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Marta the Divine in El Paso

On March 4, a group of UMass Theater students, staff and faculty flew to El Paso, TX, where they had a unique opportunity to restage last semester's world-premiere production, Marta the Divine, before an international and bilingual audience at Chamizal Memorial, a park that sits on the border between the US and Mexico.

  1. A prologue: How we got here
  2. At the Siglo de Oro Festival in El Paso, TX
  3. Video: Travels with Marta
  4. Reflections from the Students

A prologue: How we got here

Playwrights of the Spanish Golden Age (“Siglo de Oro”) produced a vast amount of literature between the 15th and 17th centuries. One of the era’s greatest playwrights, Tirso de Molina (1580?-1648) somehow wrote more than 300 plays, all while having official administrative posts and duties as a Mercederian priest. Less than 90 of his plays survive today, and only a handful have been translated into English. One of Tirso’s comic masterpieces, Marta la piadosa, written around 1615, had never been translated into English  until UMass Amherst Professor of Theater Harley Erdman decided to take on the challenge.

Erdman first tackled the project of translating Marta about 13 years ago but after getting through only the first few scenes of the play, put it aside. Then, late in 2008, he had the idea to take a new translation of a Spanish Golden Age (Siglo de Oro) play to the International Siglo de Oro Spanish Drama Festival in El Paso, TX, and pitched five or six possible translation projects to UMass directing professor Gina Kaufmann. When the two both found themselves most excited about Marta , Erdman got back to work on his translation, devoting his  spring 2009 sabbatical to the project.

By that point, the Department of Theater had committed to staging Erdman’s translation (now titled Marta the Divine) during the 2009-2010 main stage season Erdman first produced a literal draft as well as three additional revisions refining the language to make it flow more smoothly in English. The last of those drafts, though not final in any sense of the word, was the starting point for rehearsals of Marta the Divine during the fall 2009 semester at UMass.

Just before rehearsals for the production at UMass began, news arrived that the production was accepted for performance at the Siglo de Oro Festival the following March. After the UMass run of the show closed in November, the company had four months to prepare for the production’s re-launch in Texas. In the weeks leading up to the Festival, the company gathered again to rehearse new changes to the script, as well as participate in an open rehearsal and symposium on women in the Spanish Golden Age.

That's where we pick up our tale in this issue of Stages. On March 4, a group of UMass Theater students, staff and faculty gathered in the wee hours of the morning to board a van that took them to the airport, and from thence to El Paso, TX, where they had the opportunity to restage their production before an international, bilingual audience at the Chamizal National Memorial, which sits alongside the Rio Grande River on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. The park’s land was internationally disputed for more than 100 years as the river began to shift farther south, leaving Mexico with less land. But in 1966, Congress created the National Memorial to commemorate the Chamizal Convention Treaty of 1963, leading the two countries to establish a space to promote and produce cultural works that reflect their shared heritage. One such program that came out of the treaty is the Siglo de Oro Festival.

MFA student Sarah Brew, the production dramaturg, traveled with the group.  Below, she tells us what happened in words, photo, and video.

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At the Siglo de Oro Festival in El Paso, TX

Early last month, eighteen members from the cast and production team of Marta the Divine traveled to El Paso, TX to perform at the International Siglo de Oro Spanish Drama Festival at the Chamizal National Memorial. Ours was the only company to perform in English; all others came from Spain and Mexico and performed in Spanish. Leading up to the trip, we relaunched rehearsals and participated in a symposium at the Renaissance Center, “Women on Stage in the Spanish Golden Age: ‘Remember, Marta, I’m a Woman, Too’" with an open rehearsal and a talkback. After two weeks of working through new changes in the script, we hit the road for El Paso.

Our trip began early on March 4th when travelers met at the Campus Center Hotel at 4:00am for an early morning flight out of Bradley International. Waiting for the luggage with our props to be checked at the airport, we were surprised when Penny Remsen, Chair of the Theater Department, strolled up to us. At first, we thought she had merely come to send us off, but we were thrilled when she teasingly asked, “You really think I was going to let you go alone?”

After two flights—the first-ever flights for several travelers— and a layover at O’Hare International in Chicago, we arrived to the seventy-degree weather in El Paso. The city, which sits alongside the Rio Grande River at the border between the U.S. and Mexico, is surrounded by arid, rocky mountains. Merging into the enormous, booming, troubled neighboring city of Juárez, the urban expanse is sprawling and metropolitan. The days in El Paso are arid and hot, but the air is always filled with the enticing smells of tamales and corn tortillas, and the sounds of both Spanish and English.

Upon arriving, the actors went directly to their hotel to relax and prepare for the long days ahead, while a few others attended panels at the corresponding AHCT (Association for Hispanic Classical Theater) Spanish Golden Age Theater Symposium at another hotel in downtown El Paso. That evening, all eighteen of us (plus a few of the actors’ parents) reconvened and ate dinner together at Los Bandidos de Carlos y Mickey’s, one of the best Mexican restaurants in El Paso. After a toast to the cast and crew from Penny, we dined on everything from tacos al pastor to chile relleno. Afterwards, we attended a production of Calderon’s Casa con dos puertas mala es de guardar, performed by Perro Teatro, a company from Mexico City. Most of us had read an English translation of the script before going to the show. But even though we were familiar with the plot, keeping up with the Spanish was still a challenge. Though we understood the language at times, we also had to rely on the storytelling as it was manifested in the set, lights, sound, and actors’ bodies.

