Collaborating with Community in Barrio Stories
Director Marc David Pinate of Borderlands Theater brought together award-winning playwrights Elaine Romero, Virginia Grise, and Martín Zimmerman to write Barrio Stories and bring to life the oral histories of former residents of a demolished neighborhood in Tucson, Arizona. This three-part series documents the process from the perspectives of the playwrights, community outreach team, and director.
Barrio Stories took place March 3-6, 2016 on the grounds of the Tucson Convention, the area formerly known as La Calle. La Calle was bustling with activity, a hub for commerce and celebrations at the heart of the first Mexican American barrio. Re-inhabiting this charged space through theatre was an amazing, healing experience. For four days we came together as a community to validate the largely untold history of Tucson’s original barrio. The impact was palpable. Audience member, Bob Diaz, University of Arizona (UA) Librarian, host of KXCI’s The Chicano Connection, and native Tucsonan, said, “it felt like a family reunion.” Many were moved to share their experiences of the old barrio with the people around them, mostly strangers sharing a moment in time together. Leia Maahs, a long-time arts administrator, made a new friend who shared intimate recollections of the old barrio with her. Leia happens to live on the remaining half-block of street where this new friend was born.
Many of us involved in the production, heard spontaneous stories, memories, and reflections from various audience members. Mayor Jonathon Rothschild and US Congressman Raúl Grijalva, among other elected officials, attended and thanked us for doing this work. Barrio Stories struck a nerve with the community, and was successful beyond all our expectations. As Borderlands’ Marketing and Outreach Director, I’m interested in the why. At the heart of the project were the oral histories and Historian, Lydia Otero’s book La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwest City. Working hand in hand with the community to create an immersive theatre experience was the goal of the project.
Audience members engaged in a walking tour of theatricality, experiencing the performance installations, and main stage performances following three routes denoted in a color-coded map. Audience members were assigned to a color and used the map to make individual choices on what order to encounter the installations. That was part of the uniqueness of the Barrio Stories experience. Main stage performances were performed by professional actors with many of the installations performed by community members. These installations were Grise’s contribution to the script, a collection of memory fragments, word for word recounts form the oral histories.
“La Gente” was one of my favorite fragments and the most challenging as an outreach director. It called for a group of people representative of the original inhabitants of La Calle (i.e. Mexican American, Chinese American, Native American, and African American) to walk about the space throughout the event with a different intention each time. We tried an audition notice for extras. We found Lucy Lim, a Chinese Mexican American with roots in the neighborhood. She would end up getting interviewed for an Arizona Public Media story about Barrio Stories. Lim, who grew up in the barrio before urban renewal tore it down, embodied the best part of Barrio Libre—Chinese grocers who spoke Spanish, offered food on credit to their predominantly Mexican American customers, and the neighbors who looked out for one another.
Besides Lim, we didn’t get many respondents from the call. Our next strategy was to visit different community organizations. We had already built relationships with Los Descendientes del Presidio de Tucson (descendants of Tucson’s Mexican American founding families), the YWCA of Southern Arizona, and Changemaker High School. We enlisted about thirty-five extras through these in-person presentations. We also built a new partnership with Cholla High School Drama Department. What ensued was a multi-layered effort that took time and effort attending meetings, emailing, and follow-up phone calls. We reached out to a board member to cast her six-year old boy in a Mariachi suit fragment. In another memory fragment, Alva Torres, who led the fight to save La Calle in the mid-to-late sixties, was cast to play her younger self. On the first day of performances, she cried through her lines. It was moving to see everyday people break out of their comfort zone to participate in theater making.
Barrio Stories resonated because we created theatre about, by and for the community while nurturing community relationships, and investing in future audiences.
In addition, Barrio Stories had us thinking outside of the proscenium box and utilizing community resources at hand. Set designer Wesley Creigh, a teacher at Pima College, involved her students in the set design. Changemaker High also helped out with making scenic signage.
The initial work of building on and beginning relationships with community paid off multifold. All these groups working together equal a bigger audience outreach. Over four days, we had over 4,000 people in attendance. Friday and Sunday felt full and I’m talking about a playing area the size of two football fields. Sunday’s crowd was mostly Latino, more than usual.
Keeping in line with the project’s goal, we devised interactive art activities to engage the audience. Such as papel picado (Mexican cut out/arts) inspired banners where audience members had the opportunity to draw or write reflections of feelings evoked during the performance. We provided a photo booth with thought bubbles, and an audio recording booth à la Story Corps. Click here for audience response audio clips and photo booth images.
Barrio Stories couldn’t have happened without the 100 plus volunteers. Originally 133 volunteers signed up, but “things came up.” The main challenge of the project was allowing for things to come up. Working with community members means being flexible and planning with that in mind. The number of extras in “La Gente” fluctuated. That particular fragment worked perfectly with fifty (the original number of sing ups) or thirty-five (the actual number of) participants, so it was fine if “something came up.”
Because of the scope of the project we created a think tank six months earlier that met weekly to discuss the logistics and implementation of the project. In January we broke off into subcommittees: volunteer, arts activities, and production. Each committee had its point person and that made it easier to focus on the task at hand. The overlap between volunteering worked to my advantage as I could focus on marketing and audience outreach and help out in other committees as well.
Breaking up duties gave me time to build a relationship with Tucson Unified School District’s Culturally Relevant Courses Department. They bused in all 1,500 of their students! We had other schools in attendance as well, one school two hours away from Nogales.
Barrio Stories resonated because we created theatre about, by and for the community while nurturing community relationships, and investing in future audiences. It may not happen right away or the way we expect, but eventually this work pays off. A popular question on those four days that continues to be asked is: Will you do this next year? We all know theatre costs money and takes a lot of work. It’s necessary for the community to understand and appreciate that especially communities that would benefit from having their narratives included in the public discourse. It’s equally important for funders to appreciate this type of work. Our response is: with your support, we’ll do the work.
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Community involvement and theatre should go together and Borderlands Theater is on the cutting edge nationally to make a city socially and politically better for having the theater.
This is what it looks like when the play is about you and not I. For those so called "professionals" who disparage and dismiss " community" theatre this is what you miss. These moments of truth, honesty and passion that multiplies the emotional impact. There is much that the rest of us can learn.
What a great project
Love this. Especially the idea of working in subcommittees on community-based work. Makes me think of the commons-based approach within the LTC. Also loving the direct implication of funders. Following the project, what did community members take with them? What were they left with? (both those directly involved and those who participated during the days of)
Thanks for you comment Emily. The take away was a validation of the history that was there. The pride that comes from retelling the history of the first Mexican American barrio. We came together to acknowledge and celebrate the history there and that made it possible for some people to actually set foot on the convention center grounds. Some had not gone back to the area since "their family was kicked out." We heard many comments around that. We all left with a better since of cultural roots. We didn't necessarily fix anything. We provided a space of community recollection and celebration. A space for discussions. A space for people to gather. A space for remembrance. We began to understand how needed this was when we talked about it during the project's infancy, during the event we felt the need for validation. It was palpable. We, who were directly involved bonded as a company, as a theater family, including some of the volunteers. It sounds sentimental but it was a really beautiful experience because we did it in community. No way would Barrio Stories have been possible without all the folks involved from interviewees, to historian, to theater professionals, to community member actor extras, to volunteers, to audience. It was a magical four day experience because it all depended on community working together towards sharing and celebrating cultural history.
It sounds like many of the people who really needed this piece were able to be there. Love that. It doesn't fix anything as you said, but it acknowledges what happened it sounds like.