Sally Gordon (1940-2022)

Sally in Highland Park, 1997 (Photo: Eugene van Erven)

On 22 March 2022, my dear friend Samba Schutte wrote to me that Sally Gordon had passed away the night before. She was without a doubt one of the most fiesty, principled, unrelenting, reliable and generous community theatre activists in the United States, if not in the world. She worked tirelessly for many decades to create original performances with vulnerable people in some of the toughest contexts in Los Angeles. I admired her courage and tenacity very much and I am sure she will be terribly missed by those whose lives she touched, not in the least place by Beto, her Salvadoran partner and neighbor.

I first met Sally in 1995 when I was researching Chicano theatre in L.A. and writing a booklet together with a colleague at California State University. I was immediately impressed with this tough woman who was making participatory theatre literally in the trenches. I decided to make her Teatro de la Realidad [‘Theatre of Reality’] part of my Community Theatre: Global Perspectives book and video project. Two of her actors eventually featured on the front cover of the Routledge publication (2001). We also managed to bring the Teatro over to ICAF twice, once in 2001, and again in 2008. In between – and after, most every year Sally sent me a letter around Christmas to provide me updates on her personal life and of the Teatro. Sometimes, Samba, who had moved from Holland to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, had to prompt me to respond. On January 6 2022, I received Sally’s final epistle, which sounded eerily like a farewell. I Immediately wrote back to her to check whether her e-mail address was still the same. On the 7th she wrote:

“Yes, Eugene, my e-mail is the same It’s the one you set up for me. Do you remember? I can’t believe how much time has passed. Your family looks so healthy & happy. Carlos is  young man now. Amazing! Is Peggy his girlfriend’s mother? Anyway it was great to hear from you. I look back at everything that we did in 2008 and feel a kind of melancholy because we can’t do anything like that again. But I can write about it and perhaps I will once I close my business since I spend a lot of time writing progress notes etc.

I hope that you and your family are well and I was so happy to hear from you. Happy New year and let’s hope that the pandemic will become dormant. I blame the idiots in part, who refuse to get vaccinated.The United States may become another Germany in the 30’s. That’s my biggest concern right now. And Russia may invade the Ukraine and China may try to take back Taiwan. What a ghastly world this has become!. I hope that Carlos and his generation will not suffer unduly, but do everything that they can to make sure that the planet remains healthy and that war will become extinct at some point. Love, Sally”

I then responded as follows on the 10th:

“Dear Sally,

It’s good to be in touch. I don’t remember setting up your e-mail, but I am glad I did. I was very moved by your Christmas card. It is part of a longer series of reactions I received from people both here at home and further afield about positive impact I seem to have had on lives, careers in a way I never realized at the time. I am just deeply grateful for the opportunities, for they also enriched my life. That was certainly the case with you and the Teatro. Hanging out with you and the actors in Highland Park, staying in Hollywood and then having you come to Rotterdam was unforgettable.

I retired from being head of the Media and Culture Studies department at university this past June and am no longer director of the International Community Arts Festival (ICAF). Both responsibilities I have handed over to relatively young, powerful, gentle and creative women. I continue to do a bit of consulting for them, but other than that I have been doing construction work around the house and have started writing about my life and the strange adventures I have found myself in over the years. I am writing in Dutch and don’t think I will publish it. It is for my son, stepdaughter and their children, if they ever get them. On the photo I sent you, Peggy is the 46-year-old daughter of my wife Ria. 

As I am sure it has been for you, these past two years have been quite tough, although we didn’t have to deal with an ass like Trump. The pandemic has basically forced us to live in isolation most of the time. We are still in lockdown as I write this (only grocery shops and pharmacies are open, no indoor sports, everything closes at 5 PM), so nothing has come of the traveling I had intended to do. Oh well, there are worse things, like my dear sister (69) who died a few months ago of a cerebral hemorrhage. And Ria who suffered a mild stroke last July. Luckily I was there when it happened so I managed to get her to the hospital within the hour, which prevented any serious damage. She is fine now. I am too, barring a few age-related aches and pains that I combat with daily exercise. 

