tlf news

Vol. xx #1

March, 1999

Theatre in Times of Hurricanes

Rigo: The waters of Hurricane Mitch left behind fear, affliction, sadness, frustration in the hearts of all those who had watched helplessly as the raging torrents of the rivers swept away in minutes the security and possessions that represented years of painstaking work and struggle.

Javier: Shelters sprang up where hundreds of people were packed together, sleeping side by side, many of the children naked because they had nothing to wear. A cry went up from the mouths of thousands of children in shelters all over the country--

Edilberto: Every one of us had to contribute our grain of sand.

Sunday, 1 November: We will start tomorrow to try to organize a teatro plan for how we can contribute to the reconstruction that has to start now.

Pedro: The hurricane put our 20 years of experience to the test. The moment had come to prove how much theatre we had learned in those twenty years. As teatro we had to collaborate in the construction of a new country.

Chito: We couldn't help at the material or economic level; but on the psychological level we had a big job in the face of a people traumatized by that horrifying natural phenomenon.

Yuma: Our goal was to help people recover the will to go on.

Chito: We had to find a way to bring joy, faith and hope to all those people in the shelters who had lost everything.

Juan: We weren't going to distribute food or water or clothing.

Edilberto: We knew that people were hungry, but they also had to forget the tragedy; we had to make them laugh for a moment, we had to give them a message of hope.

Pedro: We knew it wasn't going to be an easy task. The chaos the hurricane left in its wake was mind-blowing. The shelters were jammed with people, international aid hadn't begun to arrive, the roads were destroyed.

Rigo: So we set out to get together the human resources necessary to achieve our goal of sowing smiles and awakening hope in the sad faces and the despairing hearts the hurricane had left behind. We recruited actors in the schools and in the shelters themselves.

Chito: We starting mounting Gospels, songs and skits to help alleviate the grief of our fellow countrymen.

Pedro: We put a spot on the radio and the next day several young people showed up to get to work on this teatro project, while others of us directed already-formed groups in the barrios or the churches. We knew our shows had to be simple and didactic; our object was an on-going tour of the shelters in the city, of which there were more than a hundred.

Tuesday, 3 November: At this moment the teatro seems very normal -- Chito is rehearsing «Jesus calms the storm» on the stage with a group who showed up in response to our call yesterday on Radio Progreso to form groups that can provide a bit of spiritual/cultural nourishment to the people in the shelters. It was his choice (I told him -- do ANYTHING so we can get something going this very afternoon). The choice seems somewhat appropriate to the situation. Pedro and Yuma have one car, distributing water in one of the villages, Javier is working on the books for October....

Juan: The first shelter we performed in was a school where the refugees had lost everything. It wasn't going to be an easy task; the people were in a real state of depression.

Pedro: That first show confirmed our original belief that these displaced persons needed more than food and clothing: they needed spiritual food and interior clothing that could help stir up their spirit and their will.

Thursday, 5 November: This morning we did a little show for 1012 refugees in INTELO, the technical school next door. It was an awful setting -- there's nothing worse than a gymnasium with the people jammed in on the bleachers. And we very rarely do a show for such a large audience. It pushed the definition of «Rough Theatre» far beyond anything Peter Brook ever dreamed of. But all of us together shared a few moments of laughter and tears and catharsis that have changed forever my definition of what an artistic experience is. We have survived.

Yadith: That first show was special: seeing all the smiles of those children moved me deeply, seeing in their eyes a bit of happiness. I know that for those children it was a happy moment.

Rigo: We formed eight groups of «little actors» and we started to work on «little shows» and children's stories. They were shows gotten up on the fly; sometimes we got pieces up in a single day. And we started in on a tour of the shelters of El Progreso.

Yadith: I got together a group of kids from my barrio; we mounted a few Gospel dramatizations and some other things and we went on the road.

Javier: My group were refugee kids from the INTELO shelter next door to the teatro. They were very nervous; they had never dreamed of doing such a thing. But the applause of the audiences built up their confidence and they really started getting into it.

