Dancing with Diablo: An International Education in Collaboration
Griffin, Gretchen, American Theatre
"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.
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. …