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 in its competitive acceptance at the New York Music Festival. (see my review of the production by clicking here)
I am most curious to know how this wonderful production evolved. I know that is answering so many questions with one. This would cover.
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 Taino tribes in New York City. Anita had been working with the Taino 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 2 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 on 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 Taino souls and heard their tears dripping from the stalactites. She felt their spirits surrounding her and wrote a poem called “Totem Taino,” which she then turned into an opera libretto (described above). Anita had always been fascinated by the history of the Taino 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 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 Tainos 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 Taino collection (though not as extensive as the one at the Institute in Puerto Rico) and Museo deo 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 Tainos 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 Sixteenth 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 Tainos. Those who live as Tainos 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 Taino.
As 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 Taino history to life in our musical, which has received great support and praise from the Taino community in NYC. Anita and I each received a Taino Award, and were honored at a Taino Areyto at the Museo del Barrio.
Some background on development:
TWO SHOWCASES AND AWARDS – 2011-14
AEA Showcase in December 2011 at the West End Theater, NYC, produced by MultiStages, directed by Lorca Peress. Talk backs 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. Talk Back 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 Taino 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 $5000 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.
Did Dean Landon and Anika Paris come onto the project early on? How are you familiar with their work? (I thought the music was smashing).
Discussed above. They 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 I-pad, 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.
The New York Musical Festival is one of the most anticipated theater festivals in the city for good reason. The musical productions are top drawer, professional from start to finish. People enjoy seeing which shows are shepherded along to eventually make it to Off Broadway, Los Angeles, and Regional Theater. And sometimes Broadway producers are interested, though considering what it takes to mount a Broadway production these days, it would seem to be an incredible dream. But dreams do come true.
One offering that I do hope will be shepherded in this fashion is the profoundly moving musical Temple of The Souls which ran from July 17- 23rd at the Acorn Theater, one of the venues where the New York Musical Festival is taking place until 6 August. The multiple award winning Temple of The Souls is absolutely smashing. I don’t want to even consider that this production may not not continue to garner a wide audience. It is superb.
The stirring, enlightened book by Anita Velez-Mitchell, Lorca Peress and Anika Paris and entrancing, vibrant and hypnotic score (music by Dean Landon & Anika Paris, lyrics by Anita Velez-Mitchell & Anika Paris) warrants support beyond its New York City run at the NYMF. The time for such a production to gain a larger audience is fast upon us because of interest in the historical record of North America’s beginnings and the influences that have helped to shape our nation’s and its territories’ greatness.
Temple of The Souls is not only grounded in historical fact, the iconic, forbidden love story between a man and a woman of two disparate cultures, is reminiscent of love stories through the ages. Indeed from Scotland to Rome, the people of various tribes and societies have been joined together with offspring from forbidden love arrangements. Such stories resonate for us today because of their inherent truths. Love does not see with the materialistic eye, it sees with the heart. Unbounded, love seeks an exalted level away from embedded social folkways that encourage hatred and violence. The triumph of love to unify nations and dispel racism, discrimination and hatred is the key theme of this incredible musical. How worthy, how wise, how current for our times.
Temple of The Souls begins in the present on a tour of the mysterious El Yunque, the magical and gorgeous rain forest in Puerto Rico at whose top on an outcropping of rock and a high cliff, there exists a cave and area known as the Temple of The Souls. The tour guide (Lorraine Velez), explains the significance of the area. Lorraine Velez also portrays Nana and as the symbolic earth mother encapsulates beautifully the movement of this production in her presence from its beginning to its conclusion. She is breathtaking, exquisite, poignant, brilliant.
As the guide, Velez tells of the legend of love between Guario, a Taino (an indigenous native of the island) and Amada, a nubile sixteen-year-old, whose Spanish father represents all the abuses of Colonial Spain and its goodness as well. When Guario and Amada fall in love, taboos are broken, folkways are destroyed, and the spirits of the island who oversee the history of Spain’s horrific murders, rapes and enslavements, encourage the melding between old and new: the culture of violent bondage and the culture of pacific freedom, the paternalistic society and the gender friendly Taino society of men and women as partners.
