Arts & Theater

Gore and Myth in Santa Sangre Where Puppet-Robots Bleed

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Rubén Polendo: I believe, as human beings, we’re designed to pursue impossible questions. We pursue love. Nobody reaches a given Thursday and says, “I found love, I’m done, cool. Friday, I’ll find happiness.” The idea is, those goals change, you change, the landscape around you changes. It is this impossible goal that then sets you on a journey.

Tjaša Ferme: Welcome to Theatre Tech Talks: AI, Science, and Bio Media in Theatre, a podcast produced by HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide.

Today’s guest is Rubén Polendo, who is the founding artistic director of Theater Mitu. He and his company work towards expanding the definition of theatre through rigorous experimentation with its form. His practice investigates transglobal performance, interdisciplinary collaborative models, the performativity of non-violence, the geopolitics of objects, contemporary mythology, investigations of the ritual and the sacred.

Oh my God, Ruben, it’s such a pleasure to have you here. This sounds so beautiful, and so appealing, and I feel like why I do theatre, too. I’m also interested in all these things.

Rubén: Fantastic. I’m excited to be here too, for exactly that reason. Your work is so exciting, and there’s such a beautiful overlap that it’s always inspiring to be in a room with an artist, so thanks.

Tjaša: Thank you. This podcast is all about creating new technologies, inventing new stuff, and using these technologies in theatre, so really, the intersection of what new tech is offering, and what we can take for ourselves, and for the human interaction within the bounds of theatre. I’m just curious, where does your drive and impetus to do this come from?

Rubén: That’s such a great framing for the use of technology in art, and in theatre performance. For me, it’s a very simple route. My training of many moons ago doesn’t come out of art, or theatre, or performance. It comes out of science. I have an undergrad and a grad degree in biochemistry, and my entire framework has to do with the interjection of innovation, of looking at systems, and of the role of technology in that. When Theater Mitu was started almost twenty-five years ago, it really was started from that point. It was started legitimately as a biochemistry laboratory. It just happened to be that our medium was not biological and chemical systems, it was image making, and storytelling, and arts practice. The framework, from the beginning, was really a deep engagement with technology, less as an aesthetic principle and more truly as a tool, as a tool of investigation, as a tool of interrogation.

By definition, I think when one interrogates really diligently with those tools, they in time become part and parcel of the work. In biochemistry, there’s a way that certain results can’t be shown without the technology at play. Similarly, the technology started entering the performativity, and the aesthetic palette, but it was always a little disorienting. Whether it’s critically, or review wise, folks will speak of technology as a design element, which is not at all how we approach it, for us, it’s actually, again, a tool, and then it itself either bakes itself into the work or not. For me, it really starts from the point of science.

Tjaša: I love that you said that. I love that you brought in the critics, because I have a critique of our theatre critics whose approach seem to be that they’re critiquing the design, or the show aspect of it. I think that I can say for your work, and for our work, certainly we’re interested in not only how the sausage is made, but can we make a new sausage, and what is the process? Can we be inventive, and collaborative in this way? If I wanted to create gimmicks and tricks, it’d be much cheaper, and easier, and less time-consuming to do them. If any theatre critics are listening to this, we would like you to step up and get educated in how to properly look into works like that. What has been your personal experience in this realm, of receiving criticism?

Rubén: I think there’s two things. One, as a company who really is structured… the entirety of organization is structured as a laboratory. I like extending the “How the sausage is made” metaphor to making new sausage, or new ways of making sausage, because I think our work is best read as a whole. In other words, we are, of course, interested in engaging an audience in a meaningful way, and impacting an audience, but our hope is that one work seeds the next one seeds the next one. Looking at it in that whole framework becomes, in some ways more compelling, some ways more interesting, which is why I think we as a company set our own space up at Mitu580, which is the warehouse that we inhabit in Brooklyn, because we want to be in conversation with a community. We don’t want to have a transactional space where you come and see our showmanship, and then you leave.

