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
In Berlin Childhood around 1900 , Walter Benjamin writes: “Memory is not an instrument for surveying the past but its theater.”
Memory, like theater, exists in the realm of invention, where fantasy is drawn from reality and what we thought was real proves to be artifice. It’s the realm of the playful—our perception of the past changing over time and space as we ourselves change. One way to effectively represent memory’s mutability would be to create a play whose form evades easy categorization and whose content is ever-evolving. This is precisely what Lola Arias has done. Her most recent works, Mi vida después (My life after) and El año en que nací (The year in which I was born), complicate the relationship between fact and fiction, emphasizing the fogginess of the notion of collective memory.
I first encountered Lola’s work at The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival in January of 2014, where El año en que nací was performed. The play featured a cast of energetic twenty- and thirty-somethings, actors and non-actors—all born around the time of Chile’s military dictatorship—who recounted their parents’ stories from that period. The theatrical space lent these very real discussions a jarringly orchestrated spontaneity and generated a unique tension in the audience members, who often forgot whether what was transpiring onstage was real or make-believe.
Over the course of our conversation, I learned that much of Arias’s work hovers within this gray zone between reality and fiction, documentary and theater—exploring the effects of calling something “theater.” Indeed, Arias belongs to a generation of artists in Argentina who have cast aside the conventions of repertory theater, are questioning how and where theater should be presented, and, in particular, are investigating the way in which the artistic community engages recent history. Though the content of Lola’s work only began dealing with explicitly political issues in recent years, I wonder if her desire to break with established artistic forms wasn’t a political imperative in and of itself. In any society recovering from a dictatorship that actively lied to and silenced its people, new languages have to be invented to speak about the traumas of the past or, perhaps, to speak freely at all.
Translated from Spanish by the author.
BOMB’s theater interviews are sponsored in part by The Select Equity Group Foundation.
Elianna Kan Tell me a bit about the genesis of El año en que nací.
Lola Arias Previously, I’d worked on a play called Mi vida después. The cast was six people who’d been born during the Argentine dictatorship (which lasted from 1976 to 1983). The play reconstructed their parents’ lives through letters, photographs, and other documents. This first experiment sought to portray a generation born during the dictatorship through their family histories. It did something rather unusual by mixing the testimonies of people whose parents occupied diametrically opposed positions during those years: for instance, both the son of a murdered guerrilla fighter and the daughter of a police officer whose job was to torture people who told their stories.
EK How did you cast the play?
LA It was a very strange search process, almost CIA-like. I’d call actors and non-actors and say things like, “I know that your father disappeared, but I don’t know which political party he belonged to.”
EK How open were people in talking about these things?
LA In general, I wasn’t contacting people out of the blue; I already knew them. They trusted me enough to talk to me. Of course once I had chosen the cast, the process of working with them was incredibly intense. This first project was completed in 2009 in Argentina and was very powerful. Then it traveled to various places, among them Chile, in 2011. The director of the theater festival approached me and proposed the idea of doing a workshop there because they too had had a dictatorship, one that had lasted much longer—from 1973 to 1990. I liked the idea, but insisted that there be an open call for non-actors.
I wanted people with stories, whether or not they were actors. Around eighty people filled out a questionnaire, out of which we chose thirty. The workshop ended up including eleven people. El año en que nací resulted from it: not only were people’s stories compelling, but also, what became very interesting was the discussion of what had happened in the last forty years in Chilean history—and more specifically, the disagreement that arose over how to tell these stories.
EK And who can tell them, or who has the right to control them.
LA Yes. Especially since the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Chile was so controversial, with Pinochet himself handing over power to Patricio Aylwin, the first democratic president—which is to say, Pinochet never fell from power and was never put on trial. He was arrested in London and then returned to Chile for health reasons, but when he arrived in Chile, he gave a grand performance, standing up from his wheelchair and walking down the runway. It became obvious to everyone that it was all a big joke. When the individual responsible for a dictatorship that lasted seventeen years goes unpunished, this period in history is examined or thought of in very complex ways. So El año en que nacípresents a group of people discussing a still-unresolved topic.
EK And this discussion forms the through-line of the play.
LA These plays are more like social experiments rather than the kind of play that already has a set narrative and way of conveying it. What interests me is theater as a place for social experiment and for the creation of a new community that will produce specific accounts about a historical moment. There are moments in El año en que nací that make very clear the existing conflicts among the group, the way the performers judge one another according to who plays what role in the story.
