After attending the last performance of the superb Temple of the Souls at the New York Musical Festival, I had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with its director/producer/writer Lorca Peress, who discussed how she and her team evolved the Broadway-quality, award-winning production which was honored with acceptance at the New York Music Festival. (see my review of the production.
I am most curious to know how this wonderful production evolved. I know that is asking so many questions with one. How did you, Anita and Anika work the collaboration for the book?
Anita Velez-Mitchell was born in Vieques, Puerto Rico in 1916. Anita is Anika’s and my grandmother. Anita and I began working on the opera libretto of Temple of the Souls in 2009 through my theatre company MultiStages’ Script Development Series. We presented a reading of the script (no music existed) and received a standing ovation from the audience of over 100 people. In the audience were 25 members of one of the Taíno tribes in New York City. Anita had been working with the Taíno Cacique chief on cultural authenticity, and he and his tribe members jumped to their feet at the end of the reading. During the Q & A that I moderated with guests Anita and the Cacique, one of the audience members said, “We are all descendants of Guario and Amada.” They applauded and I knew then that we had something special, novel, and important.
Anita asked a composer to write music to the opera libretto of Temple of the Souls (it took him one year to write two arias), and he said it was too big a task for him to complete given her advanced age. In 2010 Anita suggested we contact Anika and Dean to be the composers. Anika had written music for several MultiStages productions, but Dean had never been involved in or composed for musical theatre. I flew out to meet with them in Los Angeles, and pitched/performed the script, discussing what type of song might exist here, who sings it, etc. They wrote the Temple finale first. They sent it to Anita and me by email. We listened to the song and burst into tears. We knew this was it!
We decided a musical would be better than an opera, and Anika began working with Anita on the lyrics (much done via phone as Anika and Dean live in LA). Anika eventually joined in the development of the book, and she and Dean wrote several of the songs/lyrics independently as well.
Who had the original idea for the story and how was it developed?
On Anita’s last trip home to the Island, she visited the caves and El Yunque Rain Forest. She told me she felt the cries of the Taíno souls and heard their tears dripping from the stalactites. She felt their spirits surrounding her and wrote a poem called “Totem Taíno,” which she then turned into an opera libretto (described above). Anita had always been fascinated by the history of the Taíno people, but for me, a Puerto Rican born in NYC, I was not as aware of the culture as I wish I had been.
Once I had read Anita’s story, I went on a research mission. After reading books and finding information online, I flew to Puerto Rico to meet with Anita’s friend, Dr. Ricardo Alegria in San Juan. Dr. Alegria is an anthropologist and archaeologist; Wikipedia calls him the “father of modern Puerto Rican archaeology.” I was honored to interview/question him in his home surrounded by relics, art, and the history of our people. I was also given a private tour of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture which he founded, and learned even more.
My trip to the El Yunque Rain Forest was eye-opening. I saw where the Taínos had taken refuge in the mountains, and where thousands took their lives by jumping off the mountain cliffs. Back in New York, I visited the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian which also has a good Taíno collection (though not as extensive as the one at the Institute in Puerto Rico) and El Museo del Barrio, which I had been to numerous times.
One of the most fascinating things I have learned about the culture is the great debate over how many Taínos existed, and how many were killed, died of disease, or took their lives. We have seen records as large as hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands killed. The 16th-century census was limited because so many people hid in El Yunque and were never counted. Suffice it to say, the Spaniards decimated the majority of Taínos. Those who live as Taínos today are mostly genetically mixed. But, how one personally identifies and lives is what keeps traditions and culture alive. And today there are thousands of Puerto Rican and Dominican natives in NYC and on the islands who live their lives as Taíno.
As a multicultural director, it is important that we understand the responsibility of stepping into another culture and world. I feel blessed and honored to bring elements of the Taíno history to life in our musical, which has received great support and praise from the Taíno community in NYC. Anita and I each received a Taíno Award, and were honored at a Taíno Areyto at the Museo del Barrio.
Some background on the development of the show:
TWO SHOWCASES AND AWARDS – 2011-14
AEA Showcase in December 2011 at the West End Theater, NYC, produced by MultiStages, directed by Lorca Peress. Talkbacks with: Taíno tribe member Jorge Estaban, lecturer and co-curatory of The Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian Institution; and Cacike Cibanakan (NY Taíno Tribal chief) and members perform a music/dance demonstration. We were honored at an Areyto (a Taíno ceremony) at the Museo del Barrio.
- MultiStages receives Manhattan Community Arts Fund Grant from LMCC/DCA.
- 4 HOLA Awards (Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors): 2012 Gilberto Zaldivar Outstanding Production Award, Outstanding Choreography and Lighting, Special Recognition for Music for the production.
