Ten new plays produced by Latino theater companies from around the United States will have their world premieres in downtown Los Angeles in 2014, in the inaugural installment of a National Latino Theater Festival and Conference that's envisioned as a biennial event.

The festival, still in its planning stages, came to light Tuesday when the National Endowment for the Arts announced a round of grants that includes $50,000 to the L.A.-based Latino Theater Company, which will host the gathering at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

The festival's artistic director is Jose Luis Valenzuela, leader of the Latino Theater Company.

"It's a big, big project, a time for each company to show their best work," Valenzuela said. "We're trying to create some sort of a movement, to begin a national dialogue."

He said the projected budget is about $1.2 million for a three-month festival in the spring of 2014. Four plays will run concurrently -- one on each of LATC's four stages -- for up to four weeks each. After a play has premiered at the festival, the home company that developed it and staged it in L.A. will mount a subsequent production in its own city.

Along with the plays, Valenzuela foresees panel discussions and theater workshops, carrying forward a broader conversation about the direction of Latino theater and the kinds of stories that need to be told to represent today's Latino experience.

"Most of the [Latino] companies don't travel, they're more production-oriented within their own communities, and we sometimes don't see their work or exchange ideas," Valenzuela said. "It's a way to create more understanding of the work going on in other cities."

Besides giving impetus to commissioning the plays, Valenzuela said, the NEA grant figures to give the nonprofit festival a helpful seal of approval as it seeks funding from other sources.

A veteran stage director and UCLA theater professor, Valenzuela couldn't recall a comparable national gathering since the early 1980s, when TENAZ (Teatro Nacional de Aztlan, or National Theater of Aztlan), a consortium of Chicano theaters launched in the early 1970s, stopped sponsoring annual festivals.

"The new theater-makers weren't even born. Now it's a broader landscape," Valenzuela said, and the 2014 festival will encompass artists and stories from all Latino-American backgrounds.

Valenzuela said the festival sprang from discussions among Latino theater leaders who met in Washington and Boston under the auspices of the Center for the Theater Commons, an organization that supports nonprofit theater. The process for choosing the plays and producing companies is still being honed, he said.

The play-picking process "has to be a very careful dialogue, so that people don't feel alienated from it, and they'll know they'll still be part of it," even if a given company's submission isn't chosen to be produced, Valenzuela said. "We want to know what writers are writing, how many stories are out there that haven't been told."

Organizers have begun compiling a database of Latino theater artists that now numbers 167 individuals, he said, with an eye toward canvassing the field for ideas and submissions.

"We know who the major ones are. People are trying to let us know who we should see and talk to, and who may be doing wonderful work off the radar," Valenzuela said. Festival selections are to be announced at a preliminary Latino theater conference tentatively scheduled for August 2013 at DePaul University in Chicago.

Overall, the last round of grants under Rocco Landesman, the 2009 President Obama appointee who recently announced he'll step down as NEA chairman at the end of the year, totaled $23.3 million, including $3.73 million to 136 recipients in California.

Southern California performing arts grants include $100,000 for the Los Angeles Philharmonic's March 2013 staging of John Adams' oratorio "The Gospel According to the Other Mary," which had its premiere last spring in concert form; $60,000 for Los Angeles Opera's March-April performances of Rossini's "La Cenerentola"; $43,000 to the Pacific Chorale to commission, perform and record "Acts of Creation," a choral work by Jake Heggie that will premiere in 2014; and $40,000 to East West Players for the February world premiere of Eddie Borey's "Christmas in Hanoi."

Museum grants include $60,000 to the Orange County Museum of Art for its 2014 retrospective, "Siah Armajani: Citizen Artist"; $55,000 to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for "Chinese Paintings from Japanese Collections," described as "the first exhibition in America to explore the history of collecting Chinese paintings in Japan"; and $50,000 to UCLA's Hammer Museum for a retrospective on Llyn Foulkes.

mike.boehm@latimes.com ___

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