When Rupert and JoAnn Reyes set out to start a Latino theatre company in Austin, Texas, they wanted to build one that was respected not just among Latinos, but the theatre community at large.
Sixteen years later, Teatro Vivo is hard at work on their latest production, Stories of Us, and getting ready for an upcoming performance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
The couple, Texas natives now in their 60s, began Teatro Vivo in 2000, hoping to bring important theatre to small venues. Heavily influenced by the Teatro Chicano movement of the 1960s and ’70s, most of the Reyes’ work was centered around what they knew: Mexican-Americans, Texans, and border realities.
“It was theatre for the people, by the people,” said JoAnn. “We were part of the early movement of didactic and agitprop theatre, similar to what people may picture when they think of Teatro Campesino roots. In the late ‘70s, there was a movement that said our politics were important and if we could become better actors, set designers, and playwrights, we would have a better chance of educating the public.”
Since its inception, Teatro Vivo has produced over 38 full-length bilingual productions, a variety of performance collaborations with other arts organizations, and several theatre workshops for traditionally underserved populations in the Austin community. Teatro swears by its mission statement: to reflect the heart and soul of the Latino reality by opening a unique window for all to share in this experience.
A quick look at just some of Teatro’s productions over the past year or so alone show a diverse range of storytelling that is quintessential to fully exploring different aspects of the Latinx experience.
Connections [between blacks and Latinxs] run deep and that needs to be represented in theatre.
The Panza Monologues, a riff on Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, was a collection of original performance pieces centered around women’s own stories about their panzas. In Aye, No! by Liz Coronado Castillo, a Latina struggles with coming out to her family—namely, her tias. In the 2015 adaptation of La Pastorela, the age-old Mexican Christmas play, audiences followed refugees looking for the Christ child, sang with celestial-being diva angels, and cheered during a dance-off between good and evil. The Austin Latino New Play Festival this past February was a weekend devoted to bringing to life brand new plays for the first time in front of an audience.
Teatro’s newest production, Stories of Us by bilingual playwright and teaching artist Jelisa Jay Robinson, explores intercultural conflict between African American and Latinx communities. The play uses a variety of performance styles to explore the histories behind Afro-Latinidad while addressing how past interactions between the two separate cultures have impacted their current relationship as a community. It’s a show that follows experiences of discrimination many still face and uses those observations to open a rich dialogue about the importance of acceptance, solidarity, and love.
Robinson said Stories of Us will open up more opportunities for artists who live these experiences to find characters they can relate to.
“In Texas, and in Austin specifically, Black and Latinx are seen as separate when that’s not how it is at all. We are connected. Our connections run deep and that needs to be represented in theatre,” said Robinson.
Director Florinda Bryant stressed the importance of the play at this point in history.
“All time becomes history in one way or the other, but this time, the time right now, will be talked about for ages. A shift will happen, one way or the other. We can’t count on politicians to save us, we have to save us. We’re not supposed to talk about the Black/Brown beef, we’re suppose to just participate in it. I hope the Stories of Us creates opportunities for Black and Brown people to talk about that beef. The piece is not meant to answer any questions, but make people think.”
Being committed to producing never-before-seen, socially-conscious work like Stories of Us allows Teatro Vivo to stay relevant in changing times and appeal to new audiences.
“We’re lucky to have some really wonderful young writers here in Austin who offer their works up for us. There’s a special perspective that comes with that. We listen to our theatre family,” said Rupert. “We stay closely involved with the Latino Theatre Commons, a national movement of networking across the United States. We send people to Los Angeles, Chicago, and all across the country to see and experience different types of theatre.”
“If you don’t try new things, you don’t grow,” added JoAnn. “We feel like we and our theatre company are always growing.”
The couple says they have Austin’s wonderful theatre community to thank for that.
“Here, there’s more collaboration than competition,” JoAnn said. “We come to see each other’s shows, offer support, designers go back and forth between companies, people help you out. There’s camaraderie and sharing and friendship.”
This kind of strong arts community makes all the difference, especially in the face of a rapidly-changing city.
Teatro swears by its mission statement: to reflect the heart and soul of the Latino reality.
The Emma S. Barrientos Mexican-American Cultural Center, where Teatro currently holds its residency, stands in the middle of Rainey Street Historic District. The area was once a Latino-dominated neighborhood. Now, it’s a hot spot for party-loving Austinites, tourists, and tech bros, with new, expensive hotels popping up every few months. It isn’t uncommon to find residents of the pricey nearby high-rises treating the cultural center’s lush grounds as a dog park.
The Reyes’ said Latinos may have lost the neighborhood, but they haven’t lost the center.
“I had a conversation with a museum director and boss once,” Rupert said, “And there was something she told me about working with Native Americans who lost a lot of their land. She said when they get a piece of land, they fight tooth and nail to keep it. I once felt that the MACC was in the wrong place, that we should build it somewhere else. She looked at me and said, ‘That’s your land. That’s your community. Don’t let anyone take it away from you.’ No matter what goes up around it, we have to continue to do good work there and attract Latinos into that area of town. Nothing being built is going to change anything we do or make there.”
“We fought for a long time to get that space,” said JoAnn. “We’re not going to take any steps back to accommodate the changes happening. We’re part of the city just like everyone else.”
Teatro Vivo has its eyes on the future, and is looking for an injection of youth and new direction within the company. The Reyes’ also said their goal is to help inspire and build more Latinx theatre companies in Austin.
“You see it in L.A., New York, Chicago, but there’s a national call for more Latino theatre companies. There are so many stories that need to be told,” JoAnn said.
Teatro Vivo plans to continue exploring these stories, and will take risks to find new and exciting ways to gift them to the community.
Editor’s Note: Andie Flores has performed in two Teatro Vivo shows and continues to work with the company.
Stories of Us runs April 21-May 8 at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican-American Cultural Center. Shows are Thursday – Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets can be found at http://storiesofus.bpt.me/.
Teatro Vivo will also be at Kennedy Center for the New Visions New Voices festival this May in collaboration with the Zach Scott Theatre for a performance of J.J.’s Arcade by José Casas, a bilingual theatre for youth piece about a boy who builds an arcade from cardboard from his dad’s garage. Performances at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican-American Cultural Center will run April 14–May 7, 2017.