PRESENTATION

 

During the silent film era, as in many other areas, the land of the rising sun produced a unique phenomenon: the Benshi, a narrator seated beside the film screen who would give voice to each character with explanatory comments and actions of the film being shown.

 

The golden age of the Benshi was that of silent film in both Japan and Mexico. These films project images of a now-lost past--images that seem as new, unfamiliar and surprising to today's audiences as in the film shorts of the Lumière brothers seemed to early twentieth-century audiences.

 

The role of the Benshi was rendered obsolete with the introduction of 'talkies.' Now, however, we recognize the Benshi -accompanied silent film as a contemporary genre-- uniting film, theatre and music--indeed, a truly interdisciplinary art form.

 

The Grey Automobile is a project that gives life to Benshi art, through the interpretation of a Mexican silent film classic. It represents a meeting of geographically distant thought: the strict, traditional Japanese and the spontaneous, forgetful Mexican.

 

This refined narrative style is only the starting point of the project; it is where languages, histories and habits meet and clash, where interpretation and misinterpretation share the same level of importance, in the search for "something" universal.

 

The Grey Automobile is also an attempt to remember. Destined for failure from the very start, this is a trip to Ithaca that will take us to new places as we search for the old ones. It is a voyage through the forgotten Mexico City of 1915, where the streets have the same names but twenty-five million people less walk through them. It is an exercise in which the filtering effect of time plays an important role: what made them cry at that time, now makes us laugh, and what they laughed at we may not even understand. Therefore, it is not an easy task: to explore innovative paths towards interpretation, without betraying the spirit and essence of the creative forces of the past.

 

Claudio Valdés Kuri

Director

 

 

SYNOPSIS

 

A Japanese actress and a Mexican actress stand next to a film screen and work within and beyond the great Japanese Benshi tradition of silent film narration, as they narrate The Grey Automobile, a Mexican silent film classic directed by Enrique Rosas in 1919.

 

As the film progresses, the actors make comments and give each character a distinctive voice, playing with language, treading the fine and fascinating line between correct interpretation and misinterpretation generated by the encounter of distant and very different cultures.

 

A pianist also accompanies the film, creating original compositions as well as delving into a battery of Japanese and Mexican silent film scores. His music weaves a dramatic atmosphere around scenes involving a gang of thieves who terrorize Mexican society of 1915.

 

BRIEF SUMMARY

For radio and press

 

The 1919 Mexican silent film The Grey Automobile was the biggest hit of its day. Mixing fiction and reality, it tells the story of The Grey Automobile Gang who terrorized Mexico City during the chaos of the Revolution. This 21st century Mexican theatre production juxtaposes the classic film with live actors and brilliantly improvised piano music. Inspired by the Japanese Benshi tradition - an actor onstage does all the voices of the characters onscreen - The Grey Automobile takes the audience on a wild, exhilarating ride crisscrossing languages (Spanish, Japanese and English with onscreen subtitles), cultures and time. A disarmingly charming entertainment.

 

 

FROM THE PROGRAM NOTES

The Grey Automobile - The Production

 

The Grey Automobile is Claudio Valdés Kuri's modern staging of a Mexican silent film classic. Following the Japanese Benshi tradition of silent film narration, actors appear live on stage, and along with a pianist, breathe life, voice, and commentary into the silent screen's black-and-white images.

 

In an artistic tour de force only a handful of actors portray the voices and emotions of the film's 50-some characters. Unlike film dubbing, where actors take on the role of individual characters and wait their turn to speak, in The Grey Automobile a single actor renders many voices in a cacophony of differing accents. In order to achieve the challenge of interpreting the vast number of characters and project their emotions, the actors need an extensive vocal range. In addition they need to develop a refined breathing technique and sense of timing in order to quickly cut off the voice of one character and immediately start talking in another's.

 

The Grey Automobile has traveled to many countries, among them Germany, France,Spain, Chile and the United States - in addition to playing extensively in its native Mexico. In each country - including those that share a common language with the Mexican original - the production is altered slightly to make the work accessible to audiences of different cultural milieu. Unlike the case of dance, which can cross more readily national boundaries unaltered, the success of text-based theatre rests largely on the ability to convey the subtleties and nuances of the spoken word.

