10 Questions about La Troupe

By the Editorial Board

Bestselling author and former New Yorker staff writer Fredric Dannen has joined forces with Mexican and Venezuelan theatrical talent to create San Miguel’s newest theater company, La Troupe. He recently set aside a few minutes to answer 10 questions about the venture, of which he is executive director.

What is La Troupe?

It’s the first truly bilingual theater company in San Miguel, and from what I can tell, one of the few such companies of its kind in the world. Usually, when people talk about bilingual or multilingual theater, they refer to productions in which more than one language is spoken. Still and all, a single language always seems to dominate. For the 2009 Broadway production of West Side Story, for instance, a few of the songs were sung in Spanish. I myself directed an adaptation of Michael Hollinger’s play Tooth and Claw at the San Miguel Playhouse last March. The play is set in the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, the majority of characters are Latin Americans, and a lot of the dialog is in Spanish. In my production, we used even more Spanish than in the original play. The play was still predominantly in English, but many Mexican theatergoers came to the San Miguel Playhouse for the first time, while expatriate theatergoers got to see the breadth and scope of Latin American acting talent here.

It was an exhilarating experience for us, and it reinforced our desire to inaugurate La Troupe. Marcela Brondo, who acted in Tooth and Claw, was a driving force in launching the company. She is La Troupe’s creative director.

What makes La Troupe truly bilingual is that its productions are designed to appeal to and be equally well understood by both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking theatergoers. The performances are in Spanish, but we have equipped the San Miguel Playhouse with high-end equipment to project supertitles, and every line of dialog in Spanish is accompanied by a projected English translation. It’s a system that has succeeded very well at opera houses around the world, and the experience is akin to watching a foreign film with subtitles. Except this is live theater.

 

Tell us about your first production.

It opens Thursday, August 17, at the San Miguel Playhouse. For La Troupe’s debut, we have chosen Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. We selected that theatrical monument for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is a great play. It may be the greatest ever written by an American. Tony Kushner, who penned the Pulitzer-winning play Angels in America and the screenplay for Lincoln thought it was. The recently departed Sam Shepard, who may best be remembered for portraying Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, but who also happened to be a major playwright, thought so too. Secondly, the choice is symbolic – a quintessentially American play performed in Spanish, as Largo Viaje Hacia La Noche, with English supertitles. What could be more inclusive? Thirdly, we knew that a lot of very talented theater people simply could not pass up an opportunity to be involved in a production of that play, even though they’d be working with a new and unknown company. Fourthly, since we are a new and unknown company, we are looking to make a splash, and we expect people to give us credit for the sheer audacity of doing Long Day’s Journey. Fifthly and finally, it is not a play that could or should be attempted by any of the English-speaking theater companies in San Miguel.

 

Whoa – you’ve said a number of things that call for follow up. Let’s start with the play itself. What’s so great about it?

The family is one of the ripest subjects for drama – from Electra to King Lear to Death of a Salesman – and Long Day’s Journey Into Night is simply the most uncompromising family drama ever written. By the early 1940s, O’Neill had already won the Nobel Prize for Literature – still the only American playwright so awarded – and he was at the height of his powers. He reached back to the Connecticut home of his Irish-American parents in the summer of 1912, and brought back to life his father, mother, and older brother, all of whom had since died, and himself as a still-unknown 23-year-old. And he spared no one, including himself. The story is largely factual. Long Day’s Journey takes place over a single day, from 8 in the morning until midnight. All four members of the O’Neill family – renamed the Tyrone family – see right through one another’s lies, and go after one another’s weaknesses. Over the course of this fateful day, Eugene (called Edmond) learns he has tuberculosis; his mother, Mary, has returned to taking morphine, an addiction resulting from a cheap quack doctor’s prescription when she was pregnant with Edmond; James, the father, whose irrational terror of the poorhouse has made him a miser, and who condemned Mary to that quack doctor, now wants to send his tubercular son to a cheap state sanatorium instead of a good private one; and Jamie, the elder brother, demoralized by the mother’s drug addiction, is drowning himself in the booze that will eventually kill him.

 

Sounds like a barrel of laughs.

Unlike, say, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, which can be played as a comedy, O’Neill’s drama cannot be. It is the paradigm of American realism. But at the end of the long day’s journey, the Tyrones find understanding and forgiveness for themselves and one another. Depressing – sure, but also uplifting.

 

Speaking of long, doesn’t this play run, like, four hours?

Uncut, perhaps. Modern productions, ours included, generally run closer to three hours, including an intermission. That’s why we’re starting our performances an hour earlier than is customary. There will be eight performances between August 17 and August 27, Thursdays through Saturdays at 6pm, Sundays at 2pm. Now, if people think three hours with intermission is too long to sit through a play, I’d like to ask if they saw either of the two movies I mentioned a couple of minutes ago: Lincoln, which runs over two and a half hours, and The Right Stuff, three hours and a quarter. Without intermissions. Nothing ever seems too long if it’s engrossing. And this play, and this production, are decidedly that.