EK Were there performers for whom this was a difficult journey, or who discovered something about their own history with which they had to struggle?
LA It was a journey for everyone. Everyone thinks they know their own parents. At a certain age, you realize you don’t really know who they are. You don’t know what they did in their youth, what their ideas were, or why they made certain decisions. The play creates a dynamic in which the child is forced to confront the parents’ history; each one has to go back and ask, ”But why did you go into exile? Why were you part of this movement?” There are difficult questions they’d never asked before because they’d never had an excuse to do so—the play provides that excuse.
For instance, in a post-show discussion, Leo, who is the son of an investigative police officer, said it was very hard for him to confront his father and ask him what he did in the ’70s when he was under the direct command of Pinochet. Leo said there are many things his father will never tell him. The most extreme case of this is Viviana’s. When she first came to rehearsals, she only had a photograph of her father. She would say, “I don’t know who my father is, all I have is his last name, Hernández. One day, among my mother’s things, I found a photo that said S. Hernández. My family always told me different stories—that my father was a military official who died of a heart attack, that he was a bus driver who died in an accident, blah, blah, blah.” Thanks to the play, she began to investigate her father’s real identity. During open rehearsals in January of 2011, she would show the photo of her father and say, “I’m looking for this person, if anyone has any information … ”
A journalist ended up contacting her with information on a man named Sergio Hernández Meneses, a military figure. So she went to this man’s house but couldn’t bring herself to his door. Her mother was so afraid that she would take this man to court for paternity tests, that she gave Viviana her father’s real name. In the end, she discovered that her father was serving time in prison for killing members of the MAPU [the Popular Unitary Action Movement, a left-wing party that was persecuted under Pinochet]. It’s the worst possible nightmare to have discovered that.
EK Did it ever get to the point where one of the performers decided this interplay between reality and performance, of putting their personal lives on display on stage, was too much?
LA Yes, there were cases of people who didn’t follow through with the workshop. There was one woman, Macarena, who told the story of her father’s suicide when she was seven years old. He was a psychology professor at the Catholic University and the one thing she had of his was a cassette recording of him saying he couldn’t tolerate the dictatorship’s persecutions any longer, since professors were blacklisted. He committed suicide while Macarena and her sister were both in the house. It’s a horrifying story. Her father is a victim of the dictatorship, but not directly. He wasn’t actually killed by the dictatorship. Obviously there must have been other reasons for his suicide: anxiety, depression … Macarena, who is an actor, couldn’t perform in the end. The individuals in this workshop had to be prepared to undergo a process by which very personal narratives were practically converted into someone else’s stories. The individual life is treated as a historical document. Some people could maintain distance, others couldn’t. But there’s always the group, there is—
EK —vulnerability within this community.
LA Yes, but within a support group. If others told us something about their families, then I’ll also go for it—that sort of thing. This project constructs a kind of family by choice that becomes a “we,” in spite of the fact that the members may come from opposite ends of the political and social spectrum.
EK And they never had the feeling that the fact that they all share the same stage relativizes their experiences? Especially, for example, when in El año en que nací you had all the characters line up from left to right according to their parents’ political affiliation or social class?
LA The point is that they aren’t on the same level. The whole time they explore this question of what position they occupy, who is more of a victim. This happens in the scene you mention where they are lining themselves up from left to right and one performer argues, “My mother fought for Chile, she was educated here, and the dictatorship murdered her, so I deserve to be on the extreme left.” And another says, “Oh, so because your mother was murdered you think she was more leftist than my mother, a hairdresser who supported Salvador Allende and participated in the protests?” These questions about who deserves which place on the scale of victimhood, and the impossibility of putting them all on the same level, are constantly being discussed. Just because they share the same stage doesn’t mean that they are equal—they aren’t all victims in the same sense. I’m always having to confront this conventional way of looking at things according to which if you put the son of a murdered militant and a police officer’s son in the same play, you’re saying that the two sides are equal. The play takes a very clear stance: state-sponsored terrorism is not the same as traditional war in which you have two opposite sides and each side has their reasoning. They are not comparable. When a state has decided to slaughter its own people and force them into exile, there is no equality of conditions: it’s not a war, it’s state-sponsored terrorism.
