The Issue with Governmental Artistic and Cultural Decrees
In Colombia, the Ministry of Culture leads the formulation of policies, programs, and projects that promote the potential of the cultural and creative economy. The programs and projects are a significant source of income for a lot of artists, theatre groups, and theatres. The Ministry of Culture has created decrees for the culture sector with the purpose of developing culture and protecting cultural patrimony.
Rodrigo Rodriguez, an actor, playwright, director, and founder of Teatro Ditirambo, had applied in 2018 for a district cultural stimulus program under the public shows law, which awards public money to companies so they can invest in infrastructure and equipment for performing arts presentations. Teatro Ditirambo was one of the winners of the grant that year. With the budget they were given, they renovated the building they rent to serve them better as a theatre and bought lighting and sound equipment.
The public shows grant comes with a time clause: theatres must function for ten years after receiving the grant. If they stop before the established time, they must return the total grant to the district. This clause wasn’t an inconvenience before the pandemic, but in the current situation it has been a big issue, because since the art scene has stopped, Teatro Ditirambo is having a difficult time paying rent. Rodrigo thought of creating a temporary parking lot or a restaurant at the theatre to make money, but the requirement on the grant is that the theatre can’t be used for activities apart from performing arts, even if it is temporary.
Rodrigo tried to negotiate with the Ministry of Culture about the time clause. “This is going to last a long time, even if the vaccine is found tomorrow,” said Rodrigo. “And even if we are told we can open theatres a day after tomorrow… until economic activity reactivates, we have to wait at least one more year.”
The theatre company is asking the Ministry of Culture to reduce the time clause to one year so they can have the liberty to use the building for other kinds of economic activities until the art scene settles again. “For the Ministry, the decree is unchangeable, and if we leave the building, we must return the full budget. But Ditirambo used that money properly,” said Rodrigo. “If the clause is irremovable, we are doomed to pay month after month of rent without an income and obviously we are not in any condition to do that.”
Another problem with government assistance is that the grants they give can’t be used by theatres for administrative purposes, they have to go to the production of plays. This is a major issue, as the government wants to save the culture but not the places where it is created, and they are not aware of the conditions theatres are facing during quarantine. For me, the fact that the government sticks to this policy, not changing it in a time like this, says a lot. It almost seems like the government is hiding behind a political facade and forgetting the responsibility of helping the theatre scene. Although they have created new grants to support artists during quarantine, what happens to those who do not manage to access them? This raises the question: Why are the policies more important than the people who are impacted by them?
Ditirambo is only one example of a public theatre that is struggling—Teatro Petra is another, and Teatro Libre, which is a private theatre that doesn’t use public funds, is struggling as well. I hope that the supportive public will help keep these theatres afloat.
Colombian artists are trying to figure out how to get out of this alive, united, and stronger.
Teaching Drama During Quarantine
Arts teachers are experiencing a different kind of difficulty during quarantine. Sirley Martinez is an actress, playwright, and performing arts teacher who works at the Bogotá campus of the National Pedagogical University of Colombia. For her, the most difficult thing about adapting to teaching performing arts online has been communication—primarily due how internet works. When doing readings that include all students, it has been difficult to keep up the rhythm of the lecture due to the slowness of some of the students’ internet. To get a better connection, sometimes the students have to deactivate their cameras, which makes it harder and stranger to rehearse plays, because they are running dialogues without seeing each other. Coordinating the creation of a play online has also been difficult, as it includes multiple channels of communication that create confusion, primarily in the scheduling of the meetings. The process is so different from building ideas in the same place as collaborators.
As difficulties brought on by the pandemic appeared, Sirley has been learning new teaching methods. This year, her sixth-semester students were supposed to finish the creation of a play they had been working on and do multiple presentations outside Bogotá, as the main goal of sixth semester is to do shows outside the city, bringing plays to places that are unable to see theatre often and for the students to have an opportunity to experience their field in a professional way.
The class already had an agenda organized, but due to the circumstances they were not able to travel. Despite this, Sirley and her students were able to adapt to the situation: they finished the play, and—with security measures in place—got together to record it. Sirley and the students had to look for other places to present the piece, because the ones that were scheduled didn’t have the platforms to present it online. Plus, in areas that are not used to theatre, it is difficult to drive the attention of audiences if theatre is not live. So, instead, Sirley’s group ended up finding theatres in cities near Bogotá and were able to present their work and talk about it with online viewers in real time.
On top of all her academic work, Sirley has had to manage her own artistic work. Before quarantine, she was working on multiple projects, including a play called The Harm Boy and another play she wrote and directed called Cangrejo. When the pandemic hit, the theatres involved offered to present her plays online for free, but the recordings she and her team had created were not meant for the public and, because their earnings were going to come from the tickets sales, they decided to postpone.
