`Scientific' theater -- with strong doses of magic

Everything was clicking on stage. Images flowed beautifully, symbols struck home, folk music created haunting interludes. In all, ``Novedad de la Patria'' (``News of the Fatherland'') was painting a striking and evocative portrait of the Mexican people, which the largely Spanish-speaking audience here watched with quiet fascination. To them it was a familiar vision of Mexican society -- they knew the kind of little town being depicted, and they knew the lonely feelings of the symbolic characters.

What most didn't know was how much this production owed to a system of stagecraft so carefully formulated that its practitioners call it a science -- the science of theater, as practiced by the members of Mexico City's Teatro Taller Epico (Epic Theater Workshop).

The troupe was here as part of the recent Theater Festival of the Americas, and their performance was poetry on stage -- quite literally, since the ``Novedad'' script comprises lines from the poem of the same name by L'opez Velarde. The play is from Epico's standard repertory and effectively illustrates the company's extraordinary theories.

``The theater has to change -- it has to recognize we're in the scientific era,'' insists Epico's director, Luis de Tavera, with a look of civilized urgency on his lean, bearded face. We were chatting in a hotel room here, with two interpreters offering help whenever the gifted director abandoned his expressive but halting English and turned to his native Spanish.

``The main purpose of the theater is to observe the conduct of mankind,'' he feels. ``In the past, it was just a re-creation of what we thought man was. For instance, it was impossible to see human conduct in terms of unconscious emotions. But now there are ways to get to the core: We have psychology, we have economy, we have other disciplines. So on stage we have to see man in a scientific light. We cannot depict the behavior of man as it was understood in the past before the science of anthropology existed.''

But how does this work actually work, I asked de Tavera. After all, it's not a chemical experiment in which you know in advance how the ingredients will interact. Can such a process be applied to anything as unmeasurable as human beings -- especially a dramatist's vision of human beings?

``Our theater has taken the experimental method as a loan from science,'' he claims, ``and we have developed it. We work with a hypothesis, constants, variables, and an evaluation.''

Yes, but how does he know the way a particular technique will affect an audience next time out?

``You have data. You know from trial and error what works and doesn't work with an audience. We have developed a theatrical language of techniques, a repertory of rules. We might propose, for instance, to create a character that symbolizes collective behavior in a determined place -- such as the lobby of a hotel. First we have a period of observation in which we analyze possible backgrounds and different kinds of stimuli for the collective character. And as we do this, we are recording data about the action and techniques that produce the desired result.''

Theater began early for de Tavera -- when he was still a Jesuit and involved in productions of classical Greek theater (performed, incidentally, in ancient Greek). His commitment to the scientific aspects of theater developed when he attended the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM) and became a student of the important and well-known theater director H'ector Mendoza in the university's center for theater studies. The center was ``a professional theater, very important in Mexico,'' explains de Tavera, ``whose main purpose was to vindicate the image of the director. At the same time they were making these directors teachers, professors of actors, they were also creating a new school of theater in Mexico.''

A great step had already been taken in this direction, de Tavera points out about this rip in the fabric of Mexico's theater. ``Starting in the '50s, the avant-garde began their worldwide movement away from tradition of realistic theater and toward a more interpretative staging, with its radical techniques. They proposed to do a theater that is more spectacular in a way that was divorced from the material.''

De Tavera went on to become director of UNAM theater studies in 1979, and having attended both Mexican and US universities, he now holds degrees in philosophy, literature, and theater studies.

Since Teatro Taller Epico was founded in 1975, it has become very well known within the tradition of university theater. In addition to dramas by Spanish and Mexican playwrights, it has produced a play about a New York taxi-driver strike and works like ``The Summer Residents,'' by Gorki, and ``Leonce and Lena,'' by B"uchner. Some of its members are quite visible in Mexican TV, film, and other theater companies, but they keep coming back to work in Epico's experimental atmosphere. Their collective efforts have been recognized in a range of awards for the company in almost every aspect of its work, from acting to set design to music.

In the case of ``Novedad,'' Epico began ``without anything,'' according to de Tavera, who has worked with texts by playwrights ranging from Odets to Aeschylus. ``We had the actors and the poem and the reality of our country,'' he recalls. ``The reading showed us how close the events of the poem were to the present actuality in Mexico. We worked on it in 1982, the days of the crash -- the economic devaluation. The nationalization of the bank. The devaluation was not only in the money -- there was a feeling that an era was ending. Something was happening, was dying, so to speak.

``This was in close relation with the world that the poem was telling us about also: It was written in 1921 for a poet thought to be dying, at a time when a revolution was ending after 10 years of struggle. The country was completely devastated. Everybody was hungry. The country was crossed by the trains full of soldiers up and down everywhere. That's why the train became an important symbol in the staging.''

The final product colorfully reveals Epico's progressive methods -- even to a non-Spanish-speaker like me. When offered here, it proved a moving if fragile statement of the collective meaning of Mexico to its people: A man leaves the people in his little town to go to the big city but, typically, never really adjusts. His relationship -- or lack of it -- to people before and after leaving the town forms whatever vestige of a plot the company's unconventional approach permits. Symbolic actions occur repeatedly -- including a woman bathing, a man going to a railroad ticket window, two guitar players performing numbers, a church sexton, a woman symbolizing a love-object, a trainman, and the frequent roar, hiss, and whistle of the train. The latter forms a central theme suggesting both the ripping of the man from his hometown and the disruptive national events of the time.

There is also carefully researched indigenous music from the poet's native region of Zacatecas. It all adds up to the longing for a semimythical homeland that is half geographical and half social ideal.

De Tavera describes his country's stage tradition as ``pluralistic and complicated,'' but he says it is split into two main branches: ``One is theater that has grants from the government or from other public institutions, and the other is the commercial theater -- private enterprise, that tries to imitate the Broadway style of productions, such as the theater of comedy.

``There's a great deal of theater for people in Mexico. But like anyplace in the world, it tends to be for a minority, mainly upper middle class, and most of it is centralized in Mexico City. There are a lot of theater groups in various provinces all around the country, but these are not professional, and they have problems of money. But there's a consciousness right now in the provinces to take the centralized theater -- which has been growing in Mexico City -- and move it into the country.''

There was one more point I still had to settle about applying science to theater. Can you be clinically precise and still be able to draw from that untapped well of creativity that really gives life to a stage work?

``Theater must be scientific -- but with very strong doses of magic,'' de Tavera admits. ``If we lose the magic, we lose the theater. But we must learn to use this magic in a scientific way.''

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