Monday, January 4, 2010
Today opened with a bus trip through San Juan to the Liberia La Tertulia, in Rio Piedras, by the University of San Juan. Upon arrival, Dr. Taylor gave an overview of the curriculum and assessment methods for the course to ensure clarity in the minds of the participants. He also took the time to unpack some of the terminology that we would encounter frequently in the course, referring specifically to applied drama, underscoring that we are working on drama outside of the traditional theatre house (what the Greeks referred to as the theatron) which is process oriented (even though our course will culminate with a forum theatre presentation).
Dr. Taylor spoke of community as constituency or client and implied that the applied theatre often focuses on advocacy of some kind (though not exclusively), but always involves a particular community in a particular place. He stressed that as theatre depends upon the human instrument, it is generally a successful medium for involving full participation from a given community. In The Applied Theatre Reader, contributor Paul Moclair’s article “The Merits of Participation in Child-Rights Theatre” connects my interests in child advocacy with Dr. Taylor’s comments, stating that drama, “helps frightened children and marginalized people to transcend their experiential limitations.” In this way, the work must clearly be grounded in the reality of the given population and pose questions which will allow the participants to consider the possibilities available to them which have been masked for any variety of reasons. This is not a manipulative work, but rather one that poses questions rather than offering solutions.
An Introduction to Puerto Rican History
Dr. Fernando Pico of the University of Puerto Rico lectured on the history of Puerto Rico citing the work of historian Jose Luis Gonzalez who described the history as a four story building:
4th Floor: Post 1898, US involvement/colonization/annexation
3rd Floor: Spain opens Puerto Rico to European immigration
2nd Floor: Nineteenth century Spaniards begin to populate the island as the conquistadors had moved on to Mexico, Peru, etc.
1st Floor: In the 1531 census, the majority of islanders are of African descent as there are few Spanish and most of the native people have died of Small Pox.
Because of the variety of populations and colonization, the island has developed a weak state where the population has historically found ways to circumvent laws (notably immigration and the smuggling of goods) and take pride in “habits of resistance”, which can be described as weapons of the weak (epitomized by the study of English language from grades K-12 and two additional years in college, yet few are fluent [or at least the don't admit to it]).
As a teacher, this idea of a resistant and defiant population is significant as it highlights a disconnect between the white, middle-class American ideal of how young people should behave (or adults – but I speak from the academic perspective) and how their cultural norms.
History of Puerto Rican Theatre
Dr. Lowell Fiat (also of the University of Puerto Rico) lectured about the historical development of theatre on the island. Most significant was his agreement with Dr. Pico that the African immigrants influenced the development of theatrical form, particularly with mask use and carnival pageantry (as would be seen in other Caribbean cultures and in Central and South America).
The most recent truly significant Puerto Rican theatrical contribution is a play called “el Maestre” (depicted in this wood-cut which we saw painted on a building in Old San Juan) detailing the incarceration of one of the island’s fiercest advocates for independence, created from the words of recently declassified documents from the US government.
The mask and pageant traditions continue to this day and were clearly represented in the performances we attended in the evening. Dr. Rosa Luisa Marquez presented an adapted and abridged version of an Argentine work titled “Armored Reason” wherein two incarcerated men secretly escape the confines of their prison by retelling and imaging the adventures of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, based on “El Quijote” by Cervantes, and on “The True Story of Sancho Panza” by Franz Kafka, and on the narrations told by Chicho Vargas, the author´s brother, and other political prisoners of the Argentinean dictatorship of the 1970’s. Though the work was in Spanish, the staging and physicality of the work allowed the messages, humor, and desperation to transcend language, which particularly excited me given my interest in how applied theatre work can overcome such barriers. As the performance was so concretely grounded in the bodies of the two actors, the words became less significant (which Boal speaks of) and the actions of the actors took over.
On a talkback after the work, Dr. Marquez explained that her rehearsal process is nine months long and begins with the actors and an abundance of objects (props) which must organically be brought into the drama or discarded. Because the objects are integrated in this way, they expand the storytelling function from the actors to the inanimate objects that surround them, further widening the means of expression beyond the spoken words.
The second performance was brought to us by Deborah Hunt in two parts—one involving mask and the other puppetry. The masked work was titled “The Birth of Water” and worked from a metaphor of cannibalism—in so far as our modern society actively and purposely encourages devouring our fellow man. The second work with the puppets is part of a recently organized compilation of works, presented ten at a time in stations, such that each work is five minutes and the audience (in groups of six) travels from one work to the next over the course of an hour. Deborah described the work as creating community given that each performance is deeply personal (with the small audience) and unique for that group.
Close of Day
We took a walking tour of Old San Juan (the oldest city in the Americas, first settled in 1493. We spent a significant time at Fort San Felipe del Morro
Thereafter we ventured to
for a sumptuous dinner of traditional Puerto Rican fare and had an opportunity to communicate with our colleagues and continue on the path to fortifying our own community.
Tomorrow morning we travel to the Caye campus of the University of Puerto Rico for further cultural exploration.