I am glad to hear you are well and plan to write about your experience. You should feel free to use any of my material that you find useful. I may still have a few photographs and some video footage. Please stay healthy and give my warm regards to Beto and anyone else of the Teatro that you are still in touch with and who may remember me. Love, Eugene”

That was the last time we communicated. Sally died of a stroke. Since she will no longer be able to write about her experiences herself, I have dusted off pieces of text I wrote about her and her work in the ‘90s. We have also found some photographs of the Teatro in Highland Park, L.A. in 1997 and at ICAF 2008.

Back to L.A. in the 1990s

The first time I saw Los Angeles for real was in the summer of 1978,when I was 23 and passing through in a beat-up VW bug, on my way from Tijuana to San Francisco. I had just spent three adventurous months south of the border, travelling by bus, boat, and train through Baja California, Guadalajara, the Yucatán, Belize, Guatemala and back to the U.S. via Mexico City. All I saw of L.A. that first time was the cliché: the clogged-up freeways,and a cluster of skyscrapers surrounded by yellowish clouds in the distance. I passed through Los Angeles twice more during the mid eighties and did not really get more thoroughly acquainted with the city until the summer of 1995, when I received a good taste of the top end of the latino theatre world at the South Coast Repertory’s Hispanic Playwrights Project in Orange County and of the text-based avant-garde at what turned out to be the final edition of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival. I was also introduced to Sally Gordon, who was then a part-time instructor at Cal State. She invited me to a performance of ‘La Mujer Hambrienta’ [‘The Hungry Woman’], which she had collectively created with Latina women from Northeast  L.A. In May and June of 1997, I returned to document one of Sally’s new community-based theatre projects. Whereas in 1995 I had lived in Santa Monica, this time New Zealand filmmaker Rod Prosser and I were invited to stay with one of the project participants, who lived in the racially mixed, predominantly working-class, and some say not altogether safe, East Hollywood. Sally’s partner Beto, a Salvadoran refugee, lent us a second-hand pick-up, which was no luxury, given the mess that is L.A.’s public transport system.

Confidently basking in the glory of his recent re-election and as yet unembarrassed by public knowledge of his sexual exploits, President Bill Clinton visited California on June 14, 1997 to deliver a long-awaited speech on racial conciliation. Typically perhaps, the event was scheduled to take place in the attractive confines of one of the state’s more prestigeous institutions of higher learning: the University of California at La Jolla. Clinton’s adress coincided with a heated debate over a new law, Proposition 209, that was intended to dismantle affirmative action for California state employees, including university personnel. At the same time, a new proposal banning most bilingual instruction in California’s public school system was being drafted to complement Proposal 187, which excluded illegal immigrants from such public services as health care. All these measures, purportedly to prevent non-tax-paying undocumented aliens from profiting from facilities paid for by upright tax-paying citizens, only resulted in further tightening the noose around the neck of the ever expanding non-English-speaking underclass. For, just as with the ineffectual war on drugs, neither suppressive legislation nor ultra hi-tec infrared surveillance cameras on the US-Mexico border are going to prevent hundreds of immigrants from daily pouring into L.A. Undoubtedly, the city’s economy would very quickly go down the drain if they did.

It would be pretentious to try and formulate yet another definitive description of Los Angeles. The city’s size, its local politics, its real estate speculations, its multiple ethnicities, its class divisions, its media density, its entertainment industry, its increasingly diverse Spanish-speaking populace, its colorful Mexican-style murals, Chicana lesbianism, the Rodney King beatings, the O.J. Simpson trial, the Northridge earthquake, and countless other issues and speaking positions have already served as starting points for book shelves full of scholarly studies on this eleventh largest city in the world and the more than 16 million Angelino/as who live in it. Hence, to speak with the editors of the multidisciplinary essay collection Rethinking Los Angeles, “it is no coincidence that Los Angeles is held by some to be the prototypical postmodern city” (xi). Their depiction of their hometown seems as good as any:

Casual observers, visitors and residents alike, catch little of the city’s underbelly. They are instead persuaded by the glossy, utopian images of the burgeoing World City — a collage of prosperity, fantasy, and play: the corporate glitter of a downtown citadel; the sunshine, the surf, and mountains; the city as a giant agglomeration of theme parks. Beneath such images is a cityscape more reminiscent of a Third World nation, a dystopia that is increasingly polarized between haves and have-nots, in which neighborhoods increasingly resemble combat zones as warring gangs struggle for turf supremacy. Here, the air, earth, and water are perpetually being poisoned. Here, public responsibility for basic human services, including shelter, education, and health care, are being abdicated (ix-x).

