Ralph Lee mines the rich mother lode of Native American myth to create timeless theatrical events under the stars. We met at his Westbeth studio apartment, a spooky menagerie of handcrafted masks, props and puppets.
Charlie Ahearn Ralph, what is that you’re working on?
Ralph Lee The framework for a large monster, a thrashing spirit. Not that anyone has a clear description of what a thrashing spirit is. But they do appear in Inuit stories, and we’re basing a play for our company on an Inuit story that has a series of trials the leading characters must go through, one of them being a confrontation with this thrashing spirit.
CA Where did you find this story?
RL Howard Norman, poet and translator, spent a lot of time among the Cree and Inuit Indians. This is the second play he’s written for us.
CA Does your work evolve through a collaboration with writers who are associated with different cultures?
RL I feel self-conscious about inundating another culture without an intermediary. Especially if it’s a living culture. I don’t pretend that we’re doing an anthropological rendition, but I want to be true to the essence of the material. And, so, whenever possible, I work with someone who’s spent time with those people.
CA Are the Inuit different than Eskimo?
RL Eskimo is a broad term applied cavalierly by Europeans to all the tribes who live in the Arctic. The people who live there tend to differentiate by locale, name their own group of people.
CA You worked with an Eskimo tribe?
RL We did a play several years ago based on Yup’ik material. The Yup’iks live out by the Bering Sea, both in Alaska and Siberia. There have been recent rediscoveries of cousins and aunts with the easing of regulations between the Russia and the U.S.
CA You brought your theater presentation to the tribe afterwards?
RL Right. That particular piece was written by Dave Hunsaker who had also lived with the Yup’iks for many years, and collected their stories, written poetry about them, and has actually done theater with them. He brought a production of Antigone performed by Yup’iks, here at LaMama, and then they performed it at a festival of classic drama in Greece. There seemed to be enough parallels between the two cultures, so that the story really resonated. Anyhow, he and his wife arranged for a tour of the play he had written for us in Alaska. We played in Sitka, Juneau, Anchorage. Then we went out into the bush into communities which had a large Yup’ik representation. And then there were some wonderful incidents, and they did dances for us; there was a bit of an exchange.
CA Were there instances of revelation about the work when it was shown to these people?
RL In seeing their response I was aware that we had somehow tapped into something that was really exciting to them. In Sitka, for instance, we performed at this school where they bring in kids from all over the state, and those kids were just jumping up and down after they saw the story performed for them. They were remarking how stories that have to do with Raven, the Trickster, were familiar to them. They could remember their grandmothers telling these stories.
CA It seems like all theater comes from a religious spectacle of some sort, the origins of theater. And in a way, the origins of religion itself go back to shamanistic rituals portraying legends. They embody their legends in ritual.
RL I like to think that in some pitiful, watered-down way we’re tapping into the same stuff. All our pieces are based on myths and legends from one place or another. There are moments in the play when there’s this, I’d call it a mythic movement, where we’re describing through myth, through characters, through the personification of natural forces, something that takes place in nature. And sometimes, when there are these moments in the play, everything locks into place, and it’s like the play is moving with the same motion as the earth. It’s hard to explain, but there are these particular moments that are extraordinarily riveting, if you do it right. Everything is bearing witness to this moment. The audience becomes totally still and watches that thing happen. How you arrive at that, I don’t know. You can’t consciously calculate those moments, but when they do occur, you say, okay, maybe I’ve done something right this time.
CA The first time I met you, we were in Mexico.
RL Well, I’ve spent all my time working with a bunch of Anglos putting theater together based on these other cultures. And to actually spend time working with people on plays that are taken from their own culture has been really exciting. Just to see how they respond to the material, and how it’s an intrinsic part of their lives. We’ll be working on a story and there might be a shaman in it and they’ll say no, no, no, no, no. This is how the shaman does this. And they will have all the specifics of behavior right at their fingertips.
CA Who are these people that you’re working with?
RL I’m working with a group of Highland Maya, who live in small hamlets outside of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, just north of Guatemala. And they come from Zinacantán and Chamula, where a language called Tzotzil is spoken. And then there are some people in the company from Tenejapa where they speak a language called Tzeltal.
CA Was Spanish their common language?
RL Spanish is the common language. The plays we have produced have all been performed in Spanish, because we perform in a lot of different regions, and they need to be in Spanish for them to be understood.
CA Where did the Mayan stories come from?
RL I was invited down to San Cristóbal by an anthropologist who works with the Smithsonian, Robert Laughlin. He has spent his life collecting stories and dreams from various people there. The first two plays we did were based on stories he had collected. One was about a buzzard who changes places with a farmer. The farmer is longing for a lazier life and so he changes places with this buzzard, without his wife knowing exactly what’s happened. It’s a comedy. The second play we did was a frighteningly racist play, based on a character they call Cimarrón, a spook, kind of a black boogie-man.
CA An African man?
RL Partially African. Searching out the derivation of this particular character, we found that he comes from a bat figure, a dark spirit who is definitely Mayan. But then he’s been mixed with the fears of the Mayan people about black people. There were slaves brought in, and some of them escaped and lived in the forest, and they would come out and get food. They were larger than the Mayans, who had never seen anyone with black skin and curly hair. And so they were very frightened of these people. Also, the blacks were employed as foremen on the fincas sometimes, and they were not very popular with the Mayans who labored under them. And so this character, this Cimarrón, developed. There are a lot of stories about these characters who do many unsavory things. They have a comical side, they’re always coming around whining for food, for women to come sleep with them. But they also can be very brutal to people.
