Latin America Comes to Portland

Guillermo Calderón’s Villa (2011)

Guillermo Calderón’s Villa (2011)

In North America we tend to have an unsophisticated reading of Spanish-language work because we are not exposed to it very often. With little to no understanding of the post-colonial history of Latin America – let alone the different histories between countries – we tend to lump the region and the work together in an imprecise fog of Magical Realism and Revolution. Some of us think work from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Perú, and Uruguay is linked by a common pedagogy, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. I could go ad nauseum on about the erroneous assumptions we have, and I had these assumptions too, before I took an interest in Latin American work. Fortunately the situation is changing as Latin American work has been presented more frequently on our stages over the past few years.

For instance, this year’s Time Based Art Festival (TBA), produced by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) in Portland, Oregon, presented work from the artists Mariano Pensotti, Lola Arias, and Guillermo Calderón. TBA has a great track record with Latin American work and the Artistic Director of PICA, Angela Mattox, has only furthered this vision. Last year TBA brought the Mexican company Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol and the academic and curator Edwin Culp to provide context and share his insights. Angela told me:

I want to advance the TBA festival in terms of its international commitment. It’s one of the things that people commented on last year, that I did increase the amount of international work, not just quantity, but the all over diversity in stories, artists, and approaches…. I think a lot about what kind of artist and works I’m empowering…. I’m not an expert by any stretch on Latin American work…. a lot of my job is my own edification. A lot of it is learning. Last year I wanted to put a stake in the ground about what perspective I want to put on the stage and I’m interested in work not only from Europe.

Like Angela, I’m also interested in non-European work and I’ve been particularly interested in work from Latin American since I applied for a Fulbright Fellowship to study contemporary Mexican playwriting in 2010. I knew that if I got the Fulbright I would need to brush up my Spanish, so I moved to Chile where I stayed with a family friend. My Fulbright application included a proposal to curate and produce a reading festival of new work from the US and Mexico about globalization as well as study devising practices in Mexico to inform my work as a director.

A month into my stay in Chile I learned that I didn’t get the Fulbright, but I was so motivated by my proposed projects that I decided to realize them anyway, only in Chile. I was already meeting wonderful people in the Chilean theatre community and was excited to dive in and make work alongside them. I spent the year learning everything I could about Chilean theatre – meeting with professors, writers, directors, actors, producers, and activists. I saw as much work as I could, even traveling to neighboring Argentina, where I saw even more work, meeting many wonderful theatre-makers including Mariano Pensotti and Lola Arias.

I returned to Santiago with a suitcase full of plays and books on critical theory (thank you Federico Irazábal!) I ended up curating and producing a three month long cross-cultural reading series in Santiago called DESORIENCTACIÓN (DISORIENTATION) in which we read new Chilean and North American plays that dealt with themes of globalization, each reading culminating with experts on Chilean and North American theatre hosting dynamic talkback discussions.

While in Santiago, I also devised and directed two plays, both of which focused on cross-cultural identity politics. I met the writer and director Guillermo Calderón, who became a friend; it was my time with Guillermo that brought me to Portland this year to work as the dramaturg on a reading of Guillermo’s play VILLA, curated and produced by Ruth Wikler-Luker of Boom Arts as part of TBA.

When seeing Latin American work in the United States it is fascinating to observe how North Americans perceive this work differently than Latin Americans, how the work translates, or doesn’t.

In Chile, the majority of the work is made for local audiences with a significant goal being recovery and healing from the dictatorship. What gets lost when you take locally focused work like that and present it to an international audience? What translates strangely and what doesn’t translate at all?

TBA Artistic Director Mattox has selected artists whose work tends to translate well while reflecting the wider theatrical conversation happening in Latin America. Our encounters with Latin American theater allow us to see work that is both aesthetically rigorous, and indicates colloquial dramaturgies unconstrained by North American influence.

