I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I was in Buenos Aires in July of 2012 and kept losing my handle on the place. What’s down is up, summer is winter, and vice versa. (As my de facto Jim Fletcher exclaimed, “It’s just like Borges!”) You’re in Latin America at times; at others, in New York City. If you squint at certain cityscapes, you would swear you were in Brussels or Vienna. We like to mash people and places into what we want them to be when, in fact, things are what they are.
The Argentine playwright-director Federico León has been recognized internationally for his rigorous and heartwarming work in theater and film for over a decade. I thought maybe I had a handle on his work, given that we might be the same age and we both direct the plays that we write. I thought this especially after seeing him premiere his show Las multitudes in La Plata, an hour’s drive from Buenos Aires, during my time there. Here, I saw a brokenhearted humanity tale on stage.
Las multitudes is a fable. The characters are archetypes: the grandfather, the mother, the ingenue … Yet, in León’s play, each character is played by a dozen people, with one designated leader for each character doing most, if not all, of the speaking.
In December I was able to chat with Federico for the first time. With Mónica de la Torre translating back and forth, I discovered the gaps in my knowledge and the fate of my assumptions. One thing I still think I’m right about: León is to theater what Springsteen is to music. First of all, I love Bruce. When I listen to his songs, I have a picture of who the heroes Frankie or Johnny are. Yet the creator himself is the personification of heroism. The same happens with Federico León: he doesn’t perform, but his realness as writer and director comes through in the work, heroic and unapologetic.
— Richard Maxwell
Translated from the Spanish by Mónica de la Torre
Richard Maxwell You know, you and I came on the scene kind of about the same time. I remember seeing a show of yours in Buenos Aires in 2001.
Federico León Yes; 1,500 metros sobre el nivel de Jack (1,500 meters above Jack’s level).
RM And then I was able to see Las multitudes. I feel fortunate that I happened to be in Argentina when you were doing this show. It seems so crazy because it was an hour away from Buenos Aires, in this seemingly desolate place.
FL In the city of La Plata.
RM These are the only two shows of yours I’ve seen, and we have, what, 11 years in between? I guess we can talk about it, you know: What you been up to?
FL Of yours I saw House when it came to Buenos Aires. I really liked the play. I was making Jack at that time.
RM Family figures large in the work, as a theme and as a structure for making statements. I’m curious … well, first of all, if I’m right in this assumption.
FL Yes, Jack was about a family. With Las multitudes a sort of family took shape during the rehearsal process. I rehearse most of my plays for a year or a year and a half, so after a while we all start interacting like a family. The other thing that relates to Jack, and maybe also to some other plays of mine, is that there are people in the cast who are very different from each other, who vary in age and have diverse theater backgrounds, and whose views of the world are distinct from mine also. It’s people with whom I otherwise wouldn’t interact much in life. The plays end up being the result of the encounter of all our different viewpoints.
RM Yo en el futuro (I in the future)—did you make it after or around the Rolex program? You won a Rolex Mentor & Protegé Arts Initiative award, yeah?
FL Yes, I worked with Robert Wilson.
RM And, it seems like Yo en el futuro is consistent with this theme of assembling people, a cast, and letting a family dynamic emerge out of the rehearsals. I just want to confirm these themes and find a way in to talk about the impetus for making a show. You work, like I do, with people who are not trained performers. Is that something that is consistent with every show that you do?
FL In the case of Las multitudes some of the actors—the elderly men and women, for instance—had been inactive and then returned to acting in the play. The same goes for the elderly actors in Yo en el futuro and Jack. It’s people who hadn’t acted in a while. In general, all of the actors I work with have studied and worked in theater. I even met the children at different acting schools.
RM Oh, interesting.
FL In 2007 I made a film at a villa miseria [slum] in Buenos Aires: Estrellas (Stars). It’s a mix of documentary and fiction in which I did work with nonprofessional actors. Julio Arrieta, the film’s protagonist, is a manager of actors from the villa miseria. He had a production company there; his job was to supply actors from the slum for different television programs and films.
RM That’s wild. But this was not something you fictionalized; this was a documentary.
FL It’s a documentary with some fiction in it. A lot of it was our own fabrication, but based on true facts. In the film, Julio Arrieta says things like, “Don’t look for actors who can play a poor person, look for a real poor person, since he will play the part best.”
