UN ENCUENTRO: Theater of and for the Borderlands

by Barclay Goldsmith

in Activism,Global Citizenship,Global Connections,National Conference

Post image for UN ENCUENTRO: Theater of and for the Borderlands

(This post is part of both the Global Connections grantee salon and the World Theatre Day/Crossing Borders salon, curated by Andrea Thome.)

OVERVIEW.  In 2012 Borderlands Theater (Tucson) and El Círculo Teatral (Mexico City) embarked on a transnational project to commission, develop and produce two plays. The two directors of El Círculo, Victor Carpinteiro (who has been a TCG International Artist) and Alberta Estrella, and I commissioned Madardo Trevino of Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, Mexico and Kara Hartzler from San Diego(formally Tucson). We invited Estrella and Hartzler to each write a play on the subject of border violence. We planned that the plays would be performed back to back at each performance with the same cast in each city. Hartzler’s play would be written in response to Trevino’s, a highly unusual procedure. We eventually named the project Un Encuentro: Theater of and for the Borderlands/Teatro de la Frontera.

This TCG Global Connections In the Lab project was designed to support pre-production activities (research and development) leading up to but not including full production of Trevino’s play Marias Circular Dance/La Danza Circular de Maria and Hartzler’s Trash/Basura. The grant also supported research with Mexico City service organization CEUVOZ (Centro de Estudios para el Uso De La Voz), Luisa Huertas, (Dir.), for identifying actors, playwrights and performing entities from the Mexican border for possible inclusion in current and future encuentros. Borderlands has collaborated with CEUVOZ and El Círculo Teatral for the past 12 years using various models which we have developed together.

Additional funding from the NEA allowed us to produce the plays in Mexico City and Tucson. Funding from NALAC allowed us to present additional readings of plays by other performing groups and playwrights alongside the two commissioned plays, which helped turn our Encuentro into a mini-festival.

Trevino’s Marias Circular Dance, translated and directed by Eva Zorilla Tessler, and Hartzler’s Trash, directed by Marc David Pinate, opened in Tucson on February 13. Trevino’s original Spanish text, LaDanza Circular deMaria, opened March 6 in Mexico City with direction by Victor Carpinteiro.  The Spanish translation of Basura was given an in-house reading at El Círculo Teatral, (Tessler translator). Both plays were scheduled to open in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas in April, but they were postponed due to violence in that city.


Carpinteiro, Estrella (producers/Directors of El Círculo Teatral), and I (Borderlands Theater) are conversing alongside sparkling fountains shaded by large Jacaranda trees not far from the theater in the quiet, upper middle class, urban neighborhood with artist lofts and restaurants known as La Condesa.

We are silently aware of our surroundings: La Condesa is a relatively quiet bubble in the City that has not experienced the same extent of drug cartel violence racking Mexico. But this national violence haunts even the quiet Condesa. Many here have lost friends or loved ones but we do not discuss this violence, now or at other times. Outside the rehearsal there is silence about drug-related violence. Why is this?

We decide to commission the two playwrights whom we all known – Estrella and Hartzler. It will be a groundbreaking experiment to develop and produce the plays together and to assign the same theme to both: Mexico/U.S border violence. There will be perspectives from both countries on the same issue.

Funding is uncertain. Timelines are vaguely set and processes of how we would collaborate still need to be designed. We simply trust each other. We have a long history of working together but are not prepared for the sharp learning curve we have to face in the next two years.


El Círculo Teatral is a small renovated opera house in a small  19th century building  by other small  19th century residencies  on a quiet street not far from the sparkling fountains and the Jacaranda trees. Students from El Círculo’s theater school gather at the theater’s modest café. Handsome copper plaques of past productions, some student and some professional, adorn the walls and are a testament to the collaboration between El Círculo and Borderlands. Our collaborations feature well-known Mexican actors and playwrights, co-productions of U.S. plays by Kara Hartzler, Lisa Loomer, Mario Diamante and Mexican plays by Emilio Carbaillido, Victor Hugo RascónBanda and Eduardo Dávila (alongside canonical productions by Pinter, Shakespeare, etc.).