Even when the artists’ work translates well, it is important to differentiate the political histories of Argentina and Chile in order to more fully understand their resonance. Pensotti and Arias, working from Argentina, treat issues of dictatorship from a bit of a remove; Mariano’s work uses spectators as actors and addresses the dictatorship obliquely, if at all. Lola uses a documentary style framework to examine the Chilean dictatorship from the outside looking in. Guillermo, writing from Santiago, employs hard driving, highly rhythmic narrative to talk very specifically about a precise moment in Chilean history.

The dictatorship in Argentina lasted from 1976-1983. In 1976, army commander Jorge Rafael Videla led a coup that deposed president Isabel Martínez de Perón (Juan Perón’s third wife). Videla’s government was responsible for a period of intense repression against political dissidents known as The Dirty War. During The Dirty War the military engaged in guerrilla warfare against left-wing groups and “disappeared” anyone believed to be associated with socialism.

In 1983, after the country’s return to democracy, Videla was prosecuted in the Trial of the Juntas for human rights violations. An estimated 15,000 to 30,000 left-wing activists and militants, including trade unionists, students, journalists, and alleged sympathizers were killed during this period. Videla was also convicted of stealing babies born during their mother’s captivity at illegal detention centers and passing them on for illegal adoption by associates of the regime. Videla died in prison in May 2013 at the age of 87.  (For more information on The Dirty War click here).

Currently, there are many artists in Argentina talking about the dictatorship, and many who aren’t. Both Mariano Pensotti and Lola Arias belong to generation of theatre artists who are actively engaging the audience without resorting to the over polemics characteristic of dictatorship-era theater.

Argentina has historically been a theatrical center for Latin American work. It created a state-supported theatre structure that strengthened an already robust culture of theatre-going. North American theatre lovers will find themselves inspired by the vitality of the theatre scene in Buenos Aires, where on any day of the week you will find commercial and independent theatres routinely full. Both Lola Arias and Mariano Pensotti, whose work straddles Argentinean and European aesthetics and subject matter, have received support from Argentina and governments abroad, both for their works’ development and presentation at this year’s TBA Festival.

Pensotti comes to TBA with his piece SOMETIMES I THINK I CAN SEE YOU (A VECES CREO QUE TEO VEO). One of Argentina’s leading writers and directors, his work is more post-crisis than post-dictatorial. Argentina suffered a massive economic crisis from 1999-2002, in which it fell from being one of the richest countries in Latin American to a condition approaching that of the Third World. The economic crisis created a concomitant identity crisis for the country and its citizens, and loomed large in Argentinean plays from this period.

Consisting of multiple writers in a public space, writing about their surroundings in real time, SOMETIMES is as much a living, site-specific installation as a work of theater. The writers sit at laptops, creating narratives for audience members and passerby, imagining what their lives are like, what they are thinking, where they are going; their narratives are displayed on large video screens placed in close, but not direct, proximity to the writers themselves.

Of the work, Pensotti says:

Like surveillance cameras recording anonymous individuals’ every movement in the station, each writer transforms the spontaneous progress through a public space into narratives conveying what is going on – or might be going on – inside people’s heads in parallel with the bustling life of the station.

The situation of SOMETIMES I THINK I CAN SEE YOU might seem like a voyeuristic, almost comical situation in the U.S. and in many countries, but in Argentina there really was spying during the dictatorship and the play can have a different significance or it can lose that significance entirely. It depends on how you see the work.

Mariano told me:

I am not so sure that the idea of spying is something you particularly associate with the dictatorship today…. I can’t think of a country that does this more than the US  – a country that spies on it’s own people and people in other countries too – so it’s is going to be very interesting to present the play there and see the reactions there.

Mariano’s work is post-dictatorship in that it isn’t situated in a specific period of time or set of conditions outside the work itself, as with a traditional “play”, but rather introduces the psychological elements associated with that period into the site of the performance, at the time it is happening. By resisting the urge for historical accuracy and the playwright’s instinct to create a conventional narrative representation of psychological conditions of dictatorship, Pensotti creates a universal lens from a specific situation that supports the formation of local significance and meaning when the work lands in a new country. For instance, the piece would have a specific influence in NYC, where Manhattan has nearly 2,400 cameras watching us.

