Like other arts and culture leaders during San Antonio’s pandemic season, theater artist Marisela Barrera figures she’s gone through many letters of the alphabet in terms of planning ahead.
“We had plan A, then we went to plan B, plan C, plan D, … we’re at least halfway through the alphabet in terms of the plan, because they change all the time,” Barrera said of plans for her upcoming Tejana Rasquacha multi-character show, originally slated for a series of live performances at Jump Start Performance Co.
The essence of rasquache is making do with what’s at hand, she said, and “we’re really doing what we can with what we got,” she said, lauding the flexibility of her Jump Start crew. “I’m actually pretty proud of what we’re managing to do you know, given the all the circumstances.”
Originally slated as live-action performances July 18-19 and 24-26 in front of an audience at the intimate black box theater, the show has been scaled back to two online 8 p.m. performances July 25 and 26. Tickets are required to get a link for the Tejana Rasquacha performance, but on a “choose what you pay” basis, costing between $0 and $20.
Barerra brought on Andrew Thornton as co-director of what will now be a partly livestreamed theatrical production using the Zoom online videoconferencing platform, with a mix of prerecorded segments shot in various locations around San Antonio, including the Donkey Lady Bridge, the Blue Star Arts Complex, and the Medina River Natural Area.
Between those segments, Barerra will play a version of herself live on Zoom from her Dignowity Hill home. In these audience interactive segments, she will lend context and continuity to her grouping of characters, all drawn from short stories she has produced to highlight real and mythical Tejana women she has known all her life.
In the Medina River segment, Barrera channels a version of her mother, “if she had gone back to her rancho in Mexico that she hadn’t seen since she was a little kid.” The sedate natural area grounds offered the “vibe” she was looking for, similar to the surroundings of the old one-room adobe casita in which her mother had grown up.
The original text of Barerra’s story describes the scene in her mother’s voice: “Gente lived off the land. Kids never wore shoes. We lived in one room, todos juntos en el rancho. Dirt floor kept clean by patting it con aqua and sweeping it.”
Ernestina Barrera has seen the live versions of her daughter’s shows but currently is in quarantine in Hidalgo County without a computer, so she will miss the weekend livestreams.
Another character to be featured is a loose interpretation of a certain famous writer who formerly lived in a colorful house along the river across from Blue Star but has since moved to Mexico. Barrera left the character unnamed because she said it is not meant as a commentary on Sandra Cisneros herself, but on “walking in a famous writer’s shoes.”
The Donkey Lady makes an appearance, with a segment recorded at her notorious bridge on Old Applewhite Road. Unmasked fishermen at the location became an unwitting audience to the spectacle and make it into the final recording, following the rasquache way, Barrera said.
Thornton considers himself more an actor than a director, though he has directed plays for several San Antonio theater companies. Barrera described him as an “actor’s director” and said she sought him out to help her develop the characters she plays.
He said one memory from a role he played ten years ago sticks with him and informs his approach to working with actors. Showing up for a Sunday evening rehearsal after a nap, “I was just feeling sort of groggy and awful.” Director Tony Ciaravino asked him how he was feeling, and Thornton told him the truth.
“And he goes, ‘OK, just start with that,’” Thornton said. “And that simple permission for me to just be who I was [while acting] was really powerful for me. That’s a big part of my ethos as a director as well, is just bring what you have right now. That’s one thing that Marisela does so well. She’s so in the moment, she’s so spontaneous.”
Barrera and Thornton also credit videographer Elias Flores with creatively facilitating the technology required to pull off what will ultimately be two 50-minute shows in a format none of the cast or crew had undertaken before. The actual length of the performance is indeterminate because Barrera will break character at the end for an audience question-and-answer session.
Barrera echoed Ciaravino’s and Thornton’s directorial thinking when asked if she is concerned about handling such a spontaneous situation in a theatrical context. “That’s one good thing about the pandemic, you know, like f— it, just be yourself,” she said of her evolving attitudes.
Of changing plans day to day and confronting the various challenges and limitations the pandemic has brought to artists, Thornton said, “it’s definitely creatively inspiring. There’s really no excuse not to create. We’re under these oppressive circumstances, and all of this change is happening in our country simultaneously,” which can be overwhelming.
“But Marisela is really inspiring,” he said, in that she doesn’t let any of it stop her. “This is all really lighting a fire under artists to think outside the box, get creative, and to engage in the present moment.”