Posted by: Justin Hopper | October 16, 2008

Notes on Teatro de los Sentidos

Teatro de los Sentidos

Teatro de los Sentidos





Flying By Those Nets

Ours are prosaic times. Times of nuts, bolts, and boots on the ground; a revolution in tools which cannot build; a revolution in communications that drives us further apart. Yet, despite such surroundings, human nature is forever poetic: Merlin will always emerge from his cave, despite the surrounding highway bypass. This is what Barcelona-based art troupe Teatro de los Sentidos proves with El Eco de la Sombra (The Echo of the Shadow).

As the Times of London said in its review of this show’s European stints, El Eco is like being “given an extremely valuable gift, but [one] so fragile it threatens to disappear when you try to put it into words,” a sentiment which Eco‘s lucky audience members will immediately understand and agree with.

To even call Eco a “show” or a “performance” is – and believe me, I comprehend how pretentious this will sound – to demean it. Eco is a trust, built between artists and their fellow man, evolved to a level that sees past brute meaning, which allows us to briefly re-imagine our lives as an ever-widening relationship with the surrounding world – as it was when we were children.

To that end, I offer not explanation or vulgar “review.” (For that matter, this thing’s already sold out – so why fool around?) Rather: Thoughts, sketches, and mannerisms – drawn from visits to Eco‘s venue before its sets were built, from the experience itself, and from the 12 hours I’ve had since.


“…Where flapping herons wake / the drowsy water rats / there we’ve hid our faery vats / full of berries / and of reddest stolen cherries.”

In a room off of the main chamber of the Ellis School Armory – a former U.S. armory, now owned by the Shadyside school, making its debut as an arts venue with El Eco de la Sombra – stand cases upon cases, marked like a rock band’s amplifiers in stenciled letters: “TDLS – BARCELONA.”

The contents, as listed on the side, of one such case: Meleta marrin / Brown suitcase; Perchas / hangers; Maleta beige / beige suitcase; Caja Madera / wooden box; Bolso marrion / brown handbag; Maleta de cuero / leather suitcase; Patines / rollerblades; Tren de juguete / toy train; Harma de zapato / shoe tree; Monederos / wallets; Lumina metal / metal sheet; Tazas ceramica / ceramic cups.

Scores of these litter the room, containing fabrics, costumes, tiny one-inch shoes, beds, blankets, aluminum ladders, sheets, pulleys, papyrus, an entire universe in stenciled cases, and books – hundreds upon hundreds of books.

The Used Bookstore

The Used Bookstore

Rob Long, of production managers Clear Story Creative, has agreed to show me the Armory as it stands – before the arrival of Teatro’s 18 troupe members. It is the Pittsburgh company Clear Story’s job to, essentially, build the world that El Eco will inhabit: The spirals and passageways of its labyrinth, its bookshop and teahouse, its bedrooms and tavern, its lakes and beaches, its sky and earth. While Long takes me through the Armory, his Clear Story partner Doug McDermott is finishing building the next-door workshop that Teatro de los Sentidos requires to finalize its universe.

It’s fortunate for Teatro de los Sentidos that Pittsburgh has a team such as Clear Story – a group of technically minded artists, independently involved with installation projects such as the Industrial Arts Co-Op and experienced with so many of the city’s more ambitious efforts at utilizing raw post-industrial spaces as artistic venues. Not only is Clear Story familiar with the challenges of space transformation and large-scale installation, they bring to the project the eye of an artist, looking not just to fulfill the technical rider, but the vision of the production. 

This production and this building do, indeed, present some challenges in creating the required setting for El Eco: A 22-foot ceiling must be rebuilt, universally, to nine feet, and the floor changed from Department of Defense concrete to the lush domain of El Eco. And that’s just the start. 

But there are benefits: For one, the Armory is a space that Long and McDermott are familiar with, from previous private work, but which most Pittsburghers won’t know – creating the desired disorientation. Long points out that using the Armory is also, “an opportunity to advance the wave of firsts. It’s a chance to set a precedent for using this building for performance,” and for artistic installation.

There’s a beautiful historical juxtaposition here, too. McDermott points out that, amongst the cages and sections of the armory, some were labeled as “PsyOps” – the army’s Psychological Operations unit, responsible for experimenting, among other things, with sensory manipulation and deprivation. Clear Story and Teatro are, in a way, banging psychological and sensory swords into plougshares.


“Where the wave of moonlight glosses / the dim gray sand with light / far off by furthest Rosses / we foot it all the night / weaving olden dances / mingling hands and mingling glances / til the moon has taken flight…”

Touch: The crinkling dried leaves beneath your bare feet. The hand of an unseen yet thoroughly trusted guide in the dark.

See: A whirligig of shadow-casting figures in the center of a white-sheeted tent. The shadows of a man’s hands cast onto the floor, pulling your feet towards him like a puppet.

Smell: Fresh pine tied with twine onto an otherwise barren shrub. Lavender and cinnamon, tea and chocolate; fresh herbs pressed into the book in your hand.

Teatro book

Teatro book

Hear: Coconuts and buoy-bells clattering in the distance; the gentle waft of a wordless folk tune, hummed by the short, bearded man before you in the dark, leading you forward; a fellow traveler’s quiet gasps at experiences soon to come.

Taste: Aromas whirring through your nose, into the back of your throat; the roots and stems of a just-cut plant, ground into your fresh-made tea; the ripe berries and tiny, tiny droplet of cream, just out of reach on an expensively-set table.


“Away with us he’s going / the solemn-eyed / he’ll hear no more the lowing / of the calves on the warm hillside … for he comes, the human child / to the waters and the wild / with a faery hand in hand / for the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.” – W.B. Yeats, “The Stolen Child.”

As a child, I ate candy and followed the gypsies up the hill towards Bramber Castle, near the village where my grandmother lived. She kept roses outside her house on the cul-de-sac, next to a stream, around the bend from the church, and they smelled strong in bloom – even to a kid more interested in trains and battlements than any English rose.

The scent of those roses and the taste of that candy, like Proust’s Madeleines (as referenced by Peter Reder), prove transportive to this day. With an impressionistic set of sensual experiences – none either specific or explained; referenced or stressed – Teatro de los Sentidos was able to create a chain of events that provoked those “Madeleines” and so many more. Not just for myself, but equally for each individual – so it seemed – that visited their world.

After following my own shadow through the company’s maze of sights and smells, sounds and textures; after having my hands placed on the bellies of the actors and taken, in guidance, by their own; I’ve imagined myself led away “to the waters and the wild” by some Catalonian faery whose judgment is good and just. Much like in the Starn Brothers’ Gravity of Light, one can no longer help but to see the rain-wetted leaves on the streets of Pittsburgh as something worth holding up to the light or crunching your toes into. A raw humanity, a commonality – in our shadows, in our senses, in our desires – seems just a little bit closer.

El Eco de la Sombra is a story – my story, and yours – worthy of our lofty place in the world. Not lofty as Americans or Pittsburghers or Barcelonans or Anythings, but as the wondrous, common, everyday poets of humanity we all are – poets of the senses rather than language.

Teatro’s labyrinth is a poetic one built not by Daedalus, to rein in, but by Stephen Dedalus, to free us from the nets that modern culture erects and find a beauty that we can touch and smell and relate to from our common human soul: “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”



  1. A terrific description of what clearly cannot be described so much as suggested. I can’t think of a better writer to mediate between me and this experience.

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