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Holding a Human: Caretaking, Play, and Design as a Social Act

Canceled flights, closing gates, New York to Texas to Arizona and finally to the Pacific Northwest—I arrive a day and a half late for the Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC) Designer and Director Colaboratorio. It’s the end of the day, and I’m looking out my hotel window onto Portland’s natural beauty at dusk. I fall asleep exhausted but excited for what awaits me the next morning.

When I finally join my team on day two, everyone applauds and I feel instantly welcome. It’s clear a strong bond has already developed in the group, something no doubt aided by the fact that some of us had previously met online during a series of anti-racism workshops offered by LTC. I recognize director Benito Vasquez, projections designer Eme Ospina-López, and costume designer Luzet Romo. I also meet lighting designer Alejandro Melendez and scenic designer Pedro L. Guevara. It’s exciting to finally meet these Zoom heads in person, sharing the same physical space as we explore nonhierarchical ways to work collectively.

Six people standing behind a table pose for a photo together.

Alejandro Melendez, Benito Vasquez, Luzet Romo, Eme Ospina-López, Dolissa Medina, and Pedro L. Guevara after presenting their work to the other Colaboratorio participants. Photo by Roy Arauz.

“In all collaboration processes you don’t start talking about collaboration. The intuition is to jump into the text and dissect this thing that brought us together. But here what’s brought us together is the collaboration itself. I’m curious about when this conversation intersects with the story of what new way we approach the story that is unexpected for us.”

—Eme Ospina-López

Although I’m the team’s designated documentarian, we’re fortunate to also have Eme, whose creative process includes making schematics from words that come up during group conversations. On day one, team members focused on exploring ideas around collaboration, and one particular diagram Eme produced proved to be a valuable artifact from that process. The colored diagram offers a kind of map with which team members can locate themselves in the process, coordinates of collaboration, so to speak.

A colored pencil drawing of several loops surrounding the words "fly on the wall", "present", and "beyond".

Flying to the present and beyond—a schematic for collaboration from Eme Ospina-López's notebook. Photo by Dolissa Medina.

I take a close look at Eme’s drawing, a swirly trajectory of green, yellow, and blue that illustrates fluctuating engagement. These states of mind include “Fly on the Wall,” “Present,” and “Beyond.” Eme sees this Beyond as a place of mental space away from the group, not from disinterest but actually inspiration. At times, a team member may not be listening in order to explore an idea born from the discussion. It’s important to acknowledge this Beyond state because sometimes people can worry they are being scrutinized if they are quiet, with unfair unspoken assumptions that one is not “contributing enough.” Yet thanks to one such Beyond state, we now have a guiding tool to keep us collectively anchored, transparent, and aware.

But the schematic is more than a guiding tool. It’s proof of a deeper commitment to exploring a core question that comes up early in my team’s collaboration. That question is: “How do we take care of one another while we work together?”

Benito comments that he believes every collaboration should start this way, as a human relationship. Throughout the next few days, we will practice this ethos of human care in several ways. Each day, we will start by checking in with one another, using a loose matrix of physical, mental, and emotional coordinates. (“I’m present and excited but exhausted and focused.”) We will also lean into the mutual growth that can come from intergenerational exchange. Older team members will give younger team members advice on graduate school and how not to burn out. Younger team members will provoke us to take unconventional breaks that lead to unexpected breakthroughs.

“There is no hierarchy in experience,” says Luzet, the youngest of the group.

We will always remember the human messiness of it all and dive into the beautiful joy of discovering one another as people and as artists.

“The family is in limbo, so what is this dynamic in the home that is causing this turmoil? Where is the new transformation, the creation of that new world after the climax?”

—Benito Vasquez, discussing the play

After exploring notions around collaboration, our morning session on day two turns to deconstructing the script. Earlier, Luzet had expressed frustration with the play’s cliche traumatic narratives. He was tired of Latino trauma and wanted to see joy.

Perhaps decentering trauma is also a way of caretaking as we move forward and work together. The group decides to work through their discomfort to understand the play’s core.

For most of the morning, we explore the family’s limbo throughout the script, identifying elements that resonate in the story. Pedro observes that all the family members—except for the father—are dealing with some kind of grief. Benito adds that he sees the characters’ different traumas as their superhero origin stories that allow for transformation. Grief, trauma, and even the wind: they all transform from something bad to something positive. But the father, he also notices, is the only character who does not change.

