The first time Kinan Valdez performed in the El Teatro Campesino production of “La Pastorela,” things did not go well.
“The story goes, I was an angel, four years old, fighting off my older brother Anahuac who was playing a devil,” Kinan said. “At one point during the climactic battle, he hit me and I started crying. I kept fighting through my tears with Anahuac whispering ‘kill me, kill me!’ I finally did and went running off to my mother’s arms.”
Today, as the director of “La Pastorella,” Kinan faces a different challenge: how to stage what was performed in California’s biggest Mission in the small El Teatro Campesino playhouse in San Juan Bautista.
In San Juan, “La Pastorela” started as a puppet show. It then became a street performance with the audience following performers through the city. After that it was staged at the Mission San Juan Bautista, establishing a tradition that lasted 40 years. This year, with technical issues making it impossible to use the church site, the show came home to the Teatro playhouse.
Luis Valdez, founder of El Teatro Campesino, knew he wanted his son Kinan to direct this transitional production. Though Kinan had directed Teatro’s annual Christmas plays before, it has been several years since he has taken one on.
“Kinan is teaching and did not think he could spare the time,” Luis said. “We kept going back and forth and back and forth until he agreed.”
With the play being staged in a more confined space, adaptability was critical.
“The biggest challenge was something that occurred over time: the idea of transposing the Medieval method of doing large religious dramas where Earth, Heaven and Hell existed in close proximity to each other,” Kinan said. “The mission lent itself almost organically to that and the audience has come to expect that kind of arena spectacle.”
After working up some production drawings and design tests with Teatro managing director Christy Sandoval and designer Joe Cardinalli, a decision was made to tear out the stage and seating in the theater and place the action in the center.
“We decided to fully lean into the in-the-round experience,” Kinan said.
With the audience surrounding the stage in all four corners of the playhouse, the performers themselves need to adapt.
“There is a collective memory within the actors and technicians of how the play was performed in the mission,” Kinan said. “We have to constantly remind ourselves that the audience is no longer two opposing sets of seats looking at the stage in the center, but four sets in the corners. We have been making minor modifications because the songs and the journeys in the play were timed to fit the size of the mission.”
Kinan watches the actors from every part of the playhouse, gauging the sightlines and reminding performers to keep moving so everyone in the audience can relate to the action onstage. Sometimes this ends with him jumping up onto the stage and acting a part out so the performer can understand what Kinan has seen from various vantage points. Nothing escapes his notice. If the devils are forgetting their predatory animal nature, he will call out “use your jaguar legs!” to remind them to be loose and always on the move. In another scene involving a large cross, Kinan reminds the actors that since the play is set just before the birth of Christ, none of the characters would understand the significance of the symbol.
With his long experience of living with the play, Kinan often stops to discuss a certain point of action or dialogue in the context of past Teatro productions and the 500-year history of traditional pageants in Mexico. There is a strong sense of connection to the past. But even as memories of what went before are evoked, the theater is being rebuilt, the play is being revised, the entrances and exits are being planned, and the sets are being created. Standing in the middle of it all, Kinan manages the tradition and at the same time is a living embodiment of that tradition.
Over time, El Teatro Campesino’s annual Christmas plays have become not just cultural treasures for San Juan Bautista, but cultural institutions for the wider region.
“It was not something we originally envisioned, but it is something that grew over time and that we have honored,” Kinan said. “I can’t imagine the Christmas season without these plays. They are a part of my life.”
Luis said he feels fortunate that his son is directing this time around.
“He brings his energy and his expertise. He is an outgrowth of Teatro, the fruit of my loins, literally. I have every respect for him as an innovative director. He understands what the challenges are and will make it work.”
Performances of “La Pastorela” begin Dec. 6 and will continue on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through Dec. 22. Seating is limited. Tickets are available at https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4423012.
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