The innovative model proposed by Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC) joins theatre artists, scholars, and students both virtually and in-person through an effective, volunteer-basis model that creates opportunities for theatre practitioners of all ages, races, and gender identities, while advancing the state of Latinx theatre in the United States. As such, it is the most important movement of the new millennium, one that picks up the spirit of the former Chicano theatre movement’s TENAZ (Teatros Nacional de Aztlán) of the 1970s through the ’90s as a national presence. This Note from the Field addresses the identity and functioning of LTC through a commons-based approach; it traces the emergence of LTC and HowlRound (its partner), and offers insight into LTC convenings, demographic composition, and initiatives produced during 2013–16. As such, this research con- tributes to the narrative archive of US theatre histories, and maps the performative, organizational strategies of a nascent movement within the American theatre.
How Does LTC Define Itself?
LTC defines itself as a movement, and not as an organization with membership. Thus I avoid using the word member, but instead use participants or volunteers, even though the commit- tee structure often necessitates using member. The mission statement of LTC is as follows: “The Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC) in partnership with HowlRound is a national movement that uses a commons-based approach to transform the narrative of the American theatre, to amplify the visibility of Latinx performance-making, and to champion equity through advocacy, art making, convening, and scholarship” (“What is the Latinx Theatre Commons [LTC]?”). Its stated goal to “transform the narrative of the American theatre” alludes to disarticulating the ways in which US theatre and cultural studies are organized in a mainstream/minority discourse dichotomy. In a more practical perspective, the aim is to reimagine, both in theory and practice, American theatre beyond dichotomous episteme-based hyphenated (X-American) frameworks.
What Is a Commons-based Approach?
According to Indiana University’s Digital Library of the Commons, “the commons is a general term for shared resources in which each stakeholder has an equal interest” (n.p.). Historically, the term commons is derived from the medieval English legal term for land that was designated by the lord of the manor for use by common folk for their own sustenance. This was known as the commons. The term commoner emerged from he/she who toils on commonly held lands (van Laerhoven and Ostrom). The term was popularized as a shared resource term by ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968.(1) There are several types of commons in practice today: environmental commons;(2) digital commons;(3) and cultural, social, and intellectual commons. HowlRound and LTC are examples.
The notion of commons is deeply rooted within early US history. In his books The Gift and Common as Air, Lewis Hyde (4) cites Benjamin Franklin among those who rejected attempts at patenting, an early attempt at the privatization of knowledge, based on the fundamental idea that commonly held knowledge benefits the greater good through open circulation. The idea and practice of the commonwealth is predicated on the notion that all citizens assume a degree of responsibility for sharing labor, knowledge, natural resources, and contributing in public works for the common good of the community. A commons-based approach stands in contrast to the enclosure and privatization of knowledge, but more importantly it creates opportunities for new ways of conceptualizing possibilities through collaborations using existing infrastructures. P. Carl,(5) one of the cofounders of HowlRound, on the subject:
The thing that most impresses me about the commons-based approach is that things get done as a result of it! The LTC has been the most impressive example of the power of the commons to activate people around shared goals and values to accomplish more than a single organization or person ever could. The commons is an intervention-based approach rather than an approach that requires building infrastructure first. We didn’t create a Latinx Theatre Commons . . . in other words we didn’t hire a leader and a development person and a marketer, etc. . . . So often when I talk to people about how to make change, they want to start from the ground up; the commons approach suggests there are already many buildings and infrastructures and resources available and the idea is to get stuff done. (P. Carl, personal communication)
The Origins of HowlRound
In December 2011 Emerson College in Boston announced the creation of HowlRound: A Center for a Theatre Commons, an idea germinated by P. Carl, David Dower, Jamie Gahlon, and Vijay Mathews. As Carl stated on the HowlRound website:
From the beginning we decided to use the commons as our frame. This idea of a performance commons is new to many. It’s a simple idea really. A commons is a place to share the resources you have and take the resources you need. . . . Access and engagement are our highest values, and everyone, yes everyone, has something to contribute to the learning, the making, and the sharing of art. (“About”)
HowlRound proposes a radical experiment that extends an open invitation for individuals and communities to participate in a commons-based approach that includes open-sourcing, peer- to-peer processing, and community-sourced knowledge. This is shared freely through internet-based technologies and in-person gatherings (convenings). Again, Carl on the genesis of HowlRound:
