Our theatrical and musical journey to Cuenca and a new production at the Azuay Community Theater

Dec 16, 2021

By Jeremiah Reardon

Fishbon del Sur, a collaborative theater community established in El Centro, closed its doors due to the Covid pandemic. The source of many satisfying moments of entertainment and friendship for my wife Belinda and me, how our lives have changed since co-founders Laura and Clay Bodine moved to an ancient Cañari settlement, Uzhupud, where Clay has written a history of Fishbon.

Our friends opened their home in May 2014 to the newly formed Azuay Community Theater (ACT). For its inaugural presentation, a one-act play festival, actors and crew performed for sold-out audiences over a May weekend. In addition to being a stagehand, I also operated a puppet behind a shadow-screen until gobbled up by The Creature in Clay’s play.

Mi Cuenca Canta!, a collective of Andean musicians and dancers, perform at the opening of the Azuay Community Theater.

In ACT’s subsequent February 2015 production, Shootout at Sadie’s Saloon directed by lanky Minnesotan Bob Hall, I played Clint Cactus who wins the hand of Sadie, played by the lovely and funny Diana Ham. Her stage manager husband Doug created her Wild West saloon on the stage of La Esquina de Las Artes, directly across from the University of Cuenca’s theater. Before Covid struck, the Hams returned home to family in Canada. Fortunate to gain theater experience with both groups, I’ve made many friends in Cuenca’s artistic community.

ACT is now permanently located on Avenida Ordonez Lasso, just west of Hotel Oro Verde. Friends act in its current production, “A Christmas Carol Radio Show,” running a second week from Dec 17-19, and directed by ACT President Paula Bailey. Click here for more about the Azuay Community Theater.

Send an email to ACT volunteer Mara Gano, maraganoact@gmail.com, for tickets at $15 each. Pay at the door (with reservation) or pre-pay via PayPal or bank transfer. Performances start at 4 p.m.

Before coming to Cuenca, Belinda and I lived in Monterey, CA. Our idyllic coastal community hosted half a dozen organic farmer’s markets staggered over the week on the Peninsula. On occasion, a live performer would play music and sell CDs. We’d have a pleasant surprise when strains of Andean flute music wafted over welcoming tents and food stands, sometimes accompanied by recorded background music.

The dancers were all aswirl!

One afternoon, we listened to Oscar Reynolds Sainz play his flute and guitar. Approaching the longhaired man in native dress, we looked through his CDs while he shared with us his journey from Bolivia with his family to settle in the San Francisco Bay area.  The name of Oscar’s company, Karumanta Music, refers to the Quechua, “from far away.” The CD’s cover described his work.

The Karumanta label is embodied in Tata Inti, Father Sun, and sustainer of life to Mr. Reynolds’ ancestors, the ancient Incas of South America. The powerful empire flourished hundreds of years ago in the area of what are now Bolivia, Perú, and Ecuador. Just as Father Sun illuminates the world, so we aim to illuminate through the music we present.

This meeting took place around the time we had begun making plans to quit our jobs as co-managers of Royal Oak Apartments, a short walk on Ocean Avenue to Monterey Bay with its sea otters and harbor seals. Who knows whether that encounter with Oscar may have led us on our path to Latin America?

Cuenca expats join the fun.

What we did know about Ecuador we learned from ebooks and International Living Magazine. By 2013 we had two cities in mind, Cuenca, for its cultural institutions and health care, and Vilcabamba, for its isolated beauty and serenity. We chose Cuenca soon after barely making it across the Andes with young and impetuous Guayaquileño Fernando. Thank goodness for those rosaries draped over his SUV’s rearview mirror!

Here we’ve joined charities and creative groups including ACT, Fishbon and the Cuenca Writers Collective where I met John Keeble, a retired Guardian journalist. In July, he published his CuencaHighLife story about Mi Cuenca Canta!, a local collective of Andean musicians and dancers.

His story introduced Catalina Ordoñez, its director who’s the driving force behind an Andean music concert series that has been around since 2005. With private and public funding, every year the series has presented concerts with the distinguished local, national and international artists. His article describes how Covid-19 has impacted the lives and paid opportunities for musicians to perform in public.

His narrative also linked to the GoFundMe page set up by New Yorker violinist Yolanda Wu. She studied Spanish with Catalina over the years when visiting Cuenca.

