Theatremaking During Political Crisis

A Conversation with Chilean Playwright Guillermo Calderón

For some years now, I have been attending the annual Santiago a Mil Festival in Santiago, Chile. It is an ambitious, expansive, and exciting international festival that takes place every January. ArtsEmerson has also presented a number of Chilean works in our seasons, including both Neva and Kiss, plays by Guillermo Calderón (the latter of which I directed at ArtsEmerson). Calderón is a renowned playwright, screenwriter, and director of both stage and film. His works frequently sit at the intersection of theatre and activism, with commissions at both the Public Theater and La Jolla Playhouse in the United States, and his work tours internationally. I caught up with him on 13 November to get a perspective on the situation in Chile, in light of the ongoing protests.

David Dower: I’d like to get a sense of what’s happening on the ground in Chile, how artists are responding, and what kind of support people from outside the country can offer the artist community there. Can you give me a bird’s eye view of what’s happening right now?

Guillermo Calderón: We are three weeks into a political crisis. It’s a very bad situation for everyone here. It started on October the 18, when the government decided to call a state of emergency, which is a state in which they allow the military to take over the policing of the main citizens in Chile. This all started because young high school students were jumping over the turnstiles in the metro system, protesting a rate increase. That turned into a massive protest in which people were protesting over measures imposed by the government over the years.

They were also protesting the dire conditions a lot of people live in because of a radical neoliberal system that has been funneling the earnings of the country into the hands of a few rich people. Many people live under the poverty line; they don’t get much from the system. The pension system is really broken. People retire to become poor, the health system is bad as well, and the metro fare is higher than New York City. It’s very unfair.

It’s scary because there’s no sense of, I want to say, “nation.” People don’t seem to feel like they belong in the same country. People who own money want the country for themselves and they don’t want to address these issues, they haven’t done so in thirty years. Poor people feel like they don’t belong in Chile; they don’t participate in the economy and don’t have a stake in the future of the country. People are wondering where the violence in the protest is coming from, and of course it’s coming from accumulated resentment over the years.

We had a week of curfew, which meant that nobody could leave their house after 7 p.m., or sometimes 8 p.m. or 10 p.m., which would end by 6 a.m.. The military were policing the main cities. That was very scary because of course the military is not trained to manage crowds. They start shooting in the crowds.

a large group of protesters with a Chilean flag

Protesters in Chile. Photo by Carlos Figueroa.

David: Did that feel reminiscent of, or triggering for, recent memories? Pinochet’s reign, and the terror that brought, happened in your lifetime and to your family, very directly.

Guillermo: Very much so, and we Chileans were sure we were never going to see that again after the dictatorship ended in 1990. So this was a nightmare, something horrible coming back to haunt us. But these protests were different, because while the military were shooting rubber bullets into the protestors, they were not actually on a killing spree. This is understandable, because after the dictatorship a lot of the officers and military generals were sent to trial to answer for the crimes they had committed during the Pinochet regime. Right now they are willing and able to help restore order, but they’re not as open to committing crimes they are going to have to pay for.

In a way they have held back. They have still terrorized people and killed twenty Chileans. We don’t know exactly who killed whom—maybe a few were killed by the police—but they definitely didn’t do targeted killings or the kind of stuff they did during the dictatorship. There’s another element that feels different: the protestors didn’t respect the curfew this time. Most of people on the streets are people who are thirty years old and younger, and they didn’t experience the dictatorship as we did. They don’t have the kind of fear we have.

That threw the whole crowd-control strategy off and disconcerted the government and the police and the military because the protests didn’t stop. They were hoping that by injecting a sense of fear into the whole process it would stop it, but that didn’t happen.

One of the scary developments was the shooting of rubber bullets. And when I say rubber bullets, they are covered with rubber but they do have a metallic core. The shooters aim at the protesters’ heads and they usually hit the eyes.

David: Yeah, I’ve seen pictures.

People are wondering where the violence in the protest is coming from, and of course it’s coming from accumulated resentment over the years.

Guillermo: The last count is that two hundred people have lost their eyes. That’s the tragedy, but in a way it makes sense because they think terrorizing people can stop this protest. During the dictatorship what they did was actually torture people in secret torture camps, they inflicted a lot of fear—and fear in the protestors’ families and the victims—and so they managed to annul the possibility of those victims rising up again and joining the resistance.

Since now they are not torturing, what they are doing—which is basically trying to accomplish the same as torture would—is maiming people. That has been a really, really scary development because we didn’t know they were capable of doing this out in the open.

For the military and police this is really getting out of control. It’s evident they’re not able to control this thing, it has been getting out of hand for a while. There’s a lot of destruction in the center of the city, but it’s also happening in the faraway provinces. This is a national uprising.

Also, apparently the government is losing control not only because they are not able to stop the protests but also because they are losing the cohesion, politically, and also the control of the military and the police. Other than that, life here is pretty strange. We have helicopters flying low over our homes, most day and nights. That makes you feel like you’re in a different country.

