What is this play really about? In Guillermo Calderón’s latest play, Kiss, a troupe of actors is working hard to figure that out as they stage a melodrama from Syria that they found on the Internet. In the first of four scenes of Kiss (running Oct. 10-Nov. 6 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.), the actors perform the Syrian play. In the second scene, they speak via Skype with the woman they have identified as its playwright. From Lebanon, she appears on a screen, disguised in a wig and sunglasses. She does her best to explain to the eager but largely clueless Americans what the apparent soap opera means: “The play is not about the characters themselves, but about the audience who gathers around to see it and feel for a few minutes something else, something that is not war,” she tells them.
Calderón wasn’t wearing shades and a mop of blond hair when we chatted by Skype in July, and he’s not working from the midst of a hot, violent war, but he sounded a lot like that bewigged woman he invented as he described his own work.
“I never think about character when I write,” he said, speaking from his hometown of Santiago, Chile. “I’m looking for a very intimate, political audience, people a little bit bereft like me, trying to find, again, a sense of community.”
Calderón has certainly found an audience, whether or not it’s the forlorn leftist one he’s been looking for. Widely regarded for the last decade as Chile’s preeminent contemporary playwright/director, Calderón has won numerous prizes in Latin America and his plays have become staples on the international festival circuit. They have found an enthusiastic following in the United States in experimental venues like the Public Theater of New York City’s Under the Radar Festival, Los Angeles’s REDCAT, and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Currently Calderón stands on the brink of becoming a more prominent name on season rosters in the U.S.
For an artist driven by ideas—even by ideology—that may seem astonishing. But there’s a freshness and forcefulness to Calderón’s work, which marries the urgency of politics to the playful joy of theatremaking. The results are fun to watch even as they insist that audiences grapple with deeply troubling issues.
Up to now Calderón’s plays have inventively taken up the rupture and ongoing repercussions of Chile’s dictatorship (1973-90). Spare, mordantly funny, and bearing whiffs of both mystery and mischief, they ask, often obliquely: How should a nation remember a traumatic past, and how should it redress the ongoing trauma?
Lately, he has extended his lens beyond his homeland. Dividing his life among New York, San Francisco, and Santiago, the modest and soft-spoken Calderón concedes that he has become an international artist. Apart from responding to Syria’s unabating war, Kiss is also the first play he has written in English.
Born in 1971—two years before Augusto Pinochet overthrew Chile’s socialist president, Salvador Allende, in a violent coup—Calderón grew up in a middle-class, leftist family. His uncle on his mother’s side was killed by the dictatorship when Calderón was 4, a murder that “defined my childhood and my upbringing in general,” he said. He lived “in a context of forced silence in which my parents would say, ‘Whatever you hear at the kitchen table you will never talk about outside—never repeat this.’ I completely hid my thoughts.” Theatre would become the form in which he could express himself.
When Chile finally returned to democracy by means of a plebiscite in 1988 that led to a government transition in 1990, Calderón was in college, studying acting. He was “very much engaged politically to change the new democracy to something real and progressive,” he recalled; after he graduated, while gigging as an actor and director, he formed a theatre company with like-minded friends.
The Chilean stage, like the theatre in Latin America more generally, has a storied tradition of political engagement. Under Pinochet, theatre artists bravely expressed dissent, if often indirectly, taking advantage of the government’s pretense that it permitted free expression—a sham it famously put over on international observers by allowing a popular play, critical of the regime, to go forward.
But this critical stance lost its footing for a while after the transition to democracy, according to Joanne Pottlitzer, a translator and producer of Latin American theatre, who chronicles Chilean artists during the dictatorship in a forthcoming book. In the 1990s, she explained, theatre people were understandably cautious, reluctant to take up the issues pertinent to the new democracy, like the country’s complete ban on abortions and its entrenched poverty. A European-style theatre of images became the vogue.
Even Calderón and his left-wing colleagues couldn’t quite figure out how to respond to Chile’s new reality. Though they presented an Argentinian play related to dictatorship and torture, “We didn’t talk about politics or what meaning we wanted to express,” recalled Trinidad González, an actor and playwright who was a member of that early company and has originated several key roles in Calderón’s plays. “In those days, we talked only about acting style.”
The 1990s were perplexing and disheartening for Chile’s left. Pinochet had stepped down, but remained as commander-in-chief of the army until 1998. Meanwhile, the new system left in place the free-market fundamentalism with which Pinochet had gutted social spending, rescinded regulation, and privatized social institutions—indeed, the regime had written these neoliberal economic policies into the constitution, rendering them almost impossible to reverse. In the name of stability, the new government failed meaningfully to address the years of disappearances, torture, and repression; there was no honest reckoning with the past.
On the world stage, Chile was being celebrated for its economic development, despite its widening income gap. Calderón and his comrades were stunned by the failure of real structural change. “We were left behind as people who wanted to transform the country,” he said. “We were orphaned by history and adrift.”
Calderón left Chile for a time, pushed out by disillusionment and pulled by an exuberant theatrical curiosity. He studied at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in California and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. During this sojourn, he found his voice as a writer, inspired by “the usual suspects,” as he called them: Caryl Churchill, Tony Kushner, Tom Stoppard—formally inventive, intellectually ambitious, literary playwrights, interested in both the sweep of history and its intimate effects.