EK How do you view the experience of the spectator of your plays?
LA It’s entirely different from watching actors playing their parts, and admiring them for achieving emotions that they’re not truly experiencing. Something very powerful happens when people are actually recounting their own stories—it’s as if they were telling you a secret. There’s no way to remain distant when someone comes onstage and says, “My mother was murdered; they took off all her clothes and lifted up her body as a trophy.” This person is standing there telling this story to you, you, a spectator in the United States or in Chile or wherever—this generates a certain level of responsibility for you as spectator, as well as an intense confrontation with your own sense of history.
EK Which I imagine in Chile must be more intense than here in the US?
LA No, I would say it’s different.
EK How so?
LA In Chile everyone, more or less, has lived through something that corresponds in some way to what is unfolding onstage. In other countries, this very same play, recontextualized in different historical and political situations, still makes people reflect on their own histories. When we performed in Prague, people left the theater discussing what had occurred during forty plus years of communism—the persecutions, the imprisonments. They were forced to reflect on what daily life is like under a totalitarian regime, what ordinary people’s survival strategies are.
EK Do you think that it’s difficult for the local public to see this theme of historical memory figure so prominently in Chilean and Argentinean theater?
LA This theme has always been prominent in theater. There is a new wave in Argentina that’s more documentarian, more connected to the world we live in, and that attempts to reflect on our current reality rather than being merely a museum relic of the form—what I find repertory theater to be. One goes to traditional productions to see big sets, big gestures, classical texts performed. It’s like reheating the same meal over and over, sometimes with different spices, but in the end, it’s always the same. Whereas now, there’s a wave in contemporary theater that proposes a different relationship to the form and has more to do with art that is alive rather than fossilized, institutional, or bureaucratic productions.
EK Which is to say there’s been an expansion of sorts with regard to what is being viewed as theatrical material.
LA Exactly. Not only that, but also there’s a huge explosion of theatrical experiments that seek to generate friction within the traditional limits between theater and reality—by using non-actors as performers, by creating situations where there isn’t merely representation but a live experience equally dependent on the spectator and the performer. There’s a lot happening in this vein and my plays are a part of that.
EK Is this trend coming from boredom with traditional theater and its limitations?
LA I don’t know. When you begin to create theater, at least in my experience, there’s a whole series of conventions you accept and at a certain point, you ask yourself: Why? Why is there a wall painted with a hole for a door and we call that a house? Why do these people have to be in the light and these people in darkness? Why does someone have to cry in order for this to be emotional? So you begin seeing theatrical conventions and you realize that there are other ways of making theater, other possibilities. Mi vida después arose from my wondering what would happen if a thirty-year-old was curious about her parent’s lives when they were younger.
EK Was Mi vida después your first experiment blurring the lines of reality and fiction?
LA I began writing and directing theater in 2001. My first play, La escuálida familia (The emaciated family), was the story of a family that raised animals in some snow-covered country. The text was inspired by the myth of Kaspar Hauser. In my play, a feral child returns home and a tragedy unravels. In 2003, I created an installation in the basement of the Teatro Colón called Estudios de la memoria amorosa (Studies of the loving memory) which was a kind of cataloguing of memory problems in relation to love, inspired by Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. In 2004, I wrote and directed Poses para dormir (Sleeping poses), a science-fiction work that explored the relationship between pornography and revolution. Then in 2006 and 2007 I worked on a trilogy called Striptease/Sueño con revólver/El amor es un francotirador (Striptease/Revolver dream/Love is a sniper). As a result of the trilogy, I began exploring the boundary between fiction and reality and started incorporating performance art elements into my work, such as chance, the body, and a direct relationship with the audience. Striptease describes the actions of a baby while its parents, who are separated, speak on the phone. For this performance, I put an actress onstage with her one-year-old baby. The baby’s presence onstage is real: a baby doesn’t act, it just is. The baby’s actions and the gestures had a “reality effect”—they redefined the fictive text. The conversation was completely scripted, but it appeared improvised because everything seemed to have significance in relation to the baby’s actions. This project was a turning point; it launched a series of experiments with reality onstage.
EK Experiments that became more explicitly political in subject matter.
