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Cultural Exchange: The play's the thing in El Salvador

The town of Suchitoto, hard hit by civil war, looks to theater as a route to economic revival. A Salvadoran-Canadian initiative, Es Artes, is a training ground for thespian-minded local students.

July 24, 2011|By Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times
  • Drama instructor Rodrigo Calderon, top right, leads students through movement drills as part of a program in El Salvador seeking to boost the economy of a war-battered town through theater.
Drama instructor Rodrigo Calderon, top right, leads students through… (Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Suchitoto, El Salvador — — During El Salvador's civil war in the 1980s, this town was at the heart of a perilous battle zone, washed over by government soldiers one day, leftist guerrillas the next. The upheaval made Suchitoto an unhappy emblem of the conflict and heightened its isolation in the countryside, where economic progress has been elusive. The war is long over, but not the languor.

Yet a project is afoot to invigorate Suchitoto, pushed by an unlikely crowd: theater aficionados. These boosters see theater as a spark for growth and desperately needed jobs — altering the face of their town with a little more "Our Town."

The program is called Es Artes, a Salvadoran-Canadian initiative that began training young residents last year to work as actors, stagehands, costume makers and carpenters in hopes of generating a homegrown theater scene. The long-term goal is to turn Suchitoto into a regional center for theater and, in turn, tourism in a nation beset by high unemployment, gangs and rampant violence.

"Art is a drive for economic development. It's a motor," said the program's executive director, Tatiana de la Ossa Osegueda, who used to run theaters for El Salvador's culture ministry.

The town of 4,400 boasts picturesque surroundings, a postcard-pretty white church, stone-paved streets and artists and other transplants from the traffic-choked capital, San Salvador, an hour away. Those are all promising building blocks, promoters say.

In its second year, Es Artes has drawn more than 100 recruits in their teens and 20s from Suchitoto and the surrounding region of cane fields. About a fourth of the participants are enrolled in the drama school and the rest attend a vocational institute where they also learn to build sets and sew costumes.

Inspiration came by way of Stratford, Canada, where an annual Shakespeare festival is credited with rescuing a town that faced collapse in the 1950s due to reduction of the railroad industry. Stratford is named after Shakespeare's birthplace in England.

Members of a Canadian aid group now known as CUSO-VSO thought the art-as-engine formula might work in war-battered Suchitoto and asked officials of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival to help. In the last few years, the festival organization has sent more than two dozen volunteers here to teach acting, build props and sew costumes. Most of Es Arte's $72,000 operating budget this year comes from Canadian donors.

"Our base has been established. We're finding there are results," said Antoni Cimolino, general director of the Stratford festival. "We have to allow it time."

Students have staged shows in the courtyard of the rented house where the drama school is based. Rural dwellers, many of whom may never have seen a play, pay 50 cents to watch students perform works by Federico García Lorca, Lope de Vega and lesser-known writers.

Some of the works carry echoes of the audiences' not-so-distant experiences with death, war and insurrection. Instructor Rodrigo Calderón recalled that townspeople reacted excitedly during a performance of Lope de Vega's "Fuente Ovejuna," a 17th century work that included a scene of torture and, in the end, villagers' overthrow of the tyrannical commander who subjugates them. "It was very powerful for people here because it reflected something about El Salvador," he said.

Suchitoto has not been without culture. Alejandro Cotto, a filmmaker whose preservation efforts include a history museum in his home, has hosted theater and musical productions, but Es Artes organizers say their program is different because it seeks to develop a year-round theater presence based on talent groomed at home. El Salvador as a whole has a modest but active theater scene, and professional actors performed alongside students in a joint production of García Lorca's "The House of Bernarda Alba."

The actors-in-training are readying a performance of "Peter and the Wolf." Prokofiev's famous composition will carry hip-hop accents produced by two of the students. Under consideration for the future are works by Molière, Shakespeare and Thornton Wilder.

Full-time drama students, some of whom commute two hours on foot and by car, attend classes five days a week, while others come only on Saturdays. Nearly all have endured crises at home. And the tug of gang life is never far away.

On a recent morning, drama instructor Calderón ran students through movement drills. He then summoned them one by one to speak in character before the group according to their roles in "Peter and the Wolf."

Edenilson Rivas, an energetic 18-year-old with close-cropped hair and a dusting of acne, said the school fills an artistic vacuum. "Since I was small, I've loved music and acting. Here in Suchitoto, we never had the chance to do it. This is the opportunity," said Rivas, who will play the wolf.

Students have had to overcome teasing — even resistance — from family members who view theater as a quaint pastime, but hardly the basis for a living. Raquel Valencia, 21, said relatives had urged her to enlist in the police instead.

"They said, 'You're going to spend two years of your life to end up juggling balls at stoplights,'" Valencia said. "But this is what I like to do."

De la Ossa shrugs away doubts, saying transformation will take time. "We're not going to change Suchitoto in five years," she said.

Don't ask Rivas whether there's a future in theater, or how long it will take him to become a real performer. "I already am," he said.

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