Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Week Nine–the Final Act… for now…

Finally solved the photo posting problems – why did no one ever tell me about Windows Live Writer?

Tuesday, Nov. 16 - up for a final breakfast and bill settlement at El Tejado, goodbyes and hugs from the staff who ask when we're coming back, then off to Es Artes to check on any final supplies to take along, and on to the theatre to pack up and load the set into the truck (now cleared of all traces of its former occupants) and all the props, costumes and luggage into the bus with us - Tatiana, Tito, Raquel, Zoila, Mario and four of the boys, all the Stratford volunteers and Karen and Brian, the documentary film crew who have just joined us to record the San Salvador odyssey.


Loading goes well under Koky's direction and we are actually on schedule to leave.  The road trip is enlivened by several rounds of cookies and buns from Pan Lillian, and Hector and Carlos (two of the students) dancing in the aisle.   We arrive at the National Theatre in central San Salvador in good time and begin to unload through the very small stage door which opens directly onto a busy sidewalk lined with street vendors and non-stop foot traffic.  Then we get our first look at this lovely old-world operatic jewel box built by the coffee barons of the mid-1800s, and are duly impressed, particularly against the contrast of what the city around it has become. 

This is one of the sore points for proud Salvadoreans like Tatiana, who tells us that in the forties and fifties, San Salvador was rightly known as the Jewel of Central America, with open parks and promenades and beautiful Euro-colonial inspired architecture, but since the increased American presence in the sixties and seventies and the civil war in the eighties and nineties, the destruction and degradation of the city has become endemic and dis-heartening. 

Everywhere you look, lining both sides of nearly every downtown street, there are warrens of ramshackle corrugated metal and plastic booths that serve mostly as vendors stalls (but in some places also as shelters), and a constant barrage of sound (some recorded and amplified, but most live) as everyone advertises their wares and prices - the most common shout -"un'dollar un'dollar un'dollar"- wheelbarrows, wagons and bicycle carts full of fruit and vegetables, mats and tables full of plastic shoes, cheap clothes, toys, housewares, designer knock-offs, pirated CDs and DVDs, anything and everything - which, we are repeatedly warned, are havens for pick-pockets and muggers, who prey on tourists and residents alike. 

Every building, whether public or private, is fenced and ringed with spirals of razor wire at roof or first floor level, and every store, bank, church or business of any size has a prominently armed security guard.  This, of course, has the effect of  making any visitor extremely edgy and disconcerted, wondering about the necessity for all this and where the threat is expected from, while the residents have become discouraged, angry, apologetic, or desensitized and oblivious.

Inside the theatre, however, we are welcomed into 'our' world by Julio, a friend of Tatiana's and the resident technical director with a thirty-some year connection to the building, and given the grand tour of all the beautiful foyers, seating and meeting areas and small cabaret-style theatre spaces on various levels, as well as the four floors of dressing rooms and prep rooms on either side of the stage, all the various halls and stairways connecting them, and the understage which has tunnels leading out under the street and a water reservoir which apparently improves acoustics (shades of Phantom of the Opera!).  The audience arrangement is surprisingly small and intimate-feeling, with seating for about 150 or so on the orchestra level, ringed by three horse-shoes of balconies made up of eighteen or more 'boxes' of four seats each, each with its own door and curtain, in the style of classic European opera houses, complete with a "Presidential" box in the centre of the second level, and a separate entrance for the 'commoners', originally admitted only to the third level. 

After our introduction to the facilities, plans are made for set-up of the show tomorrow, and we head off to our various 'homes' to settle in - most of the Es Artes staff have homes or family connections in San Salvador and have made arrangements to board all the students who will be arriving Thursday; the Canadians have all been found rooms at the lovely little hotel Las Amapolas (the poppy), where John and I stayed for our first fabric-shopping trip back in September.


At the hotel, we receive another warm welcome from the staff, who are friends of Koky's as well as Tatiana's and the project, and we also get a house call from a doctor who examines several of us for some troublesome insect bites and abrasions we have accumulated over the last few weeks, and prescribes a short course of antibiotics and ointment to fight infection and speed healing (covered by our CUSO-VSO in-country insurance).  Then we clean up and head out to a wonderful bohemian restaurant called La Ventana, also known as Tito's bar as it features some of his artwork along with that of many local artists.

