Each season, the Denver Center for Performing Arts (DCPA) Education Dept. partners with the DCPA Theatre Company to develop classroom workshops that help prepare students to attend performances of the company’s plays. Last month, more than a dozen members of the American Mariachi cast and band participated in workshops at Annunciation and Bryant-Webster elementary schools, whose enrollments are primarily lower-income students of color.
“We engage students in these pre-production workshops to develop themes that are explored in the play,” said DCPA Teaching Artist Andre’ Rodríguez. “And for American Mariachi, the overarching theme keeps coming back to the American Dream.”
With help from several American Mariachi cast members and fellow DCPA Teaching Artists, Rodriguez challenged the middle-schoolers to identify not only what their own American Dreams are, but their real and perceived barriers to achieving those dreams. The results were telling. Dream jobs expressed included playing in a variety of professional sports, being a rapper or doctor. One wrote: “Keep playing mariachi,” while another’s goal, simply, is “to be alive.”
“A lot of the kids wrote down that one of the big barriers to achieving their dreams is not having support from their own family members,” said American Mariachi actor Luis Quintero. Other common impediments expressed by the children, mostly ages 9-13, included money and access to college. “My thoughts,” one student wrote simply. “They say I can’t do it,” another scribbled in brightly colored ink.
Quintero was joined in the workshops by castmates Natalie Camunas, Jennifer Paredes, Bobby Plasencia, Amanda Robles and Heather Velazquez, as well as Rodríguez and DCPA Teaching Artists Joelle Montoya and Chloe McLeod. Working in small groups, the students and actors created their own original mariachis and performed them for the rest of the class. One such example: “My health is bad because I keep second-guessing myself. Self-doubt holding me back. It’s time to bring my confidence back.”
“One of the most powerful parts of this experience is that they got to engage directly with the actors in their own classrooms, and then the following day, they got to see them on onstage at the Denver Center,” Rodríguez said.
The afternoon session at Bryant-Webster was special because it is one of the only schools in the state that has its own mariachi program and student band. To open the afternoon’s activities, the professional band from American Mariachi stood on the stage and played a song from the play for the approximately 100 students and staff gathered in the Bryant-Webster auditorium.
“One of the student leaders approached me and said, ‘We would like to challenge the professional mariachi band to a duel,’” Rodríguez said. The student mariachi band then performed a song in return for the professional musicians. “It was a great show of community and celebration of tradition,” Rodríguez said.
DCPA Director of Education Allison Watrous said programs such as the DCPA’s in-school workshops are a critical part of the process of introducing the theatre arts to unfamiliar students.
“We at the Denver Center know how important it is for students to experience theatre in their classroom — and first-hand,” Watrous said. “So we are excited to make that investment, and to partner with teachers and marry that with their curriculum. That is the heart of our work.”
American Mariachi, which has ended its run in Denver but will re-open at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego,CA, follows the journey of a young woman named Lucha who has become the caretaker for a mother with dementia. When Lucha finds a mariachi record that briefly brings her mother back to life, she becomes determined to learn how to play this magical song for her before it is too late. Although being a female mariachi player was unheard of in the U.S. in the 1970s, Lucha assembles a group of friends who help make her dream come true.
Quintero was certain these students would get a kick out of seeing a live representation of their culture on the stage, “and in a positive light, Camunas added. “In a way that makes women look strong and happy and brave.
“It was really nice to be able to bring them to our show that fully represents them in all the beautiful complexities that it is to be Mexican-American, which I think has never been more important and necessary than it is in these times.”
John Moore is the Senior Arts Journalist at the Denver Center for Performing Arts. He was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011.
For More Colorado News: elsemanariocolorado.com
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