CHAS CROSLIN: MAKING ART WITH MUSIC, THEATER AND PUPPETS AT EL TEATRO CAMPESINO
In the process of doing this interview with my dear friend Chas Croslin, it occurred to me that I am advocating and promoting the art of conversation. Although this interview with Chas was done via email, he and I have continued a conversation we started when we first met in Boston in 2012 at Theatre Communication Group’s annual conference.
Since we met, we have scheduled conversations over the phone during my long drives across the Mojave Desert to see my family in Las Vegas. We’ve taken advantage of Skype and caught up with the goings on in our lives. And during his recent visit to Los Angeles, we talked and laughed over dim sum in Chinatown.
Chas is a talented and dedicated artistic jack-of-all-trades and I enjoy hearing about his many adventures in music, art, and the theater world at the local, national, and international levels. Below are some of the things we talk about and some that I hadn’t asked about yet but which I learned during the course of this interview.
Readers, this is Chas Croslin.
Where did you grow up? Where’d you go to school? What are your artistic interests?
CROSLIN: I was born and raised in rural central Michigan. I got an Associate’s degree at our local community Delta College, then transferred to University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where I got a Bachelor’s degree in the History of Art.
Artistic interests have always been all over the map, but music, theatre, and film have been the biggest. Music has always been central and has challenged and rewarded for me for over thirty years. I gravitated towards drums and started playing when I was around 10 years old. I also now play guitar and sing as well. Music has allowed me to connect and collaborate with a broad range of people throughout my life. I’ve played rock, folk, jazz, corridos, experimental, nueva canción, new wave, bossa nova and lots of combinations.
You and I almost did not do this interview because you were concerned about being a White guy doing work with and by people of color and that this might be perceived as appropriation of culture. Can you talk to me more about that?
CROSLIN: Well, almost. Let’s clarify. I identify as a “white guy.” I have been working with El Teatro Campesino going on about ten years and would not characterize my work with the company as an appropriation of culture. I participate with the company in representations of Latino, Chicano, and indigenous experiences in the Americas, but do not pretend to be anyone other than who I am or profess to know anything that I do not. I am constantly learning, sharing, and am extremely proud of the work that I do with El Teatro Campesino.
Actually, I was concerned about being a white guy taking up space on Latinopia.com. Mainstream media outlets fall short of the ideal of being open to the voices and experiences of people of all cultures and colors. In absence of fair and balanced coverage, culturally specific platforms like Latinopia.com become crucial outlets for voices and ideas. I am concerned about taking up space in forums where underrepresented voices are featured.
What made you change your mind about doing this interview?
CROSLIN: My discussions with you are what made me change my mind. The name of this blog is “Who you talkin’ to, Fanny?” I am someone you are talking to. So, I expressed my concerns to you and you still wanted to continue with the interview. It should be that simple. I trust you. I trust your assessment that what we are talking about would seem pertinent and appropriate. Latinopia.com identifies as “… a place to discover and discuss Latino arts…” as well as other topics. You and I do talk about Latino arts, among so many other things. Who we are is what we do.
How did you get involved with El Teatro Campesino? What work do you do with them?
CROSLIN: I came to ETC through Phil Esparza, who has been a producer with the company for over 40 years. He and I worked at CSU Monterey Bay’s World Theater together. In 2001, he brought me to see ETC’s production of “La Pastorela” staged at the Old Mission San Juan Bautista and I was mesmerized. It was epic with broad physicality and lively music, but it was also a human story, told with great style, humor, and sincerity that is present in all of the work of ETC and has been since it began on the picket line in Delano nearly 50 years ago. I began to volunteer as an usher, then in the box office, and eventually was given the opportunity to work artistically with the company as a musician, then a producer, and artistic associate. I connect with the company on a very human level and it has been a great honor to work with ETC.
The type of work I do at ETC varies at any given time. In May, I had the opportunity to be part of an ETC ensemble cast that performed a reading of Octavio Solis’ beautiful new play “Mother Road.” We also just completed a month of workshops in “Theater of the Sphere” – the approach to theatre that Luis Valdez and ETC have cultivated from principles of movement and cultural practice of the ancient Maya. Also in May, I put together the social media component of an online fundraising drive. This summer, I am excited to be co-directing for the first time on ETC’s production “Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven” with my colleague and collaborator Kinan Valdez. It’s an outdoor show that we’ve done before using large puppets, masks, and movement to tell the Mayan story of creation.
You recently traveled to Asia. Why did you do that?
CROSLIN: In college, I worked at U of M’s Museum of Art with the Senior Curator of Asian Art, Dr. Marshall P.S. Wu. He is Taiwanese and was most generous in sharing stories and context for Asian art and culture, of which I had very minimal prior knowledge. I have been intending to go visit for 20 years and finally got the chance to go for two and a half months in the spring of 2013.
I visited Bali, Java, Thailand, China, Japan, and Cambodia. I saw ritual dance, shadow puppetry, Chinese and Cambodian opera, folk theater, parades, fairs, Chinese New Year in Hong Kong. It was inspiring and humbling. The traditions are unique and specific- each culture brings their way of life and thought to bear in their practices. Yet, we are all people so there are similarities too. Everyone seems to enjoy music, movement, humor, and that which touches the heart. These elements all feel familiar, in the sense of the word meaning “like family,” because they are shared traits of our human family.
Why is puppetry a form of art that you love?