Wednesday - up and off to the theatre to begin work at 8 am.  Zoila, Raquel and I unpack the costumes and sort them for repairs, laundry and pressing and the various dressing rooms and quick-change stations are assigned.  Eric, Tito, Mario, Lisa and the boys re-assemble the set pieces and hang the organza drops under the supervision of the resident staff, while Jeremy and Tim work out the sound and lighting logistics with  the resident technicians and a completely different set of equipment.  All this with Koky and another young local translator, and Tatiana, as usual, being pulled (both physically and mentally) in twelve different directions at once.  Meanwhile, Melissa prepares for Antoni's arrival in the afternoon and shepherds the documentary team who are recording the process and interviewing the participants throughout the day.

(Thanks again, by the way, to Brian for the loan of the light in our makeshift wardrobe maintenance corner.)  Despite the surface grandeur, the practicalities of old theatres in general (and most structures of any kind in El Salvador) are: little or no workspace-specific light, few electrical outlets, about half the available toilets out of commission, and the laundry facilities, by hand only - the usual arrangement of one-shallow-and-one-deep tiled cement cisterns with awkward and undependable drainage.  Zoila opts to wash all the camisoles, petticoats and blouses in batches one of our large plastic wardrobe boxes, and dry them in the upper courtyard, and with Raquel pressing and me patching some rips, by the end of the day everything is looking better than ever.
Antoni arrives to view the final touches being made to the set and the ongoing set and focus of the lights and is suitably impressed, so we all head out to a terrific seafood spot for dinner to update him on the project so far.

Thursday - only Jeremy and Tim are required to continue work on sound and lights in the morning, so Koky arranges for our driver to accompany Kris, Eric, Jenn, Lisa and me (on foot) to tour the nearby Cathedral where Archbishop Romero in interred (stunning bronze tomb) and the National Palace, a former presidential residence and seat of government, now a museum commemorating the colonial history of El Salvador.  Everywhere we go we meet people who, while they acknowledge the atrocities and miseries of the war and the chaos of the current city, still take pride in the beauty and richness of the country, and hope that foreigners will see and feel the warmth and heart of the people, and appreciate it as well.



In the afternoon, amid continuing issues with lights and cue setting, the cast arrives to do a quick blocking run-through on the stage and prepare for the evening performance.  Jenn is nursing a cold and returns to the hotel; the rest of us follow soon after to change for the evening and return to help  stuff programs with the notices of changes to the cast and crew that have occurred since they were printed, and act as extra ushers for all the invited guests (sponsors and prominent members of the arts community, as well as the Canadian ambassador) on the second level.

The play begins with the usual opening night delays waiting for all the dignitaries to take their seats, but goes off without a hitch to another warm reception and great buzz from the audience.   The performances are powerful and assured and it all looks wonderful.  The audience appreciation continues as the cast joins the reception in the upper lobby, but the glow of their triumph is mixed with sadness at our parting.

The gathering afterwards is fraught with emotions from all sides as Tatiana calls us all together to give everyone the chance to express our thoughts and feelings about the connections we have made and how much we have learned from, appreciated and supported each other throughout the whole experience, and some of the kids, in particular, are quite overcome about our having to go home. But the show is now well and truly launched and slated for three more performances this week, a return engagement for a week in December and a move to another more accessible theatre in the new year.  And our work, for now, is done, so we need to wrap up and move on.

Friday - an early morning meeting for all the Stratford crew with Tatiana and Antoni to discuss the successes and challenges of the project and table suggestions for building on and improving the process for the future productions that are in the planning stages, the next one being Lope de Vega's Fuente Ovejuna slated for  February/March.

Then we head off with Koky for  a couple of days of R&R at a small beach hotel (run by friends of his, who give us a deal) on the ocean about an hour west of the city, where we are introduced to the powder-soft black sand and thundering  Pacific surf of El Salvador's coastline - hammocks under a huge palm-thatched roof, gentle breezes, surfers, ever-cruising tiny hermit crabs, great food and drink, and the mesmerizing waves.

Sunday - at ten am our driver arrives to pack us and all our luggage off to the airport an hour or so away, and take Koky and Lisa back to Suchitoto.  About halfway there we come to a roadblock caused by construction of a new bridge and the detour (along a dirt road through a small village where little boys clamber up and hang on to the side of the van for a joy ride as we pass by, and then down the bank to find a shallow crossing point through the river itself) gives us yet another story to take home. 


We make it to the airport with lots of time to spare and once we have confirmed that Eric, who has a stand-by ticket, does indeed have a seat on the plane, we say our final goodbyes to Koky, check in and head to our gate, musing on hot showers, our own beds, reunions with friends and family and return to our former routines, all the while hoping to be able to come back in the future and stay connected to our new extended 'family' and this extraordinary place.