Live Theater of Oaxaca, Mexico, 1988 - 2007



Teatro Vivo (Live Theater) de Oaxaca, A.C. was founded in 1988, by director Sergio Santamaría and a loose group of friends and actors.  (The A.C. at the end of their name refers to “civil association,” a legal designation something like “non-profit.”)




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From “The Memoirs, Volume Two” -


            … Sergio had noticed a big construction being done on a busy street in the center of town and thought of a recent play called “Los Abañilos” (The Builders).  He approached the manager of the site and the owner and talked them into allowing him to stage an open-air production of the play for a short run.





It got a lot of attention and began his reputation for unusual and original stagings of theater in Oaxaca.





            Soon after, the theater staged a giant production in the patio of the La Mano Mágica gallery.  This was called "A Little Bit of Death," seen here in rehearsal, then below, in performance.






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            A short time after I came back to Oaxaca, Sergio Santamaría, the theater director and becoming-good friend, had been around saying he was going to do a play with his Teatro Vivo de Oaxaca, of which Mary Jane was member of the board of directors, and they were going to do it in the very nice little theater, Sala Juárez, in the fine arts campus of the Universitario Autónimo Benito Juárez de Oaxaca, UABJO, a few blocks away, and did I want to do the set?

            “You bet!” I said.


            The play was called “Agua Clara,” a sort of modern, drawing-room comedy set in a middle class Mexico City apartment, well, the bedroom.  I didn’t think it was at all my cup of tea, but I had confidence in Sergio and would do anything he asked.  My friend, Valerie Nadeau, who had been in the scene design class I had given here last year, was brought in to do the costumes.  I was looking forward to it.

            I did a wonderful pink bedroom (gee, where does that sound familiar?), all cartoony and very middle-class, Mexico City, awful, of course.  It was fun and everybody liked it a lot.  I also did the poster which showed a toilet with one of those pink, fuzzy toilet seats and tank lid-covers, with a “happy-face” on the seat and the smile turned upside down.  It was a classic.



            The play was something else!

The scene opens on this sort of young, snooty, middle-class couple, expecting guests to a nice sit-down dinner they were having, and getting dressed in their bedroom and looking forward to a nice evening.  Well, the husband goes briefly into the adjoining bathroom and comes out a few minutes later.  Then the wife goes into the bathroom and suddenly there is a loud scream.  She comes back out, horrified.  Well, seems the husband took a dump in the bathroom and didn’t flush the toilet.  Well, it seems this has occurred just as the building has coincidentally run out of water, a common enough occurrences in Mexico, and would bring roars of laughter from the public.

            As the play progresses, various neighbors from the apartment complex come in, trying to help, or bringing some water, or just to gawk.  We learn, of course, that this particular couple has long been the stuck-up, insulting and superior neighbors in the building, and now the others are very much enjoying their utter humiliation!

            It was a silly play but Sergio directed it with fervor and the cast gave it their all.  A particularly good young actress played the wife, and we would become good friends for years.  The audience somehow loved it and it got held over for a long run




            It was the very ending of the play which really got ‘em, however, and incidentally proved the challenge for Valerie and me.  Things get SO ridiculous by the end, a neighbor finally goes in and gets the shit out of the toilet and dumps in on the couple's heads!  Wow!

            So, like, how do you make the shit?  It had to be gooey and well, brown, and more to the point, had to be something which could be poured all over the nice costumes of Valerie’s each night and not stain them and make a big problem for the following night’s performance.  I had no idea.

            That’s when I remembered how Janet, the prop woman from Ready Set, had been so clever and such a big help devising the red, sticky blood for my walk-in tableau, “Crime of Passion” some years earlier in San Francisco, with her concoction of corn starch and such.  Russell was in San Francisco and I called him up.

            “They dump shit on the actors?” he exclaimed, but he said yes, he’d go see Janet.

            So, that’s when Janet came up with her brilliant solution to the artificial shit problem of Bill Wolf down in Mexico, which just about everybody heard about and there were lots of comments, good-natured, of course.

