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Dialogue of the Hemispheres

The Peruvian theatre group Ópalo in the play “In welcher Jahreszeit sind wir?” (What season are we in?)
The Peruvian theatre group Ópalo in the German-language play “In welcher Jahreszeit sind wir?” (What season are we in?) | Photo: Eduardo Irujo

Peruvian theatre director Jorge Villanueva remembers how his encounter with German culture helped him to reflect on the bloody past of his own country.

By Jorge Villanueva

For many years the Goethe-Institut in Lima, Peru, has been using a contemporary focus to bring German culture closer to Peruvian society through constant dialogue and cooperation with numerous Peruvian artists. Since my time as a young student I have regularly taken part in the events hosted by the Goethe-Institut. That was how I first came into contact with movie buffs like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff, Wim Wenders and many more. Furthermore I attended conferences on philosophical themes as well as concerts, and I could follow intellectual debates at close range for hours. Since the 80s these activities facilitated my access to a cultural space that surpassed the traditional formats and existed beyond mass consumption and the entertainment culture.

In 1996 the Catholic University of Peru organised a collaboration with the Goethe-Institut to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Bertolt Brecht’s death. It included a production entitled “Coraje en el exilio” directed by Chela de Ferrari. The play tells the story of the time in which Bertolt Brecht lived in exile. I was privileged to participate in this production as an actor, and I remember the impact it made in the scene. Just think: Alberto Fujimori had carried out a coup and imposed his rule on all government institutions. I clearly remember that César Hildebrandt, one of our most important and highly respected journalists, made the following comment when he saw the play, which was funded by the Goethe-Institut: “What a wonderful, multidimensional country, where even in such difficult times there are still artists who sing songs about Bertolt Brecht.”

My cooperation with the Goethe-Institut as a theatre director began in 2008. In five consecutive years of performing a diverse selection of plays with the Ópalo theatre group, we introduced a kind of dramaturgy previously unknown in our theatre scene. As a result our local audience got to know contemporary German and German-language plays for the first time.
It’s interesting to consider how these plays, written in a different hemisphere with different problems, realities and contexts, could leave such a deep impression on the Peruvian audience. One thing is that themes such as migration, exclusion, uprooting and war are extremely sensitive aspects for our society. Furthermore there is a time in our recent past that we have not yet come to terms with. Our country experienced a civil war between 1980 and 2000. These 20 years of conflict and political violence have split our country. The legacy of colonialisation still continues and has left its mark. Many of the scars caused by the war have still not healed.

In 2013 I was invited by the Goethe-Institut and the International Theatre Institute (ITI) to sit in at the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin. As an observer I followed the creative process of the “Cherry Orchard” by Anton Chekhov in a production directed by Nurkan Erpulat. The director, who is of Turkish heritage, gave the production an intercultural focus. The majority of the cast consisted of German actors of Turkish origin. What’s more their discourse portrayed an intercultural German society on the same principles as Chekhov’s original, depicting a new Russian society partially composed of the descendants of the peasants who revolted against the decadence of the oligarchs.

I remember that on the opening night a member of the cast came up to me and said: “That isn’t Chekhov.” I just listened and thought in that moment: “Well, what is Chekhov then?” This question gathered all the more force due to the fact that I had had the opportunity to travel to Moscow three months before the start of rehearsals in the Gorki Theatre to see a production of the “Cherry Orchard” at the legendary Chekhov Art Theatre. I must admit that I was disappointed. The production followed a traditional style, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem was that the discourse created the impression of being stuck at the start of the 20th century.
At the rehearsals in Berlin on the other hand, there was nothing conventional about the actors’ improvisations.

Furthermore the character Charlotta was played by a queer performer of Turkish origin who is very well known in the scene. In my personal view, this production was able to communicate at a far deeper level what Chekhov intended to bring to our attention in his original context. When I returned to Lima, there was no doubt that as a director my horizons had broadened.

I would like to close this recollection with an extremely significant event that took place between 2016 and 2017. It concerns a cooperation between the Goethe-Institut and the Universidad del Pacífico, which was introducing a core course with a focus on theatre and memory. Key Peruvian theorists and academics, as well as guests from Germany, were invited within the scope of this course. People who were interested in reflecting on and articulating their discourses in reference to their own memories and the memory of the years of violence experienced during the civil war. Works emerged from this course that demonstrated a far more complex interpretation of this period of our history for the first time.

Over the course of the years, the Goethe-Institut has made a contribution that was characterised by constant articulation and reflection through diverse artistic and cultural forms of expression, and which raised new questions and challenges. I am celebrating this 70th anniversary with enthusiasm.