Executive Director's Note: Border Crossings
Monday, September 15, 2014
By Brad Erickson
When talking about the value of theatre often we often like to say that it acts as a bridge, connecting diverse communities and providing a pathway of understanding between individuals. We point to the way theatre can move us past our entrenched attitudinal differences and land us in a different place where we can see commonalities. We speak about theatre taking us across borders—metaphorically. At the recent Theatre Communications Group conference, the border some of us crossed was much more literal.
From the convening's base in San Diego, a hundred American theatremakers ventured to a preconference in Tijuana, just half an hour away, to meet with their Mexican counterparts. Though I travel to Mexico frequently, this particular crossing, with these traveling companions, was eye-opening in an entirely new way.
Tijuana Cultural Center. Photo by Flickr User nnnin78
First, there was a glimpse of a Tijuana that was not the dusty border town jammed with vendors hawking souvenirs, but a bustling, modern place. Then was the new Cultural Center where we spent most of the day, a beautifully appointed facility with theatres, meeting halls, galleries, and a botanical garden. Not the Tijuana so many of us remembered.
Even more revealing were the conversations with the Mexican theatre artists, gathered from around the country. It says a great deal that the theatre-makers showcased were almost completely unknown to the visiting Americans, even artists working just minutes from California's second-largest city.
One of those groups, Tijuana Hace Teatro (Tijuana Makes Theatre), grabbed our attention; they certainly seized mine. The troupe of young artists was making a name for itself, both through its adventurous shows and through a project it launched with almost no funding, its Escuela de Espectadores, or the School for Audiences.
The initiative, patterned after projects in Mexico City and Buenos Aires, draws together 20 students—local adults who apply for entry into the program. The group is given free tickets to theatre and performing arts events, and together they see 60 performances over the course of a year. Sixty! The "class" is convened monthly to discuss the shows, with the conversations often expanding to include friends and family members as well as artists from the productions. The project just competed its fifth year, with a hundred or so "graduates," most of whom are now avid theatregoers and volunteers.
"What in the world inspired you to start a project like this?" I asked them. "You're a theatre company." Because they needed audiences for their shows, they said. Mexican theatre-makers working in small companies are not siloed as artists and administrators, but create the totality of the production together, earning what they can from the box office. (Here the difference between the Bay Area's emerging companies and those in Mexico is not so great.) So they had a financial incentive. They also shared a passion for bringing their work—and the work of their colleagues—to the people of their city.
At the close of the day, buses carried us to Friendship Park, a meeting point where the US-erected steel wall lining the border enters the Pacific Ocean. On the Mexican beach, families played in the surf and vendors peddled refreshments. On the American side—visible through the slats in the barrier—was nothing. Just miles of empty sand—and a large white SUV with its headlights trained on the border, and a squadron of military helicopters circling, incessantly.
Friendship Park Fence. Photo by BBC World Service
The Tijuana side of the wall was brightly painted with art and slogans and the names of immigrants who had died in crossing. On the beach, in front of the wall, a Mexican troupe was about to perform a segment of its piece Antigone en la frontera (Antigone on the Border). Before they started, we were told how even in the 1970s this militarized divide did not exist. Then there was just a strand of barbed-wire separating the two countries. A barrier that Pat Nixon once snipped and strode across, declaring that sometime soon even that thin partition should fall.
Perhaps we need more crossings where American and Mexican artists meet. Perhaps we need more of us staring from the other side back into the homeland of our preconceptions. Perhaps we need more theatre that can take us over that wall.
Brad Erickson is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.