Better Up: A Learning Process in Teaching Latina/o Theatre Creatively
Pedagogy Notebook is a monthly blog series that serves as a pedagogical resource for educators and scholars looking to incorporate Latina/o theatre into the classroom. In Pedagogy Notebook, artists, educators, and scholars share their process and work in the classroom, plus overall reflections on their pedagogy. This series offers a glimpse into different methods of engaging with and teaching Latina/o theatre at the university level.
The Better Up sub-series is moderated by Teresa Marrero with four fourth-year theatre and performance studies students from the University of North Texas: Courtney Alvarado, Jose Rodriguez, Enrique Granado, and Kevin Howard (in order of appearance in the series).
The idea for this blog series emerged soon after the Pedagogy Notebook blog series launched in January 2016. The start coincided with a course I was invited to teach at the University of North Texas’ (UNT) Department of Dance and Theater, by its chair, Dr. Lorenzo Garcia. I am Full Professor in the Department of Spanish and presently teach one course per year for Dance and Theater.
The department has offered a fourth year Chicana/o Theater course for several years (taught by adjuncts), but never one which extended to Latina/o content. My Latina/o Theater Special Topics course, therefore, was the first of its kind. Next spring I will teach the course again, now under the overall umbrella of Chicanx and Latinx Theatre.
My main goal for the class was to debunk the idea that Latina/o plays or performance pieces necessarily need to address notions of ethnic or cultural identity.
Disclosure #1: Until now, my twenty-year career in teaching has been conducted exclusively in Spanish. While my research is predominantly on Latina/o Theatre, actually teaching the material had been off-limits to me due to departmental restrictions of teaching exclusively in the target language: Spanish. Those who specialize in Latina/o Theatre but have earned degrees other than in Theatre or English departments may face these limitations. Teaching in English for me feels like savoring a forbidden fruit; however, sometimes my brain lapsed into Spanish!
Disclosure #2: My main goal for the class was to debunk the idea that Latina/o plays or performance pieces necessarily need to address notions of ethnic or cultural identity. We began with a punch: Miguel Piñero’s jailhouse setting in Short Eyes. The subject matter has a strong content that deals with child molestation and the unique moral code of prison life, in this case focused on Puerto Ricans, Anglos and Blacks. This and John Leguizamo’s Mambo Mouth were the only pieces with overt cultural Latina/o cultural critique. Students did not drop like flies after the first week. What a relief!
We went on with Abingdon Square by Maria Irene Fornés, followed by Fur (Migdalia Cruz), Anna in the Tropics (Nilo Cruz), Alchemy of Desire/Deadman’s Blues (Caridad Svich), Mambo Mouth (John Leguizamo), Stuff (Coco Fusco and Nao Bustamante), Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown (Guillermo Reyes), and Water by the Spoonful (Quiara Alegría Hudes). During the last week of instruction, I asked students for feedback on Korean Drama-Cuban Cool, a play I am writing. Student Courtney Alvarado discusses her perceptions of the works in her blog “Discovering Latina/o Theater.”
Disclosure #3: While my intention was to provide a variety of aesthetics and topics, I was taken aback when class discussions continued to focus on what students perceived to be sexual. I am not sure if the fact that Texas is a conservative Bible belt state, but I was quite surprised to find students rejecting some of the works on the grounds of excessive sexual content. While some self-identified as gay or grey sexual, others did not self-identify at all during discussions. Out of fourteen students in the class five self-identified as Latina/o or of Hispanic descent; six students were female. A disgruntled asexual (grey sexual) student, Jose Rodriguez, discusses his adverse reaction to the required reading in his blog “Gray, a Sexual POV.”
Disclosure #4: For class projects I tried to open the door to the creative process. For midterms students had the option of either developing their work from the Fornés writing workshop that I led or creating a Joseph Cornell box based on any of the plays read in class. The Cornell box came from studying Nilo Cruz’s process. Enrique Granado offers a detailed description in his blog “Fur Cornell Box: The Process” based on Fur by Migdalia Cruz. While Migdalia Cruz’s Fur turned some students off, it stimulated others’ creativity. Many students chose to create Cornell boxes which varied in complexity and concept. Students not only displayed their creations, but they presented a Power Point with images and a discussion of both their concept and process.