RM Wow. It sounds like there’s a political statement behind making a film like this. You know, we have a delineation in this country politically between the Right and the Left, conservative and liberal, and consciousness is outlined by this delineation. When I was in Argentina, I felt like these political distinctions don’t carry over as they do in Europe, for example. I’m a little flummoxed hearing about this film because I’m not really sure if there is a political agenda, and if there is, what it would be.
FL What you see in Argentina right now is that people want to know whether you’re with or against the government. Relating this to Las multitudes: in general, the differences between people are very clear to me but not their points of agreement. That’s what Las multitudes is trying to find. I mean, I am working with some people whose worldviews are not the same as mine, who may come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, but with whom I come together through the creative process. That’s what I am interested in—despite our apparent differences, there is common ground between us.
RM Regarding being with or against the government?
FL The common ground—regardless of whether someone is in favor or against the government—is the artistic process, meeting in the same space for a year to rehearse and speaking a common language.
RM Do you consider yourself a political artist?
FL My plays don’t directly address politics, but I think all artists are political in terms of their commitment to what they make. A lot of plays are not political except for the independent way in which they are made. Does this make sense?
FL In Buenos Aires there is a lot of theater production. Independent theaters abound. Also prevailing is the idea of working together on a specific project just in order to go through a creative process together, regardless of how much it will make at the box office and where it will be staged. This might not be as common anymore in other countries. A project elsewhere might only take off once you’ve gotten the funding and venue in place.
RM I’m really impressed with the theater scene in Buenos Aires. A lot of people go, first of all, which is unique, but also, like you said, there’s a lot of work being made. It’s so rare in my travels to find this kind of fervor for seeing live theater.
FL There’s a longstanding tradition here in Buenos Aires … I live in the neighborhood of El Abasto where there are many independent theaters. There are also a lot of theater and playwriting workshops, and an informal way of making theater here. There may be actors who start writing and then direct their own plays, or playwrights who start directing also.
RM So there’s more freedom.
FL Yes. There aren’t many productions in which a playwright writes a play and then looks for a director. You have actors who work regularly with the same directors, directors who act—it’s all mixed up.
RM With the audiences too?
FL Commercial theater, independent theater, and official theater are different worlds, actually; only a few plays get a more varied audience. What we’ve seen here in the last decade is that independent cinema is coming closer to independent theater. Filmmakers started paying attention to theater’s independent approaches to production and started copying them, so to speak. They also assimilated theater’s approach toward display. Say an independent film opens in movie theaters: It’s very difficult to keep it playing when it’s competing with foreign films. It’s more interesting to have the film play in one or two places for a longer time, than to have it play in ten movie theaters and then end in a few weeks. Theater always admired film, but film always had a phobia of theater. Certain filmmakers would be afraid of a situation with live actors on stage. Film’s getting closer to theater has been very beneficial for both art forms.
RM So how did it flip?
FL Filmmakers started discovering very interesting theater actors with whom they wanted to work. But besides the actors, it’s the way in which people here make theater. You can start rehearsing a play without a budget. That’s more difficult for filmmakers, but there are films that get made with no money; that, in my view, has to do with theater. There are many film schools here, and everyone collaborates on other people’s projects, often without getting any compensation.
RM I suppose it’s also that consumer technology is getting so advanced that it’s more feasible for regular people to make a film. There’s more access, I would say, like in theater.
FL I totally agree.
RM Have you ever been presented in New York?
FL There were some attempts that didn’t go anywhere. In 2006 there was a project called BAiT [Buenos Aires in Translation] in which four New York–based directors directed plays by playwrights from Buenos Aires. Daniel Veronese, Lola Arias, Rafael Spregelburd, and I made a couple of trips to New York, first to meet with the directors and then to see the productions at PS122. Ex Antwone is the only play of mine that has been produced in New York.
RM Oh yeah—Shoshana Polanco, she put that together. I forgot about that. I think she actually asked me about directing your play and I couldn’t do it. We have to figure out how to get you presented here.
FL I’d love to. That was the first time someone produced a play of mine that I didn’t direct. I never write plays for others to direct and I never direct other people’s plays. Playwriting and directing go hand in hand for me.
