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An interview with John Malpede
A good survival strategy - Theater

Part 1 - Mobilizing homeless people

Interview by Nic Paget-Clarke
Whitesburg, Kentucky

The following interview with John Malpede is part of a series of interviews with some of the members of a group of 25 artists from around the U.S. and Canada who went to Kentucky and Virginia to participate in the initial stages of a multi-year, multi-site community art project sponsored by the American Festival Project. The American Festival Project is based in Whitesburg, Kentucky with Appalshop, a regional community arts center. Also see: Fred Campbell, Rodrigo Duarte Clark, Harrell Fletcher, Shannon Hummel, Stephanie Juno, Suzanne Lacy, Robbie McCauley, Nobuko Miyamoto.

Mobilizing homeless people

John Malpede: My name is John Malpede and I live in Los Angeles.

In Motion Magazine: What do you do in your community?

John Malpede: In the city of Los Angeles, I started a long time ago and continue to run, at least until something changes, a theater for people who live in the Skid Row neighborhood. Skid Row is a socially-contrived neighborhood, a designed neighborhood, a container for homeless people, where missions, drug programs, free food, formerly blood banks, and single-room occupancy hotels are concentrated and where, if you apply to the county welfare as a homeless person, you will probably get sent. The theater is called the Los Angeles Poverty Department.

In Motion Magazine: What does the theater do?

John Malpede: The theater is for people who live in the neighborhood. We do free workshops. Anyone in the neighborhood can come in and be involved in making up original shows and presenting them in the neighborhood and outside of the neighborhood.

Before I started it, I was investigating homelessness as a performance artist and I fell in it as a volunteer with all these activists and lawyers who were working on poverty issues, both through class action lawsuits against the county of Los Angeles and those responsible for social welfare, and with homeless people with something called the Homeless Organizing Team that was mobilizing homeless people and marching on the Board of Supervisors.

I started volunteering with these people and as a result I was able to write this performance trading on their good will about the situation there. It was about the situation there but it was also hallucinated and funny and had a lot of inside information because of where I was helping out.

I just kept coming back there. Within six months I was working there as a volunteer and then they offered me a job as a welfare advocate, which I took. At the same time, I had started writing grants to the California Arts Council. I took the job and four or five months later I started doing these workshops for homeless people that took place in the free law center when the lawyers weren’t there. In the evenings and on the weekends.

It was a hare-brained idea except for the fact that it was integrated into the accumulated good will of all these people who had been working in the community and for that reason it took off.

In Motion Magazine: There are performances in the area for the homeless people to attend?

John Malpede: Yes.

In Motion Magazine: It still goes on?

John Malpede: Yes.

A good survival strategy

In Motion Magazine: Tell me more.

John Malpede: Initially, as I said, the workshops were housed at this free law center in the evening. I was working for Legal Aid at the time and my boss also gave me some time off to do one of the workshops at a day center for mentally ill homeless men called “Los Angeles Men’s Place” which was a block and a half from the law clinic.

John Malpede and yo-yo.
John Malpede demonstrates how to use one of the yo-yo's manufactured at the recycling center in Whittesburg. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
From the beginning we’ve never had a space other than a little business office in Echo Park. We’ve always used spaces out of law centers, day centers, drug programs, shelters.

It’s been a good survival strategy, number one, because it didn’t cost anything, and it’s been good for developing ties with people. At the same time, we’ve maintained our own autonomy in the sense that we do whatever we want. Over the years, we’ve been able to gain respect and form alliances, partnerships with a really diverse group of organizations that also work in the area. For example, religiously-based drug programs. The only way something like that can work is with mutual respect. We’ve been able to find that place in what they are doing and they’ve been able to find that place in what we are doing. Which is very good.

The original and abiding goals of the group are to create community on Skid Row which we have done to some small extent, and to get the un-wall-papered word of life on Skid Row out to the rest of the world, the rest of Los Angeles. That involves doing shows both in the neighborhood and taking them out of the neighborhood.

In the beginning, we became a surprising hit and were asked to go to a lot of other places, but recently we haven’t been asked to go to a lot of other places. Most of what we do is in the neighborhood or in some conveniently located theaters at the edge of the neighborhood. In any case we invite people from Los Angeles to come to see the work.

Mostly, the people that come are people from the neighborhood. Different organizations send people in groups to the shows. The whole company is from the area so the people who they know come, though that is a lot more attenuated than in most theater companies, friends and family. Here, most people don’t have that many friends and family who know where they are. We are well-known in the neighborhood and new people join just because they know someone who is interested in the theater and they tell them, “Oh, you should go and check this out.” We have a lot of word of mouth.

“Call Home”, which started from a statistic

In Motion Magazine: What are some of the themes of the pieces the company creates?

John Malpede: They aren’t usually the story of how I hit the street but sometimes they are. For example, in one of the earlier pieces we did, somebody was thrown out of a fourth story window and lived to tell about it. That was literally how he hit the street.

We like to get the multi-dimensionality of everybody and enjoy their uniqueness. Not the one story they have about being homeless but the million stories they have about who they are. We did one show for example that is called “Call Home” which started from a statistic.

The statistic was that most homeless people haven’t seen their families or friends in over a year. We got a wonderful homeless artist in the neighborhood to make a mural that we made into a phone booth and we put it out into the street. We dragged a phone out of the law office and stuck it out in the phone booth and we let anybody walking down the street make a free phone call to a loved one anywhere in the world. While this was going on we were having rehearsal inside, as well as coffee and donuts. These were certain kinds of incentives for people to get involved for the long haul.

