Actor/director Kinan Valdez knows two things very well—intimately, you might say. One is La Pastorela, the old folk tale turned theatrical production staged every other Christmas season for decades by El Teatro Campesino. The other thing is the ETC Playhouse in San Juan Bautista where he grew up as the middle son of the landmark theater company’s founder, playwright Luis Valdez.
But, before 2019, those two elements remained wholly separate spheres. For more than 40 years, La Pastorela, like its twin production La Virgen del Tepeyac, has been presented in the majestic Mission San Juan Bautista. But last summer, in a seismic break with local theater tradition, ETC announced that this year’s production would be moved to the ETC Playhouse on Fourth Street.
Why? It has to do with improvements that the Mission made to the church interior, replacing old pews with new ones, which were bolted to the floor for safety and stability. The play’s traditional staging required that the pews be movable, which they no longer are.
Valdez said that he respects the Mission’s decision to do what’s best for its parish. He called the production’s move out of the Mission a “logistical” issue.
“The issue is not so much that it’s impossible for us to stage the show there,” he said. “It just takes more time to reimagine it for the new circumstance. With this show, we have 40 years of material, props and set pieces that were customized for that particular staging. There was just not enough time for us to completely reimagine La Pastorela in that space.”
Instead, ETC has chosen to transform its Playhouse to stage a new vision of La Pastorela. The theater’s proscenium set-up has been turned into an in-the-round arrangement, in which audiences will be seated on every side of the stage. Plus, ETC has traded majesty for intimacy. Traditionally, in the Mission, La Pastorela was able to accommodate a cast of up to 80—though, more typically, it was between 40 and 50. The new production has cut that number in half. The same applies for audiences—seating for the new production is at 169, about half the size of what the Mission could hold.
In that sense, said Valdez, the loss of the Mission space is a kind of hidden blessing, allowing the company to experience a refreshed vision of the play. After the initial disappointment that came from leaving the Mission, the cast and crew began to embrace the challenge.
“We had to return to the intention behind the original choices made many years ago,” he said. “And we had to revisit some of the original ideas that shaped some of the staging, the scenic design, and the storytelling. We had to weigh everything and say, OK, we’re going in this direction. In that case, it has been somewhat of a blessing. The show now has to stand on its own, and it has to be a resonant experience, both energetically and spiritually.”
La Pastorela, or A Shepherd’s Tale, is a Mexican tradition that goes back almost 500 years, an interpretation of the Nativity story of Jesus, featuring a group of shepherds, caught in the middle of a battle between devils and angels. The story is deeply resonant with Spanish colonization of Mexico and Central America—not to mention the immigrant experience today—and versions of the play are common throughout Mexico.
In the U.S., El Teatro Campesino has been at the forefront of keeping the La Pastorela tradition alive. Luis Valdez first began staging the play, largely using puppets, in the streets of San Juan Bautista, until he was invited to bring the play indoors in the Mission in the 1970s. The play received national prominence when it was made into a PBS film in 1991, directed by Luis Valdez and featuring, among others, Linda Ronstadt.
Kinan Valdez’s experience in La Pastorela goes back to his earliest memories. He first performed in the play as a small angel at 4 years old when the play was still performing in the streets of San Juan. He got to fight his older brother Anahuac, who was playing a devil, with wooden swords.
“He ended up swiping and hitting my hand,” Kinan said. “I had tears streaming down my face, and I was a little bit in shock. But I came from a theater family, so I knew I couldn’t leave the stage. My brother whispered, and the audience heard it, ‘Kill me, Kinan.’ I did as I was told and I ran off.”
Valdez ended up directing many productions of La Pastorela, beginning in the 1990s. But he had not directed the play since 2007. When El Teatro decided to stage the play at the Playhouse this year, he was the choice to guide the tradition through this perilous transition.
“It was not originally my intention to step back into this,” said Valdez at the ETC Playhouse with the puppets his father used in the earliest productions on a shelf above his head. “But when we spoke about which of our company directors had the longevity and the knowledge of the tradition, I was the most appropriate choice.”
Both La Pastorela and La Virgen del Tepeyac depend upon a community of actors and cast members who come back to the production year after year, balancing an influx of newcomers, many of whom were inspired to take part in the play as audience members.
“That’s one of the beautiful things about this tradition,” Valdez said. “There’s always the veterans of the experience who take the new people under their wings. That hasn’t changed. The circumstances of this production might have changed, but the tradition lives on.”
The play is traditionally mostly in Spanish, with some English. The show is staged in a way that even non-Spanish speakers can broadly understand what is happening.
Luis Valdez, who originally adapted the play at El Teatro, is still the keeper of the flame, said his son.
“Every year, someone will want to make a change to the text, and my father will usually take those ideas and help with those adjustments,” Kinan said.
But the tinkering and the small changes of years past has now turned into a full-on re-working in a new space, with a new spirit.
“The new circumstance has created an opening where everything old is new again,” said Kinan Valdez. “We’re all invested in making this as powerful an experience for the community as possible.”
As for the future, whether moving the play out of the Mission is a new direction or merely a swerve in the road, Valdez said, “Given the fact that the shows have been staged in the Mission San Juan Bautista for more than 40 years, our dream is one day to be able to take the shows back into the Mission. That’s something we’re going to hold onto.”
La Pastorela, presented by El Teatro Campesino
Dec. 6-22. Tickets: Adults, general admission, $30-$35. Discounts for military, seniors, students, and children 12 and under.
ETC Playhouse, 705 Fourth St., San Juan Bautista.