Students adapted 17th-century Spanish plays into their own voice
The 5-year-old twins were in bed for the night, sound asleep and oblivious to what was happening just outside their home.
Kathleen Berger, their mother, was dressed in black pants and a white top. She looked at her script, held in a white binder, and started singing.
“Love, show me the way out of this maze of confusion before I lose my mind,” she sang, her operatic voice echoing throughout Litchfield Park.
It was early April and Berger, a recent online grad from Arizona State University, was wrapping up her entry for the 2022 Our New Gold Digital Theater Festival.
For two minutes and 40 seconds, she took the Spanish piece “El muerto dissimulado (The simulated death)” by Portuguese author Ángela de Azevedo and made it her own, her notes and the range of her voice telling the story of a woman who breaks away from the traditional passive female role and takes control of her own narrative.
At the end of her performance, Berger bowed slightly, as if singing in front of an audience.
Six weeks later, she heard the news: her performance had won an honorable mention at the festival.
It’s the end of the story.
It begins with the COVID-19 pandemic and an ASU Online teacher’s desire to create community in a closed world.
Our New Gold Festival began in 2021 and featured a group of Wesleyan students from Ohio who wanted to explore new ways of understanding and adapting classical Spanish theater. The 2022 festival focused on plays addressing current social issues such as gender, racial and social inequality, systemic oppression, cultural identity and the environment.
When she heard about the festival, Maria Dominguez, a teacher at ASU’s School of International Literature and Cultures, immediately knew she wanted her students to be a part of it.
“I’ve been teaching Spanish for many years at ASU, but my expertise is in acting,” Dominguez said. “So when the theater collapsed because of COVID and people couldn’t get to any of the places they were meeting, and all these companies were like, ‘How can we express ourselves? I put one and one together and said, “Well, that would be great for my students.”
Dominguez hosted a Zoom call with students from several of his classes to discuss how they could take written assignments they had to do for the class and turn them into video entries for the festival.
The only rule: digital entries could not last more than five minutes. Otherwise, the students were free to explore their creativity in how they adapted the Spanish plays.
N’kiedra Nisbett, a senior who took Dominguez’s Spanish for Sustainability course, selected Miguel de Cervantes’ “El Viejo celoso (The Jealous Old Man)” which tells the story of marital infidelity .
In her video, Nisbett, who lives in the Caribbean, laments that she could have been so stupid to fall for Canizares’ lies. She plays three different characters in the video: Dona Lorenza, Hortigosa and Cristina.
“I found it quite interesting, not necessarily because it concerns me, but because it is an issue that women face in that they are sometimes abused by men,” said said Nisbett.
Six ASU entries were chosen for the festival, which welcomes entries from students and recent graduates from across the country. Nesbitt was named a finalist, as was Ashley Arrien, who performed a new version of Pedro Calderon’s “La dama duende (The Phantom Lady)” in which a man falls in love with a woman who is either hidden, veiled or met in the dark.
In her adaptation, Arrien lies on her couch complaining about being “invisible” because she doesn’t have the internet and can’t post on social media.
“I’m literally going to die,” she cries in millennial angst.
“We have all these incredible playwrights, and then you associate them with hashtags, with influencers, with TikTok – the subject is always the same, the feelings are the same, the meaning is the same, but the language is different”, Dominguez said. “It’s an inventive way to explore these works.
Berger, who began her studies at ASU in 1989 as a vocal performance major and in 2020 earned her bachelor’s degree in Spanish, was a student in Dominguez’s Spain Basic Texts class. When she was given the assignment to rewrite a play in Spanish and then record herself speaking it, she asked Dominguez if it would be OK to sing the assignment.
“She said, ‘Absolutely,'” Berger recalled. “She was very excited about it.”
Along with benefiting from her 35+ years as an actress and opera singer, Berger has had good timing on her behalf. While she attended her classes, a young composer and actor named Joshua Vern lived with her and her husband and helped look after the children.
“So I asked him, ‘Is it possible that I can hand you a short monologue in Spanish and you can write me music in four days?'” Berger said.
Vern did the work and four nights later Berger was singing outside her house.
“What could have been – not a disposable – but a relatively easy task because doing a monologue is something I’ve had experience with for over 35 years, turned into a very, very cool project,” said Berger said.
It turns out there’s more to online training at ASU than just a laptop and a Zoom call. He can place a mother of 5-year-old twins and a shy West Indian woman in 17th-century Spain and at a festival that celebrates their talent and creativity.
“It’s really something how it brings people together,” Nisbett said. “I had the opportunity to meet and interact with people in places I have never seen. It really is a community.
Top photo: Kathleen Berger records her lyrical version of “El muerto dissimulado (The Feigned Death)” for the Our New Gold 2022 digital theater festival. Berger won an honorable mention at the festival. Photo courtesy Kathleen Berger