I still don’t know how it happened – do you ever really know – but one day in Santa Fe, I heard New Mexico oral historian Nasario García speak about his abuela, his grandmother who lived beside a river. And hearing him, I saw a play. And a few months later, there it was, When the Stars Trembled in Río Puerco, a full-length play, my first, which I knew I wanted to direct because I saw it and when you see, you want to manifest. The play was an adaption of Nasario’s first book of oral histories, Recuerdos de los Viejitos (Memories of the Elders) which chronicles life, land, loss, community in four Hispanic villages (now ghosts towns) from the 1900s to the 1950s in the Rio Puerco valley in west-central New Mexico. The play’s title comes from one of the recuerdos: “we used to go out on the land, ‘y no importa que las estrellas temblaran de frío,’ no matter if the stars were trembling from cold.”
And then – I also can’t fathom how this happened so fast but it did – Argos MacCallum and Santa Fe-based Teatro Paraguas stepped in and helped me with putting together a cast and crew. We had a cast reading in July 2013, a staged reading in August at a Hispanic Arts Fair at Dixon’s Toolshed Theatre and a preview/fundraiser at Teatro Paraguas in November for an Indiegogo campaign to fund a full production. The following April 2014, we had six performances in Santa Fe and in September, performances at Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center (NHCC) as part of Siembra, NHCC’s first Latino theater festival.
And all along the way, accompanying the readings and performances, sometimes preceding them, sometimes following them, we had “Share your ‘Recuerdos’ Open Mics,” which we advertised almost as vigorously as tickets, asking audiences to “bring a memento from yesterday or many yesterday ago and share a ‘recuerdo’/a memory, an anecdote.”
The idea first emerged at the informal Q&A that followed the staged reading: people lingered, talked, and a connecting refrain of “I remember” became a larger conversation about land, story and memory. All of us registered how energized the audience felt, not only by the play but also by the opportunity to speak of their own experiences. So, when we had our preview/fundraiser a few months later, we began with an open mic that ran for almost forty minutes before we presented select scenes from the play. During the full production in April, at the open mics preceding select performances, we had not only full houses but packed houses, in fold up chairs and fold down chairs, on the floor on rugs and pillows, kids at the edge of the stage and that beautiful hush as the first person went up to the lone microphone on stage and said, “I remember….”
What I remember:
- a woman who placed her hand over her heart and said, “my mother is 104 and still with me. And what I remember is how, when she and my grandmother used to speak of the past, it wasn’t all ruins. It was brand new, alive in the most pristine way.”
- a woman who had lost her son shared a poem she had just finished writing for him.
- a man spoke of how his father used tell him stories about the Rio Puerco and how “en ese tiempo, el Río Puerco era un flor;” “at that time, the Rio Puerco was a flower.”
And I remember a feeling of incredible connection to the audience and reveling in this tactile dynamic atmosphere before the play had even begun. And thinking, yes, it’s the play that they’re here for but also, with the invitation to come watch, there was also this invitation to participate. That’s why they’re here as well.
What does this mean going forward? The plays I’m working on now are Bless Me Father, about melodrama and murder in India and Are You Safe, about love and occupation. The tie-in event for audiences is not as easily apparent. Each could be accompanied by talks about issues but that’s not what the open mics were about or rather, that’s not what lingers for me about the open mics.
What lingers is the encounter with the audience. I like that word. I used it when creating an umbrella project for the play, a project called Recuerdos Vivos New Mexico/Living Memories. The idea came as the play did, organically, from a desire to encounter oral histories and transform them into different mediums, whether plays or videos or multimedia.
So – the encounter, the meeting – that’s what stays with me, and that’s what hums and buzzes when I think back on the whole experience. Beyond the encounter with a play, what else can audiences encounter? Each other? Is that why I felt connected? Because the people who came from somewhere else for the play and would go somewhere else after the play – I was able to encounter them and I watched the play, knowing something about the audience with whom I watched it.
Shebana Coelho is a filmmaker, playwright and director. Her plays have been produced in New Mexico and New York. She received a CEC ArtsLink award to collaborate with Ramallah-based Ashtar Theatre for Land Out Land Palestine (www.landoutloud.com), a multimedia project that excavates creative expressions about land. Her documentary work has been broadcast on American Public Television, National Public Radio, and The Discovery Channel, among others. She was born in India and lives in New Mexico. Her website is www.shebanacoelho.com
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.