We actually want to be in a relational space. The most meaningful critical space has been that critical space, which, as somebody who’s been in relationship with our work, who’s seeing that what we’re attempting is actually interjecting perhaps differently, or more meaningfully in the next piece, and then radically different in the next one, so that there’s a continuum of the conversation, versus an individual who comes just to see the showmanship quality. Again, there’s no interest in creating work that isn’t impactful and effective, but we are in a constant state of discovering. That’s another reason that our technology is part and parcel of how we work as a company. We are a permanent group of artists, because we have a whole training methodology which is both in how we make work, how we engage leadership, and how we train in technology so that our collaborators in the company are as much generative creatures as they are technologists, as they are arts practice aesthetic-leaning individuals.

Tjaša: This is amazing. I am interested if you could speak a little bit, if you can share this with us, about your methodology? I’m sure that came out of a need for somewhat of setting of ritual, really, of how humans work together.

Rubén: Yeah, that’s right. I think there’s three parts to our training. One is what I’ll term our research as a company. How do we train as artists, researchers? It’s not just research in preparation for our work, but it’s research in how we build our company, how we make our systems, how we further grow our training. That can look like conversations with fellow artists, that can look like conversations and engagements with folks in other fields about their own systems of creation, how they hold space, how they generate collaboration. That also includes global conversations. We get so myopic in our own landscape, and so to me, it’s interesting to see a whole range of other artists interrogate similar things. There’s that aspect of it.

Then there’s a physical training that we do as a company, of how we come together in physical space and work. When we first started really delving deeply into technology, there was this inheritance of, “I’m not going to touch it, because it’s not what I do,” or “I don’t have enough training to engage in that system, or that coding, or that programming, or that hardware.”

For us, the idea is to remove that, and to know that what I can bring is my expertise as a theatremaker, as a director, as a designer, and in fact, begin to misuse it. In that misuse comes a new use. One of my favorite things is when folks come and see some of the technology that we’re using, and they go, “Wait, you’re doing what with it? That’s not what it was designed for.” I love that. Of course, it wasn’t designed for it. We’re artists. There’s a whole premise of misbehaving, and misusing it. There’s a bunch of technology that, of course, we use at its best, but I love that, again, transdisciplinarity of bringing your discipline into a discipline outside of your comfort zone, or of your expertise, and knowing that something new is born. Technology is so ready to be misused in that way.

Tjaša: I love this. This actually reminds me of Naveen Jain, who is an entrepreneur, and he always delves into something he doesn’t know anything about, and then develops, launches new companies and new products, but from the beginner’s perspective. He says that basically, if you keep working around the problem that has been established thirty years ago, and finding ways around it, there is no creativity. If you approach it as a beginner, and ask the stupid questions, you actually have an opportunity of getting to a new place.

Rubén: That’s right, and acknowledging that, in fact, you do have expertise from another area that you can bring into it. I’ll go to fine art for an easier metaphor, but the idea is, a filmmaker can bring all of their filmmaking skills, and actually make a painting. That painting will not at all look like the work that someone with a pedigree and training in painting does, but it is still something, and there is a possibility that that filmmaker, in interjecting those disciplines, might engage with a whole historied field in a new way. You may look at that and say, “That painting is really cinematic.” I’m being reductive, but I think the idea is, in crossing those spaces is interesting.

Something worth noting is, I’m Mexican. I grew up in Northern Mexico. My entire life I grew up in this borderland state, in the north of Mexico, the U.S. is very present, this crossing back and forth. I realized that, even though a long time ago I certainly acknowledged that’s part of my identity as a borderlander, I realized that’s actually also part of my identity as an artist, which is the idea of actually crossing borders. The minute that you tell me as an artist, “Oh no, you can’t do this because you don’t have the training,” I immediately want to build a bridge and cross it. If you tell me, “Ruben, you didn’t go to a dance school, so you can’t choreograph,” I would bring all of my expertise, and choreograph with that. When you tell me, “That technology is a little past your training,” I feel like, “Give it to me.” I actually want to build that bridge. This borderlander stance really becomes a way of approaching not only my own identity, and not only collaboration, not only art making, but also the engagement with technology.

Tjaša: It feels like the extreme point of view and commitment that you bring to trying something is exactly what makes it good, regardless of your pedigree, and of the institutional building blocks of what we consider education, and the correct approaches to start something.

