what Tony was doing with ECT.” Plana compares the ethos and vision of ECT to an even more recognizable cultural touchstone— “I feel we were ahead of Hamilton,” he tells me, “appropriating Shakespeare with actors of color, which is basically what Lin-Manuel did with history in Hamilton.”
Culture changes, and the art we create and experience changes with it, but not unless artists take risks on aesthetic and ethical choices that challenge the prevailing trends. Plana and ECT responded to the scarcity of Latinx actors in classical productions and the lack of access for bilingual schoolchildren in Los Angeles to Shakespearean drama with an innovative pedagogical and dramaturgical approach. As bilingual and Latinx Shakespearean productions become more prevalent on the American stage—Plana was cast to read the prologue in the Public Theater’s recent 2021 audio-drama of Romeo y Julieta—ECT remains a key precedent in casting practices and adaptive strategies for a theatre that reflects the communities it is meant to serve.
 Tony Plana, Personal Interview, August 18, 2022.
Dates vary due to performances at various locations (schools and theaters).
 Michael Goodfriend, Personal Interview, May 4, 2022.