HowlRound came together as a confluence of events, of a handful of us working on different things that became a whole movement. . . . So I had an idea to start an online journal while I was working at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. My work there was very local and I wanted to be sparking national dialogue somehow. Then David Dower and I . . . shared the idea and he mentioned that he had resources for “documentation and dissemination” through the institute he founded called the American Voices New Play Institute. . . . And Jamie Gahlon and Vijay Mathew, who worked for the institute, had an idea for a New Play Map that tracked the stories of new play activity around the country. . . . And then I went to work with David, Jamie, and Vijay at the American Voices New Play Institute and we started to put all of our work under the name of HowlRound, and somewhere along the way we recognized that everything we were doing was rooted in commons-based values. . . . We were very fortunate that Emerson College was enthusiastic to have us come to Boston. In our current configuration the College and the Office of the Arts provide infrastructure for HowlRound, though we do our own fundraising. . . . It’s a relative new idea and I think foundations still struggle to understand the model and how effective it is. (P. Carl, personal communication)
The Origins of LTC
In May 2012 at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, a group of eight Latinx theatre-makers now known as the DC 8 (Kristoffer Diaz, Lisa Portes, Tlaloc Rivas, Antonio Sonera, Enrique Urueta, José Luis Valenzuela, Anne García-Romero, led by Karen Zacarías) came together with the folks at HowlRound to discuss the state of Latinx theatre, and within twenty-four hours of the gathering the idea for LTC was born. García-Romero’s 2012 landmark piece “Latina/o Theatre Commons: Updating the US Narrative” initiated the public forum of the LTC: “Contemporary Latina/o theatre updates the US narrative through presenting diverse cultural worlds that allow theatre audiences to more fully understand the US experience in the twenty-first century” (n.p.).
The first iteration of what is now called the LTC Steering Committee consisted of twenty-two Latinx artists who in May 2012 set forth the following path via a four-point action plan to generate new models. Building on the foundation of the past and the thrust of the present, the first initiatives to advance the state of Latinx theatre were:
- The first national convening of the Latinx Theatre in Boston in 2013.
- The creation of LTC’s Café Onda (“wave café”), whose goals were to generate an online community and conversation about the current state of Latinx theatre.
- The Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC) (José Luis Valenzuela, director) was to produce a festival of ten Latinx plays over the course of the 2014–15 season. The event exceeded original expectations and came to fruition during a month-long residency for artists; fifteen productions were performed at LATC during October/November 2014 under the name of the “2014 LATC Encuentro: A National Latina/o Theatre Festival,” LTC joining in the project as a convening partner.
- LTC was to pilot a biannual conference of new Latinx work hosted by the Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago, championed by Lisa Portes, the head of directing and artistic director of Chicago Playworks for Young Audiences for the school. This project morphed into the 2015 Carnaval of New Latina/o Works, held during 23–25 July 2015 at DePaul. Again, LTC was a convening partner.
- Lastly, the fourth goal was to broaden the conversation by expanding the circle of Latinx theatre artists and scholars. LTC continues to fulfill its promise: there are currently fifty-five Steering Committee members, twenty-one on its Advisory Board, and hundreds of participants at its events. HowlRound provides technical, as well as philosophical, mentoring to LTC, which functions primarily as a convening partner with other organizations.(6) LTC is supported by various foundations.
How Is LTC Organized?
As a commons-based movement, the best way to describe LTC’s organization is as a fluid set of concentric circles geared toward the achievement of defined goals, while maintaining its core values of advocacy, art-making, convening, and scholarship. As LTC’s current producer, Abigail Vega functions as the hub of the network; among her responsibilities are organizing subcommittee meetings and maintaining all communications within LTC, between it and HowlRound, and anything that flows from LTC to the public (Gahlon). All other participants in the organization volunteer their time and expertise.(7)
The strength of LTC is its body of Steering Committee members, who volunteer their time, talents, expertise, and personal and professional networks, and additionally help run one or two other task-oriented subcommittee(s). Each subcommittee has one or two champions. Champions are responsible for reporting to the Steering Committee on a monthly basis. The beauty of this commons- based approach is its organizational flexibility; there are no top-down structures of hierarchy with which to contend. Hence it fosters a strategy based on peer-to-peer communications. Participants view themselves as part of a larger brain trust. Flexibility allows them to give their time according to other personal and professional commitments, and to flow in and out of the Steering Committee. For early career scholars, academia’s ever-present push to publish in peer-reviewed presses often curtails service-oriented participation. Working artists have their own challenges of time management and affordability. This fluidity allows volunteers to participate to the extent possible and builds on the notion of passing the baton when necessary.
