Greetings from Santiago!
I’ve just returned from a trip to Chiloé, a southern Chilean island, where I spent the Christmas holidays with my family and gathered research materials for my thesis play, TALA. For pictures from my trip, click here.
Chiloé is a peculiar island, full of idiosyncrasies. It was first occupied by Spanish conquistadores in 1567, became part of the Chilean republic in 1826, but was not fully integrated into the country until the founding of Puerto Montt, a mainland city, in 1853. The local culture of Chiloé is built on a mix of indigenous cultures, immigrant communities, and a separationist movement that still manifests itself in it people’s adherence to local folklore, myths, cuisine, and architecture.
The homogenization of India struck me last year, and I felt concerned with how globalization transforms modern, urban societies into similar communities, adorned with corporate logos, highways, and shopping malls, that encourage individuals to self-identify themselves with material possessions, rather than cultural histories.
I think part of me wants to write TALA to celebrate Chiloé’s people and its local identity, so I spent time wandering around Chiloé, its archipelagos and fjords, and walked through several little towns (no more than 20 blocks in radius) which are set around the coastlines. Each town stems from a central park, built adjacent to a local, town hall and a wooden church (which are now designated UNESCO World Heritage sites). Strolling down the shores, you find fish markets and fresh seafood dishes and local, artisan craft fairs with typical clothing items made out of wool.
The west coast of the island is a national park, full of flora and fauna protected by the government and private foundations, and Chiloé, in general, differs from Puerto Montt—the nearest, mainland city, which is completely industrialized and dedicated to the mass production of seafood for export. Puerto Montt is the world’s second biggest producer of salmon, following Norway, and it’s located next to Puerto Varas, an upscale, suburban town.
Off Chile’s coast, Chiloé is developing; however, due to a lack of public funding, geographical isolation, and harsh winter weather, Chiloé primarily sustains itself through local farming and fishing, balancing its growth with the preservation of its unique wildlife and delicate relationship to the larger, surrounding ecosystem. As the “most rural” region of the country, Chiloé struggles against poverty and unemployment and resists the exploitation of its natural resources by international corporations and their national intermediaries.
Hitting the local archive in Castro, Chiloé’s old capital, I looked for public records to research the island’s socio-political history and cultural traditions. I was welcomed by Nelson Torres Muñoz, a poet/playwright with a most moving story. As a young student of literature, he discovered his voice as a poet and dedicated himself to the resistance of Pinochet’s dictatorship through words. However, he told me how he (and his friends) suffered hardships and political persecution during the regime. Many of his friends fled abroad after experiencing severe censorship during the fight against military rule, torture, and political oppression. Nelson, for political reasons, stayed in the country and is now writing based in Chiloé.
While working in the archives, Nelson has seen several Chilean writers find in Chiloé an idealized version of Chile’s radical left—a self-sustaining, yet marginalized community that is independent—but perhaps it’s wrong to frame such ideals amidst the overwhelming splendor of the island’s nature. The truth is that Chiloé has already experienced the complete extermination of the Chonos, one of two indigenous tribes native to the island, and the Veliche’s are now struggling to preserve their language and customs as their people become absorbed by modern society. This same process was what I witnessed in India, and in some way, experience myself, so the effort to rescue, preserve, and conserve these neglected traditions is part of Chiloé’s current, local efforts—and mine.
With a bunch of new ideas and research in hand, I’m back to work on my next draft of TALA. The play began with sketches of Pepe and Lupe, two Chilean lovers going out on a “non-datey” date in the middle of a desert in the island of Chiloé. The scenes were Beckettian parodies referencing both Beckett’s short and full-length plays, and the scenes were juxtaposed with autobiographical monologues narrating personal stories from my life, living as a Chilean immigrant in New York and Korea.
After a reading of the play at the Ma-Yi Summer LABFest in July, I went on a writing residency to the Vermont Studio Center, where the play underwent some changes as I set the play in historical context. For this re-write, I researched Chile’s movement in the early 70’s. A most notable discovery was THE BATTLE OF CHILE, Patricio Guzman’s epic trilogy documenting the socialist Presidency of Salvador Allende and the struggles of Chile’s working class.
I cross-referenced this historical sea change with the correspondence and works of Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, two Chilean contemporary poets who coincidentally simultaneously served Chile’s diplomatic service, as means to support their writing. What is fascinating to observe is both Neruda and Mistral’s political ideals during this time of change. Neruda was so close to the communist movement that he gave Allende his nomination to Chile’s presidency for Allende’s fourth election and final victory. Meanwhile, Mistral spent several years advocating for peace and non-violence, particularly after the end of World War II, and was a life-long educator and promoter of public education, as a means to change the world.
