NET/TEN Shareback: Radical Evolution - Devising through Simple Frames

2014 Fall Travel Grant Recipient

Radical Evolution (Brooklyn, NY) traveled to San Juan Bautista, CA to deepen a relationship with El Teatro Campesino and to conduct field research on best practices in ensemble-based work.  They observed the ensemble and had dramaturgical conversations about projects they are interested in developing with ETC and their affiliated ensemble members.

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Devising through Simple Frames

With our generous funding from NET, the co-founders of Radical Evolution spent a glorious week in San Juan Bautista with our friends at El Teatro Campesino (ETC).  Radical Evolution works best when we operate in as much of a collective mentality as is possible in theatre creation. We love devising techniques and explorations and we found willing partners in this process at ETC as well as a first hand view of the Campesino organizational model, and shared creative methodologies. As a company in its nascent years, getting the opportunity to dive deep into the 50 year history of Campesino and the way they make theatre was a true gift for us.

Because we were exploring a series of historical events, we already had something of an idea of what the story was going to be. Meropi and I came in with detailed information about the overall story of Los San Patricio’s, but wanted to develop the narrative and the story-telling aesthetic with the ensemble of artists we were working with at ETC. 

After the first day of conversation we came up with some very easy to understand devices and exercises to explore the world of Los San Patricios and to get an idea of what this will one day potentially become when fully realized. Here is one such example of a frame that we used.

The story of Los San Patricios is as vast and complex as the US/Mexican War (or the North American Invasion of Mexico, depending on where you learn your history). And because the story of the San Patricios is just as much a myth handed down through oral tradition as it is a researchable history, and that there would be people in the room who had little to no knowledge of the factual events, we knew that the first challenge would be to get everyone onboard with the history we wanted to explore, and narrative we wanted to present.  To do this, we needed a simple structure that would help us. 

If you are not familiar with it, the 8 Sequence Movie Structure is one that can be adapted and fit to almost any Hollywood movie, and most movies in general. It is used in film classes to study script narrative and story structure and was the main driving philosophy behind how I was trained in script writing for film at the University of Southern California. While its effectiveness is debatable in regards to a final product, what I find useful in it is how simply and easily you can use it to break down any story, regardless of genre, and how almost any “well-made” story can fit within its system. So we thought we could use this structuring device as a way to streamline and make accessible a very complex historical narrative; not to create a well-made play, but to develop a strong arc of scenes and songs that are understandable and legible to those that may know little to nothing about the complex history of Los San Patricios.

Here is a simple graphic of the version that I like (there are several variations):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So what we did in the rehearsal room was a variety of devising techniques and narrative approaches to find what these 8 sequences would be and the major points of this story so we could begin to find the nuances and complexities of our telling of the San Patricios story.

There is not enough time and we definitely don’t want to spoil what we are working on, so I won’t give a complete detailed account of how we went through and found each sequence. But I can tell you that we did through a variety of tools, from shadow work, tableaux, movement, improvised dialogue, puppets, and more.

For this shareback, I want to show you how we did the shadow work. We chose 12-13 historical moments that we felt were key moments in the story of the San Patricios and our amazing collaborators developed telling those moments using the tableaus utilizing the shadow work. Here are a few examples where we thought we were especially effective.

Photo credit: Beto O’Byrne. Artists in the picture from Left to Right – Chaveli Flores, Jesse Huerta, Meropi Peponides, Joe Luis Cedillo.

Many of the soldiers that formed the San Patricios, or St. Patrick’s Battalion, were new immigrants from Ireland, fresh off the boat from the old country. They were met on the docks by army recruiters and signed up immediately in hopes of security and a better life than the one they would find in the slums like New York City’s Five Points. Little did they know that they would face brutal discipline, terrible working conditions, and be forced to commit unexpected atrocities on their fellow Catholics in Mexcio, which was a large reason why many would cross over to fight for Mexico when the war began.

Photo credit: Beto O’Byrne. Artists in the picture from Left to Right – Adrian Torres, Jesse Huerta, Chaveli Flores, Joe Luis Cedillo.

The San Patricios quickly became known as fierce fighters and strong soldiers, as depicted here in the Battle of Monterrey.  For most of the war, the Patricios were artillery soldiers, which is why we chose this image.

Photo credit: Beto O’Byrne. Artists in the picture from Left to Right – Adrian Torres, Jesse Huerta, Chaveli Flores

In one of the largest mass executions in United States history, 30 members of the St. Patrick’s Battalion were excecuted at the moment that the US Flag was raised over Chapultepec Castle, during the battle of Chapultepec Castle, the last major battle of the Mexican American War, as depicted here.

Another amazing part of our experience was we had as part of our ensemble several really excellent musicians who developed musical underscores for each moment we built.  I highly recommend this because it added such an incredible layer of depth to our imagery as we built the sequences. Music is such a powerful theatrical tool, and it adds a layer to the composition work that gives the tableaux added depth and meaning. For example, in the last moments of the last sequence above, our musicians played a variations of The Marine’s Hymn, the lyrics of which start with “From the Halls of Montezuma”, a direct reference to the battle of Chapultepec.

So utilizing simple frame and adding music to it was a great way to develop both our collaboration with a new artistic circle and our understanding of the work that we are attempting to develop.  Feel free to comment and ask questions below and I’ll do my best to respond!

¡Salud!

-Radical Evolution

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Friday, August 14, 2015

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