 

 

The Grey Automobile - The film

 

Premiering in 1919, Enrique Rosas' The Grey Automobile was a phenomenal success in its day. Breaking all box office records in Mexico, it was one of the longest-running, most-viewed films in Mexican cinematic history.

 

The film recounts the exploits and subsequent capture of The Grey Automobile Gang, a notorious band of thieves who terrorized Mexico City during the chaos of the Mexican Revolution. The villains, donning authentic military uniforms and wielding official, signed search warrants, posed as soldiers conducting authorized searches of some of Mexico City's wealthiest homes. Once in the premises, however, they terrorized their victims, robbed them, and then made their getaway in what later would become their signature grey Fiat car.

 

A curious mixture of fact, fiction, and political intrigue, the cast of The Grey Automobileencompasses a wide range of characters - both on screen and off. To begin with, all the thefts in the movie were filmed on location - at the original crime scenes, with some of the actual victims playing themselves. Juan Manuel Cabrera, the police inspector who had been in charge of the investigation of the gang, also played himself - and co-wrote the script. Finally, a silent partner in the film venture was a certain General Pablo González - a prominent general in the Revolution whose signature graced some of the gang's search warrants.

 

Hardly a dispassionate chronicle of one of Mexico City's most notorious criminal cases, Enrique Rosas' version instead infuses narrative history with dramatic sensationalism. And yet, he chose to close The Grey Automobile with a scene devoid of all cinematic glamour. In moments of searing, silent intensity, the film ends with documentary newsreel footage of the gang's execution by a firing squad - caught on celluloid by Rosas himself.

 

 

The Benshi narrators - The Technique

 

When silent films arrived in Japan at the end of the 19 th Century, they were greeted by an audience already enamored with theatre - and especially with storytelling. Noh andKabuki, Japan's two main traditional performance forms, contain narrators who "tell" the story being shown. Within a few years, a trip to the movies in Japan meant attending the screening of a silent film, accompanied by the live presence of a presenter-commentator, the Benshi.

 

Breathing life, voice, and commentary into the images of the silent screen, the Benshi parlayed their craft to great acclaim. It was their names - and not those of the on-screen actors - that appeared in newspaper billings and drew audiences into theatres. Big name Benshi players had their own loyal followers and could pack a house.

 

The Benshi were considered an integral part of the film-watching experience and fulfilled several roles. As the first silent films were originally from overseas, they offered cultural commentary to explain the unfamiliar scenes to Japanese audiences or coherency to unrelated short film clips. But Japanese audiences, accustomed to a storytelling tradition and the craft of a well-turned phrase, did not want to simply understand the films - they wanted to enjoy them, and see them explained in interesting and engaging ways.

 

The Benshi's performance began to evolve. During the presentation, the Benshi narrated the dialogue and gave voice to the different characters. With great agility, he or she changed the pitch as needed to simulate the character's emotions. As the films became more complicated and nuanced, so did the Benshi's interpretations and literary flourishes were added. A scene with a moon, for example, became a launching point from which the Benshi could recite a poem about moonlight in autumn. Thoughtful, subdued commentaries, as well as wildly creative interpretations of storylines, emerged as different styles of narration.

 

The popularity of Benshi, while prolonging Japan's era of silent cinema, eventually waned as talkies became the norm. Today, the tradition is largely unknown in its country of origin and only one practicing professional Benshi remains - Sawato Midori, whose performance at the 1997 Centennial for Japanese Film served as inspiration for this project.

 

 

The director's perspective

 

Director Claudio Valdés Kuri is a man intrigued with history. By delving into the social contours of yesteryear, he offers commentary on society today. Valdés Kuri's prior two productions Becket or the Honour of God and Monsters and Prodigies: The History of the Castrati, both of which earned him considerable acclaim in international theatre festivals, explored the thorny lattices of power and fame in medieval and baroque Europerespectively.

 

Pointing out that "one does not have to put modern things in a production to make modern theatre," here Valdés Kuri sets the stage in 1919, the year of The Grey Automobile¿s premiere. He utilizes a narrative technique from Japan's silent film era, early 20 th century costumes, and a mélange of music from that epoch - Mexican, Japanese, and a touch of Scott Joplin - to produce a rich montage from which standpoint we can question the apparent present guise of modernity. In a world characterized by global exchange, understanding and misunderstanding, director Valdes Kuri prompts us to explore our conceptions of genres, languages, cultural boundaries, and narratives of "good" versus "evil."