Yuma: I got together two different groups with the refugees, one with the youth group in the Pénjamo church, where the raging Río Pelo had wiped out hundreds of homes; and the other with children from the same barrio. All of them had lost their homes. But that seemed to give them even more motivation to bring a little joy to others who had suffered the same.

Juan: We made up a tour calendar with morning and afternoon shows.

Edilberto: We traveled from shelter to shelter in the city of El Progreso acting out stories, singing and dramatizing Gospels.

Yuma: Every time we arrived at a shelter we were besieged by people who were sick or who needed clothes or food. We tried to point them in the direction of those who were organizing help in those areas. Once I heard a man complaining that what they needed was food and not a bunch of clowns. We knew they needed food -- but we were also sure they had to laugh a bit.

Pedro: The applause and the laughter of thousands of children and adults gave us the inspiration to keep at it.

Tuesday, 10 November: We usually have to go looking for our audiences. Here they are looking for us. And the big problem at the moment is really one of depression, disillusionment, whatever you want to call it. So we're working on the Cycle-play model, going around from shelter to shelter. As I see it, we've started our Christmas season, with training on the fly -- if we can get this going well, we'll move into turning it into the Christmas material (for the moment it's ANYTHING). No doubt this is going to be an even-sadder-than-usual Christmas, so we'll see if we can at least get a little music and dancing into it.

Pedro: I got a call from a Catalonian friend in Spain. We talked a bit about the destruction the hurricane had wrought, and then he asked me: «What are you going to do now? I imagine you'll have to close up shop for a while; you have to rebuild the whole country, and everybody will have to get to work on that.» After we talked I stopped to think for a moment and I realized: There are many people who don't understand the importance of theatre in an underdeveloped country. They forget that the European theatre in the Middle Ages was a theatre of and for the pueblo; and if the theatre is part of the pueblo, it makes no difference whether the circumstances are joyful, sad or tragic, the theatre will always have a word and an action to offer to those circumstances.

* * *

Tuesday, 17 November: From the point of view of the teatro I see last week revolving around three moments: last Sunday I arrived at the parish for my Sunday morning kids' Mass. Érica -- Chito's wife -- regularly plays guitar and directs the kids choir. We decided that she and Chito could dramatize the Gospel of «Jesus calms the storm» (which Chito's group had already been presenting as an overture to various pieces they were doing in the shelters) -- using the entire congregation in the role of the apostles. Chito taught them their two lines of text before the Mass; then Chito read it as Érica accompanied on the guitar (and we got all the kids' choir's rhythm instruments going to stir up a good storm), and the whole church became the apostles shouting to wake up a sleeping Jesus. A highly cathartic experience for all of us.

Thursday we re-created the same experience in Pénjamo, one of the hardest-hit barrios of all, with Edilberto on the guitar and Juan as storm-maker. And on Saturday Edilberto and Chito did the same in La Guacamaya.

Edilberto: Jack asked Chito and me if we wanted to accompany padre Chepe Owens to dramatize the «Jesus calms the storm» Gospel in a Mass in the village of La Guacamaya. There was no way I could refuse: I was born in that village and I had heard that it had been very hard-hit by Mitch's fury. I wanted to see my native village, the village my parents left when I was three years old.

Chito: It's never the same to see it on television and to experience it in the flesh. En route in the jeep I gaped open-mouthed at the houses buried in mud deposited by the rains, trees downed everywhere....

Edilberto: On the way memory images of the main street flashed through my mind; of the first house after the turn-off , the home of the midwife who assisted my mother at my birth and whom I returned to visit from time to time. But when we arrived my mind refused to accept what my eyes conveyed. The whole landscape of La Guacamaya, carefully stored in my memory, had disappeared. The village was unrecognizable. We moved into the village and ghosts were springing up all around to frighten us: ghost houses completely buried, houses drowned in mud, houses drowned with all their furnishings still inside because their owners had to flee for their lives with no time to rescue their belongings. A layer of mud three metres deep had swallowed the village. There were only seven houses that had escaped. Tears welled up from deep inside me.

Tuesday, 17 November: That frame for the week really defined our job clearly for the next few months, and the obvious job the teatro has in this process. We've been rehearsing for 20 years the role we have to play at the moment. And it becomes ever more evident that any kind of reconstruction has to have a spiritual/cultural foundation.