Rubén: That’s right, and again, there are an incredible number of folks in the company who are so wonderfully trained in a whole host of technology. It certainly begins with sharing knowledge, not negating it, for sure. If someone sitting next to me can show me how to use this, then great. I’m not going to negate that knowledge, and say, “No, let me misuse it.” Again, I think it’s about not inventing limits, particularly in a creative stance. If we were talking about the use of technology in medicine, then don’t give it to me, give it to someone who has a training. The use of technology in art, to me, it’s about discovering. I think really, it’s about looking at it as a tool, it really is, and it goes back to my own training as a biochemist. Really, that’s the work of the company, but that extends to theatre as well.

To us, theatre is a tool. I don’t have a romance with theatre. In other words, I don’t necessarily feel like I love the smell of the theatre seats, and the curtain, and the stage. To me, it’s a tool. It’s a tool that invites that transdisciplinary. It’s a tool that invites the collaboration that creates innovation. It all feels really rich in its possibility when you interject the tool of theatre, the tool of technology, the tool of performance and so forth.

Tjaša: I wonder if there was one core question that you had, that led you from biochemistry to theatre? I remember, when I self-reflect, for me, when I first started doing science theatre, that was for The Female Role Model Project, I really wanted to know how my consciousness works as an actor. How am I different when I’m playing Lady Macbeth versus when I’m playing Kate from Taming of the Shrew? How does the character inform my own brain, and what does that mean in terms of consciousness? Of course, my question was insane, and extraordinarily ambitious, and it turns out that nobody knows anything about consciousness, and there are all these different schools, but ultimately, still nobody knows for sure anything about consciousness. I can really say, this was my core question that led me to science theatre. What was the core question that led you from biochemistry to theatre?

I believe as human beings, we’re designed to pursue impossible questions. We pursue love. Nobody reaches a given Thursday and says, “I found love, I’m done, cool. Friday, I’ll find happiness.”… It is this impossible goal that then sets you on a journey.

Rubén: Yeah, it’s a great question, and thank you for sharing yours. I’m into your question, and actually, mine is related to it. For me, it comes from the idea of a whole moment in the engagement between an audience and art. What I mean by a whole moment is, that moment, and we’ve all experienced it, I think everyone’s experienced it at least once, if not many times, which is this moment where the artwork in whatever shape, form, space, you name it, it engages the intellectual part of who you are, it engages the emotional part of who you are. It engages your eyes, it engages your ears, but it also engages your spirit. When all of those things happen in the same moment, when the syncopation of viewing, in other words, I’ll speak of performance, which is, I’ve used something funny and then I laugh. There’s syncopation, a back and forth.

When something happens, and all of those melt, it literally is a snap, and you feel it, you get the chills, there’s an eruptious laughter, there’s a gasp, it’s a moment that goes “swoosh,” something happens, and you feel it. When I say the spirit, I don’t mean in any religious or theological way, I truly mean something that transcends the limits of your own human body. You feel connected to the people there. For me, in my biochemistry language, the research question is, how can you create an artwork that is that moment from beginning to end? Is that even possible? Would the audience collapse, and say, “Get me out of here?” Would the artist be like, “I can’t do this anymore.” What would happen? Like you, for me, that question became an impossible question, and I like that, because it aligns with a deep belief of mine that, I believe as human beings, we’re designed to pursue impossible questions.

We pursue love. Nobody reaches a given Thursday and says, “I found love, I’m done, cool. Friday, I’ll find happiness.” The idea is, those goals change, you change, the landscape around you changes. It is this impossible goal that then sets you on a journey. This idea of this whole moment really becomes the drive of the company. It really is the foundation of the company. One of the first things that I introduced was that, in order to do that, we couldn’t function as a contractor company that hired people per project. There was a need for this biochemistry model, which is that you are working with the same individuals. You can bring in different experts, and different collaboratives, but there’s a core group that is obsessing about this research question. How do you prepare for that whole moment? How do you train? What do you generate? How do you engage audiences? That continues to be the drive of the company, and at this moment, technology has played a huge role.