 

*Program notes written by Dr. Sylvia Lim, cultural anthropologist at Duke University and project ethnographer for The Grey Automobile.

 

 

HISTORY OF THE PROJECT

 

2002

  • Cineteca Nacional, Mexico City
  • El Galeón Theatre, Mexico City
  • Teatro de la Ciudad (Monterrey)
  • Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany
  • Théâtre de la Cité Universitaire, Paris, France
  • Iberoamerican Theatre Festival, Cadiz, Spain
  • Cultural Carnival, Valparaiso, Chile
  • International Festival Teatro a Mil, Santiago de Chile

 

2003

  • APAP Conference, New York, USA
  • Duke Institute of the Arts, North Carolina, USA
  • NCSU Center Stage, North Carolina, USA
  • North Carolina Museum of Art, North Carolina, USA
  • Kennedy Center, Washington, USA
  • Aguascalientes Cultural Institute, Aguascalientes, Mexico
  • Anglo-Mexican Cultural Foundation, Mexico City
  • Roger Ebert¿s Overlooked Film Festival, Champaign, USA
  • Mexico, Gateway to the Americas, Mexico City
  • International Festival of Latin Arts, Los Angeles, USA
  • International Festival of Hispanic Theatre, Miami, USA
  • Latin Theatre Festival, Chicago, USA
  • Museo de la Secretaria de Hacienda y Crédito Publico, Mexico City
  • Alucine Festival, Mexico City
  • Time Based Art Festival, Portland, USA
  • VIII Encuentro de Teatro, Tijuana, Ensenada, Mexicali, Mexico
  • Tamaulipas International Festival (Ciudad Victoria, Reynosa, Matamoros), Mexico
  • Dartmouth College, Dartmouth, USA
  • Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, USA

 

2004

  • Cine Francia of the Alianza Francesa, Mexico
  • Festival de l´Imaginaire, Paris, France
  • Iberoamerican Theatre Festival, Bogota, Colombia
  • Cine Media Latino Festival, Santa Barbara, USA
  • Festival of the Arts, Singapur
  • Belo Horizonte International Theatre Festival, Brazil
  • Revueltas Festival, Durango, Mexico
  • Ceiba Tabasco Festival, Villahermosa, Mexico
  • Barrio Antiguo Festival, Monterrey, Mexico
  • Mexico Now Festival, Museo del Barrio and Queens Theatre in the Park, New York, USA
  • International Arts Festival, San Jose, Costa Rica

 

2005

  • Expo Aichi, Nagoya, Japan
  • Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany
  • Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, Claremont, USA
  • Riocenacontemporanea Festival, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • Quimera Festival, Metepec, Mexico
  • Les Translatines Festival of Bayonne et Biarritz, France

 

2006

  • Teatro Macedonio Alcalá, Oaxaca.
  • Fundación México-Japonesa¿s Anniversary.
  • International Festival of Experimental Theatre at El Cairo, Egypt.
  • Radio Argel, Argelia.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE ARTISTS

 

TEATRO DE CIERTOS HABITANTES

 

Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes was founded in 1997. The company has been internationally acclaimed due to its previous productions: Becket or the Honour of God, Monsters and Prodigies: The History of the Castrati, The Grey Automobile and Where Will I Be Tonight? The director, Claudio Valdés Kuri, has received several international awards, as well as the company.

 

The company has performed at many renowned venues and festivals including: International Cervantino Festival (Guanajuato), Wiener Festwochen (Vienna), Kunsten Festival des Arts (Brussels), In-Transit-HKW (Berlin), Festival de l´Imaginaire (Paris), Les Translatines Festival (Bayonne), Grec Festival (Barcelona), Ibero-American Festival (Cadiz), Temporada Alta (Gerona), Open Granada (Granada), Ibero-American Festival (Bogota), International Theatre Festival (Caracas), Cultural Carnival (Valparaiso), International Festival Teatro a Mil (Santiago de Chile), International Theatre Festival (Belo Horizonte), Riocenacontemporanea Festival (Rio de Janeiro), International Arts Showcase (Puerto Rico), Singapore Arts Festival (Singapore), Expo-Aichi (Nagoya), National Theatre (El Cairo), Argelia Radio (Argel). In United-States the company has performed in many of the main country venues, in the Kennedy Center (Washington D.C.), The Goodman Theatre (Chicago), Time-Based Art Festival (Portland), Ford Amphitheatre (Hollywood, California), The New 42nd Street Theatre (Broadway, New York), among many others.

