Pre-Texts for Madrid, in Cañada Real

Madrid , Spain

Open workshop

Government / Public Institution

Prof. Doris Sommer, Faculty-Director of Cultural Agents, and Ira and Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures reflects on the Pre-Texts workshop she facilitated in Cañada Real, Madrid.

Read the report in Spanish at the following link: Informe Taller Madrid

The “World Forum on Violence Prevention and Education” convened in Madrid, “A City of Peace,” from November 5-8 of 2018. I accepted an invitation to participate because the local city government of Vicálvaro would host a training workshop in Pre-Texts for community leaders, teachers, and members of the municipal staff. The 15 hour program over 4 days began, as always, with theater warm-ups lifted from Augusto Boal’s collection of Games for Actors and Non-Actors. Then, two well educated participants of the Pre-Texts workshop in Cañada Real (November 5-8, 2018) prepared to read the chosen text aloud. They were visibly worried and doubted whether I knew where I was. “These people won’t understand Antigone by Sophocles.” I asked them to wait and see.

After we heard Antigone and Creon lash out at one another in mordant and memorable lines, we all asked questions, according to the protocol. The Gypsies (sic. In local usage), native to Spain but not native Spanish speakers, asked to define particular words that others thought were obvious; they also asked why there was so much hatred. The Moroccan Arabic speakers – some of whom were quite shy to speak Spanish though they were expert language teachers of Arabic – also asked about words and conflicts. Meanwhile we all struggled with the challenging dialogue, which caught the attention of a participant who works in the local office of the neighborhood.

He noticed that our invitation to ask rather than answer leveled differences of language skills, academic background, social class and gender. “What did we do?” was a moment that prompted this reflection and caught on quickly, with this comment and with others about the diversity of our backgrounds and the shared difficulties we faced. By the time we mimed metaphors and read closely, again and again, all 26 participants owned pieces of the text with laughter that surprised and relieved us all.

One of the indelible moments during this workshop happened on the second of four days [each session lasted 4 hours]. We had established the week’s agenda the day before and submitted to the rhythm of two volunteer coordinators. We were making brooches based on elements of the text, to be used for the togas in the Forum Theater to be produced on day #4. I looked up from my handiwork facilitated by another community mentor and asked if the workshop would continue to the end were I not to come back. Without thinking too much about the question, or interrupting the work, everyone agreed I was welcome but not necessary. They could continue alone. Imagining this independence, collaboration, and dedication, as the climax of our week, I celebrated alone that day. But the next day was a chance to celebrate in company. The local coordinator of community projects came to greet me, or to inform himself of our progress, during day #3. He came with two colleagues so that it was far more convenient for me to step into the hallway than to interrupt the workshop with extraneous conversation. From that vantage point, they and I saw the group continue to collaborate, to advance from one step of the protocol to others, to allow me the flexibility I required and to welcome me back later. Our visitors were quite stunned, and impressed, by this heterogeneous group of residents in a dangerous neighborhood that discourages sociability, that is infamous for being a center of drug-dealing, violence, insecurity.

Other highlights include the moment when an illiterate Gypsy woman asked a companion to help write down the couplets we were all composing from words in the text, and then to whisper reminders so that she could read her creation aloud, taking her turn among the rest of us. Another highlight is learning Romani words in a translation session hosted by the Gypsy participants who could feel their superior command of a language we struggled to learn in bits; and then the lesson in Arabic script to transliterate our favorite – or most challenging – words. We learned, for example, that the Madrid is an Arabic name: Ma=water; drid=good. We might never have known this, living in that very city, were it not for sharing expertise and for the generosity of spirit generated in the workshop.

Almost providentially, one of the most spectacular news items of the week was the exhumation of Generalissimo Franco’s dead body. The political left refused to keep him in a Valley of Martyrs; and Franco’s heirs decided to re-bury him in the family vault inside Madrid’s main Cathedral. A political struggle in a weakened state over the dead body of a warrior was a reprise of our ancient text. Another news article celebrated an octogenarian Spanish woman who successfully convinced the Pope to abolish the death sentence. Again, going off on tangents brought us close to home and close to the classics.