Art & Culture

Playwright Luis Valdez discusses attracting farmworkers to theater

Interview Part Two: He also relates the properties of a sphere to acting and life.
Luis Valdez. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Luis Valdez. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Five years ago, El Teatro Campesino founder Luis Valdez began compiling the materials that would result in his recently published Theatre of the Sphere: The Vibrant Being, a look at the history of his theater company, his reflections on Mayan and Aztec culture, and teachings on theater. In Part Two of this interview with Valdez, the author further discusses his life and philosophy of theater.

 

BenitoLink: When you started El Teatro, you had farmworkers as actors. How did you bring them in to be trained as actors? 

Valdez: When I came up with the idea of El Teatro Campesino, it actually came to me in English as “farmworker” before it came up to me in Spanish as “campesino.” In Mexico, a “campesino” is someone who lives on a farm out in the rural areas. They are out there farming and doing work that has defined civilization. 

“Farmworker” is a totally different concept. A farmworker is a wage slave as defined within the corporate structure of agriculture. You have “sharecropper” and “slave” and “peon,” but there are no words in English that are equivalent to “campesino” other than perhaps “country folk.” But the idea of “farmworker” and “theater” is almost contradictory because you would never imagine campesinos watching a play in a bourgeois theater. The theater is still tainted by the idea that it is for the upper class and the wealthy.

Working among the farmworkers in Delano gave me a context to bring them in as a way of joining the civil rights movement. But they did not really know about theater. To them, we were payasos, a troupe of clowns. They had seen the circus and understood music and folkloric dancing, but they had never seen theater. But I found that if we could make them laugh, we would first get the kids and then their mothers to watch us. The men took a while to admit they liked the theater and a little bit longer for them to join us.

 

Is there a history of theater among the Aztecs and Mayas?

Absolutely. They are discovering this in the excavated pottery and the murals, where you see a lot of people in costume. And these are not mythological beings that are depicted. They are human beings in costume. Everything from their ball game, where the players were heavily costumed at the beginning of the game, to their rituals, which you can see in their ceremonial centers, had elements of theater. They had events in their communities that celebrated life. And they had mask makers and costume makers to make things for these fantastical celebrations. One of the things I think that has gone under-documented is their sense of humor, which you can see in their versions of the Passion Plays. There are bits and pieces they do theatrically, seemingly spontaneously, which have clearly originated somewhere far down the line and workshopped. This is a subject that needs more scholarship. 

 

Why the Sphere?

There is something about the properties of a sphere or ball that are totally universal. A ball is a basic component of children’s games because it does what it does: it rolls and bounces, and you can kick it. But the use of a ball in kids’ games can then turn into something larger, like World Cup Soccer. Our lives are spheres, like the cliche “what goes around, comes around.” It is something people instinctively understand. That is why the ball game is in the book and why our workshops use the ball as the key to unlocking the properties of acting and theater.

 

In the book, you write, “The power of performance stems from individual and collective vibration as revealed by [actors] honestly being themselves and expressing every gesture with the whole conscious body.” Could you expand on that?

Yes.  How do you embrace the totality of yourself? If you overthink it, you are going to lose it. You have to breathe, relax and be yourself. Let yourself flow; it’s there. And there are different ways in life people say that, like “stop struggling and let God do it.” You are always spiraling anyway, just learn to relax and breathe. This becomes important in actor training. People need to be relaxed on stage but ready for anything. That takes an intrinsic understanding that you can only learn by experiencing it; you can’t “think it” there. Actors need to find that natural point of being.

As actors, one of the most important things is to find your center, centering yourself. It is like, how do you learn to walk? You watch babies as they learn to move from their left to their right foot. And then they learn balance, which is a critical part of walking and moving. And from there, they learn to walk with their whole being, their spine and their shoulders. You balance yourself as a whole being, and then you move forward.

 

What is the job of an actor?

An actor has to learn how to represent emotional beings. If anything, that is the vibration that people go to the theater for—they go to get their hearts touched, whether they admit it or not.  And if the theater is not going to touch your heart, it is not going to be able to touch your mind. It is not going to reach you. It has to stimulate you physically, by what you see on the stage, and then it has to stimulate you by how it makes you feel. 

And how do we hook up with the rest of existence once we get past the complexities of human behavior? How do we move? How do we link up to nature or the galaxy? These more cosmic concepts interest me the most. When you speak from the heart, when you speak from your truth, it communicates. It generates a kind of response that makes us all human. It is what art and literature are all about.

 

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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.