tlf news Vol. xvii #1 March, 1996

A Liberating Vision:
Making the Invisible Visible

--Eugene F. Sessa sj

Imagine if you will an entire play performed in three minutes with the actors screaming their dialogue while wearing paper bags over their heads.

Picture if you can cast members who threaten the audience with flaming torches, placing the fire so dangerously close that some seated in the front row are actually singed!

Try to envision a beautiful leading lady who elegantly delivers her lines punctuating each with a deliberately audible passing of intestinal gas.

This is what I was exposed to during my most recent visit to Honduras. Not that I experienced any of it in a production of teatro la fragua. In fact, the teatro was in a period of vacation and I saw not a single one of their live performances. Rather I encountered these somewhat bizarre theatrical experiments by way of teatro la fragua's fairly extensive library. I was doing a special reading course with my fellow Jesuit Jack Warner as part of my theological preparation for priesthood. The topic was "The History of Religious Theatre" and through the books and my regular meetings with Jack I quickly came to learn that the term "religious theatre" encompasses much more than the morality and mystery plays of the Middle Ages. Also included are a wide variety of attempts by people earlier this century (some like those described above) to use theatre to create an experience which sought to liberate individuals from the restrictions imposed upon them by society and to get in touch with that which is beyond ordinary sense perception. This was often done by shocking the audience into considering alternative ways of thinking and acting, and encouraging the audience to participate in the theatrical event.

Admittedly, the outlandishness of some of the methods employed by groups like the Theatre of Cruelty in France and The Living Theatre in the United States to achieve this freedom and vision, while perhaps necessary, caused some critics to miss the significance of their work. Yet much of what these movements did laid the groundwork for what is now happening in contemporary theatre. Indeed, their ideas have helped shape the work of teatro la fragua in their efforts to make another reality visible to the Honduran people. As the group approaches the end of its second decade of existence, its members continue to explore theatre's potential to liberate thinking, clarify vision, and affect change, inspired by what took place in experimental theaters of Europe and the USA earlier in this century.

I first came to work with teatro la fragua in 1988, as they were nearing the celebration of their tenth anniversary. Having returned each year since I have seen -- and even been involved in -- numerous presentations the group has done at its home in El Progreso as well as in other parts of the country. Of course, I always knew that they were up to more than just pure entertainment; but after learning about the works of people like Antonin Artaud, Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook, I understood with greater clarity than ever before just what Jack and his troupe have been trying to accomplish.

I also grew in my understanding of how Honduras needs theatre. It may not realize it, but it does. I'm not talking about the kind of theatre that holds up a mirror to allow society to view itself, or even the kind of theatre that challenges people to be better than they are (though both of these kinds have merit). Honduras desperately needs what the British director Peter Brook has described as "holy theatre": a theatre which attempts to make -- even if only for brief glimpses at a time -- the invisible visible.

Certainly a convincing argument can be made that holy theatre is needed by people of all times and in all places, but the urgency for it seems especially great in Honduras where so much of what is visible in everyday life is very difficult to look at. Widespread economic hardship and notorious governmental corruption constantly combine to inflict damage on the psyches and hearts of the people here, daily chipping away at hope and leaving a trail of suffocating despair. People living in such conditions need to be repeatedly reassured of the existence of another reality. Some have theorized that the theatre is the only window through which one can view this other reality, while others hold that this different reality is created by and only exists in the theatre.

Perhaps there is truth in both of these positions.

The performances of teatro la fragua aim to free people to see things they haven't seen before. Not unlike the apocalyptic literature found in the Bible, they help those who experience them to envision a world more peaceful, more productive, and more just than the one in which they currently find themselves. This is most effective when something unique and unrepeatable happens in the performance between the actors and the audience. This "communion" (using Grotowski's word) is a bridging of the gap between individuals -- a gap that often leads to isolation and despair.

How is this liberating vision achieved? What are the tools and devices used to bring about this experience of the holy? They are many and varied. One of the main emphases is on the use of ritual and ceremony, taking the cue here from the many forms of ritual which are part of everyday life. It is a very physical theatre, centered in the body, and thus space becomes all important; often the action takes place between and among the audience to help them become more involved. The sounds of words -- their tone and volume -- take precedence over their literal definitions, with chants and groans often employed to communicate meaning. Archetypes, shadows and dreams are an important part of this theatre which abhors naturalism (you'll never find an exact replica of a Honduran living room meticulously constructed as a set for a tlf production -- not because they couldn't afford it, but because they wouldn't want it!) Instead, alusions and symbols, similar to those found in primitive dance, are sought out and given expression.

In the tradition of the avant-garde theatre, society and all its trappings are seen as the great oppressor which masks what is genuine and true. In attempting to strip this oppression away, the search for the humanity which binds all men and women is a common theme. Plays become not spectacles to be viewed by an audience but rather events in which all -- actors and audience members -- participate and are transformed.

There are many ways that an audience can take part in and affect a performance. Some productions, again of the experimental type, have tried to force members of the viewing public up onto the stage to become another actor; but actually this is not their role, and certainly it is not teatro la fragua's style. Still, the audience is essential to what occurs in the theatre, and audience members can greatly influence a show without ever leaving their seats. Uproarious laughter, slight chuckles, gasps of surprise, or a profound silence are all forms of communication and participation which leave their mark on what happens in a performance. Having had less experience of live theatre than their counterparts in other countries, Honduran audiences have fewer preconceived notions of what theatre is supposed to be like, and most houses here are quite willing -- even eager -- to enter in and be part of the event.

Creating this kind of interactive experience is what makes the theatre so special. It is something that television and the cinema can't come close to achieving. Of course it takes much hard work to combine skillfully all the elements so that this transformative event can occur, and even then much depends on what the audience brings to it. But the fact that this theatre can lead people to experience something beyond themselves -- even other-worldly -- truly puts it in the category of the "holy". Indeed, what happens here is sacred.

As far as I know there are no plans at tlf to start burning spectators, and the actors there are much too good-looking to have their faces covered with grocery sacks. And while an occasional bad stomach may momentarily interrupt a rehearsal, I cannot imagine forced flatulence becoming a part of any regular tlf production. Nevertheless, the ideas and spirit of those who experimented (albeit, at times, in strange ways) using theatre to liberate and make the invisible visible are still at the heart of that to which my friends at la fragua continue to dedicate themselves.

Gene Sessa sj is a Jesuit scholastic of the New Orleans Province currently in his third year of study at The Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California. He will return to Honduras in August for a five-month residency with teatro la fragua

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