The other Argentinean artist presenting work this year is Lola Arias, a prolific and singular interdisciplinary artist who works in Buenos Aires and Germany.  Lola’s play THE YEAR I WAS BORN (EL AÑO EN QUE NACÍ) is the complementary piece to her play MY LIFE AFTER (MI VIDA DESPUÉS). MY LIFE AFTER examined Argentinean history, whereas THE YEAR I WAS BORN examines Chilean history. Both plays features performers and non-performers born during the dictatorship and examine the question, “who were my parents the year I was born”?

The plays excavate the lives of the performers and their families and provide the audience with the complexities of truth in the face of history. Lola felt like an outsider making the Chilean version of this play, whereas the Argentinean version was more personal. MY LIFE AFTER (Argentina) was more about the act of remembering and the actors talked about how their lives were in contrast to the unfolding history of their country. But in THE YEAR I WAS BORN (Chile) there was no shared memory, no one agreed. Lola’s distance from the situation was very helpful in this case because she could clarify these disagreements in theatrical moments. She said, “It’s more interesting to tell the story of people who are not in agreement.”

It makes sense to me that no one would agree in THE YEAR I WAS BORN. The Chilean dictatorship sent its country reeling, driving it to deep divisions. The Chilean dictatorship was born out of a violent US-backed coup in 1973 and lasted until 1990. The coup ended the socialistic democracy of President Salvador Allende. During these years 3,172 citizens were murdered, and uncountable thousands more were disappeared. Chile’s dictator, Augusto Pinochet, died peacefully in his bed at the age of 91 and there were no trials seeking justice in Chile. Many of those who supported Pinochet are still active in the government today and hold high positions of power. This year (actually this month) is the 40th Anniversary of the coup in Chile. The anniversary has gained great relevance in this presidential election year in which the two candidates are Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei. Michelle Bachelet is the daughter of an Air Force General who was tortured and murdered directly after the military coup. Evelyn Matthei is the daughter of an Air Force General who is responsible for the place where Bachelet’s father was tortured. This situation is emblematic of the Chilean population today.  (For more information on the Chilean dictatorship click here).

As a result of Chile’s lack of closure with the dictatorship period, the theatre is often deeply political, urgent, and almost violent in its emotional expression. In Chile, your work is considered “uncool” if it is not political. Chilean artists receive little to no support from the state, and this fact only adds to the gritty quality of most of the work. Unlike Argentina, Chile has little sustained international exchange in theatre. Chile is also more geographically isolated than Argentina. Because of these facts the theatrical conversation in Chile is mostly about Chile, and the theatre scene exists in more of a vacuum. Most of the theatre in Chile is about the dictatorship in ways that range from subject matter to tone to structure. Much of the work is also young, dirty, angry, and flailing. My generation of theatre artists is the first generation to be making work out of the direct shadow of Pinochet (though his ghost looms large) and they have only a handful of established artists to look up to, because only a handful continued to practice theatre under the dictatorship. One such established artist is Guillermo Calderón, whose work examines the effects of the dictatorship brutally and unflinchingly, but with an astonishing grace and intellect.

Guillermo’s play VILLA is about three women who have to decide how to commemorate a former torture center. Do they make it a museum, preserve it as a house, make a garden, or do nothing at all? They argue viciously about what to do, and suspicion and distrust run rampant through the play. VILLA has a second half called SPEECH (DISCURSO) that is an imagined farewell speech from Chile’s first female president, Michelle Bachelet, a former torture victim who was president five years ago and is running against this year. SPEECH is very specific to Chile, whereas VILLA is more about how to honor the memory of atrocities, no matter their place of origin.

When I asked Angela what drew her to post-dictatorship theatre from this region she pointed out that the majority of the work coming out of those countries looks at memory, history, and politics, and uses the stage to excavate skeletons through a personal lens. After the trauma of dictatorships in these countries, their theatre has been dominated by memory and politics.

