Artist Talk with Teatro La Re-sentida

Ng Yi-Sheng

June 28, 2015

So yesterday I abandoned the  Show Me the World Symposium to listen to a talk by the creators of  The Imagination of the Future, which was, may I reiterate, in-FUCKING-credible.

Keng Sen: It’s been a dream of bringing this show here since I saw it in Avignon. It brought back memories of ‘90s theatre in Singapore. The theatre is very physical, very potent, full of a lot of screaming and shouting, which we did a lot more of in the ‘90s. It was very angry… In Singapore, the theatre has become commercial in many ways.

I know it’s meant as praise, but it’s a bit condescending, no? To suggest that this passionate play is in some way, primitive? Anyhow, KS found himself standing outside their dressing room like a teenage groupie, pleading to meet with the manager so he could lure these folks all the way to a tiny island with absolutely nothing in common with their land…

Pictured: Director Marco Layera and actors Carolina Palacios and... um, either Diego Acuña or Pedro Muñoz. I can't remember...

And it turns out it’s this issue that director Marco Layera wants to address. He spent a huge portion of the talk simply explaining the political context of the play.

How Salvador Allende, once elected as President, had attempted to introduce socialism to Chile peacefully. How the corporations were utterly against him, as was the press, as was (dun-dun-DUN) the United States. How not even the Soviets wanted to back him up, as a peaceful revolution would delegitimise their totalitarian regimes.

So Pinochet stormed his palace in 1973, he gave his famous speech and committed suicide, and the country suffered under a 17-year dictatorship which coincidentally also brought about an economic boom due to its Chicago-style neoliberal policies…

And then came democracy, just like in Pablo Larraín’s film NO, no? Turns out it’s not so simple. The left-wing parties had formed a pact with the powers that be, making sure they wouldn’t disturb the status quo.

Marco Layera: Unfortunately, we’re still the same country. With some differences, but still the same country.

So they’re left with not only with rampant inequality and other social problems, but also a taboo against speaking against the country’s leadership, since they’re the restorers of democracy.

But a tipping point’s come. There've been exposés: in the field of corruption, it turned out their left-wing politicians were accepting large contributions from corporations and making policy decisions in their favour; their President's announced a Cabinet change on late-night TV, of all places. And the young people, who don't have that sense of awe for these "liberators", are taking to the streets to protest.

[ Source]

ML: I am very surprised by my own country, because I believed we were not third world.  It’s a surprise because we have a president who is a woman who was a victim of the dictatorship, and her father was killed during the dictatorship. But the moment to stand up and speak up against her has come. And this is very interesting.

We cannot forget the past. [The politicians] have to stop victimising themselves to get followers. They cannot use what happened years ago to become figures of authority. Because the generation that fought against dictatorship and restored democracy and is ruling the country became very comfortable ruling the country, and the only thing they’ve ever done is administrate the system that was left by the dictatorship.

We have arrived at a moment of social crisis, but also a very beautiful crisis, because people are standing up to speak out.

***

Layera and his friends began Teatro La Re-Sentida (which means Resentment Theatre) around the time Chile was celebrating some big anniversary, boasting about how developed and egalitarian they were, yadda yadda. He felt he needed to show everyone how far there was still to go.

So he's specifically been trying to make plays that will change the world. He's wrestled with the idea of whether this is indeed possible - whether they're just champagne-drinking attention-seekers who do the show for glamour, when they could be effecting social change in so many other ways. 

Which led him to create The Imagination of the Future. He's not preaching to the converted with this play: many in Chile are horrified to see their beloved leader being portrayed as a bumbling, doddering, cocaine-addicted narcoleptic.  This is an act of treason to them: those who admire Allende attacking Allende; left against left.

ML: As a generation it’s important to put him in another perspective. It’s a generation that does not have the vision of a hero, unlike my parents’ generation who worshipped him as an untouchable symbol. As a new generation we have this freedom, due to all the social processes that we’ve talked about.

What’s important is that this is not a historical play. It is a fiction. Salvador Allende did not sniff cocaine.  My aim is not to portray truths. It is to evoke questions, because I do not believe there is one path to follow. We’re not trying to sell propaganda.

Mind you, there is plenty of hard historical fact here. There were little girls who had rats inserted in their vaginas as a form of torture. There are 14 year-old boys who have been killed by "stray bullets" fired by the police.