RM I know of three theatrical works and one film. What am I missing?
FL The first play I made was Cachetazo de campo, in 1997. Then I made Museo Miguel Ángel Boezzio, for the Proyecto Museos in Buenos Aires. You were given a museum in the city, and you had to come up with a show around it. My play was based on the Museum of Aeronautics. I worked with Miguel Ángel Boezzio, a veteran of the Falklands War who was institutionalized for 11 years in a psychiatric hospital.
RM He wasn’t institutionalized because of the project?
FL (laughter) No, when I worked with him, he’d been discharged for three years. But he’d visit the hospital regularly because he was a broadcaster of its radio station, La Colifata. So the idea was Miguel had his own museum, and he’d give the audience a guided tour of his life.
RM Great. What year was this?
FL It was 1998. The next play was 1,500 metros sobre el nivel de Jack in ’99. In 2002, I made my first film, Todo juntos (Everything Together), in which I acted as well. After that, in 2003, I wrote El adolescente (The adolescent)—a play based on writing by Dostoyevsky. That’s when I had the Rolex mentorship. I made the film Estrellas in 2007 with Marcos Martínez and then Yo en el futuro in 2009. That same year I made a telefilm with Martín Rejtman: Entrenamiento elemental para actores (Elementary Training for Actors). It’s about a radical theater professor who teaches an advanced course to ten-year-olds.
RM And what’s radical then?
FL His theory about theater. He asks his students to barely act. Phrases like these define his approach: “Overact your role as secondary actors.” “Learn how not to be protagonists all the time.” His course has to do with understanding contemplation and quietude more than play.
RM And I guess also with diminishing the ego of the performers.
FL Absolutely. He has problems with the parents because there are no end-of-year plays nor open classes. He is against showing results and believes in long-term training.
RM Right. It’s not product driven. So it seems like TV audiences might not be ready for something like this. How was it received?
FL The film never aired on TV. The people at the television channel boycotted the project and, in the end, chose not to air it.
RM That’s showbiz.
FL The movie got a lot of play outside, though. It premiered at a theater that was similar to the studio in which the professor’s classes are held in the movie.
RM I’d like to talk about Las multitudes in La Plata. And you have to forgive me; I’m going to wax poetic here as I describe this. So I arrived by car in La Plata at night after an hour’s drive from Buenos Aires, in the company of playwright-directors Cynthia Edul and Alejandro Tantanian—perhaps you know them. We came into this theater, which, as I understand, was once the bowels of the actual opera house—the stage floor, which used to go up and down, broke.
FL Yes. That’s the origin of the theater in which we staged the play—the TACEC. The main theater’s floor was designed to be lowered so you could change the set and then lift it back up again. The mechanism never worked, so the space downstairs was used as a theater too.
RM What was fantastic about this situation was that you had an opera-size playing area and a very, very shallow, intimate seating situation—three rows, steep rake, in close proximity to the stage.
FL Yes. It’s a particular place: very large and very intimate at the same time. It was difficult for us to find a venue with such scale and intimacy.
RM I can imagine. What enhanced the special quality of the performance space was that I had no idea where I was. So then I’m sitting down, and it looks like you’ve built a stage on top of whatever stage was there. The play starts in darkness; the first thing you hear is trampling and the first thing you see are flashlights. Suddenly a dozen young women come out with flashlights and enter the stage, followed by a dozen young men with flashlights as well.
FL Yes, 12 young men and 12 teenage girls.
RM Correct me if I’m wrong but the first words that one of them says are something to the effect of “Why did you leave me?”
FL Well, yes. She says, “¿Seguís con tu novia?” (Are you still with your girlfriend?) It’s two lovers; the boy has a girlfriend, but he’s also seeing this girl. She’s finding out that he got back together with his girlfriend and they’ll have to stop seeing each other.
RM It’s a love triangle. I was immediately impressed—here’s this stock situation, this cliché, a story that you’ve seen a thousand times before, being told in multiplicity. You soon discover that all of these characters in this very basic, fundamental story are going to be told in multitudes. We’re talking about, in total, 120 people or so onstage. Also very important are the costumes and the way people look: all of them are in a form of white or off-white clothes, contemporary clothes that are simple enough to resonate through time.
