"A Nuevomexicano World Theatre History" – From ASTR Online (May 2012)


“A Nuevomexicano World Theatre History”

When I first started teaching theatre history at the University of New Mexico some years back, I understood that “covering” four thousand years of world performance in a two-course sequence would be tough. I also worried that each semester would deliver a classroom full of students motivated more by degree-requirements than actual interest in theatre history as a subject of study. While I was not wrong on either count, I did not anticipate that these quite typical challenges would inspire me to place New Mexico at the center of my world theatre history curriculum. Nor did I expect that integrating “local” content would so amplify the questions of regional, cultural and economic diversity already relevant to theatre history study.
Most UNM theatre students understand theatre as a profoundly local practice, having largely developed their immediate enthusiasm for the art and craft of theatre within New Mexico’s educational and artistic institutions. The vast majority of UNM students are graduates of New Mexico public high schools, with most hailing from the greater Albuquerque area. (The University of New Mexico is the only Hispanic-Serving Institution[1] in the nation to be also classified a Carnegie Foundation as a Research University.) Moreover, most have limited direct experience, even as audience members, with “professional” theatre, though many correctly count themselves avid theatergoers. I quickly recognized this experiential remoteness infusing the suspicion I often encountered the first days of any semester, when even my most curious students were prone to doubting whether world theatre history had any bearing on their theatre making.
As a specialist in the history of U.S. popular performance (who happens to be a New Mexico public high school graduate with family roots in the region that reach back four centuries), I understood that New Mexico’s performance history was more complex than my students’ experiential remove made it appear. I knew that New Mexico’s expressive arts —especially those traditions emerging from the collision of indigenous, European and American migrations that together configure the region’s distinctive Nuevomexicano character— have, for centuries, engaged in the very questions of form and function defining theatre as a global arts tradition. Yet I also knew that New Mexico drama, theatre and performance history had little impact upon world theatre history as catalogued by the authors of our field’s most ubiquitous textbooks (including the ones I assigned). So I wondered: might integrating Nuevomexicano examples, in tandem with more canonical referents, make the economic, regional and cultural diversity of world theatre more legible to my students?
Thus began my annual experiment in placing Albuquerque and New Mexico at the center, rather than the periphery, of my theatre history curriculum. While I observed the familiar narrative traditions guiding our field since its emergence within the American university a century or so ago, I also listened for how particular themes and practices were legible within the Southwestern cultural landscape. For example, when considering theatre’s myriad “pre-histories,” we followed textbook accounts of agricultural ceremonies in ancient Greece and religious spectacle in ancient Egypt but my lectures integrated discussion of ritual practice among Pueblo, Hopi and Navaho peoples. As part of our consideration of liturgy’s role in reviving European theatrical practice, we assessed the use of auto sacramentales in Spain’s conquest of what is now the American southwest, tracing the survival of such “passion plays” in the dynamic historical traditions of nuevomexicano folk drama as well as the contemporary devotional processions assembling at such sites as El Santuario de Chimayo [2] and the “Big Cross”[3] (visible from I-40 just our side of Amarillo).
Similar examples are many. Our study of early twentieth century modernism incorporated the “invention of tradition” around Santa Fe Fiesta[4]  and Zozobra[5] celebrations. Our consideration of the Little Theatre movement reviewed both the history and sustained operation of Albuquerque Little Theatre[6] (founded 1930) and Santa Fe Playhouse[7] (founded 1922). Our exploration of the experimental theatre movements of the 1960s reflected upon the premises guiding the founding of Albuquerque’s The Vortex[8] theatre. Our discussion of chicano teatro referenced the brief history (and enduring regional impact) of La Compañía de Teatro de Alburquerque. In short, wherever I discerned an opportunity to locate New Mexico within world theatre history, I did my best to mark that connection in a methodologically responsible way.
But why bother? (And integrating untested material into an already crowded syllabus can certainly be a bother.) Not only does this “new” New Mexico content productively augment the “Western Civ” aspects of most theatre history textbooks, its integration helps to bridge the cultural gap between New Mexico and the greater theatrical universe. As noted above, most UNM students have extremely limited opportunity to encounter professional, non-commercial theatre, and presentations offered at our region’s roadhouses (or as part of Tricklock Company’s Revolutions International Theatre Festival[9]) can feel out of financial reach for even our most enthusiastic majors. By marking points of connection between New Mexico theatre traditions and those studied in our world theatre history class, I can both historicize those conditions of “theatrical value” that privilege productions from New York or Europe over and above all else even as I also inculcate a mode of theatrical literacy that complicates the presumption that important theatre is from somewhere else.
Theatre history reminds us that the most enduring and influential performances are almost always profoundly local elaborations of theatre’s global traditions. Thus, I submit that meaningful curricular integration of “local” content – whether from Buffalo, Boise or Baltimore – marks one of the most profound structural interventions we might effect as we continue to rehearse grammars of diversity in the theatre curriculum. While my own experiments toward “A Nuevomexicano World Theatre History” remain preliminary, my classroom discussions confirm that even these minor changes can and do map new routes of connection for my students, especially as they rehearse an understanding of how their own local theatre-making is a part of (rather than apart from) the global tradition we study in the theatre history classroom. Indeed, I am ever more convinced that making world theatre history a “local” affair promises to yield untold rewards – for our teaching, for our students, and perhaps even for our field itself.

[1] HSI is a specific federal category of institutions (for which institutions must qualify) and the capitalization appears in most official accounts/documents of same. See U.S. Department of Education, “Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program — TITLE V,” http://www2.ed.gov/programs/idueshsi/definition.html, accessed April 31, 2012.
[2] See “Pilgrimages,” http://www.elsantuariodechimayo.us/pilgrimage.html, accessed April 31, 2012.
[3] See “Cross Ministries,” http://www.crossministries.net, accessed May 1, 2012.
[4] See “Fiesta de Santa Fe,” http://www.santafefiesta.org, accessed April 31, 2012.
[5] See “Will Shuster’s Zozobra,” http://www.zozobra.com, accessed May 2, 2012.
[6] See Albuquerque Little Theatre, “History,” http://albuquerquelittletheatre.org/about/history, accessed May 2, 2012.
[7] See Santa Fe Playhouse, “History of the Santa Fe Playhouse,” http://www.santafeplayhouse.org/history.php4, accessed May 1, 2012.
[8] See Vortex Theatre, “Home,” http://vortexabq.org/index.htm, accessed May 1, 2012.
[9] See Tricklock Company, “Home,” http://tricklock.com/revolutions/, accessed May 1, 2012.

The above rumination was solicited by Charlotte McIvor for publication in ASTR Online, the virtual newsletter of the American Society for Theatre Research, where it was originally posted on 6 May 2012.


Pinos Altos Opera House (NM), established in the later 1860s. (source)


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