I jokingly often tell my students, check back with me in twenty years. We might be obsessed with dirt, and rocks, and technology has gone out the window. For me, it’s again, not a romance around technology. At the moment, it’s a tool to investigate that question. I’ll join you in the impossibility of your question, because it sets the journey. It has set us on this journey.

Tjaša: Absolutely, totally agree. On the sidelines, you mentioned your core company, and just a little bit from a producorial perspective, I’m curious, how do you nourish a core group of actors and collaborators through, usually your works take about two years of prep and investigation until they’re ready for a performance. In American theatre, we mostly know the model of either repertory theatres, huge theatres, or actors that are, for the most part, compensated around the time of performances. How do you navigate this, and how do you nourish your actors?

Rubén: Thank you for that question. I’m always very proud of that aspect of our organization. I think for us, there’s a framework as artists engage in the company, and ultimately, become company members. One of the first is that every artist in Theater Mitu really identifies as a hyphenate. There’s already an inherent interdisciplinary in them, and then a transdisciplinary interest.

The other is, people will ask me, what’s the difference between someone who’s in the company and someone who you work with that’s not in the company? Which sounds a little, you’re in or you’re out, which is not the intent. To me, the difference is a very straightforward one, which is, the individuals who are part of the company have decided that making and building the company is part of their arts practice. That opens up a whole other system of support, because what that means is, as an organization, Theater Mitu not only creates this new works, but we actually have five other programs that we run that are education programs, they’re development programs, they’re interdisciplinary collaborative programs, they’re technology support programs. It is the company that runs that organization. All of a sudden, your livelihood isn’t simply coming from the making of a show.

I’ll give an example. A dear company member, Monica Sanborn, is of course a key collaborator in this work, but she’s also the producer of our hybrid arts lab work, and also functions as one of the support systems for our artists at home. All of a sudden, it begins to create the tapestry that, as artists, a creative livelihood, but it becomes an in-house. By definition, there are company members… this is not monastic, so company members are also working on other projects, but that framework allows for a flexibility that allows company members to engage in other projects but still have a home that can, over the year, be their support structure.

I’m very proud of the fact that it creates a really meaningful support structure, and you have a home to depend on. We also have full-time company members who are full-time staff, and that’s another structure. For the company, from very early on, when we started, I made a commitment to paying the company a living wage in any engagement, even if it meant we developed the work more slowly, which is really what happened. That became a boon, because then we could percolate on the work. Livelihood is really just time. It just gives people time and focus. That’s a little bit of the patchwork, and it’s an ongoing practice for me and for the rest of us. How do we make it more robust? Moving into our space added a whole host of other beautiful needs that are answered by staffing for the company members, and so forth.

Tjaša: Brilliant structure. I’m also super proud of you. That’s beautiful, and that’s rare.

Rubén: Thanks.

Tjaša: I’m curious about Utopian Hotline. You performed it at BAM, in partnership with SETI Institute, Arizona State University’s interplanetary initiative, and Brooklyn Independent Middle School. I love all of your partners. Can you speak a little bit about how you got these partners, and how they were actually involved in creating this project?

Rubén: Really, our work is born from a very pure instinct, or from very pure instincts. As we were all, as a world, navigating the pandemic, we started a practice as a company of coming together every Friday as a company on Zoom, just to check in with each other. Really, just to be like, “Are you washing your apples? What’s happening?” It was that moment. As things began to calm down, and either we began to normalize or the situation normalized, we started talking just about art, and about how we were feeling. One of our great concerns was hope, and the loneliness that was being created by this fractured moment. Was there an absence of hope? A company member, Dennis, had this really almost embarrassingly naive instinct to set up this hotline inspired by these 1980s hotlines, that told you, “Call this number, and tell us what you think about this radio station.”