Trying to look with a bird’s eye’s view over the five counties that constitute Greater L.A., say from one of the scenic outlooks coming down from the San Gabriel Mountains on the Angeles Crest Highway, the futility of all these otherwise fascinating attempts to intellectually pinpoint L.A. hit home. They sound spot on but there is so much more to it all, so many more communities and subcultures they overlook and stories they do not tell; yes, even Mike Davis’ uncompromising City of Quartz and Rubén Martínez’ poetic The Other Side.

Limiting the scope to the theatre scene in Los Angeles, a slightly sharper picture emerges, but even here the editors of Rethinking Los Angeles remind us that, “there is no need to go downtown to enjoy the principal entertainment and cultural events of the postmodern city. There are alternative major theatre districts in Pasadena, Hollywood, Long beach, Orange County, and elsewhere. Art, music, and other forms of cultural expression flourish in the formal museums and performance halls scattered throughout the region, as well as informally on the sidewalks of East Los Angeles, South Central and elsewhere” (12). And elsewhere is the place where Sally Gordon works.

Sally Gordon

Sally Gordon is a Boston native of mixed Ukranian-English ancestry. The daughter of an economics professor, she grew up in France in 1949 and 1950 and in England from 1952 until 1955. She began her theatrical career in New York’s Off-Off Broadway during the sixties, occasionally directing in between acting jobs. Her income she supplemented by driving cabs and working in restaurants. From 1972 until 1974, she directed productions for a group called the Undercroft Theatre Company in the basement of a Manhattan church, discovering the thrill of performing for non-theatre audiences through an agency that reimbursed tickets for residents of half-way houses and drug-rehabilition centres. But the community theatre bug really bit her when she began to act and teach drama in primary schools for a professional children’s theatre company operating around rural Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Determined to build further on that eye-opening experience, Gordon moved to Los Angeles in 1975, where she first earned a living as a waitress, as a substitute teacher in the inner city L.A. public schools, and by teaching English as a Second Language for adults. Even in these educational settings she experimented with drama techniques to expand people’s vocabularies. In 1977, Gordon founded The Firebird Theatre Company, which she profiled in her unpublished 1995 M.A. thesis as,

“a curious hybrid of children’s and popular theatre that toured Southern California from 1977-87 with innovative adaptations of myths, folk tales, classical and original plays in its repertory. Most of the productions involved the use of live music, dance, masks, and some form of audience participation which eventually became the  company’s trademark. Performances took place at schools, museums, and libraries; at festivals, in theatres, prisons, and centers for senior citizens; and even in workplaces for physically and mentally handicapped adults. The company was booked into schools almost immediately by Performing Tree and ICAP (Intercultural Awareness Program funded by Title I), two agencies in the area responsible for providing arts programs to young people” (pp. 10-11). 

Shifting From Popular to Participatory Community Theatre

In hindsight, Gordon explains Firebird’s increased politicization as a by-product of frequently performing in low-income rural and inner city schools, where most of the subsidized gigs were available and, as civil conflicts spread across Central America in the early 1980s, a growing number of Salvadorian and Guatemalan refugees resided. Firebird’s experimentations with audience intervention came about somewhat coincidentally. When they were scheduled to start touring a Kabuki version of Grimm’s fairy tale “The Fisherman and his Wife,” they realized that the performance they had prepared was too short to fill a 45-minute class. Gordon therefore decided to invite some of the children on stage to try out different endings to the play, something she had learned from Robert Alexander’s Living Stage Company in Washington, D.C. From then on, Firebird continued working with second endings and audience participation, a technique she perfected through an intensive three-day workshop with Alexander in 1982.

Community participants rehearse in Highland Park, 1997. Photo: Eugene van Erven

The participation of Nicaraguan political theatre company Nixtayolero in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Fringe Festival gave Gordon the final push to plunge into her own outreach work in the more dangerous parts of the city. She read up on Nixtayolero’s philosophy as formulated by its director, Alan Bolt, learning how this company went into rural communities to create theatre with local people about social issues. She was particularly impressed with Bolt’s emphasis on artistry, something which she has also always considered of tantamount importance in her own work.