 

Their long-running season in Mexico City has played to sold-out houses and the company has organized several national tours throughout Mexico.

Complementary to each project, Certain Inhabitants¿ Theatre offers a full range of activities in residence including panel discussions, lectures, classes, workshops, radio series, TV programs and interactive compact discs.

  

Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes works under simple principles whose consequences are widespread. Each project is approached considering specific risks and queries in an open debate. The project is concluded once these have been duly solved, so that the group can concentrate on the next. We consider that the element of change is the prime instrument for the development of the artistic spirit.

 

Research work for each project is focused on trying to avoid as much as possible, the repetition of former presentation models and previous discoveries. At the same time, each presentation is ¿polished¿ during a long gestation process, nourished by the accumulated experience gained in direction, production, from the creative team and the interpreters. For the scenic work we rely entirely upon the total capacity of the multidisciplinary artist¿actor-musician-dancer.

 

 

Claudio Valdés Kuri, director

 

Claudio Valdés Kuri, a prestigious Mexican director, is recognized as one of Latin America´s artists with the most international acclaim. Founder and director of the company Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes, his work includes The Grey Automobile, Monsters and Prodigies: The History of the Castrati, Becket or the Honour of God and Where Will I Be Tonight?, all presented in Mexico (his native country), and in Europe, Latin America, the United States and the Caribbean. Specialized critics have given him well-deserved recognition, such as naming him the best director in experimental theatre as well as best group theatre director.

 

Several important governmental offices have commissioned and co-produced his productions: National Theatre Company (Mexico), National Autonomous University of Mexico, International Cervantino Festival (Guanajuato), Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Berlin), Kunsten Festival des Arts (Brussels) and Wiener Festwochen (Vienna).

 

Claudio Valdés Kuri was selected to develop the Translation and Contextualization project for Arts International (New York City) and took part in the Artist in Context program sponsored by the John Hope Franklin Center of North Carolina¿s Duke University and Arts Management program in the Kennedy Center (Washington D.C.).

 

He has received several grants from Cultural Contact, the US-Mexico Foundation for Culture, Young scholarship holders and Co-investment projects from Mexico¿s National Fund for Culture and the Arts.

 

Claudio Valdés Kuri graduated with honours as a film director from Mexico¿s Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica, specializing in Documentary.

 

Claudio¿s training as an actor began at the early age of 11 in 1976, under the tutorship of Susana Wein. He participated in countless productions with her company for the next seventeen years. From 1996 to 1999 he was part of Austria¿s Carpa Theater. He has also received considerable recognition as a versatile set designer and lighting expert in Mexicoand other countries.

 

He was co-founder and bass voice of the early music ensemble Ars Nova, dedicated mostly to the rediscovery of Renaissance and Latin American baroque music. Over the last fifteen years, this group has toured Mexico, Europe, North Africa, the Middle East,South America, the United States, and the Caribbean.

 

The monthly publication Mexican Leaders has acknowledged him as one of the top 300 most influential leaders in the country.

 

 

Irene Akiko Iida, actress

 

Iida was born to Japanese parents living in Mexico City. Upon finishing high school in this country, she moved to Osaka, Japan, enrolling in the Takarazuka Music School(Takarazuka Ongaku Gakko), and was the first Latin American student ever to be admitted. In 1981, upon graduation, Iida joined the Takarazuka Musical Revue Company. There she made her debut under the artistic name of Irene Sachikaze. In 1987, while continuing her theatrical activities, she entered the 150-year-old Hanayagi School of Traditional Japanese Dance to improve her knowledge of Japanese culture. Under the instruction of Rokuharu Hanayagi, Iida adopted the name of Irene Hanayagi. She graduated from the Hanayagi School of Traditional Japanese Dance in 1991, obtaining the title of teacher/master (Shihan). She participated in over 60 musical shows throughoutJapan as an actress, dancer and singer.