He was with family in Portland, and he went around Portland on his bicycle in the dead of winter, and put up these signs that said, “How do you imagine a more perfect future? Please call this number.” It didn’t say art, it didn’t say Theater Mitu, it didn’t say anything. In fact, the poster was very eighties, seventies looking, put it all over the place. We were sure nobody would call, and then, people called. Tons and tons and tons of people called, and the Friday meetings with Mitu became us listening to these voicemails. The voicemails were beautiful, hilarious. People cried on it, people prayed for us. People sang to us, people told us jokes. People put their kids on the phone. It was literally humanity saying, “There is hope.” Even thinking about it makes me very emotional.

We felt like we were holding this really beautiful archive, this snapshot, not of the future, but of the futures, and felt like, how do we hold an art space that can share these with audiences? That really began Utopian Hotline, which is really a theatrical installation that invites you to almost sit inside this archive. Those texts are musicalized, spoken, technologized, visualized, and even the way you do it is, you’re on headphones. It’s this installation with four performers. You’re on these comfy white cushions on a pink carpet. One of my favorite things is, people don’t like leaving when it’s over. It’s about an hour long, and people just stay, because the voice messages keep going in your head. Everybody feels really taken care of in a continuing moment, where I think that’s important.

When we started dreaming up the project early on, we do this with all Mitu projects, the question is, what are the windows that we’re opening that are letting in new ideas, and new imaginations? Who are our partners? I think for us, we are the group of artists who are bringing the art question. Who’s bringing the other questions? Who’s bringing the science question, the community question? We truly dream up partners, and it’s the silliest game, I’ll call it, which is, if we could work with anyone on this, who would it be? Then we reach out, we just reach out. Trust me, we reach out to one hundred people, and out of that we get responses. Some become, “Not now.” Some become, “How interesting, let’s stay in conversation. Some become, “We were just talking about that.”

We developed this really beautiful conversation with Seti, which is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which is born out of NASA and MIT, and has a really incredible collection of astrophysicists, of astronauts, of scientists, of physicists who come together, not really to look for aliens per se, but they’re looking at sound waves, and what’s bouncing through the universe. They were big in the conversation of the golden record that was sent with humanity’s message. That started that conversation. We also felt we wanted to speak to what I think are the greatest keepers of hope, which are children. We partnered with Brooklyn Independent, which is a charter school here in Brooklyn. If you want to hear an astounding and visionary look at the future, ask a ten-year-old. Truly, we spoke to astronauts and astrophysicists who gave us these incredible answers, and then a sixth grader told us the same thing in clearer terms.

Tjaša: I love that, and I am not surprised. There’s just this new research that’s coming out that basically, 98 percent of everybody born are geniuses, and that eventually, the school system just suffocates the genius out of you by the time you are ten. Thank God you spoke to ten-year-olds. If you spoke to an eleven, you might’ve been too late.

Rubén: Yes, it’s true. We have this beautiful recording of a younger student, she must be maybe seven, and she tells us, very in a sassy way, she doesn’t understand the confusion about the future. She says the future is right now. Every moment is the future, and she’s really adamant about it. When we speak to an astrophysicist who’s talking about our perception of time, and the idea that the future is an illusion, and in fact, this moment is the future, we live in the future, they’re saying the same thing, which is, pay attention. Be hopeful now, not just be hopeful that you’ll be hopeful. It was this beautiful call to action, and our partners have been really wonderful.

I’ll tell you, as a little footnote, through a collaboration with SETI, we are part of something called lunar codex. The lunar codex is a really exciting project that, with one of the small shuttles that are going to be the moon, it will have an archive of contemporary artwork. We are sending Utopian Hotline to the moon.

Tjaša: Beautiful.

Rubén: The idea is that, when that detaches from the moon, it’ll travel through space, and it’s intended to be received either by other sentient beings or by us hundreds and hundreds of years from now. To me, to send out the question about the future, and about hope into the future has been a really moving thing. Look up the lunar codex. It’s beautiful, and it’s a gorgeous project.

Tjaša: I will. Wow. This project that we are going to talk about now is not really out yet. It’s still in the making, it’s still in its growing stages. It’s funny how I got to it. I was a juror on Belle Getty’s grant, and when I saw the proposal for (Holy) Blood, I just fell in love with it. Basically, (Holy) Blood explores inherited cultural trauma through the history of a young boy who grows up to be a murderer. What causes people to commit violent acts? How do we escape from the traumas of our past? Holy Blood draws freely from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film, I love Jodorowsky, Santa Sangre, and director Ruben Palendo’s childhood experiences attending Pentecostal revival churches in Juarez, Mexico. So amazing. Tell me more. What have been your childhood experiences in Juarez, Mexico?

