UTPA theatre production to share impact of border violence with national audiences
Posted: 07/08/2011
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The voices of Mexican border citizens afraid to speak about the drug war-related violence that has threatened their families and communities will soon be heard nationally through a children's theatre company of 18 artists, the majority of which are students or alumni of The University of Texas-Pan American.

They will perform a multimedia documentary performance piece titled "Crawling with Monsters" at the New York International Fringe Festival in August in New York City. FringeNYC is the largest multi-arts festival in North America with more than 200 companies from all over the world performing for 16 days in more than 20 venues. This year's festival will be held Aug. 12-28.

This summer, the Latino Theatre Initiative's 18-member children's theatre company will perform its production of "Crawling with Monsters," a documentary look at the impact of recent drug war-related violence on Mexican border children and families, at the prestigious New York International Fringe Festival in New York City and the national conference of American Alliance for Theatre and Education in Chicago.
The festival, which features original, experimental and innovative work, is world class and highly competitive to be accepted, said Dr. Eric Wiley, associate professor of theatre in the UTPA Department of Communication.

"The New York International Fringe Festival is widely regarded as the theatrical equivalent of the famed Sundance Film Festival," he said. "A lot of shows (presented at the festival) have gone on to off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway."

"Crawling with Monsters," which is presented without its playwright's or actors' names revealed for fear of reprisal, addresses the effects of the regional violence - which has included mass killing, kidnappings, and displays of mutilated bodies - on children and their parents and teachers. Most of the script is composed of transcripts from interviews with people in Reynosa, Matamoros, and other northeastern Mexico border towns. Some of the material is from the actors' own family members.

"'Crawling with Monsters,' is incredibly timely and powerful. This production gives many UTPA theatre students, many of whom are from Mexico, a way to communicate about what's happening across the border. This project empowers students to provide a voice for a group of people whose voices have been muted out of fear," said Dr. Tim Mottet, former chair of UTPA's Department of Communication.

An abbreviated version of the 90-minute play that will be performed in New York was first presented in fall 2010 at the competitive New Orleans Fringe Festival, where it was viewed by Dr. Joseph Furnari, a retired educator and theatre professional who is treasurer of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE). The AATE, an advocacy organization for theatre artists and educators and co-authors of the National Standards for K-12 Theatre Education, later invited the troupe to perform the play at their national conference July 27-31 in Chicago. Due to popular demand, the play will also be performed as part of the conference at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Furnari called the play compelling and said he was inspired by the student artists.

"They are afraid for their families and friends. They are angry about what is happening to their communities. However, I sensed not bitterness or desire for retribution but hope and a desire for healing. They have tremendous commitment and determination to use theatre to provoke social change," he said in a message sent to AATE members to solicit support in bringing the troupe to the AATE conference.

Actors in the UTPA Latino Theatre Initiative's Spanish-language production of "La lente maravillosa (The Marvelous Magnifying Glass)" interacted with a captivated audience during one of its many visits to Rio Grande Valley schools and libraries to perform the play for more than 1,500 children.
The production of "Crawling with Monsters" is an outcrop of UTPA's Latino Theatre Initiative intended to strengthen the presence of Latino theatre within the Department of Communication by exploring the addition of courses in the subject area, establishing a regional network of interested parties and creating Spanish- and English-language theatre projects dealing with Latino culture. The Latino Theatre Initiative is also the name of a UTPA student organization recently conceived to support these projects through fundraising and other activities.

The initiative began by producing children's theatre projects for grades preK-12; its first production was "La lente maravillosa (The Marvelous Magnifying Glass)" by Mexican playwright Emilio Carballido. The play, which is about getting kids to practice good hygiene by allowing comical monsters to convey the message, has been presented to more than 1,500 students in Rio Grande Valley schools and libraries. The company has performed their second children's play, "El dia que se robaron los colores (The Day They Stole All the Colors)" by Hector Santiago, in Valley libraries this summer.

"There are thousands of students in the Valley who don't speak English or don't speak it well. So, in addition to our English language programs we wanted to try and do some Spanish language shows," Wiley said. "Also, for our (UTPA) students, it looks good on a résumé to show you worked in Spanish and it is awfully good experience to do that. It was also very gratifying to take plays into schools where in most cases the kids had never seen a play before. You can see the excitement in their faces."

The initiative's goal was to tour "La Lente Maravillosa" in Mexican schools as well until border violence resulted in The University of Texas System restricting student travel to Mexico. Barred from touring in Mexico due to the safety concerns, the director transformed the ensemble into the documentary theatre project which begins its story with that very impact of not being able to provide a theatre experience to Mexican children and the other effects the violence has had on border life.

"'Crawling with Monsters' is really for people who don't know much about this area," Wiley said. "It conveys messages to the outside world. And it also lets people know that UTPA students love Mexico and care about what's happening there."

Wiley said the Department of Communication is still seeking support for the group's trip to FringeNYC and for future projects of the Latino Theatre Initiative. Contact the Theatre Department at (956) 665-3581 for more information.