LA Yes. In Argentina there has been a strong tradition of political theater, theater that takes historical events as its main topics, but it deals with them using the conventions of repertory theater. We’re realizing these conventions don’t work anymore. If we want to make political theater, the form itself also has to be put into question; it must create an experience that is political in and of itself. If we’re going to talk about the guerrilla movements, we’re not going to put on mustaches and guerrilla costumes and pretend it’s the ’70s again. There have been a lot of plays about the dictatorship, but they’ve been very conventional in terms of staging, plot, and in the way the story is told. They insist on presenting a clear picture of what happened rather than having a more critical perspective. Instead of simply saying that the dictatorship was bad and the military should be jailed, why not also problematize the militants, the leftists, and ask why they did what they did? Why did the People’s Revolutionary Party think that the people were ready for the revolution—were they right or not? To have a critical vision of history also implies being open to putting established narratives into question. I think that’s what was new about Mi vida después, which is also a part of a generational movement and a series of artistic representations in the same vein: Albertina Carri’s film Los rubios (The blondes)—a movie in which a girl investigates the story of her parents who were disappeared and questions how to tell that story—and also Félix Bruzzone’s novel Los topos (The moles), about a boy whose parents were desaparecidos, and who falls in love with a transvestite. All this is to say that there’s a generation of artists in their thirties and forties who are beginning to explore the complexities of the dictatorship’s legacy.
EK A movement that avoids treating the past as something fixed, or distant, and instead sees it as something dynamic and part of the present.
LA Yes. Whenever people would tell me that my play is about the ’70s, I’d tell them, no, my play is not about the past, it’s about the present. It’s about young people today and how they now work through what happened then.
EK Do you ever get to a point where you’re tired of such an emphasis on the past? Is there a moment in which you have to say, Now we have to move forward?
LA No. Plays like El año en que nací are talking about just that: the present is made up of pasts. I don’t believe in this idea of starting from scratch. One is constantly working over what happened and constructing the future based on the past. So there’s no way of saying nowwe’re done with the past and it’s time to look for our future. No, there’s a direct continuity between these things.
EK Do you think you’ll continue exploring these themes, but in a different way?
LA I actually have a number of plays that are quite different. Mi vida después and El año en que nací are both projects dealing with generational stories. I recently premiered a play in Germany called The Art of Making Money. It’s based on Brecht and explores the theatrical strategies, stories, and personalities of street people. I interviewed beggars, street musicians, and prostitutes in Bremen, Germany, about why and how they make money in the streets. One of the performers, for example, is a former actor who was born into a middle-class family and at eighteen ended up with an alcohol and heroin addiction; he begs for money in the main entrance to the supermarket. He says that the supermarket’s entrance is the best place to beg, especially at 8AM and 12AM when elderly people go shopping, because they’re the ones who give the most money. They do so, perhaps, because they don’t have anyone to talk to, and so they stop to talk to him and give him something in exchange. He says he receives even more money if he begs with his dog. These kinds of stories fascinate me because they say a lot about the society in which we live, through the point of view of “outsiders.” He insists that he doesn’t approach people but that people approach him. He realized that’s how to make more money; people don’t want to be intercepted. I’m very interested in these dynamics and, based on that, I created this project. It’s another kind of social experiment, with people who live in the streets.
EK Can you explain a bit more how or in what way the behavior of these street people is theatrical?
LA The Art of Making Money is a play starring beggars, street-musicians, and prostitutes. Each of them is onstage in order to speak about how they act in order to make money in the street. Which is to say, they disclose the theatrical strategies they use in order to move, entertain, or seduce passersby and get them to open their wallets. When I was doing research I’d ask people questions such as: How do you choose the place in the city at which to beg or play music or seduce? Do you play some kind of role in order to make money? What is your script? What clothing do you wear? Which objects do you use as props?
This concept was born out of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. A few years ago, I was at a state-run theater in a small city in Switzerland watching a very cheap version of the play and, in the first scene, Peachum (the head of Peachum & Co.) runs a company of beggars—as if it were an acting agency—giving them each a role, a script, a wardrobe, and a place in the city in which to work. Peachum justifies his business by saying: “Because nobody can make his own suffering sound convincing. [ … ] If you have a bellyache and say so, people will simply be disgusted.” In other words, in order to produce compassion and make money, one has to tell a story—the truth itself is not moving. While I was horribly bored by this production that followed all the conventions of traditional theater, this question took hold of me. I wondered what would happen if instead of doing this play with actors in the role of beggars, I were to ask those who actually live in the street today what stories they tell?
