Exploring the annual beauty pageant in Bogotá's national women's prison.

Project Launch

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The Project: The Civilians is developing an original musical inspired by the real life annual beauty pageant in El Buen Pastor Women’s Prison, the national women’s prison in Bogotá, Colombia. This September, a team of Colombian artists led by Civilians’ Artistic Director Steven Cosson will spend four weeks onsite in the prison in Bogotá conducting research and interviews with the participating and non-participating inmates, guards, prison staff, judges, and various professionals who come into the prison to coach the contestants.

The Plan:This material will be used to shape a new musical developed in partnership with the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro en Bogotá, written by Obie Award-winning playwright and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter José Rivera, with music by Hector Buitrago of Latin Grammy Award-winning rock band Aterciopelados. This project marks the largest-scale theatrical collaboration between US and Colombian artists in history.

The pageant consists of folk-dance, evening-gown, and question-and-answer competitions. Each cell block enters one woman to compete in the pageant. The competition occurs in the prison’s atrium, which takes on the spirit of a soccer arena during the event. Each cell block comes together to fiercely cheer on its contestant. In spite of the competitive atmosphere, prison staff cites competition-season as the most peaceful and hopeful time of year in the penitentiary. This pageant is quickly garnering country-wide interest and enthusiasm. Judges of the prison pageant are often national celebrities, local journalists, or members of the military. Contestants from the traditional national pageant (the reinado) lend their expertise to the process of preparing for the contest. The traditional pageant is a nation-wide obsession that dominates the entertainment news annually for the month leading up to the event, which adds to the public’s excitement surrounding the prison’s reinado.

The information found in the research phase for the play will create an intimate understanding of the pageant’s impact on both the prison system and the inmates. The pageant is a recent innovation and is indicative of a shift in public policy that increases support of rehabilitation for the incarcerated. The reasons for the contestants’ imprisonment – which range from drug trafficking to murder - will inspire examination of larger social and political issues in Colombia, including poverty and the decades-old violent conflict amongst paramilitary, government, and guerrilla political groups. The stories collected in the interview process will illuminate authentic voices that provide models of hope for those on the difficult path towards healing and transformation.


Written by:
José Rivera

Music and lyrics by:
Hector Buitrago

Directed by:
Steve Cosson

José Rivera’s plays have been produced across the nation and even translated into several languages, including: The House of Ramon Iglesias, Cloud Tectonics, The Street of the Sun, Sonnets for an Old Century, Sueño, Giants Have Us in Their Books, References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot and Adoration of the Old Woman. In 2003, Cloud Tectonics was presented in the XLII Festival of Puerto Rican Theater, an event sponsored by the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture, in San Juan. Rivera helped found the Los Angeles-based theater company, The Wilton Project. Rivera has won two Obie Awards for playwriting, a Kennedy Center Fund for New American plays Grant, a Fulbright Arts Fellowship in playwriting, the Whiting Writers' Award, a McKnight Fellowship, the 2005 Norman Lear Writing Award, a 2005 Impact Award and a Berilla Kerr Playwriting Award. His screenplay for The Motorcycle Diaries received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Hector Buitrago is the co-member of the multiple Grammy winning Colombian Latin alternative band Aterciopelados. Buitrago came from a hardcore rock background, heading up a group called La Pestilencia. "When I was young I listened to bugaloo by Richie Ray and later stuff like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Yes," said Héctor. "The first time I bought a bass guitar, I'd never had one in my hands before. I began to write songs by ear." Aterciopelados is one of the first rock bands of Colombia and is among the country's top groups. Their music fuses rock with a variety of Colombian and Latin American musical traditions to create a unique organic rock sound. Additionally, Buitrago's work with the band engages audiences all over the world with socially conscious messages. Honored by the United Nations for their work denouncing violence in Colombia, Aterciopelados speaks out about myriad issues including political injustice, women's rights, and environmental destruction.

The Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro de Bogotá is an international cultural event held every two years in the city of Bogotá, Colombia. It was directed and produced by founder, actress, and cultural entrepreneur Fanny Mikey until her death in August 2008. The festival has established itself as the largest theater festival in the world with over 800 functions of 100 international companies and 170 companies in Colombia. The festival includes different types of plays, including street theater (free), indoor theater, international concerts, classical dance, children's theater, and youth storytellers, among other events. In recent years, many festival events have been held at the convention center Corferias in "City Theatre". Events include academic exhibitions, trade shows, circuses, and children's activities, and there is even a place called "Tent Cabaret" for the "rumba" (parties for adults).


Another Word For Beauty is launching in the 2011-12 season, with the artists traveling to the prison to conduct research and interviews. The world premiere of the new musical will be at The Goodman Theater in 2013, followed by a New York production. It will travel to the Festival Iberoamericano in Bogotá in 2014. The show will be translated into English and Spanish. It presented in Latin American and English speaking countries in North and South America and Europe, and will be performed in women’s prisons in the countries where it tours.