Disclosure #5: I wanted to incorporate some of the actual processes of the artists. To this extent, the presence of Maria Irene Fornés was central. I wanted students to embrace the idea that Fornés is a key figure in the development of the field as we know it today. I included a Fornesian writing workshop based on my personal experience of attending a week-long workshop with Irene at UCLA in 1998, documented in “Being in a State of Memory: Notes from a Fornés Workshop” (in Conducting a Life, Reflections on the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornés). This is the second time I successfully conducted this workshop at UNT. In both instances, students really loved the process; their only critique is that they wanted the workshop to last longer than the one ninety-minute class session. Students were encouraged to keep developing their writing as a midterm project. Four students did. They performed their work solo or with the assistance of classmates for the midterm. Three continued developing their writing as a final project. Kevin Howard contributes his experience with the Fornesian workshop, his writing and performance that emerged from it in his blog, “Aquatic Thought: Reflections on a Fornesian Playwriting Workshop.”
Projects other than the Cornell Box and the Fornés writing:
- For final projects students could: further develop their Fornesian works (three students did), write a play analysis of a Latina/o work read outside of class (the choice of many), perform a section of a play read in class (one chose Elliot’s monologue in Water by the Spoonful off book, and four students participated in a group performance), and one directed a scene from Swimming While Drowning by Emilio Rodriguez.
- Writing a blog for Café Onda could be extra credit or a final project. I asked two students to consider writing a blog. Everyone who wanted to write was accepted. Other than minor spelling and punctuation edits, I did not alter the content of the students’ blogs.
Other class work included:
- Going to see a performance by a Latina/o company and writing a review. Luckily, Dallas’ Cara Mía Theater Company had two pieces during the semester: When the Earth Meets the Sky and Deferred Action.
- Doing a seven-minute Power Point presentation on any Latina/o theater company, playwright, director, or designer not covered in class (I provided a suggested list).
- Reading one Latina/o play not covered in class and writing a short position paper.
- On the day of each play discussion, students handed in a standard “Crit Sheet” that I developed. This basically serves as a reading check for in-class participation and touches upon the main aspects of each reading: author, cultural identity, title, production and publication history, characters, plot, structure, conflict, how would they design a set for this play, did they connect with any of the characters and why. Students could also develop their own categories, such as: I would like to direct this play, I would like to act in this play, I would rather forget this play, I would like to design for this play, I would like to read more from the author, etc.
Better next time/lessons learned:
- Theatre departments are like small villages. Everyone knows everybody. If you are coming from outside, be ready to prove your worth. Compared to students in my home department, Theatre/Performance students are more likely to assume challenging positions. Be ready for feisty discussions.
- Doing table work is hard. If students do not feel connected to the play, they disengage from the conversation. The most successful discussion technique I used was one I learned through my participation in the Dallas Convening of the Latina/o Theatre Commons. It involves an inner circle of speakers and an outer circle of listeners. Outer circle listeners come into the conversation by tapping someone out of the inner circle. I highly recommend this technique for getting introverted or non-native English speaking students involved. This also works for effective classroom management. Make sure you leave enough room outside of the circle for you to walk around (you may need to nudge the shy ones up to bat).
- Growing up in a heavily Hispanic-populated state, such as Texas, does not guarantee that college-age students have a strong sense of Chicana/o or Latina/o identity. We began the semester discussing these terminologies. Midway through, we still had some difficulties with distinctions between “Latina/o” and “Latin” (as in Latin American).
- Students from traditional theatre programs are incredibly uninformed about the theatrical works by people of color.
- The ingrained notion of the well-made play permeates students’ aesthetic judgements. This made their enjoyment of less traditional pieces, like STUFF, a bit difficult. My challenge to them was: this is a course on theatre (not drama), so, must everything staged in a theatre necessarily be dramatic, as in following the Aristotelian model? I broke up with Aristotle a long time ago, but apparently my students have not (see “Breaking up with Aristotle” by Chantal Bilodeau).
At the end of the semester, after we had earned mutual trust, I asked students for feedback on a play I have in development, and they were very helpful. I look forward to teaching it again in 2017, when it will be an all-inclusive Chicanx and Latinx course, making for a more organic play selection. Not sure about avoiding plays with passion or love triangles, though! If you have experience with this or other thorny topics, I would love to hear what worked (or didn’t) in the comments below.