The expanded transnational team is now gathered to join us: Eva Zorilla Tessler (Assoc. Artistic Dir. Borderlands), Catherine Rodriguez, Dramaturg (Center Stage), Luisa Huertas, member of the National Theater of Mexico and Director of CUEVOZ and playwright Medardo Trevino. Playwright Kara Hartzler participated in readings of Trash in Tucson in the fall. La Danza Circular de Maria was read, translated and discussed before the meeting. The play explores the kidnapping of a Colombian migrant on her way north to the U.S. Border to find her son. Her captor, Angelito, is a cartel member, a devout Catholic and caring father. He is haunted by his crimes. Trash explores the relationship between a female prison guard and a detainee (a drug informant) in a U.S. Immigration Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona, not far from Tucson. Both playwrights have intimate knowledge of their subject matter. Hartzler is an immigration attorney for the U.S. Justice Department and argues against human rights violations and Trevino lives close by in San Andres, the setting of La Danza Circular de Maria, where 72 migrants on their way north were assassinated by cartel members because they would not cooperate as “mulas”(Tamaulipas is a hot spot in Mexico for drug violence).

Discussions in Mexico City revolve around the translation of La Danza into English. What to do about the highly poetic images of Angelito and rural people from Tamaulipas? How do we handle the accent and specific historical references of Maria who is Colombian? How would they be received in Mexico City or Tucson, even in English? These discussions are always present in the translation sessions at Lark Play Development Center in New York, where I have participated in their U.S./México “Word Exchange” Program.  These Mexico City discussions  open  up yet other issues,  ones  that are more acute: How will the audiences in Tucson, Mexico City and Ciudad Victoria (near San Andres), understand the context of the play?

“This is a universal story of kidnappings,” argues one.

“Yes, but we are dealing with a current historical moment,” argues another, “the context must be very clear in every production as witness to the event.”

“People in Mexico City and Ciudad Victoria do not need it clarified,” argues another.

In the end, Trevino allows Tessler to alter the script for a Tucson audience so that the time and place of the kidnapping is explained. Carpinteiro mounts the original script. The line changes are few but the whole tone of the play suddenly shifts. In some ways the original Spanish text and the English translation are different plays now.

In the fall, the discussions about, Trash/Basura center around how much exposition is needed to inform the audience about the betrayal that occurs by ICE and DEA officials towards interned informers.  Interned informers are promised protection upon release but are suddenly sent back to Mexico where they will often face death. Hartzler, who is bi-lingual, has lived and worked in Chiapas and has collaborated very successfully with both companies in the past.  Hartzler suggests that the early stages of development would be hindered by actors in Mexico City. Her prison guard is a chola, a type of character that could be played by any well trained actor, but not necessarily developed out of cultural context in the early stages of writing. Likewise there were no U.S. actors contributing to the early development of La Danza.  This begs another question: In transnational development projects, when and at what level of development is the whole team brought into the development process?


March 2014: Picture Tucson. We are at a dinner in a well-appointed living room of a board member run bed and breakfast. Seven rooms have been donated to us. So has la comida del norte for today. It is two days before the opening of the two plays and the readings have been in rehearsals now for several days. Trevino, who is from Ciudad Victoria, reports on his walk in downtown Tucson, the night before:

“People are out walking on the streets, shopping, going to restaurants, laughing. You don’t see that in Ciudad Victoria or Matamoros. The streets at night are deserted at home. Helicopters, sirens, sometimes gunshots break the silence.”

The two actors present at the dinner are the two sole actors for the two plays:  Eric Aviles from New York and Carmen Garcia of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico. Yes, our acting team is purposefully trans-national. Additional members of the transnational artistic team continue to arrive or will arrive shortly: Now Hartzler and Ric Salinas of Culture Clash, Marc David Pinate and Milta Ortiz, resident director and playwright respectively, and playwright Guillermo Reyes along with (again), Trevino, Carpinteiro, and Rodriguez, all present in Mexico City. They will have their works read or workshopped in the alternate programming of the Encuentro. (For a complete listing visit borderlandstheater.org.) It is two days before opening and we have been rehearsing the two plays now for a month and some of the readings for two days.

The elephant in the room, drug violence, is still with us.  A reporter from the local NPR Station is about to do interviews. Carmen Garcia, the actor from Matamoros, explains she will not talk about drugs in Mexico but she will strongly protest the consumption of drugs in this country that support the violence. Trevino will at times, when asked, talk about the violence where he lives. He will not however allow use of Facebook or other social media to be used in Mexico for his play. Why this silence? Perhaps it is for their safety. Perhaps it is because Mexicans (and I have talked to some) feel they have failed somehow as citizens of Mexico to control this violence that is tearing their country apart.  For us in this country who see the reality behind the sensational headlines, we are ashamed and feel guilty and responsible for the violence our consumption breeds. Perhaps we don’t want to be seen as someone who always sees Mexico as a place of drugs and violence. These unspoken thoughts keep us from communicating freely. In the future a transnational project on a given theme needs to be explored more fully either during the work or before it just to explore our mutual comfort level in discussing it. We were fortunate in Tucson, we had excellent talkback sessions with actors and audiences after each reading and performance with folks who have done an incredible amount of research on this violence, how it is perpetrated, who benefits etc. There was no silence after the plays and readings in Tucson. However, in Mexico City audiences did not experience talkbacks. As Captineiro stated: “Our audiences needed time for reflection and meditation. Maria was very close to them. They were deeply moved. And to begin with, we don’t have the talkback tradition in Mexico that you do in the States.”


The issues go on and on. This could be a book. 1.) Audiences at both theaters are urban professional elites (not wealthy elite but educated elite). Many, though not all, are often removed and emotionally distanced from the issues of the border especially in Tucson even though we are sixty miles away.  2.) The sensational headlines (now censored to some extent in Mexico) do not explore the many realities behind the narratives presented in these plays. “The War on Drugs is not about drugs” – Laura Carlson 3.) The subjects of all the works in this Encuentro speak to a broader (and in Arizona especially) list of issues which include human rights:  Deportations, Border Patrol abuses etc.

There are other artists living on borders that are also violent, in places like Matamoros where people cannot even go out on the streets at night. (Carmen Garcia just closed her theater for the year in Matamoros.) In safer places there is “Teatro de La Calle”a group in Colima, Mexico. There is Theater of Protest in Juarez. Borderlands and El Círculo have produced Arizona : No Roosters in the Desert a play about women border-crossers in the desert. We call it Theater of Witness. What other forms can be adopted for these conflicted regions? What purpose do they have if there is no foreseeable change?

The other day I received an invitation from TCG to begin discussing what would take place at the pre-conference in Tijuana this June around this year’s theme of “Crossing Borders.” I suggested La Danza Circular de Maria could be performed. I outlined the plot. There was silence. One or two people suggested something different. Later in the middle of the night I thought differently and the next day I withdrew my suggestion. I am troubled by our decision here at Borderlands, but I think it was the right one.   On the one hand I do not wish to be responsible for further identifying  Mexico as a land of violence and drugs, nor do I wish to put in danger artists who have addressed these issues in Mexico or in the U.S. On the other hand these are stories that deepen and broaden our understanding of  border violence. In short the collaborators on this project will continue to ask ourselves when is “SILENCE” needed and when does SILENCE incriminate us?

Barclay Goldsmith (Producing Director, Borderlands Theater) has worked in Mexico and Argentina at various times during the past 40 years. He  co-founded Borderlands Theater in 1986, and has remained as producing director ever since. Borderlands is an outgrowth of Teatro Libertad, a Tucson based touring theater collective in the 1070’s. As head of Borderlands he has commissioned, developed,    produced and directed many new plays there   under the Border Playwrights Program and is a founding member of the National New Play Network (1998), a 47 member strong theater organization championing the development and production of new plays. Significant productions have included commissioning and producing Electricidad by Luis Alfaro,( Map Fund), later to be produced at the Goodman Theater and Mark Taper Forum, and the co writing and production of 2013: How the New Zapatistas Shook the World with Borderlands writers and Joan Holden and the San Francisco Mime Troup. At Borderlands he has spearheaded the US/Mexico Program arranging artist exchanges and co-productions with theaters from both countries. He has been a consultant at CEUVOZ, the Center for the Study and Use of the Voice in Mexico City and he has directed in Mexico now almost yearly for the past ten years at El Circulo Teatral in Mexico City. His most recent play there, Cita a Ciegas by Mario Diament, also produced at Borderlands, ran for more than a year and a half and won numerous awards from Mexico City critics associations. His production of  La Mujer que Cayo del Cielo/The Woman who Fell from the Sky, by Victor Hugo Rascon Banda, was produced in Mexico City by CEUVOZ and El Instituto Nacional de Bellas Arts. It was Mexico’s entry in the UNESCO International Theater Festival in 2004 and subsequently toured Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.   He has been, for the past four years, an artistic consultant where he directed staged readings at the Kennedy Center/Stanford University National MFA Playwrights Program, Washington, D.C.   He taught theater at the Theater Arts Department at Pima Community College from 1970-2000, chairing the department from 1984 to 1997.  He holds a B.A in English and Theater from Stanford University and an MFA in directing from Carnegie Mellon University.