VIVO DE OAXACA
Live Theater of Oaxaca, Mexico, 1988 -
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.”)
* * *
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.
* * *
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
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.
* * *
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
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.
* * *
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,
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
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
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.
* * *
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
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.
* * *.
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
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
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.
* * *
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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