CA How do you select your stories from this vast amount of material?
RL I look for something that’s dramatic. That you could make into a theater piece. That has wonderful interchanges between characters, or the possibility of constructing some amazing visual image that can also have a dramatic purpose.
CA People don’t realize how much living indigenous culture there is in the world. Mexican culture in particular.
RL It comes popping out in odd ways. For instance, when we started working on this story of the Cimarrón, I asked, “Could you describe this character?” This older guy, who is a shaman, said, "Well, the time I saw Cimarrón . . . " He had really seen one. It’s a living thing. They think twice when they go out in the dark; whether it’s safe to do it, how far they’re going to have to walk, whether there’s likely to be one around. Apparently, the Cimarrón frequent construction sights, along the roads and bridges; specific places that one would consciously want to avoid.
CA I noticed in other productions, you have this trickster character.
RL Well, I happen to love tricksters. We’ve done four or five plays that have tricksters in them. This character is darker than a trickster, more malevolent. They drag women off to caves and keep them there; they kill men if they meet them on the highway.
CA What was the experience of presenting this piece to these people like?
RL When I was down there last time, the actors spontaneously decided, since they were performing in one of their home communities, to perform in Tzotzil rather than Spanish. They were familiar enough with the play so that they could do an instantaneous translation. The play took on a whole other level of improvisation and spontaneousness as a result. In this case, the audience was three-fifths kids. When that character came swooping by with his cape of bat wings, the whole audience kept running from one side to another. These little kids spent the entire performance whimpering under a large rug. An older girl would peek under and tell them what was happening and see if they were still crying. But for most of the kids, there was this delight, this titillation in being scared, that prevailed.
CA At what level does this audience gain control of the theater piece itself? You’re directing it, but it’s very interesting to me where the line is drawn, how it moves.
RL For myself, it’s important that I remain peripheral. It should be their theater. It shouldn’t be a style of theater that’s imposed from the outside. If I do my job right down there, there’ll be a time when I get phased out entirely. Sad for me.
CA They were already doing things like this with other people.
RL Well, they had done a little bit of puppetry. This was the first time they had done any live theater. The archeologist, Rob Laughlin, was very concerned when I first went down there as to whether they would go for the idea at all. The whole idea of someone taking on a different personality, which in a sense is required of someone who becomes an actor, had alarming aspects. I mean one might, somehow in this process, lose one’s soul. There are things that they won’t do. Some of the patron saints of the villages are in the original stories, and they will not portray these saints. The last play we did was based on the history of the Mayans of this region and their confrontation with the Spaniards. This one character was the thread that kept the whole play together. He was a seer. The actor who played that part had a dream, which he interpreted as being a message, that it was his divine mission to play this part. And I know that for most of these people within the villages, these are traditions that they are still a part of. Even though they may be wearing European gringo clothes, they go home and put on their native clothes again. And they live in these two different worlds. They play at living in their traditional world when we do the theater, but they really live it when they’re at home. Most of these people have very specific roles that they play within the rituals of their own communities.
CA You’ve been working summers in Upstate New York on large outdoor spectacles which you then have a tradition of bringing to Saint John the Divine Cathedral in the Fall.
RL For the last eight years I have been involved with a variety of different events up at the Cathedral, bringing a theatrical element, or a visual manifestation to various ceremonies that happen in the Cathedral. There’s a Boar’s Head festival at Christmas time. There’s been a Carnival event that Paul Winter is primarily responsible for. I’ve done the finale for that, which is a matter of bringing out this whole array of Carnival figures. I’ve worked on the staging for St. John’s Passion that happens at Eastertime.
CA They do a Passion Play?
RL Well, it’s Bach’s Passion Play. They haven’t been doing it the last couple of years because of budgetary problems. It was an annual event there for a good many years.
CA You’ve performed in the crypt?
RL Yes, it’s a great space. It’s right underneath the high altar of the Cathedral. All these incredibly heavy duty stone columns form a semi-circle that’s the playing area. It’s a terrific environment for different kinds of theater, especially for something that does have a sense of ritual about it, or something like our theater which is performed outdoors most of the summer. The shows are designed to he performed outside. They have that kind of campfire feeling during those performances.
CA Being outdoors lends a kind of universal context. You’ve got forest, you’ve got the stars, the moon, you get the feeling that this could be taking place in any time.
RL So many of the stories have to do with nature, so the connection is really strong. The crypt is the only indoor space I know that comes close to giving you the feeling you have when you’re outside.
CA There’s enormous interest in what’s called World Beat music today, music from Morocco, South America. A lot of this music has ritual functions, to help people get into a trance state.
RL When you are in contact with a root culture, it has a richness and vividness that ceases to exist when that something becomes more homogenized. The Mayans for instance, those folks look amazing when they’re wearing their traditional clothes, incredibly handsome and very particular. Those are the clothes of one village. Those clothes are not worn anywhere else in the world in that particular configuration. They are the right clothes for their body type and the color of their skin. The root culture seems like this rich ore, and this rich ore is very rare.
—Charlie Ahearn is a film and video maker. He lives in New York City.