It was April when a friend of mine brought the call-out to my attention. Arte del Mundo, an arts and literacy foundation for young people in Ecuador, were seeking volunteers to help transform a garage into a fully functioning black box community theatre. I had been working an office job for the last 8 months, movements with my theatre company were slow and the tension to escape was practically tangible. Here was an opportunity to be a useful in the theatre world, and I took it.
A few of months later, I arrived at Quito airport with so much adrenelin I was ready to implode. What exactly did I think I was doing? In South America? All by myself? Although I do much of my international travelling alone, this was different. I was so anxious about all the cautionary advice I had received on being in South America for the first time as a solo female traveller who didn’t speak the language that I barely slept the last few nights leading to my departure.
Nevertheless, I got there fine. Baños, where Arte del Mundo are based, is a beautiful, scenic 3 hour drive out of Quito. If you can imagine a little Andean town surrounded by mountains so grandous and towering they almost looked fake, that’s Baños, complete with it’s own volcano – and yes, it did erupt while I was there.
The crew at Arte del Mundo were halfway through transforming the space by the time I arrived. Because there were only weeks left to opening, things were frantic, but the disorganisation was a blessing in disguise. It meant I was thrown into the deep end, doing what I’d never do back home because it simply wasn’t my role in the theatre. Suddenly I was sanding and painting walls, drilling seating banks together and getting sent to hardward store to ask for – or mime, as I didn’t speak Spanish – materials and tools (the 15 minutes spent miming the use of a chisel seemed to be amusing for everyone but me).
Time flew by. We worked on the theatre Mondays to Fridays and weekends were kept free for other adventures – my favourite being a jungle trip led by an indigenous woman (my new hero) who wore no pants, no shoes, and used a machete to clear our path. Back at the theatre, the transformation was happening rapidly. Before I knew it, the walls were blacked, a lighting box was installed and the new, donated (!) floating floor was laid.
I remember my last day in Baños well. Marcello, one of the local workers assisting on the project, drove myself and another volunteer of town to collect rocks and sand for mixing cement. We pulled over on the side of a mounatin where it was windy as all hell. “Are you cold?” he asked me. “Yes,” I replied, with my face wrapped in my hood. “It’s because you’re not working.” Then he handed me a shovel and said, “Here. You dig.” So there I was, my last day in Ecuador, high on a mountain, towering over the most stunning canyons and rapids, almost being blown away by the wind, shovelling dirt.
Sadly, I left few days before the grand opening of the theatre, but was happy to hear it was a huge success. Baños, secluded and with no chain stores, no western advertising or TV, not only revealed a simple way of living and being, but also the importance of grassroots arts communities. Back home it’s almost autonomous to aim for theatrical works of large-scale and more commercial nature, but playing a part in creating a space where the Baños community can be expressive about the world around them, is humbling, to say the least.