Flooring It with Espírito
Joni Mitchell, my fellow Canadian, never made it to one of the seminal events of our time: Woodstock. In 1969, Ravi Shankar, Carlos Santana, Arlo Guthrie, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and Family Stone, the Band, and many, many more amazing musicians brought half a million audiences members together, after surviving some tough battles and protests for Civil and Women’s rights, from all over the US. It was one of the most amazing musical happenings ever. The art, music, and celebration of that moment reverberate even now. Joni Mitchell missed being there so much she said, "The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock.” She was able to put that sentido, that feeling, in the song “Woodstock” on her album Ladies of the Canyon.
“By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong,
And everywhere there was song and celebration.”—Joni Mitchell
Woodstock was before my time, and it might be a bit goofy of me, but that’s how I feel about the Latina/o Theatre Commons (LTC). And yes, Canadians can be a bit goofy….think of the TV shows and actors we export: SCTV, Kids in the Hall, Rick Moranis, Catherine O’Hara, Andrea Martin, Slings and Arrows. I’ve had an “intense angle” on the LTC since its inception five years ago. I’ve read the blogs and Dr. Brian Herrera’s excellent narrative report. I’ve been tagged in photos even though I wasn’t there. I’ve livestreamed on HowlRound TV. I’ve even been honored on an LTC banner in Chicago. But I haven’t been able to make it to a single LTC event. Until now.
LTC participants are founding initiatives, reaching out, launching books—all activities they might have done anyway—but it all has this espírito. They aren’t doing these activities solely for themselves. They are part of a larger history; they are buoyed by each other.
From afar, it’s clear that my friends and colleagues have been leaving LTC events with a new vigor, courage, spirit, soul. I’m Portuguese, so I like to call it espírito de coragem. LTC participants are founding initiatives, reaching out, launching books—all activities they might have done anyway—but it all has this espírito. They aren’t doing these activities solely for themselves. They are part of a larger history; they are buoyed by each other.
On the first night of the LTC convening in Seattle, Mercedes Bátiz-Benét, Artistic Director of Puente Theatre (my fellow traveller, adored director of my plays, and fellow Canadian) and I were immediately enveloped into this “espírito de coragem.” With other LTC participants, we poured into the storied, in-the-round Hughes Penthouse Theatre, at the University of Washington (UW).
Soon, comparing the LTC to Woodstock didn’t seem goofy at all.
Todd London, Executive Director and professor at UW’s School of Drama, and former Artistic Director of New Dramatists, was one of our keynote speakers. He reminded us of the history of the playhouse we were occupying—involving three seminal moments of American Theatre history—filling me with particular joy because I am a dual citizen of Canada and the US. The playhouse was 1) built during the Works Progress Administration Federal Theatre Project/Hallie Flanagan era, 2) provided key inspiration to Margo Jones/the regional theatre movement, 3) and now it held us, the Latina/o Theatre Commons. Rose Cano shared how the dream of this gathering in Seattle began three years ago in Boston; performers rocked the house with a performance of a poem by Octavio Paz.
I soon realized that the LTC, like Woodstock, could reach half-a-million audience members with its reverberant dreams.
As part of our first night together, we were treated to more welcoming keynotes, poems, and performances. It was all livestreamed and is banked here, so I won’t detail the heart felt brilliance and the many exquisitely touching moments. The central feature was a series of scenes from the works of María Irene Fornés, in English and Spanish, interspersed with terrific presentations about the history of Latinx Theatre in our region. Playwright and Professor Anne García-Romero read from her wonderful new book, The Fornes Frame, telling us stories from when she studied with Fornés, bringing her presence to the playhouse. We learned that two trees had been planted in Seattle, with a memorial plaque, thirty years ago, to honor María Irene Fornés and her mother Carmen for their contributions to Latinx Theatre, in this, our region.
The rest of our weekend together fostered and grew our dreams. The gathering was incredibly well facilitated and thoughtfully curated. Abigail Vega, in particular, ably kept our energy from flagging with verve and wit. But I am going to focus on one particular moment that brilliantly fostered my own “espírito de coragem.”
On Saturday, national theatre artist Diane Rodriguez led us in a session designed to elicit our challenges and opportunities. Twelve chairs were placed in a circle. Twelve participants from the region were asked to speak. If someone in the larger group outside the circle wished to speak, they could tap the shoulder of someone in a chair and replace them. If someone in a chair was done speaking, they could step out. This technique gave us permission to speak, and permission to be silent.
The challenges we listed are ones that I know well. I am regularly asked to address the sorry statistics of women in the theatre, the stories that are missing from our stages in the US and Canada. I’m frequently the only woman on the panel, the only woman playwright a company has produced, the only playwright writing in Spanish and English, the “writer of the first Portuguese play,” the only female professor. My work is entirely motivated by all that is missing.
After we listed our challenges, and did an exercise where we were asked to speak from our place of “privilege,” Diane Rodriguez spoke:
“You have a history. Breathe it in. Feel it. It’s real.
We are the mainstream. Our numbers make us powerful. Think that way.
These stories and challenges are real, but you are not a victim.
Ask instead, ‘what plan can I make to overcome these challenges and turn them into opportunities?’
Yes, it’s a struggle, but that struggle makes us stronger. We’re creative people.
We can re-create ourselves in an image of our own making.
The Latina/o Theatre commons is updating the American narrative.
We can organize. We have a network.
There is so much power in this. Let’s not underestimate it.
Enough pounding on the doors to let us in so we can sit at the table.
We have our own table and our own seat and it’s the driver’s seat.
So, let’s go. Dale gas.”
As we moved into our other activities of the weekend, we stopped pounding on the door, and we—yes, “Dale gas”—we floored it. We had an unprecedented explosion of dreams, connections, and real plans (which are already coming to fruition, such as connecting the Latinx communities of Canada and the US). Throughout, we carried Diane’s speech with us.
Here’s one more dream—you try it: Breathe in, feel your history. Tell yourself,
“We have our own table and our own seat and it’s the driver’s seat.
So, let’s go. Dale gas.”
Now what are you going to do?