 

Okay, we’re convinced about the play. But what about the supertitles? The San Miguel Playhouse has a thrust stage, which the audience surrounds in a semicircle. How is that going to work?

Better than you might think. The supertitles are projected on a rectangular screen just over the actors’ heads, and are clear and easy to read from all the seats in the center section and the audience-left section. Tickets for those sections cost 300 and 200 pesos, respectively. From some of the seats in the audience-right section, the supertitles are not so easy to read. So tickets in that whole section are priced at 100 pesos. If you’re fluent in Spanish, you don’t need the supertitles.

 

You mentioned inclusivity. We gather that’s an important part of La Troupe’s reason for being.

It’s our mission. Almost everyone in San Miguel knows the city was award UNESCO World Heritage status a decade ago, but the criterion for the award is not nearly as well known. It was cultural. Specifically, UNESCO cited the city’s historic “interchange of human values,” and its past role “as a melting pot where Spaniards, Creoles and Amerindians exchanged cultural influences.” Spaniards, Creoles and Amerindians! What about Latinos and gringos? Not nearly so much cultural exchange to brag about, is there?

Let’s face it. Many of our city’s cultural institutions are segregated. For three years, I worked for the chamber music festival – the so-called San Miguel International Music Festival – writing the program notes, giving lectures, and even in one case producing a concert. The quality of the music is outstanding, and Kahren Arbitman’s lectures on art are the best I’ve seen anywhere. But the institution is still elitist and overwhelmingly gringo. Last year, at my earnest importuning, there was a single music lecture in Spanish. None this year.

For decades, theater has been a major component of San Miguel culture. And almost entirely segregated. In February 2016, the Fringe Festival in San Miguel presented a play in Spanish called Las Viudas de Amula, at El Sindicato, on Calle Recreo. There weren’t enough chairs in the theater; people were sitting on the floor. But you didn’t see many expats in the audience. The Microteatro in San Miguel, on Calle Relox, which presented excellent and edgy short plays, mainly in Spanish, shut down because it wasn’t doing enough business. Expats didn’t go. And we know the expats like short plays. The ten-minute play festival, held at the San Miguel Playhouse, was completely sold out this year. They call it the Diez Minutos festival, by the way, although the only two Spanish words in the 2017 festival were “diez” and “minutos.” It’s nobody’s fault. That’s just how it is.

But we think we can change that. As I said, when we presented Tooth and Claw, a lot of Mexicans came to the San Miguel Playhouse for the first time. We believe that live theater – with its immediacy, intimacy, and magic – should be the ideal forum for a shared cultural experience. At the risk of sanctimony, the border wall separating Mexico and the United States isn’t being built, but the invisible cultural wall that separates us has existed for years. We want to help tear it down.

 

That does sound sanctimonious, but you’re forgiven. You said another reason you chose Long Day’s Journey Into Night is that you hoped your new company would attract a coterie of talented theater people who simply couldn’t resist working on that particular play. Did you succeed?

In spades. For starters, Julián Tabche, a top theater professional from Mexico City, is directing the play and acting the part of James Tyrone – a feat that to my knowledge hasn’t been attempted since 1975, when Jason Robards directed the play and portrayed James Tyrone. And Robards later said the experience nearly killed him. Tabche is a protégé of Mexican theatrical legend Ludwik Margules, and I am willing to bet he would not have agreed to direct or act in our first production, let alone do both, had we chosen to present, say, Moose Murders. He has assembled a spectacular cast of actors, some of whom voluntarily made drastic changes in their schedules and turned down other jobs to be in this play. The wonderful Ivette Pizarro, who plays the smaller role of Cathleen, the Tyrones’ maid, said she’d been trained in psychological realism, and has been waiting for most of her career to act in a play like O’Neill’s great drama.

 

After your snarky observation about the Diez MInutos festival, perhaps you’d like to expand on your comment that no English-speaking theater company in San Miguel is up to the task of presenting Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

Hold on a second. First of all, my observation wasn’t meant to be snarky, and I have nothing but admiration for Players Workshop, the company that produces Diez Minutos, and which also gave us last year’s rollicking Thirty-Nine Steps. Our method of selling reserved-seat tickets on line and at a box office is almost a duplicate of the ingenious system devised by Players. There are so many good English-speaking actors in this town. But they tend to be older. And it makes it difficult to cast plays with key roles for younger actors. That’s all I meant. You have one more question.

 

How do we get tickets for La Troupe’s debut production?

I thought you’d never ask. The box office is open Monday through Friday, from 10am to 2pm, at 57 Mesones, corner of Relox. If you have any major debit or credit card – Visa, Mastercard, Discover, American Express – issued by a Mexican or foreign bank, you can buy reserved seats on line. Visit our website,
www.latroupemexico.com

or click below

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