Having left the cold Chicago winter behind, we relished the warm Chilean sun as our car headed from the airport to our hotel in Santiago. We had just arrived as U.S. delegates to the Santiago a Mil international theatre festival, a massive event featuring 45 productions, 15 dances pieces and scores of musical performances, to be presented here in the capital city. A conversation with our talkative driver began what would turn out to be our weeklong education about the Mapuche.
Mapuche, the fellow behind the wheel informed us, means “Earth People,” and refers to the indigenous inhabitants of what is now Chile and much of Argentina. We had no inkling that so much of the work we were about to see would be heavily influenced by those people we’d previously known about only through Eduardo Galeano’s masterpiece trilogy The Memory of Fire (which both of us had read)—in Galeano’s pages, they were known by the now-pejorative term Araucanian. After centuries of extermination, oppression and discrimination, the struggle for Mapuche rights rages on today. As the driver filled us in, the parallels to our own racial tensions in the United States was as clear as the cloudless Chilean sky.
Gaining perspective—that’s perhaps the main reason for attending a huge international theatre festival like the deservedly renowned Santiago a Mil, but this was a cultural view neither of us had expected. A great number of the performances or exhibits we saw over the course of five days this past January were either about the Mapuche or made reference to Mapuche cultural and social challenges. With each passing day of this extraordinary festival, that pervading theme proved significant—until it finally culminated in what many of us considered the most captivating performance of the festival, Lemi Ponifasio’s gripping and complex I Am Mapuche.
Theatremakers are among the many contemporary artists in the Americas grappling with the complex histories of their countries. And in reigniting those memories and experiences, they are blurring what seemed an unbridgeable divide between life and art, reality and story. The apotheosis of modern Chile’s military dictatorship would have many consequences shared with the rest of Ibero-America, and its flourishing theatre was not untouched by the horrors of General Augusto Pinochet’s rule.
Yet, in the view of this article’s co-authors (both regular visitors to Chile over several years), the country owes its newfound international prominence in no small part to those resolute artists’ authority over subjects of global concern: democracy and what has happened to the Americas. This is in striking opposition to the alternatives—a theatre of willful detachment, or one inclined to take the form of collective mourning. In spite of flowing from the same conspicuous concern everywhere—that politics and society are fundamentally compromised, or fraudulent—theatre in Chile is robustly engaging life, fiction and history.
With a total population of 17 million, the country supports not one but two international festivals unequivocally committed to a broad range of independent Chilean theatre: In addition to Santiago a Mil, founded in 1994 (read more here), there is Cielos del Infinito, the southernmost arts festival in the world, held in Magellán and the Chilean Antartica, and which in 2014 celebrated its seventh year.
A wave of progress in Chile—in both theatre and society—is being led by artists assiduously turning themselves into historians, archivists and even reporters.
Independent writer and actor Trinidad González, for one, is acutely sensitive to historical accuracy. In La Reunión, she embeds the unfashionable subject of Isabel of Spain with popular consciousness. She plays the Queen in an imagined steely meeting with Cristóbal Colón—who, insolvent after being subjected to her arrest orders, pleads for absolution in the Queen’s last hours of life. Asked what compelled her to write La Reunión in 2012, González described two sets of indelible images—the first came to her from reading authoritative biographies of Isabel; the second came from watching the televised mass student protests in Santiago after the new government’s imposition of college tuitions, reversing a sacred tradition of free college education for young Chileans. (Similar protests were sparked by reports of the Vatican’s trial and ultimate conviction for child molestation of Father Karadima, an important religious figure in Chile.)
In the wake of these events, González “recognized how two historical people, one of the oligarchy and the other a commoner, in both passing off personal responsibility, established the pattern which continues to hold—abuse of power, moral hypocrisy, the resentment of the poorest class, and vindication of the indigenous people.”
For González, the devised creative process and minimalist staging as an aesthetic are intrinsic to returning the actor to an active role in grappling with salient political and social issues. Together with playwright/director Guillermo Calderón, González founded Teatro en el Blanco, Chile’s premiere independent theatre company (which was disbanded in 2014). La Reunión, the first play she has both written and directed, follows on the heels of her critically acclaimed lead roles in Calderón’s Neva (2006) and Diciembre (2009), which have toured to more than 25 countries in the Americas, Asia and Europe.
History is being studied by other Chilean theatre writer/directors, but not with the same tools. Ítalo Gallardo Betancourt and his Compañía de Teatro Laura Palmer accumulate ephemera—ephemera that they can later use to piece together narratives. Their version of time-based art is altogether non-abstract; they build a theatre out of aggregates of maps, news articles, personal letters, family photos, clothes. Neither text nor sets exist so much as accumulate; all is magnified by an intense belief in the importance of discussion. There is life and movement and, crucially, questioning for the viewer to take home. In Gallardo’s Juan Cristóbal, casi al llegar a Zapadores, the author’s two grandmothers recount nearly 40 years living as neighbors, against the backdrop of a fictional film and various personal objects.
Perhaps no individuals in Chile today more undermine the divide between life and art in theatre—and achieve results in higher contrast—than Juan Carlos Zagal and Laura Pizarro of Teatrocinema. That company’s Historia de Amor exists in the crossfire of fiction and reality, media and the actor-centered play. At an invited showing of the work in progress, artistic director Pizarro explained their project, based on Regis Jauffret’s graphic novel, as “an allegory of abuse.” Zagal directs two actors, playing the roles of a stalker and his female victim, whose performance between two screens interacts with animated images by Pizarro. In fusing live art, cartoon illustration and film, they build a clinical, black-and-white world in which to examine real psychological, sexual and physical violence.
