A peek at the 'circus'
CarlosAlexis Cruz is a theater professional less concerned with script and more concerned with action – and most concerned with telling stories.
“Words are constrained by borders,” he says. “Gestures are a global thing.”
In traditional theater, the script is the driving force. In physical theater – that’s what this 35-year-old native of Puerto Rico and McColl Award winner teaches at UNC Charlotte – action propels the story.
“Physical theater is just storytelling from a different perspective,” Cruz says. “In the U.S., there’s a strong tradition of the written word. The author is revered – almost a god-like figure. A playwright’s words must go untouched when you’re producing a play.”
But in his upcoming production, Cruz turns that idea – and many of his performers – upside down.
The goal: Ditch barriers and engage outsiders
This project, “Nouveau Sud, Nouveau Cirque” (“New South, New Circus”), didn’t even start with a script.
Cruz knew he wanted to create a circus arts piece, and went seeking what he calls “underground” break dancers and hip-hop artists – people with a range of experience, skills and interests, from a range of backgrounds and cultures.
But the project took form when he listened to their stories, tales of struggles and stereotypes, things he and they could convey, he believed, with his brand of art.
A current artist-in-residence at the McColl Center, he holds a master’s degree in physical theater from the only place in the country to offer a graduate degree in the discipline, the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in northern California.
Now he tells what he calls “human stories” in a language that doesn’t need to be translated.
“The characters are themselves in a contemporary circus,” he says. The show’s scenes “are glimpses into (real people’s) lives. From crossing the border through the desert in a tumbling acrobatic piece, to the image of the other/exotic of an Asian female on aerial silks, to a constant confrontation/battle between black and white males on aerial straps ... we use hyper-physicality to convey these themes.”
Which, he hopes – because he finds Charlotte a diverse city with lots of talent, but “culturally segregated” – will “start a meaningful conversation.”
Who is the outsider? And what does that story tell us?
It’s hard not to draw parallels between Cruz and current Broadway darling Lin-Manuel Miranda, writer-star of “Hamilton.” Both are of Puerto Rican heritage, both are finding success in the power of a good story – and both find it crucial to understand the experience of the “outsider.”
When Miranda’s Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette sing “Immigrants: We get the job done,” audiences go wild – perhaps for those two, perhaps for the whole cast, perhaps for millions in contemporary America. And perhaps because Miranda found an ingenious way – the hip-hop musical – to tell that story.
Cruz’s ingenuity is also being recognized. In 2014, he won the prestigious McColl Award from the Arts & Science Council (ASC). Named in honor of Hugh and Jane McColl, this $25,000 grant goes toward the creation of a new work of art, a creative exhibition for the community.
Ryan Deal, ASC’s vice president for cultural and community investment, says Cruz took the award committee by storm. When the eight finalists (of 100-plus who expressed interest and 18 who applied) presented their pitches, Cruz transformed an ASC boardroom into his own personal theater space. “One panelist wrote on his notes: WOW!”
“Nouveau Sud, Nouveau Cirque” is the result.
Both Cruz and the ASC hope to reach people outside the usual crowds. Cruz says arts in America generally aim at privileged audiences, often telling a story of privileged people. And even when a story’s about people of lower socioeconomic circumstance, he says, it tends to be told from the perspective of the elite, looking in (or down) on others.
So he hopes to make “Nouveau” mobile; but first there are the April 28-29 performances at Booth Playhouse at Blumenthal uptown. Meanwhile, he continues to teach at UNCC, and June 3-4, he’ll star in a show he created for Children’s Theatre: “Picaro” is a story about a brave 8-year-old Guatemalan boy who travels across Mexico to the United States.
“I have no life right now,” Cruz says, with no trace of resentment. “It’s all about the hustle.”
He credits his family – wife Mayra Acevedo, an actress with a degree in theater education, and daughters, 5 and not quite 2 – with keeping him grounded amid that hustle. “I have a mission as a dad, too. My family is a very important part of the equation.”
The venue: Another new idea
Cruz was surprised that the idea of traveling circuses of acrobats wasn’t already in wide use in America. It’s prevalent in Puerto Rico and in a number of European countries.
So back in 2013, he’d approached his mentor at UNCC, Jose Gamez, associate professor of architecture and urban design.
“I was interested in seeing how art can transform a physical space,” Cruz says, and he’s determined to bring physical theater to where people are. (When you set out with a goal as lofty as increasing people’s empathy toward each other, you can’t just wait for people to come to you.)
His mentor had similar interests, and their idea of a movable, pop-up stage began to evolve.
They originally envisioned a flatbed truck that could convert into a small stage. But they began to dream bigger. “We started with the idea of the itinerant theater tradition,” Cruz says. “Then it grew. He is still true to that in spirit, but he’s now spectacular in size.”
Cruz says he sometimes calls the stage “he” because he thinks of MAX as alive.
MAX, short for Mobile Arts & Community Experience, is UNC Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture’s state-of-the-art mobile facility that made its debut last April. The college got a three-year, $350,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to support the effort. Boxman Studios, a Charlotte company that creates new uses for old shipping containers, partnered in the design and construction.
MAX is 20 feet wide by 18 feet deep by 20 feet high, a pop-up performance venue/community gathering space that can accommodate everything from Cruz’s circus to a neighborhood association meeting.
Recently, it’s been parked in the front lawn of the McColl Center, as Cruz rehearsed “Nouveau” in it. He hopes to perform the production in it, too, for new audiences.
Ever the professor, Cruz launches into a lesson in describing his vision for MAX: “The ‘picaro’ in a picaresque novel (generally defined as a rogue’s adventure) is in some ways the journey of the immigrant. But it’s all of our stories. We travel along on our journeys – either literally or metaphorically. And as we go, we are changed by the journey. But we leave the places we’ve visited changed, too. I see MAX as an entity that is alive and on its own journey. It will morph itself as it moves along.”
Cruz hopes it leaves those in its wake changed, too.