Yuma: We got together in the teatro to define the next stage. Jack outlined for us a method for working with children's stories, and we fanned out to tell stories.

Yadith: Every time we visited a shelter I felt a great sadness when I saw all those children suffering -- and a great happiness when I saw their faces light up. The moment they saw us coming they jumped up and down shouting «la fragua is coming.» They knew they had to define their audience space, and within seconds they had us surrounded and an improvised theatre had been created.

Pedro: The children in the shelters got to know us, and a noisy reception always greeted our arrival. The kids sat on the ground or on stones in the form of a «U», anxious to savor the message of the stories we were going to present.

Yuma: Whenever we arrived at the shelters, they called us by the names we had in one or another of the stories.

Yadith: As a woman, my heart filled with sadness at the sight of so many little ones in those shelters; but I know their sun will shine again.

Friday, 20 November: I am delighted with the progress so far of our teatro project of «spiritual/cultural nourishment» to accompany the food distribution program. «Man does not live by bread alone» is even more true in extreme circumstances than in normal ones.

Rigo: It was very satisfying to see the smiles of the children, their sadness transformed into happiness. Whenever we finished a show, they kept begging for more.

Yadith: One of those times we went to the San Francisco School. A compañero telling a story. Suddenly I noticed an old woman, 85 or 90 years old. She was seated on the ground, barefoot, dirty. I looked at her and a great sadness washed over me. Her eyes spoke sadness, loneliness. There was no hope in them. I could only think of my own grandparents: she would be about the same age as my grandmother, I thought, and I felt how much I love my abuela. And I asked myself: Where are her grandchildren? Why aren't they taking care of her? I can only beg God that He never abandon her. She will always remain a part of me: she taught me in that moment what it means to be a refugee, what it is that they suffer. The only thing I can do is try to bring them a little joy with what we do. Señora -- because I don't know your name -- I will never forget you, and may God protect you.

Yuma: We also did performances of the Honduran Stories (A New Dream) in the teatro for the refugees in the shelters near-by. Many of these refugees were from the banana camps and had never had the chance to see a show in the teatro itself.

Saturday, 28 November: The teatro has been a hotbed of activity -- there are a number of groups giving daily shows in the shelters, and this past week our central group has been doing A New Dream (the version of the Honduran Stories that we did in Spain) in the theatre for groups of the 1,000 or so people who are sheltered in INTELO next door. A bunch of the kids from there now have all the stories memorized.

Pedro: In the San Francisco School, I noticed especially one handicapped kid who had somehow come up with a wheelchair. His enthusiasm every time he saw us was notorious. Seated in his wheelchair, he swayed back and forth as if he wanted to jump out and embrace us. Our arrival was like the arrival of the hour of his favorite class that he'd been waiting for all day. He always managed to get right in the front row and became a part of the show, laughing, applauding, singing....

Thursday, 10 December: We just finished a show -- a sort of open dress rehearsal of the year-end recital of our ballet school (a month late, but then....). Pedro got it together, and Juan and Luis (Luis from Tacamiche, who showed up the other day without a job and whom we immediately put to work, because he knows as well as anybody the light and sound system) did all the technical part. It was a bit rough, but given the circumstances not bad. Pedro alternated dances of the school with pieces of the «adult» company. (The best moments were watching all the little girls backstage staring wide-eyed at the dances of the «big guys»). We were jammed with refugees, especially kids, who loved it. We're going to repeat this tomorrow and Saturday for the same kinds of audiences.

Pedro: We did three nights in the teatro itself. For the last show, I got the job of going to give out tickets in some of the shelters nearer the teatro: the Daly maquila, the Cabañas School and the San Francisco School. The kids were delighted, of course. Before the show I peeked through one of the side curtains to see if the handicapped kid was there in the tumult of kids who were at that moment creating a grand racket because they had never seen such a place.

But my pal wasn't there. And a bucket of cold water suddenly fell on me and woke me up to the hard truth: in that cursed shelter no one would have a vehicle to get him here, and by himself he could never have navigated the pair of kilometres between the shelter and the teatro, especially in the rain that was falling that night over El Progreso..