EK How did you go about casting the show?
LA I spent a number of days with Jonas Podor, a social worker who helps homeless people find housing, food, methadone treatment, etcetera. Everyone knows him, so he took us on a tour around the city and introduced us. We went around talking to people. To find prostitutes, a former prostitute named Bea, who is now a social worker, took us to bars and to the red-light district. Thanks to her we were able to interview prostitutes from Germany, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria. It was difficult to find prostitutes who wanted to participate in the project because many of them didn’t want to be public about their situation. Plus, they were making much more money than we could pay them! In order to find the street musicians, we went to the city’s historic district and talked directly to them. They gladly came to the auditions because they wanted to get out of the street and play in a theater. It was difficult for them to understand why in addition to playing music, they would have to act and tell personal stories.
EK Do you always have performers tell their own stories?
LA Yes. It’s one thing to interview homeless people and then write a play about them, and something entirely different to work with them over the course of a year in order to develop a play for the city theater in which they’ll perform for an extended run.
In my projects the process itself is as important as the final product. I’m interested in this experiment, in saying, Okay, how do three beggars, a prostitute, two actors, and three Bulgarian street musicians who live in Germany but speak very little German understand each other? How do they create an artistic object together? I’d never done such a challenging project. I had to re-think everything. How do you work when, on the first day, you enter the rehearsal room and you can’t breathe because of the smell? We had to invent new rules to work together. I proposed that they could shower at the theater, and that the people from the costume department wash their clothes, since that was their “costume.” They were very happy to have warm baths and their clothes laundered for free. We all ate at the theater before rehearsing. We had to pay them per hour, in cash, after rehearsals, so they would show up every day. The theater—which is state-sponsored—became a kind of social services center, and these people who were isolated and had truly lost all connection to society began to feel they were a part of something. They’ve gone from the ground to the stage. They have people paying money to see them and giving them standing ovations. It’s an extreme change.
EK Do you feel responsible in any way?
LA Obviously. You do projects with people and you know that at some point they’re going to end. Yet the deal has been clear all along; this is a temporary project over the course of which they’ve become a part of something very powerful. They’ve experienced the possibility of a different way of life and they’ve recuperated a social connection. What they do with this experience is up to each of them. When doing this kind of project a frequent criticism is that you use people, you give them a chance and then don’t care about what will happen to them afterward. But, in fact, these are reasons for never working with anyone who is different from you; there’s a big fear of getting involved. In fact, once you get involved there is no way back. They transform you as much as you transform them.
EK Are you working on a new project at the moment?
LA I’m currently working on a project called Veterans for the LIFT Festival in London. It’s a video installation in which veterans of the Falklands War ask themselves: What does it mean to be a veteran of a war: having fought, having killed, having seen death, and having survived? Is it a horror or a curse? What does the experience of war turn into over time? I’m interviewing a number of men who participated in the war against England in 1982. Most of them were eighteen when they served in the military. Now they’re a little over fifty and their lives have nothing to do with the military world. With a film crew, we reenacted those memories in the places where these men currently work, so the present and the past are superimposed in the performances. A psychologist, for instance, reenacts the bomb explosion that almost killed him during the war, and does so in the psychiatric hospital where he now works everyday.
EK In an interview with the Argentinean magazine Ñ you said: “Theater is an experience and not a spectacle.” As your work becomes more and more documentary, what is it that still draws you to the world of fiction? What is it you still find there that the real world doesn’t give you?
LA For me, the dilemma between fiction and documentary doesn’t exist. All of my work is based on the art of storytelling where fiction and reality contaminate one another. To tell the story of the death of one’s father in five minutes implies creating a fiction based on certain facts. When we performed El año en que nací as part of the Under the Radar Festival in 2014, a New York Times critic said that the performers were very good and the stories were powerful, but that the direction wasn’t at the same level. She seemed to be under the impression that the actors had stood onstage the first day of rehearsals and told their stories in the exact same way as they were performing them when she saw the play, as if it hadn’t been written and directed by someone. In a way, the play succeeded in enchanting her, the reality effect of the staging had made it so that she couldn’t see the marks of the writing and the direction. I like theater that has the power to make you believe that you didn’t go see a show but, rather, that you lived an experience. That means you were there, in a place where something actuallyhappened.
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