That turned out to be a wonderful activity, even better than we thought it might be. People called Central America, Africa, everywhere in the world. They really liked that. They couldn’t believe they were getting a chance to do that. Meanwhile we were making up the show inside.

The show, between the time when we got the idea and the time when we did the idea, was in “grant time”. In “grant time”, by the time you get the money, you’ve done the show already, lost interest, or figured out a way of re-inventing it. In this case, by the time we ended up doing the show, there had been a couple of dramatic events in our company, which we regarded as family or home. Those events became two of the themes of the show. The third theme of the show was childhood memories of home.

The childhood memories were evolved in a leisurely sort of way, in the sense that we would get involved in the activity and try to engage with it until something showed up. Specifically, I remember asking every one to play as children, as they would have as a child. Pick a place where you are playing as a child by yourself. Do it. Take an hour and get into it. The purpose of it was to create your experience. Feel like you were actually re-creating that experience by being involved, being involved, being involved. For an hour. See what the quality of that experience was going to be. Or where it was going to take you. Or what was going to show up. Part of the material evolved that way and it had a very different quality from the other material which was two court room scenarios based on the two events that had happened to people in our group.

One event involved a guy in the group who had been on the street a number of times. He also had a long history of serious mental problems. He was very flamboyant and visual as a human being. He had witnessed a murder of a prostitute in his hotel by a trick. He was a witness for the prosecution.

The well-meaning public defender, doing his job, started calling people in the company, like me who had a phone, and saying, “Hi, I’m the well-meaning public defender and I’d like to talk to you about this individual.” “Isn’t he known to embroider the truth and maybe hallucinate a little bit? Go off the deep end?” If anybody said, “Yes” to those questions then they were going to get a subpoena to be a witness for the defense and discredit this person’s testimony.

No one stepped forward but he was nevertheless discredited on the witness stand by the enterprising public defender. He was humiliated. It shows you how convoluted things get. How things can get turned upside down and twisted and involved.

The other scenario that was working its way out was, there was a woman in our group who ended up dead in her hotel. At first, we heard that she had been murdered by a man and her head had been beaten in. As we pursued it, to find out what had happened, and to try and get the body so we could do a burial, we found out that that wasn’t what had happened to her. It turned out she had had a drug overdose. Also we couldn’t get the body back because we weren’t actually related to her.

In the show, both Michael’s humiliation and the continuing revelations about what had happened to this woman played out as the different childhood memories were interspersed.

There was a lot of reflection about our role as a surrogate family and a lot of frustration about our ability to function successfully, to deal with these situations.

The show was set up as a court room scene. We didn’t have any props, but people were standing there as if in court. Meanwhile, there’s a woman’s body lying in front of the court room the whole time which referred to, obviously, the woman in our company who had died, and also the woman who Michael had witnessed being murdered. In fact, the woman on the floor turned out to be the mother of one of the people in the company who’s childhood memory was his mother had locked herself in her room and wouldn’t see him all day. He was banging on the door and saying, “I’m afraid you’ve been taken away, or turned into a ghost.” Finally, she opens up the door. That was a harrowing experience in a different way.

That show told a lot about life on Skid Row.

Reverse the cycle

The most recent show we did was a duet with a movie and the movie was called Red Beard. It’s a classic Kurosawa movie. It’set in a rural medical clinic in feudal Japan. It’s a very powerful story about the nature of poverty. We did it in a small room at one of the hotels in the neighborhood, maybe 20 feet wide by thirty feet long. We had ten of our actors on one side of the room with the TV in the middle. There was ten feet in between and two rows of audience on the other side. It was a very balanced environment and a teeny environment. We did twelve shows like that.

The movie showed in Japanese with no subtitles. It was quite demanding because the cast did the lines in sync with the movie. They were either in front of the movie or along side of it so they couldn’t really watch it and they did the lines and acted it out in different ways, not literally, but by foreshadowing or abstracting certain things from certain actions.

There was a kind of dissonance and resonance. It was about the abiding nature of the problems woven into poverty, on the one hand, and on the other it was a Japanese movie with a contemporary American cast from the inner city of Los Angeles, mostly African American and Latino and white.

The theme of the movie is how to reverse the cycle of degradation that comes through victimization. How to turn that upside down. The movie is three and a half hours long. We only did the first hour and forty-five minutes which is quite long as it was. We stopped when things start to turn around. You see it start to happen.

There’s some really grizzly stories. Two older men die. The first one dies alone without saying a word. Then, right after he dies, his daughter comes in and you hear his whole story. He had been victimized by betrayals by his wife, etc. He was humiliated by all this and he couldn’t tell any body what had happened to him.

The next guy dies but before he dies, while he was sick, he works to make money for the other sick patients. Everyone is bemoaning his death. Before he dies, he gathers everyone around him because he says he wants to die with no secrets. He tells an equally entangled story about the woman he was in love with and her suicide, etc. etc. Then he dies.

The main issue of the movie, as I said, is how to reverse the cycle of hurt and victimization. I was talking about it with the cast before the first show and raising these questions of isolation and community and one of them said, “This is just like what happens in 12-step programs. The whole idea of 12-step programs like alcoholics anonymous is that it’s a fellowship of addicts and the way to get out of your own suffering, your own victimization, is by helping other people. The way they get out is by helping you.” That totally explained the movie. It was really brilliant. That’s what our most recent show was about.

Published in In Motion Magazine October 21, 2000