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Fish Out of Water: The 2016 México/U.S. Convening

Global Exchange
Julian Mesri at the Mexico Convening

Migdalia Cruz opened The Lark’s 2016 México/United States Convening with the following words from dearly departed Mexican playwright and poet Victor Hugo Rascón Banda, written for his character Lola in La Banca. “When I got upstairs, I found my fish outside their fish-tank, dying on the floor. 'Why did you jump out?' I asked them. Earlier that morning, they had been nervously swimming around and around in circles. When they reached the edge of the tank, they stared at me, accusing me, begging me—for their freedom. 'Why do you want to get out?' I asked them. 'Inside there, you have everything. I feed you, I change your water, I take care of you, I spend time with you. Don’t you know that the sea is very far and that you’d die before you ever reached it?' But they heard me like one hears the rain.”

I could not think of a more apt metaphor for what was attempted a couple of weeks ago. The Lark’s México/United States Exchange has, for the past ten years been a gold mine for new Mexican plays, but the true potential of this archive (now more than thirty-six plays) remains mostly unproduced.

In the past, sponsored in part by The Lark and FONCA, the México/U.S. Exchange has brought  Mexican playwrights together with U.S. playwrights/translators for week-long workshops with a director and group of actors. The result of these collaborations was workshopped plays in progress presented in a reading series. This year’s gathering was different, borne of a desire to look back on 10 years of collaboration. The Lark brought together playwrights and translators from  past  exchanges , theater producers from Mexico and the U.S., as well as a number of notable academics and even one actor (a sorely needed voice in the room). This presented us with an opportunity to think through the chasm  these  neighboring countries have had: not only what theater is made, but also how to actually produce work with lasting impact. It forced us to reconcile with how an independent theater is borne.

The presence of artistic directors and producers that shared the Utopian ideals of an independent theater and a sense of the economic realism of producing plays in the United States allowed us to think about the expectations as well as the practicalities of theatermaking.

Only four plays were produced out of the thirty-six translated. This was the result of not only the human labor of translation, which I can personally attest is equal parts arduous and rewarding, but also the labor of actors who doubled as dialect experts, fact checkers, and dramaturgs. For some, the fact  only one out of nine plays ever saw light outside The Lark’s walls was seen as a fracas, while for others it was an impressive count. For many, this dichotomy fell across country lines, where the expectations of production are vastly different.

The main issue we faced was structural. At its heart, the question was: how can this exchange be fruitful in the coming years, and further lead to international collaboration, all the while reckoning with two very different theater-making ideologies?

What makes an independent theater? Independence in theater usually means  independence from the profit motive, which is to say independent theater functions independently from  commercial theater. This presupposes in some way  the commercial theater is married to profit motive and therefore does not make artistically pure choices. The dichotomy becomes more complicated when one thinks of all independent theaters still actively participating in a capitalist economy. Unless independent theaters are supported extensively by the state, those theaters must find a way to appeal to consumers. While commercial theater in the U.S. is based mostly on the twin pillars of large-scale investors and mass audience, independent (or non-profit) theater is based on the courting of subscribers and funders.

In Mexico this model (as it is in much of Latin America) is subsidized mostly through the state, as well as through foreign entities that have a strong cultural presence, like the Goethe-Institut or Institut Helvetia, or, recently, international collaboration projects like Iberescena.

Since America has no state mechanism to support theater, an industry has been built not only around the production of theater pieces but around the development of the theater artist and the creation of plays. This is an important distinction. The United States has an industry of not producing but making plays: in our theater, plays are not produced, they are written, developed, showcased, workshopped, and then maybe produced— but production is not essential to the functioning of the theater-making industry. It is in fact the scarcity of production which allows an industry built around making and developing work to thrive.

The path between the writing of a play through to numerous play readings, through to workshop presentations, through to showcases, and finally onto the stages of notable off-Broadway ventures, is a process that takes about five years—sometimes less, oftentimes much more. Plays often get stuck in development limbo, switching hands between artistic directors and regional theaters, all while the playwright is refining and tweaking the work until it fits the recognizable mission of the theater who decides to support it.

Though frustrating, this is actually powering the theater economy by employing not just artists, but also the facilitators, administrators, professors, fundraisers, and marketers that perpetuate an independent economy of theater rather than an independent collection of play productions. Theaters, since the creation of the regional theater movement in the 1970s, have grown, but the main growth has been in administrative positions.

This sometimes harrowing process is what led one prominent playwright/translator in the group to mention  what may be needed from the process is a coaching/therapy session for incoming Mexican playwrights about the realities of seeing their translated work onstage.

While making theater in any city is full of  problems, there are drastic differences when working in countries with states that are active supporters of the arts. Perhaps the strongest difference between Mexico (focusing primarily on the Capital here) and the U.S. is that in Mexico plays are produced, and rarely if ever see what we call “development.” I always ask any artistic producer how a play goes from proposal to production in their theater, particularly because the process of production is embedded within the work itself. I asked the producer of one of DF’s most prominent independent theaters how a play gets produced at his theater. An artist sends a proposal, schedules a meeting, and the space is granted. This is a theater that puts on hundreds of performances a year. Never in the process is there a reading, or a workshop: productions are often the product of "auto-gestión" or what we might call self-production.

Many artists I spoke to from Mexico directed, staged, and sometimes performed in their own plays. Many staged their work in non-traditional spaces like apartments or construction sites. One such director counted on zero financial support for his project, putting on weekly plays in apartments, whose residents essentially host the play for the two weeks it is on. He’s been doing this for nearly six months, building new audiences as he goes.

In Latinamerica, through my experiences, there does not exist a play-making industry, partly because theater is very much in line with an artistic tradition that is often linked to the Leftist socialist and worker movements of major cities. Artists march hand-in-hand with workers and students, and their work, while not necessarily agitprop, embraces the radical left’s questioning of authority. Throughout my conversations with theatermakers from Mexico at the convening, there was very much an attitude of wanting to just ‘do the play,’ with whatever funding or support was available. The primary objective was for the play to get done, and for the artist to grow by the constant creation and proliferation of new work in the form of productions.

I elaborate so much on these mechanisms to explain why there seemed to be two different languages being spoken during the exchange.  Each artmaker seemed like a fish out of water when it came to understanding a completely different way of  working and bringing  work to audiences. What brought everyone together in that room was a desire to create successes on both sides.

This exchange comes at a fortuitous time. Mexico, with the new government in place, has embraced the neoliberal policies of austerity and has consequently cut much arts funding. Many Mexican theatermakers are for the first time engaging with the concept of sponsorship and donors. The Lark, having seen its own funding halted, used this time to bring these voices (including my own) together.

By the end of the program, we had action items, and people invigorated in finding further ways to connect these communities. U.S. theater has much to offer, from extremely well-written pieces to work that embraces the diversity of U.S. voices and cultures, as well as a variety of techniques for funding and production. Mexico has an amazing set of theatermakers and a means of production that is at odds with U.S. corporate and not-for-profit structures.

This dichotomy is, in the end, an imperialist one, a distinction that pits a continent of different nations versus a global superpower. The important point to make, though, is the U.S. is a Latinamerican country. One very brave and eloquent playwright made the point Latino theater is actually performing many of these distinctions. It has created voices and communities that have been denigrated by the structures of U.S. white supremacy, which by having no state system of funding the arts, has contributed to an economy of theatermaking that privileges certain economic and social classes.

By connecting Latino artists in the U.S. to the radical and exciting artists of Mexico and Latinamerica, we take steps toward seeing ourselves as part of a radical art movement and canon that encompasses one of the strongest artistic voices in the world.