The U.S.-based Performing Americas Project curators, PAP Staff, and other U.S. guests were hosted by the Santiago a Mil International Theater festival that took place throughout January 2010. The week of January 18-23 was especially dedicated to international presentation. The Santiago a Mil festival (www.santiagoamil.cl) has been in existence for sixteen years and has grown from a small local festival with no budget to a major international festival—the most important in Chile and among the top five in Latin America. The 2010 edition of Santiago a Mil celebrated Chile’s bi-centennial year with an outstanding program including several productions and co-productions which recaptured the history of Chile as well as several productions by the new generation of contemporary theater directors and theater companies. The festival also presented several companies from Colombia, Argentina and Mexico. This edition of Santiago a Mil was particularly relevant because it commissioned the re-staging of emblematic theater works that were censored during the dictatorship in an attempt to re-capture the country’s memory of a time in the not-so-distant past when these playwrights, directors and actors weren’t allowed to present their work in Chile. Theater in Chile, as well as other Latin American countries, has played an important role in freedom movements and remains a strong form of expression.
An unfortunate timing coincidence during the trip shed a new light on the political atmosphere in Chile. Specifically, the presidential election that coincided with the festival confirmed the victory of the right wing candidate, dampening the celebratory mood and the artistic community’s pride in having contributed over the years to the freedom and the democracy of Chile. The staff of the festival, as well as half the population (the candidate won only by 3 points) was shocked, angry and depressed by this event – it was the first time the right wing won through democratic elections in 50 years! The outgoing President, Michelle Bachelet, served a four-year term as the first woman president of Chile, and maintained a political position of increasing social reforms to bridge the gap between rich and poor while maintaining a healthy free market system. Interestingly, President Bachelet herself spent years in exile during the dictatorship. She was also seen as a champion of the arts, and had shown great enthusiasm and support for Santiago a Mil over the years. During the festival, she hosted a party for international participants where PAP guests met her in person.
One of the 2010 PAP tours to the U.S. was the Chilean company Teatro en el Blanco, and their work Diciembre. The young Chilean playwright, Guillermo Calderon, and the ensemble had been on the radar on the PAP curatorial team for sometime, and their work has traveled extensively throughout the Latin America festival circuit. Naturally, Calderon and the company’s work were featured in the festival’s program this year, and Santiago a Mil commissioned their trilogy of plays. In February 2010, the company traveled to Miami, Los Angeles and Denver, and were hosted by Miami Dade College/Cultural Affairs, REDCAT and El Centro su Teatro.
Diciembre is a politically-charged, haunting drama about a near-future war in the Andes and takes place in Santiago, Chile on Christmas Eve 2014 with the city besieged by Peruvian forces. A young soldier returns home on a 24-hour leave to celebrate the holiday with his pregnant twin sisters, who each have sharply different views on nationalism and the morality of war. One wants the brother to defect, the other demands he return to the fight. The ensemble is comprised of actors Paula Zúñiga, Trinidad González and Jorge Becker and was in Spanish with English supertitles. Alongside the family drama, and the speculation of the possibility of war between Chile, Peru and Bolivia, there are biting references to the real racism that exists in Chile among many indigenous communities, the ‘immigrant classes,’ and the power-wielding members of the old guard, namely those descended directly from Spanish, German or other European bloodlines. In one of the scenes, the sisters discuss how they have to visit the family’s former maid, who is Peruvian, in a ‘detention’ camp. Much like the secretive and misleading internment camps of the Japanese and Japanese Americans in WWII, the liberal sister sees them as death camps, and the conservative sister sees them as temporary solutions for her country’s safety, and they argue bitterly.
The text of this play was dense and rapid fire, challenging to follow, but exhilarating in its energy and humor. The translation was reworked for the tour to create the most dynamic and faithful representation of the original writing as possible, while making it fully accessible to non-Spanish speakers. Both English and Spanish-speaking audiences were blown away by the power of the writing and the superb work of the actors. Apart from the performances in each city, the cast participated in community residency activities following the NPN community engagement model. Each company member was a skilled teacher and they worked with 1st year acting students as well as professional actors on technique, directing and character development. Being in their company was a reminder of how the energy of ensemble work can build a particular momentum that creates a value greater than the individual parts. This is a company that loves what it does, knows why it’s doing it, and delivered every minute of their work unblinkingly.
Diciembre was an extraordinary success for the program, and a prime example of the importance of this kind of artistic exchange, not only for the artists touring, but also for presenters. There were an unprecedented number of glowing reviews, previews and write-ups about the company which generated a lot energy around the work. Press in Los Angeles admiringly called the piece “Chekhov on steroids,” and a critic for The Nuevo Herald in Miami, in his review of the show, said “he was sorry for those that missed one of the most important pieces of theater to be seen in Miami in recent times.” One of the take-away benefits for artists who tour through PAP is a U.S. review, so this was especially remarkable for a company that is virtually unknown anywhere in its own country.
Incidentally, devastating earthquakes struck Chile while the company was in Los Angeles finishing the second week of their three-week tour. In spite of the shock of this news, and the uncertainty of what they would find when they returned home, the company finished its tour and safely made it back to Chile as scheduled. Thank you to REDCAT and El Centro su Teatro for taking special care of them during those rough days. El Centro donated a portion of the proceeds from the performances to earthquake relief efforts in Chile. Bravo, NPN, for hosting a magnificent tour—the company undoubtedly will take with them the image of our network, Partners and audiences as their strongest personal reference to the arts in the United States.