From the first despertá early on the morning of the last Sunday in February to the middle of the night on March 19th, the spectacle that is Las Fallas is performed across the wide stage of Valencia, to an appreciative audience of millions. It calls for a cast of thousands: people of all ages dressed in brocade and lace or peasant smocks and rope sandals; musicians in jeans or smart band uniforms, playing drums, cymbals, and traditional Valencian folk instruments, marching block after block.
The cast isn’t limited to people. Some might call these props, but they really act more like characters: the fireworks, both for sound and sight, play their parts on cue. The millions of flowers carried as offerings to the Plaza de la Virgen, both bouquets and palanquins buried in blossoms, seem to know their roles. The figures that form the hundreds of fallas throughout the city satirize people well known to the locals (and mostly unrecognizable to us), but are themselves main characters in the drama of the fallas. And finally, there are the flames. I can be hypnotized by a candle flame or a campfire; the Cremá was something else entirely. The biblical image of a pillar of fire is now much easier for me to imagine.
In reality, the cast is far outnumbered by the crew. I’ve done quite a bit of acting over the last several years, which puts me in position to see not only the other actors beside me on stage, but all of the people behind the scenes, building sets, making costumes, running the lights and sounds, giving cues to our entrances and exits. As I’ve been surrounded by the huge cast performing the drama of Las Fallas, I’ve also been thinking about the crew, the many thousands who make it possible.
There are the obvious ones, the creators of the fallas, working throughout the year at every stage, from the drawings at the beginning to the last-minute painting of details while standing in the bucket of a cherry-picker on the day of the Plantá. There are the manufacturers and purveyors of the millions of fireworks. There are all those involved in the industry behind the beautiful costumes. I have read that the most expensive fallera dresses are made from silk brocade fabric that is still woven by hand on wooden looms. It would not surprise me to hear that Valencia has an extraordinary number of custom dressmakers. Someone is making the hairpieces and elaborate jewelry that forms part of the headdresses worn by the falleras. Someone is arranging all those mountains of flowers that find their way to La Plaza de la Virgen.
And on to the more mundane: there is scaffolding for indeterminate purposes. There are barriers erected around every falla in the city, and the total number is somewhere north of 700. Someone produced them, someone hauled them there, and set them up. Someone made those Paella pans that are as wide as my son is tall. Someone is tending the deep-frying vats while bunuelos and churros sizzle. And someone has to sweep up the tons of post-fireworks debris, as well as all the broken glass shards that bear witness to the revels taking place (well, not all the shards–we brought one home in a bicycle tire, and threw that away ourselves).
Thinking about what’s happening backstage adds to my appreciation of the whole experience of Las Fallas. How about a round of applause for the crew!
[Images: El Guapo]