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Since its inception, El Teatro Campesino and its founder and artistic director, Luis Valdez, have set the standard for Latino theatrical production in the United States. Founded in 1965 on the Delano Grape Strike picket lines of Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers Union, the company created and performed “actos” or short skits on flatbed trucks and in union halls. Taking the “actos” on tour to dramatize the plight and cause of the farmworkers, El Teatro Campesino was honored in 1969 with an Obie Award for “demonstrating the politics of survival” and with the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award in 1969 and 1972.
In 1971, the company moved to San Juan Bautista, a rural town of 1,600 people located on the periphery of the major metropolitan centers of Northern California. In summer of 1973, legendary British theater director Peter Brook and his Paris based company, The International Centre of Theater Research, participated in an eight-week experimental workshop with the company in San Juan Bautista culminating in a joint venture performing throughout farmworker communities in the San Joaquin Valley.
In 1976, El Teatro Campesino launched an extended European tour starting at the Popular Comic Theatre Festival in Nancy, France, and made its way through eight western European countries to critical and public acclaim. Over the years, the company toured the United States, and Mexico, and made six major tours throughout Europe.
During the 70’s, the company evolved a series of plays termed “The Miracle, Mystery, and Historical Cycle of San Juan Bautista.” During the Holiday season, the miracle play of the four apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe called “La Virgen del Tepeyac” and the traditional shepherds play, “La Pastorela,” are still performed in the Old Mission of San Juan Bautista on alternate years.
In 1977, a Rockefeller Foundation Grant enabled El Teatro Campesino Artistic Director Luis Valdez, to create for the Mark Taper Forum “Zoot Suit,” one of the most successful plays ever to originate in Los Angeles, playing to critical and popular acclaim to close to half a million people. Mounted on the New York stage by the Shubert Organization, “Zoot Suit” became the first play by a Latino to be presented on Broadway. The motion picture version for Universal Pictures, directed by Valdez, received the prestigious foreign press association’s Golden Globe Award nomination for “Best Musical Picture.”
In 1981, the Teatro acquired a warehouse and converted it into its new playhouse. The company began experimenting with the relationship between music, dance, and theater. The subsequent musical theatre production of “Corridos” (based on Mexican folk ballads) played to sold-out houses in San Juan Bautista, and eventually moved to the Marines Memorial Theater in San Francisco, where it was awarded eleven Bay Area Theater Critics Awards including Best Musical.
In 1986, El Teatro Campesino joined forces with the Los Angeles Theater Center for the premiere of Luis Valdez’ comedy, “I Don’t Have To Show You No Stinking Badges”. The production received critical acclaim and enjoyed a successful six month run.
In 1987, Valdez wrote and directed “La Bamba”, the Ritchie Valens story, for Columbia Pictures. That same year, he adapted his critically acclaimed play, “Corridos: Tales of Passion and Revolution” for PBS Television in association with El Teatro Campesino. It won the coveted and prestigious George Peabody Award.
In 1991, El Teatro Campesino produced its first feature-length film, “La Pastorela: A Shepherd’s Tale” written and directed by Luis Valdez for PBS Great Performances Series. It aired internationally on the United Kingdom’s Channel Four and on Spain’s TVE Television Espanola, and quickly became a staple of Holiday programming on the Telemundo Network.
In 1993-94, Luis Valdez co-wrote and directed “The Cisco Kid” for a Turner Network Television (TNT) production in Mexico. That year El Teatro Campesino launched their first AT&T On Stage production by presenting Valdez’ “Bandido! The American Melodrama of Tiburcio Vasquez, Notorious California Bandit” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
In 1996, a whole new generation of young Teatro artists began experimenting with live and electronic theater, producing revisionist versions of classics such as Antonin Artaud’s “The Cenci”, Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu Roi,” Bertolt Brecht’s “The Measures Taken” and the entire cannon of Luis Valdez, beginning with his first play “The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa.”
In 1999, El Teatro Campesino opened its own multimedia digital center in an effort to reach new audiences. “Ballad of Soldier,” written and directed by Kinan Valdez and produced by Anahuac Valdez, became El Teatro Campesino’s first fully independent feature. The film, based on Luis Valdez’ anti-war play “Soldado Razo,” toured the film festival circuit for a year, garnering numerous indie awards, including the “Gran Premio” at CineFestival in San Antonio, Texas.
In 2000, Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino began an extended association with the San Diego Repertory Theater to develop and create new works for a growing multicultural audience. Over a five year period, Luis Valdez wrote and directed two new world premieres, “Mummified Deer” (2000) and “Earthquake Sun” (2004), and collaborated with his son Kinan on a third production, “Corridos REMIX” (2005).
In 2002-2003, El Teatro Campesino produced a 25th Anniversary production of Luis Valdez’ hit play, “Zoot Suit”. The wildly successful revival ran for nearly a year, and launched on a U.S. Southwestern Tour in 2004, becoming the genesis for an emerging new generation.
By 2006, El Teatro Campesino had returned to its roots as an ensemble theater company committed to generating social change through the arts. A new enthusiastic generation, under the direction of Kinan Valdez, began training in the classic ETC style and creating new works to explore the changing multicultural face of the Americas.
Whereas the previous generations had engaged in ancient mythology of indigenous America, the new ensemble explored the commonalities among world mythologies. Whereas the previous generations had engaged in American farm worker labor struggles, the new ensemble embraced world wide contemporary struggles such as growing corporate control and the environmental movement.
Currently ETC is developing a new multicultural music myth based on the ancient Goddess religions. ETC has also partnered with the Monterey Bay Aquarium to create new “Actos” such as “Basta Basura” and “Watt a Waste,” to raise awareness of global warming and the need for a global conservation, and is working with the Monterey County Office of Education to develop a k-12 school curriculum based on the company’s history and principles.
Now in its 44th year, El Teatro Campesino continues to evolve to better serve its audience in both rural and urban centers. In addition to running the home base in San Juan Bautista, ETC is set to expand into the Silicon Valley by the fall of 2009, ready to meet the challenges of creating community in the multicultural milieu of the 21st century.