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Applauding the golden age at Chamizal.

Night after night troupes from all over the Spanish-speaking world and the United States perform Calderon and Cervantes, Lope de Vega and Moreto, at the annual Siglo de Oro Drama Festival in El Paso, Texas. Sometimes the productions are elaborate and traditional; sometimes they are sparse and avant-garde. Occasionally, they are electrifying. After each performance, participants meet to share ideas.

Every April hundreds of theater people, academics and general spectators participate in the two-week-long festival at the Chamizal National Memorial, which is sponsored by the U.S. National Park Service. Just as in Lope de Vega's day, the plays are popular events that attract spectators from every walk of life. Laborers in their work clothes, grandmothers and infants, students and secretaries sit side by side with business professionals and artists, often chatting about the plays in English and Spanish.

This year's gathering featured spectacles as diverse as a three-and-a-half-hour production by Mexico's Compania de Teatro Corral of Lope de Vega's Los locos de Valencia; Repertorio Espanol's minimalist interpretation of Calderon's El alcalde de Zalamea; a series of highlights from Golden Age plays presented by two actors from the Compania Francisco Portes, of Madrid; and an adaptation by Mexico City's Grupo Tarumba of the prologue to Sor Juana's El divino narcisco, which included some colorful Aztec-inspired dances. The most controversial production was an adaptation of San Juan de la Cruz's Canticos espirituales, by Tiempo Comun of Venezuela, which incorporated Indian, Afro-Hispanic, and Brazilian music. The piece raised eyebrows not only because of the unconventional nature of the material (after all, San Juan was a mystic poet, not a playwright), but also because of the playful manner in which director Hugo Marquez approached the work, the giraphic eroticism of some segments, and the very Latin American tone Marquez gave to the verse.

The Spanish Golden Age, which lasted roughly from the beginning of the sixteenth century until the end of the seventeenth, may seem an unusual theme for an annual event on the U.S.-Mexican border, but, according to Walker Reid, Director of Cultural Affairs for the memorial, it was a perfect choice in view of the history of the Chamizal. Reid explains that the Chamizal Memorial was formed as part of a 1963 agreement between the United States and Mexico. The Rio Grande had been established as the border between the two countries more than a century before, but the river kept meandering, leaving communities sometimes on the Mexican side, sometimes on the U.S. side. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Adolfo Lopez Mateos resolved to cement the bottom of the river - thereby preventing it from changing course - and to divide the land. Three-fourths of the area went to Mexico, while the rest went to the Unites States.

Both nations made commemorative parks out of the land. The Park Service took over the U.S. portion and Congress established that the Chamizal Memorial would become a monument to culture and the arts. In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson finalized the settlement and in 1971 Franklin G. Smith was appointed superintendent of the Chamizal. Thanks to Smith's vision and sensitivity, the Park became an agent of good will between Mexico and the United States. The Chamizal opened in 1973 with a Border Folk Festival that celebrated Mexican popular arts. Other cultural activities followed, including a jazz festival and a variety of historical projects, but the jewel in the Chamizal crown was the Siglo de Oro Theater Festival.

Smith hit on the idea of a celebration of Spanish Golden Age drama when he began to look around for a theme that would be rich in possibilities and appealing to the population of El Paso, which is about 70 percent Hispanic. "It was a natural," explains Walker Reid. "Here was a juicy piece of literature - that is, a literary period that included hundreds of writers. Besides, no one else was doing anything like it." The fact that two major Golden Age authors, Juan Ruiz de Alarcon and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, were born in Mexico was another plus, according to Reid. "Coming out of the settlement between the United States and Mexico," he explains, "the Chamizal was supposed to be a monument to good will, and the Siglo de Oro Festival fit the theme perfectly."

The Festival, which opened in 1976, became Reid's special project, since he had a background in theater and Spanish and Latin American literature. In 1965 he founded the Community Theater of Guatemala, in Guatemala City, and was its director until 1967. Since then, he has been in contact with countless Latin American theater groups, many of which he has brought to Texas for the Festival. For the last eighteen years he has coordinated practically every aspect of the Siglo de Oro Festival, reaching out to companies, organizing the program, working out details with immigration, procuring lodgings for the troupes, and attending to countless other details.

From the beginning the Chamizal sponsored a theater competition to stimulate interest in the Festival and encourage groups to participate. George Woodyard, then a professor at the University of Kansas and editor of the Latin American Theater Review, served as the first academic judge and helped guide Reid around the theater world in Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and Spain. Although only four groups participated in the first festival, over the years the competition has grown in size and scope. Now there are two categories - professional and nonprofessional - with prizes offered in each. Three judges from theatrical and academic circles assess the plays. "We've become more demanding," says Reid. "We no longer encourage novice groups to apply." But even though standards have become higher and Reid has become more selective in admitting troupes to the competition, he still reaches out to promising amateurs. "This year we really got the best," he explains, "because, in honor of the Quincentennial of the Discovery of America, we spent the money to go after top-notch professional groups. We've grown qualitatively as well as quantitatively." However, Reid explains, financial restrictions will undoubtedly force him to limit the number of companies that participate in next year's festival to eight or ten.