Thursday, 10 December: The day today was rather typical of what we've come to expect these days: The first period was a rehearsal of our Noah play, which we'll be doing starting next week (with, needless to say, a few re-writes and insertions to bring it up-to-date with regard to recent events). The second period in the morning Javi did an acrobatics class with new kids while the rest of the fragua regulars went to one of the shelters to present a story-reading session, a new technique we've developed over the past couple of weeks to get up quick dramatizations of children's stories. Then in the afternoon all were either rehearsing with their barrio/shelter groups or doing shows with those groups in the shelters; and between four and five everybody started showing up here to get the place ready for the show at six.

Yuma: Christmas was approaching and we began to get up Christmas pieces that we could take to the shelters.

Pedro: The professional group started working on two Christmas pieces: The Story of Noah, which has all-too-many resonances given recent events, and our traditional Navidad Nuestra. For the latter we recruited a bunch of the volunteer kids who served as chorus and narrators.

Yadith: We began to present them, doing shows first in the teatro itself and then in the shelters and in the churches. It's Christmas, and even though there is mourning and sadness, we all have to take a moment to smile, for ourselves and for our children. These shows were the Christmas present we could offer to the refugees. Their applause, their laughter and their happy faces expressed eloquently their gratitude.

Saturday, 2 January: The last couple of weeks have been the culmination of the first phase of our own efforts -- we've brought together all the various groups that we had giving shows in the shelters and mounted our usual Christmas show Navidad Nuestra with a Cecil B. DeMille cast of thousands, and a version of The Story of Noah -- the great flood is all too relevant a topic at the moment. We'll do the last shows of Navidad Nuestra this weekend and keep doing the Noah show as we move back into the story-telling program for kids next week -- trying to expand it out of the shelters so that it can become a standard part of the barrio landscape.

Chito: Hurricane Mitch left us down but not out. The greatest experience I have had with my companions of struggle and work has been this one of solidarity with the people thrown together in the numerous shelters in town: people who had lost everything, people thrown out on the street, with nothing.

Yuma: In the shelters in El Progreso, in spite of everything that has happened, there is laughter.

20 January: We've gotten the new year going in the teatro -- with a huge demand in the city's shelters. What I am most satisfied with is the new method we've discovered to «semi-dramatize» children's stories (the shelters are jammed with kids). It's a very simple technique that allows us to get pieces up very quickly.

Yadith: I will never forget what we have lived in these months. In some way we have made an important contribution to our people: with our work we have created smiles on a lot of sad faces. I give thanks to God for giving me this chance to be a channel for bringing a little happiness to all these people.

Saturday, 27 February: We have been polishing and improving our project of story-telling for kids. It's been expanded from its original function as a program for the kids in the shelters to a regular program for the schools. (At the moment those two go hand-in-hand: most of the schools are doubling as shelters still).

Rigo: «After the hurricane comes the calm.» That's what popular wisdom says, but four months after Mitch's devastating visit you don't see calm anywhere, and who know when it will arrive.

Juan: You still can't see any real change in the city: those who lost their homes continue waiting for some sign of help from the government. The homeless need a patch of land where they can begin to build their homes and rebuild their lives.

Yadith: I hope that we can continue to be a voice of inspiration for these people. I know that some have lost their children or their relatives, and I know the sadness of losing a loved one. But we have to move on. Crying and lamenting don't get you anywhere. It's a long road. There's a long way to go. That's why we can't look back, but have to keep our gaze fixed forward. To struggle, because that's the only way we'll be able to advance.

Thursday, 11 March: We continue with far more demand for the teatro than we can ever hope to fill. This weekend we'll be opening this year's version of the Passion.

Chito: We have a serious commitment to our people. I feel proud to be a part of these twenty years of struggle. Our work and our voices will never be silenced.

And God said:

I put my rainbow in the clouds.
This rainbow is the sign of the covenant
I am contracting with all the earth,
with you and all your descendents
and all the animals of the earth.
Never again will a flood destroy the earth.
For as long as the earth shall last
there will be sowing and reaping,
for the cold and the warm will never cease,
nor the summer and the winter
nor the days and the nights.

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