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.

Historias de Amputación a la Hora del Té (Amputation Stories at Tea-Time)—a mordant soap-opera romp presented by a young company called La Niña Horrible—uses a male cast in drag that stomps around and speaks with breathless rapidity to comment on melodramatic representations of women. In contrast, No Despiertes a los Niños (Don’t Wake the Kids), written by the young novelist Constanza Manríquez and staged by Cristián Plana, the most acclaimed director of Chile’s new generation, takes a stripped-down, almost serene, hyper-naturalistic form. Set in a spare, upscale living room, it follows a young straight couple—the woman is a high-powered lawyer whose cellphone rings constantly; her husband is a chef with little professional ambition—as they enact sexual role-playing involving toys and children’s clothes that belong to the kids they only pretend to have. The production is daring in its frank, frontal depictions of sex, especially in a country where, only this month, the lower house of congress voted to change a late Pinochet-era law that criminalized abortion in all circumstances. But more disturbing than the matter-of-fact presentation of a dildo, masturbation, and sex games on stage is the shocking way the husband’s violent and exploitative fantasies emerge, revealing the torturous cruelty he may be capable of.

Trinidad González’s riveting Pájaro (Bird) also depicts young professionals who experience an unexpected meltdown, but in a more casual, Cassavetes-like style. Three friends, all members of the “creative class,” share a decadent evening of drinking, philosophizing, bantering about radicalism, and flirting. When the host (played by González) takes out the garbage, she returns with a man she found sleeping near the trash bins, and the group’s cynicism-from-a-distance is challenged. Claiming to be not a man but a bird, the surprise guest’s complete rejection of a corrupt and violent social system reveals the hypocrisy of the group’s own hollow engagement and tests their professed humanism.

Even the contribution from Guillermo Calderón, the Chilean playwright Americans know best, focused on the relationship between a man and a woman. Calderón’s plays typically deal overtly with leftist movements, militarism, and remembrance of the dictatorship. His play at this year’s festival, Feos (The Ugly Ones), based on a short story by the mid-20th-century Uruguayan writer, Mario Benedetti, follows a man and a woman from the moment they meet standing on a movie queue, through hours of conversation at a café after the film, to a tryst in the man’s apartment. Both have severely disfigured faces, and, through the course of their evening, they frankly confess their fears, desires, and resentments. The characters are portrayed by three-foot-tall puppets, manipulated Bunraku-style by dimly seen, cloaked puppeteers, and all the action is played behind a gauzy scrim. Feos beautifully depicts social outcasts who find mutual recognition, solidarity, even love.

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Perhaps, though, the best way to contemplate Chilean “social imaginaries”—the common values, assumptions, and symbols through which a society envisages and enacts its collective identity—is not through a handful of plays so much as through the structure of the festival itself. After all, the questions most of these plays raise run parallel to those that Santiago a Mil itself is grappling with. Like the administration of President Michelle Bachelet, the festival—and the Fundación Teatro a Mil that sponsors it—stands firmly on progressive backgrounds and principles. But it also has a complicated relationship to the neoliberal economics that took root under Pinochet and the free-market absolutists who built deregulation and privatization into Chile’s constitution.

Founded in 1994, in the period of Chile’s transition to democracy, the Santiago a Mil festival, Romero said, brought people together in public spaces in ways that were impossible during the Pinochet dictatorship. As the festival’s name indicates—it means, essentially, “Santiago for a buck”—tickets were cheap and the mood exuberant. Nowadays, tickets for some shows run upwards of 22,000 pesos (about $30), though discounts and less expensive options abound and free events still feature heavily. This year, for instance, Cocina Publica (Public Kitchen), a piece by a company based in Valparaíso called Teatro Container (Container Theater), set up an outdoor kitchen in various neighborhoods and invited local residents to participate in serving a communal meal, all the while exchanging recipes, cooking tips, stories, and social ideas.

Convening Chileans inside theaters and out, Romero noted, is just as important now as it was during the Pinochet years, because so much of Chile’s public space has been privatized. While reforms inch forward—including efforts to break open the neoliberal chokehold on the government—the social ethos still valorizes the individual at the expense of a common cause, she explained. The festival, then, reminds people that they share a stake in their culture—and in the nation’s future.

But as Santiago a Mil has grown and become, in part, a showcase of Chilean work for presenters from abroad, has that local, populist function diminished? Romero waved off the suggestion. Indeed, in recent years an anxiety about festivals that preoccupied theater makers and scholars in the 1990s has subsided: They worried that international festivals would function as one more vector of homogenizing globalization. At Santiago a Mil, “there is no conflict of goals,” Romero said. “Our audience is first, the Chilean community” and theater remains a means of “knowing who we are and how we are.”

Part of that who and how, theater makers are asserting, is a class of artists and intellectuals that oppose free-market absolutism and its socially deforming powers, even as they know their way around its terrain. In the absence of any local infrastructure, the creators of Santiago a Mil established the Fundación Teatro a Mil a dozen years ago, as a framework for producing the festival each year, and for much more: presenting a smaller annual festival of new Chilean work; commissioning and co-sponsoring new work; sending Chilean productions and artists on tours and exchanges in Chile and abroad; sponsoring workshop visits from international directors; serving as an agent for theater artists; and fostering collaborations with programs abroad. Recently, the Fundación played a significant role in lobbying Chile’s congress for the inclusion of theater education in public schools—and won.

For some young theater artists, however, Santiago a Mil is now part of the system that they work to challenge. At one panel discussion, the director Aliocha de la Sotta urged the Platea participants to check out a wider range of Chilean work. “This is just one festival,” she said, going on to remind the assembled that Santiago a Mil receives a big chunk of funding from an environmentally destructive mining company. One Chilean playwright told me that some artists were even beginning to decline invitations to present at the festival. Like experimental US theater makers who reject the notion that they should aim for Broadway, some Chilean artists are questioning what might be the cost of placing Santiago a Mil as the primary goal.

Interestingly, the festival itself is helping to draw attention to these very contradictions. At another panel, the director Marco Layera, from a cheekily radical young company called La Re-Sentida (The Resentfulbut also, because of the hyphen, the Re-Felt or even, Re-Considered), described Chile as “still a banana republic with lots of inequality.” In works like Trying to Make a Play That Will Change the World (The Final Delirium of the Last Romantics), La Re-Sentida is examining the artists’ own position as a “bohemian bourgeoisie.” They understandand criticize“how capitalism got humanized,” Layera said. The Fundación Teatro a Mil is presenting the company’s next play in Chile in June, and then helping to send them to Avignon, France.