And given the lean lyricism of his language—Alexandra Ripp, who translated the English supertitles for Calderón’s Escuela for its Spanish-language run at Under the Radar last winter, described the play as “incredibly specific and rhythmic, with every word so loaded”—it’s not surprising that Calderón cited Harold Pinter’s work as a guide to economy in dialogue. Nor, given his sense of having become “useless as a political being,” that he claimed Samuel Beckett as a kindred spirit. (The famous lines from Worstward Ho—“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”—could be the bumper sticker for beleaguered leftist movements, or for the determined actors in Kiss.)
In 2006 Calderón returned home at the urging of his old theatre buddies. “We decided to make theatre to try to make sense of what happened,” he said. Now rehearsals were filled not with self-serious chitchat about acting or aesthetics, said González, but with discussion about “the meat on the plate: What do we want to be saying?”
Calderón came with scripted scenes, she was careful to add, correcting reports that actors improvise as part of his process, which involves calm, unhurried conversations. Rather than discuss a character’s motivation, the group chewed over its own. Answering that question, González said, is what enabled the actors to “perform with total passion.”
What they were performing in that new effort a decade ago was Calderón’s groundbreaking first play, Neva (2006). (It had its English premiere at NYC’s Public Theater in 2013 and was published in a bilingual edition by TCG earlier this year.) On its face, the play is not about Chile at all, but González and Calderón both described it as growing directly out of their own dilemma as Chilean artists at the turn of a new century. A taut, three-character one-act, it imagines Olga Knipper, young widow of Anton Chekhov, and two colleagues preparing for a rehearsal of The Cherry Orchard in a St. Petersburg theatre in 1905. On a small raised platform, dimly lit by a single lamp, the trio await their fellow actors, enacting scenes of their own imagining and debating artistic methodology. Olga, vaguely Stanislavskian, wants to play a scene of Chekhov expiring in her arms in order to produce some emotional memory of an experience she didn’t actually have (a parallel to what an audience does). Masha, in contrast, calls for a theatre of engagement, questioning the validity of rehearsing when, just outside, unarmed demonstrators are being gunned down in the streets by the Imperial Guard. Their colleague, Aleko, a Chekhovian dreamer, bounces between the two women as scene partner, lech, and fickle ally.
Raising universal questions about emotional truth, commitment, the role of art, the duties of personal relationships, silence in the face of atrocity, and, especially, the means of wiping out and creating historical memory, Neva was properly understood in Santiago as speaking directly to Chile’s unfinished business. Awarded the prestigious best play award by the nation’s Critics Circle, it became a huge local hit and, on tour, a global standard-bearer for the formally new and thematically adventuresome Chilean theatre. With this play, said author Pottlitzer, Calderón began to reinfuse Chile’s theatre scene with radical spirit. “He was the first playwright of the new generation who really addressed the political questions,” she noted. “He is a crucial figure.”
The brilliance of Calderón’s dramaturgy lies in his keen control of dramatic irony. Though all plays make meaning in the hazy space between stage and spectator, no contemporary playwright I know of mines this dynamic with as much purpose and power as Calderón. His characters are as sincere as can be about their views and commitment, whether the actors in Neva, trapped in history and afraid of the future, like Chekhov’s characters and, equally, like the Chilean nation; the three siblings in Diciembre, who gather on Christmas and argue about a war between Chile and its neighbors that picks up where a 19th-century battle left off; the daughters of raped women in Villa debating what kind of memorial should be built at the former torture site where their mothers were detained; or the radical militants of Escuela, attending an underground school for armed struggle.
But Calderón frames all of these characters—and those in other plays—in measured layers of an audience’s privileged knowledge. We can’t listen, for example, to Escuela’s masked students ardently singing a tune extolling Ho Chi Minh without bringing to bear awareness of the doomed nature of their revolutionary enterprise in Chile. And we can’t stop our own internal debate over the ethics of political violence even as we’re subjected to lessons in bomb-building.
Villa—originally staged at an infamous torture site in Santiago, and which Calderón will direct in English at New York’s Play Company next spring—is hilarious despite its grim subject. Calderón carefully orchestrates the hilarity. At one point, for instance, one woman suggests including a German Shepherd in the memorial installation, then worries that animal-rights protesters will picket the museum, then concludes, “But if the dog said, ‘Marxism-Leninism is the cornerstone of philosophy, long live Lenin, Engels, and Karl Marx,’ I promise you, I promise you half of those protestors would say, ‘Well, the dog made a choice, I’ve no need to be defending anti-system dogs.’” The joke is, of course, that the idea is absurd. And also, bitterly true.
“I want to create political problems for audiences—a little bit of a crisis,” Calderón said. “I don’t think about entertainment when I write my plays. I think about how to create argument. That should be entertainment enough.”
The way Calderón sets up, thwarts, and redirects audience expectations is the most exciting aspect of Kiss, according to Yury Urnov, who is directing the Woolly Mammoth production. “It’s super brave thematically and structurally,” Urnov said. “It starts as an amazing parody of melodrama and turns out to be something very different,” touching down in the realms of naturalism and absurdism “where reality starts falling apart.”
It’s a play about confusion, about the necessity—and the impossibility—of understanding another culture. Just like Kiss’s hapless characters, the audience is never sure where they stand. “Calderón,” said Urnov, “seriously surprises you.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all may be that Kiss—in a formally self-contradictory gesture that is a beguiling hallmark of Calderón’s work—suggests that in some contexts, the most radical form of all is a dumb soap opera.
Alisa Solomon is a teacher and dramaturg in New York City, and is the author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of “Fiddler on the Roof”.
A version of this story appears in the October 2016 issue of American Theatre.