            She came up with getting dry oatmeal cereal and “browning” it on a hot dry skillet on the stove until it was almost burnt to a dark brown and then mixing it with water to the consistency desired.  It would be goopy, from the water, and brown, from the burning, but would not stain the costumes because there would be no pigment, no paint or dyes.

            Now, this is just the sort of thing at which the Mano Mágica’s household staff excel.  We had Irene dry frying and burning oatmeal for days.

            “You’re cooking WHAT in my kitchen!” exclaimed Mary Jane.  I calmed her down, it’s for art, I said.

            “Well, just don’t tell anybody!” she finished.


            Well, “Aqua Clara” had a good run and finally closed and it was an easy strike and then a closing night party at Sergio’s house which I think must have gone on all night, as the tamales didn’t show up until one thirty!  Valerie and I bailed out at not too an unreasonable hour, leaving Sergio talking about his next production, a big organic type of thing in Teotitlán (!).  I told him I’d do the sets.


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            And then Maria was in town at the time I was doing another play with Sergio and his Teatro Vivo de Oaxaca, and she visited a couple of rehearsals and met the cast, who were all very sweet and liked her a lot, of course.

            “That’s some kind of play you got there, Bill!” she said after seeing a rehearsal one night.





            And it was.  A contemporary comedy in three acts by the well-known Mexican playwrite Hugo Argüelles, it was called “Los Amores Criminales de las Vampiras Morales.”  Though set in the present, the action takes place in a big, gloomy, gothic type of house where live two elderly spinster sisters who live in the past.  They dress in elaborate Victorian gowns and fancy themselves to be vampires.  A succession of ridiculous male callers come visiting, apparently to satisfy their own borderline psychotic desires and accommodate the sisters’ increasingly sinister machinations.

            The audience always liked it and Sergio directed it with gusto and not-too-subtle sexual undertones.


            And I had the chance to work again with two of my favorite actresses in Oaxaca, the two old gals who played the sisters; they absolutely ate up the scenery!  Chela Moreno I’ve always loved, a blowsy redhead with a big mouth and great stage presence.  She had had a small but memorable role in “Agua Clara” and we always enjoyed working together.

            The other sister was played by Emy Colmenares, a crazy old gal I had known for awhile who lived in one of “los Arcos” in the Aquaduct not far from Nancy’s and who tended her (ancient) mother for years and sat in the window and talked with passers-by.  Sergio has mentioned a number of her past achievements, especially a long career on the stage in Mexico City.  She could barely walk but somehow got up on the stage and became a powerhouse!  In her long black tattered weeds, tottering through her gloomy rooms and a voice which shook the rafters, she, as I said, chewed up the flats and curtains and very furniture and spit them out again!


            When I drew the poster for the show with the two evil shrews peering around the Victorian stage curtain in their black shrouds, I gave them both big, rounded boobs.  Well, I couldn’t stop them from exclaiming and giggling and flirting with me and just everybody else at the sight of those two big, buxom chests, I tell you.



            For the heads of the vampires, I recalled an image I had drawn years before.  At that time I had called them “birdmen.”  They seemed appropriate and everybody thought it was a good fit.



             A couple of my guys were helping me with the sets and, as I say, being with Sergio and all, we had a wonderful time working again in the theater.  The cast decided to designate one night of the run to be a benefit for the Frente Común and donated that night’s gate to our group, a decision which would become a tradition with all Sergio’s plays.



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            It was spring (1995), and Sergio was putting on another play, his group, Teatro Vivo de Oaxaca, and I came on to do the sets, as usual.




            It was called “Luto, Flores y Tamales” (something like Mourning, Flowers and Tamales, tamales being the traditional food at funerals, or such).  It featured two of my favorite actresses, Myra the young girl who played the wife in “Agua Clara” (yes of the shit), and Graciela Moreno, one of the blowsy vampires from “Amores Criminales ...”, and then Chucho Valles, one of the suitors from “Amores” and a good actor.  I always have a great time working with all of them.  The other actress, and lead (!), was being played be Maria Eugenia Gómez who looked good but really couldn’t act at all and Sergio was rolling his eyes.

            “Well, she wants to act, Bill, and, well, she’s putting up the money for the play, so, you know?”

