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Theatre, Adaptations, and Adapting to Quarantine

Erin Alice Cowling
MacEwan University

When we received the news that we would be moving to remote teaching for the rest of the semester, my Hispanic Theatre & Performance class was in the middle of reading La vida es sueño (Life’s a Dream) by Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1636). This play, a theatricalized adaptation of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” follows the struggles of two protagonists as their lives intersect: a prisoner who is actually a prince and a woman, disguised as a man, seeking revenge on the man who abandoned her. For us, it was also extremely pertinent for understanding our current reality.

Segismundo, the male protagonist, has been imprisoned since birth, and all he knows about the world he has learned from his jailer and the few animals he can see from the window of his cell. Eventually, he is released and learns of his true status as crown prince of Poland, leading him to question everything he sees and feels. Ultimately, he recognizes that we can never be fully sure that what we experience is real; thus, we must always be on our best behavior—whether dreaming or awake—on the off-chance that we might be judged for our actions. Rosaura, the female protagonist, is one of the strongest female characters written for the early modern Spanish stage. She becomes an anchor and mirror for Segismundo as he attempts to understand the world outside his cage. For those of us living through a pandemic, it felt a little like we were Segismundo being forced back into the cave; we know there is a different world outside our four walls, but we have to figure out what it means for us to live in the current reality, which feels like a bad dream from which we hope to awaken.

This class was designed around both the reading and viewing of early modern Spanish theatre. For each of the plays, there were corresponding video versions of adaptations for stage or screen. While some of the adaptations were quite traditional, in this case we watched a much more modernized adaptation, Rosaura (2018) by Teatro Inverso, a theatrical company founded by Paula Rodríguez and Sandra Arpa.1 As the title indicates, this version focuses primarily on the experience of the female protagonist and adds in feminist elements that give the audience further insight into how she became the person she is in the play. I have gotten to know Rodríguez and Arpa over the last two years, and we have collaborated on various projects during that time. Although I would love to give my students the opportunity to interact with practitioners in person, it can be costly and difficult to arrange. I had not considered incorporating them into the class originally, but I reached out to them in the early days of the quarantine to see if they would be interested in connecting with my students via videoconference, to which they immediately agreed.

While we could hold virtual sessions with practitioners during face-to-face classes, I’m not sure it would work as well. For one thing, although I have brought actors to campus before, I have hesitated to include them virtually in the past, out of concerns that the experience would pale in comparison to real life. For another, internet connections can be unreliable. Normally, the class met twice a week, spending two weeks on each text (one day of discussion per act of three act plays and one day to analyze the adaptation). We continued with this model for the rest of the semester, but rather than having a seminar-style class discussion of Rosaura, we had the actresses explain their methodology for adaptation and lead activities that the students could participate in via chat.

These exercises are simple, but they can help students focus on important parts of the text. The first, which the actresses often use as a starting point for their own adaptations, is a mirroring exercise, where they would normally face each other and take up a similar stance. They then go through the play’s plot, and trade words that they think are pertinent to the original and might help them work towards their own adaptation. They did a little bit of this between the two of them in the videocall, but the remote delivery made it hard to have students do this in pairs. Instead, we worked as a group to create two lists. First, we asked participants to pick one word that strikes them as essential to a character. This is meant to be done as quickly as possible, so that it is spontaneous and uninhibited, in order to bring out the most crucial aspects, which can then be employed in the staging process. Students used the chat box to type the first word that came to mind based on the character of Rosaura, building on the words their classmates wrote before them. For the sake of brevity I’ll list some of the most interesting: valor, strength, woman, man, beast, I, you, spontaneous, experience. Many of the words were opposites, mirroring Rosaura’s journey and connection to Segismundo. We then created another list, based on the plot of the adaptation. This time we generated nineteen words, including: abandoned, immigrant, voyage, discovery, unknown, bravery, vengeance, knowledge. As one student said at the end of the first activity: “Mic. Dropped.”2 The invocation of a “mic drop,” a phrase that has taken on a life of its own in internet memes and demonstrates the end of a particularly passionate or triumphal speech, shows that the activity resonated with students in a meaningful way.

Although we might not have been able to experience a full workshop of the sort that the two creators can offer in person,3 my students still were able to have direct access to the practitioners behind the adaptation we were studying in class. Students were able to learn about and experience their process in ways that surpassed what I would have been able to offer on my own. Likewise, the expense of bringing the two actresses from overseas would not be viable in every semester. Self-isolation certainly changed the dynamic of the class, but also allowed me to think outside the box and offer an experience to my students that I would have not considered otherwise. And while I very much hope to see all my students face-to-face again next year, remote teaching has forever changed how I will plan and execute the delivery of theatrical texts. Life’s a Dream has many lessons that we can apply not only to our current situation, but also to the ways that reality is shaped by and for us. Moving forward, I plan to emphasize these connections for our students, so that they can see, as we do, how remarkably relevant plays written some four hundred years ago are still today.

Erin Alice Cowling is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Coordinator of the Spanish section in the Department of Humanities at MacEwan University. Her current research is on adapting early modern Spanish theatre for contemporary audiences and classrooms. You can find some of her work on this topic in the volume Social Justice in Spanish Golden Age Theatre, for which she also served as co-editor, to be published in fall 2020.

1 For more on this adaptation and Teatro Inverso, see Glenda Y. Nieto-Cuebas and Erin Alice Cowling, “Teatro Inverso’s Rosaura: Recasting La vida es sueño through Storytelling,” Comedia Performance 17, no.1 (2020): 70–89; and Christopher Gascón’s “La vida es sueño Reimagined: Inversion, Mimicry, and Communitas in Teatro Inverso’s Rosaura (2018),” Comedia Performance 17, no.1 (2020): 25–44.

2 Erin Cowling, “Rosaura,” class lecture in Hispanic Theatre & Performance, MacEwan University, Edmonton, AB, 24 Mar. 2020.

3 See their website for more information on educational programs offered in both English and Spanish: Sandra Arpa and Paul Rodríguez, “Educacional,” Teatro Inverso, Galería Misión, 20 Apr. 2020.

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