How much do I want to be in this story? In this vulnerable moment, how do we hold our fellow human?

Digging further into the script, we identify a key scene that represents the heart of the play. It is called “That Night.”

In the scene, Juana, a magical Mary Poppins-type nanny, sits with gender non-conforming thirteen-year-old Alex in his bedroom. He puts his lipstick on her and Juana shares that her brother also liked to wear dresses and makeup. It’s an intimate scene of validation and support. Juana wishes Alex a good night, and as he pulls up his covers the moon shines into his room. The scene ends with Alex floating into an angel’s arms.

It’s not clear yet what we will do with this scene, but what’s notable is our shared emotional response to the play, a foundation for common ground.

As we break for lunch, several items remain on the table—nourishment for the mind and spirit. Alongside books brought by Benito and Eme’s sketch from day one is a new item: a poem Eme wrote and shared in response to our discussions. It’s another artifact from Beyond, one perfectly encapsulating the priorities of our process.

Remember to play
Remember to trust
Observe yourself
Remember you don’t have to lead
We don’t want to make rules
It’s not about the outcome
Encourage play
Lean into the messy
Play together
Share passion, don’t let moments pass by
Who are we
What are the boundaries
How do we expand
Who decides
How much do I want to be in this story
Who does the art belong to
You are being very provocative
Step up, step back, speak up
Be a new version (Be an inversion?)
Hold a human

A drawing with several colorful loops, a sketch of a cartoonish human, accompanied by phrases such as "Designing as a social act", and "Dive into the human aspect".

Detail from Eme Ospina-López's notebook. Photo by Dolissa Medina.

After lunch, which included a discussion with the full Colaboratorio cohort about the complexities of Latinidad, Luzet surprises us by saying he needs to tap out and leave for the afternoon. The lunch wasn’t a break for him because the topics covered in the large discussion drained him. Faced with this challenge, the words from Eme’s poem confront us. What are the boundaries? How much do I want to be in this story? In this vulnerable moment, how do we hold our fellow human?

We do it by remembering to play.

Alejandro, who has been functioning as the group facilitator, proposes socialization outside, because you never know where inspiration comes from. Luzet agrees. It’s his first time in Portland and he wants to explore. He saw a curio shop nearby called the Odditorium and had been wanting to check it out.

As we discuss this possible shift in activity, Benito shares he is fine going elsewhere, but he’s trying to figure out where we are going—not literally, but in the process. He admits he’s feeling lost. Eme responds: we often feel a pressure to move forward, but what is forward?

So as a group, we embark on the field trip—the first of many we will enjoy throughout the weekend. In fact, one such field trip will give Benito that moment of clarity he was looking for—and open our floodgates for creation.

“There is something beyond that house coming in, a force of nature that our characters don’t understand, but it’s breaking away those barriers in a physical special sense and in a narrative sense. There’s an acknowledgement of the world outside, then our characters as the story progresses get to share this space. They all have to go through a journey to open themselves.”

—Alejandro Melendez, discussing the play

At the Odditorium, synchronicity gives me a wink. The store’s full name is the Skeleton Key Odditorium—an apt name for a place where we’ll access new knowledge. Away from the intense political discussions of our LTC lunch, as well as the intellectual and creative interrogations of our work room, new sights and sounds bring stimulation to the unconscious and give us a chance to learn more about one another. They also give Luzet, who loves Dia de los Muertos, an opportunity to visit the store’s Museum of Death. Interestingly, the topic of grief, which we identified as the core of the play, ends up becoming a presence on our trip.

We return to our classroom, and Pedro leads a discussion on the choices we have for a theatre stage. Fresh from the outside, with the memory of our outside flow, we are able to intuit the flow of energy in various seating configurations. Strong winds once wild in the play now take direction, and we identify one configuration in which elemental forces pull us together. We break boundaries, flipping the stage so that character Juana enters from an unusual direction. The audience will now be looking up into the “sky” of the raked staged instead of having it behind them. With this shift in perspective, we’re poised to see Alex’s bedroom in a new light as he ascends to be held in angel arms.

The reason we were able to get to this epiphany is that we were in a position to shake up our own processes.