Bolt’s example of creating art in the revolutionary trenches, Alexander’s audience participation techniques, and decreasing freedom in the Los Angeles school system caused Gordon to temporarily disband Firebird and to found the much more loosely organized Teatro de la Realidad in the Winter of 1984. She joined a Central American solidarity group, travelled to Nicaragua as a Witness for Peace in the summer of 1985, and with a grant from the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, began her first community theatre project. It was a ten-week program of improvizational drama workshops for children aged ten to twelve in an impoverished, predominantly Spanish-speaking part of L.A.  After the grant ran out she continued working there as a volunteer until she received another grant in the middle of 1985.

Being virtually untrained, Gordon learned by doing. She soon found out that art is simply not a priority among the much more urgent economic and social challenges community participants face. She learned four valuable lessons from her early community theatre experiments:

(1) that not every participant is sufficiently equipped to sustain the process necessary to collectively create a full production;

(2) that therefore the best approach is to first work towards the performance of a short piece in a process lasting no longer than a month or two and do so two to four consecutive times;

(3) then create a longer, more challenging piece with the best and most reliable performers from the preceding smaller projects;

(4) to pay the participants a small fee and treat them as professional artists.

In 1986, Gordon created several Central American solidarity performances with inner city youth. In the course of 1987, following what she thinks may have been an attempt by the FBI to misrepresent the company’s connections with Central America, Firebird officially closed its books. That following summer, Sally Gordon travelled to D.C. to work with Robert Alexander in an advanced five-week training program for educators, social workers and theatre artists from around the country.

While obviously attracted to Alexander’s method, Gordon finds him too hard on teachers and his technique less effective outside his secluded and securely funded space in Washington DC. In L.A., she knows, the community artist has to produce measurable results in a relatively short time to satisfy the expectations of municipal politicians or the criteria of private foundations, who fund her projects. Besides, most adult community participants find Alexander’s exercises too abstract or psychologically confronting.

Upon her return from Washington, in the summer of 1989, Gordon conducted a successful drama program for approximately thirty young men at the Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center in South Central. In this project, in which she was assisted by an African American and a Latina actress, she drew heavily on Living Stage exercises. The following year she received an individual artist grant from the City’s Cultural Affairs Department and used it to create a play with illegal Latino street vendors in the Hollywood/Pico-Union area. Within four months, she created a play with a group of thirty kids, teenagers, adults and a few older people. It dealt with the vendors’ struggle for legal status and the feud between two vendors to chair the Street Vendors’ Association, a conflict which Gordon symbolically dramatized as the Aztec myth of The Five Suns. The process had its usual hitches, and an unusual one: the jealous husband of a recently remarried woman came to each rehearsal, constantly interrupting her improvisations, and eventually forcing her to drop out altogether. But the play, entitled Donde caminan los dioses [‘Where the Gods Walk’], also provided a rare moment of satisfaction for the artist in Gordon:

‘Journey to Xibalba’, ICAF 2008. Photo: Roy Goderie.

We had the gods walk through the streets of downtown L.A. to see what had happened to their people. When the Gods came on in their costumes, we had this Andean music. I swear to God, my hair stood on end every performance. There was this one scene about the breath of life for which I was trying to find the image so hard. So I got these yellow balloons to represent the sun, starting with small ones and then bigger ones and then we got the Sun God to put the breath of life into the largest yellow balloon I could buy, accompanied by Andean music. That was the most special moment of my entire life in the theatre. We put this huge balloon into the shopping basket of this real street vendor who was the heroine of the play. She came on wheeling this shopping basket through a wall of fire. She was incredible.

Donde caminan los dioses taught Gordon the benefits of creating a basic scene sequence to which the participants could improvise. She now finds fixed texts require too many boring rehearsals, lead to stilted performances, and allow no flexibility to work in inevitable last-minute replacement actors.

