'Wouldn't it be amazing?": Salvage Vanguard Theatre and the Blanton Museum team up
The new play Casta, produced by Salvage Vanguard, is currently presenting its world premiere in what might seem like an unlikely venue – it’s being staged inside UT’s Blanton Museum of Art, as a part of the Blanton’s new exhibition Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America.
The play was inspired by Mexico’s Casta paintings, which depict the mixing of races that took place in Colonial Latin America. Co-director Jenny Lawson-Quiñones (who is half of the art collective/married couple jk jk along with her spouse khattieQ) says she always wanted to stage the play with actual Casta paintings on set. “From the beginning, [playwright] Adrienne [Dawes] and I were like, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if we could perform this in front of or in conversation with the real Casta portraitures?,’” she says. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to able to afford the millions of dollars of insurance you need for those kinds of paintings! I mean, we’re just a tiny little theater company! But I bet the Blanton could, and so I’m going to contact them.’ Because I have wild hairs. And so I emailed the Blanton, and was just like, ‘we have a play we want to do there because it’s about this and it is important.’ And thankfully our email and script was passed on to Rosario, who had faith in the project and saw workshops throughout and has been advocating for us to be a part of the exhibit from the beginning.”
The Rosario she’s referring to is Rosario Inés Granados, who curated Painted Cloth for the Blanton. “And for me, it was very exciting,” she says. “Because I was in the process of putting together the checklist for the exhibition when the company came and said, ‘are you interested in hosting this performance?’ And the prospective collaboration really shaped my own creative process for the exhibition. Because the exhibition is about… how painting and other textile arts reflect or depict reality. And so the idea of taking a painting not only into an exhibition space but making it go to the next level and become alive on a stage outside the gallery space was just mind-blowing. And also, the fact that Casta paintings were mainly made in Mexico, but at that moment the exhibition was going to be only about Colonial Peruvian paintings. And thus, I started thinking, okay, there is only one serious Casta painting made in Peru. I want to have it.” That painting was in Spain, so, inspired by the upcoming performance of Casta, Granados set about convincing her supervisors to let her pursue an international loan and secure the painting. Granados says the collaboration with Salvage Vanguard made her exhibition more ambitious, and Lawson-Quiñones says the inspiration went both ways. “Just as Rosario said that our play influenced the exhibit, the exhibit influenced our play,” she says. “Because now all of our props are made out of felt sculpture works. Our puppets are now all felt wool, and the textiles that make up the costumes are vintage antique textiles from interior Mexico. So our leaning into textile and fabric is about this Painted Cloth exhibit.”
“The Casta paintings were produced for classification,” Granados says. “And maybe we can just look at that and see how absurd it is to reduce the human experience, no? And to have that conversation through beautiful objects and through a fun, appealing performance… I think it’s just wonderful.”
“And Adrienne Dawes packs jokes [into her scripts], I will say,” Lawson-Quiñones adds. “So even though we’re dealing with very serious content, you will laugh.”
“Some of the paintings that are at the Blanton right now are beautiful depictions of interracial couples,” co-director khattieQ says. “But a lot of the [other] ones we’ve seen, when there was an interracial couple, there was, you know, drunkenness and violence, which is pretty negative. [The paintings were] cataloging people, so the Spanish were regal and rich, and the darker the skin, they were falling on the ground, and had no shoes, and stuff like that.”
“Which, I think, is why it’s so thrilling that this piece activates those voices beyond the confines of those paintings,’ adds Salvage Vanguard artistic director Kate Taylor. “So they get to contest the limitation of exactly what you’re talking about.”