Erin Cowling speaks and teaches fluent Spanish, but has no trace of an accent when speaking English. That’s just what happens when you grow up in a Canadian household full of Spanish exchange students.
“I grew up mostly in London, Ontario, in a house where we always had Spanish speaking students coming as exchange students to learn English,” the associate professor of Spanish at MacEwan University says. “And I thought that was super cool as a little kid. So I ended up going to Spain with one of the families as a teenager, and I just fell in love with Spain.”
She eventually did a double major in Spanish history, and one of the classes took her to that country once again, where she fell in love with its rich theatre history. She ended up doing her master’s and PhD focusing on Spain’s Golden Age of theatre, which happened during the same time period as Shakespeare, but produced many, many more plays. “We have like 30-something [Shakespeare] plays, that we know of. But [from] the Spanish Golden Age theatre, we actually have thousands. There were people who wrote like 500 pieces each. There were these almost workshops where they would have people pumping these things out, because it was in such high demand.”
The Spanish plays covered similar themes of desire and death, but differed from their English counterparts in that Spanish theatre allowed women on stage, and what really “got people in the seats was that the women would sometimes also dress up as men in disguise. That was very titillating because you’re seeing a woman on stage and now she’s wearing pants — and you might see her ankle.”
The writer of Los empeños de una casa (Trials of a House) knew that world well. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was nun in Mexico in the 1600s and, Cowling explains, was sort of a nobody — her parents weren’t married when she was born and her father disowned her. But her intelligence set her apart, and she even dressed as a boy to try to get into university in Mexico, but “she eventually joins a convent, because it’s the only place she can live freely to study, read books, and write.”
She wrote a couple plays, including Empeños (meaning “trials,” pronounced “em-PEN-yos”), which Cowling had her students retitle, translate and adapt in an arduous but rewarding process. “I think they like it,” she says. “It’s one of those things where, like when we read Shakespeare in high school, we think this doesn’t even sound like English — it’s an older version of the language. So that’s kind of a first barrier. But the more we work on it, the easier it gets, and the more they get out of it. It teaches students that nothing is one and done in translation. It is an ongoing process.”
The process of bringing this play to MacEwan has been ongoing since 2016, when a Mexican actor (Fernando Villa Proal), whose show Cowling reviewed, first brought her the script. “He was doing a play that I was asked to do a review of. And I was so enthralled by the way that [their theatre company] worked.” In 2018, he came to Edmonton with a one-man show, which her then-students translated. This week, he’s back — with three other actors and three theatre technicians — to put on the adapted performance that will have English subtitles projected above the actors.
The story, Cowling explains, is about a love triangle that involves five people, “so it’s really kind of a love square.” As simply as possible, there’s a brother and sister who live in the same house. The brother’s in love with a woman, the sister’s in love with a man — but they’ve never actually interacted with either. Those two other people are also in love with each other, but they’ve actually met and want to get married. So the siblings kidnap the woman (obviously) and trap her in their house. Her beau shows up looking for his love, and they trap him too. Then a guy who’s in love with the sister shows up and hides in the house with the help of a servant. Eventually, the kidnapped sister’s father shows up looking to preserve his family’s honour, and it gets kinda dramatic from there.
Cowling and her students pared the original three-hour script down to something more palatable for a modern audience, then sent that to the artists in Mexico. “They kind of put their own twist on it. And now, working on it with my students to translate it for an audience, is sort of like the last step for them to be able to bring it to MacEwan.”
It’s a lot of work, but a labour of Spanish-based love for the woman who became fascinated with these foreign students speaking an exotic language in her home all those years ago.
“I was never gonna be an actress,” Cowling says. “I loved the theatre, but the one time I did act in a Shakespeare play, I didn’t have any lines, and that was probably for the best. But I found a way to bring the thing that I love to other people, and to work with artists to bring their messages to other people. And that’s been really rewarding. I think it’s gonna be a fun opportunity to see somebody from a different country share a different perspective that we don’t always get to see in Edmonton.”
Take a look for yourself — for free! — April 20 at Allard Hall.