To start off the school year I made two lists for my advance theatre students. I’ll give them the two topics and ask them to generate their own lists; we will discuss their recordings; then I will share my lists with them. The first is a list of things theatre teaches. The second is a list of traits creative people possess. This blog will address my views on the skills theatre instills.
The arts in general add to a well-rounded education; as a student I knew I loved my fine art classes but I did not have the vocabulary or understanding of the practices that were shaping me to become more confident, successful and healthy. Theatre had no value in my rural, Mexican-American, lower socio-economic world. My first exposure to theatre was church Christmas programs and a first grade musical where every grade sang a different song which loosely propelled a weak plot. So there was not a lot of exposure to theatre from my family or my early school years. My dad was visiting this week-end, as I was writing this blog; we have great conversations, so I thought I’d get his views on art in his farmer-rancher life. Our conversation provided some insight to begin my list of skills theatre instills. Throughout the blog I have bold some phrases; their highlight alludes to my discoveries and marks ideas for me to later define as skills. I hope the bold does not distract from the story-telling, but rather models the process of how I accomplished my list.
I approached the subject by asking my dad, “Where’s your old saxophone?”
My dad, Aureliano (Willie) Garcia, dropped out of school in the 6th grade. He blames my grandfather who lured him to stay home on the family ranch with a new tractor which needed a skilled operator. Farming and ranching are the only life he ever knew; he is now 85 years old. He is passionate about working the land and it pains me to see his frustration because he can no longer climb onto his tractor as easily as he once did. His back can no longer endure the arduous, rhythmic hours of back and forth tractor U-turns. With only a 6th grade education, my dad is the smartest man I know. Dad was also a very skilled alto sax musician.
On my front porch over-looking the Texas hill country, oak trees, some near-by grazing deer, fawn and buck we sipped our early morning coffee and I asked him, “Where’s your old saxophone?” His face changed. I saw his eyes drop. Like me, Dad has a very serious face. My friends were scared of him saying he looked mean. I now recognize Dad’s constant expression as one of deep thought and wisdom. His eyes and wrinkles were not reflecting meanness, but instead a sign of earnest thought and contemplation. Dad is quick to opine and often interrupts, but not this time. I saw his lips tightened, hesitating. It was as if the muscle memory in his lips tasted the old wooden saxophone reeds. It was as if his lost gaze scouted dancers circling a wooden dance floor.
“Well, when your mom asked me to quit the band… (pause) she asked if I loved the band more than my young kids? Well, I put the saxophone under the bed and that ended the band.” He’s silent again looking down the old rock side walk that leads to my porch, but that’s not what he’s sees. I know that he sees what is not there; he sees a corn colored saxophone case. He feels the old royal-burgundy velvet lining that cradled a shiny brass artifact. That beautiful saxophone is his symbol of a passion stronger than old stepping stones. He understands symbols. His silence breaks, “Years later, I gave the saxophone to your brother, Frank, when he started band in school.”
Dad and his fellow cotton farmer-rancher-brothers, played in a band named Los Hermanos Garcia. My grandfather, a land owner, in Spur, Texas, owned a dance hall on the south end of Main Street and on weekends the music of Los Hermanos Garcia provided a much needed escape for the barracks of migrant workers and local field hands who hoed weeds or picked cotton. “What was your favorite song to play?” With no hesitation he surprisingly answered, “Five Minutes More.” He even sang a bit of the refrain for me. I was expecting him to announce a conjunto title, not a Frank Sinatra tune. The conjunto sound originated in south Texas and was influenced by the German setters who introduced the accordion and oompah-pah rhythms. Los Hermanos Garcia played conjunto-polkas, jitter-bug, and country and western. They covered the music of Isidro Lopez, Gene Autry, Lefty Frizell, and Conjunto Bernal.
Dad loves to tell the story of how he met my Mom, Lupe Gaona. He was on stage playing his saxophone, when he saw her from a distance and knew he’d better go dance with her fast before another guy beat him to her. He bowed out of a song or two to request a dance. He says, “I held her as delicately as I held my sax.” Dad was slick.