Sirley thinks that at the end of quarantine, independent theatre groups are not going to have places to perform. Typically, companies that own theatres rent their places to independent groups and solo performers. But, as Sirley said: “When we can come back to stage, it’s obvious to me that theatres are going to present their own plays first. The companies that don’t own a theatre are going to be lined up, waiting for places to perform and waiting for the economy to rise so people can buy a ticket.” The situation for independent artists is going to be harder—without money and places to perform they are at the end of the list.
It almost seems like the government is hiding behind a political facade and forgetting the responsibility of helping the theatre scene.
An Adjusted Creative Process
At the beginning of quarantine, Jimmy Rangel, a dancer, choreographer, and director, spent most of his time resting and adjusting to the changes that came with the pandemic. “The first phase of quarantine was overwhelming for me,” he said. Before COVID-19, he had been feeling lucky: he had a full agenda, with work trips and performances scheduled till next year. But then everything was cancelled, which forced him to slow down.
For Jimmy, the shift brought on a new way of approaching art—putting in the time and the care necessary for it. “I’ve had the time to observe myself and my work,” he said. “That’s been my creative process.” Slowing down has also allowed him to see other people’s work—work he never stopped to see before—which has been an amazing way for him to spend his free time. It has also allowed him to recognize social problems attached to the art scene. By having more time to read the news and speak to his fellow colleagues, he realized how there is little support from the government for some people, how the public education budget for art is minimal, and that without that education, fewer people attend theatre. The few job opportunities is another issue: there are fewer jobs but more artists and art students.
Now, Jimmy is working on an adaptation of Antigone from Sófocles, and thanks to his new way of approaching the creative process, he has realized that the current Antigone is not the same as the one he wanted to do five months ago. An advantage of quarantine has been the extra time: he’s been able to watch plays from around the world from a variety of theatrical genres. Now, he has a wider range of plays to come back to for inspiration. He feels this new access, which didn’t exist before, has been an advantage of quarantine.
With this new experience of lockdown, Jimmy has also felt inspired to return to performing on the streets, which he did at the beginning of his career. He feels that Greek theatre and street theatre have things in common, such as the open spaces and the closeness to people. His instincts are leading him to the streets—he wants to experience and create a new normal for theatre there. For him, bringing art to the street is like returning to the roots of the discipline. “The moment you leave the black box, the tricks are more difficult to make, because on the stage you can control almost everything,” he said.
Street theatre is one of the main attractions of the Iberoamerican Theatre Festival of Bogotá, the biggest festival in Latin America. It’s been happening every two years since 2008 and brings in guests from all over the world. The amazing thing about this festival is the street theatre, because everyone can access it for free—it is a fantastic way to bring the art of theatre closer to people who don’t have the income to go to expensive plays. In La Candelaria, the oldest neighborhood in Bogotá, there are clown performances—a kind of street theatre that mixes juggling and gymnastic to tell a story in a funny way.
Street theatre is mainly used to make political statements, but it also is used to be closer to the public, which is one of the reasons Jimmy wants to go back to it. “I left the streets because the stage gave me the safety to make any kind of trick,” he said, “and now I want to come back to find out the ways to make tricks in the streets.”
Teaching gives me hope at this time because it brings a profound approach to art. If you know how to teach, you know how to create.
It’s time to come back to the Elementals, the group I belong to, part of my inspiration to keep making art. I want to share deeper details of our creative process. In June, we held four meetings, one per week, and each of us members directed one of the encounters. After the one Gyna directed, where we performed as an element, Katherine staged one where we played with the idea of an opposite self—the person we are not, someone who helps us see how we are and what we don’t like about ourselves. I was in charge of the third one, and my idea was to create a corporal narrative—we had to find movements inspired by the sensations we felt listening to music, and with those movements we created a short story. It was great because in a way we ended up telling a story of how we were feeling at that moment. Luisa directed the last and most powerful encounter for me; it was the perfect ending for the cycle. Luisa asked us to bring our inner goddess to the surface and to create an altar for her. While we were performing, she read a prayer and we worshiped the creative energy inside us. It was a kind of meditation, and I felt in a peaceful state of mind and body. I felt loving and caring for myself in a non-selfish way.
I met Luisa last year and we have been friends since then, but I haven’t met Katherine and Gyna in person yet—only on screen. The weird thing is sometimes I forget we’ve never met in person because there is a connection between us. For obvious reasons we would prefer to meet in person, since we work with our bodies and it’s harder to see expressions and feelings through a screen, but even this way we’ve found hidden selves inside of us. We are building a new dream full of experimental pedagogy and horizontal relationships. Our goal is to keep creating a method to defend the need to dream, as well as learn from our emotions and communicate them in an artistic way, so we can teach others how to discover and respect their deepest selves and worship them through art.