 

In 1997, Iida debuted on the Mexican theatre scene with Juan, el Momótaro, a musical theatre production that she wrote, directed and produced for the Centenary of the Japanese Migration to Mexico. Since then she has taught traditional Japanese dance and has appeared in many conferences throughout the country.

 

In 2001, she starred in The Sunset of the White Stork, a theatrical production in homage to Master Seki Sano.

 

 

Fabrina Melon, actress

 

French actress and dancer, Fabrina Melon was born in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. She began her dance studies in Paris with Maestro Jean-Claude Marignale. She was a member of the Art of Jazz Company, presenting Decadanse in 1999. Upon her arrival inMexico, she joined Alicia Sanchez y Compañía and learned the new technique of Teatro de Movimiento (Theatre of Movement), performing La Mirada del Sordo (The Gaze of the Deaf Man) in Mexico City's Historical Center Festival and a season at the Miguel Covarrubias Theatre in 2002. Fabrina has been a soloist in several La Giraldapresentations, as well as in numerous "performance" shows. She began her Dramatic Art training in Mexico with Gerardo Trejoluna. Later, she travelled to Bolivia, where she took a proficiency theatre course with the famous Teatro de los Andes group. She performed her first relevant role in the play The Blacks, by Jean Genet, directed by José Luis Cruz at the Orientación Theatre in Mexico City. Fabrina Melon is currently general coordinator for Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes.

 

 

Ernesto Gómez Santana, pianist

 

Born in Mexico City, Ernesto studied music and piano at the National University of Mexico's Music School and subsequently under James Gibb, Director of the Piano Program at London's Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

 

As an accompanist, Gómez Santana has participated in long runs of several music-theatre productions and has performed with well-known instrumentalists and singers such as Lourdes Ambriz, Lucía Gómez Santana, Jesús Suaste and Encarnación Vázquez. As a soloist, he has played in Concert Masters seasons sponsored by the National University of Mexico.

 

As an actor and accompanist Gómez Santana appeared in the play Los empeños de una casa, by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, at the Seville Expo '92 and at the Cadiz Ibero-American Festival, both in Spain. In 1994, he was invited by Pro-música of Ensenada to perform Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, in a new edition by Schott for two pianos and percussion orchestra.

 

From 1994 to 1996 he was invited to participate in the II, III and IV Magno Festival Palafoxiano of Puebla, appearing at the Luis Cabrera Hall and at the Teatro Principal. In January 2001 he played in the INSAP III (Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena) International Congress held in Palermo, Italy, accompanying vocalist Encarnación Vázquez and singing his own work. In June 2001, Santana appeared in New York City and Miami as both actor and pianist in Claudio Valdés Kuri's Monsters and Prodigies: The History of the Castrati, at the XVI International Hispanic Theatre Festival.

 

 

CREDITS

 

TEATRODECIERTOSHABITANTES 

MEXICO

 

THE GREY AUTOMOBILE

An exciting Mexican theatrical production that combines Enrique Rosas¿ 1919 classic silent film about The Grey Automobile Gang, with live piano and actors son stage lending their voices to the characters, in the traditional Japanese Benshi style

                                                               

Direction

Claudio Valdés Kuri

 

Irene Akiko Iida

Benshi

Fabrina Melón

Benshi

Claudio Valdés Kuri

Comentarist

Ernesto Gómez Santana

Pianist

 

 

Director

Claudio Valdés Kuri

Executive producer

Carlos López

Screenplay

Sofía González de León, Irene Akiko Iida, Enrique Arreola and Claudio Valdés Kuri

 

Musical selection

Claudio Valdés Kuri

Composition, adaptation and piano arrangements

Ernesto Gómez Santana

Lightning design

Ángel Ancona

Assistance in direction

Enrique Arreola

Costume design

María Rosa Manzini

Make-up

Carlos Guizar and Irene Akiko Iida

Film advisor

Ángeles Sánchez

General coordination

Fabrina Melón

Public relations

Itzia Zerón

Representative

Arthur S. Waber

Producers

Coordinación Nacional de Teatro - INBA
Haus der Kulturen der Welt - Berlín

 

Sponsors

Familia Rosas Priego
México en Escena - FONCA