Some LTC Steering Committee members have stated that their experience in LTC has been life-altering. In “Confessions of a Convert,” Lisa Portes states her perspective on the unique aspects of LTC in that it creates a brain trust, takes advantage of a broad base of personal and institutional investment, circumvents dependency on any one institution through collaborations, promotes connectivity at both the local and national levels, and in short “the LTC is the most effective, dexterous, and impactful model for getting sh*t done I’ve come across” (n.p.).
LTC stands alone as a most radical and empowering experiment in shared leadership. Notions that are evident to me are the following:
- Shared leadership—everyone has a stake
- It allows personal talent and cultural capital to organize around shared goals—it is task-oriented
- It does not depend on the circulating models of top-down leadership, nor does it depend on notions of development and marketing strategies
- It is not based on meritocracy
- It uses free-access technologies
Perhaps P. Carl says it best: “I always say the commons approach is revelatory. It makes possible what seemed impossible and what happens is usually much more than I could have imagined from my singular vantage point” (P. Carl, personal communication). While some individuals external to LTC have accused it of favoritism and exclusivity, the organization’s history and practice demonstrate otherwise. The initial process of nominations and the space limitations of the 2013 Boston convening (limited to eighty participants) generated some ill will and misconceptions that LTC has been struggling to overcome ever since. At that time there was no Steering Committee Cultivation and Governance (SCCG), which emerged in 2015 during the Dallas convening to specifically address issues of inclusion and diversity. This is a clear example of how LTC addresses issues, through self-monitoring followed by an action plan. SCCG focuses on “introducing new steering committee members into the fold, [and continues] to diversify the steering committee” (LTC, “All Champions Meeting Agenda”).
What Are LTC Convenings?
Convenings are in-person gatherings that can be either regional or national. Each of these gatherings of the national Steering Committee and local communities has yielded rich conversations about the state of Latinx theatre. Each convening proves to have its own unique characteristic. The organization is elaborated through planning meetings between the Steering Committee and regional partners, who may or may not be from within LTC. The 2013 national Boston convening set things in motion. Two subsequent convenings dovetailed with other events (the 2014 LATC Encuentro, and the 2015 Carnaval of New Latina/o Works in Chicago), while three others took place independent of any concurrent events (the 2015 Dallas convening, the 2016 Pacific Northwest and the New York convenings).
Each regional convening has two aspects: to create a space for local Latinx theatre communities to connect both within itself and the national network, and to address internal LTC issues. While everyone is welcome to the open-ended community discussions, LTC’s Steering Committee is charged with the in-person discussion of internal matters that may be pressing at the time. Convenings are demanding. Often packed within two working days (usually a weekend), various organizational strategies are employed for these gatherings. Sometimes convenings are facilitated internally, such as the 2013 Boston one, facilitated by Olga Sanchez Saltveit, Clyde Valentin, and Kinan Valdez. The Dallas convening, however, was facilitated by Patricia Garza, a professional facilitator hired for the event.
The Texas regional convening in Dallas (30 October–1 November 2015) was produced with the financial and in-kind contributions of Southern Methodist University (Clyde Valentin), University of North Texas, College of Arts and Sciences (Lorenzo Garcia and Teresa Marrero), Cara Mía Theatre Company (David Lozano), Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, and Dallas Latino Theatre Center (Benjamin Espinoza). Meetings involving local theatre and educational community members centered on issues of access to affordable performance spaces and the lack of parity in funding by city and state agencies. Statewide participants discussed how to shorten the vast geographic expanses that separate Texas Latinx theatre artists from one another (Marrero and Garcia-Crow). As Trevor Boffone observed on HowlRound: “Events such as #LTCdallas are not Utopian, but they provide a necessary platform that we need to use if we are going to change the theatrical landscape of both Texas and this nation.” A goal of the Dallas convening was to assess the internal and external reviews conducted by two committees following July’s Carnaval (Sanchez Saltveit, personal communication).
Rose Cano of eSe Teatro championed the 2016 Seattle convening, with the support of Roy Antonio Arauz and others. This gathering was instrumental in coalescing partners in order to gather the Latinx theatre communities of the Pacific Northwest, which included northern California, Portland, and Vancouver. Supporting partners for the convening included the University of Washington’s School of Drama, ACT Theatre, Seattle Repertory Theatre, eSe Teatro, and the Umbrella Theatre Project (Rose Cano, personal communication). One key issue that surfaced—namely, how to over- come a sense of isolation from the rest of the country due to geographic location—is one echoed by artists in other regions. Christopher Goodson and Maria Soyla Enriquez shared a presentation about the deeply rooted Latinx theatrical history in the Pacific Northwest, including lesser-known chapters of María Irene Fornés’s career in the Seattle area (Martínez-Vázquez).
