Barrio Stories is quite possibly the theater event of the season. Ironically, though, it's not even taking place in a theater.
Borderlands Theater has undertaken an impressively wide-ranging project. Bringing together all types of people and ideas and artistry together, Barrio Stories play out in the Tucson Convention Center plaza this weekend. The location is a very intentional choice. Upon those grounds once stood Barrio Libre, Tucson's once-vibrant Mexican-American neighborhood. Barrio Stories will transform the plaza into a celebration of reclaimed history in an interactive theatrical setting.
Borderlands artistic director Marc David Pinate has been the driving force behind the project.
When he first came to Tucson almost three years ago as an artist-in-residence at Borderlands, he discovered La Calle by Dr. Lydia Otero, a historian at UA. The book includes a look at the forced displacement of families, and the demolition of part of Barrio Libre in the 1960s for the construction of the Tucson Convention Center. He knew that this sort of destruction was not uncommon in numerous cities. But, 50 years later, for some former denizens of this barrio community, this event is still a hurtful memory.
Pinate, who received an MFA at DePaul University, is interested in exploring theater in new ways, both in purpose and practice. He feels that it can be a living, breathing force that can create dialogue within a community. He also recognized that, even though Borderlands has been producing plays about Latino issues and experiences for years, not many of that population were actually filling the seats.
So when Pinate brought a group together to develop a theater project about this section of Tucson's history, it was clear to him that an unconventional venue might be a way of attracting the Latino community. By focusing on the personal stories of folks who had lived in Barrio Libre, the piece could help validate their history as a part of Tucson's history. This would not be an exercise in blaming; its purpose would be to heal and celebrate.
So a project plan was drawn up, and Borderlands was given a $50,000 grant by the national Theatre Communications Group to help make it happen.
Theater, by its nature, is collaborative. For any given show there are the contributions of playwrights, directors, actors and designers. Barrio Stories has truly stretched the idea of collaboration, though. By what Pinate calls "cross-section partnerships," the project has involved the input and cooperation of numerous organizations in the community.
First, there was research to be done.
In January 2015, Milta Ortiz, a playwright and member of Borderland's staff, devised and taught a course, "Theatricalizing Oral Histories," at the Desert View campus of Pima Community College as part of their Upward Bound program. Ten high school seniors took the class, joined by a PhD. candidate in UA's Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, who led workshops in "ethnographic interview techniques." Folks willing to be interviewed were identified, and then, under the watchful eye of the anthropologist, these students recorded, by audio and video, these oral histories.
Ortiz says generally the interviewees were very supportive. "At first, we had to really help them understand what was happening, and then they were very open to it. They were excited by the idea."
As part of their class, the students took these recordings and transcribed them. These transcriptions were then handed to three professional playwrights whose job was to transform the material into brief plays.
Elaine Romero who lives in Tucson, Virginia Grise from New York and Martin Zimmerman of Chicago received the transcripts in early summer 2015, developed their scripts and then met in Tucson in November to review and finalize what would be presented.
The pieces were coming together, but what was this going to look like? How would this become part of an outdoors, interactive theater experience?
Pinate says Barrio Stories is an example of "site-specific theater" or "creative place-making."
"We are taking this outside of a building where we sit passively and watch a play. We will be gathered on the very site where Barrio Libre stood. The architectural aspects of the buildings actually provide ready-made stages or platforms which can be used as stages."
The audience will enter the plaza through one of two designated entrances and will be assigned to a group to help the flow of people experiencing the event. There will be three makeshift stages with a 20-minute play will be presented at each. Groups will have about 25 minutes between each play. One of the playwrights wrote a series of 20 vignettes, or "memory fragments," and these performances will be scattered throughout the plaza, similar to installations in a museum. Folks can take those in as they explore the other activities in the plaza between the plays. There will also be food vendors.
One of the things Ortiz is most excited about is the interactive nature of the event itself. Activities, such as photo booths and recording booths, will be available for attendees to actually sit, share a memory and have it recorded, becoming a part of the experience. There will be opportunities for adults and children to create something to leave their mark, like writing down comments to be shared with others or leaving a handprint or a drawing that will be displayed throughout the weekend.
Finally, there will be a pachanga—a party with a show written by Romero told with giant puppets designed by professional artist Zarco Guerrero, ballet folkorico performances and mariachis.
"It's really a celebration of community because so many people and organizations made contributions to the process," Pinate says. "I hope when people see their stories told with such care and with such artistry, they will feel validated. We want them to feel that their stories matter. That they matter."