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.
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.