If you want to know what issues will matter most to Chile tomorrow, look at its theater today. So advised Carmen Romero, the fireball executive director of Fundación Teatro a Mil, producer of Chile’s annual international theater festival. In January, the 23rd Santiago a Mil festival drew nearly half a million spectators to its 300 performances of 67 shows, 32 of them visiting from abroad–from as nearby as Argentina and Uruguay and as far away as Poland, Korea, and China. There were music concerts, dance pieces, circus shows, outdoor spectacles, community theater, and lots of plays: realistic; postmodern; classical; and a special series of Shakespeare productions, part of the world-wide commemoration of the 400th anniversary of his death. All these events were scattered among Santiago’s sprawling, traffic-jammed metropolis. And many toured to other cities in Chile.
My time in Santiago overlapped with the “Platea”—the week-long slice of the festival when presenters, producers, and festival directors from around the world are invited to see work, join conversations with artists, and hear panel discussions about contemporary trends, especially in the Southern Cone. Programmers came from across South and Central America, the United States, Europe, and Australia.
No less than Chile’s foreign minister, Heraldo Muñoz, welcomed the Platea participants, insisting on the value of art for expressing Chilean distinctiveness and building intercultural relationships. Sure, his appearance signaled, in part, the festival’s role in asserting Santiago’s status as a global city, but it also sounded like a sincere appreciation for artists. Imagine our secretary of state greeting visitors at, say, New York’s Under the Radar festival and extolling the importance of theater to national identity and international relations. On a panel called “Historical Context of Performing Arts in Latin America,” the semiotician Hector Ponce echoed Romero’s claim: “Theater shows the symptoms of what is happening in our society. The festival becomes a screen for showing the future. It is a laboratory for our social imaginaries.”
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I decided to concentrate most of my time on homegrown plays to test Romero’s maxim. What did the half-a-dozen Chilean plays I saw project? With one exception—a beautiful if blunt outdoor performance ceremony of dance, drumming, singing, and declamation, by and about the indigenous Mapuche people, directed by the international art star Lemi Ponifasio, a New Zealander of Samoan background—the best ones looked inward, and widely so. Contemporary Chilean theater is known for confronting current political conflicts, historical memory, and the lingering impact of the Pinochet dictatorship (1973 to 1990) in allegorical, nonlinear, meta-theatrical, or unadorned vérité styles. After all, the theater boldly emerged in the 1980s as one of the few places to express open dissent against the dictatorship. That legacy of critique still suffuses the Chilean stage.
Pieces in this year’s festival—even by playwrights whose earlier works have involved revolutionary characters, historical settings, and meta-theatrical forms—tended more toward narrative realism about present-day people. Still, they did more than simply explore characters’ personal relationships and psychologies; they showed how the weight of political forces shapes their struggles, and how socioeconomic reality seeps into their intimate relationships. They trained the spotlight on the theater artists’ own generation to consider how social systems—especially class and gender—operate in their lives.