***

Once, Chile had a pretty healthy theatre scene - state funding, regular audiences. The Pinochet regime got rid of all that. Now, Layera and his gang enviously observe the thriving Monday-to-Sunday theatre scenes of their neighbours like Argentina, and decry the stereotype-laden trash they have on TV instead.

ML: Being a third world or undeveloped country – even though we don’t want to be one – culture does not have an important role. So when you say you’re an actor, people immediately say, so what else do you do? What is your real job? That’s a broad example of how people think of actors and theatre in Chile.

In Chile there’s a very undeveloped system to do theatre, and very unstable. From that perspective, making theatre in Chile is an act that requires love and volunteering, because many young companies perform, losing their own money. 99% of any actor in Chile does not live from their own acting. Whether the show is good or bad, I treasure the devotion that actors put into it, the generosity that goes on.

I used to think culture was not very important. In our first play we said it was very unethical to ask the government to give us money to make any kind of art when there were still people without homes, without health, without education. I would think that in Chile it was OK for culture to be on a different level because there were necessities that were not satisfied.

Later on, I changed my mind. The possibility to travel to Europe, especially France, and realise how important culture is in France, especially when I engaged in conversations with teenagers and kids, made me realise how culture helped them become actual citizens. Every time I talked with a teenager or kid, I was very shocked, because they were very young, but they had a social vision, and they were very deep and thoughtful in everything they would say. From then on, I believe that culture must have a primary role in contemporary societies. 

Unfortunately, in Chile, that does not happen. Because there’s no money, because the money that’s there is not properly distributed. For the first two years, our actors had no pay cheques. 60% of this play, they worked on for free, for the love for doing what they like.  If we didn’t do this we wouldn’t really live. With or without money, we will still work on this.

When I say we’re privileged, it’s because we’re living from acting. We have no kids – later  it’ll be more complicated. We can live well, we can visit many countries, and meet people in the art world who were people whom we looked up to.

***

[ Source]

Here’s one last big issue addressed in the talkback: the issue of censorship. MDA said three parts of the play were not acceptable for public viewing: a scene in which it’s revealed that a minister is watching German pornography on his MacBook, a scene in which an actress strips off her top to urge an audience member to donate to charity, and a sequence where the coked-up ministers accuse Pope Francis of unbelievable sexual perversions.

So, for Singapore audiences, all three sequences ran with labels reading “CENSORED IN SINGAPORE”: once over the MacBook monitor, once on the actress’s tube top, and once over the ministers’ heads.

Carolina Palacios: In Singapore, when we heard that some parts had to be censored, my first reaction was, “Why, why do I have to censor something?” But once Marco thought about these changes, the objective was to make it obvious that we were being censored, and you could tell by the audience’s reactions, because people laughed a lot during those parts.

I think it’s because they relate to the fact that there is censorship in Singapore. And it’s very positive because that brings people in Singapore closer to our play, which is a Chilean play. It narrows the distance between countries and cultures.

Layera said it’s the only time in his entire tour he’s been asked to make such a change. And he only got the info two weeks before the show!

ML: Us as artists could feel very offended and we could be in a position where we said we’re not going because my work is not being respected. I took it as a creative challenge. How to make it explicit that we’re being censored, so that you as an audience could be made aware that Singapore censors, and the audience could decide on why other people are deciding for me what I can see, what I can do?

Every single society has different conflicts and different issues. Of course when I realise that here they censor things, I wonder what is happening here. And that’s when I reflect and think deeply, because I did not know much about Singapore. And then I started reading and investigating about Singapore and how things are done here.

And can I tell you something? I’ve traveled to many coutnries, and every time I go to another country and try to figure it out, I’ve had a very hard time figuring it out in Singapore. It’s a very unique and sui generis country. It’s not good or bad, but from my perspective, it’s very different from what I’ve seen before. I walk through the streets and think, this is Miami. Where is the filth, where are the poor people? I don’t know. It’s made Singapore for me another reference point, another reality, and it’s very interesting. Because they also have this problem with censoring things, so there must be a lot more. Instead of seeing just this wonderful theatre play in this nice setting, it makes you wonder what’s happening behind the set, behind the nice impression you get. Where is that space, that spot where everything could fall apart?

It’s very interesting, because I don’t understand it. I only know there’s this government agency that reviews and censors every play. In Chile, that happened during the dictatorship.

What would have happened if we had not respected the censorship?

And as a concluding statement, one Singaporean artist in attendance noted an peculiar advantage of our system of media management.

Loo Zihan: As an artist, it forces me to see the state’s position on everything. I can see the state performing.

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  • 2015