In selecting participants, Reid looks for experienced companies, whether or not they are professional, and plays that have not been performed before at the Festival. He also looks for tough, dogged directors who are capable of obtaining funding, since the National Park Service pays only room and board for two days for each company, as well as a small honorarium based on the type of performance and the distance the group has to travel. Since the companies have to pay most of their own expenses, including plane fare, they must appeal to government organizations and private institutions to finance the trip. Reid mentions directors such as Juan Moran of Mexico, Hugo Marquez of Venezuela, and Francisco Portes of Spain, as examples of obstinate go-getters who have managed to obtain funding year after year. Some groups depend on universities; others, such as Tarumba, directed by Felio Eliel, receive help from organizations such as the Instituto de Bellas Artes in Mexico.

In 1980 Smith and Reid introduced the nightly Mesa Redonda, or discussion group. Led by an academic or a theater person, the Mesa Redonda allows directors, actors, and audiences to meet after each performance to discuss a wide range of topics. Smith's original idea was to bring the fraternity of Siglo de Oro scholars closer to the theatrical people who actually perform the plays, thereby changing the way academics think of their profession. For years the classics of Golden Age theater had been studied as literature, but few students of Lope de Vega and Calderon actually had seen their plays performed.

In 1981 - as part of the tricentennial celebration of the death of Calderon - Smith and Reid proposed that Professor Arturo Perez of the University of Texas, El Paso, organize a symposium in conjunction with the Festival. Now run by Professors John Amastae of UTEP and Sharon Voros of the United States Naval Academy, the symposium has grown into one of the most significant gatherings of Golden Age scholars in the United States. In addition to the Mesa Redonda, the symposium sponsors a daily Encuentro limited exclusively to academics and theater people, which provides additional opportunities for discussion. But what professors seem to like best is the chance to live and breathe theater twenty-four hours a day. Not only at the lectures and meetings, but at breakfast, lunch and dinner they meet to talk over the performances, their research, and their classroom experiences.

The success of the Chamizal Festival in the academic community was due in great part to the efforts of Professor Don Dietz, then at Texas Tech University. Dietz became the founder and driving force behind the Association for Hispanic Classical Theater, an organization devoted to the performance aspect of Golden Age Theater. Dietz and other academics, such as Vern G. Williamsen and David Gitlitz, conceived the idea of videotaping the plays performed at the Festival and making them available to professors of Golden Age Theater for use in their classrooms. Now, some ten years later, the Association not only lends hundreds of tapes to its members, but provides grants for the production of Golden Age dramas in English.

Much of the excitement of the Chamizal Festival derives from the great variety of theatrical experiences it provides. But the tight schedules that different nightly performances demand often cause problems. "The groups come in the night before the performance," explains Walker Reid. "The next morning, they're working with our technicians on the show that will go up that night!" Since 1987, the companies that perform at the Chamizal have been taking their shows across the border to Juarez the next day. There they perform twice, once for a general audience and once for school children. Sometimes they go on to perform in Mexico City. "Unless some groups can get additional engagements in Mexico City," explained Reid, "they simply cannot afford to come. It is just too expensive for a director to bring a group of twelve to fourteen actors, who have to be paid, transported, lodged and fed, unless he can do some additional shows." During the last several years, the Mexico's Programa Cultural de las Fronteras has provided funding to help some professional groups with their transportation.

In spite of the financial obstacles, Reid foresees an exciting future for the Chamizal Festival. He hopes to continue to reach out to new companies, fostering variety, experimentation, and continued high standards. He is already planning next year's program, which will include a version of Moreto's El desden con el desden, by the Chicago Opera Factory, a company known for its Zarzuelas, as well as one full-length production by the Compania Francisco Portes and another by the Centro de Arte Dramitico, a Mexican company directed by Hector Azar, that performs plays by Alarcon exclusively.

"The Chamizal Festival is the highlight of the year," says one El Paso resident. "As soon as one is over, I'm looking forward to the next!"

Barbara Mujica, a Contributing Editor of Americas Magazine, has won the E.L. Doctorow International Fiction Competition for her story "Xelipe. " Author of the novel, The Deaths of Don Bernardo (1990), her book of short stories, Far from My Mother's Home, will be published next year. She is a Full Professor of Spanish at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
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Title Annotation:Siglo de Oro drama festival at Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso, Texas
Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:May 1, 1992
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