Instead of categorizing her theatrical work as fiction or nonfiction, writer/director Lola Arias prefers to talk in terms of reality. When asked about the evolution of her early fictional premises to the demanding subjects of the Chilean and Argentinian military dictatorships, she tells a story about a baby.
“My play Striptease was written in a way that the main protagonist of the piece was a baby who was supposed to be onstage while you hear a conversation between the parents. When I wrote the piece everybody thought, ‘Ok, she will invent some kind of theatrical convention to put this text onstage.’” But she didn’t. A real baby starred in every production.
“I wouldn’t call them ‘real’ stories yet, but I started to be more and more interested in working with producing some kind of reality onstage.”
Her new piece, El Año en que nací (The Year I Was Born), is not only a real story, but an ongoing one. It takes on the military dictatorship in Chile under Augusto Pinochet that lasted from 1973 to 1990. The kind of reality the baby lent in Striptease, a volatile force that brought real life into an artificial space, this time comes from the entire cast—sons and daughters of those directly affected by the dictatorship.
Unlike Mi vida despues (My Life After), a similar play about the junta in her home country of Argentina, the cast members in El Año en que nací represent a broad spectrum of views about the era. Some had parents in the military, some had parents in the guerilla army, some had parents who fled the country—and Arias has placed them all onstage to narrate, cope, confront, discuss, and unleash.
In a recent conversation, Arias discussed how she deals with a subject so fresh and contested, the theatrical conventions that turn a history lesson into dynamic performance, and how this work aims for truth, but not necessarily reconciliation.
After the dictatorships ended in Chile and Argentina, what were the lasting effects? The title The Year I Was Born seems to imply an ongoing discussion while My Life After implies a distinct separation from this period.
In the Chilean piece, half of the cast are family members of left-wing party members. They’re sons or daughters of people who were in the guerilla army, who went into exile, who were intellectuals who had to go to Mexico, etc. The other half of the cast are sons and daughters of policemen, military people, people who were in the extreme right-wing movement. The diversity of their backgrounds is so extreme that you have, in the same piece, the daughter of a woman who was killed by the police and the son of a policeman who is in jail because of killing militants. The Argentinian piece had a variety of stories, but there wasn’t such a big range. In the Chilean version there are so many stories and they’re so diverse that it becomes a social experiment—confronting themselves with their stories.
You see, Pinochet was never judged and was never in jail. He was even in London and they were trying to touch him and they finally sent him back to Chile. The joke about Pinochet is that he came back to Chile because he was supposedly very ill, so he came back in a wheelchair, but when he arrived at the airport he started to walk again. So that’s the story of the country. There was a big clown who made fun of everybody and he died without being judged. He was responsible for the worst years of Chilean history and he gave power to the democratic president after him.
In Argentina, on the other hand, after the military junta collapsed, after the government collapsed, they were judged, they went to prison. It was very problematic to judge them. They put them in prison, then they took them out, then they put them in prison again. Still, there was something done immediately afterwards. In the case of Chile, it’s really very difficult to punish those in the military who were involved, and not only in the military but the civilians and the police and all the people who were involved in the crimes. This makes what happened much more ambiguous and much more ambivalent. That’s why in the piece there are a lot of discussions the performers have which are really discussions that we had during the process of reconstructing the history of Chile. I transcribed everything they said because they were not able to agree about what happened.
When you first brought the people from Chile together for El Año en que nací, was it a confrontational atmosphere or were they open to discuss what happened?
It’s interesting: they come from such different backgrounds, they have such different educations, they come from families that were enemies, but on the other hand they were doing this project together, so they were all willing to know more. They had to be open to go into this kind of project. Somehow there were discussions. There was a lot of tension, there was aggression, there were a lot of things, but in the end the project itself was so strong that they came together for something which was not me or you or my story or my father or my mother, but something bigger. It put a distance between themselves and their own stories, and they could see better from the outside what it is they were representing in the piece.
It’s not only, “I’m here just telling my story.” It’s, “I’m here representing the people who went into exile,” “I’m representing the people who were in the right-wing movement.” It’s more about understanding the positions that were there. This kind of distance allowed them to be together, otherwise it would’ve been impossible. I think the main reason [it’s not impossible] is that they are the sons and daughters of the people who were fighting. I don’t know if I would be able to do the same with the parents.
When you put out the open call for El Año en que nací did a lot of people who were actors show up, or was it mostly people who hadn’t done this sort of performance before?