“Did you take music lessons?” He laughs and shakes his head at how ridiculous my question was. As a child he imitated his Uncle Martin’s finger placements and taught himself to play the violin. “Me and my Tio Martin’ were hired to play the fiddle for White people’s parties,” he brags. He later saw a travelling band come through Spur and heard his first saxophone. His father bought him a sax and once again, Dad taught himself how to play.
“How?” I ask.
“I could just feel it. I don’t know; I just tried it ‘til it sounded right. You have talent teaching and with drama; everybody has a talent. ” Dad is also a deacon at our family parish church, St. Michael’s in Ralls, TX. His explanation segues into scripture as naturally as notes blend into harmonic chord progressions. “The arm can’t do what the legs can do; the eyes can’t do what the ears can do. People have different skills. But it takes the whole body to make things work.”
“Do you miss the saxophone?”
“I sing at church. I like when the guitars play at church.”
“But do you miss playing the saxophone?”
“I miss driving the tractor more,” he laughs.
As a student of art, a student of how creativity works, or just as an artist, I know that sometimes words are not enough to express a feeling. Art tries to capture that mammoth inexplicable emotion via color, via line, via dance, via the images and poetry of theatre. Does my dad miss the saxophone music he created? Of course he does, but a simple yes or a shamed no is too easy. To store one’s passion underneath a bed is… is … is too emotional to describe.
“When we played at those Saturday night dances, I knew we made people feel good, relax, dance, have fun. When I played the saxophone I got into the music; I could feel it and the music made me forget how tired we were. My body got into it; I use to swing the sax up and down while I played, not dancing or showing off. My arms just had to move with the music. The people thought it was show, but it wasn’t.”
As an artist, I understand how art gives people pleasure and an escape and a collective gathering of universal themes and spirit. Art also gives people the opportunity to improve the quality of life in a community. Art provides for social and emotional development, even in a dance hall in Spur, Texas. Remember your first dance?
“Were the Mexican migrant workers ok with ya’ll playing Country and Western and Jitterbug, not just Spanish music?”
“They loved it! Everybody liked to Jitterbug. It’s good too for a band to have different songs, some slow ones, some fast one, some English ones, some Spanish ones.”
As an artist I know how the arts can teach empathy and cultural diversity, multiple perspectives. I understand how the collaboration of theatre reflects equitable opportunity. Art teaches that there is more than one way to reach the same goal. The world is complex and art teaches that small differences can have huge effects. Dad did not know that Conjunto music has its origins in German roots, “No; Conjunto is Mexican music he argued.” Once I explained and had him listen to some oompah-pah on You Tube, he said, “Well our Mexican food is better.” Competition is also a wonderful American right.
“Let me ask you a question Rick,” my Dad interjected, “You don’t listen to the radio when you drive. You don’t have a television in this house; don’t you like music?”
He’s correct; I’m the family odd ball when it comes to loud parties and music. “I like quiet,” I explained what he already knew; “I need time to shut out everything around me and listen to what’s inside my head.”
“I pray too,” my dad added creating a harmonic jump in our theme. “You like to write; you tell good stories. When I’m writing my homily for church, I meditate.”
“I learned to tell stories from your sermons,” I complimented him; “I can tell the congregation loves when you talk. I learned by listening to your stories.”
“God gave you that gift, not me,“ he corrects me.
As an artist I understand the spirit that the arts fulfill. I get lost in the passion of directing a play or writing or designing; I forget it’s late and do not even need sleep when the inspiration clicks. My dad says he could feel the music. When one synchs with one’s passion, it’s holy and complete.
