In theater there are rare moments when something electric happens, so that people in the audience are suddenly fully engaged — "visually, aurally, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually," as Rubén Polendo puts it. Those "whole theater" moments, as he calls them, are the goals that inspire his work.
The Mexican-born associate professor of Theater at NYU Abu Dhabi has connected Theater Mitu, his New York-based performance company, with his work at NYUAD, creating novel forms and methods of performance and teaching alike. Some of his approaches can be dizzying — using inanimate objects to portray certain characters in Death of a Salesman, for example — but his results are impressing both university audiences and the wider theater community.
In March of 2014, Polendo presented Juárez: A Documentary Mythology, at NYUAD. In the hands of his Mitu actors, that phrase "documentary mythology" makes sense: The documentary is a form, and myths are the stories we use to help us explain the world to ourselves.
Juárez, the Mexican city on the Texas border where Polendo was raised, needs some explaining: it has had the world's highest murder rate. Polendo's production combines factual history, personal memory, and excerpts from about 300 hours of interviews with residents. The Mitu actors are "not performing those texts, but theatricalizing them," he said, and even "musicalizing" a few of them in "minimalist songs," all to explain the city's ordeal. One interview subject — the professor's father Rubén Polendo Senior, as it happens — says "the story of Juárez is the story of every city that's been abused by progress."
Theater Mitu is in residence at NYUAD; the actors in Polendo's annual Abu Dhabi productions are Mitu professionals, but as many as 40 NYUAD students apprentice with him and the troupe on each project. "To view the interactions involved in the professional work we do here gives the students a lovely vantage point," he said.
And they learn a lot, because everything done by Mitu draws on many cultures; it is no coincidence that "mitu" is a word with many meanings in at least five languages.
Mitu performers are also researchers who broaden their art by studying theatrical forms, mainly in India but also in Thailand, Japan, Mongolia, Singapore, Bali, Nepal, Sudan, Chile, Yemen, Oman, Mexico — and the UAE. Each Mitu production draws on some of these sources.
And the troupe's works are seen internationally: Juárez, for example, opened in the city it is named for, then played in New York in January 2014, and in Beirut before coming to Abu Dhabi, and was scheduled to play in Cairo next.
Traditionally, audiences are often robbed of a voice. But hearing from them is also part of the research.
The piece, Polendo said, is "not purely aesthetic, not purely intellectual, not purely historical. It's all those things, and more."
Another characteristic of Mitu's work is follow-up: typically audiences are invited to stay for discussion after performances, or attend a subsequent meeting. "If they take time to do that, you know they're interested," Polendo said. "Traditionally, audiences are often robbed of a voice. But hearing from them is also part of the research."
Mitu's cross-cultural study increasingly includes this region; a new piece is being developed with a Lebanese performer/writer and Lebanese visual artist, for example. "But India continues to be central to my research," Polendo said. "I'm very grateful that it's only a two-or-three-hour flight from here."
"The relationship with a research university is a great advantage," Polendo said. "We fit in very well because the Mitu approach is always to go from theory to research to production." One semester, he recounted, "I had two science students in my introductory class. They were nervous at first but they became more at ease as they recognized that it was a laboratory setting; we do research that allows you to question the form" and the status quo, just as physical scientists do.
After Juárez, Polendo is moving on to Hamlet, or rather ur-Hamlet. "There were stories like Hamlet before Shakespeare wrote his play; we understand that he drew heavily on them. These are referred to as 'ur-Hamlet,'" Polendo said, using a term for a first version of something.
"Now in our production we will use Shakespeare's play as our ur-Hamlet. Just as the original ur-Hamlet has been shattered by time, so we'll be shattering the Shakespeare version, making it into shards and re-assembling them.
"On this production," he continued, "we'll be working with mohiniattam, a classical dance form, and kalaripayattu, a martial art, both from Kerala, and with butoh, a Japanese dance theater form. And if that isn't enough, we're also planning to transpose the genders of Hamlet and Ophelia."
Confused yet? Polendo is quick to be reassuring: "The challenge will be to bring these ideas together in a way that reveals something new about Hamlet and about the questions Shakespeare raises in these texts. Shakespeare can often make an audience feel intimidated. We want this show to be engaging and meaningful to our audience, and above all to make an impact."
This article originally appeared in NYUAD's 2013-14 Research Report (13MB PDF).