Dallas — Cara Mía Theatre Co. is presenting Ursula, or let yourself go with the wind, the last show in Latinidades: A Festival of Solo Shows, as part of the 2019-20 season the Many Faces of Cara Mia Theatre. One of the “faces” is exploring new subjects for the company by staging the solo shows. The festival explores the diversity of contemporary Latinos in the U.S., and features the Afro, indigenous, queer, body positive and female-centered narrative. Ursula, runs for two weekends, through Sept. 8, 2019 at the Latino Cultural Center in Dallas. Written, directed and performed by company member Frida Espinosa-Müller, who also does the puppets, props and scenic design, the piece was workshopped in the spring. Ursula tells the journey of Nadia, a 7-year-old separated from her mother after seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. As Nadia waits for her asylum to be processed, she reflects on the difficulties she is leaving behind in Honduras and the new reality she is facing. Live, original music from Armando Monsivais will take audiences into Nadia’s mind as she tries to make sense of all that is happening around her.
On a bright and hot Dallas day, I met with Frida and we greeted each other in our native language…"¡Hola! ¡Buenos días!"
TheaterJones: In Ursula you are the director, writer, and a performer. Do you consider yourself one more than the other, and how difficult was the process of being all three?
Frida Espinosa-Müller: It has been difficult and different because I have only directed shows for children, but here one of the main difficulties has been the material. This type of material is very emotional. When I am performing, I have to stop sometimes. Since the other performances that I have directed have been for children, it is less work in the sense that I do not have to work with a light designer or sound designer. I do the research and I choose the music, and I have more time and less pressure. With Ursula it has been very beautiful. For example, the process of working with Armando [Monsivais], the music and sound designer, we have been working collaborative. Sometimes he shows me something, and I love it, but then I think I want to hear another sensation. We work together trying to find what is the texture…what is that emotion that we want to get in that moment.
There is a lot from the director’s side that I am not used to do that I am doing with Ursula. I do have a good idea of what kind of things I need. For example, the light designer adds a whole other dimension to what kind of things he can do with lighting. It was also interesting that I couldn't be on a stage and also be at the table with the designers. Somebody helped me by being on stage…just being the body so I could see the entire picture of everything going on stage. Because I am directing myself, I couldn't see myself. I even recorded some pieces to see if it looks good, or this looks bad, I need to do this, I need to hear that...
But I have learned a lot, also in the writing process because one thing is what you have in your brain and you see a picture of how things may happen. Once you start speaking out the lines, then everything accommodates in a more organic way.
Do you feel that you have become a better performer?
I want to think that! I don't know if I am a better performer, but I feel more complete as an artist.
You have also portrayed a grandma, a clown, a young girl, a mother, among a lot of other characters on stage, which is your favorite and why?
Clowning has been my favorite because it is a lot of liberty and joy. Even the dark moments of a clown are joyful. I want to be a clown all the time. I also enjoy the drama. I enjoy the dark moments, for example, the mother in [Cara Mia’s production] Blood Wedding. It’s kind of my masochist side. It is also enjoyable to go to those places. It makes me feel alive.
Tell me about your love of masks and puppet making, and how you came to be interested in this art form.
When I came out of college and I started working with some friends and teachers. I had the idea to do an adaptation of the Little Prince. I guess as a child I always liked the puppets. My first idea when I was working in that project was having a puppet as the little prince. When I started working with some friends, we change it. Everybody else wanted to do it with people instead of puppets. I started doing the faces of the puppets in that moment. I discovered that I like it, I enjoy it, and that I was good with my hands and the process of sculping the faces. I discovered that I really enjoy it, the sense of the emotions of the character, the personality of the characters, and sculping of the masks.
In Ursula you have a puppet. Do you want to tell us more?
I am using dolls and bird puppets. The dolls are inspired by Mexican traditional dolls. I made them from scratch…sewing the fabric, putting the filling inside, doing the little clothing… and that has made them very familiar for me. I get a feeling that we belong together, they are my friends…They are my friend in the detention center. One of them is Nadia, that is me. What was special with them was the selection of the clothing. How to dress them was the most interesting because the style, the design of the doll by itself is very simple, but it was special.
One of the birds was from another play, The Magic Rain Forest, and this bird only appeared on stage for 10 seconds, once or twice. I also let Prism [Movement Theater] use it for their Prospero show. I kept all of them, all the masks and puppets that I do. I was researching how to do the bird for this production, and I found out that the guacamaya, macaw bird, is the national bird of Honduras! A guacamaya is super colorful, and it can take you to the mind of a child because it's very playful…all the material, the face, the way it is constructed, it is very childish. I did a second one, it was a different color...It was only yellow with blue. And I modify it a little bit and bring more red.
Just like you, young Nadia in Ursula emigrated to the United States. What unites your journey with Nadia's?
It is a very different journey…very different. Actually, this is a new script, in this second version of the script I am bringing a little bit of Frida as well. I am an immigrant, but I came to this country with papers. For me this problem of immigration has been in the news, on the screen, right on the web and conversations. I never flew from my country going away from gangs…no one in my family has ever been killed. It is a very different story…very different story. At the same time it's a story that is there, and that I believe that we are the lucky ones that haven't been through that…we have to make it ours, and be empathetic, and try to do something because we, the ones with citizenship, the ones with the rights and responsibilities, we can do something about it.
Tell me about the title. “Ursula is not the name of the girl in your play, it is Nadia.
Ursula is a place. It is the detention center in McAllen, and it's called that because it's on Ursula street. The play tries to show the perspective of the girl, the perspective of a seven-year-old, and she's not even from this country. She doesn't understand the language and the system because not only she is not from here, but because she is a child. She doesn't understand what is exactly happening, but she feels it…How everything that is happening around her affects her on this emotional level and where her brain takes her to escape into her imagination so doesn't have to live in that pain. At the same time this imagination starts becoming darker because that is what she is living. Children have to be safe, in a safe environment and be happy. All kids have problems or little issues, even a little pain, but the amount of stress these children are living, and the pain that they are going through, it is too much for them to handle, and the darkness invades their safe place. On the other hand, the system is broken, they do not know how to help people to go through this process of asking for asylum… The way is happening is not the best.
What do you want the audience to leave with when they see the show?
I envision that people can leave with the desire to do something…more empathic perspective, more human perspective, and then willing to talk about it, to have a conversation, to listen to perspectives, but then jump into action. The information is there and the conversation is in many places, maybe not everywhere as it should be, but is there. How we jump from having a conversation about it to action… to really try to do something… because it is really terrible what we are doing with these children because they are going to suffer this for the rest of their lives, not for a few months, not for two days…They are going to live with this for the rest of their lives.
What message would you send to younger self?
To my child, I would say “be happy.” Don't worry about little things. Enjoy your family because that's our bigger treasure. To my teenager self, I would say start learning about the world and about how everything moves around, how politics happen, how you can get involved and help, and be part of the community for a better world.
What is in Frida’s future?
Who knows! We are going to definitely continue with Ursula. This is the second layer of the development of this work. I am going to be working after we are done with this production with Elise Thoron, a New York writer and director, collaborating on my script. Elise also worked with Cara Mía Theatre on Wet. I am also going to be in January, in Houston, at the Sin Muros Festival, which is a festival of developing works. I think that these two additional rounds of work are going to help me get a stronger piece…a clearer piece. I also think that I have to go to McAllen. I have to talk to people and visit the immigrants…I have to do it personally. I know it is going to be painful. It is going to be heart breaking, but it is going to push me even harder on this project.