The lack of support from the CARECEN Central American Refugee Center that she had chosen as a performance venue was more than compensated by the relative financial independence through her individual artist grant, which gave Gordon complete autonomy. It enabled her to recruit someone to organize transport for the participants and to hire a few professional artists to raise the performance level. The project thus succeeded in giving the street vendors a voice, a human face, and a nominal improvement of their status. But one success does not automatically engender another. In the second half of 1993 and the first few months of 1994, Sally Gordon learned this lesson the hard way as she tried to conduct two simultaneous projects, one in the run-down Pico-Union district bordering on the infamous MacArthur Park, and the other in South Central.

The Pico-Union project was an attempt to create a series of short open-ended plays with residents of a housing estate and present them in the vein of Boal’s Forum Theatre. In hindsight, however, Gordon realized that Forum Theatre only works with actors thoroughly trained in creatively and quickly responding to ‘spect-actors’ (77). The venue she chose to work in, a community center offered to her by the Pico-Union Housing Authority, was out of the way, and teenagers, fearing ridicule from their gang and tagging-crew buddies, hard to come by. Only four locals ended up participating in the two Pico-Union performances of Un Cholo en las puertas del cielo [‘A Gangster at the Gates of Heaven’]; the rest of the cast Sally had to recruit among professional Latino actors she knew and participants from previous projects. The play was about a Latino teenage gangster, a cholo, who is killed in a drive-by and, disoriented, arrives at the Pearly Gates, which he sprays grafitti on. An enraged Saint Peter wants to kick him into the lower depths but the cholo’s sister, also shot dead, intercedes on his behalf with the Virgen de Guadelupe. Before the Holy Mother decides to admit him, however, she requests to review the boy’s life, after which the play transforms into a dramatized collage of true stories told by the community participants. Instead of a neat ending, the Virgin and the cholo step forward to ask the audience whether they think he should be admitted to heaven and why they thought he had died at such a young age. In response, many spectators refused to accept communal responsibility for the boy’s problems, laying the blame instead squarely with Anglos who discriminate against the immigrant labor force.

Rehearsal in Highland Park, 1997. Photo: Eugene van Erven

Gordon, who was clearly disappointed in the audience’s reaction to Un Cholo, harbors similarly negative recollections of the multiple-layered, year-long project she conducted for young gang members in South Central. During the first three-month phase of their work with the 40 juvenile delinquents, Gordon and her two female colleagues ran warm-up and improvisation exercises for two three-hour sessions a week. These activities, many of which Gordon and her team-mates adapted from Boal and Alexander, took place in the gym of camp Karl Holton, a closed residential reform school for young offenders, whose crimes ranged from petty theft to murder. They receive schooling within the fenced compound, which also has an old gym and occupies its residents with woodwork, ground maintenance, and kitchen assistance. The main purpose of Gordon’s team was to build mutual trust and cooperation among the group (dominated by African Americans and Latinos) before venturing into improvisations. After three months, Gordon’s team applied the same approach to a second group. 

In January 1994, Gordon began the second phase of her South Central project at a special continuation high school for a group of about fifteen young men and women on probation. She wanted to create an open-ended play with them based on their lives. In the process, she kept an eye out for the most reliable participants in the batch, four of whom she wanted to train so that they could act as co-facilitators in another ten-week drama program with a third group of their peers at Camp Horton. Her ultimate goal was to prepare these trainees to independently conduct drama workshops at two South Central elementary schools. This last phase of Gordon’s project, intended to consolidate the self-esteem and the newly found creativity of the participants by practising a professional skill in an educational environment, Sally Gordon regards as the most successful part of her work with juvenile delinquents.

Gordon feels that community theatre interventions with ‘at-risk’ youth are doomed to fail, because it is impossible to break down gang rivalries and so many youngsters are too psychologically traumatized to open up to artistic processes, which require high levels of trust and cooperation. The real problem is that they return to their old neighborhoods, where it does not take very long to fall back in the old ways of life. Yet, Sally believes her program “was important even though most of the young men have died or are probably now serving long-term sentences in jail. I hope some of them return every now and then to the memory they had of playing like children and feeling safe even though rival gang members were in the same room.”

‘Journey to Xibalba’, ICAF 2008. Photo: Roy Goderie.

Anthony Cyriak, whose story about the gang-related murder of his brother Max formed the plot for the play Gordon developed at the probation high school in the project’s second phase, has mostly positive recollections:

“When Max got shot I was only rapping and playing basketball. When I got involved with Sally’s project it brought something out in me I didn’t know I had, because of the violence I had been in. I discovered I could act and that I can express myself well verbally. I could help kids younger than me to teach them a different way than I was going through. Afterwards, I ran some workshops myself at Manchester Elementary and some other places. It was nice. The kids understood, listened and had fun.”

