Carmen Romero, founding director of the Santiago-based Fundación Teatro a Mil, was interviewed in March by Olga Garay-English, senior advisor on international affairs to the festival and former head of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. These are excerpts from their conversation.
OLGA GARAY-ENGLISH: How did FITAM evolve from being a personal initiative, as it was in the beginning—it started as a showcase for three companies at the then recently refurbished Estación Mapocho—to become part of such a large and complex institution, and the only festival of its kind in Chile?
CARMEN ROMERO: It started as a collaborative venture, a collective action. A small group of us wanted to build a structure that could support and sustain the work of contemporary Chilean artists. That was the seed that led to the establishment of Romero Campbell Productions—due to the political changes that were taking place in Chile in the early ’90s, we took the form of an independent producing entity. This was the only legal structure available to us at the time.
This was taking place during Chile’s return to democracy, so cooperatives, which gave equal pay to all those involved, began to disappear, since a new market-based, neoliberal system was emerging in our country. Even so, we still wanted to keep to our original belief system of pay parity. Our work was acknowledged by the people of Chile for its values and our commitment to creating public communion through the arts. So even from our first performances, there were sold-out houses. This gave us a political impetus to keep going.
This was a labor of love, and we all made it work through volunteer labor. We would produce major rock shows to make money after the January festival concluded, and that would then subsidize the next festival. Sustainability was always a huge issue, especially the first years, since there was no subvention, either public or private.
The Santiago a Mil Festival was greatly influenced by my participation in La Red de Productores Culturales de Latino America y el Caribe (the Network of Cultural Programmers of Latin America and the Caribbean). La Red represented a political call to be Latin American writ large—it brought together like-minded producers and presenters from throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and proved to be an incomparable learning laboratory. It also offered an economic platform, provided by the Rockefeller Foundation, principally, that allowed us to bring Latin American and Caribbean performing artists to the festival. We soon evolved from a Chilean festival to a festival presenting work from throughout the hemisphere.
About 11 years ago we formalized Fundación Teatro a Mil, and the festival became truly international, with work now coming to Chile from all over the globe. We also realized that FITAM could fulfill other needs of both our artists and our audiences; this has led to other lines of work.
What was the professional and personal path that led to the development of Fundación Teatro a Mil?
This was a long journey. My educational background is in journalism, so I have listened and learned, especially from women, as we develop this work, introducing new ideas and giving space to new initiatives. I see my role as being the captain of a vessel, trying to keep it moving forward in a very complex world without forgetting our original dreams.
It went from a personal vision to a collective one. From the early stages, the festival, which is 22 or 23 years old, was grounded on solidarity. And now we must involve more folks from the next generation, but they too must believe in this grand vision—they must be committed to social service to fit into our structure, and they must be dreamers. We are not linked to a specific political or religious system of any kind, so we have to find our own way.
Chile is geographically isolated and has as such a very unique geopolitical profile. It is a country with a hidden identity; we went from extreme poverty to being one of the richest countries in Latin America. We are growing culturally, gaining economic prominence and welcoming more and more immigrants. But this has also led to a loss of our social fabric, which was imperiled during the dictatorship, and has little resumed during democracy. This is why art is such an important element in creating social cohesiveness. Art acts as a hinge to better communicate and to transmit shared values.
Having said that, there are promising signs that I would be remiss not to point out. Our new minister of culture, Claudia Barattini, is committed to diversity—geographic, cultural, gender—which is part of an overall quest by our government to bring change and reform in a variety of social arenas. Claudia was for a number of years the director of FITAM’s internationalization division, so she comes from the trenches. Similarly, Chile’s new cultural attaché to the U.S., Javiera Parada, was a critical staff member. She too knows the value that culture can bring to a people and the role it can play in the international arena.
What are the various lines of work that FITAM has developed and managed? What about professional development for artists, for example?
We know that artists are really an international treasure, not just a national one, and we realized that we needed to play a role in ensuring that artists could live and work in a dignified manner—so we started co-producing. We developed regional circuits to make the work available year-round and in more and more communities. We could have said that we just do a festival and that is all. Instead, we have tried to fulfill the needs that have been made visible to us. How do we make contemporary art a part of every Chilean’s life? And how do we make Chilean and Latin American artists part of the world cultural dialogue?
National social cohesion in the U.S. and other parts of the world often comes through the act of war. It is a politic of differences. The arts, by comparison, promote social cohesion through building community—but also by asking provocative and reflective questions. We don’t take things for granted; we’re committed to creating common space where folks can gather and become engaged through the arts.
I don’t believe in audience development, since I don’t think this is a marketplace. We need to get rid of this concept. We work for the people; we want kids to grow up in thrall of the arts; this builds humanity.
On various occasions you have said, “Theatre changes the world.” What do you mean by that prognostication?
Art changes you as an individual; it changes your life, your inner world. Theatre is different than music, for example, which can provoke euphoria or energy—but without the attendant reflection that theatre elicits. It changes your personal life—therefore it changes the world.
From the festival’s beginnings, there has been a focus on street theatre. Is that still a relevant strategy in today’s world?
The origin of the festival came from a desire to break away from the dictatorship, which forbade theatre—especially street theatre—and making theatre could get you thrown in jail. In those days, public assembly was forbidden, since the government understood that they needed to separate the citizenry in order to stay in control. When democracy was reinstated, we went to the streets to celebrate in public space and gatherings.
Yet in today’s world, the majority of Chilean public spaces are privatized—everything is becoming commercial and private, so inserting arts and artists into the public sphere is just as important as it was during the dictatorship. We have to insist that arts and culture are a given right.
In Chile, education, health, retirement—are all the responsibility of the individual. Water is not ours, the streets are not ours, nothing is for the common cause. Therefore we feel it is revolutionary to say that arts and culture are owned collectively. We need to break the isolation created by a market-driven, individual-focused society. In Chile everything is orderly. The rich associate with the rich and the poor with the poor. Yet our events invite all sectors of society to come together and associate with each other.
Again, I see definitive signs of hope. Our president, Michelle Bachelet, knows and supports our work. She comes to our events and is an important ally.
Tell me about some of the international projects that have most impacted you.
Our international guest artists always learn something from us—but they also leave something behind, so it is common that they return to us with new ideas for collaborations. I have been very much excited by our work with major artists such as Germany’s Pina Bausch, whose final creation, Como el mosquito en la piedra, ay si, si, si, was commissioned by FITAM. Jan Fabre of the Netherlands’s La orgia de la tolerancia was first presented at Santiago a Mil, and then went on to tour throughout Europe and the U.S. Our coproduction with Argentina’s Lola Arias, El año en que nací, has been seen throughout Asia, Europe and the U.S. to critical and popular acclaim. And, during our relatively brief existence, we have brought Bob Wilson, Lupa, Marthaler, Warlikowsky, Àlex Rigola, Declan Donnelan, the Wooster Group and many other internationally recognized artists to our festival. And we are in the midst of developing an MOU [multi-lateral agreement] with New York Theatre Workshop, which will result, we hope, in NYTW productions coming to Chile, while FITAM productions would go to that venerable venue in NYC.