It’s always hard to pinpoint where exactly a piece begins. Nati and I had a first run of experiments in Buenos Aires in April, and didn’t feel like we’d cracked anything. Julia, who’d be joining us for the next workshop, thought it might be useful if we tried working from an existing text. I’ve always resisted that approach to devising new work, but nevertheless Steinbeck’s first hit novel Tortilla Flat sprang to mind – a tragicomic tale about a band of drifters in Monterey, California who pile into a dilapidated house together and, in the end, burn it down. There was something in it we all related to, something about the struggle between comfort and freedom. We’re crossing (or have crossed) the big THREE-ZERO border, and we’ve watched many of our fellow drifters pair off and nest down into nuclear units. The theater family, which was our home away from home in London, now lives in too many countries to count.
Our first big question about reimagining the book was – could we make a band of contemporary female characters as wicked and lovable as Steinbeck’s all-male posse of drunkards? The second huge question was – Spanish or English? What language would we be improvising, writing, performing in? We knew we wanted to show our work-in-progress for a Spanish-speaking audience at the end of our workshop in Buenos Aires, but we often tour in English speaking countries. Also Julia (who’d be performing) and I (who’d be directing) didn’t speak any Spanish at the time. Nada.
In the end I decided it’d be best to skip as much translation as possible and devise in Spanish. Julia and I were just going to have to kick our own assess with some hardcore language study to prepare.
I usually do all the actual writing on paper in a George & Co process, sifting through hours of rehearsal video and piles of books to weave together a mountain of raw material into a finished script. But this time I had no choice but to surrender that process to a merry band of native Spanish speakers. We were going to try to write collaboratively! There would be 3 writing teams, with 2 people on each team. I had indeed kicked my own ass to get to a rudimentary Spanish-speaking level by week one of rehearsal, and could understand most of what was going on in improvisations. I parsed up the rehearsal footage into chunks of video that represented basic scene structures and gave one scene assignment to each team. “It will be a miracle if this works” I whispered to Lydia Stevens, the translator who was helping me edit each of the drafts as they were finished. At the end of each writing day we’d line up all the scenes in a row and read aloud what we’d scribed that day. These were happy days – the six of us sprawled across beds and kitchen tables, laughing at rehearsal footage, and churning out pages. By week two we had almost written an entire play. By the end of week four we had found an ending and were able to run an hour of material for our work-in-progress showing. In the end it was a miracle, a collaborative miracle, mainly due to the immensely gifted and tireless community of artists surrounding Nati Chami and the ongoing production of Usted Estas Aqui. Without that tribe, we never would have pulled it off! We needed a man to record some voiceovers and up popped Ariel Mele. We needed an extra actress, and low and behold Vero López Olivera entered the scene. We needed the country of Argentina to stop electricity cuts during show times, and it cooperated with our prayers. All that remains is to find the money and time to continue with the piece! It may take awhile, but we’re determined to return to Riobamba soon.