Rubén: All the projects are, of course, very personal projects, but this is a particularly personal project for me. As I mentioned, I grew up in Mexico. I grew up going to Pentecostal churches my whole life, and these are really interesting spaces because they’re, of course, religious spaces. They’re, of course, very set in a fundamental read of the Christian Bible, but they’re also community spaces. Though it is a faith and a belief system, with a lot of respect to my parents, that I have walked away from, there is still this bittersweetness to the memory of that community, and how a child sees that memory. From very early on, I think I was in high school maybe, I saw Jodorowsky’s film, Santa Sangre, and was floored. Was floored because it is dealing with a child’s lens, in the case of the movie, through seeing his mother engaged in this deeply consuming faith, and his love for his mother makes him love that faith.

It’s also about, between his mother and his father, this community that’s created around. When those spaces become injurious, I think the adult version is, you just move away from those communities. As we all know, through the lens of a child, it’s a very different framework, because that’s the only community you have. There’s both this knowing repelling to that damage, but also this magnetization, because there’s love, and there’s community. Jodorowsky does this brilliant thing where in the narrative, the child’s able to attempt to hold both of those realities, which of course, become too much. Jodorowsky then finds us into a second chapter of the film, where the young boy has grown up, and we come to learn that he has committed and continues to commit these horrible actions.

Jodorowsky does something interesting, which is, I think to not make it such a direct psychological drama, he really hyper-theatricalizes both those horrific acts as well as the memory space. It enters the realm of mythology. You’re no longer having a reaction for this poor kid, and the horrible things. You begin to almost see yourself in the nuances of it, not necessarily in the actions of it. The film was really effective, and resonating. Over many years I’ve been bringing it to the company, to see how we interject with it.

The last thing I’ll say is that Jodorowsky, very much aligning with his own beliefs, the film really explores, by the end of it, how do we heal from that? Is there healing? In that moment, you realize that little boy, and that man is actually a proxy for society. Can something break so much that you let go of the belief that it can heal, or do you take a stance where you hold on to the belief that it can heal, even while the thing is still cracking, even while the thing is still injurious? That started resonating to us in this moment. It isn’t just hope about the future, but it’s hope that healing is actually part and practice of the future, even again, as more and more things are fracturing our world, our society, our environment.

It really spoke, and so we started delving into, how do we theatricalize that and how do we take Jodorowsky’s material and begin to engage with it? Again, technology becomes part and parcel of that. We started engaging with sensors and reactivities, because the film, the characters and narrative are so reactive from one to the other that we were trying to mimic that, and to create proxies for some of the characters by way of what we term puppets, but are actually these technological inventions of screens and boxes, and so forth. If you hear me being a little clumsier about it than Utopian Hotline, it’s because we are literally making it. I just feel like, check back with me in six months, because I might be saying, “Never mind, it is now a dance with microphones.” For now, I think the exploration continues to reveal something about that healing space.

Tjaša: No, I get it. By being immersed in it, you see the multiplicity of it. You see this kaleidoscopic image of all these perspectives that coexist, and even the paradoxes coming at each other, but paradoxes always need to coexist.

Rubén: Yeah, that’s right. For folks who may not know the film, as I mentioned, the film follows a little boy. His father owns a circus, runs a circus. His mother is part of a Christian cult that venerates a saint who’s lost her arms. Already, we start with that. Through a series of really violent interactions between his mother and his father, the father kills the mother, and trigger warning for folks, as it gets a little gory, in so doing, he replicates what’s happened to the mother saint, and removes her arms. This is a very violent moment. That’s the core trauma. What happens is, when we meet the young character as an adult, he’s been institutionalized. When we meet him, it’s because there’s a call to his window, and it is his now armless mother who helps him escape. In so doing, he must become her arms.

