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How one Austin theater company is reworking a classic opera for modern times

How one Austin theater company is reworking a classic opera for modern times
Photograph: Poster courtesy Generic Ensemble Company

Austin’s Generic Ensemble Company, also known as GenEnCo, is something of a rarity among the city’s many theater ensembles. Rather than producing classic texts, or new works by single playwrights, GenEnCo creates all-new theatrical pieces that are developed by the entire creative team, who work together to express timely social and political points of view. 

Their newest project, Carmen, takes the classic French opera by Georges Bizet as the inspiration to explore issues that are crucial to Austin’s Latinx community. With an all-Latinx cast—and support from the city of Austin through its Museums and Cultural Programs Division of the Parks and Recreation Department—Carmen is a vital piece of conversation at this point in time in Austin. We spoke to the show’s director (and GenEnCo’s producing artistic director), kt shorb, to learn more about Carmen and about GenEnCo’s process in general.

Most GenEnCo performances are devised by the company. Is this something that comes about through conversation, through on-your-feet rehearsal processes, or through a combination of both?
It's often a combination of both. Each process is really different, but generally, we look at various source materials, have discussions, do writing exercises, and then I lead some on-our-feet sessions. For Carmen, we watched the opera as well as clips from telenovelas then wrote things we wanted to see and didn't want to see. I asked the actors to each choose a character from the opera they wanted to work with and, using information from their characters, they researched what had traction with them. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to set the context in a border town. We have many people from El Paso who knew that border culture really well, so it was natural to choose a setting there.

Why choose Carmen as the jumping-off point for this particular piece? Why do you think it holds contemporary relevance in such a fraught era?
Carmen as a figure is vital to the now. She's a woman who wants things, and refuses to be told what to do. I wish in 2018 that it wasn't so rare to see figures such as this, but it is. In particular, Carmen is so important as a woman who both wants but also says no. And in the opera it's the "no" that leads to her downfall.

People talk about this less, but Carmen is also a story about racial otherness. In the opera, and the short story that inspired it, Carmen is Romani (or "Gypsy," as she calls herself) and the social and class divides between her and landed gentry, Don José, is very palpable. We live in Texas, which used to be Tejas, which used to be Nueva Filipinas, which used to be called many different names by the multiple indigenous nations such as the Comanche, Lipan Apache, Karankawa, and Tonkawa. Who is "in" and who is "out" here in Texas is a very contentious issue. What constitutes normalcy and how people work to both survive and thrive and make room for their wants is truly a question that needs asking here on the US-Mexico border.

It seems to me that when assembling a cast you're far more interested in passion and point of view than professional acting experience. Does this end up creating a more dynamic, contemporary work?
In short, yes. There are many reasons why I cast the way I do. Firstly, I believe that people of color—queer people of color in particular—need more onstage time. But it often becomes a chicken-egg situation where people don't get trained as much because they don't have as much stage time, and people without as much training don't get the stage time they seek. This is why training is so often part of my process. When I start working with a performer, it is always my goal that they be an even better performer after the show than when they began working with me. I see this as me contributing to the Austin theatre community by fostering excellent actors of color. 

That said, we also must reframe what constitutes "experience" or "craft." I love working with consummate actors who have strong craft and points of view. At the same time, I believe most people are trainable. If I only worked with people who have already been trained up by the time they get to me, I don't know whether I would be fulfilling my role very well. When a play opens with no people of color in it for no good reason and the creative team says, "no 'good' people of color auditioned," I shake my head and say, "it's actually pretty easy to find good talent of color." For Carmen, I feel extremely fortunate to have so much experience in the room. There was a strong group to choose from in casting, so to me it felt more like assembling a team of all-stars. There are really a lot of excellent Latinx performers in Austin!

Carmen takes place May 18-19, 24-26, 31 and June 12 at The Dougherty Arts Center. Tickets are $10-$30 and can be purchased here.

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