I can feel the prop plane’s descent as I peer out the window at the dark country below. Electricity is a valuable commodity in the Dominican Republic. Americans know this Caribbean nation for its resorts, beaches and shopping, but I’m not here as a tourist; I’m preparing for a three-city tour that will happen next month, in November 2011. The United States embassy is sponsoring Eveoke Dance Theatre of San Diego’s production of Las Mariposas, an adaptation of Julia Alvarez’s novel In the Time of the Butterflies, based on a true story about the Mirabal sisters and their struggle for justice under dictatorship. I’m the stage manager, and I’ve been sent on an early two-day site survey to arrange venues, schedules and meals (in a language I do not speak).
Like any good stage manager, I’ve anticipated everything. My bag is packed with measuring tapes, two cameras, spare batteries and gaff tape. I have my laptop, the production bible, a Spanish-English dictionary, pages of questions to ask and lists of measurements to take. I have good shoes, sunscreen, a raincoat, a nice dress and a first aid kit.
As a stage manager, my primary responsibility is to facilitate communication between the show’s collaborators. I create schedules, run rehearsals, call cues. I’ve been doing this for 10 years. Those skills should be more than enough, right?
Wrong. Las Mariposas is theatre for social justice. This genre explores issues of power that manifest in race, gender, economic and sociopolitical struggles. When stage managing work like this, I need an expanded toolbox.
I’ve packed all the dramaturgical research (and I’ve read it). I bring a deep understanding of the story and the company. I toss in a journal. Professional distance? I leave that behind. My personal, emotional connection to the show will be my most important asset in maintaining artistic integrity.
Stepping off the plane in the D.R., I’m greeted by a wall of humidity. Its a shock after the crisp Midwest fall I left a few hours ago. Buying a much needed bottle of water, I look down and am amazed to see the faces of the Mirabal sisters, the subjects of our show, on the 200-peso bill in my hand.
My work in theatre for social justice began in 2007 with a devised 90-minute play called Seven Passages: The Stories of Gay Christians, at Actors’ Theatre in Grand Rapids, Mich. I was the script supervisor and stage manager. The stories we collected were difficult, painful and charged with commentary on faith and politics in our world today. The subject matter challenged each collaborator to examine our daily interactions, confront injustices and make choices about how to respond compassionately to the work.
But as stage manager I was simply there to organize a script and call cues, right?
Wrong again. In a show like Seven Passages, personal connections became critical in everything I did. No task was exempt—even calling the show. The cueing was incredibly complex; I called lights, sound, deck moves, five separate projectors and two live video feeds. The actors’ performances were nuanced and dependent on the subtlest audience reactions, which changed drastically each night. A shocked gasp on Thursday became a laugh on Friday. I literally had to breathe with the actors to call the show correctly. The only way I achieved this level of synchronicity was by investing my energy in the stories, characters and actors.
One of our interviewees wrote: “It’s undeniable that the stories you chose to tell are healing. But the fact that they are delivered by a committed, empathetic cast gives them weight, resonance, credibility, honor. It’s like having someone speak for you when you don’t think your voice matters.” He sent his letter care of me, the stage manager. That drove it home: I too was one of the “committed and empathetic” people of whom he spoke. Through the practical work of stage management, I too had given voice to the voiceless.
My work with Eveoke Dance Theatre started with the premiere of Las Mariposas in November 2010. Now in its 17th year, Eveoke’s mission is to “cultivate compassionate social action through evocative performance, arts education and community building.” After four seasons as the production stage manager for the Grand Rapids Ballet Company and freelancing in West Michigan as a stage manager, choreographer and educator, I relocated to San Diego to pursue my MFA in stage management and looked for opportunities to build my resume and hone my craft. Eveoke was one such opportunity.
Artistic director Erika Malone and resident choreographer Ericka Aisha Moore co-created Las Mariposas as an original, full-length dance theatre adaptation of In the Time of the Butterflies. It tells the true story of Patria, Minerva, Dede and Maria Teresa Mirabal, who led an underground movement against the Rafael Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, which lasted from 1930 until Trujillo’s assassination in 1961. Three of the sisters were brutally murdered by Trujillo’s soldiers; Dede, now in her eighties, survived. Las Mariposas brings to life “the girls” and their story of courage, resilience and hope.
Alvarez saw an in-studio rehearsal of this adaptation of her novel. She responded, “The people of the Dominican Republic need to see this production.” She wrote a letter to the public affairs officers at the U.S. embassy in Santo Domingo, in which she declared, “Eveoke’s performance has been the adaptation that most moved me: the company’s creativity in translating the story into dance, commitment to educating the community, its passion for the story and advocacy for human rights!” The embassy extended an invitation to the company, along with a grant from the U.S. State Department.
My life became a stream of logistics—and a crash course in cultural sensitivity. This was the company’s first tour and the embassy’s largest cultural presentation to date. The embassy was used to presenting solo artists in a single venue. A 20-person company touring an intensely personal Dominican story to three cities across the country was new territory. What type of ground transportation would work? How would we manage meals? Would double-occupancy hotel rooms be okay?
On top of the already grueling schedule of rehearsals, performances and outreach classes, every venue also wanted a reception and a press conference. The company would meet the surviving family and tour the homes where the sisters lived and died. The ambassador wanted to host a party in our honor. I negotiated the balance of protecting Eveoke’s interests while knowing that these additional events were an essential part of the company’s experience and storytelling. I opened my mind—not to mention my laptop and Spanish-English dictionary—and embraced the dichotomy that is at the heart of a stage manager’s role in social justice theatre.
Ultimately, our presenters and audiences felt honored that an American company had taken a deep interest in their story, at a time when the Dominican Republic is just beginning to stabilize from its war-torn history. As I worked to help the company and the producers understand each other’s desires and expectations, I felt as though my colleagues and I had become cultural ambassadors, advocating for social justice through art.
On the second of that invaluable site survey, Nieves Peguero, the embassy cultural specialist, takes me to the Museo Memorial de la Resistencia Dominicana. Luisa Diaz De Pella curates this museum dedicated to the history of the resistance movement. Luisa’s father was killed by the Trujillo regime; it seems everyone in the D.R. is one degree removed from the dictator.
At the end of the tour I meet Patria Maribal’s daughter Noris. Luisa has invited Noris so I can ply her with “whatever questions I want about the sisters; anything that will help the company with their performance.”
But I’m just here to take measurements and finalize the schedule, right?
By now, I know the answer to that.
It doesn’t matter to Luisa and Nieves and Noris that I am not the director or a performer. To these women, I’m there to help Eveoke present this story of Dominican fortitude in the face of adversity. They view the interview as vital in order for us to properly honor their national heroines.
I sit down with Noris and a translator at a small table in a room of the museum filled with messages of peace and justice that students created as part of a workshop. I turn on my recorder and take a deep breath. Grounded in my commitment to the story and the company, I realize I have the necessary connection to the work—I know how to ask Noris the right questions about the sisters, about what it was like to grow up under the dictatorship. At the end of our impromptu exchange, she leaves me with this benediction that I will take back to the company, which will become our mantra for the next two months of preparations:
“Mirabal is the essence of everything that is good in the Dominican people. Your job is to make the people feel. To express the feeling of the ideals that the girls fought for. Social justice. Some people write. Some people make theatre. And you dance. And that’s all part of the struggle for a better future.”
Evangeline Rose Whitlock is based in San Diego, where she is currently an assistant stage manager for Allegiance at the Old Globe.
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