Mexico's got theater in unusual spaces(Read article summary)
With stages set up in street cars, Mexico City is celebrating its first Festival of Theater in Unusual Spaces and giving a new outlet for the city's emerging artists.
Some 25 people were trapped in a small street car in Mexico City last week; backs pushed up against the walls, watching uncomfortably as a man grabbed a stranger by the hair and yanked her to the ground.
The police werenâ€™t called, and the incident couldnâ€™t be found in any crime blotters the day after. But this wasnâ€™t an example of Mexicoâ€™s troubled security situation. In fact, the aggression taking place had been rehearsed many times before, as a part of Mexico Cityâ€™s first annual Festival of Theater in Unusual Spaces.
Two 1970s-era Japanese street cars situated near parks in trendy Mexico City neighborhoods serve as the staging ground for the festival, now entering its third and final week.
Mexico City has a long, rich history in the arts â€“ from well-know painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera to the world-renowned Mexican Folkloric Ballet and more experimental performance artists like Jesusa RodrĂguez. According to the Ministry of Culture there are five main theater companies in Mexico City, but that doesnâ€™t include the scores of smaller troops and venues in the federal district and surrounding Mexico State.
Eloy HernĂˇndez oversees the street car theaterÂ TrolĂ©bus Doble Vida and is a festival producer. The two street cars, along with a third that hasnâ€™t been incorporated in this first performance series, were transformed into weekly theater spaces between 2009 and 2012. But when Mr. HernĂˇndez began receiving more scripts and requests to use the space than he could accommodate, he thought it was time to organize a festival that showcases the skills of many emerging Mexico City artists thirsting for an outlet.
â€śMexico City has a lot of theaters,â€ť says Mariano Ruiz, an actor and director hanging out by the TrolebĂşs Doble Vida before last weekâ€™s show. But no matter the city, â€śthere are always lots of actors and too little work.â€ť It can be very hard to enter large, official theaters in Mexico, Mr. Ruiz says. â€śYouâ€™re competing with the big names.â€ť
Stolen lights and an 'unforgiving' space
The Achilles Heel theater troop performed the play "Dulces CompaĂ±ias" last week, by Mexican playwright Oscar Liera. It wasnâ€™t written for a performance in a trolly car, but it was created for a small theater, so the roughly 8-meter long and 1-meter wide space delivered the intended impact.
â€ś[Audience members] feel trapped, claustrophobic,â€ť says actor Francisco Bentacourt, who plays the lead role of a psychotic park dweller who preys on naive strangers who invite him back to their homes. â€śThis is very intimate.â€ť
There isnâ€™t room for elaborate scene changes or set design, but the actors and small crew did an impressive job with what they had.
â€śThe space is so small, itâ€™s unforgiving,â€ť says HernĂˇndez. You have to be more attentive than you would in a main stage theater, he says. â€śThere have to be good actors, because they are right in your face, and the director has to come up with solutionsâ€ť to communicate with the audience when there is no curtain to drop at the end of a scene or sophisticated lighting options to evoke a certain emotion or energy. (In fact, any light at all is a challenge: The street car has had its electric wiring stolen twice, and now connects lamps via extension cords to a power outlet at a nearby hotel.)
But creative they were. When the end of the first act started heating up, a man who had until that point appeared to be just another audience member began tapping his feet â€“ louder and louder, faster and faster â€“ to correspond with the increasingly heated dialogue taking place up and down the trolly car aisle. A tall lamp that looked like it belonged in a college dorm room was snapped off after Mr. Bentacourtâ€™s character killed the woman who had invited him in from the park.
Suddenly a small projector stored under another audience memberâ€™s seat was pulled into the aisle. A woman sitting by a computer on one of the wheel wells began a video montage of the main character walking through a park, set to music. It was projected on the partition behind the driverâ€™s seat, and kept the audienceâ€™s attention as a few small tweaks were made to the modest set before Act II.
Yellow â€ścautionâ€ť tape lined the floor of the street car to indicate where audience members risked exiting their spots as voyeurs and encroaching on the actorsâ€™ domain.
Next spaces: bodegas, apartments
If theater demands a certain suspension of reality, theater in a street car flushes an extra bit of reality into the drama. â€śYou want me to go out there in the rain?â€ť Mr. Bentacourtâ€™s character yells at one point, just after a real-time rain storm started pounding outside.
Rodrigo Minor attended the show and says he liked the experience. â€śItâ€™s a new side of theater for me,â€ť says Mr. Minor, a systems engineer who works nearby and saw festival advertisements in the neighborhood. This was his first time watching a play in a street car, and says itâ€™s something he would gladly try again.
The festival is free to attend (they donâ€™t have the necessary permits to charge for tickets, but do accept tips) and the shows vary greatly. Though this play was quite dark and menacing, others generate roars of laughter.
Next year, HernĂˇndez hopes to expand the festival to include even more unusual spaces in Mexico City: bodegas and private apartments, for starters.
â€śIn the past, actors and directors were always waiting for a call,â€ť HernĂˇndez says. â€śBut now people make their own spaces. Thereâ€™s less knocking on doors, and more creating.â€ť