CROSLIN: I was drawn to puppets from an early age, as are many children, and that admiration was certainly fed through television for me with shows like “Sesame Street,” “The Muppet Show,” and “HR Pufnstuf.” Puppetry appeals to me for the same reasons that circus, dance, and animation do. There is a spectacle aspect to it that is captivating. There is something compelling about using objects to represent characters or movement to convey emotion. Representation is a basic component of theatre. But puppetry goes deeper than that in some ways. It hits us on the level of magic and wonder-a realm where anything is possible, ideas are born, mysteries form and fade. Our imagination becomes activated. Much of daily survival in our world can range from monotonous to treacherous. People need and seek out opportunities to connect with wonder. To dream, imagine, and celebrate is the hope we live for.
What was your favorite form of puppetry while in Asia?
CROSLIN: I saw great Chinese and Indonesian shadow puppetry, Japanese bunraku, and giant parade puppets. The puppetry that struck me most was a particular style of Cambodian shadow puppetry that uses large puppets, about 4 feet high, and incorporates the shadows of the puppeteers into the action. They moved like dancers, at times dropping the puppets and letting their own shadows become those of the heroes, villains, deities they were representing. It was very active and compelling.
How do you hope to incorporate what you learned in Asia into the art you create in the states?
CROSLIN: The hope is that it happens organically. Once you experience these forms, they stick with you, but I also took a lot of notes and video clips where I could. If approached with honesty and sensitivity, it’s a matter of a flow of inspiration, not appropriation. The “Popol Vuh” show may present opportunities to incorporate some of the pageantry I experienced. Quetzal and dragon are not so different from one another. What can we learn by looking at the similarities in representing them? I heard a lot of different types of music and that will hopefully weave into what I do. I try to be open to all arts I am exposed to and it’s not always clear how the influences will come out later. That’s part of the journey!
Why do you like doing the kind of work you do at El Teatro Campesino and other companies in the Bay area?
CROSLIN: I believe that recognizing, experiencing, honoring, and celebrating the cultural traditions of people brings us closer together. It’s not just a notion-it manifests constantly in the work that I do and I am fortunate to see it in action and share it with others on a daily basis.
The theatrical work of El Teatro Campesino is rooted in very real, tangible human terms. All over the place people need hope-to celebrate who they are and to recognize that what injustice demands of us is ridiculous. Everyone needs the opportunity to live with dignity and decency which does not require us to sacrifice ourselves in the process. Last year, we produced Luis Valdez’s latest play “Valley of the Heart,” which will also go up again this summer at ETC. It looks at Mexican and Japanese families struggling together in the days leading up to and during World War II in what is now Silicon Valley and forced internment camps in California and Wyoming. The play is about love across cultural boundaries and our efforts as individuals and a nation to learn how to live together.
I have also been doing some work with Larry Reed’s ShadowLight Productions in San Francisco. Their work creates circumstances for traditional storytelling forms of multiple cultures to come together to create a synthesis of something new, but honors and respects the individuals and cultures represented. So in each show, you get some Balinese shadow tradition, Larry’s own cinematic shadow innovations, visually specific cultural references in characters and setting, and text that ranges from border crossing stories of Octavio Solis’ “Ghosts of the River,” to the heroic legend of “Poro Oyna” adapted with the indigenous Ainu culture of Japan.
We make an effort at ETC to practice the Mayan principle of In Lak’ech. Stated simply, it means “Tu eres mi otro yo-You are my other me.” It is the idea that self-respect and respect for others are one and the same. We are a nation of many cultures. If we honor and celebrate that truth by respecting ourselves, each other, and the world around us, we have a chance to salvage the notion of a great nation to which we can all truly belong.
Can you tell me what it is like to work there?
CROSLIN: Working at ETC is always a family environment, whether actual or formed family-we have both. Our mission is to make teatro a creator of vibrant community. When we come together, young, old, veterana/o, newbie, professional, amateur, we strengthen and grow the family that was started when the first company came together fifty years ago. It is a dynamic environment filled with unique personalities and an intent to make something meaningful with skills, themes, and an approach that are invigorating to work with and immensely enriching to share with audiences and each other.
What are you working on now?
CROSLIN: We are in pre-production for the “Popol Vuh” show now. I have heard it described that the world comes into being all over again each time a creation story is told-that the very act of telling the story is an act of creation. I like that.
Beyond that, I am working on creating an artist website that will include a travel blog. I just finished recording a cycle of original rock and roll songs that I plan to release through that site as well. That is a personal goal I’ve had for many years. I’m developing a show that follows the transmission of jazz music from New Orleans to Berlin and then Shanghai in the 1930s that incorporates both live performers and shadow theatre elements. Music is ongoing, whether my own or in collaboration with others. Creation stories of the world sounds like a great idea for festival to me. It’s about honoring what is generative and sharing that with each other.
Any more traveling in your future?
CROSLIN: Always! I’m planning on returning to Cambodia in February next year. The Giant Puppet Project in Siem Reap builds these large puppets with children in the region that ends with a night parade through town where the kids and project leaders march with their creations. I think I stand to learn a lot from that. I have only spent a little time in Mexico and have yet to make it to Central and South America. It would be great to take the Popol Vuh show down there to share. It would also be great to participate in Dia de los Muertos festivities there sometime. There are many places I’d like to return to as well those I’ve never been to. So, yes. With luck and blessing, there will be a lot of travel in my future. Travel is the best way to meet your fellow citizens of the world, learn about the land, history, each other, and celebrate life together.
Copyright 2014 by Fanny Garcia. Photo credits: Chas Croslin headshot by Sabrina Hill, Photos of Chas Croslin wokring with El Teatro Campesino by Robert Eliason. All other photos courtesy 0f Chas Croslin. All photos used with permission of copyright holders.