FL Yes, totally.
RM Also important, I would say, is the way the play is lit, relying heavily on the flashlights and supplemented by soft overhead lights that give off a kind of amber feeling, a warm glow. I like that we’re really relying on these flashlights. Also, people onstage rival, if not outnumber, the people in the audience.
FL At the TACEC in La Plata, the same number of people were on- and offstage. We’re now doing the play at a theater in Buenos Aires, and the audience doubles the size of the cast.
RM Do I have the number right? There are 120 people in that cast?
FL It was more like 113 or 114—some children couldn’t do all of the shows.
RM I love that you could watch a scene between, say, an old man and a young girl, and as an audience member you’re close enough to really examine not just the face of the person, which would be a luxury in itself, but the faces of all the old men and the faces of all the young girls. I found this very moving, and realized that this multiplicity echoes to the point of community. It really hit home when this boy band, which we’ve seen before as the young men, starts playing, I don’t know, an Argentine pop song—lovely music, and live, and right there in front of us. When they become this boy band, suddenly all the characters are there but, because there are 10 or 12 of each of them, it’s an instant community as well. The girls jump up and scream, the band starts, and kids are running around. I found it so humanist, this echoing.
Redundancy is so interesting—character echoing to the point of community. And you, Federico, become as the theater-maker this kind of emotional hero—it’s a totally uncompromised presentation of emotion, of pure feeling. I mean, I was going to say love, but that’s too general. You’re not watching love, you’re watching feeling. It’s further evidence, for me, that we have never left a romantic period.
FL I like that.
RM And I want to know if I’m right. (laughter) I’m done waxing poetic. More specifically, the redundancy is interesting. What were you after?
FL I’m thinking about what you said about romanticism. The truth is that I began working on the play at the same time as I started practicing yoga almost every day. My life changed dramatically, and this play has a lot to do with it. I’ve become a sort of evangelist—I found that yoga synthesizes very clearly, and also puts into practice, issues related to the theater.
RM Like what?
FL Well, if I am rehearsing a play with three actors, I feel I can control everything. If someone’s not showing up, I could cancel a rehearsal. With a cast of 120, I couldn’t do that. I had to keep moving forward regardless. If 10 or 15 people were missing, I had to keep going. Problems turned into permanent proposals.
FL I just had to let go and accept “accidents” or those things that didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to. I could not have total control of the situation; there were too many people involved, and I had to accept all the conditions that arose. That was a learning process for me. I tend to be strict, I want to be in control. Perhaps what’s most graphic about yoga is that though you do poses that are absolutely unnatural, you have to be stable and relaxed in them. So in adverse situations you have to try to stay calm and see what’s there, not what you would like to see. Of course, I have a clear idea of what direction I want to go in, but then I find millions of things that will force me to change my original idea. Here that was multiplied to the nth degree.
Through yoga I was able to achieve silence too. There’s a lot of movement backstage. People leaving the stage have to go around the back in order to enter the stage again. It’s chaos with so many people. So by practicing yoga we attained a harmony and massive silence that otherwise would have been very difficult to achieve.
You were talking about the actors’ egos. In the play, actors are part of something larger than themselves; there are many scenes in which they are still, observing others. That’s difficult for an actor, who’d rather be doing something. Here they have to be truly present with their bodies—sometimes it even seems like a group meditation. You find kids and elderly people with the same level of stillness and presence. This I also associate with yoga.
RM Makes sense. You start with something that is so formal in its presentation, when you have so many versions of these archetypes to look at. But the archetypes develop as the play goes on. It’s important to say that when the play starts only one person is a representative speaker for the group. As the play unfolds, they start to question themselves; they go to someone else in their group and have a conversation. So it turns into a kind of soliloquy since they are, in effect, talking to themselves.
FL That’s very good: Different versions of the archetype. Totally. The archetype also works for me in the sense that, for instance, you have the leader of the teenage girls cry, then all her group cries, and, therefore, all teenage girls in the world cry. That’s what this dynamic generates for me: the one, the group, humanity.
RM This reinforces this idea of feeling, you know. It’s emotional heroism. We talked about whether or not you consider yourself a political artist. One doesn’t have to work very hard to see how this has political repercussions. It resonates in such a humanist way that there is a political statement.
