The summer is brutally hot, Friday night highways thick with cars. Cities all somehow look alike from the highway crowded with billboards, strip clubs, poured cement chain box store strip malls. Take the Patriot Freeway of the 10, exit at Fred Wilson, a left turn and right turn at a beat-to-shit liquor store, and you enter McKelligon Canyon.
A surprisingly quiet, inoffensive state park, it seems untouched but for three things: the simply paved road winding through it; an overlook marked by a ring of orange picnic tables; and an enormous amphitheater carved into the side of one of the low-lying mountains. It is home of Viva El Paso! a historical outdoor drama and dance show that had, at that point, been running for over 25 years.
A young director fresh from Manhattan, I had traveled thousands of miles to see what, if anything, could be learned from populist forms of American theater like Viva! After three years, I felt that if New York was the center of theater in America, we were in big trouble.
Perhaps it was the way I saw people going to see plays—not for pleasure or even escapism, but as a cultural check-mark, like visiting a museum, like it’s good for you. This is bad for theater on a number of levels—theater’s supposed cultural cachet intimidates and strips power from audiences in a way other entertainments simply don’t—people who have never heard of a key grip will rip apart a movie they dislike; couch potatoes with beer guts will confidently provide full color commentary during NFL games with no shame.
Not so with theater. I remember once walking down Broadway at around 10:00pm when the shows were letting out. I wandered among the disappointed tourists, listening to them—“well, that one actor was good,” “that one speech at the end was kind of—”, “I guess I didn’t understand it”—trying to justify the $90 they’d just spent on something that had failed to dazzle or move them.
I heard about historical outdoor dramas, site-specific performances of American history staged annually, mostly in the summer, in amphitheaters all over the country. It seemed clear to me that this theater knew something I and my cohorts in New York did not know, and I decided to go find out what it was.
That being said, I arrived in El Paso (the first major Outdoor Drama I saw, during the first of a 10-week itinerary) with a well-developed sense of snobbery masked as critical distance. They were dishing out plates of bargain barbecue before the show, and the audience members, seniors brought in by the busload, families and couples poured through the buffet lines on their way to their seats. A live mariachi band blared in the front courtyard—according to Christy, the perky PR intern for Viva!, “loving what they do, playing their cultural music, doing their thing.”