At Arm's Length, but a Country AwayJessica Kaufman ’04 and Tyler Eveland ’22 bring stories to life along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The afternoon sun is shining on a brightly colored 15-foot-tall puppet as it bobs and weaves through the streets of Nogales, Arizona. Operated by Jessica Kaufman ’04 and Tyler Eveland ’22, along with a team of other puppeteers, the puppet approaches a tall concrete barrier with perforated steel windows and barbed wire strung atop. Nearby, but a country away, another team of puppeteers maneuvers a similarly constructed puppet through the streets of Nogales, Mexico. The two puppets, built with recycled materials, meet at the wall and begin to interact with one another from their respective sides. They wave to each other. They high five and shake hands through the steel slats with hands constructed of water bottles. They play a friendly game of peek-a-boo.
The story of how a Hopkins alumna and current student came to be playing with larger-than-life puppets at the U.S.-Mexico border began in 2015. That year, Kaufman earned her master’s in Advanced Theatre Practice from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, where she met fellow classmate and puppeteer Ana Díaz Barriga. Some time later, while watching children at play around a tree on a playground, Kaufman conceived of a puppet performance with Díaz Barriga, a Mexico City native, to bring a childlike vision to the U.S.-Mexico border, transforming it into an object of the puppets’ play rather than a barrier to people on both sides. In an interview with Nogales International in 2017, she explained, “Kids have this sense of fluid ideation, where you give them an object and they see [millions] of possibilities. So you give them a wall, and maybe they do see a boundary, but they also see a play thing, they see hide and seek, they see a lot of different things. So I thought, ‘What if we make giant puppets at scale to make the wall into an object of play?’”
Kaufman and Díaz Barriga expanded their puppet concept to engage a community located at the U.S.-Mexico border by collaborating with local artists to tell the real stories and celebrate the culture of life in the borderlands, and work with local youth to build the giant puppets to “play” at the border. The sister cities of Nogales, Arizona, U.S., and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, emerged as the ideal location for this festival. Kaufman and Díaz Barriga traveled to the area, where they joined forces with local artists and educators, forming the Más Allá del Muro // Beyond the Wall project.
The first festival, which took place in November 2017, was conceived and executed within eight months, “a whirlwind” as Kaufman describes it. Both cities of Nogales had existing local arts festivals, and Kaufman and Díaz Barriga helped connect these artists in collaboration. The Más Allá del Muro // Beyond the Wall Festival, now three years and two festivals strong, has evolved into a binational art fair, with vendor booths showcasing local visual artists, and two performance stages for film-makers and musicians, and an underlying mission working toward larger artistic infrastructure for local artists. The festival takes place within two blocks on either side of the border, so that attendees can visit both sides by walking through one of four border crossings within Nogales. Throughout the planning and development of the celebration, the team works closely with U.S. Border Patrol agencies and both local governments to acquire permits and keep up with an ever-changing set of rules.
A festival of this size takes a lot of time and energy to plan and execute, and as a growing nonprofit, Kaufman and Díaz Barriga put out a call for interns to help prepare for the 2019 festival. A conversation with Becky Harper ’07, Hopkins’ Director of Equity and Community at the Hopkins New York Holiday Alumni Gathering in December 2018, led to a meaningful connection for current student Tyler Eveland ’22. Eveland joined the Beyond the Wall team in January 2019, working remotely over email and weekly phone calls. His first role as an intern was to manage a pen pal program for Nogales youth, connecting high school students with each other over email. By February, hewas helping with more aspects of the festival, including social media strategies, logistics, and media relations, a truly interdisciplinary experience. Kaufman was thrilled to have Eveland on site in Nogales as her assistant for the May 5, 2019, festival, assisting with all the final details. Not only was Eveland able to meet Kaufman and the pen pal students in person, he was eager to operate one of the giant puppets during the performances.
“I love theater and have wanted to learn about theater business—the aspects behind the scenes, production, and managing a huge nonprofit organization,” shared Eveland. “I love [Beyond the Wall’s mission], which uses theater to make everyone feel included, a peaceful way to connect people.”
The puppet component—from concept, to construction process, and finally, to the performance—is especially dear to Kaufman. In the week before the festival, teams of volunteers and high school students on both sides of the border build four 15-foot puppets of Díaz Barriga’s design structure. The students develop the characters they construct to represent their community and cultural identity. On the day of the festival, the puppets are paraded through the streets to the border on either side and “play” with each other through, around, and despite the wall over
“Our hope is that through the festival, people outside this area can have a first-person connection to what life is like in the borderlands through the eyes of young people and artists who live here,” she said, “and that people here get the chance to celebrate all the awesome things about living in the borderlands, instead of buying into the media narrative of their home being dangerous and fraught.”
Eveland, now a sophomore, is continuing his internship this school year and is looking forward to helping the nonprofit and festival grow. In 2019, there were Beyond the Wall events in Nogales, Chicago, London, and Prague, and the group is taking the leap into becoming a formal nonprofit organization at the end of this year.
Kaufman is grateful for the connections and support the Hopkins network has brought to Beyond the Wall. “I’m so grateful for the theater opportunities I had as a teenager,” she shared, “and the way the Hopkins community has embraced this project has been amazing. My artistic mission across not just this, but all of my work, is deeply connected to the service values I acquired at Hopkins, and with Tyler’s help, I’m so excited to keep that connection strong!”