Folger Shakespeare Library and the National Building Museum, in association with the University of South Carolina, are partnering this summer to present The Playhouse, featuring Folger Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
As part of this summer’s specialty programming, we welcome The Frontera Project to The Playhouse stage for performances and workshops July 28-August 1. The Frontera Project brings Mexican and American artists together in a unique, bi-lingual, interactive performance. Here, Molly Todd, a third year PhD Candidate in the ASPECT Program at Virginia Tech, shares a bit about the production and what to look for as an audience member.
This summer, The Frontera Project comes to the National Building Museum (in partnership with Folger Theatre), bringing daily-life stories of Tijuana and the U.S/Mexico border to audiences in Washington D.C. Co-directed by Ramón Verdugo and Jessica Bauman, this bilingual and interactive performance takes audience members through a series of experiences related to life on the border, prompting them to consider the many kinds of borders that they themselves experience and imagine on a daily basis. In one of the opening scenes, the actors share that they want to tell many stories, instead of one big story. By doing so, they provide audience members the opportunity to reflect on “the beautiful complexity, and contradictions, of the frontera, and of the world.” What do they mean by this? Without giving too much away, I want to share my perspective as an audience member, participant-observer, and someone who is writing a portion of my dissertation on The Frontera Project.
From start to finish, the stories and scenes draw from the actors’ own experiences growing up in Tijuana and on the US/Mexico border. In the first scene, they introduce themselves against the backdrop of body-made percussive music and the strumming of actor Jassiel Santillán’s guitar. Actor Lou Best shares with the audience that she grew up bilingual even though her parents do not speak English. Jesús Quintero, another cast member who is also the Designer for the show and the Executive Director of Tijuana Hace Teatro, shares that he is also from Tijuana and learned his English by watching American TV. Valeria Vega-Kuri, Cristóbal Dearie, and Santillán tell the audience how they live their lives in both San Diego and Tijuana, visiting family, going to school, or working on either side of the divide.
Deriving stories from their own lives is part of the project’s methodology. The group acknowledges, however, that these stories are not a totalizing representation of the U.S./Mexico border, nor is that what they aim to provide. Instead, The Frontera Project continues to develop as the company and directors together reflect on their own border stories as they overlap and intersect, considering what those overlaps and crossings can teach them.
Indeed, Bauman’s Brooklyn-based New Feet Productions and Verdugo and Quintero’s Tijuana Hace Teatro first connected across international borders when Bauman was awarded a grant that facilitated their work together. From that point on, the directors called together actors and musicians from around Tijuana for the first devising workshop to be held in 2019. As the work was forming, the group crossed another border: that of the singular artist. Instead of relying on the ‘individual genius’ of one director, Bauman and Verdugo worked together on their dramaturgical strategies, while also inviting the company to provide input on both content and form. Participants shared memories, stories of loved ones, and connected through sound, dance, and improvisation. From those prompts, playwright Barbara Perrin Rivemar drafted the first script of the performance.
However as the context of performing and possibilities for performance shifted with the COVID-19 pandemic, what The Frontera Project would talk about, what stories they wanted to tell, and how they could tell them all had to change. From late 2019 through 2021, The Frontera Project took the stage the only place it could– on the digital platform of Zoom. Since returning to in-person performances in 2021, The Frontera Project has performed in over seven venues across the country, not including its upcoming residency at the National Building Museum. Each of the different venues and its audiences create a context that sets the conditions of possibility for the performance and its reception. Physically, the show also adapts to the different spaces that they have performed in– a big room in a historic building, a parking lot alongside a busy street, a loft tucked away in a barn, or a grand stage in a University setting. The actors and directors get a sense for each, sharing ideas and implementing how to best make a show work in that space, often only the day before their first performances.
In both formats, the experience of the performance, just like the border itself, changes with each iteration and with each audience that the group encounters. Throughout the group’s process of (re)building the performance and (re)imaging the scenes, the actors and directors continually adapted to a changing world and environment. They have shared that their work seeks to self-consciously respond to current social, political, and economic conditions. Over the past four years, the process of changing and reflecting built into this experience speaks to its political potential as a tool of reflection and critique of dominant border imaginaries. The opportunity for this critique is directly presented to audience members at the beginning of the show. Before reaching their seats, they encounter the question written on the floor, ‘What is a border?’. Greeted by the actors themselves, audience members are then invited to respond to this prompt, writing their own thoughts about the border in colorful chalk or marker.
Many audience members write words that correlate with common perceptions and usages of the border concept– borders as division, violence, separation and hate. However, others share perceptions like family, life, and culture. This border dialogue looks different in each of the settings and is ongoing throughout the show (and perhaps, after).
For those who are preparing to see the upcoming performances, take note: What do these performances spark in you, and what conversations have arisen? What stories have been told, and how might they continue to grow in your imagination?
Come see The Frontera Project at the National Building museum! Workshops run July 28-31, with daytime performances July 29-31. On August 1 at 6pm, join us for a special presentation of The Frontera Project as part of NBM Late Nights; special evenings provide the opportunity to explore the National Building Museum’s exhibitions and enjoy small bites, drinks, and entertainment like live music before a performance or lecture.