Edinburg native uses medium to strengthen communities
Brisa Areli Muñoz sat with a group of incarcerated men from Garner Correctional Institution in Connecticut. They assembled in a circle wearing orange jumpsuits, men branded with scars and tattoos. As a female entering an all-male prison, Muñoz, 23, felt intimidated knowing she would be working with inmates, some of whom were sentenced to life.
Guards stood watch nearby as the men talked with each other in the prison library, sharing stories and doing their best to find fulfillment in the fact that they were in prison. Even though she was nervous, the Edinburg native was there to help.
LEARNING THE ROPES
As part of the applied theater master’s program at City University in Manhattan, Muñoz works with different groups of people, helping them use theater to tell their stories through courses like playbuilding and group theatre.
“It’s not always necessarily putting on a show,” Muñoz explained. “But it always begins with dialogue and talking about who we are in this room, what kind of stories we have, and asking them if they want theater to be the outlet through which they would like these stories to be told.”
In applied theater class, Muñoz studies the creation of theater from voices in a group or community, providing an artistic backdrop to the stories of everyday people.
“In some ways, it is therapeutic in a sense to be able to create an environment where people can discuss and people can engage in dialogue and not feel judged for it, but just learn from it,” the Edinburg High graduate said.
Aside from being a full-time student and holding three jobs in New York, Muñoz is also executive director of local company Thirteen O’ Clock Theater, a group that has recently put on the productions Macbeth and Zoot Suit. Currently, she and Co-facilitator Sara Sawicki are working on a Rio Grande Valley arts program called Devise and Conquer, a program where artists have an opportunity to formulate their own pieces of theater through collaboration with other participants, much like her work in applied theater.
“My personal beliefs are that devising (theater) can be a way in which community is strengthened through collaboration and through allowing people’s voices to be heard in like an active, positive way,” Muñoz said. “It’s about building each other up and finding what was successful in the pieces.”
Since 2009, Munoz has devoted her time off from school to working with the volunteer-based theater company. Each summer she joins forces with company manager and brother Francisco Muñoz and artistic director Alex Tey to help put on performances with people from the Valley.
“I think that what’s important about the Rio Grande Valley is that there are very talented artists down here, but there are not enough outlets for them,” she explained. “So, that’s what Thirteen O’ Clock wanted to be, like this safe haven for artists that just want to continue getting the opportunity to create.”
As the daughter of famous UTPA choreographers Francisco and Mary Muñoz, Brisa has grown up in the theater. Hoping eventually to create original productions based on the community’s interests, Muñoz wants to marry her knowledge in applied theater to work with Thirteen O’ Clock.
“We really strive to find out from people what’s lacking or what can be improved upon,” she explained. “So that it can be a home to feel safe in and learn in, and not be judged for taking theater seriously.”
She believes that through the style of production in applied theater, a community can be strengthened. Should it continue to spread, it could impact the Valley in a positive manner.
BACK AT WORK
Muñoz conversed with the gentlemen of the correctional facility, listening to their stories and showing the inmates that theater was a way in which they could be told.
“You’re able to touch all different communities and have them recognize and see how theater can be a great medium to solve problems and to engage in dialogue and to work together to create something that you can call your own, that the community can call their own,” Muñoz said.
This story has been corrected. The original version misreported Brisa Areli Muñoz’s name.