Hollywood may just be an hour away, but it takes more than pluck and talent to build a career in entertainment. It requires a unique skill set, a degree of insider knowledge and connections. The Institute of Latino Performing Arts at Oxnard College is addressing those needs for stage and screen hopefuls, and has invigorated the Oxnard theater scene at the same time.

When the institute opened in the fall of 2013, one of its main goals was to put “performance” back in the performance center, which had been underutilized since Oxnard College downsized music and dance offerings a few years earlier. College brass — including President Richard Durán and Jamillah Moore, chancellor of the Ventura County Community College District — wanted to see the state-of-the-art facility operational. “The institute partly came about due to the fact that we had a practically brand-new performing arts center on campus,” explains Ken Sherwood, dean of Liberal Studies at Oxnard College and one of the institute’s founders.

The other core mission was to revive the school’s languishing performing arts curriculum, with particular emphasis on reaching Latino students, who make up more than 60 percent of the student body. That’s where the institute’s creative director, Rick Najera came in. A writer, director and comedian with years of experience both in Hollywood and on Broadway, Najera has spent the last 10 years trying to increase diversity in the entertainment industry. From his Broadway show Latinologues to directing the CBS Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase and his work with NPR, Najera has sought to raise the profile of Latinos in Hollywood and beyond. “Latinos consume something like 70 percent of all media,” Najera broadly estimates, “But we’re only seen in about 5 percent of the top-grossing films.”

Najera had crossed paths with Sherwood and Moore at Los Angeles City College. They hoped he would breathe new life into the performing arts program and capitalize on the diversity of the Oxnard College student body. “I know [VCCCD] wanted me to work in Oxnard because they’ve seen my work at the network level,” Najera says. “With Oxnard being 70 percent Latino, it’s the perfect place to start.”

Thanks to Najera’s connections and vision, the institute’s inaugural year featured an impressive lineup. Writer Alisa Valdes, actor Edward James Olmos and actor Esai Morales all gave talks in 2014. Esteemed bilingual theater company Teatro de las Americas has settled in as Artist in Residence at the center’s black box theater. The critically acclaimed comedy stage production N*GGER WETB*CK CH*NK and musical Sweet 15 (Quinceañera) played to full houses. “The public reaction has been fantastic,” Sherwood says. “The community has turned out in large numbers. I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for finally doing this.’ ”

Elite productions like these have been a boon for Oxnard College students as well. Several performed in Najera’s comedy Latinologues in May, working alongside professional actors, and a few even went with the production when it toured Southern California. It’s this kind of hands-on, real-world performance experience that the institute wants to provide. “We’re making a connection between Oxnard and Hollywood,” Sherwood says. “We want students to see that a career in the performing arts is possible.”

While the institute has provided a platform for Latino work and performers, it is, ultimately, an inclusive program. “You don’t have to be Latino to go to the institute. It’s about broadening to more cultures and being more inclusive,” Najera says. “You don’t have to be diverse to support diversity.” Sherwood agrees, adding, “This is an opportunity to increase employment opportunities available to our students. As an instrument of equity, we are creating opportunities for students of underprivileged circumstances — many of them have not had these kinds of chances before.”

An exciting lineup is in store for the institute’s second year. A production of It Gets Better and the CBS Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase are coming in February, a tribute to Cesar Chavez is planned for March (and will include a panel discussion with some of Chavez’s children), and a documentary about a Latina cancer survivor will be shown in the spring. Even more eagerly anticipated, however, is the debut of acting and stage production classes in the fall. “Students are incredibly excited,” Sherwood says. “We want to look at all aspects of theater. To have a thriving performing arts program, students need to be exposed to all of the elements of theater.”

Ultimately, both Sherwood and Najera are hopeful that the Institute of Latino Performing Arts will prosper, and its students along with it. “I look at Golden Globe winner Gina Rodriguez . . . and remember when she auditioned for me at CBS,” Najera says. “That journey starts with this program.”


For a schedule of events, visit www.facebook.com/ocpac