Friday, November 20, 2009

Part I: Interview with Kinan Valdez of El Teatro Campesino

Full Disclosure: I've known Kinan Valdez for more than 12 years. In 2001, I played the title role in El Teatro Campesino's traveling production of “Guerilla Radio.” I have an insider's knowledge of his directing skills and process. And I have always been impressed.

So having our paths intersect the past couple of years has been a nice change of pace from my previous interaction with him, when he was leading sweaty theater workshops in the sometimes dank recess of the ETC playhouse in San Juan Bautista. As a director, he was demanding but respectful of his production team, and I always had fun working with him.

And now I get to write about him as an artist, which is fun. My feature on the Teatro's winter production “La Pastorela” runs Sunday, but this is the raw text of my interview. He talks about this year's show and gives some insight into the future of Chicano Teatro and where he hopes to lead the company (part two will delve even more into the Teatro's future plans).

Here is Part I of my interview:

On the Teatro's anniversary:
It's our 44th anniversary. Officially, in November, we're officially celebrating the 44th anniversary, so to a certain degree, we consider 2010 a 45th anniversary season.

On the idea of Chicano Teatro as a traditional art:
I read somewhere the definition of traditional art. They said a traditional art is something that is not based on individual achievement, but a collective wisdom that's amassed and and passed on from generation to generation. It dawned on me not so long ago that the way we practice Chicano theater at El Teatro Campesino is starting to head into this realm of traditional art. That as a project is important.
To be able to mark all the achievements in the art forms that were developed by these Chicano generations, and marking them as a traditional form is a project that seems worth wile into the future, especially as part of the organizational method of the Teatro. On top of creating new forms and new journeys, that seems to be a real important project, so that legacy of cultural and political advancement is protected.
There are other groups that practice (Chicano Teatro) and that have defined it as a traditional art. I think it's a relatively new project. I have a tendency to think that the methods are an the forms.
So you have actos, corridos and mitos, which would be what people would refer to as classic Chicano theater forms. I would start to redefine them as traditional. And it's okay to protect those and codify those as a traditional form.
Where the experimental or any artistic movement come in and taking those forms and experimenting with them. That's one of the projects here. All the shows we've done, even “Sam Burguesa and The Pixie Chicks”took some of those traditional forms and threw them together to see what happens. (More after the jump)

On whether he views himself and the company as gatekeepers for Chicano teatro:
We talked about my generation, because I like to think in terms of generations. There's the generation before, and then there's my age group, which has been around for 15 years.
(And now I'm) trying to mentor this next group. It always felt like our responsibility was to be the bridge, to make sure the survival of this particualr type of teatro went from the 20th century into the 21st century. That is a responsibility that our generation, my generation, assumed some 15 years ago. It's part of the work that we need to do.
We all have different ideas as individual artists and I have my own aesthetic as an individiaul artist, but when we come under the banner of El Teatro Campesino, there's a very specific project at work.

On passing the torch to26-year-old director Adrian Torres:
It's a long range torch passing. It's part of strengthening the roots of the company. Paqt of what happened is that the last transition (when he took the reigns from his father Luis Valdez) was marked by probably too abrupt shift. My generation didn't have the mentorship, because the older veteranos held it so long that they needed to take a break. So when we came in, we didn't have the same type of mentorship. There was one one in ther 30's or 40's that we were working with. They were all in their 50's, and we were in our 20's. So we had to constantly do this cultural translation with these groups. This was a project where I wanted to be a young mentor, one that I didn't have.
Adrian is part of this other, larger generation. They started appearing on the scene three years ago. So our efforts have been geared towards rebuilding this ensemble, training this particualr group in the Teatro Cmepesino style, which, you know, is also all of the philosophical underpinnings of the company, in terms of being based in Mayan philosophy. It is something that we have to start with every group that comes in, every new generation.
The shift began in late 2005, and picked up steam in 2006 and 2007. In that time, what happened is we reverted back to the old teatro model of having an ensemble, a performing ensemble and a core company/community of actors. That community, or core company, has multiple generations in it.
It has me and other people in their 30s, and all the new generation in their 20's, and it has a few high schoolers we have been training.
And then, people like Noe Montoya, who I like to say is back in active service with the Teatro. He's in his 50's. For us, he's played Juan Diego since 2002 in our Christmas shows. But he actually was from Hollister and was a teenager when he joined the Teatro back in the 70s. Then went to go pursue other interests, then slowly became a member of the Teatro once again. Just organically.