It was 50/50, I would say. For these kinds of projects, for me it isn’t necessary to have any kind of experience, but of course you need to have the will to be on stage. You have to be able to tell your story over and over again and to be into the choreography of text, movement, sound, and video.
My experience is that a variety of people always gives much more power to a performance. People are always afraid of the “non-professional”—the non-professionals are seen as a kind of disease of theater—but no! They have other knowledge and other abilities, other ways of connecting to emotions, other ways of being on stage, and sometimes it’s much stronger than an actor. In my experience, it’s always very difficult when people see my performances because they never know who is an actor and who is not. Some of them say, “Ah, but she is such a good performer!” And she is actually a fútbol player. It’s touched some other level of performance which is not virtuosity, it’s something else.
There’s a distinct difference in the staging between these two pieces. The set of Mi vida despues seems to be more amorphous, while El Año en que nací has a framework of a row of lockers and desks. Why do you have one with a continuous physical framework and one without?
When I was doing Mi vida despues the image that I had was of a flea market. All the objects that were present were used chairs, a lot of used clothes, used furniture. If you could go to a flea market and start thinking about the story behind the clothes, the story behind the furniture—that was my image for starting the work. When I went to Chile to do the other piece, it was the first time the young people were coming out into the streets in a very active way after years of passivity. The student movement started to ask for free education. They had a lot of problems with the education being very expensive. They get into enormous debt because there is no way to get a university education without paying a lot of money. The people were reopening discussion and asking why they were still using the laws from the dictatorship. They were asking about the past, so I thought this is the context where we are starting the piece—the context of the student revolution. That’s why I locate the piece in a university-like background, with lockers, chairs, and desks.
Another part of both of these pieces is that while there is recitation of lines—people standing in front of the audience telling their stories—there are also moments of unleashed emotion and action whether it’s dancing, playing the drums, strumming on guitars, sliding across the stage, or screaming into a megaphone. Is the purpose of these moments for the actors to unleash emotions that have built up from telling their stories, or is it another way of recreating the experiences of their parents?
All of these things at the same time. In a way, I’m looking for moments of emotional performance which are not necessarily representative. When you’re making a fictional piece you’re like, OK, this is the moment where they cry and then this is the moment where they dance because they’re happy—they go through emotions. But when you’re working with a documentary project you have to tell the performers not to cry, because they will talk over and over about how their mother was killed and her corpse was exposed to the press. They are going to tell very hardcore stories. If they cry every time they perform they will suffer a lot and that wouldn’t be good for the piece, and it wouldn’t be good for them. They have to find a distance from their own story to make it possible to repeat over and over and to have the feeling that they are part of history, that they are telling this not because I want to expose them or they want to expose themselves and their own suffering, but because they have a story which is relevant.
At the same time that you are building this distance, you also have to give space for emotion, for freedom, for craziness, and these games that I construct in the piece are releasing emotions in a different way. That’s why they play instruments. They put out energy, emotion, and they play with their own anger, their own fear, their own suffering.
In an interview with the BBC you said there is no such thing as reconciliation when it comes to these dictatorships and what happened during them. There’s no such thing as forgiving and forgetting. Is that something you’ve intentionally built into these pieces, or is that just a personal belief?
No, these pieces are not closing. They’re not saying, “This is what happened but now we’re all together and this is over and I forgive you.” The piece is all the time showing the conflict. It’s never solving the conflict. It’s never saying this is over or this is solved and now it’s closed. That’s why I think you come out of the piece with a lot of questions. You don’t come out with an answer of, “Ah, that was what happened,” and, “That was the wrong thing and that was the right thing.”
When I mean reconciliation, I mean closing. I mean putting a “the end” and then thinking that it is over. I think it is not possible with our histories and I think it is not possible in general. History is something that is always being rethought and elaborated on. I think that is something that people were afraid of or looking for when I was doing the piece. They were saying, “Ah! You are doing this because you are making the reconciliation. That’s why you are putting the murderer and the victim on the same stage.” No. I’m putting them together because I want them to confront themselves, but I don’t want to solve this. I don’t think it’s possible to solve it. All of these people live together in the same country and their families know each other. There’s the feeling that there must be opposite sides, but sometimes even in the same family they have one brother who was in the guerilla army and another one was in the military. They live with this and they live under this, but there is no reconciliation.
“History is something that is always being rethought and elaborated on… These pieces are not closing. They’re not saying, ‘This is what happened but now we’re all together and this is over and I forgive you.’ The piece is all the time showing the conflict. It’s never solving the conflict.”