At 8:30 the next morning, several of us arrived at the theater—a large proscenium-style stage located on the grounds of the Chamizal National Memorial—to start getting ready for our show that evening. Lighting designer Jess Greenberg tackled the challenge of redesigning the lights for the show with the lights available at the theater in El Paso. Costume designer Felicia Malachite unpacked the costumes and made sure everything was set to go, while scenic designer Dennis Berfield reassembled and loaded in our set. Although I am the production dramaturg, I assisted Felicia with costumes and was assigned to work stage left—on headset and all!—during the show. As dramaturg, I usually spend rehearsals in the house of the theater, so being backstage felt very foreign. During the day of the show, some of my duties included steaming costumes, ironing the muslin cloth that covered our stage, as well as cueing actors, handing off props, and helping with quick costumes changes during the show.

After a morning of preparation, the actors joined us at the theater for a technical run-through in the afternoon. By the time we were finished, we had just over an hour to eat dinner and get into costume.

As the house opened and the park rangers at the Chamizal National Memorial began welcoming the audience, the actors were noticeably nervous, not sure how the audience there would receive our show. We were relieved when, four lines into Kaitlin Carver’s tongue-in-cheek house speech, we could hear laughter from the audience.

But we were of course still nervous about how the audience in El Paso—a city which is culturally, geographically and linguistically very different from Amherst—would respond to some of the artistic choices we had made, including the choice to cross-gender cast several roles. Sam Bosworth, who played Marta’s sister Lucía, was particularly concerned about this. But the audience ended up loving Sam. They rooted Lucía on as she fought for Felipe’s love, and they seemed deeply invested in the character’s journey, rather than in the fact that a man was playing a woman. Several moments that night came alive like they hadn’t during our run in Amherst. The audience was extremely receptive to not just to the funny parts, but also to some of the show’s more touching moments.

After the show, the actors, Harley and director Gina Kaufmann participated in a talkback, where the team was applauded for its work on the production. One audience member asked the cast members how many of them had worked on a play from the Siglo de Oro before Marta (to which everyone answered “never before”), and praised the actors for their command of the genre to which they had so little exposure.

The next morning, we participated in a plenary panel about the show at the AHCT Symposium. Spanish Golden Age academics asked thoughtful questions about our artistic choices, process and experience at Chamizal. In retrospect, we found the responses to our show to be wide in scope—from enthusiastic and laudatory to skeptical and uncertain. While some praised the show’s radical gender casting, others worried that our Marta was “not Tirso’s Marta.”

Our days in El Paso were lovely—the audience receptive, the city refreshing, the show invigorating. Though we would have enjoyed more time outside in the temperate Texas climate, we’ll never forget performing in El Paso and that Chamizal State of Mind.

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Video: Travels with Marta

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Reflections from the students 

I felt very vulnerable before going on stage in El Paso. It was great to be surrounded by such a supportive, talented and wise collaborative team, but I personally felt like I had a lot on the line; Lucia felt like a different character as a result of some acting breakthroughs I had in rehearsal during our work in February and March. I also was unsure about how the El Paso audience would react to my portrayal of a woman and how they would feel about Andy’s and my passionate embraces. But when I heard the first laughs when Kaitlin gave her curtain speech, I knew everything would be fine. The show was a huge success and one of the greatest learning experiences I've ever had. I can't thank Harley, Gina, Penny, and Julie enough for making all of this possible. 

— Sam Bosworth (Lucía)

At first, the idea of performing our show for a completely different audience honestly scared me. I was so nervous that the audience wouldn’t laugh, wouldn’t like us. I remember pacing backstage before my first scene with Sam (Lucia) praying that they would, at least, find us slightly funny and not just sit there in silence. But then we went on, and we both gave our best performances of the scene. And the audience was there with us, they understood what we were doing and they laughed at every line we hoped they would and reacted to things that we had never had a noticeable reaction to. After, when we were both offstage, Sam and I hugged and kept saying, “They liked us; they liked us.” I realized that we weren’t really performing for a different demographic. We were performing for lovers of theater: just like us. That feeling, the understanding with audience, that will stay with me for a long time. As will the feeling I had performing alongside such talented people.

— Monica Giordano (Marta)

It was an incredible experience, taking the show on the road, and performing it for a different audience, and we could not have asked for a better audience. The festival was amazing, and El Paso was wonderful. Everyone we encountered was incredibly enthusiastic and supportive of our production, and all the people in the production were absolutely wonderful to work with. The food was incredible, and I can't stress that enough. I am grateful to everyone involved, and everyone who made this incredible trip possible.

— Nick Ortolani (Captain Urbina)

I have never before participated in a theater festival or even acted in a venue I had only seen for the first time on the day of the performance. Acting in El Paso, in a completely new place, for an audience with which I was completely unfamiliar, was unreal. There was a moment, during a talkback after the show, when an audience member expressed surprise that we were college students. Most of the people who spoke noted our level of professionalism, which was groovy but very weird to think about. We were just a bunch of friends having a good time and trying to put on a good show, you know?

— Tim Howd (The Ensign)

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