Although he has not acted since 1994, Anthony, now a young father, is trying to make an honest living, working in restaurants and writing hip hop poetry. Periodically encouraged by Gordon, he is considering a college education.

Drama Therapy and Community Theatre

While her projects in South Central and Pico-Union were frustrating, Free Arts for Abused Children, an organization that gets professional artists to donate time to teach kids, asked her to conduct a theatre workshop at the Hathaway Family Resource Centre in Highland Park. It meant the beginning of a fruitful but occasionally rocky collaboration that resulted in Gordon’s fulltime employment as the Center’s Arts Facilitator in 1995.

Gordon’s ‘Life Scripts’ program has become a crucial take-off point for her community theatre activities. A combination of Alexander influences and Life History (Perlstein) and Life Review (Butler) methods she encountered studying drama therapy, she explains that her ‘Life Scripts’ cycles last six to eight weeks and involve a great deal of visual arts: 

“I may tell them to pick a piece of paper in a color that expresses how they feel at that moment. Then they scribble on it, pass it on to a partner, who has to find images in it. What happens then is that all these experiences start pouring out, because some image will trigger a response. It is kind of a shortcut to therapy, because things happen really fast. Another way would be instead of talking about a problem, to draw it – ‘what is the biggest problem on your mind right now?  Draw it!’ – And your partner will draw a solution. You try not to give advice. You could draw your body: what is in your heart, your groin, your head, etc. Trust building is a major part of this process. Then you begin a dialogue that everybody else can share in, which then lead to short theatrical improvisations.”

‘Life Scripts’ participants who demonstrate an interest in continuing to do drama are invited to participate in Gordon’s community theatre projects, which, although still based on people’s lives, move beyond therapy into the realm of art. Typically, these plays are made with additional financial support from an external grant and are presented as coproductions of Hathaway with Teatro de la Realidad. One of the first of these follow-ups involved a group of Mexican and Central American migrant women frequenting the Hathaway Family Resource Center. For several months in 1995, Gordon collaborated with them on a play in Spanish based on their own experiences and those in their community. The women performed the resulting piece, La Mujer hambrienta [‘The Hungry Woman’] for friends, relatives, and neighbors in the Hathaway parking lot. 

Scene from ‘Saquen La Sopa Ya!’, 1997. Photo: Eugene van Erven

On 24 August 1995, I witnessed a repeat performance of La Mujer hambrienta for mothers and children at the nearby Monte Vista elementary school. The women proudly showed me the Aztec masks and goddess costumes they had made for the mythical prologue and epilogue of their play. With gusto, they then took the audience of forty through eight scenes of migration, macho abuse, and exploitation bracketed by a dramatization of the Aztec myth of an insatiably hungry woman, representing Mother Earth. The play thus traces the fire into the frying pan escape of a spiritually famished young woman named Soledad from the abuse of her husband in Mexico (played by the actual abused woman) to various instances of exploitation in Los Angeles. We witness her ill-fated attempts to find a job, friendship, and a home. Soledad obviously represented many Mexican and Central American women in L.A. who, besides food and shelter for their families, yearn for respect and love.

Since that summer, Gordon has continued to develop educational plays on issues prompted by actual occurrences in the Highland Park community, such as the destructive effects of gossip (Chisme Caliente) and discrimination of the disabled (La Mariposa rosa). She also continues experimenting with Forum Theatre for young audiences in local high schools. Every summer since 1996 she has been directing artistically more gratifying large-scale theatrical events in the local park. These massive enterprises, which usually involve oversize Bread and Puppet-style puppets, live music, and scores of community participants working alongside a few professional artists, are invariably held together by some legend or myth that encapsulates a more realistic community tale. Thus, the 1996 show about gang violence followed the narrative line of a 5,000-year-old Sumerian-Babylonian story about the struggles of the mythic king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, against his enemies. A professional African American actor played the lead with a Latino mortician in the role of Gilgamesh’s friend Enkidu. In a naturalistically mounted prologue, these two, dressed in rival gang attire, encounter one another in the park, exchange insults and start a shoot-out. Gordon had talked four real-life paramedics from the L.A. Fire Department into carrying the two heroes off on a stretcher, surrounded by a large group of actors and volunteers dressed up as Sumerians. In the play’s epilogue, the two heroes make peace lying on their ambulance stretchers:

