A young orphan finds his voice in the theater

Last August, I flew to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to create a theater program in an orphanage. I've spent most of my career in professional theater as an actor, director, and mime artist. I've also taught drama at the college level. I was to be a guest of the United States Peace Corps. A former student, now a Peace Corps volunteer, had contacted me. Together we'd hatched a plan, and here I was. In four weeks, we and the children of the Aldea SOS Children's Village were to present a theater program in the town's Casa de la Cultura.

My former student, Joseph (J.W.) Lown, and I were provided a large recreation room in which to rehearse. We would work with six children, aged 10 to 14, every night at 8. A mime program would eliminate most of the language barriers, and I knew from past experience that children love mime. I was confident we could make it work.

We were into our second week of rehearsals when I noticed a young boy with jet-black hair and vivid dark-brown eyes sitting some five seats away from me in the front row. He'd been passing by in the courtyard and, seeing lights in the hall, had wanted to investigate. He'd done this by beating on the locked door until one of our helpers hastily let him in and ushered him to a seat in the front row.

"That's Gueddy," J.W. explained to me during a lull. "He's five years old - and deaf." The little gate-crasher seemed to know he was being discussed. He looked at me with a bright smile.

Gueddy, it seems, fell in love with the theater at first sight. He returned the next night, the next, and the next. On the fourth night, I turned to see him blithely perched right beside me, dressed in his faded blue shirt, shorts, and well-worn sneakers that dangled a full 12 inches from the floor. His attitude seemed to say, "Muy bien. Let's see what goes on tonight." I felt I had acquired an assistant director.

Later, as I gave instructions to two performers in a scene called "Los Pintores" (The Painters), another member of the troupe cried out excitedly, "Mira! Mira lo que hace Gueddy!" ("Look! Look what Gueddy is doing!")

We all turned to see. Gueddy was standing at center stage with a small paint can in one hand and a brush in the other. He was in full swing, performing one of the roles in "Los Pintores." We sat in astonishment as he repeated every movement of this seven-minute piece to perfection. When he finished, we all applauded enthusiastically. He could not hear us, of course, but the sight of our wildly clapping hands left him with no doubt that he was being highly praised.

Gueddy stood before us, beaming.

He had mimed the role perfectly. But could he perform it convincingly with a partner? Diego, who played the other role in the piece, took his place to run through it with the 5-year-old. Our astonishment grew. Gueddy now showed that he was also adept at reacting spontaneously to the actions of a partner. As any director knows, this is an intuitive talent almost impossible to teach to anyone lacking a "feel" for comedy.

More surprises were to come.

On a subsequent night, before we realized what he was doing, Gueddy again made his way to the stage. We sat transfixed as he developed the following scene: He began by carefully arranging 10 chairs. He'd place a chair or two; then, stepping back to reflect, he'd shift their positions ever so slightly. These meticulous arrangements and rearrangements took several minutes, until the composition was just right. Ah! Gueddy was preparing for some friends to visit.

Satisfied at last, Gueddy sat quietly a moment, contemplating what he had done. Then he suddenly leaped to his feet and disappeared behind a concrete archway. We waited for 30 seconds ... a full minute. What was he doing? When he reappeared "drying" his face with an imaginary towel, we realized -of course! He'd been washing up for his guests.

Soon he responded to an imaginary knock at the door, and invisible guests began to appear. Gueddy admitted them gracefully, indicating where each should sit. He went from one to another in a touching greeting, in mime. This accomplished, Gueddy sat in a contented stillness that we all shared.

Late at night in a barren rehearsal hall, a story had been told, a life had been shared. Gueddy had stirred in us something approaching the sublime. Through the medium of theater, Gueddy had discovered a voice, and now he was speaking volumes.

Gueddy's passion for performing was clear, as was his gift. We decided to develop a scene with him for the program the following week. We held special rehearsals for this.

Soon, the day of the performance was upon us.

From the opening moments in the Casa de la Cultura, an excited public seemed entranced by every move. Moments of attentive silence alternated with explosive bursts of laughter. (An elderly man in the second row guffawed so heartily that he became a sideshow in himself.)

Gueddy leaned forward excitedly in his seat in the wings. We didn't want to push him to perform. But his attitude, his eyes seemed to say, "Now can I have a turn? Por favor?"

I reached under my chair for a little window squeegee and handed it to him. He took it and prepared to take his place. Gueddy and I would perform our specially developed piece as an encore: "El Lavador de Vidrios" ("The Window Washer").

The children of Santa Cruz are uniformly poor and usually in rags. You can see many of them on street corners and at traffic circles holding window squeegees and pails. As the lights turn red, they swoop down upon delayed motorists, who wave their hands vigorously in attempts to discourage them. The children are not deterred. They vigorously swab the windshields in hope of earning half a boliviano, worth about 9 cents.

As the eager mime window-washer, Gueddy stationed himself in profile downstage. As the harried motorist on my way home, I sat in a chair, center stage. The action proceeded.

As I began a series of bumpy movements, miming a grumpy driver on his way down a pot-holed street, Gueddy started a sequence of smooth side-gliding steps toward me, creating the illusion that I was moving toward him.

Approaching a traffic light, I noticed this boy with a pail and a wiper in hand. "Caramba!" I thought. "I can't beat the light, and now I will be attacked by this mosquito!" I braked the car; Gueddy coordinated his stop perfectly with mine as my body lurched slightly forward.

Gueddy approached me, waving his wiper in mute supplication. Our mimetic dialog began:

"Senor, can I wash you? Si?"

"No, no! Go away!"

"Por favor, senor. Por favor?"

"No! No! Vaya! Vaya!" ("Go away!")

I objected a third time, even more emphatically, to no avail. The boy had brazenly thrown himself into scrubbing my windshield. Before I could object further, he wiped the window on the passenger side. Finally, in an act of thoroughness that would shame many a professional lavador, he scrubbed the rear window as well. The audience laughed uproariously.

Quickly, before the light could change, the swabber returned to my window, extending his small upturned hand. Reluctantly, I fished in my pocket to comply. He quickly pocketed the coin, but after a momentary reflection, he again held out his upturned palm. Might I give him another?

The audience howled at such audacity. Grumbling and fumbling, I retrieved another coin and handed it to him.

But that was not all. Before I knew it, the boy had reached into the car, adroitly removed my eyeglasses, and wiped them. I was told that the walls of the Casa had never trembled so with such laughter.

The light changed, and I felt a tinge of affection for this shameless entrepreneur. As I started forward, the slight figure of the window washer glided to the rear, and we waved a fond "adios."

The cheers confirmed that a new star had risen over Bolivia.

Epilogue: The author returned to Santa Cruz in April to work again with the now officially renamed Ninos de Mi Corazon (Children of My Heart) troupe. The company was one of 28 that performed at an international theater festival held in Santa Cruz every year. Gueddy is now the star of the orphanage, the talk of the town, and front-page news in Bolivia.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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