Fifty years ago this year, Luis Valdez founded the theater company known as El Teatro Campesino on the picket lines of Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers Union.
Valdez’s son, Kinan, is now the producing artistic director of El Teatro Campesino.
In the first weeks of the company’s existence, there was a flier that was handed out that spoke about wanting to form this company for and by farmworkers. And at the bottom of the flier it said if you can act, walk, sing, stand, hold a picket sign — this company is for you. No experience required. And that’s the basis of the work that we’ve been doing for the last 50 years — inviting community members into the creative process itself.
On Oct. 10-11, Teatro Campesino continues its tradition of community theater with “Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven,” an original play produced in collaboration with L.A.’s Center Theatre Group and the community of Boyle Heights.
“In the last 50 years there’s been this really strong community sense of cultural activity that is quite prominent and present in Boyle Heights," says Valdez, "and I think Center Theatre Group was interested in partnering with their neighbors right across the bridge."
A retelling of the Mayan creation myth, “Popol Vuh,” will feature live music under the direction of Ozomatli guitarist Raul Pacheco, choreographed dance and puppets up to 15 feet tall.
Director Kinan Valdez works with the Grandfather puppet during a rehearsal. (Photo Credit: Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)
Center Theatre Group’s prop makers worked with Teatro Campesino to fashion the skeletons for the puppets. “And that design was used for some of the puppets in this particular production, based on the wood people, which are these 10-foot walking puppets that represented the first failed human beings that were created on this planet,” Valdez says.
As actors narrate the story and perform the voices of mythological Mayan characters, participants from Teatro Campesino’s Boyle Heights workshops will operate the giant puppets. Valdez says controlling the giants requires a full body approach. “They have to embody and become the spirit of each of these puppets, and in some cases they need to work together as an ensemble,” he says. “Some puppets are three-person puppets.”
Puppets Grandmother, Heart of Sky and Grandfather in rehearsal. (Photo Credit: Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)
It takes one person just to move one hand of the towering creatures. Miguel Roura is among the puppeteers.
“It’s a synchronization of not only movement, but also with music and with the narration, we’re having to listen to our cues with our movements,” Roura says.
And many of the play’s performers not only control the puppets, they also made them. Tadie Acosta helped craft one of the pieces she’ll wear in the show. Acosta was drawn into the production from one of the workshops and became attached to the art she made there.
“That’s how this whole thing started, because I knew about the workshop,” Acosta says. “Then, right after the mask was done they said, ‘Well, if you want to be part of the show...’ And I was like, ‘Yeah because I want to wear my mask.'”
Several people involved with “Popol Vuh” have a relationship with Teatro Campesino that goes deeper than the recent workshops. Diane Rodriguez is an associate artistic director with Center Theatre Group. She helped produce this weekend’s performance, but she also spent her formative years as a member of Teatro Campesino.
“I learned how to act on stage, but also [learned to be] an activist,” Rodriguez says. “So to be able to connect the two places that have been my theatrical home has been a real life moment.”
Miguel Roura says he too has a history with the company.
“I’ve been a big admirer of the work that they’ve done, basically because they were working with Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers,” says Roura. “So it was my cause when I was a student.”
Kinan Valdez says, for him, seeing multiple generations of families take part in his play has been the most rewarding.
“It’s something that’s near and dear to my heart because I grew up as a young child floating on the periphery of the theater with my parents," he says. "And then once I was invited to participate in that adventure it became a lifelong journey. And so to see that happen once again with these young children and their family is quite precious and beautiful.”
“Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven,” will be presented by Center Theatre Group and El Teatro Campesino for two performances only, October 10 and 11 at 3:30 p.m. in Grand Park, downtown Los Angeles. Performances are free but reservations are recommended. More info at Center Theatre Group's website.