Pedro Reyes is laughing now, circling and high-fiving with the more than 50 high school students gathering for a rehearsal at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts earlier this week. It may feel like an icebreaking exercise at summer camp, but “Pharmasphere,” the partially improvised show he’s preparing with the kids, was inspired by the darkest of experiences in his native Mexico.
He has lost friends and relatives to violence he says was directly connected to the war on drugs. That campaign, coined during the Nixon administration and driven for decades by the US government’s attempt to fight the national and international drug trades, has, he says, flooded his country with illegal guns. “Pharmasphere,” being premiered Friday night in the MFA’s Shapiro Family Courtyard, will feature teens from area schools as well as unrehearsed participants from the audience. Reyes calls them “spect-actors.”
The purpose is to create a one-act play with multiple endings.
“The idea is to use this tool from theater that is often used as a warm-up exercise to use the stage as a way to dissect a situation that is quite complex,” Reyes said this week in an interview at the SMFA. “How do we deal with drugs? The consumption, the addiction, the trade, the criminalization of drugs. And the reason to put this on the stage is basically to look at the subject not with a moral perspective but rather anthropological perspective. Trying to look at it objectively without putting a direct judgment on it.”
Reyes, 41, calls himself a sculptor, but in reality, his theatrical creations — blending improvisation and a loose script — have earned him notice in recent years. In “Sanatorium,” which premiered at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2011, Reyes created a kind of mock clinic with therapists ready to help visitors deal with a variety of emotional issues. His “Baby Marx” puppet comedy has been presented at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. And “Pharmasphere” will be staged at the Queens Museum of Art in New York in the fall.
Last week, Harvard University’s Cultural Agents Initiative sponsored another of Reyes’s projects. “Palas por Pistolas,” launched in 2007, uses shovels made from guns to plant trees. To date, more than 1,000 trees have been planted, the latest on Friday with Reyes at Arnold Arboretum.
Liz Munsell, the MFA’s assistant curator of contemporary art who organized “Pharmasphere,” has been familiar with his work for years. Munsell speaks fluent Spanish, was a Fulbright Scholar in Chile, and traveled extensively through South America. And she was thrilled to find out that Carla Fernández, Reyes’s wife, would be in town for three weeks this summer as the artist-in-residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. That led Munsell to approach Reyes.
In an interview, Munsell talked of Reyes’s work in relation to the Brazilian Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed,” a technique created in the 1960s to inspire social and political change. She spoke of Reyes’s training in architecture and sculpture and her own interest in linking those to performances.
But in the end, she says it is the artist’s personality that she expects will define the experience, whether it’s the workshops he’s running this week or the performance itself Friday night. The rough script, which includes such characters as “Smart Mouth” in her hipster or skater outfit, frat boys in togas, and the Mexican president, is peppered with statistics: that far more people die from prescription drugs than illegal ones; that the United States spends billions of dollars on the drug war.
Reyes hopes to raise questions about what we, as a society, take both at the urging of doctors and on our own.
In an interview before the rehearsal, Reyes, who has a black beard sprinkled with gray, thick glasses, and waves his hands as he talks, smiles easily, even when he’s talking about serious issues.
“The thing is, for instance, I’m not advocating for drug use but if we were to spend those resources on education or job creation, you would see better results,” Reyes said.
He also emphasizes what he considers the problem with legal drugs. He talks about the addictive opiates prescribed by doctors, the pills that are often used where he believes therapy could work. He considers alcohol a drug that should be examined more closely.
The idea is not, he says, to ban these drugs, because he believes prohibition doesn’t work. He would like to discuss legalizing what’s now against the law, to regulate, and to take the market away from criminals.
When Reyes gathered the teens at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts for a first rehearsal, it was a loosely structured session, with the students not given a script until partway through.
“What we are trying to do is look at it as if we were scientists and we were coming from another planet,” Reyes said by manner of an introduction, “and thinking, what is going on with the Homo sapiens? What is this fascination they have with all kinds of substances?”
The questions hung in the air as the teenagers waited. Then, Reyes led them in loosening-up exercises. Before long, they were laughing and forming a human sculpture created by Reyes.
Looking ahead to the Friday performance, Munsell said, “I think it’s going to be a blast actually, because Pedro’s such a fun guy. And these are issues I don’t think teenagers get a chance to work through in their everyday lives.”
What will happen during the performance? Reyes doesn’t know.
“I’m interested in participation and how art can help you find solutions,” he said. “The idea is that if you are uncomfortable and you feel something is wrong, you are invited to say so. If you don’t like how it is, how would you do it right?”