By Gabriela Gutierrez
East Los Angeles College’s Theatre Department, in partnership with Center Theatre Group, held a free workshop for students to learn about the acto acting method, while simultaneously teaching about the history of El Teatro Campesino.
Guest speaker Christy Sandoval “is a multi-disciplinary artist, artistic producer and arts educator,” ELAC Theatre Arts Department instructor, Cristina Frias said. Sandoval is also a member of and actress with El Teatro Campesino.
The one-of-a-kind theater company El Teatro Campesino, founded by Luis Valdez in 1965 in Delano, California, was created out of desperation and frustration.
The goal of the company was to highlight the mistreatment farm workers faced at the hands of their employers through the art of acting.
El Teatro Campesino’s famed 15-minute skits, or actos, were meant to be thought-provoking without being overwhelming. They were meant to hint at bigger issues and encourage the audience to act on behalf of the oppressed.
The use of humor and exaggerated movements were the theater company’s go-to tricks. Humor made the skits entertaining enough to capture the audiences’ attention, making the actual message of the skits easier to grasp.
The creation of characters through dramatic gestures gave the humble farm workers the edge they needed to get people to easily understand what they were trying to say, without necessarily saying much.
“The actos had to utilize tactics that were effective, direct and explained a lot very quickly,” Sandoval said.
The skits were successful in large part because the performers mistreated farm workers themselves. They took out of their own personal experiences and brought the level of authenticity necessary for the skits to be effective and believable.
The skits were aesthetically rough around the edges because as farmworkers, the performers were not professional actors. The actors were performed at townhalls, the backs of flatbed trucks, or just about anywhere else they could find.
“The early actos were performed outside. To this day the actos can be performed anywhere. They are meant to be a kind of guerilla-style theater. If you are drawing in a crowd, the physically heightened style helps capture the audience,” Sandoval said.
The actos’ performance style, still used today, is composed of five crucial elements:
- They illuminate specific points about a social or political problem.
- They express what people are feeling.
- They satirize the opposition (power structures).
- They hint at a solution.
- They inspire people to act.
“What is the problem? What is the change we need? Who needs to be a part of it? Who is stopping the change from happening? Who should we make fun of to really get the message across that change needs to happen?” Sandoval said.
Actos today have evolved but are not much different from earlier acto performances.
Actos are still used as political weapons that aim to bring justice to an oppressed group of people. However, actos have evolved and can be used to address smaller causes as well, whether there are an oppressed people or not.
“When you are tackling an acto [or] any social or political problem, […] most of the acto is about how can you reverse that? How can you change the dynamic so that there are less people on top holding the power and more people that rise up from the bottom and gain more power in the situation?” Sandoval said.
Frias, who attended the meeting along with her students, took advantage of their current rehearsal space at the ELAC Proscenium theater.
Midway through the workshop, the students stood on the stage and Sandoval guided them and the zoom audience through a series of movements.
“As you are walking, I want you to imagine as if a rope is tied to your chest. Then, someone is pulling that rope and that is what is leading your movement,” Sandoval said.
The students waved their arms up and down like eagles, moved their spines like serpents and twisted their cores like hurricanes. They walked in circles across the stage, moving fast when Sandoval said fast and moving slower when she said slower.
The movements were exaggerated to give the students and audience a sense of what acto performances were like and what they required.
The calendar for more mentor month events can be found on elactheatre.org.