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"Where History and Our Modern Time Meet"

A month before rehearsal started for Like Sheep to Water, or Fuente Ovejuna , Community Engagement Coordinator Rebecca Noon had a Skype-date with director Mark Valdez from his home in Los Angeles. Because Mark is very much in demand these days, he was on his way to another rehearsal immediately after their chat, but still managed to extrapolate on his beliefs about theater, collaboration, and community while shedding some light on why this 400-year-old play speaks exactly to our moment in time.
Rebecca Noon: Can you describe the path that brought you to Trinity Rep? 
Mark Valdez: I have for most of my career been working on plays and projects that engage with communities in direct ways. That’s a large part of what I’m drawn to. Part of the connection to Trinity Rep is y’alls commitment to speaking to your audience while actively trying to expand that conversation. In a practical sense I’ve been a big fan of Curt’s for a long time, and finally our paths just crossed at the right moment. It’s an alignment of mutual interests that got us here, and it all feels like both the right time and a long time coming.
Rebecca: You have a long history with both ensemble and community-engaged performance. How did you find your way into those corners of theater?
Mark: I was always drawn to theater, but it took me a while to know where I fit in. I started grad school in Indiana, getting an MFA in directing, and I knew my path wasn’t Broadway or mainstream theater. But I didn’t know what the alternative looked like. While at Indiana I went to a talk that director Peter Sellars was giving, and he mentioned this company in California called Cornerstone Theater Company. He talked about how they do plays in rural communities, creating them with, for, and by the people who live there... and that was it! I had my answer. That was what I needed to do.

After a year in Indiana, I transferred to UC Irvine and there, I was talking to one of my professors about my interest in Cornerstone’s work, and it turned out he was on the Cornerstone board, so he introduced me to the artists, and connected me to them and their way of making theater. That was the beginning of my long relationship with both Cornerstone and community-engaged, ensemble-driven theater.

My grad school projects became the first discovery about what community-engaged work meant for me. I did a Love’s Labour’s Lost that involved students, teachers, faculty, and staff. We did it site-specifically in the science library — until we got kicked out because too many people were seeing the show and they were disrupting the students who were there to actually study — so we had to scramble for new space in the middle of the run. But that’s the work. You know, things go wrong and you just have to figure it out as a team! That whole experience taught me about deep collaboration and working across differences. And then with Cornerstone I did shows all over the place — in shopping malls, a tomato field, community centers, you name it. The work taught me about what it means to involve community and build mutual investment. It’s really the only way I know how to work — and it’s the way I want to work.
Rebecca: Up until recently, in addition to being a director, you ran a national organization called the Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET), which is an advocacy organization for the ensemble theater field at large. Can you tell us more about your work there and that organization? 
Mark: Beginning my artistic life at Cornerstone meant right away I found an artistic home first and foremost as part of an ensemble. That doesn’t mean they’re creating original material as a collective necessarily — they are actually playwright-focused — but from an administrative and decision-making standpoint, they operate collectively. For instance, all the major artistic decisions are made by consensus. As I was figuring out who I was as an artist and sort of trying on different models, Cornerstone’s way of working made so much sense. Even though it’s incredibly difficult to make decisions using consensus within a collective, I discovered we arrived at more interesting places because of the collaboration required. Working with them sort of woke me up to a lot of other ensembles working in different ways around the country, and it became clear that this was where I needed to be.

When I arrived at NET, they were transitioning from a loose, informal network to a formally structured organization. The question we were asking at that time was, how can we nationally, as an ensemble field, start to talk about what we do and how we do it — not just amongst ourselves, but with others? Also... and selfishly... I loved being around my artistic heroes and advocating for them while also getting to know more about their work and needs. And I loved getting to nurture up-and-coming ensemble theater makers and welcome them into the field. In general, my time at NET was about advocating for and talking about companies that value co-creation, which in turn made me a better collaborator and artist.

The ethos of ensemble practice is so connected to the times we are living in — which was true when I started working with NET a decade ago and is certainly true today. It’s so clear to me that this messy and inefficient collaborative model not only delivers good art, but provides an example of how we as a society can move through the world. In an ensemble process, we take disparate ideas and somehow find commonality. We do away with binaries and live in the multiplicity. When I joined the staff, it was a great time to be an advocate for this way of living and making art, and as NET moves forward, I’m proud that it continues to be a strong and responsive advocate for the field.
Rebecca: Okay. Enough about you… Let’s talk about Like Sheep to Water, or Fuente Ovejuna! What’s your approach to the production?
Mark: It’s so clear to me that this is a play for our time. I believe that it reflects the zeitgeist of where we are, culturally and politically...even though it was written 400 years ago. I am also aware that Lope de Vega is not widely known, even though he wrote hundreds of plays, and so we want to make sure we honor his work. Our production is built at that intersection, where history and our modern time meet. Lope’s world collides with ours. 
Rebecca: What’s your history with this play?