The Seattle convening proved to be both challenging and fruitful. The Steering Committee was charged with determining the criteria for selecting future projects, key factors like local support for each proposal, the feasibility of each project within the proposed timeline, and, finally, how each project fits into the overall goals of LTC. While the internal agenda of LTC is set, the community’s engagement is open-ended. Armando Huipe best describes the overall approach of the Pacific Northwest region in this manner:
"The LTC has an immense faith that everyone can and will bring their experiences, resources, and whole selves to the conversation. . . . I felt my set of experiences, limited as they were, [were] affirmed and valued at a national level. That kind of engagement is core to the work of the LTC. It allows everyone to claim ownership over the conversation, and it avoids isolating the decision-making power within the steering committee regarding what issues are important. If the LTC arrived in Seattle with a set agenda, it would run the risk of homogenizing the conversation, arbitrating it, and perhaps engaging in the creation of a Latinx theatre monolith."
Open-ended, inclusive strategies instigate ownership not only of the conversation, but of the organization itself. Issues of privilege within the Steering Committee due to numerous factors—age, years of experience in the field, gender, institutional backing, access to funding, and access to privately circulated information—are all concerns that LTC’s Steering Committee is openly addressing, and will continue to do so.
The Initiatives Produced by LTC, 2013–16
LTC’s accomplishments offer ample proof of what a commons-based approach can achieve. Between 2013 and 2016, through strategies of horizontal collaborations, LTC has accomplished the following:
- The 2013 Boston national convening, in association with HowlRound/Emerson College— the largest gathering of Latinx theatre-makers since the1992 XVI TENAZ festival in San Antonio (Avila).
- The 2014 Los Angeles national convening at LATC, Encuentro: A National Latina/oTheatre Festival. This was the largest national Latinx theatre festival since the last TENAZ festival in 1992. The Encuentro featured fifteen productions from across the country, and the festival’s artists worked together to present public performances of co-created new works.
- Organized by LTC, the 2015 Carnaval of New Latina/o Works was hosted by the Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago. It showcased twelve new plays by Latinx playwrights nationwide, with over 200 Latinx and allied theatre-makers participating.
- The El Fuego Committed Theatres Initiative, “El Fuego: Fueling the American Theatre with Latina/o Plays,” is a program to help grow and support the field with new Latinx plays. In early 2015 theatres across the country were approached about securing productions for every playwright featured at the 2015 Carnaval. This historic initiative started with twelve theatres committing in less than a day, which soon expanded to eighteen, and is comprised of nationally recognized theatres in Los Angeles, New York City, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.(8)
- The 2015–16 regional convenings. LTC produced three convenings focusing on distinct regions and their Latinx theatre communities: 2015 LTC Texas Regional Convening in Dal- las; 2016 LTC Pacific Northwest Regional Convening in Seattle; and 2016 LTC New York Regional Convening in New York City. Each was organized to connect artists within regions and to engage in the growing national conversation regarding Latinx theatre.
- The Fornés Institute preserves and archives María Irene Fornés’s legacy as an artist, teacher, and mentor through workshops, convenings, and advocacy. Future plans include a permanent retreat/gathering space/library.
- Café Onda is the online journal of LTC, hosted on HowlRound; it seeks to expand the national dialogue regarding Latinx theatre. All of its writers are paid, and the journal’s content is published in both English and Spanish.
Work Remaining to Be Done
LTC has identified the need to diversify its composition. In 2016 there are twenty-one women out of thirty-eight active LTC Steering Committee members (55 percent). There are seven women out of sixteen on the Advisory Committee (43 percent). Currently, five out of seven new Steering Committee in Training members are women (71 percent). As of November 2016 twelve of twenty- one subcommittee champions (leaders) are women (57 percent). These facts corroborate the claim that LTC is a favorable place for women in leadership, but this is not to imply that parity in other areas has been achieved. A “2016 Demographics Report by the Steering Committee Cultivation & Governance (SCCG)” revealed a need for further diversification. A survey conducted in February/ March 2016 indicated that the majority of Steering Committee members are between ages 25–54, have been theatre practitioners for 20–25 years, are Californians or originally from the Pacific area and Latinx identified (with one-third identifying as Mexican American, and only one member as Afro-Latino). The majority are cis-women, with twenty-seven out of forty-two respondents (64.3 percent) identifying as such; thirteen out of forty-two identified as cis-male (31 percent); 59.9 percent identified as straight; and a small cadre identified as queer or gender nonconforming. The predominant religious affiliation is Catholic, with a majority of Steering Committee members being directors/playwrights/producers and college graduates, many of whom either completed graduate school or earned a doctorate. Diversification is currently under discussion through a newly form- ing subcommittee with expertise in equity, diversity, and inclusion training. This is a clear example of the self-regulating mechanism within LTC, which is fostered by the commons-based approach.
