In April 2001, Venezuelan Diego Gené arrived in Granada with a passionate dream: to create a circus and theater program for poor Nicaraguan children. Over a decade later, La Escuela de Comedia y Mimo (“The School of Comedy and Mime”) has grown from a group of ten young children into an extraordinary theater and arts project, reaching thousands of children and adults across the world, guided by Diego Gené’s tireless dedication, warm inspiring spirit, and unwavering belief in the potential of every child.
By Katharine Stevens
La Escuela opened in 2001, based at La Casa de los Tres Mundos in central Granada, to teach theater, clowning, mime, acrobatics, and other circus skills to local children from low-income families. The program had initially been intended for older children ... but 12-year-old Yader arrived after school every day to practice, and 13-year-old Rafa showed extraordinary talent as a young acrobat and mime artist. More young children started to come regularly, drawn by the opportunity to learn and to leave a painful struggle against poverty and hopelessness behind, even for just a few hours. “The plan had been to have much older boys from 16 upwards,” Diego explained. “But I watched these little ones and I thought: ‘This is it. This is my core group.’”
The children thrived under Diego’s instruction, practicing hard and achieving more than they had imagined possible. He made sure they went to school and helped them with their homework. Then, one by one, they started asking if they could move in with him. So Diego opened his doors and created a home for nine boys and a girl, all under the age of 14. This group of ten young people - now between 20 and 24 - still live together as a family and are still the heart of La Escuela, performing all over the world and working alongside Diego to lead the development of this remarkable and innovative project.
Ben Wheatley, a former London-based actor and director, provides theater direction for the group, developing complex pieces that integrate the circus skills of mime, clowning and acrobatics with more traditional narrative theater. Ben says: “It has been a great privilege to work with La Escuela, and to watch the incredible talents of these young people develop and bloom.” The project has also benefitted from the ongoing help of dozens of enthusiastic volunteers and visiting artists from 16 countries.
That was such an emotional time … every day we were building, and we knew that the future of the group, and in fact our dreams, depended on it, remembers Rafa, now 24.
Since its inception, La Escuela, has presented over 700 performances to more than 100,000 people, touring through much of Europe, Central America, and at home in Nicaragua. In the last year they have performed alongside Managua bands La Cuneta Son Machin and Monroy y Surmenage, and at events with DJs Revuelta Sonara, Chiricano and Tamara. They have litup El Convento San Francisco in Granada with fire, formed human pyramids that have cascaded through the streets of Managua, and brought the beach to life at San Juan del Sur with a maritime fiesta of pirates. And the project continues to grow.
“Casa de las Botellitas” y “El Teatro de Claudia Gene”
In 2009, Diego received a grant from a Swiss NGO, the Equal Education Fund, to buy a one-acre piece of land in Pila de Agua, a spectacular rural location on the outskirts of Granada. For a year, the group lived in tents while they built La Escuela’s new home. Called “Casa de las Botellitas” (or “House of the Little Bottles”), it is a multi-purpose building including dormitory rooms, a spacious practice studio, and a computer room, constructed of recycled plastic bottles purchased from local children, who collected discarded bottles from the streets.
Rafa, now 24, remembers, “That was such an emotional time … every day we were building, and we knew that the future of the group, and in fact our dreams, depended on it.” After finishing the house in 2010, the group built a huge, beautiful open-air theater from local wood and cane. The theater was inaugurated in January of 2011, dedicated to Diego Gené’s mother Claudia Gené.
The Children’s School of Comedy and Mime
In January 2003, the core group of young performers began leading workshops for children, teaching juggling, acrobatics and mime throughout Central America and in Germany. In February 2009, the Children’s School of Comedy and Mime was officially opened in La Escuela’s new space, with an initial group of 30 local children.
Led by La Escuela’s performers, the Children’s School aims to provide a supportive, cooperative environment that will enable children to learn important skills, and gain self-respect and confidence. The School has a multidisciplinary curriculum, teaching mime, clowning, juggling, acrobatics, crafts, painting, puppetry and other circus skills.
“El Berrinche Ambiental”
Every January, Granada’s streets come alive with yet another new project of La Esceula: “El Berrinche Ambiental,” Granada’s International Festival of Street Art. Launched in 2009 to promote cultural and artistic exchange among Central American youth.
This annual weeklong event features exuberant dance, theater, and musical performances in public spaces throughout the city; face-painting and puppet-making for local children; art and mime workshops; and tours of the Casa de las Botellitas. The week culminates in a festive street procession and carnival, continuing into the night under a full moon.
Mimo Comedia Café
La Escuela’s most recent project is an ambitious restaurant/theater on La Calzada in the center of Granada. The group is now in the midst of renovating a large colonial house where they will open the Mimo Comedia Café.
In the afternoons, the Café will provide free lunch to staff and 65 children, and its wide corridors and spacious courtyard will be used by La Escuela for practice and activities. In the evening, the Café will open as a public restaurant and dinner theater, offering a delicious menu of vegetarian food and drinks along with theater, circus, dance and musical performances of all kinds.
“There is always a space, always somewhere you fit,” Diego says. “Sometimes it isn’t right there in front of you, but it can always be found.” La Escuela is dedicated to providing just that space for children - drawing them into the joy and fulfillment of the performing arts, and helping them improve their lives and pave the way to a brighter future.
How to get involved
- Take a tour of La Casa de las Botellitas. Visitors are always welcome!!
- Visit the School for Children, from 2-4pm on Monday through Friday.
- Volunteer: Contact Rafael or Lester at (505) 2552-8310 to explain what you would like to do, or find out what is needed.
- Dine and See a Show at Mimo Comedia Cafe, located on Calle La Calzada, 3 1/2 blocks towards the lake from Parque Central.
- Donate: http://www.betterplace.org/en/projects/581.
For more information: Call (505) 2552-8310 to arrange tours and visits, and to get more information on the project. Also see the project’s websites at www.escueladecomedia.org/es and http://elberrincheambiental.blogspot.com/.
Volunteers offer English and computer classes and help children with their homework. Sixty-five children from some of the poorest barrios of Granada now attend the school five days a week, arriving at mid-day for lunch cooked at the School, and returning home at 4 pm on a bus provided by the project.