Aureliano Garcia wanted all his sons to grow up and be farmers and ranchers. Although not one of his five sons followed, I, the least likely candidate, am now the caretaker of our family ranch. I was a horrible teen farmer; I broke everything. Dad once told me it was going to be cheaper to put me through college that to keep me on the farm. This morning I asked him if he remembered how several years ago I wanted to implement some changes at the ranch. He shook his head no. I described how I wanted to reroute some of the ranch roads and do some landscaping. I explained how I thought the road would be prettier skirting the hillside bluffs and winding around some trees by the stock tank. I wanted to put some flowering bushes at the entrance gate. He still did not recall this. I remind him of his reaction, “This is a ranch not a park!” We both laughed.
Like an artist, I know Dad understands the need for beauty and aesthetics. He loves to tell the stories of how straight he cultivated his fields; “and we didn’t have that GPS,” he reminds me. He often critiques the amateur lop-sided structure of round hay bales he sees in fields. My dad has much pride in his work. He sometimes mentions the inconsistent color scheme of mixed-breed cows in some rancher’s herds. Art gives individuals a connection with a deeper beauty.
Several years ago, I considered moving back to the ranch; the romantic isolation might provide a better setting for my writing. I discussed it with my Dad. He wisely noted, “We would like to have you here, but you belong in the city.”
The artist in me taught me to take risks and leave “la familia”. The artist in me allowed me to turn the obstacles of poverty and void of college education in our family into resourcefulness. The artist in me teaches me to shake things up, remain curious, and to fail and still look up.
Like my brother, Frank, I also played a saxophone in the Ralls High School band and was a small part of what, in unison, created something big. I also performed in our school’s theatre; learned to experience other worlds; learned to walk around in someone else’s shoes. I designed and built sets; I found satisfaction and pride in my work, it made me proud of blue collar construction skills learned from life on a farm. I wrote in our school journalism program and craved the creative writing opportunities in English classes. All arts bring a project to fruition. It taught me to connect the dots and see what was not already there.
Dad was not a patron of the theatre. He saw all my football and basketball games, but he never saw me on the high school stage. He didn’t see me perform until I was 30 years old in Cucuy, The Mexican Bogeyman, a one-man-show I had written, directed, and performed. The show was an autobiographical piece about growing up rural, Mexican, and poor. It was about the artistic traits that alienated and labeled me ugly names in a country town. The play also wove traditional Hispanic folklore into my personal ghost stories, my skeletons in the closet. Just before the show, my mom came backstage and said, “You know your father’s in the audience.” She was referring to a piece in the show which recounted Dad’s absence from home and alcohol abuse. Mom continued, “We are real proud of you, but I don’t like the way you talk about your father and I don’t like the way you talk about Jesus.” The show went on with no edits. I was 30 years old the first time Dad saw me perform. My Dad saw a show about me, about us. He cried. We cried together. I’ll never forget his words that day, “You’re better than anything I see on television.” Art also heals.
I’m writing but I do not see words; I see a saxophone underneath a bed. I spell check and check grammar, but I can’t perfect the emotions beyond my fingertips; I can’t explain how art saved me and how art saved my relationship with my father. I can’t communicate how the artist son now sees the beauty and metaphor in the farm and ranch he hated and dared leave.
My fingers tap on a keyboard, but that’s not what I hear; I hear a low saxophone note, F sharp, underscoring my Dad saying, “You’re better than anything I see on television.”
Theatre Taught Me
- To see the big picture, there’s more than one way to reach a goal, see multiple perspectives
- To fail and learn from that failure and keep your eye on the passion and the goal
- To communicate what cannot be spoken, think through images, music, dance, poetry, savor language
- To practice good judgment vs following how-its-always-been-done-rules, take risks, remain curious
- To feel empathy, respect those different than you, respect views different than your own, understand universal connection, recognize equitable opportunities
- To create community, participate in civic obligations, grow socially and emotionally
- To bring projects to fruition
- To create silence and meditate
- To recognize and create beauty
- To utilize and respect labor skills, take pride in one’s work
- To cooperate and work as a team
- To embrace one’s passion, respect another’s passion
- To think abstractly, understand symbolism and metaphors
- To become resourceful when there are lack of resources
- To Heal