Teaching gives me hope at this time because it brings a profound approach to art. If you know how to teach, you know how to create. From my conversation with Rodrigo I learned how attached art is with politics in my country, how as artists we depend on the government and how that is scary in untestable moments like the one we are living in right know. It is necessary to be involved in the political and cultural environment and understand how the non-fun part of theatre works. Sirley inspired me to not give up easily. She believes theatre is necessary and that we’d do it in front of our houses and in the garden if necessary, that we’ll move our bodies even during hard situations because the need to communicate and be joyful together is palpable. I believe it too. Jimmy reminded me of the urge to listen to the body’s tempos, as the creative process is full of changing emotions, and that it is important to pay attention to the body’s messages in each state. He also made me realize that slowing down can be a way to break the current reality of running without knowing where we are going.
During the lockdown, I’ve also learned from myself: that even if I must do other work until I find a way to make a living only from theatre, I will do it. I have the Elementals and my side projects to keep me passionate and to believe that it is true: humankind can rise with art.
Con el objetivo de reivindicar a las mujeres como participes del lenguaje, el texto utiliza palabras en femenino para referirse a grupos de personas, palabras como: nosotras, artistas, estudiantes, incluyen a mujeres y a hombres.
Vivir en medio de adversidades no es nuevo para las personas, algunas afrontan obstáculos a diario, las artistas son uno de los ejemplos de resistencia. En Colombia, las artistas están acostumbradas a tener más de un trabajo, es necesario para cubrir las necesidades mínimas y para permitirse algún que otro gusto, ha sido la estrategia por mucho tiempo aquí y en otros países donde la situación económica es muy parecida. Esto se ha agravado en el transcurso del 2020, pues debido al virus COVID-19 estamos experimentando obstáculos nuevos, la cuarentena ha influido en las formas de relacionarnos y en las condiciones laborales también, hasta ahora ha sido una montaña rusa de emociones y adaptaciones.
Las artistas de teatro han encontrado maneras de hacerle frente a los cambios inesperados, por ejemplo, presentar sus obras por medio de sus plataformas digitales. Festivales de renombre también decidieron usar la tecnología para no interrumpir el evento anual. FESTA, el Festival de Teatro Alternativo de Bogotá presentó a través de su página web, obras de teatro de grupos locales e internacionales.
Incluso con estos esfuerzos es difícil que todas las artistas independientes tengan oportunidad de mantener sus finanzas a flote, la búsqueda de recursos monetarios ni con la cuarentena se detiene. Las artistas necesitan seguir haciendo arte, porque es la manera de poner comida en sus mesas, además de la responsabilidad de generar comunidad y consciencia social, pero ¿cómo seguir haciéndolo si ni el público, ni las artistas pueden juntarse?
Las artistas colombianas han buscado maneras de crear estrategias para sobrevivir está situación y salir más unidas y fuertes que antes. Yo soy performer y escritora, en medio de lo más álgido de la pandemia, decidí unirme junto a tres mujeres: María Luisa Velásquez Partida, una bailarina y performer mexicana, a quién se le ocurrió la idea del crear un laboratorio para experimentar con el movimiento corporal junto a sus amigas; Gyna Gutierrez Cruz, una artista plástica y performer colombiana; y Katherine Ardila, una actriz y performer colombiana. Todas residimos en Bogotá, tuvimos el propósito de concebir un espacio creativo en medio de la cuarentena, con nuestras propias reglas, inspiradas en el deseo de compartir conocimientos, mover nuestros cuerpos y conectar con nosotras mismas, decidimos llamarlo Las Elementales.
En el mes que iniciamos, yo tenía un trabajo de oficina y sentí como la conexión con mi cuerpo se perdía, fue el momento perfecto para conectarme con mujeres maravillosas de las que podía aprender. Nuestros primeros dos encuentros me ayudaron a reconectar con mi cuerpo; en uno de estos dos encuentros Gyna nos compartió una película de Rebecca Horn, nos dio la tarea de verla antes del encuentro. En una de las escenas, la actriz se movía entre una “jungla” camuflada como “planta”. Inspirada por esta escena, Gyna nos pidió construir una imagen en frente de la cámara, en la cual nuestros cuerpos performaron como un elemento más de la composición. Todo el proceso fue una meditación para mí, me permitió sentir mi cuerpo sin pensar demasiado. En medio de la incertidumbre debido al COVID-19, Las Elementales han sido un brillante rayo de esperanza para mí.
Al pensar en mi experiencia, sentí curiosidad acerca del impacto que ha tenido la cuarentena en la vida de artistas reconocidas, con agenda llena para el 2020 y aquellas que dependen económicamente del arte y de la enseñanza artística. Me contacté con tres artistas establecida en la escena Bogotana—Rodrigo Rodriguez, Sirley Martinez, y Jimmy Rangel—y les hice algunas preguntas.