The Power of Theatre


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Published: March 24th 2008
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These other previous musings are about things I've noticed in my spare time--really, what I've been doing most of is theatre (and I wouldn't have it any other way!). I'm currently working with four different groups, have rehearsals six nights a week (and twice a day two times a week), have bought costumes and paint, and have written 3 scripts. Those are the plain facts, but of course the intricacies of the groups are much more complex and not as finite.

(Note: the first pictures match up with the text which pertains to them, and the following ones are in order of the groups talked about below...)

Ciudad Romero


This group is by far my biggest challenge. Not only are a lot of the participants younger than in the other groups, but it's also the largest amount of people (about 15) and probably the most hyper-active. I don't want to admit that they're disrespectful, as so many people in the community declare, because I have stubborn confidence that they have the capacity to learn. What makes things more difficult is that we only have a few rehearsals left before the performance (on March 29), and the subject matter is a real and profoundly serious history that the people who lived it are going to be watching...

When we were working on the scene about Operacion Tierra Arrasada (Scorched Earth Policy), I asked the youth to explain what it was. Incredibly, the operation that arguably changed the course of their parents' and grandparents' lives (by burning down their houses, farms, and animals, forcing them to flee) was unknown to them. However, it's not necessarily their fault--this information is not taught in history classes and it's still difficult for their families to talk about. Something similar happened when we were painting sets for the play--the art students did not recognize the words either, and were painting beautiful landscapes as they were accustomed...explaining to them that the play has darker themes that are not necessarily beautiful changed the sets quite a bit, and probably challenged their own ideas about the power of visual art to represent feelings and themes.


Nueva Esperanza


This group has had an interesting process. Like the name of the community, "New Hope" we've had a lot of stops and false starts, but each time with a new inspiration to keep going. We're currently working on a play about the history of the community; they were refugees in Nicaragua during the civil war (and thus, during the contra conflict in Nicaragua as well), and returned to El Salvador to where they now live. It's a true success story in community development--they lived in a communal lifestyle for 5 years (battling mosquitos, infected water, and flooding), were the first community in the area to have a school, and now have a fairly flourishing music and dance program, as well as others.

As a result of the short time that we have with the group, we're putting together a play that is pantomimed. It should be interesting--I'm not sure if a mime show has ever been performed in this area! Although the history is also long and complex (a man from the community, Pilar, came to a rehearsal and told his story, and started to cry when he was talking about how he escaped from prison and torture--he was incarcerated, his eyes and other parts of his body burned, because he was an outspoken Christian), we are representing it in a more simple way, enacting scenes in both specific and symbolic ways.

The interesting aspect about this group is that the youth have completely improvised the scenes based off of a time line of the events in the story, and then I have written the script of movements based on their actions. The piece is therefore mostly their own (I've had to intervene a few times...), and although they still have a fun time "playing" (a couple are HUGE hams, and sometimes take advantage of the exaggerated reality of pantomime!), there are some beautiful moments in the play. It will be performing on Friday, March 28th.


Radionovela


Along with the groups of youth, I am also working with the DJs from the radio station to produce Radionovelas (a radio novel) about organic production--we have developed the first Radionovela through various improvisations between characters that they created: Earth and Water, 2 corn plants (one organic, one chemical), two producers (organic and chemical), a politician (Ministro Mentiroso--Minister Liar), and other characters yet to come. Now we are in the process of recording, which is both frustrating and VERY fun.


La Quesera


The group that is working on the play about the massacre in La Quesera is exciting and fulfilling, as we have been able to focus on more advanced acting and scene work techniques, with their prior experience and knowledge of the play. The group is also the smallest at 5, so it makes the relationships within the group much more powerful.

I have thus had the opportunity to introduce a few aspects of method acting to this group (mostly encouraging them to remember related experiences and translating them to the moments in the play), which has made a deeper connection to the material.

We had an opportunity to perform the play for the sobrevivientes (survivors) of La Quesera, which was an incredible experience. The youth performed each scene individually, and we talked about them afterwards. Some survivors had comments to improve and edit certain parts (like adding an "oreja"--a civilian who reported to the Salvadoran army about possible guerrilla members, during a scene representing an interrogation), others related that the events in the play were accurate, and others told their stories again, enriching them with details which we funneled into the script when possible. Afterwards, indicative of the integrity of this group, we rehearsed until 10 p.m., but they insisted on staying to do another run through. As we had already organized that they were staying in Ciudad Romero that night, I couldn't squelch their enthusiasm! They will be performing the morning of March 29th.