The guide shares the history which underscores that many Tainos refused to bow to the oppression of the Spanish and instead committed suicide by jumping from the cliffs to their deaths in the sea. Suddenly, the scene is transformed. We no longer hear the echoes of the Tainos’ music and drums or see the spirits of the Tainos watching the guide and tourists. We are flashed back to the historic time of the 15th century in a Spanish colonial settlement on the verge of El Yunque.
It is a colorful, joyful day, the first day of celebration of La Fiesta de San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist announced and Baptized Christ as the embodiment of love). The celebration is ironic for the oppressive culture and religion do not represent the alleged Christian values in their discrimination, abuse and violence toward the Tainos. However, the production reveals the turning point when things begin to change and hope arrives in the union of love between Guario (Andres Quintero’s singing and acting talent establish him as a rising star; he’s just great) and Amada (Noellia Hernandez’s superb performance, sustained with power and lyricism throughout, is his equal).
Quintero’s Guario is part of the oppressed class who rejects his servitude and goes to El Yunque and the Temple of the Souls to discover who he is. During his travels through the town to eventually get to his destination, he runs into Nemesio (the excellent Jacob Gutierrez), and his cabal of repressive, abusive and discriminatory Spanish overlords. They threaten Guario and warn him not to return, a command reaffirmed by Amada’s father, Don Severo (the amazing Danny Bolero), the conquistador who governs the town. However, as Guario leaves, he and Amada see one another; it is “love at first sight,” or at the least curiosity at first sight. Nevertheless, the spark is ignited and the burning passion which grows between them creates a cataclysm that engulfs Guario’s, Nemesio’s, Amada’s, Don Severo’s and Nana’s lives and brings about the recompense of innocent bloodshed, the blood which cries out for a cessation which can only be delivered by love.
The next hour and one-half flies as we watch the characters struggle with themselves and against each other in conflicts still being experienced today between indigenous populations and “the colonials”-us! From moment to moment we are enthralled with the acting and voices of the fine ensemble, the gorgeous music, the theatrical spectacle and the intensity of the story’s dynamic between love and hate, lies and truth, oppression and freedom, lasciviousness and genuine, sincere love.
The director and artistic team have filled our senses and one cannot help but be moved to empathy, even to feel for Don Severo (Danny Bolero is commanding, vibrant, appropriately wicked, yet loving in his redemption) and Nemesio (Jacob Guitierrez’s “Nobody Makes a Fool of Me” is superb) who are the chief architects of evil, yet who reveal that they too, have compassion and are human.
The sterling balance of humanity which the writers crafted for these characters so that the actors might more easily breathe life into them captures us. We readily identify with them as people we know and take to heart. Each character is rich, each manifests complex shadows of multifaceted good and evil.
A fallout of this great writing of the book and lyrics and attendant music scoring is that the multiple themes are clearly, simply revealed. One theme is that oppressors ultimately destroy themselves with their own oppression. An additional theme is that there is no lie that should be allowed to separate familial relationships, because of the sickness and wickedness of the external culture. A third is that there should be no room for divisiveness which embitters and destroys everyone it touches.
These are indelible themes the audience recognizes. Thus, they are able to walk away inspired but chastened, moved but counseled to reaffirm the love within their own lives. The production above all reminds us of our ancestry and whether it is colonial or indigenous native, all of us are related if not by blood, by empathy as human beings.
I can only capstone this review by suggesting that the production is in hiatus until the next time. Look for it and if it is produced in another venue which is anywhere near you, see it. You will be uplifted and enlightened and reminded of all that is a blessing in your own life. The Temple of The Souls is wonderful entertainment with a vital message that all of us need to hear and see again and again.