It is against the real threat of the Chilean police’s armed forces against citizen resisters (active under the Military Code of Justice from 1973 until 1984) that Calderón sets his independent project, Escuela. Playing on a set of a drab living room, five masked students receive paramilitary instructions, according to guidelines used in the 1980s by a group of left-wing militants secretly home-schooled to resist and take down the Pinochet junta. Writing 40 years after the overthrow of the elected presidency of Salvador Allende, Calderón comes full circle and returns to the present in his meditation on war. Escuela is a coda to his first play at Teatro en el Blanco, Neva, set during the Russian Revolution and based on the life of Chekhov’s widow, the actress Olga Knipper (played by Trinidad González); and Diciembre, set in the Andes in the near future, when an imagined war breaks out between Chile and her historic rival, Peru.
Over the last decade some of the most interesting theatre in Latin America has been coming from Chile, work as diverse as the hypnotic realism of Calderón’s Neva, or the visually innovative, multidisciplinary productions of Teatrocinema. So it is no wonder that this fertile theatrical landscape gave birth to Santiago A Mil (its title refers to the original low ticket price for Chileans of 1,000 pesos, or about $1.50), which has grown since 1994 to rival the famed Iberoamericano Theater Festival of Bogotá, Colombia. Those of us from the U.S., including a delegation sponsored by TCG, participated in a special “Presenters Week” geared toward producers, presenters and festival directors from around the world, to promote the exportation of the best Latin American work in the festival.
Each delegate had his or her own schedule of productions to attend, but after a day or so of meals, drinks and conversations we began to change our scheduled performances to suit the buzz. Despite being first timers in Santiago, our colleagues Mario Ernesto Sanchez of Miami’s International Hispanic Theatre Festival, New York–based Mara Isaacs of Octopus Theatricals, Diane Rodriguez from Los Angeles’s Center Theatre Group, Jim Nicola of New York Theatre Workshop and Blanka Zizka of Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre (all festival-circuit veterans) proved adept at getting the early scoop on what not to miss. There is a system bordering on ritual when it comes to seeing the best work, and you quickly learn that camaraderie and conversation is key. The spectrum of work we saw ran the gamut, from hyperrealism to absurdism to the resonantly ritualistic.
Realistic family dramas like El Sistema Solar from Peru and María Teresa y Danilo from Chile, though varying considerably in the quality of the performances and writing, were less satisfying and intriguing to some of us, perhaps because realism is so prevalent back home in the U.S. Even the emotionally powerful production of Leftraru, which dealt with Mapuche youth discovering and defending their ancestral myths, and confronting the colonial constructs that continue to stifle them, was ultimately unsatisfying because of its pedestrian representation. There were also less-than-successful attempts at style, like the broadly absurdist Los millonarios, about a team of rich, reprehensible lawyers who decide to defend a Mapuche villager accused of murder, simply as a way to test the limits of their pride and power. Relentless in its cynicism and over-the-top performances, it may well have been more enjoyable to a Chilean audience, which could appreciate the satirical treatment of a serious social issue.
Two finer and more innovative productions were Mar, a new work from the venerable Bolivian company Teatro de los Andes, and Spam, by Argentina’s Rafael Spregelburd. In keeping with their tradition of physical, lyrical storytelling, Teatro de los Andes’s play was a poetic meditation on the 19th-century War of the Pacific between Bolivia and Chile, and, more broadly, on family and death. It may be somewhat less accessible to non-Bolivian or Chilean audiences because of the obscure historical references, but still it was visually beautiful and captivating.
The most controversial entry in the festival was South African Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B. An instillation with live performers taking place throughout an entire colonial mansion in Santiago, the exhibit was an indictment of the Western world’s subjugation of black Africans, North African immigrants and indigenous peoples of the Americas. It was disturbing to many because the performers—who were generally perfectly still, staring directly at audience members who traveled solo through the exhibit—were placed in settings accompanied by written descriptions of how those particular people were degraded, slaughtered and abused. Some were concerned that it was a white South African artist who created the exhibit; others praised it as a sharp-edged allegory for well-meaning Chilean society’s current handling of the Mapuche civil rights and reparation entitlements. Interestingly, the last room contained a large table with written testimonials by all the performers of color in the exhibit, expressing their support for the work
In many eyes, the most extraordinary production of the festival was the world premiere of Auckland-based artist Lemi Ponifasio’s I Am Mapuche. A High Chief of Samoa, Ponifasio creates ceremonial productions that merge and transcend conventional concepts of theatre and dance, rooting them deeply in civic and social activism. In creating I Am Mapuche, Ponifasio collaborated with 12 Mapuche artists, scholars, musicians, dancers and actors (though some found their contributions to the piece patched-in at best). The work was so huge and ambitious, and Ponifasio apparently so demanding, that the opening had to be postponed a day. The wait was worth it: I Am Mapuche was mesmerizing, moving and exquisitely produced—not entirely perfect, perhaps, and a bit unsure of its ending, but nonetheless an unforgettably powerful evening in the theatre. Our education about the Mapuche, which began on that car ride from the airport, had reached its glorious conclusion.
Yolanda Cesta Cursach and Henry Godinez are colleagues from Chicago. She is associate director of performance programs at that city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which supported her visit to Chile. Godinez is a professor at Northwestern University and the resident artistic associate at Goodman Theatre. He visited Santiago a Mil as part of the TCG delegation, with additional support from Northwestern.