When I was commissioned by Dramatic Adventure Theatre to write a play inspired by our work in Ecuador, I knew I’d be up for a challenge. In fact, I couldn’t help but question the whole idea of my writing such a thing. Who was I to comment on a place and people who were not my own? I mean, I’d spent several months traveling throughout the country—directing, teaching, and participating in various service projects, but still, I’m an American who inevitably writes from a distinctly American perspective. Was there any way to escape being a tourist in the theatrical world that I, myself, was about to create?
I travelled throughout Ecuador with these doubts weighing on me even more than my overstuffed backpack. My search eventually took me to the village of Tigua, a tiny cluster of houses dotting a narrow, snaking road high in the Andes. I’d made my way to the village, because it was the source of “Tigua paintings,” brilliantly colored pictures that depict scenes from indigenous Quechua folktales and daily life. Would one of them have the seed for a play? Upon walking into the shop of the Toaquiza family (the originators of the art form), I found myself confronted over and over again with the figures of a condor and a girl. There were pictures of him spying on her from afar, of the two soaring together high above patchwork fields, of the girl surrounded by lightning and half-transformed into a condor, herself. I spent well over an hour transfixed by the images, and somehow I knew this was the story I would tell.
If anything, having chosen a story only intensified my doubts. Great, so now I’d elected to tell the tale of the Condor, a figure considered sacred by many indigenous people in Ecuador. How could I re-tell one of the most famous myths of this messenger to the gods with respect and authenticity? I was also conscious of the fact that the play would one day be performed by American actors. How would we represent this Quechua story in a way that wouldn’t feel like some unfortunate and misguided form of “red-face”? My research also revealed that there were many different variations of the tale both within Ecuador and in the Andean communities of other South American nations. How could I relate an authentic version of a story that has no one true form?
In the end, I emerged with a piece that was a fusion of many things. Not only did it blend different aspects of the myth from all over the Andes, it included many flourishes of my own. I was an American, telling a story from the Andes. To create anything that even approached authenticity, I had to embrace that fact and embrace it fully. How else can a person speak, but in their own voice? Really, the biggest honor that one storyteller can pay the thousands of others who’ve preceded him or her, is to embrace the tale as fully as possible and then pass it on for others to tell. Eventually, I had to absolve myself of any guilt over “narrative tourism.” In a way, aren’t all storytellers and their audiences somehow tourists in the tale? But, in the end, doesn’t the act of inhabiting the tale together somehow make it–for a little while at least–a kind of home?