In a recent BenitoLink interview, actor Pepe Serna remembered taking part in the 1978 workshop at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles for the groundbreaking play “Zoot Suit” by Luis Valdez, founder of San Juan Bautista’s El Teatro Campesino.
“Luis had an Aztec-Mayan-based exercise game for the actors that we did back then,” Serna said. “It was all these physical exercises and I jumped into them. He was like a shaman. I wish I could remember more of what he taught there.”
Serna is in luck. Last July, Routledge Press published Valdez’s “Theatre of the Sphere: The Vibrant Being,” the playwright’s book about stagecraft that combines autobiography, Aztec and Maya world views and his approach to training actors into a comprehensive guide to the philosophies and methods of El Teatro Campesino.
In the first part of the interview with BenitoLink, Valdez, who turned 82 on June 26, discussed bringing El Teatro to San Juan and how his ideas and the book developed.
BenitoLink: How long had you been working on “Theater of the Sphere?”
Valdez: Well, it’s rooted in El Teatro, so it goes a long way back. It comes from a need to define the work we were doing. If I were to take a single point of initiation, I would say 1972 or 1973 when we settled into San Juan Bautista and decided that was where we were going to have our school and our workshops, to define our setting. It gave us a framework.
How did your philosophy evolve?
When we started, I thought we were doing a form of commedia dell’arte, which is universal because it’s about the human body, the movements we have that are just human nature in every culture. The Aztecs and Maya were no different. I am not defining anything new here. But European culture has been explored and defined, so the big challenge has been to understand Native America beyond the aspects we see in people, including myself, who are descendants. I wanted to put that in context not as anthropology or archeology but in terms of the work we do in theater.
I was looking for self-determination, some way to define myself and also Chicano culture as something more than a derivative of the colonial mishmash. Even the journey to San Juan, from a romantic point of view, was a driving point, the idea that the city was here when this area was Mexico was important to me. I also liked the size of the town, where we could create a school within the spiritual ambiance. All of that worked very well with my intentions and there was enough here for me to say this was a place for me to be.
What was San Juan like when you arrived?
We came here as a group of about 20 people from Fresno as a workshop, establishing a community of people who were not from here. We did pick up some locals, whole families and little kids, and we provided our own entertainment by doing these workshops because there was nothing else really to do in the town.
What kind of reception did you get at first?
We were a bit insular at first, then opened up and made friends, trying to overcome the suspicions of a lot of people who thought we were communists or the advance guard for Cesar Chavez coming here to organize. I tried to explain that we were a theater company but it was very hard to define what we were doing. We were a commune, of sorts, which was in vogue at the time
But we were very disciplined about our work—we would open up at 7 a.m. and go on deep into the night. We ended up having a lot of visitors on a constant basis and that is what brought Peter Brook when he came in 1973. That was another influx of 25 people, this time from Europe, and suddenly we had this thriving artistic community from all over the place in San Juan for that summer.
(Brook was the author of “The Empty Space,” an influential book published in 1968 on the theory of theatrical performance. He died on July 2 in Paris.)
How did you break down the local resistance to your theater group?
We tried to give back by organizing events like El Dia de Los Muertos. At the time, it was not really celebrated in the United States and we decided to launch it as a parade. And we were sure to involve locals, though the old guard in town sat by and was somewhat bemused by this group of raucous Chicanos in town. But I think they appreciated the youthful spirit.
The Calavera (skeleton) figure became important to us as popular culture in need of definition.
Dia de Los Muertos was an ancient tradition in Mexico, but because we started celebrating it, other places started picking up on it too and it started to spread across the United States. Now it has become a commercial force and, ultimately, I think it led to the Pixar film “Coco.”
How did those traditions influence your work?
Well, I had to discover where all this was coming from. As an artist, I knew the expressions were coming from popular culture but I had to find the roots from where it all came. Around that time, I was introduced to the Mayan linguist Domingo Martínez Paredes and we became great friends and colleagues. He gave me copies of his work and as I read them, I found they defined things I needed to know about our process.
I had been tapping into the idea of the “theater of the sphere,” made up of spirals like the Golden Mean and they are inherently part of our physical being. And as I got into the work of Paredes, I discovered the ideas were there in pre-Columbian thought. They had explored this because of their observations of the stars and they made it their business to write it down. How they understood things is a mystery but they wrote what they wrote and it is there for us to interpret.
How did that lead to the book?
In talking to students in workshops about these things, I had to put everything down in notes. Eventually, we worked to get the lectures transcribed starting in the 2000s. I had half of the book worked out and on my computer by 2010. About five years ago, my son Kinan was going to teach a workshop and he asked for materials. It occurred to me that the work had to be finished.
We shared what I had, the first part of the book, with an editor, Michael Chemers, and he became very excited about publishing it. He wanted me to submit it to Routledge even though it was unfinished. I did, and they greenlighted it right away. I said ‘Fine, just let me finish it.”
In part two of the interview, Valdez breaks down the philosophy behind “Theater of the Sphere: The Vibrant Being.”
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