Talleres de Teatro


An exciting upcoming project that we're in the process of preparing is a sequence of workshops in theatre and community leadership. The workshops are the brain child of a salvadoran theatre artist named Tania Molina, and are coincidentally exactly what I would have dreamed to do this year. We're currently meeting with youth from 11 communities around Bajo Lempa, with the goal of selecting 2 to represent their community and eventually be able to conduct their own projects in theatre or artistic projects in their communities--with an emphasis on organizing the groups in a way to make impactful social change.

The structure of the workshops is also interesting--they will be held during one weekend each month, during which all the youth are eating, sleeping, and working together as a way to emphasize the importance of performing daily tasks and organization for the rest of the group. The workshops will consist of wide-ranging subjects, from facilitating a group to constructing and manipulating masks and puppets, from animating communities to learning skills in circus tricks, traditional dance, and music.

As of now, we have met with the youth of the communities San Hilario, El Carmen (an isolated community that has little to no organization), Nueva Esperanza, La Limonera, and Ciudad Romero. Hopefully next week we will be meeting with Las Mesas, Amando Lopez and Las Mesas.

We are also currently looking at different grants for funding for this project, so if you have any ideas of foundations or specific grants that would be concurrent with these goals, you can send me a message through this blog!


El Poder de Teatro


I may have learned more about the power of theatre in one month here than anywhere else in my life (for those of you who know me and my theatre-diseased family, you know this is a big statement).

I've never done theatre under these circumstances: putting together 3 plays in 2 months, each with 2 rehearsals a week for only 2 hours at a time (and most of the time it's really only 1 hour once everyone arrives late); guiding all rehearsals on my own; putting together all of the costumes and sets/props; writing original scripts based on very real and very powerful stories in Spanish; organizing performance spaces and funding opportunities; and conducting everything in Spanish (in other words, being director/facilitator, costume and set designer, stage manager, translator, and producer all at once). Sometimes, to take a step back and putting these things in perspective helps me get through the overwhelming feeling that I'm not doing everything I can. I have never been more grateful for all the classes I was "forced" to take in college that allowed me to have this well-rounded background...along with the experiences with Cornerstone, CLIMB, Roundabout, activist work, and being in the Galapagos that have indubitably contributed to my relative successes here.

Talking to Jonalyn (my 15 year old sister) the other day about her recent high school production of "Beauty and the Beast" reminded me of how our current situation isn't rare: a lot of plays often "come together" at the last minute! Listening to her maturity about theatre also helped me re-contextualize my thoughts about the youth I'm working with, understanding that this kind of attitude about theatre comes with a certain amount of experience. With some of the youth in the beginning stages, I have to remind myself that the important aspect of their experience right now is getting a good taste of theatre and enjoying themselves while perhaps finding within themselves the seeds of change.

The universalism of theatre is something that I have always believed in, but it is much more apparent when I experience examples of it every day. There are definitely some cultural differences, but 99% of the theatre games we do translate across and are enjoyed and understood by the youth--and of course in new and different ways because of their life experiences. Sometimes this power that theatre contains that I am attempting to harness scares me; the moment when I feel like I am in control and I am about to approach it, it unpredictably peeps up from behind me and surprises me again. It can be so empowering for some, and for others it is possibly one of the scariest and strangest things they've ever done, and they have to work through a different process of self-recognition (and think about why they were drawn to it in the first place!). The emotional and physical effects are overwhelming at times (like the time when we were playing "puking dinosaur" and imitating someone vomiting more and more exaggeratingly, until Erica actually had to go outside and vomit), and unforseen. And, most incredibly, while the participants are discovering new aspects about theatre and the various exercises, I, with my "lifetime" of experience in theatre, am still learning and renewing my definition of this "art form" from them.

My dad keeps reminding me to add a note about this: I am still seeking out more funds for my personal needs--transportation and phone calls may not be much at the time, but man do they add up (especially trying to arrange meetings, rehearsals, etc.)! If you are interested in making even a small donation (I want to add in a shout out to Lilan here, who made a shout out to me when she donated--believe me, it may seem like a small amount, but it's a big action. And I miss you and wish you much happiness, Lilan!), it would be really appreciated by me personally, and by the organization and the youth that I'm working with.

Thank you for reading, and I hope that this moment finds you well and happy. Myself, I'm currently at the crest of "hell week" for 3 plays performing this weekend!


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