The draft of TALA written in Vermont took the Beckettian sketches, my autobiographical monologues, and combined a third element into the fold—my translation of letters between Neruda and Mistral and selected poems from both of their writings. I focused on translating poems from Neruda’s “Elemental Odes,” a series of odes dedicated to everything ranging from the onion to socks, and a collection of Mistral’s “Madwomen,” anthologized by Randall Couch.
Since I was working with Lee and spending time with visual artist in Vermont, the stylization of the play became important, and I chose Dalí’s series of paintings of deserts (late 1920’s-1940’s), Dalí and Buñuel’s “Un Chien Andalou,” and some contemporary, installation art pieces related to the images of the play, as jumping points for the image-based narrative of the show. As far reaching as this may seem, Neruda and Mistral were both very close to the surrealist, Spanish Generation of 27 while serving as Chilean diplomats in Spain.
Preparing for a workshop of TALA last month, Lee suggested I work the play on its feet, so we did a roundtable of it at the Lark Play Development Center in November and wrote a third draft working the play moment to moment, questioning what is happening in the show from an actor’s point of view. While psychological realism wasn’t my priority while creating a surreal show, I shifted focus from research/literary-based writing to the examination of Pepe and Lupe, the lives of two outcasts and rebels in a changing world that is leaving them behind.
This line of thought made me think of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Chilean student movement happening now against the first, conservative government since the fall of Pinochet’s dictatorship, and in a fun, turn of events, I started compiling material from Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” Bonnie Parker’s poetry, and the American Depression era to use as another source of inspiration. I think I’ve developed a crush on Warren Beatty, and his performance of both Clyde Barrow and Dick Tracy are additional references in the play.
During the workshop of TALA in December, we staged the first act of the show. Collaborating with my amazing cast (Rafael Benoit, Natalia Miranda-Guzmán, and Daniel K. Issac), designers, and an invited audience, we cemented the foundation for the upcoming workshop of TALA. For more information about the show, visit TALA’s page or follow the TALA Scrapbook, where I’ve been collecting research material on-line.
In search of the macroscopic WHY of this story, I think the notion of revolt and uprising is a kernel for the work. Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” was another illuminating discovery. Klein argues that free-market capitalism was enforced since the 1970’s with the use of physical/military shock-therapy and Chile was the first country to experience this. This economic/political strategy was then implemented in other Latin American countries, such as Argentina and Brazil, before a modified “shock therapy” was implemented in the US and UK economies in the 1980’s by Reagan and Thatcher. Social movements cannot but be essential against this economic oppression and I feel that the connections between Chile’s military coup of September 11th, 1973 and the attacks of 9/11 are no longer just a symbolic coincidence, but parts of a larger systemic problem with the way we live.
Political language, though, is not always the best language for theater, so in an attempt to connect the past and present, I’ve gone back to my own roots in theater. I loved acting as a child and it’s something I don’t do enough, partly because it terrifies me. Lee encouraged me to re-read some classic theoretical texts on modern performance and I have. Sitting with me are Stanislavsky’s “An Actor Prepares, ” a comprehensive collection of Meyerhold’s writing on theater (and his adherence to formalism/abhorrence of naturalism), and Brecht’s “A Short Organum for the Theater.”
I believe political theater serves the theater better than political language, and re-reading these texts I feel like they’re finally clicking, providing me with ideas and a necessary understanding of how theater relates to the world, to the times it lives in, and how theater is meant to serve audiences and culture in a way that expounds more than a political, position statement. Up next in my reading list is re-reading Grotowski’s “Poor Theater,” Boal’s “Aesthetics of the Oppressed,” Brook’s “An Empty Space,” and “The Wooster Group’s Work Book,” edited by Andrew Quick—this last one is my gift to myself for doing all this research!
This may mean less in writing than it will when put into practice, so in the exploration of performance I’ll be joining David Levine’s “Anger at the Movies” at PS122’s COIL Festival in January. This performance-based seminar has an open invitation for audiences to bring in Youtube clips depicting your profession in a way that provokes anger, and David, along with the performers, will facilitate a critical discussion as to why this is happening in mainstream culture, and what that says about us as spectators. We perform on January 10th and 11th at the Mabou Mines Studio, located at the PS122 building (1st Avenue and 9th Street). I hope you’ll be able to join us–tickets are available here.
Happy New Years!