They have used a lot of tear gas, and I know people are really worried, even in their homes. It’s a white cloud hanging over a few neighborhoods in Santiago. The centers of the cities look a little bit like war zones.

David: President Piñera right away said he was at war, that Chile was a war.

Guillermo: Yes.

David: And Carmen Romero (the executive director of Fundación a Mil, producer of the annual Santiago a Mil Festival) right away asked artists around the world to step up and say, “We’re not at war! Chile is not at war.”

Guillermo: Yes.

David: Is this part of the terror campaign? I couldn’t tell whether it was trying to build a case for direct intervention against the people of Chile or whether it was trying to terrorize the protestors into standing down by threatening an actual military occupation, and an occupied country.

Guillermo: I think there’s still a discussion over that. It’s complicated to read, that thing he said. “We are at war with a trained, very dangerous enemy.” Of course, he wanted to frame the protestors, who are protesting for really fair improvements in their lives, as terrorists and criminals. And that works as a preparation for oppression, for actually engaging them as criminals.

David: Yeah.

Guillermo: But the more sinister angle is that he said that right before sending the military and the police to shoot at people in the streets. So basically he’s telling them: “We are at war, therefore you can treat them as enemies, and you can go ahead and kill them if you have to or maim them if you have to because we’ll have your back.”

David: I have so many questions for you as a playwright and as a director. They seem kind of beside the point in light of a summary like that, of where things stand and where they may head, except that I know you and they converge in both the social realm and in the art, the political and the personal. In what way do you see yourself responding?

Guillermo: From the point of view of theatre, there has been an overwhelming sense here among theatre artists that it’s impossible to do theatre right now. For one thing, of course, we had a curfew, so we had to close theatres. But it’s also this: How can we say anything that’s going to really mean something at this moment? I mean, we’re in the context of a quasi civil war, right?

A lot of us have taken the position of just immersing ourselves in this process and just leave theatre for the future. We are going to figure this out as we usually do—on stage—but not until we settle down a little bit and we’re able to think and reflect and find new ways of addressing this and new aesthetic solutions.

We have to just deal with this right now because it’s overwhelming. After the curfew was over, a few theatres came back to do shows and a lot of people went to see them. I don’t think there were full houses, but people stayed after the show for interesting conversations with the actors and the people in the production. People were yearning for a sense of community and space to talk and vent and try to find some sort of solidarity and mutual support. So in a way, theatre has become not about the play, but about the gathering and the finding of a community.

Most of our plays are slightly political or are straightforwardly political, so when the shows started running again, they were more current and more poignant. For example our current play Dragón is about paranoia over what was happening in Brazil, happening here—the violence and targeted killings and death squads. Basically the political right taking over and unleashing violence against people. Dragón addresses that anxiety that people had when Bolsonaro won in Brazil. And now it is happening here.

There has been an overwhelming sense here among theatre artists that it’s impossible to do theatre right now.

David: And these protests are happening in the same plaza where you set the events in the play.

Guillermo: Exactly, right there. A lot of people who have been doing political theatre talking about the dictatorship, especially people younger than me, were judged by some critics and general public, who said: “Why are you talking about the dictatorship again? That has been over for a while now, for decades, get over it. Why don’t you talk about aesthetic concerns or love or whatever, something else.”

All those people have been redeemed. They were right to say, “This is not over, it’s never been over.” The people who said this would never happen again and that they support human rights have not been telling the truth. A big reason that the right was able to go back to a position of power in Chile is that they were saying they were very committed to human rights, openly saying, over and over again, that the crimes against humanity committed by the dictatorship and supported by the right should never happen again in the country, and they would never stand for human rights violations again.

That all turned to be a big, big lie. As the military were shooting people in the streets and maiming people by shooting them in their eyes and raping women and doing all the things they have done over the three weeks… Not one officer in the government resigned. Not an ambassador, not ministers, not any person who was supposed to be committed to human rights has decided to condemn the government or resign. They have all taken a position of protecting each other and standing together. This has shown that the political right’s commitment to human rights was always a ruse, a way of winning elections. But it was never honored.

David: What can we do, if anything, Guillermo, for artists there, for Chile in general?

Guillermo: I don’t know, I think that a big part of this is just talking about it.

David: I was looking this morning at the news, and there’s no news about this at all. The main thing we have here, which I am sure you have seen, is this video of the opera singer. And yes it’s kind of thrilling, but it’s also a feel-good video of an ongoing, terrifying situation.

Guillermo: The New York Times did a really good video of how the military and the police were shooting at the eyes at protestors. It’s hard to watch.

David: Oooof, yes it is.

Guillermo: That one is something worth sharing. That’s one thing that you could do: make sure people see that. It’s different to see something done in Chile. There’s something about the New York Times that gives the whole thing a more respectable weight behind it. Also, it’s well done, it’s in English, and it gives a little bit of context. It shows in a very good way the emotion we are feeling right now. The other thing, I would say is to just... There’s going to be a festival here in Chile.

David: I was just going to ask you.