Mark: I read Fuente Ovejuna in a college theater history class and really loved it. Part of my excitement stemmed from being a Latino student in a school that was pushing a lot of Eurocentric mainstream work. I appreciated that this play at least touched on the Spanish part of that European mainstream tradition. There was a day in that class where we learned about the Spanish Golden Age — Lope de Vega, Calderón — and I thought, “Yeah, this is cool! This is part of my culture.” And then you know, we moved on to Ibsen or whatever. But no one ever performs Spanish Golden Age plays, so that was kind of the end of it for a long time.

Then maybe 20 years later I saw a play adapted from Fuente Ovejuna and I remembered Lope de Vega all over again. I was so moved by the experience that I took a little detour and started reading all those plays again, appreciating them now in a whole new way, realizing how bold and experimental these plays were. They’re kind of the avant garde of their time, which was incredibly appealing to me. They were pushing the form in amazing ways, playing with language, and going off on these wild philosophical debates. But you know, I just kind of thought, “I’ll never get to direct these plays because no one ever does them,” and so I put them away.

When Curt approached me with the opportunity a year ago, I was like, “Hell yeah! I can’t believe I get to tackle a play I fell in love with 20 years ago!” And because of where the world has gone over those 20 years, it feels like the right time and place to be producing Like Sheep to Water, or Fuente Ovejuna. Plus of course, an ensemble is helping me create it. You can’t do it on your own. The play itself reveals the importance of the community — and the power of it.
Rebecca: Why is now a good time to work on this show?
Mark: No matter who you are, this is a moment where the need for community is very high, and Fuente Ovejuna is a very old play that reminds us of the power of community in ways that feel totally contemporary. It reminds us of the strength we can draw from one another.

All of us woke up on November 9 to an unexpected and new reality, and in the months since then many of us have felt removed from our fellow country-people and are looking for reminders that we belong. Look, I get an invitation to a protest or rally everyday. Literally, I could go to an action or a rally any day of the week in my city. I think we’re seeing all these marches and protests and rallies because they remind us that we’re not alone. They remind us that in any city, anywhere, there are other people who share our concerns. These actions may ripple out and actually create a policy shift, but in the moment that you show up, I think it’s about community; it’s about affirming that, as alone as we feel, actually there are others who are with us. There’s all this talk about persistence and resistance, but you can only fight back when you are surrounded by a community you can rely on and when you have the support and the strength of others.
Rebecca: What does it mean to produce this play at Trinity Rep in Providence? 
Mark: I’m an outsider to this community and so I just want to preface everything by saying that these are outsider observations — and maybe they’re completely wrong... if so, forgive me!

It seems to me that there’s an energy in Providence right now, that is leading to a resurgence and renewal. And it seems like communities are actively engaging in that work... folks are showing up and making their needs and desires for the neighborhoods known. And the scale of the city means that community members can actually affect policy and change. Providence is small enough to navigate bureaucracy, but big enough to have a critical mass of people doing the work... and it all helps foster a spirit of activism.

Fuente reflects a similar spirit. There’s a part in the play where a character, an important man, is asked where he lives and he says Fuente Ovejuna and the person he’s talking to can’t believe that he would want to live in a small town. But it’s a town that’s full of life and, when push comes to shove, it’s a town that sticks together. Providence remind me of that. So I think folks here will see themselves in the play. 
Rebecca: Taking the long view, what do you hope happens or will have happened because of this production? 
Mark: My hope is that people will see themselves in this story and on that stage and that they’ll walk away reminded that this — Trinity Rep, the theater in general, Providence, our country — is a place for everybody; where they belong. I know that the invitation Trinity Rep is making to the community with Fuente Ovejuna will remain open and will only become more active.

My hope is that years from now the reverberation of this piece will be a reminder of what we can do when we work together. I would like us to keep asking how we can move forward together. Sometimes we get lucky and a play can help bring about positive change... not because it moves a community, but because it moves the individuals who make up that community. A play might change me and you and those people across the aisle and then the person next to them, and then with all of those ripples outward, we can bring about positive change. 

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