The walk across the First Street bridge from Boyle Heights into Downtown Los Angeles takes mere minutes, but for families juggling the many working parts of their busy lives, crossing that river may feel like crossing an ocean.
Center Theatre Group has set out to try to narrow that distance. Since 2013, CTG’s prop and costume facilities in Boyle Heights has also served as headquarters for The Shop, a hub for community programming that offers residents opportunities to make theatre a part of everyday life through free workshops, events, and readings. The Shop also works to steadily enhance relationships and build creative partnerships between CTG, Boyle Heights organizations, and artists—particularly those for whom collaborating with the community is an essential part of the creative process.
Over two years ago, CTG began an experiment in building interest in theatre in local communities by inviting people to participate as artists. Boyle Heights was the natural place to start. And legendary Chicano theatre company El Teatro Campesino (ETC) was a natural artistic partner.
It’s an honor to be here and work with CTG and Boyle Heights. To hopefully be the bridge that helps people move across the bridge. In both directions.
According to CTG Associate Artistic Director Diane Rodriguez, who herself was a member of ETC for 11 years, hosting ETC was a way to make art but also for CTG “to work with a company who is not just superficially doing the work in their community—but deeply doing the work for decades—and using [their] curriculum for interacting with a community.”
Working together with Boyle Heights residents and ETC to produce Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven would be both a way to expand CTG’s reach and look to the future, while being rooted in place and history. But just as importantly, this vibrant, multimodal (and multigenerational) live performance would serve as a celebration of the art of collaboration and a more expansive and inclusive notion of family.
ETC has been part of the CTG family since 1978, when Founding Artistic Director Luis Valdez’s groundbreaking production Zoot Suit premiered at the Mark Taper Forum. “I remember playing around—and in—the pools of water around the Taper as a young child,” recalled Luis’ son Kinan Valdez, the company’s current artistic producing director, who returned to Los Angeles to direct Popol Vuh. Valdez recalled how his father founded the company on the picket lines of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, staging its first performances on flatbed trucks or in local union halls to illustrate the farm workers’ struggles and cause. “It pioneered a use of theatre to reflect community activism, or community building, as we’ve come to define it in contemporary terms,” said Kinan Valdez. “This was an opportunity for everyone to join in and use the arts as a means of telling the world what was happening here.”
Opening up the definition of what it meant to be a participant was as radical and game-changing as the very work itself, and has been a cornerstone of ETC’s art for the past 50 years. It is also at the heart of Popol Vuh, which is performed by a mix of company members and community members—including whole families—many of whom have no prior theatre experience.
Popol Vuh, which is based on the Mayan book of creation, translates as the “Book of Counsel” or “Book of People,” and was part of the mythology ETC immersed Valdez in as a very young child. “We played games based on it,” he recalled, “and part of the work of ETC would use the puppetry and the mythology in order to teach children the ancient civilization’s philosophy.” He added, “What I wanted to do with this particular piece, as a director, was tap into the creative spirit of the community itself, and to also tap into the scope and magnitude of some of the images that we have as children.”
To achieve that larger-than-life effect, Valdez dreamed big. “What better way to approach the scale and scope of this mythology than by doing some sort of pageant which included large-scale puppets?” he said. The production’s puppets, which are operated by three people each, are 10-15 feet tall, vividly appointed papier-mâché creations that when set in motion appear to float above the terra— the stuff of dreams.
The first performance of Popol Vuh was staged in ETC’s hometown of San Juan Bautista, then refined and tinkered with before being brought to CTG and Southern California— and given a local twist. Valdez wanted the L.A. production to “come from some of the desires and dreams of the people of the Boyle Heights community, making them coauthors as well. The work reflects the people we’re working with,” Valdez said, “but it is also about cultivating that basic sense of humanity through respect for one another.”
Over the course of six months, CTG and ETC, with assistance from other local organizations, recruited participants and held workshops in puppet and mask making, acting, and music. Tiana Alvarez, a dancer and former Boyle Heights resident, worked as one of the community liaisons for the project and canvassed the neighborhood, meeting at community centers and schools or with neighborhood associations to bring people into the fold. During that time, she saw children and their parents unlock hidden talents, discovering “that they had these gifts they had never had before,” said Alvarez. “One woman came with her daughter, who was 23. It was the first time the mom had been able to be creative, as an immigrant who had spent so much of her life working—and this gave them a gift. A gift of time together.”
The final performances of Popol Vuh on October 10 and 11 were also in their way a gift to L.A. audiences: held in Grand Park and free of charge, they drew large and enthusiastic crowds of all ages from across the basin to the city’s core—some of whom were simply enjoying a weekend afternoon in the fountains or on the lawn, and stumbled onto the shows.
Ultimately, the bridge that’s being built isn’t simply connecting Downtown Los Angeles to Boyle Heights. It’s connecting people, stories, traditions, and processes across cultures and epochs. CTG’s Diane Rodriguez valued that most of all about the experience. “To be able to bring a new generation of members into the fold has been very, very cool,” Rodriguez said. “You hear organizations say they are a family. No. Not quite like this.”
For Valdez it is about both family and community: “It’s an honor to be here and work with CTG and Boyle Heights. To hopefully be the bridge that helps people move across the bridge. In both directions.”