“Here’s how you meet Diablomundo,” rumbles cultural impresario Philip Arnoult of Baltimore Theatre Project,proffering a small brown cup of murky leaves penetrated by a delicately detailed silver straw. A tentative sip draws a dose of pungent South American tea called mate–a staple of the Argentinean theatre troupe, whose six members constantly circulate the cup among themselves or extend it, like a peace pipe, to visitors. The gesture crosses the awkward language barrier between three company members who haven’t quite mastered English and myself, an American whose Spanish education began and ended with “Sesame Street.” Another virtue of the tea is its caffeine kick, which might account for the 15-hour work days typical of Diablomundo’s 18-week residency with the theatre department and surrounding community of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.Order now
The residency is split into two installments, the first of which is drawing to a close. Diablomundo spent two of these eight weeks guiding second-year MFA students (including actors and some designers) through a workshop in collaborative theatre, an unfamiliar concept to most of the students. But they dive into a runthrough of their work with candid zeal, donning cloth masks and manipulating wooden poles into a series of images derived from The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Peter Shaffer’s somber drama about the devastation of Peruvian Incas by 16th-century Spanish explorer Francisco Pizzaro. The Diablomundo company observes from within the piece: Carlos Uriona represents Pizzaro; Ariel Calvis beats a deliberate pace on an upstage drum; and Miriam Gonzalez, Perla Logarzo and Roberto Uriona (Carlos’s brother) improvise accompaniment on traditional South American wind instruments. Santiago Elder, their designer, joins the audience.
It’s obvious from the physicality of the piece why Diablomundo isn’t unduly hindered by a language gap. In two weeks, the students have learned from their visiting mentors to convey meaning not only with their bodies, but also with their group presence. It’s evaporated their egos. “One day we talked about focus and the sticks that we used to mean different things, and they spoke to us of how we were the props. I don’t think that’s a concept American actors really know about. We became other things,” recalls Carol Balzli, an acting student. Her eyes were suddenly opened to the value of what Carlos Uriona facetiously calls “scene servants”: bodies that complete the picture without figuring largely into the plot.
Theatre department head Thomas Cooke will direct a professional production of the Shaffer play this spring, which will provide some of the students with the opportunity to transfer their experience to a fully realized production. The lesson in mutual dependence, however, will probably linger beyond next semester; in a depressingly competitive field, the company’s example could preserve their sanity. “They focused our attention on what the overall group, rather than the individual, was trying to achieve,” says Michael Golebiewski, a student who plans to seek work with a collaborative company after college.
The students believe most American training programs overlook ensemble work, perhaps because collaboration is difficult to teach. Diablomundo adamantly eschews didactics, and the students laughingly recall their initial frustration with the standard response to pleas for direction: “As you wish.” Diablomundo members are, in fact, reluctant to even discuss their process for fear of cementing something which has succeeded largely because of its plasticity. “Mainly we wanted to show them the way we work as an ensemble,” offers Carlos Uriona, a founding member. After a few more rounds of the mate cup, he elaborates. “We don’t explain the philosophy, we explain the function, and in a way when you explain the function you’re explaining the philosophy. We give clues, and let the people follow the clues and find things. Sometimes they are not the things that we found, or we learned.”
This ephemeral process has been roughly two decades in the making. Diablomundo took seed in Buenos Aires in the ’70s, fertilized by the previous decade’s social forays into cooperative living. Early incarnations of the company drew from the traditions of South America’s gauchos, who performed for their own cattle-herding communities, and from commedia del-l’arte, an Italian influence which was nearly lost when Strasberg disciples flooded the country during the 1960s. But it was their life-sized, eerily expressive puppets that struck a chord in Argentina, where an oppressive military government menaced the country until 1983; Carlos believes puppets penetrated their audiences’ perpetual fear by eliminating direct human interaction.
Acclaim for the company’s work reached the ears of Philip Arnoult, who in addition to his position as artistic director of the Baltimore Theatre Project is a board member of the International Theatre Institute and an adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee. Arnoult and Cooke lured the company to Knoxville for its 1990 and 1992 World Festivals, and Arnoult invited them to perform in Baltimore. This investment of time, claims Arnoult, necessarily preceded Diablomundo’s U.T. residency. “This really wonderful opportunity we have right now is because there’s a history with these folks,” he offers. “Most international work in this country is flavor-of-the-month. I’ve even heard people say, ‘Oh, we did Brazil.'”
With this history behind them, Arnoult proposed a university residency modeled after Diablomundo’s theatre school in Argentina, which not only teaches puppetry, theatre and music to children from their low-income neighborhood, but also maintains tight relations with the general community. Carlos stresses the practicality of these relationships and their basis in mutual need. “We are not good samaritans,” he insists. “We have our interests in all of this, and in order to build our audience we work in the community.” He and his colleagues discovered that if they opened their studio doors during rehearsals, intrigued neighbors would then buy tickets to the finished performances. More important, outspoken supporters were vital to a non-mainstream arts organization under a military regime; unconventional ideas were suspect, and many so-called subversives literally disappeared following complaints to authorities. “The best way to protect ourselves was by being deeply connected with the neighbors, because they would speak highly of us,” explains Carlos.
This organic network was replicated in Knoxville with the aid of an Arts Partners Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Program grant, which seeks to establish long-term links between artists, universities and their communities. Thus, Diablomundo is working with the city’s East Neighborhood Center, where underprivileged children’s self-esteem problems are addressed through role-playing. At Jubilee Community Arts, which promotes ethnic and Southern Appalachian arts, they compare notes on reaching out to remote rural communities. Carpetbag Theatre, one of the country’s oldest black companies, solicits their help in creating imagery around monologues and songs. And they remind the University of Tennessee that its resources are desperately needed outside the campus walls. “The university is a sort of huge lighthouse, but it’s isolated,” observes Carlos. “It’s as if the rest are in boats in the ocean and cannot touch it. Literally, there is a gap a geographic and social gap. But it’s possible for the students to make the move, to reach out there.”
A native of Tennessee, Arnoult has long been aware of the quiet boundaries that run through Knoxville, as through most college communities. And he agrees with Carlos: “Maybe the time and conditions are right to make more connections.”
Nearby neighborhoods pose the last frontier for a school whose existing connections span the globe. Another MFA workshop is already underway with Elena Jandova, a Bulgarian veteran of New York City’s Living Theatre, and more visitors from other countries are lined up. Cooke, meanwhile, is laying the groundwork for a student internship in Budapest with Hungarian director George Lengyel, an exciting leap for a program whose previous internships have remained within the U.S. As the university extends its educational tendrils over the world, it might only be a matter of time before it comes full circle and discovers that its neighbors don’t only have needs; simmering in the Southern city is a rich melange of cultures whose histories could intertwine with the university’s.