Night turns into day three, and at Luzet’s urging, the group uses morning team time for another excursion. They head to the Portland Art Museum for the "Guillermo del Toro: Crafting Pinocchio” exhibition. Now it will be my turn to tap out and sleep in, as the fatigue of my flight misadventures is catching up with me. I meet the group afterward at the farmer’s market. We tour the tents with their samplings of fruit, flowers, food, and sweets—a complete contrast to the decay of the curio shop a day before. But from death comes life, and today is the day that our creative process will evolve into hyper-vitality, thanks to our director, Benito, having an epiphany pushed by the invisible hand of the wind.

Benito tells us the story: while at the museum, he became separated from the group. He walked into another gallery, was looking at a sculpture, and overheard two people discussing the same piece. The woman explained that the artist was known for finding found objects and painting them black in order to “disguise their true nature."

When she spoke those words, Benito had a eureka moment. The characters in the play were also disguising their true nature! Each character was hiding something except for the father, which is why he stood out to us as different. The play’s transformation occurs when the characters unveil their disguises to become their true selves.

“The reason we were able to get to this epiphany is that we were in a position to shake up our own processes,” Alejandro observed. “There is a sense of serendipity and coincidence, that perfect alignment of situations that put us to where now we have a sense of clarity and direction moving forward.”

Back at our classroom workshop, the creative floodgates open. Within two hours, we develop the framework of the “That Night” scene. Luzet, having previously focused his design concepts mostly around costume colors, starts experimenting with textures—perhaps a result of our newfound understanding of character psychology. In response, Alejandro tests different lighting filters over the fabric swatches, thinking about the moonlight as well as the family’s story arc. Pedro demonstrates a complementary fabric stretched over open structures to indicate the boundaries of Alex’s bedroom.

I ask to see a picture of the sculpture that started it all. I’m curious about the artist and swipe to see the museum label. The artist is Louise Nevelson. But what really gets my attention is the title of the 1973 piece: End of Day Nightscape ll. I smile, wondering who is crafting our Pinocchio strings.

A zoomed in photo of a phone screen which depicts an art piece.

End of Day Nightscape II by Louise Nevelson hanging in the Portland Art Museum. Photo by Dolissa Medina.

“In a lovely way, Benito’s epiphany gives the process a story. It instills a great confidence that there has been some sincere momentum and we actually arrived at something very powerful, so now it’s just being able to share that story and share those insights as we go. It gives us a landing place to be able to say this is what it culminated in.”

—Alejandro Melendez

What takeaways can the LTC and our extended HowlRound network learn from our group experience? For one, literally “take your work away” from the meeting room and into the broader world. Don’t think that responsibility has to look a certain way. Invest in the time and care to understand your colleagues as people. Then shift away from “the play” to play around other forms of art. The act of discussing a communal aesthetic experience can go a long way toward unified artistic language.

When you are working together, acknowledge and allow a variety of mental spaces. Like Eme’s circuitous schematic, personal journeys will fluctuate. But in a flash, that destination can be made clear.

Our experience with Benito showed us this. For much of the time, he stepped back to listen to the designers and did not rush or push the process. “Other directors would have wanted us to move on, but Benito gave us the room to let it grow. He made it easy to trust,” Pedro says. Ultimately, Benito’s flash of insight served as its own form of direction. It helps to also know that his theatre practice in Houston already follows collaborative models.

Toward the end of day three, Benito shared something especially meaningful given the objectives of the Designer and Director Colaboratorio.

Said the director: “I was talking to Alejandro, and he paid me the ultimate compliment. He told me: I see you as one of the designers.”

Two people feeling a piece of fabric.

Eme Ospina-López, Alejandro Melendez, and Luzet Romo dig for fabrics in the costume room. Photo by Dolissa Medina.

After Colaboratorio ended, I stayed in Portland an extra day to experience Fourth of July celebrations. But I underestimated the travel time to catch my red-eye, given the Metro’s limited holiday schedule. Leaving before sunset, I found myself at a transfer hub on the elevated outskirts of the city. As I waited for the airport bus to arrive, I watched the sky change colors over a distant downtown and its landscape. Then, a few fireworks began, scattered across the horizon. At first, I was confused. Fireworks are supposed to happen at night—it was too early for the show. But then, I saw more bursts of sparkling green and silver against the pink and purple sky.

I never imagined such beauty was possible just by setting the fireworks at twilight.

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