FL Something else that happens in relation to the groups is that you might think that older people are wise, but then you realize that, when it comes to love, they’re also like teenagers. They have their own love dramas. Everyone is on the same level when it comes to love.
The central idea is unity in diversity. In certain situations, the characters all go through similar emotional processes, even if they’re totally different. The play is looking for those spaces of equality, even if each character is singular—there’s equality despite the differences.
RM Yeah, I get that very much. Diversity is like … When you talk about multiplicity, or echoing, or redundancy—you know, what is the word for not triplicate or quadruplicate but when you get to 12, what is that? It’s exponential, maybe. I came across this statement about anthropology saying that as soon as you have 12 or 14 people collected, you have a spectrum that you can examine and learn from.
I was at your show with a few European presenters, and I was happy to share in their enthusiasm after this performance. I told them, “You have to find a way to do it.” The concerns are obvious when you talk about 120-whatever plane tickets. Just right there that’s totally impossible. I understand that in some cases the play did tour: Did you go with the model of bringing the 12 representative speakers from each group and then supplementing them with local people?
FL It always seemed like an impossible project to tour. Then someone had the idea to go about it as you said: having the leaders and representatives of each group travel. Initially 13 actors would travel. Then 13 other actors wanted to join the tour and were willing to cover their own expenses.
RM With the casting in Berlin, did you find all Argentines to supplement it?
FL There were some Latin Americans in the group, in the boy band actually. The rest were Germans. In October we’ll be in the festival in Graz, Austria.
RM I saw the premier, right?
FL Yes. Then we staged it in Berlin and now we’re doing it in Buenos Aires. Tomorrow is the last show. There will be a total of 20 performances.
RM Oh, fantastic. And what’s the reception?
FL Excellent, actually. I’m very happy.
RM Riding back from the performance in La Plata, when we were discussing whether it’d be important to bring all the cast over to Europe, one of the Argentines took umbrage at the notion that they had to be Argentine. You know, it’s a kind of gaucho cliché that you’d need these types of faces, these types of people to do the show.
FL For me, the play is universal. In fact, the experience in Berlin proved it. Obviously, the cast was different, but something about it was the same as in Argentina, regardless of the different physical types and all. It was really interesting to see how the group of elderly women would enter the stage in Berlin: they’d enter in a group, like a perfect army. Here in Argentina, when they enter, there’s a bit of a jam, they’re not precise. It seemed as if there were two different ways of entering the stage. One was very German and the other was very Argentine.
RM That’s funny. The Germans know how to take a note.
FL Absolutely. There’s a scene in which 12 women are pulling a rope on either end. Once they’re done, they’re asked to leave it on the floor. The Argentine women would just drop it. The Germans would pass it on to each other with a lot of coordination and leave it perfectly coiled. The first time they ever did this they had no doubt that this was the way to do it.
RM Do you teach?
FL I taught for a while, then I stopped. For the past three years, I’ve been teaching again in a studio at my home. I love it.
RM What are you teaching?
FL Acting, but it relates to everything, really. The group I work with undergoes a creative process together. We work on improvisations and reflect on issues related to playwriting, dramaturgy, directing, acting, life, and philosophy. It’s just like a rehearsal process, but without the requirement of an end result.
RM That’s nice. This is going to be my last question, one I don’t particularly like. When people ask me this question, I don’t know what to say. Maybe you can help me try to answer it. Is there a sentence that could capture the impetus to do work?
FL It has to do with expanding self-knowledge, I think, by undergoing experiences that will make me see myself in a different way—expanding my understanding of who I am, what I like, what paths I end up taking. On the other hand, I want to be doing things that are contemporary to my own paradigm at a specific moment. That’s why I say that Las multitudeswas related to yoga. Theater is a space where you can experiment with things that you can then bring to your life. I’m not giving you one sentence! A play is the beginning of a process whose limit or end you cannot anticipate. I have no idea where a project might lead; all I know is that it’s a point of departure. More than a particular text or a particular actor, what motivates me is curiosity, the desire to know where something might take me.
RM Federico, gracias. It’s a pleasure to talk to you, and I hope to see you again soon.
FL I loved this conversation; it was excellent. Thank you.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee