Site-Specific Work en la frontera

by Dora Arreola

in Global Citizenship,Interviews,National Conference

Post image for Site-Specific Work en la frontera

(Playas de Tijuana- Friendship Park. Kenia Delgadillo as Antigona. Photo by Alejandra Villalba)

The day before our TCG National Conference in San Diego, a group of about 100 U.S. theatre professionals crossed the border and travelled to Tijuana, México to meet with artists from Guadalajara, Mexico City and Tijuana in an unprecedented international Pre-Conference Encuentro.  We had the honor of meeting with Dora Arreola, assistant professor of theatre at the University of South Florida and the founder and artistic director of Mujeres en Ritual Danza-Teatro, an all-women ensemble of dancers and actresses from México and the U.S.  She showed Pre-Conference attendees an excerpt of her work Antígona en la frontera, a site-specific theatre piece that uses Sophocles’ Antigone and Griselda Gambaro’s Antígona Furiosa as a jumping off point to give voice to the conflicts transpiring along the U.S./México border.  The work was presented in partnership with Laboratorio de Teatro Tijuana.

JESSICA LEWIS: How do you begin the process for creating a new work?  Does it begin with research, movement, objects or all at once?

DORA ARREOLA: There is an order to our process.  We always begin with research investigating the creation of movement, actions and physical language.  We start with a series of improvisations that are inspired by the space, or the site, and then we develop them in the studio.

The process that we use can be described as devised theatre.  The text is created or adapted in collaboration with the performers.  For example, in November 2010, Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT) commissioned Mujeres en Ritual to create an homage to Mexican poet Noé Carrillo through performanceCarrillo, who disappeared in 2003, wrote subliminally and explicitly about homoeroticism in an ultra-oppressive and homophobic environment.  His themes of silence, invisibility, absence, and queerness were, for Mujeres en Ritual, frames for the exploration of the physical vocabulary of his poetry, and provided the context in which to create the performance, Aquí debería estar tu nombre / Here Should Be Your Name.  As the texts of Carrillo were the primary points of departure for the creation of a dance-theater piece, it was not just about how to say the text, but how to encounter the author’s themes.  I gave the company members assignments to investigate spaces he frequented or that were suggested by the text, to interview people who knew him, etc.

For Antigona en la Frontera, we began by separating the work of the actors from the work on the text.  This separation doesn’t mean that there is no connection, but it sets up two different entry points (or generates two sets of material) with the intention of connecting them later.  I first took from Griselda Gambaro’s text, Antigona Furiosa, the themes that we would explore.  I then assigned site-specific explorations to the performers—especially the canal in Tijuana, and the desert environment of La Laguna Salada.

The performers explored the sites, with the intent to discover parallelisms between their own inner subjectivity (experiences, memories, imagination), and the story of Antigone.  These were the first metaphors we used to create movement or actions—the first phase of investigation into the internal lives of the actors, and the physical vocabulary—to breathe life into the texts.   Through the rehearsals, we began to layer the text into a structure of movements and composition.

It is important to mention that this process requires a specific actor’s training in order to achieve the physicality and capacity for deep connection that is needed.  My company, Mujeres en Ritual, typically dedicates a large percentage of time to craft and the preparation of the actors.  Every project has its own point of departure.  This process was designed specifically for this material, but can be considered a model for approaching devised or collaborative theater from a non-verbal starting point.

JL: How do you interact with your setting when you create site-specific works, such as your work at La Laguna Salada?

DA: We went to the area called La Laguna Salada, for the first time, in 2012.  It is a dried lake in the desert of Baja California, close to the border of the United States.  For this trip, I designed a workshop to create actions using the natural elements of the site.  La Laguna gave us a taste of the mortal danger that migrants encounter when they try to cross to the U.S. through the desert.  Many people die there every year.  After this first exploration, we decided that it was an important site for developing Antígona en la Frontera.  In 2013, we performed and filmed the full play there, with an audience of 9 invited artists.  We chose a location and time, so that during the performance, there would be natural light changes–beginning at sunset and ending with the fall of night.  In this site, Antígona exposed the inhumanity and absurdity of laws such as “Operation Gatekeeper” that have pushed people to cross under the most dangerous conditions.  It’s a play that humanizes, makes sacred, and returns dignity to human beings and spaces that have been made dirty by injustice.


(La Laguna Salada. Kenia Delgadillo as Antigona. Photo by Andrea Assaf.)

JL: At what point in your creative process on a site-specific work do you rehearse at the location?

DA: Normally, we rehearse on-site at the end of the process.  We arrive 3 to 4 hours before the time of the performance.  But, with some special locations like Laguna Salada, we visit before the rehearsal process starts, to explore material.  There, we spent  two days researching movement and actions.  A year later, we returned to perform and film the show.   This trip and performance required another two days at the site.

JL: How did you establish a collaborative relationship with Laboratorio de Teatro Tijuana? 

DA: The actors of Laboratorio de Teatro Tijuana, who had been my students, solicited my support to help develop their projects.  I was interested in continuing the development of my own methodology with them, and my research on the creation of physical vocabulary and the development of actions for site-specific performances.  With time, they invited me to direct Antigone.  At that point, I invited actors of Mujeres en Ritual to participate in the Laboratorio, which is now an extension of the company.

JL: Why did you choose to adapt Sophocles’ Antigone and Griselda Gambaro’s play Antígona Furiosa for your new devised theatre work, Antígona en la Frontera?  What did you hope to take from Gambaro’s play, which was created in the context of Argentina’s Dirty War, and what did you hope to take from the Greek Antigone? 

DA: Thousands of disappeared and unclaimed dead fill the daily newspapers of México.  We considered staging Sophocles’ Antigone because it is the story that we need to tell and to hear now.  But we were worried that the play would become only a spectacle of a classic myth, without current relevance.  On the contrary, we wanted to connect it to the social problems of our country (México), and to utilize a language accessible to the audience.  We found that Antígona Furiosa by Gambaro, which exposes the absurd laws of dictatorship during the “Dirty War” of Argentina in the 1980s, resonates with what is happening in México, in the border area where many dirty wars interweave:  the wars between drug cartels, the war of the police against civilians, the war of the military that protects the narcos, and the war of the U.S. border patrol and immigration policies against migrants.

From the play of Gambaro, we took various things, such as the tone of Theatre of the Absurd and clowning, non-linear time and the game of multiple realities; for example, while the characters are in the present, Antígona exists out of time, dramatizing scenes from the past and interacting with the characters in the present.  With the play of Gambaro, it is possible to highlight an Antígona who is willing to reclaim justice for the vulnerable and underprivileged, when the authorities are not doing anything to help them.  Antígona knows that the laws are not just, and courageously reclaims the right to live and die with dignity.

However, it was important for us to use some elements of the version of Sophocles and other Greek plays to investigate more dimensions of the characters.  For example, we added the character of Ismene, the sister of Antígona (which was performed by a male actor).  We also took from the Greek tradition the idea of outdoor staging, surrounded by the audience, in order to adapt it to different sites along the border.

Antigona Canai-izacion

(La canalizacion- Rio Tijuana, also known as “el canal” and  “el bordo”. Photo by Marcela Durán.)

JL: One idea Antígona en la Frontera evoked for me was the need for advocacy for people who are both pushed aside but still quite visible – those who exist in somewhat of a state of limbo.  One of the artists in attendance at TCG’s Pre-Conference in Tijuana, Gonzalo García González of El Teatro en el Incendio, spoke to me about the region in Tijuana called El Bordo, which is a stretch of land at the border comprised of about 4,000 people who were deported from the U.S. and found themselves homeless, literally living in garbage and without much legal protection.  How could Antígona en la Frontera be an advocate for them?

DA: Yes, we actually conducted theatrical research in El Bordo, and performed Antígona en la Frontera in the canal where the deported live, just a few days before the TCG pre-conference.  We are doing our work with the idea of changing the inhumane situation there.  Antígona en la Frontera is completely related with this situation.  In the beginning of the Laboratorio process, each actor developed an action in this space.  We spent a short amount of time there, and talked a little with the people.  Not an ounce of human rights exist in this space.  A year after our first visit to the site, we returned to the canal to present Antígona en la Frontera, and we worked for about six hours in the space.  Some of the deported people came to see the performance, including one who stood up in front of the audience (of about 100 people) to talk about his problems before the show.  We discovered that if we continue performing there, we can bring more visibility to the situation of thousands of deported and migrant people trapped in this purgatory between México and the United States.  We hope to advocate for more humanitarian solutions for these people, and for the corrupt politics and absurd laws affecting them to change.

DoraArreolaDora Arreola is the founder and artistic director of the company Mujeres en Ritual Danza-Teatro.  Arreola has more than twenty years of professional experience as a theater director, choreographer and performer.  She was a participant at Grotowski’s Workcenter in Pontedera, Italy (1987-89), and is currently an Assistant Professor of Theatre at the University of South Florida. She has taught, directed and performed in Mexico, the U.S., Nicaragua, Canada, Poland, India and Italy.  She holds a MFA in Directing from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.  She has received grants and commissions from the Ford Foundation, Cultural Contact, NPN, NALAC and more.

Jessica Lewis is Artistic and International Programs Associate at TCG and graduated from NYU’s MFA program in Dramatic Writing. She created Those___Daughters for the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival, developed her short plays Woman Connected to Button and Cashing In at Intar Theatre and presented work at Truffle Theatre Company and St. Francisville Transitory Theatre. She received the Rita and Burton Goldberg Play Award for What I Learned About Myself Secondhand, which explores multi-cultural identity and what it means to be “white”. Jessica’s play Knock Off was selected for the 2014 Great Plains Theatre Conference PlayLab and she co-produced her play Man and Coconut at IRT Theater last spring.