For the rest of the movie, again, for folks who haven’t seen it, he is actually behind her being her arms. It’s actually the mother who kills people, and particularly, he kills any woman that the male character is attracted to. Whenever he tries to be romantic, the mother appears, takes over his arms, and proceeds to kill that woman. She’s not going to let anyone hurt her little boy. Number one, the theatricality of those scenes is incredible, because the arms really belong to the mother, so much so that you believe it. He is literally saying, “Don’t make me do this.” What happens, and this is a spoiler alert, and I’m so sorry, by the time we reach the end of the film, this male character discovers love, real love, and he can’t bring himself to harm that. He actually would come to realize that in fact, the mother died when she lost her arms, and the rest has been a figment of his own trauma, and his imagination, and he’s been haunted to do that.

You realize that what Jodorowsky has done has created this really intense metaphor, and I’m not suggesting that all of us are haunted in this way, of the way that childhood trauma haunts us, and the way that we actually invent a narrative where that is what’s controlling us. Jodorowsky’s invitation is, these are your arms, not the arms of that child, but these are your arms. Yes, the process of healing, and yes, the process of reclaiming them is difficult. The film ends with that revelation, and so much so, again, the spoiler alert is, he’s captured by the police and so forth. In this very simple moment, the police say, “Put your hands up,” and the character looks at his hands and says, “They’re my hands.” It’s the first time he realizes, and he both takes responsibility for the horrors, but also frees himself.

Again, Jodorowsky does this magical thing where somehow, it does not become ripped from the headline news. It becomes mythology, it becomes this ancient text of some sorts, or it reads like a myth. For me, I think the entire alchemy of that story, and how do we not pornographize the violence, but actually continue to mythologize it, otherwise, we get too much blood on us. It actually wants to be this metaphor, and Jodorowsky does a really elegant job, which is why we’re not necessarily leaving the film in the dust, but using parts of it, and engaging it. That’s really the core experiment of it.

Tjaša: You’re also using puppets in it, that have these sensors and cameras embedded in them, which will be then projected, basically, as their point of view. All of a sudden, these puppets are humanized, and have a point of view. Can you tell us a little bit about, what’s the relationship between these robots, these puppets versus humans? Who are the characters?

Rubén: Yeah, I’m glad to hear you call them puppets, robots, because we ourselves don’t know what to call them. In our last workshop, which we call a laboratory, one of them has grown to be what would best be described as this huge box that is twelve feet wide by five feet… sorry, twelve feet tall by five feet wide. Has sensors inside it, and it bleeds on you fake blood. It’s a whole theatrical thing, and it has a front that’s just… we looked at it, and we were like, “That puppet has grown. I don’t know what it is anymore.” I think it’s exactly what you just said, it’s about affording different points of view.

I think the thing that theatre can do so successfully is invite a range of points of access. In the most traditional sense, if I am staging a scene from Hamlet on stage, the invitation is really to the entirety of the stage. I cannot control what your access point is. You may be looking at Ophelia, the person next to you at Hamlet, the person next to you at the light. To me, that’s a really democratic engagement with the artwork, because everybody has the different entry points. Someone can be focusing on the music.

Our hope is to engage, with (Holy) Blood, with the original film, and create these multiple access points, and to create these range of points of view, so that the music is a point of view. The screens are point of view. The puppets, and I use the term quite capaciously, the puppets are a different point of view. The cameras are a different point of view, so that one begins to have some complete empathy that the situation is not a forward-facing situation, that injury is not a one point of view situation, that harm is not a one point of view situation.

Again, none of it is really didactic in terms of proposing life, so therefore, feel bad for it, or understand it. It really is, just see it in its fullness, and perhaps that begins to decode it. Point of view is the gorgeous touchstone, and access for the audience.

Tjaša: Beautiful. You also have gyroscopes in these puppets, robots. What’s really the story of proximity and distance here?

