Brown Bag Theatre Company Presents The Service Workers Project

Contra La Corriente/Against the Current

This piece was collaboratively written by Sarah Menendez, Amanda Novoa, and other members of Brown Bag Theatre. Watch the livestream and the archival video for the Sunday, May 3, 2015 performance here.

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There are thousands of people on a college campus with thousands of stories to tell. However, most students and administrators often forget that the service workers have stories. Students see them every day, keeping the campus beautiful, clean—and functioning—yet their struggle often goes unnoticed.

When University of California, Irvine’s campus organization Brown Bag Theatre Company set out to produce a show for the 2014-2015 school year, we saw an opportunity to tell these stories through art. Members of BBTC started working on the Service Workers Project last year, and realized that in order to really understand these stories, we needed to first cultivate a relationship with the workers.

After talking and meeting with some of the workers, we began planning social events with workers and explored our shared Latino roots with events like a Dia de Los Muertos Fiesta. Through this social and cultural connection, members of Brown Bag and the service workers were able to grow in trust and understanding, which became essential for the success of the Service Workers Project.

The Dia de Los Muertos Fiesta.

Amanda Novoa, a graduate student in drama, served as a producer and engagement director for the project. She began facilitating story circles with the workers in small and intimate sessions. The workers opened up about their labor struggles at UCI, their connection to the campus, and their personal experiences in and out of the workplace. For many of the workers present at these gatherings, it was eye opening to hear what their peers have gone through. With some of the workers having served on campus for upwards of twenty years, there was a lot of wisdom and a lot of emotion to share and cultivate.

During a Christmas Story Circle.

It was through the sharing of these poignant and powerful sessions that Wind Woods, a PhD student playwright and other Brown Bag members began to take the Service Workers Project and turn it into the production, now called Contra la Corriente/Against the Current. These story circles helped us understand the recurring emotions and experiences that would become themes in the show. We used major aspects of their stories, such as 2013’s UC-wide service workers strike (which protested “unfair cuts” and “illegal intimidation” against workers by UC administration), personal family stories, and workplace anecdotes to help shape the script.

We continued to keep the workers involved in the production process every step of the way, holding theatre workshops that served as a learning experience for both parties. We were able to better understand how to model their characters and scenes after real experiences, and the workers were able to become a part of the cast.

However, the project wasn’t done once we were able to comprehend and condense the workers’ stories into a play. We continued to keep the workers involved in the production process every step of the way, holding theatre workshops that served as a learning experience for both parties. We were able to better understand how to model their characters and scenes after real experiences, and the workers were able to become a part of the cast. It is this continued collaboration that makes the show an authentic reflection of the UCI service workers stories.

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Contra la Corriente is performed with both English and Spanish intertwined in the script. With the incorporation of language and the personal stories of major characters, the play is able to capture the unique cultural experience of the workers. All of the stories, characters, and events in the show are directly inspired by the real life accounts of the workers. In order to emulate these true experiences, the production features original music by Santa Ana community artist Moises Vazquez, as well as an original set by drama student Carmen Muñoz. The set brings the workers’ world on stage with a design that very closely mimics UCI’s architecture interspersed with natural elements found throughout the school. The audience is reminded that these events are a part of the campus history through the design and clips of last year’s strike at UCI artfully projected in the background in scenes of protest.

Drama faculty member Lonnie Alcaraz served as a producer and mentor for the project, and is the founder of Brown Bag Theatre Company. Brown Bag, at its core, is an organization that seeks to empower the Latino community through performing arts. The show seeks to highlight the workers’ experience through a cultural lens. This kind of theatre is rare at UC Irvine. With a small population of Latinos in the arts on campus and a lack of Latino/Chicano shows, community engaged theatre like Contra la Corriente serves a purpose higher than entertainment. It is a way to share the stories that go untold and bring the struggles of these laborers out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

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