By Way of Conclusion
LTC is upholding its pledge to broaden the conversation beyond the initial DC 8; currently, there are over fifty-five current Steering Committee volunteers. As of June 2016 the Steering Committee is comprised of a range of ages and early, mid-, and advanced-career directors, scholars, producers, actors, designers, community activists, and students. However, there is room to improve its racial, ethnic, and gender intersectionality. The Steering Committee is constantly having self- reflective conversations concerning expansion and inclusivity and searching for ways to (re)examine its frameworks and address implicit biases.
LTC is a work in progress. As such, it has the makings of being a remarkable, sustainable, long-term movement that is not only already impacting the field of Latinx theatre, but creating an exciting new model through which to conceptualize effective organizational strategies.
This essay has been proofread for accuracy by LTC Steering Committee members Emily Aguilar Thomas, Olga Sanchez Saltveit, and Abigail Vega. My deepest appreciation for their time and expertise. Any flaws are exclusively mine.
Teresa Marrero is a professor of Latino/a and Latin American theatre in the Department of Spanish at the University of North Texas. She coedited the volume Out of the Fringe: Contemporary Latina/ Latino Theatre and Performance (2000), and her essays have been published in Negotiating Performance: Gender, Sexuality, and Theatricality in Latin/o America (1994), Tropicalizations: Transcultural Representations of Latinidad (1997), Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of María Irene Fornés (1999), Latinas on Stage (2000), and Theatre and Performance in Small Nations (2013). She is an Advisory Board member of LTC, a critic for Theater Jones, and is currently coediting a volume of plays from LTC/LATC’s 2014 Encuentro.
1. The so-called Tragedy of the Commons proposes a critique of unregulated, open access in economic terms. For an interesting analysis, see “Should Common Property Resources Be Privatized? A Re-examination of the Tragedy of the Commons” by Jean-Marie Baland and Jean-Philippe Platteau.
2. Elinor Ostrom of the United States, the first woman Nobel laureate in economics (2009) for her studies on economic theory, environmental commons, and sustainability models, is an important leader in the field.
3. See David Berry’s “The Commons.”
4. Thanks to P. Carl for providing me with this valuable resource.
5. As a transsexual individual, Polly Carl has requested to be referred as P. Carl, using the pronoun he in reference to himself.
6. At the present time LTC does not produce performances. Arts Emerson, its umbrella fiscal partner, is itself a producing organization, and thus a conflict of interest would arise with potential funders. This issue surfaced at LTC’s 2016 Seattle convening and was relegated to an advisory group for further deliberation.
7. As of December 2016, HowlRound has eight salaried positions, of which the LTC producer, Abigail Vega, is one; however, LTC is responsible for providing the salary of its producer. Others employed directly through HowlRound/Arts Emerson, such as Jamie Gahlon and P. Carl, join as advisors and liaisons to LTC, while Ramona Ostrowski serves as an assistant editor for its online journal Café Onda.
8. As of 2015, the committed theatres were: Aurora Theater (Lawrenceville, Georgia), Borderlands Theater (Tucson), Camino Real Productions (Albuquerque), Cara Mía Theatre Company (Dallas), Duende CalArts (Valencia), El Teatro Campesino (San Juan Bautista, California), GALA Hispanic Theatre (Washington, D.C.), Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and San Antonio Latino Theatre Alliance (San Antonio), INTAR Theatre (New York City), Latino Producers Action Network (LPAN) (San Diego/Los Angeles), Latino Theater Company (Los Angeles), Milagro Theatre (Portland, Oregon), Su Teatro (Denver), Teatro Avante (Miami), Teatro Prometeo (Miami), Teatro Luna (Chicago/Los Angeles), Teatro Vista (Chicago), and Teatro Vivo (Austin).
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———. Common as Air: Revolution, Art, Ownership. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. Print.
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———. “2016 Demographics Report by the Steering Committee Cultivation & Governance (SCCG).” 15 Apr. 2016. Web. 7 July 2016.
———. “All Champions Meeting Agenda/Minutes, Monday, May 2, 2016.” 2 May 2016. Web. 6 July 2016.
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