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Hysterical Historiography – Part Two

In this, the second installment of a two part interview, playwright and Times Quotidian contributor Rita Valencia speaks with associate artistic director (and co-founder) Lex Steppling about his motivations to form the new Los Angeles based laboratory theater group, Gunfighter Nation. Gunfighter Nation debuts “The Alamo Project” at the Odyssey Theater, May 28th and 29th, 10:30pm.

Gunfighter Nation presents The Alamo Project
An Interview with Rita Valencia and Alexis Steppling

I meet Alexis Steppling, associate artistic director (and co-founder) of Gunfighter Nation, in an Altadena coffee house where he is hanging out with his wife Suzanne and their toddler daughter, the lovely and good-natured Stella. Lex has a friend along who is wearing a fitted tee-shirt and tells us he has just passed the bar exam with the intention of becoming an entertainment attorney. This is a very complex world, I am thinking, as the late middle-aged man starts singing a folk song. The friend leaves and Lex and I retire to a table in front, where it’s quiet except for a nervous female vocalist waiting to perform, who it turns out, knows Lex slightly from high school and wants to chat. Alas.

Rita Valencia: How did Gunfighter Nation emerge into your life, and why?

Lex Steppling: A long story…Since my teens I’ve had many experiences of building spaces for change.

RV: What do you mean by the word “space”?

LS: In my teens I was having a pretty hard time of it, and then I went to a transformative camp program “Brotherhood/Sisterhood”, run by a group called National Conference for Community and Justice. It was an intensive experiential program about breaking down barriers, encountering racial, gender and class issues. In America we are hyper-obsessed with class bias around difference. The goal at the camp was to build a safe environment, to acknowledge, take responsibility for bias. People would fight, scream, dialogue in a frank way. Then we realized, experientially, it was possible to make positive change. Breaking down barriers is not pretty…encounters around these issues are cathartic.

So this first “space” for me was a physical place where accountability, responsibility and trust existed, where transformation could come about.

I continued to work with the organization, eventually became a counselor at the camp, got involved in community organizing with different groups…and it gave me the opportunity to travel to Cuba and then to Venezuela under an educational research license. There, people did not have a black and white viewpoint about the revolution, but there were acutely aware of their sovereignty.

In my travels, working in public health and other community issues, too often in these contexts, critical thought was never encouraged, nor was asking questions.

Socialists and communists organized with goals for certain projects–and you do gain skills in that way.

But often activism is doing for the sake of doing. There are signifiers to being an activist. Some of these folks still have a doomed ideological Che Guevara syndrome: “worship me for saving the world”… There is only so much to be done against Capital. Revolutionary language does not work. To think change comes from protest is ridiculous. It’s not enough. I want to work to create functional models. Make a space for people to come to solutions…meet the practical needs of communities: FOOD, SHELTER and EDUCATION (read, writing, arithmetic) If you want people to change…you have to do something tangible…for instance feed them by creating a community garden, create a sustainable experience.

RV: How did your activism start to engage with the arts?

LS: I had a turning point doing this show called Soul Rebel Radio on KPFK…I hooked up with some of my rap buddies and we decided to do these skits about issues in current events. We started with a six month commitment, and though I left it a couple of years ago, now the program’s been going 5 years.

I don’t think of myself as an artist, or writer. If you want something to happen you do what you have to do. It was my goal with the KPFK show to get younger people to listen…I wrote plays as part of that project.

Every step is a SPACE. There are skills that one learns, which arise from hands-on practice, with resources to exchange–not just cooperatives, not just living off the grid — such living doesn’t exist…

Gunfighter Nation is a way to bring people together to be better artists and to create a space for critical thought and developing a critical vocabulary, a space of discipline where people really are learning, primarily: “DON’T look at things a-historically.”

It’s also a space for youth to learn from elders and elders from youth.

I’ve brought in friends, Efe, the drummer who was a friend from childhood…a friend who’s a stand up comedian…

RV: What did your friends in the activist community have to say about this project? Any resistance?

LS: Many agreed that old models are fixed on IDENTITY. “I’m a somebody in the activist community”… you take on certain signifiers, and reject others.

This group (Gunfighter Nation) is intentionally ambiguous.

RV: Art is all about ambiguity. How does this work in The Alamo Project, where you’re taking on an historical subject with so many facets?

LS: Memory itself is ambiguous. The Alamo is all about Revisionism, history under attack, deconstructing an American myth.

The way language is debased [through mass culture] it can mean anything. Lots of people don’t know how to read, or don’t choose to read…but they are literate in new ways. Language is changing…but we must try not to shy away from how it changes, but head first into it…with skills…conditioning–if we continue to find signifiers that keep us in a comfortable place we’ll never get anywhere.

We have to engage with each other instead of nestling into our own circles; question each other with respect, not validate, but challenge one another.

Art triggers critical thought. Euphoric or painful…

The Alamo project will put people in a strange place…it’s a relentless and weird deconstruction of western revisionism…after the show, in the night and the days that follow, each person will have echoes, hopefully for a long time to come.

RV: Is there a goal for Gunfighter Nation?

LS: As a group we need to shed any kind of vanguard mentality.

We are throwing stones into the water, making ripples.

Comments

  1. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Among other things, I love how savvy Lex is about the pitfalls of identifying too much with activism. It’s of course extremely challenging to avoid, given how our longing for a fixed identity tends to subsume nearly everything we do. Given more space I would love to hear Lex talk more about the influence of his late grandmother Harriet, who was such a compelling force in terms of activism and right effort, and I’m sure an influence on both John and Lex. But this sober and clear-sighted restraint when it comes to activism is visible everywhere in those I know in Lex’s generation. Speaking as a child of the 60s generation, in all it’s narcissistic glory, I have to say it’s a very encouraging development…!

  2. Miguel Paredes says:

    That’s my Homeboy Lex! Thanks for the Shout Out to Soul Rebel Radio… Down with the Vanguard!
    PEACE
    PS Free Gerardo Gomez

  3. Rita Valencia says:

    Thanks Guy…I have to say that in our interview, Lex spoke at length about his extraordinary grandmother and the key role she had in his education, about her erudition, and her utopian vision. And it was my editorial decision, be that as it may, to leave out alot of fascinating personal narrative. The concept here was to create a picture of the poles of thinking between father and son, which I saw as one of the most interesting aspects of the Gunfighter Nation project…hopefully more to come!

  4. Lex Steppling has a way with words. Went to these camps with him and he was always mixin’ words up and expressing himself with a musical beat-laced message. The notion of artist over activist has been on my mind as well!!! It’s such a fascinating idea, Lex, to create “The Space” as you emphasize for us to individually and collectively reach solutions. It’s really special to have you capture what happened at camp in this scope. The way you describe it helps me see it in a new way. I hope to participate in your Gunfighter Nation project!

  5. Oh wait, that’s the name of the play. I mean the pedagogical consortium. Whatever your puttin’ on, I’d love to participate 🙂

  6. Fred Hornbeck says:

    Leon Martell along with John and Lex Steppling were joined by many others including Rita Valencia and Jeptha Storm in writing the several vignettes that constitute Gunfighter Nation’s “The Alamo Project.” The two Stepplings were joined by other capable directors in guiding a very capable cast to a refreshingly wonderful and provoking evening of theatre. Thank you, Rita, for the interviews with John and Lex and for your own direct contribution to the production.

  7. Sweet ,thanks for posting.Such a great post.

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