Guillermo: We are a little bit anxious about the festival, because a lot of public events have been canceled in Chile. It’s a very ambitious festival. It’s happening in mid January. We hope they’re going to allow everything to happen, we hope that in a month from now things are going to be just a little bit more calm. We just hope the government is going to give in and say, “Okay, we need to get out of this,” by the President calling for a constitutional convention, which is what everyone is begging for. Because, we’re still stuck with the constitution illegally set up by Pinochet in 1990.

David: Which I had no idea about until I saw the reporting, that you were living with Pinochet’s constitution. That’s amazing.

Guillermo: Yeah. It’s a very stale document, and they have made a few changes over the years, but it’s not really a truly democratic constitution. So we need to get rid of it. Right now, Piñera has given some concessions and he is open to discussing a new constitution. But he proposed having the congress write it, Chilean parliament. The problem is, like in every country, the current parliament here has something like seven percent popularity.

So they are not really the ones who are going to be able to come up with a respectable constitution that everyone will agree on. That’s the reason people are asking for a constitutional convention in which we elect new delegates whose only purpose is to write a constitution. If that happens between now and January, things should calm down and we should have a real festival. [Editor’s note: On November 15, Chilean President Piñera announced a referendum will be held in April of 2020 to ask voters if they want to draw up a new constitution for the country and who should be drawing it up.]

But, the festival is going to happen definitely, even if it only happens indoors, so what you could do is to not cancel your travel plans.

Some international companies have been wary, making concerned phone calls about the safety of the situation, wondering if they should come at all. The festival’s position has been: “Please come, please don’t cancel your plans, we are going to have a perfect festival here.” Some things might change. But for people who come to the festival, especially people like you or people who work in theatres all over the world, they’re going to see something very interesting in Chile.

Right now it’s so overwhelming that it feels like this is the end of us. As artists.

David: It feels like it would be an important moment, a perfect moment, for arts journalists from all over the world to come to the festival and speak to Chile from the point of view of this festival. This is the time. This is how they can be of service.

Guillermo: Nobody has written about Chile from that angle. It’s all about from the perspective of the failures of neoliberalism or the failures of the cruelty of the military or the dictatorship coming back to haunt Chileans. But culture, the arts? By January we are going to be back, presenting our work, and struggling to create our new work. That should be an interesting thing for them to cover.

David: And they’ll see Dragón if they time it right.

Guillermo: I have high hopes for Dragón, and I might write something else, a monologue, maybe addressing the situation. But I haven’t been able to write much because instead I’ve been focused on going out to the streets, marching, coming back, taking care of my baby. My friends and I are getting together and talking about this anxiously. It has been hectic, so I’m falling behind in everything.

David: Don’t you feel like it’s a research process as well, in that strange artist way, always understanding that this is rehearsal for something that’s going to come later in terms of your own work?

Guillermo: Yeah, but to be honest right now it’s so overwhelming that it feels like this is the end of us. As artists. That we’re never going to overcome the situation, we’re never going to be able to go to the theatre after this. It’s really paralyzing. It doesn’t feel like research. Hopefully in a year from now, we’re going to say, “That was research for our beautiful play we did,” but right now if feels so overwhelming that we should just quit and do something else.

A lot of people are saying, “I feel ridiculous, I feel stupid about doing stuff as narcissistic as theatre right now, we should be out there fighting with people in the streets.” That’s what people have been doing.

a close-up of María Paz Gradjean's face

María Paz Grandjean. Photo by Juan Moya.

Guillermo: I don’t know if you heard about this, but there was a show at GAM [Centre Gabriela Mistral, a multi-venue performance and visual arts center in the heart of the city, and ground zero for the protests]. This was the first day of the curfew, so this was before the start time of the curfew that night. The actors came out of the show and the police were already shooting people in the streets. This is GAM! This is GAM. [Editors note: Imagine, in the United States, this taking place outside Lincoln Center or the Kennedy Center and you’ll understand the incongruity of this picture.]

One of the actresses, María Paz Grandjean, came out and the police were beating some kid and she shouted at them, saying something like, “Please stop.” I don’t know if this guy was a military or a policeman, but he raised his rifle, pointed it in her face, and shot. She was able to move her face to one side so that the bullet just hit her cheek, but she was bleeding and half unconscious and she spent a week in the hospital recovering. Her whole face was swollen.

She’s really traumatized. She saw the guy aiming at her face, wanting to kill her, and she wasn’t killed by by half of an inch or something. That was an earthquake in the theatre community. It was GAM, it was La Pergola de las Flores, which is a really famous musical from the fifties. María has become a bit of a symbol of the protest from the point of view of theatre. That of course was very traumatizing, so actors are basically saying, “We can’t do theatre anymore in this situation.” All actors are protesting in the streets.

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Guillermo, what is happening in Chile saddens and angers me greatly. My heart goes out to you and all the people who make theatre and feel like it is just not the time. I wish you and your family safety and community amidst this chaos. But my hope is with you that the festival will be able to take place as planned in the new year, and that we will be able to hear again your beautiful playwright's voice. Much love to you and your family and compadres.

Joan