- Anita Velez-Mitchell and choreographer Milteri Tucker receive the Taíno Areyto Drama Award.
AEA Showcase in September 2014 at Theatre for the New City, NYC, produced by MultiStages, directed by Lorca Peress. Talkback and Taíno musical demonstration with Roman Guaraguaorix (Redhawk) Perez, Cacique Chief of the Maisiti Yukayeke Taíno, a tribe of the Taíno Nation in the Bronx, NY.
- MultiStages receives Manhattan Community Arts Fund Grant from LMCC/DCA.
- Six Innovative Theatre Award Nominations: Outstanding Production (MultiStages and Co.), Outstanding Original Music (Dean Landon and Anika Paris), Outstanding Original Script (Anita Velez-Mitchell, Lorca Peress, Anika Paris), Outstanding Innovative Design (masks, Marla Speer), Outstanding Costume Design (Marla Speer), Best Lead Actress (Debra Cardona).
- Lorca Peress receives a Taíno Areyto Drama Award at the NYC Bronx Museum of Art in recognition of her work in support of the Taíno culture and its legacy.
- Anita Velez-Mitchell receives the proclamation from the Governor of Puerto Rico at the memorial concert in her honor, with songs from Temple of the Souls.
2016 – DIVERSITY IN THE ARTS CONCERT
We are invited to perform selections from Temple of the Souls with narration, at the Diversity in the Arts event at Hunter, NYC.
2017 – NEXT LINK PROJECT OF NYMF 2017
We are chosen as a Next Link Project for NYMF (New York Musical Festival). Only 10 Next Link Project musicals were chosen from over 200 submissions. An interesting marketing phenomenon to note: 80% of the ticketing audience for Temple of the Souls is of Latino heritage. We are highlighted on several Taíno Facebook pages, and have a broad audience of followers over the years.
When the songs were created, were they added after the book was first created? Or was it a holistic process?
The majority of song lyrics came from the book. We continued updating the script, and new songs and lyrics were added.
How many years were you working on this together? separately?
Anita died in 2015. Lorca and Anika began reworking the book in 2016. Anika and Dean joined the project in 2010, Lorca and Anita began collaborating in 2009, Anita completed the first draft of the libretto in 2007.
Had you always planned to bring it to NYMF?
After the two showcases I produced and directed in 2011 and 2014 through MultiStages, we wanted another opportunity to present the piece and introduce it to theatre producers. I applied to NYMF and we were accepted as a Next Link Project (only 10 were chosen as Next Link Projects from over 200 submissions, which included a dramaturg and a $5,000 grant toward the NYMF production).
What was the casting process like?
We attended a NYMF open casting in May, and cast one ensemble actor. We hired Michael Cassara, who had cast the 2014 production. We kept the two leads Noellia Hernandez as Amada and Andres Quintero as Guario, and two ensemble members, Theresa Burns and Miguel A. Sierra from the 2014 production. Lorraine Velez (Nana) was introduced to me through a mutual colleague and we were thrilled when she accepted the role of Nana. We opened the auditions for the remaining roles, and built a terrific cast.
Did you have to cut songs or other scenes to bring it in under the NYMF time limit?
We cut some songs, added in a few, created a stronger underscore and incidental music, and made it one act. We had the orchestrations that Dean created transformed into musical parts for a four-piece live orchestra.
Dean and Anika are brilliant platinum and gold song writers and we are thrilled with their music.
What is the most rewarding part of the process? The final product or the journey?
For me personally the greatest reward has been to collaborate with my family. We have all had professional careers independent of each other, so collaborating on this piece has been so personal to us. Losing Anita has been very difficult. We love her dearly, but feel she is with us as we continue sharing her story and making music and art to share with all. At the sitz probe session (first opportunity for the cast to sing with the band), I pulled up Anita’s photo on my iPad, and had her on the table during the session. In the play, we talk about souls and ancestors, and thoroughly believe she is still a part of this musical and our world.
Where do you plan to go from here?
We are setting up meetings with producers and experts who have gone through the process of moving a musical forward, to brainstorm and find the next best direction for the show. There are many possibilities for this musical and we look forward to continuing its development. We are interested in international tours and want to translate the musical into Spanish.
How did you fund the production?
We raised funds through private donations from over 100 generous people and received grant support. We held a fundraising event in May where cast members sang a medley of songs, and we presented an example of the dancing Enrique was choreographing. The guests wrote checks and gave us their blessing. This NYMF production has been the most expensive I have undertaken as a producer to date. There is much more to raise going forward and we’re building a team.
To learn more about Lorca Peress, click HERE.