In a time when our country seems particularly divided, conversations about our differences can become tense quickly. Ignorance leads to fear in many cases, especially when that ignorance is over cultural differences. With the holidays rapidly approaching, many cultures begin to celebrate traditions that are different. Dallas will be no exception.
Cara Mia Theatre Co. is returning a popular holiday production, Nuestra Pastorela, a unique take on a traditional Mexican shepherd’s play. The story is one you know well: The shepherds are on their way to find the newly born baby Jesus. But in this version they are stopped and taunted by devils in masks.
Co-writer and Cara Mia artistic director David Lozano first encountered the pastorela in Mexico when he visited in 2003. He was surprised and amazed to find the play happening all over the cities: in plazas, churches, even homes. He put the idea in his head and brought it back to Texas.
Lozano approached longtime friend and clowning expert Jeffry Farrell about writing an adaptation of the traditional play with a few updates. Farrell was on board immediately.
Farrell has studied with possibly the most renowned physical theater artist of our time, Jacques Lecoq, who was famous for his methods on movement and mime at the school he founded in Paris, L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq.
What the pastorela needed was obvious to Farrell: clowns. In this reboot of the traditional play, the shepherds are clowns. And while we may have a terrifying idea of what a clown is supposed to be in our heads (thanks, Stephen King), Farrell says they are one of the most important and culturally expansive devices in theater and storytelling.
“Clowns are in every culture,” says Farrell. “The clown is meant to delight and surprise us by failing. That’s what makes them funny.” But it’s also what gives them humanity, he says. Clowns, he explains, highlight weakness and then work through it. It’s simply human to display failure and understand it. Farrell found the original play boring and wanted to give it more life. The clown was the perfect addition.
Frida Espinosa-Müller is the head of teaching at Cara Mia, an immigrant from Mexico and Lozano’s wife. She grew up seeing different pastorelas every Christmas.
“The main story is always the same: The angel tells the shepherds about the birth of baby Jesus and the devils try to stop the shepherds, but there are many different versions of the pastorelas and shepherds and devils are always very fun.” She loves the way Cara Mia has updated the tradition.
“I think the production of Nuestra Pastorela is very special and unique because it is the experience of the traditional pastorela to the Mexican-American cultural context, so shepherds are connected to the immigrants and suffer many of the experiences that the real immigrants suffer; but these shepherds are clowns and that makes Nuestra Pastorela even more special. The physical comedy, the slapstick and the clown language are not that common in traditional pastorelas.”
It’s pretty deep for a family Christmas comedy. Bridging the gap between different cultures is important, especially for children. Desiree Madrid, a Spanish immersion elementary teacher in HEB ISD, has a classroom full of students who are mostly non-Latinx but speak only Spanish at school. She says the way kids view the world only gets bigger when you introduce them to new cultures.
“Last year I introduced them to Dia de los Muertos, and at first they thought it was a little creepy. Now that they understand the tradition and the meaning behind it they get really excited. They call it art.”
Dispelling misconceptions is crucial to her students’ development, Madrid says. She loves the opportunity to bring new cultures and traditions to her students. She’s been fascinated to see how it adds to their own experiences as students.
Nuestra Pastorela is a comedy, but it allows for deeper meaning through the follies.
“I really think this is a great opportunity for a family to experience joy together, and the final message is beautiful because it's about love and hope,” Espinosa-Müller says.
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Lozano agrees and says the clown is a perfect way to exhibit cultural expression. The innocence of a clown, he says, open doors for all kinds of hope.
“The clown is about space,” Farrell says. “It’s not about a door — it’s about what happens when you walk through the door.” That surprise is what creates the joy.
As a theater teacher, Espinosa-Müller says she invites and pushes her students to free themselves and enjoy the act of self-expression.
“This world and society put so many pressures on people, teach us to worry and be afraid of who we are. And theater for me is the opportunity to shake away that pressure and enjoy and share. And I think this show and clowning is all about that: joy and sharing.”