Rubén: Distance is a really important thing. It’s funny how we use that in our poetics in the world. Somebody is emotionally disconnected, and we’ll say, “Hey, you’re very distant right now.” We’re really obsessed with the relationship between both bodies in space, and object and body, and so forth. How can we as an audience experience that? Therefore, we as artists dilate it. On its most simple level, the idea is, here’s an object. The closer you get, if we attach a sensor that has a sound, it’ll go louder, louder, louder, louder, a little less loud. That sensitivity with sensors can exist in a 360, so we can begin to locate the object, the puppet or the box. Therefore, actually manifesting the emotional, I can curate that sound to let you know that object does not like it when you get close to them, but that doesn’t have to be a sound. That sound could be fake blood, it could be water, it could be something reactive, but the intensity of it can be in relationship to proximity. How do you begin to create emotional and character sketches with that idea? Stay tuned.

Tjaša: Yeah, I love it, because all of a sudden, it’s so complex. All of a sudden, you have 360 points.

Rubén: That’s right.

Tjaša: Which can be completely different. You approach me from my back, and actually, I pee on you. You approach me from my left, and I want to kiss you.

Rubén: That’s exactly right. To me, it’s actually about… really, by image I mean both sound and image, but it’s about creating images that invite the audience to be a storyteller, to be like, “Ah, therefore.” This is a stance that I love when our work does to our audiences. It isn’t a passive engagement, where you’re simply receiving a story from us, but it’s actually quite an active one, where you’re receiving images that are inviting you to actually bring those fractures together. This idea of multiple experiences is really exciting. Yeah, the gyroscope does that 360, and again, I have a big smile on my face, I think you can attest to this, which is, it’s just so tasty to begin to get an emotional impact from these technological tools.

We’ll be exploring, exploring, and then all of a sudden I look at the rest of the company and we’re crying, because somebody chose a sound, and the shape of the puppet, and the proximity, and you’re like, “I am so moved by that.” Then it’s up to us to then contextualize that, and give it a lift, so that it becomes a really gorgeous image to hold.

Tjaša: Beautiful. Are all characters puppets, or do you also have some human actors on stage?

Rubén: Yeah, so this is how Mitu talks about new projects: These are the things that we know.

Tjaša: Okay.

Rubén: There are these reactive structures, we’ll call them puppets for now. Stay tuned, they may be twelve feet tall and four feet wide, or they may be the size of my hand. There are performers on stage. We have re-scored the entire musical soundscape so that it aligns with that reactivity, so that it’s baked in there. There is some language that we have interjected that will be sung. There is this fairly immersive fracture of multiple screens, so that we’ve fractured parts of the film into this three-dimensionality. At the moment, there is some manifestation of other characters as disembodied voices, that are voiced and manipulated by the performers. These are the things that we know. There’s a lot of fake blood, I’m excited to say.

Tjaša: Is it minty?

Rubén: It’s minty, it’s fresh. There is an extraordinary amount of fake blood.

Tjaša: Wow.

Rubén: The space is covered in plastic from top to bottom. It is very intentionally very fake blood, because we want to stay in this myth space. It has a lot of tongue in cheek to it, but I think still makes an impact. Therefore, that’s why I mentioned that some of those puppets react by way of that blood. Again, it doesn’t mean that they bleed, it means that it may bleed at you as another performer engages, or if they are inside the puppet. We’ll see.

Tjaša: The puppet could bleed on the operator. She’s like, “You are not the boss of me.”

Rubén: Well, that’s what just happened in the last laboratory, the large box that you can go inside of them. It just bled on the person inside as an allergic reaction to that which controls the—

Tjaša: Wow, autoimmune disease system.

Rubén: Kind of a social set of autoimmune, which is interesting.

Tjaša: I’m so excited. I can’t wait to see it. Oh my God.

Rubén: It will premiere at the end of April and May of next year, of 2024, at Mitu580. I’ll send the link, and please join us for a really bloody adventure with Theater Mitu’s (Holy) Blood.

Tjaša: Perfect, fantastic. Thank you so much, Ruben. This was so beautiful, and I’m just so excited about your work.

Rubén: Oh my God, thank you for having me. Really inspiring to talk to you.

Tjaša: Likewise.

This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this show, and other HowlRound shows wherever you find podcasts. If you love this podcast, I sure hope you did, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. If you’re looking for more progressive and disruptive content, visit howlround.com.



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