Story Time

It's a late afternoon in early March, and Elia Arce is looking rather wistfully into a empty rehearsal studio at DiverseWorks's gallery and theater complex. Three wooden chairs sit in the center of the floor, waiting for occupants. It appears that Arce, a performance artist from Los Angeles, has reached a stumbling block halfway through her two-month-long residency at the theater. Invited to Houston to create a work about Latina women who have been diagnosed with HIV, Arce is ready to begin putting the bones of her piece together. But the women with whom she's making No Le Digas a Nadie (Don't Tell Anybody) -- three Houston Latinas -- have called in sick. In this particular case, the performance artist knows, theirs is a child's excuse, and it's one she's heard before.

A woman whose early work with the arts ensemble L.A.P.D. (Los Angeles Poverty Department) taught her how to make theater using people not at all familiar with performing, Arce has for the last decade alternated her solo pieces -- which resonate with self-deprecating humor and painful memories -- with group projects. Now in her mid-thirties, and with 20 works behind her, Arce has developed workshop-style pieces that are in demand at theaters, festivals and community centers across the country.

The genesis of Arce's latest work, which is being put together in collaboration with AVES, a Houston organization that provides health services for Latinos living with AIDS, stretches back to 1995 and her solo performance at DiverseWorks of Stretching My Skin Until It Rips Whole. Loris Bradley, DiverseWorks's performance director, was impressed enough with Arce that she wanted to bring her back to do a piece connected with Houston. A Costa Rican immigrant who understands the difficulties Latinas face in assimilating into U.S. society, Arce, Bradley mused, was an obvious choice to direct something about the dual backlash -- racism and, in many cases, disgust -- facing Latinas infected with HIV.

Since she works primarily with people who aren't trained actors, Arce expected that her No Le Digas a Nadie collaborators would eventually reach the point where rehearsal became painful, because the work requires self-reflective honesty. This afternoon is obviously that point. Even though she anticipated it, her collaborators' absence is frustrating, Arce says, because she feels that the women were finally beginning to trust the storytelling process -- the core of all performance art. Then, too, there's the added complication of their disease; not all the women have gone public with their illness. In order to protect their anonymity, two of the women will wear masks during their performance. Finding women willing to tell their stories included, on DiverseWorks's part, finding baby sitters for the performers' children and scheduling rehearsal times that wouldn't conflict with the various families' dinner hours.

The kind of theater that Arce makes fits under the large and ill-defined umbrella of performance art -- a term that suffers miserably as the unwanted stepchild of legitimate theater. But Arce's, and in fact most performance art, is simply the art of telling stories, some that belong to the performer and some that don't. There aren't any hard and fast rules about Arce's collaborative work, though it does aim, the artist says, to elucidate an issue from an alternative point of view, to take other people's stories and make them into dramatic works. Unlike almost anyone else in theater (with the notable exception of choreographers such as Liz Lerman, David Dorfman and Bill T. Jones), Arce makes theater out of real people -- from conception to performance, often layering in video and audio elements of her own.

In her fringed suede jacket and worn jeans, the slight, fine-featured Arce looks as if she could blend in anywhere. That quality is one that applies to the breadth of her projects, from a piece about Los Angeles drag queens and their talent for mimicry to her current work-in-progress about, in a larger sense, families and disease. The social commentary that goes along with Arce's work is more of a byproduct of the storytelling process than it is her aim. Her aim, Arce says, is to let the audience see even a tired issue such as AIDS from the perspective of someone else -- in this case, a group of someones whose experience with the virus is complicated by racism outside their community, and misunderstanding within it. "I like to tell people that I feel sorry for no one," Arce says, in an attempt to explain that her performers don't want pity for their hardship but rather, in most cases, just want others to hear their voices.

After a week of somewhat terse rehearsals for No Le Digas a Nadie, there was a breakthrough when three of the women involved began to tell stories about their families. The communal aspect of food turned out to be a common thread among the Latinas -- each could relate to the shame one group member felt when her family and friends politely refused to eat a meal she had prepared. Suddenly, the mute fear lifted and another woman related an embarrassing moment when a family member carefully wiped the phone receiver after she, the infected woman, had used it. This rehearsal was the kind of cleared hurdle that Arce waits for in a piece. "I just sat here and watched them perform," she says, "and I would try to ask questions and they would say: 'Wait, we're not finished.' They were great, because they were themselves, because they were real." The session made clear one of No Le Digas a Nadie's themes: a common despair about families' distrust and fear of both the infected person and the virus itself.

Perhaps the reason Arce feels comfortable in her complex role of teacher, director, writer, choreographer and counselor is her own long road to recognition. Unable to find enough work in her field -- dance and theater -- to support herself when she first arrived in the U.S., Arce became a maid in a hotel, pushing a cart loaded with bath towels, soaps and shampoos and vacuuming room after room to earn a living. To stave off boredom, she recited over and over to herself a line of Pablo Neruda's poetry: "Us from them are not the same."

When she was asked in 1990 to create a performance piece about borders -- both national and personal -- for the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada, Arce found herself in an unusual, and somewhat uncomfortable, position. It was one of the first times that a residency included a hotel stay, and seeing all those pushcarts in the hall, along with the men and women pushing them, was a strange reversal of fortune for her.

The awkward coincidence resulted in one of Arce's favorite performance pieces: Maid Make Up Room/Please Do Not Disturb, in which she used four of the hotel maids -- three of whom, serendipitously, happened to be performers. Using a set that consisted of three door frames, the maids spun their vacuum cleaners around and talked about their labor-intensive work.

Not all her works come together quite as fluidly. Today, facing her empty rehearsal studio, Arce hones in on the most difficult part of her job: "You get people to express themselves, to really tell the truth," she says, "and they get scared shitless."

No Le Digas a Nadie will be performed March 2123 at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 223-8346.

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Megan Halverson