San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

¡Vengan ya! Children’s Theater in a Mountain Village

To open the doors of the salón comunal (community building), we have to slide back huge metal panels, revealing a long stretch of cold ceramic flooring, tin walls and a shallow concrete stage. Some 20 children rush in screaming and begin running up and down.

The echo is staggering.

I climb on the stage and blow hard on my sports whistle. Suddenly, silence reigns, and 40 little black eyes fix on me.

“I want everyone right here in front of the stage and listening!” I shout in Spanish.

I gaze at them as, giggling and anxious, they line up. For the hundredth time I wonder how I started by teaching English composition in a U.S. community college and ended up running a children’s theater in a campesino village in Costa Rica.

Doing it, like much of life, is wonderful and terrible, exciting and exhausting, inspiring and disheartening.Much of the time, it is a struggle, not because the kids aren’t motivated or talented, not because the parents aren’t supportive, not because an audience is lacking. No, it is a struggle for the same reasons that many things are a struggle in Costa Rica: little money and poor facilities.

As if this weren’t enough, the local Catholic priest makes underhanded attempts to keep us from operating. I can’t say why, since he refuses to talk to me.

Is it all worth it? You can bet on it. It beats just about anything else I’ve ever done. We are doing “Peter Pan.” Since there is practically no back stage, it is nearly impossible to change scenes, so I have had to work out the London and pirate ship scenes in front of the curtain – the donation of an artist friend.

“Okay, muchachos, we’re going to begin at the beginning and practice with the music.”

The beginning music is “Vengan ya” (“Come Now”) by the Pirulinos, a Costa Rican children’s group. It is played full-bore on the 12-year-old boom box that I carry back and forth to rehearsals. The day it decides to die, we’ll be left without music.

In two years of operation, we have accumulated about $109. The fact is, no matter how much we put into a production, we cannot charge these people more than a pittance. What’s more, the village is so small, we can give only one performance.

I give instructions: “When the music begins, you three come out from behind the curtain and sit down to read. When I fade out the music, Cuentacuentos (the storyteller) will begin to tell the story. I want Peter Pan and Campanita (Tinker Bell) waiting for their cue behind the curtain. And you, niños perdidos (lost children), in your places and no talking!”

I put on the music and immediately have to stop it because Emili, who plays Campanita, flits from behind the curtain to tell me that one of the niños perdidos is, in fact, perdido. Emili is a diminutive 8-year-old with dark eyes and skin, and, most improbably, deep red hair. She is an exceptionally talented actress and dead serious about it when she is on stage.Were she from another place, she would probably be in a special program.

We fish the Lost Boy out of the bathroom and begin again. I put the music on and watch as Diana (who is also my 18-year-old co-director) and the others enter and sit down. As I lower the music, I can hear voices and scuffling behind the curtain. I stop the music and blow the whistle. Now there is only giggling and whispering.

¿Qúe pasa? I can’t hear the actors.We are to begin again and keep beginning until you learn to be quiet back there. Diana, please go backstage and get them to settle down.”

Diana gets up and leaves her place on stage. I hear shouting and numerous threats, mostly about what will happen if they get Kate riled. I sigh. It can take an hour to rehearse one 15-minute scene. I know, though, that rehearsals are always like this, for every director of children’s theater from here to the other side of the world.

A few weeks later, the Friday night dress rehearsal is a disaster. Many of the children arrive without their costumes. It takes us twice as long as we thought to run through the play. I have to interrupt it several times. They are all nervous and, therefore, simply irrepressible.What, I ask myself, will happen tomorrow night?

Tomorrow night comes, and it rains. It rains hard. In addition to the tremendous echo, the noise on the tin roof is deafening. No one can hear the children. The child playing the Indian princess gets hit square in the face with a wooden sword. There is a leak in the salón, and water leaks onto the floor exactly where the children have to jump down from the stage and run to the back of the auditorium. Of course, several of them fall down.

Despite all these mishaps, the children are perfect, I mean perfectos, and the audience is enchanted.

When the story ends and Cuentacuentos tells the children in the audience that they, too, can fly, the curtain opens and, to the tune of “Vengan ya,” all the actors step down from the stage and throw glitter on adults and children alike.

The next morning, during Mass in the little village church, everyone is covered with glitter. The priest makes no comment.

Kate Galante may be contacted at


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