A Shepherds' Tale

Borderlands' 'Pastorela' is a Mexican Christmas tradition made modern

A common image of the writer is that of a lonely figure who scribbles an original work of art in solitary genius.

But when it comes to theater, this could not be further from the truth: The making of plays is all about community and collaboration.

Nothing illustrates this more vividly than Borderlands' annual A Tucson Pastorela, a contemporary variant on the medieval Christian shepherds' play. A holiday celebration, the Pastorela tells the tale of a group of shepherds (or pastores) who receive word that Jesus will be born in Bethlehem. As they journey to see him, they must avoid three temptations along the way.

Featuring a large cast of actors from the community, the play is a mix of music, theater, comedy and religious celebration.

Seventeen years ago, when Borderlands first began producing the show, the company used a script by California writer Max Branscomb. Writing in rhyming couplets, Branscomb pioneered what would become the Pastorela format. He wrote a new script each year, shaping the traditional Christmas story around a different theme and incorporating humorous topical references.

Over time, notes Eva Zorrilla Tessler, the associate artistic director, the troupe modified Branscomb's scripts "more and more—so much so that now we have our own writers."

Borderlands tapped two local poets, Wendy Burk and Eric Magrane, who are now in their third year of Pastorela writing.

Though writing poetry is usually thought of as a solitary act, Burk and Magrane often collaborate. A married couple, they've written poetry together, and they've worked with a composer on a choral song cycle.

This collaborative work, as well as Burk's translations of Mexican poet Tedi López Mills, brought the pair to the attention of Barclay Goldsmith, Borderlands' producing director.

"The most important thing for the playwrights to understand—and Eric and Wendy do understand this—is that the pastorela has its own historical structure," Goldsmith says. Originally brought from Spain to colonial Mexico by missionary priests, a pastorela must always focus on the pastores and the three temptations, says Tessler, who directs the play. "It is basically a spiritual journey."

The writers had to learn that structure as they developed their first scripts, Burk says.

"We talked with, and learned from, Eva and Barclay," Burk says. "What are the elements that don't change? What stays constant?"

Poet Magrane chimes in: "There are certain tropes each year that come back, certain characters."

Some of those characters, such as Lucifer and the archangels Gabriel and Michael, are biblical, while others developed through centuries of cultural tradition. The mix of old and new keeps the process exciting.

"Every year we get to make something new, using that same pattern," Burk says.

One key variation each year is a contemporary character, someone whose own journey relates to the year's theme. To decide on the theme, Burk says, she and Magrane ask themselves, "What have been the big issues nationally, and the big issues in Tucson?"

For 2012, they chose Pastorela de colores, or "rainbow pastorela," about the bullying of queer youth. Climate change and environmental awareness are also woven into the story.

Addressing community concerns is part of the long tradition of the pastorela, Tessler says. The local Catholic priest would be the director, and the people in the community would be the actors. The performance would serve as "a morality play, but also a forum to bring things that happened in the community throughout the year to the forefront," Tessler says. "So in that sense, it is political."

If all this sounds rather serious, Magrane is quick to point out that the pastorela is at heart about fun. "We laugh a lot when we're working on it."

The fact that the whole play must be in rhyming verse is one of the sources of humor. As poets, Burk and Magrane took naturally to rhyming, and Burk especially delights in the opportunities for comedy that rhyming word play affords.

A Tucson Pastorela is also a musical spectacle. The writers work with Borderlands' musical director Jim Klingenfus to discuss which traditional carols—in Spanish and English—will fit into the show, as well as what contemporary music might be incorporated.

Live music is provided by Gertie Lopez and the T.O. Boys. They play waila, the social music of the Tohono O'odham Nation. Also known as "chicken scratch," waila is the Tohono O'odham answer to polka. The accordion is crucial to the music, which also calls for guitar, bass and drums.

Tessler says that waila suits the spirit of the show. A Tucson Pastorela has an "artisanal, earthy, very down-home feel to it," she says. And waila is "very down-to-earth."

The look for the show, Tessler says, "is of street theater, because this is a street theater—normally, it's done outdoors, outside the churches in Mexico."

Even though it is presented indoors, bringing the community together in a spirit of holiday festivity is still A Tucson Pastorela's mission. Burk says collaboration is at its heart.

"What I love about the pastorela is the chance to produce something that is about this community, with so many community members," Burk says.

But it always comes back to fun.

"We ask ourselves, 'What are the silliest things we can do?'" Tessler says. "And then we have piñatas at the end for the children."