Diciembre finds dark humour in Chile's Pinochet years
Teatro en el Blanco go back to basics with politically engaging EIF production
This article is from 2010.
The Pinochet years continue to leave a deep scar on the Chilean psyche. Playwright Guillermo Calderón tells Mark Fisher why Diciembre tackles some dark memories but still finds humour in his nation’s tortured past
Guillermo Calderón was 17 and in his first year of university when Augusto Pinochet stepped down as president of Chile and returned the country to democracy. It should have been a moment of liberation, but for Calderón, whose whole life had been shaped by the dictatorship, it was a big disappointment. ‘My generation grew up during the dictatorship and then we were welcomed into this new democracy, which we didn’t like. We wanted to challenge it.’
Saying goodbye to an authoritarian regime was one thing, but welcoming a system governed by the free-market philosophies then being championed by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan was another. It meant Calderón and his friends never let go of the political fervour that shaped their formative years. The system had changed, but they still had something to rail against.
‘The years of dictatorship were very traumatic, but at the same time very exciting because we were all working together for a common goal,’ he says. ‘I was active in politics and we were very optimistic. But when democracy arrived, it basically preserved the neo-liberal economic model based on the Milton Friedman school in Chicago. That was the economic model they preserved; the political model was basically what Pinochet had planned. Our big frustration was there wasn’t a big process of truth and reconciliation based on justice; it was just based on trying to find out whatever happened, but we wanted more. It was frustrating; and still is.’
That is why when the playwright and director talks about the theatre scene in his native country, it is in terms not of escapism but of seriousness. ‘It’s not what you would expect from Latin American theatre,’ Calderón says. ‘You’d expect folk music, folk dancing and plays made out of local legends. But, no, it’s more like eastern European theatre: small rooms with sad people, angry people.’
Calderón sees himself as part of a generation of theatre-makers who have been shaped by their country’s history and are determined to change things. He is a decade or so younger than his compatriot Juan Carlos Zagal, whose Teatro Cinema is presenting two plays in the Edinburgh International Festival in the same week as Calderón’s Diciembre. Both men are all too aware of the historical background from which their work emerges.
‘A lot of us in my generation grew up during the dictatorship,’ Calderón says. ‘We’re concerned with mostly political issues in order to deal with this collective trauma we have. Compared with Teatro Cinema, we are more overtly political. Juan Carlos Zagal is 10-15 years older than me, so we have a different experience of the dictatorship. I can see each generation trying to walk away from the trauma. We’re defined by the experience, but we work on it differently.’
Diciembre, a three-hander by his Teatro en el Blanco company, is about a soldier who comes home from battle for 24 hours only to find himself at the centre of an argument between his twin sisters, both of whom are pregnant. One is a pacifist and would willingly give him shelter if he deserted from the army. The other is a patriot and is disgusted at the idea of such a defection.
Set in a near future when a century-old territorial battle between Chile, Peru and Bolivia has been reignited, the play makes the connection between a great political movement – so great, in fact, it threatens to annihilate the country – and our private lives. If all this sounds terribly earnest, it should be said Diciembre is also a comedy, albeit a dark one. ‘It’s the comedy of confusion, word play and absurd situations,’ says Calderón, explaining that each of the actors doubles as a second, more farcical character. ‘I write for these specific actors, so I try to get their own sense of humour into their characters. I want to revitalise the stage, not to treat a grim subject in a grim way. I’m not here to torture or bore the audience.’
After Neva and Clase, the play is the third in a trilogy that is united by an examination of violence that infiltrates the home. Before getting the measure of Edinburgh theatregoers in August, Calderón will have the chance to see how a Russian audience reacts to Neva when it plays at the International Chekhov Theatre Festival in Moscow.
In the EIF, Diciembre is one of the ways in which artistic director Jonathan Mills is trying to shift our cultural centre of gravity away from the Atlantic. A play that makes reference to the 19th-century War of the Pacific reminds us there are other ways of looking at the world.
‘Guillermo Calderón is a really remarkable new voice in South American theatre,’ says Mills. ‘He’s somebody to watch. We should be bringing these voices in.’ The feeling is mutual. ‘As theatre people, we usually go to Europe to get inspired and see what’s going on,’ says Calderón. ‘So the fact that they’re looking at us now, changing seats, is really strange. Moscow and Edinburgh are big highlights for us.’
In Diciembre’s previous tours out of Santiago, Calderón has seen the way different countries react to the material. You do not need to be an expert in Chilean history to understand the play, he says, not least because the experience of war and economic migration is sadly universal. But the country you come from will affect what you get out of it.
‘When we show Diciembre in Latin America, they usually concentrate on the racial issue,’ he says. ‘In the United States, they focus on the war issue because of Iraq and Afghanistan, and they don’t read the racial issue as well. Other people just connect with the play’s sense of humour, which is fine, although it’s a superficial reading.’
Hailed by the LA Times for ‘its masterfully economic blend of near-poetry and graphic context’, the play was written and rehearsed over a period of about six months. Calderón’s method is to write with specific actors in mind, feeding short passages of material into rehearsals as he goes along. The play is not devised – he is still the playwright – but the actors’ input, their personalities and their discussions all go to shaping the finished work.
‘It’s good because I get to edit the play with the actors on stage, I get feedback and I change things really freely,’ says the playwright who also works more conventionally as a director of existing plays. ‘I’m really inspired by the rehearsal process.’
Reacting against the wave of cool postmodernist detachment that dominated Chile’s stages in the 1990s, he is on a drive to get back to theatrical basics, concentrating on the good old values of acting, drama, humour and, of course, politics. ‘Theatre is very important if you want to say bold things about a society. There’s not a lot of independent media in Chile, so art has a really strong tradition. That tradition allows us to say a lot of things, and people who go to the theatre expect to see politically engaging stagings and plays.’
Diciembre, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, 0131 473 2000, 2–4 Sep, 8pm; 4 Sep, 2.30pm, £10–£27.