On his role in this year's production of “La Pastorela”:
I'm one of the producers. I am there to make sure the tradition is maintained. That's about the extent of my involvement. I'm a consultant, but it's Adrian's vision, so it's important that he be given the opportunity to push those artistic boundaries however he needs to. It doesn't serve anybody if you have another director. I go and check in and watch the run throughs.

On whether it was tough to relinquish the title of director:
No, not for me perosnally, because I believe in the tradition. I wasn't alwasy the director. I grew up with it as a kid, as a performer, so my first 20-something years was as a participant in the process. Even before, when I didn't direct, I ended up jumping in wherever necessary.
I'm really grateful that it's in strong and capable hands, so it's actually a gift to not have to worry abou tthe shows. Most people say as a director, you want to hold on to that. But it's never been about power. It's about empowering. That's one of the beautiful things that's happening.
(Torres will direct the Christmas shows) as long as he wants. That's the thing. When you assume the directorship, you're also assuming responsibility for the tradition. And the Teatro will be behind it. It still happens to be our most beloved tradition, and it's the thing that's anchored all generations of the teatro.

On the history of the T eatro's Christmas plays:
“La Virgen del Tepeyac” had its' first performance in 1971. La Pastorela began in1975 as a puppet show. Then in 1976, it became a street theater performance. Then in the late 1970s, it moved into the Mission San Juan Bautista and hasn't left. Definitely since 1981, it's an unbroken streak.

On what the Teatro's Christmas productions mean to him:
I know we talk about what Christmas means and what holiday means, but for me, that community engagement will always be associated with the holidays. The act of giving and touching other people. There would be no Christmas or holiday spirit for me without these shows. That's whey even the years I wasn't doing it, I was drawn back to it. Even in college, I felt the need to jump into the show. The spirit and unity we create with the community in the process of making this show is what the spirit of Christmas is supposed to be about. So the fact that there are other generations already growing up in this show is really special.
I've seen people who have grown up and are growing up, and the kids come back year after year. Those are the tradition keepers that are running around now with painted faces.

On this year's production:
The production has got a cast of a little over 50 people. It's slightly more traditional than previous versions. The original casting dymanmic has been implemented.
Luzbel is once again played by a man. In this case he's played by Eduardo Robledo. He's celebrating his 40th anniversary as a teatro veteran. He joined in 1969, and has returned in 2009 to honor his 40 year to doing teatro in general.
Christy Sandoval is playing Satanas, one of our new next generation performers. It's the first time in a long time a woman is playing Satanas. That was part of the original tradition.
Jillian Mitchell is also part of our core company. She's playing San Migue. Rounding out the cast is El Hermitano, who for the first time in history is being played by a woman, Romina Memoli Amador. She's a visiting artist from Honduras. A woman has never played Hermitano. The part is still male, as they always don a mask. That's an exciting change there.

On why he chose director Adrian Torres:
As a director in his own right, the fact that Adrian is a visual artist and has a strong visual sense (is a big help). When you're dealing with a show that requires an ability to create images that tell the story as well is important. That visual sense is absolutely key.
The other factor (in his selection) was his sense of humor. As a comedic actor, he's very funny in terms of creating a physical comedy, hat sense of humor (helps) in being able to mine certain moments. It will be a treat for the audiences.
The last thing is the fact he too is reared in this tradition. He understands it organically. He's not a visitig director who says ‘This is (going to be) a western theater approach to making this show happen.
He actually started first back in 1999 as a teenager, and in 2001 he was performing as a devil. He was a devil, and he ended up playing Satanas many years and now has moved on to the director's chair. It's that organic transition that is essential to maintain these traditions.
People will be happy to see his work as an actor (turned director). He has a small following. He's one of our standout performers as an actor. And now they will get a chance to see those comedic sensibilities of his as a director.

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