Her fundraising statement highlighted the artists’ economic struggles. “Hello everyone, I’m raising money to support musicians of traditional Andean music who have been out of work since Covid-19. I first heard about this need from Catalina, my Spanish teacher. Covid-19 has been absolutely devastating for musicians in Ecuador. All concerts have been shut down, causing musicians to lose pay, social security, legal benefits, vacation, medical insurance, in short, their livelihoods.  The music world in Ecuador is paralyzed and the future is uncertain.”

After publishing, John emailed me with a request that I meet Catalina. He wrote: “The organizers seem to be in need of better ways to get to the expat audience and it occurs to me that you might be interested in helping them, especially now Fishbon has closed. Would you like me to link you with the organizer?”

Armed and dangerous, the author with Diana Ham in the ACT performance of Shootout at Sadie’s Saloon.

I promptly replied. “By all means, I’d like to help out your musician friends. I hope your informative article generates support for them. Perhaps, give me an email address to get in touch. On a positive note, Azuay Community Theater is branching out to bring more acts into its theater on Ordonez Lasso. I’ve volunteered to work with them.”

My reply, though simply stated, felt loaded with challenges for myself. How to communicate with my limited Spanish presented one obvious obstacle. I forged ahead with meeting Catalina to see how I could help a fellow Andean folklore enthusiast with my local theater background. I sent her an email to arrange our meeting at Sunrise Café in El Centro.

Once we had introduced ourselves, middle-aged Catalina with long dark hair shared her interests in music and concerts. She had an extensive music and theater background in Cuenca before becoming the group’s director, I learned. When she gifted me with a high-quality Mi Cuenca Canta! brochure, I removed its clear plastic wrapper. Its glossy pages featured bands performing at concerts along with a CD. “Wow, cool!” I said. “Thank you, so much, Catalina.”

In turn, I offered to help promote Mi Cuenca Canta!’s upcoming presentations and suggest new venues. “I’ll use my contact list and Gringo Post notices to drum up support among the expat community,” I suggested to my new friend.

The cast of Shootout at Sadie’s Saloon take applause at the end of the show.

In early September, I arranged for Catalina to visit ACT on the west side of town. We met with volunteers Mara and Kenny. The four of us examined the theater’s layout as a possible venue for a future Mi Cuenca Canta! concert. Kenny gave Catalina a set of forms and a a blank contract. “The Board of Directors will make the final decision whether you can make use of the theater for your company,” he explained. ACT would share in a percentage of the tickets and refreshments sold.

Catalina eventually arranged Mi Cuenca Canta!’s premier performance at ACT and reached out to me for support, writing: “I am sending a poster in a professional version to help us promote it among the foreign community through CuencaHighLife and other social networks. If you have any idea who can help us sell the tickets, maybe in the cafe where we met the previous time, please let me know so I can deliver them to you.”

Again, we met at Sunrise, only this time Catalina had her handsome grandson in tow. As I shook his hand, she proudly stated, “He studies violin and sings with a choral group.” The following morning, with the consent of the Sunrise’s owner, we set up a table to sell tickets. Catalina taped the show’s poster to the wall above the table. Thankfully, our efforts were rewarded when one gringo reserved seven seats at the price of $15 each!

On the afternoon of the first Sunday of December, Mi Cuenca Canta! occupied the Covid-reduced seating theater. With a sparse crowd in attendance, Cuenca’s band Takiwan played for over an hour and a half, presenting songs in both Spanish and Quechua. For several numbers, the Andean dance group, Yawarkanchik, spun and circled the floor to the rhythm pumped out by flutes, guitars, drums and accordion. The audience got caught up in the spirit and clapped along to the rousing tunes.

At a break in the music, two young men addressed the audience, the shorter one translating into English. The taller man in a Panama hat introduced himself as leader of the Tawarkanchik dance company. He explained the significance of bells worn by the male dancers in their first number. “The bells awake Pachamama, Mother Earth, to let her know of the dancers’ arrival. We depend upon Pachamama for our lives. And we dance in gratitude for the food we grow and the animals we raise.”

Towards the end of the show, the dancers spontaneously reached for willing partners, including me. I happily danced with a petite woman in a white embroidered blouse and a red skirt trimmed with embroidery along the bottom and worn over several petticoats. She gently guided me through spins and twirls, finally joining the other dancers circling around the floor below the inspired band.

How different life in the Andes is for Belinda and me. What we give up in terms of convenience and technology, Belinda and I gain in friendships and strong social values. So, I’m grateful to John for introducing me to Catalina; and to her for bringing back into my life what had stirred in me at Monterey farmer’s markets, those magical Andean flutes.

Photos by Jeremiah Reardon

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