What began as an online collaboration at the beginning of the pandemic between a professor and her Spanish class at MacEwan and a theatre group in Mexico City came to life on stage in MacEwan’s Allard Hall on Student Research Day.

Empeños (Trials) is an adaptation of a work written by a Mexican nun in the 17th century. It explores love and confinement while also touching on the complexities of weighing duty to family against individual desires.

“These plays may have been written long ago but they talk about themes that we’re still talking about today and we can have fun with them,” says Dr. Erin Cowling, an associate professor of Spanish at MacEwan. “They’re not dusty boring old books where it doesn’t make any sense: it can really be relevant to us even now.”

In 2020, Cowling worked on adapting the script with one of the actors and a couple of students who have since graduated. This year, she had her SPAN 341 (Introduction to Translation) students work on translating the adaptation to English. That allowed for the lines of dialogue to be projected onto a wall for the MacEwan audience to see while the play was performed.

“I always want to do something with my students that’s a high-impact practice where they get to do something and see the results in real time. Theatre and subtitling is one of those very practical things that they can see how their work is used.”

It was a unique project that the students, admittedly, needed to warm up to at first. But they quickly became engrossed in the work.

“The language was very formal, at least to us, but I think as we got through it we were all pretty excited because we understood what it was about,” says Ashley Bernal, a psychology major and one of Cowling’s students. “I feel like what’s fun about it is that you get to be creative because you get to find new ways of expressing ideas through a different language.”

After plenty of online collaboration, the time came for four artists from Mexico City-based Efe Tres and Teatro de los Sótanos to come to MacEwan to perform Empeños. It is uniquely staged, with one actor only doing sound effects, one actor reading all the dialogue and the other two actors performing on stage, complete with numerous costume changes as they transition in and out of various characters.

“This is a thrilling end of a journey and I am very grateful for the opportunity to be here,” says Fernando Villa Proal of EFE TRES Teatro. “I feel as an actor our job is to create gifts for the people. Having the opportunity to create that gift for an audience that has nothing to do with us in terms of language, in terms of geography, in terms of identity – it’s very exciting.”

Students in AGAD 225 (Performing Arts Management)  were also involved in the project along with Dr. Heather Fitzsimmons Frey, assistant professor of Arts and Cultural Management and Scott Spidell, chair of the Department of Theatre. They were able to learn about how cultural management works on an international level, while helping to stage an event that incorporates a specific group (Edmonton’s Spanish community), as well as reducing barriers (English translation broadens the audience).

Cowling says the decision to put up a stage in an open area of Allard Hall is a nod to how plays were performed long ago.

“This brings us back to when plays in Spain were performed in squares or what we call the corral de comedias – a kind of theatre space built between houses.  People could sit and watch from a balcony, while other people stood or sat in the patio below.”

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