In her travels in Latin America Angela was drawn to the documentary style many artists used in their work and how different artists were examining the topic of memory. THE YEAR I WAS BORN originated in Santiago and Angela and I both saw it at its premiere in 2012. Angela says she remembers responding not only to Lola’s theatrical choices and the story, but she was deeply moved by this unfamiliar story. She wondered “what would it look like to pick this piece up and drop it in Portland, Oregon?  What would it be like to have it in proximity to other work?” She remembers sitting in the theatre and thinking, “How would I do this? This is a lot of history…but this is a really significant work and it is important for us in the United States to be informed about these stories.”

So what should a North American look for when seeing Latin American work that is so specific to its political history? Hopefully you gain an understanding, emotional or factual, of that moment in time. Perhaps you focus on an individual’s story in the midst of your preconceived notions of that history and connect with that story on a personal level. It’s very possible that you had no preconceived notions of that moment in world history because maybe you never even knew about that moment. Maybe, as you listen to actors recall what their parents were doing the morning of the coup, you will think about what you were doing on September 11, 1973, the day of the Chilean coup, and wonder if anyone mentioned it that day. Maybe, as you hear actors debate what to do with a former torture center, you will compare that site to a concentration camp in the Holocaust and use it as a frame of reference. When you are reminded, or more likely, made aware, that the US, through the CIA, secretly supported the Chilean coup and the Argentinean dictatorship, you may wonder what the CIA is hiding today.

If you’ve arrived at those thoughts – where you think about how you connect to a far away, distant dictatorship – then the work has been successful. Their history is our history and we are linked in ways many of us aren’t even aware of.  These historical moments reverberate over and over again for Chileans and Argentineans, but we are allowed, even encouraged, to remain ignorant. When we are ignorant, history has a tendency to repeat itself. Our government is involved in other countries’ conflicts in distant lands and we merely hypothesize about what the consequences will be, when examples of the possible consequences are right in front of us, a little south, a little east.

Post-dictatorship Latin American theatre makes us aware of our own history through an unfamiliar lens. We undeniably view a foreigner’s story differently than we view our own, and while this can often be problematic, it’s often the case that this difference makes us listen closer. Our curiosity is awakened by an unrecognized story, a different aesthetic, an unknown language. Often a new lens allows us to digest hard facts about our shared history with more ease. Many people walked out of VILLA and THE YEAR I WAS BORN with intelligent, genuinely curious questions about the dictatorships and the artists who lived through them. These questions lingered throughout audience conversation during the festival. The conversation was furthered by contextual programming – a reading of VILLA and two panels – created by TBA and Ruth Wikler-Luker/Boom Arts. When new information (in the shape of form or content) is presented effectively, we remember the work. This act of remembering, this awareness, makes it so these moments in history don’t go unrecognized, and hopefully helps make their recurrence less likely.

Being exposed to Latin American work is also about making us see past those historical moments to look at the present. Each artist who presented work at TBA truly pushes themselves and their form forward. They are experimenting, cross-pollinating, and tirelessly exploring how they create theatre. They are leading the way for new generations of audiences and artists in how they create and present work. Seeing Mariano, Lola, and Guillermo’s plays side by side tells us that Latin American artists are not only engaging in the act of remembering, but also engaging in the act of moving forward.


Sarah Rose Leonard is the Literary Associate at Signature Theatre. She has worked as the Associate Agent at the literary agency AO International and as the Next Generation Fellow at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is on the literary team for Page 73 and runs a collaborative writers group called Smith + Tinker, hosted by HERE Arts Center. Sarah has curated/produced Guadalupe, a performance event about femininity at The Segal Center, and Desorientación, a cross-cultural reading series in Santiago, Chile at Lastarria 90. Sarah was the Literary Resident at Playwrights Horizons from 2009-2010. She has dramaturged for Guillermo Calderón, Eliza Bent, Sheila Callaghan, Julián Mesri, Rady&Bloom, and Anne Washburn. Her directing work has been shown at Little Theatre at Dixon Place, the Chilean-North American Institute of Culture and at a site-specific house in Santiago de Chile.

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