            “I see, well, let’s do it, Segrio.”

            It was being done in her house (!), where she had a standard colonial patio, and I built the set in a thrust form and we put the seats around three sides.  It was set in the kitchen-living room of a very poor family and featured an old falling-down table and old stove, all very painterly in blacks and whites.




            It was one of those sort of heart-warning, modern comedies that Sergio likes so much.  It opens with the family, now all women, coming back from burying the father and husband, and the newly widowed mother distraught, and everybody morning him and counting how many tamales people brought to the funeral.  Well, before long, HE comes in, back from the dead and carrying his own funeral wreathe.  And we discover, he is only visible to one family member at a time, a different one in each scene, and the others can neither see nor hear him, and they talk about him, not always flatteringly, right in front of him, and soon he learns that just nobody is sad that he’s gone, and the only thing nice anybody can say about him is how well he always made instant Nescafé!

            In the end, the only sense he activates in all the cast at the same time is the sense of smell and they notice he’s beginning to putrefy and he decides he must return to the graveyard, funeral wreathe and all.  As he sadly exits, he tells them where he’s hidden twenty-five thousand pesos.  The family can be heard laughing and singing as he stumbles into the grave.




            It was a crowd pleaser and had a nice run.  Shortly after, with a change of actress, it reopened for a nice run in the big, old Theatro Macedonio Alcalá, where I always like to work.


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            Then Sergio was working on another theater piece, this one to tour around Mexico through some sort of cultural institution, I don’t know.  But he said to me, Bill, I think I can do this piece on the old set for “Luto, Flores y Tamales” with a few changes.  I’m going to open it in the Macedonio Alcalá for a short run and then we go to some six or eight other cities.  Do you want to help?


            I had worked only a couple shows in the big old theater Alcalá, always loving it and being in it and feeling the old life of the theater clinging to its walls, and so it was with great enthusiasm I agreed to do the play with Sergio.  It was called “De acá, de este lado” and the main action takes place in a “humble” house; the “Luto, Flores y Tamales” furniture and backdrop would work nicely.  It was a story of a migrant family, going back and forth to the US and the question of Mexican identity and heritage and a lot of stuff like that.  In the giant space overhead, I hung a composition of four giant banners, painted like torn street posters, one of a Lucha Libre match, one of a bull fight, one of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the largest of Zapato in his sombrero and mustache.  It was quite attractive and easy to travel.




            But mostly I enjoyed working and being in the big, historic theater, the giant backstage with its wings, batons, teasers, catwalks, sandbags and counterweighted flies.  It was the type of theater I had been taught by Profesor Leon Pike, long ago at Lewis and Clark College.  He was an old fashioned theater designer and he followed the traditional theater textbooks, almost a century old even then.  Most of today’s theaters are fully computerized and motorized and little exists of the authentic old backstages with their full hand/mechanical gear.  But, here, behind the scenes in the big, belle epoch theater of Oaxaca, time stands still and the dusty ropes and canvas and wood and metal still quietly echo the actors and lines and laughter and sad, long stories that is the theater.




            It opened in mid-February, 1997, and toured for a couple months after.


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            Then, too, Sergio was teaching theater at CEDART, the local campus of the national system of arts high schools.  They’re quite good.  I think it was his first year there.

            Well, he had a big class of kids, and as so often happens in the arts in education, mostly all girls.  So he decided to do Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba,” a major tough, heavy, long piece for accomplished women actresses.  I said of course, I’ll do the sets.




            He managed to get a big old kind of ex-parking garage, now run by some sort of teachers’ union, near the down town, and my crew went to work.  I hung some big black curtains and painted the back wall white.  Big abstract projections shown overhead.




            It looked impressive and the girls worked hard.  He had an especially good Bernarda, thank goodness.




            It ran for about ten days and they did one of the performances as a benefit for the Frente Común Contra el SIDA, as usual.


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            Recently the theater has been very involved in the socio/political movement in Oaxaca.  Its members participated in the Ninth Megamarcha with a performance entitled "Justice Raped."




            When a new literary publication was introduced this April, 2007, the theater's latest march contingent was featured on the covered.








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