“In the original version of the myth, [Gilgamesh] fails in both his quests: to bring his friend back from the Underworld and to learn the secret of immortality. It’s a great story and I think that many of the audience members were moved by what they saw and experienced. I wanted the audience to go on that journey with Gilgamesh, who traveled to the back of beyond to try to find his ancestor Utnapishtim (the first Noah) who was the only mortal to live forever. I wanted the young people in the audience to realize clearly that once you pull the trigger, there is no turning back.”

Frustrating Victories

Gordon tries to infuse some sense of continuity in her community theatre endeavors. Her long-term vision is to develop an ensemble of community actors with whom she can achieve greater artistry. But four of the Mujer hambrienta participants, who had been part of Chisme Caliente and Mariposa rosa, dropped out of Gilgamesh due to a variety of domestic pressures, including a husband who threatened to leave his wife if she continued. Despite such setbacks, three other ‘hungry women’ rejoined the 1997 project that we documented and, since then, have also participated in the large-scale 1998 outdoor event based on the Egyptian ‘Isis and Osiris’ myth. Fragile as they are, the outdoor myth tradition in the park and the Teatro de la Realidad ensemble are slowly becoming a reality.

Gordon has to overcome many frustrations: professional artists who do not take community theatre seriously and deliver less than promised; unreliable volunteers; a social service agency as employer which proclaims to see the benefits of communal art but not the enormous energy it requires. A week or two before a premiere, Gordon can therefore sound utterly pessimistic about her work, arguing that, at best, it only has a therapeutic effect on an individual level. But the trainee concept she first tried out in the 1993 South-Central probation project has continued to pay off in Highland Park as well. Several women from La Mujer hambrienta now have steady jobs.

Sally Gordon’s community theatre method gets deep under the participants’ skin and consequently requires a great deal of trust, guts, energy, and determination on the part of both the facilitating artist and the group. Gordon’s techniques, a mix of Alexander, Boal, Barker and other theatre educators, are undoubtedly effective, particularly because of the integrity, commitment and sensitivity with which she implements them. At the same time, she demands a lot from herself, from the groups she works with, and from the organizations she works for. As a result, Sally Gordon, whose reluctance to compromise is both her strength and her weakness, gets frequently frustrated when others do not meet her high standards. Such disappointments come with the difficult territory she has chosen to work in and the formidable challenge she has set herself to create participatory theatre that also satisfies her own artistic yearnings out of communally relevant personal stories.


Alexander, Robert (1983) Improvisational Theatre for the Classroom, Washington,D.C.: The Living Stage Theatre Company, 1983.

—— (1994) Healing Our Society Through Creativity: Understanding Your Birthright as an Artist, Living Stage Theatre Company.

Barker, Clive (1977) Theatre Games, New York: Drama Book Specialists.

Boal, Augusto (1992) Games for Actors and Non-Actors, London: Routledge.

Butler, Robert (1963) ‘The Life Review: an Interpretation of Reminiscence in the Aged’, Psychiatry 20 : 65-76.

Davis, Mike (1992) City  of Quartz: Excavating the Future In Los Angeles, NewYork: Vintage.

Dear, Michael J., H. Eric Schockman, and Greg Hise (eds) (1996) Rethinking Los Angeles,  Thousand Oaks, CAL: Sage Publications.

Erven, Eugene van (1996) ‘When Sally Met José: Chicano Theatre in L.A. From Grassroots to Mainstream’, New Theatre Quarterly 12, 48 (November): 356-367.

—— (2001) Community Theatre: Global Perspectives. London: Routledge.

Gordon, Sally (1994) ‘The Use of Theatre as Social therapy in Three Community Settings: Los Angeles, 1985-1995’, Unpublished M.A. Thesis, California State University at Los Angeles.

Martínez, Rubén (1993) The Other Side: Notes From the New L.A., Mexico City, and Beyond, New York; Vintage.

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