Exercises of Memory in an Abandoned Shed: Part One

Chilean playwright and researcher Mauricio Barría Jara was one of the attendees at the final show of the Diploma Course in Dramatic Writing and Political Theater, in Lima. This is the first installment of his reflection about it.

Teatro y memoria Barría Jara (center) watches one of the first ten works presented in the old Olaya Theater. | Photo: © Claudia Córdova

We arrive at the meeting point. It’s an old theater in the Chorrillos district: Olaya. The façade still retains a certain elegance theaters from the 50s used to have. From the inside, only the structure of reinforced concrete and the nakedness of its zinc roof remain. It’s a disturbing space, when we realize that its past has been somehow erased. There is little to remind us that this used to be a cinema; today, it rather looks like a wide shed, the headquarters of a promising Cultural Center. I can’t help thinking about the films screened here, I think of the people who cried, laughed, or loved in this place, when it still had seats. I think about the city that used to house this place, the old shops, of which there are still some traces, about ways of life, ways of inhabiting the city, which maybe today are no more. I think about all that, but what’s for sure is that we’re here. Me, in Lima for the first time, flooded with the sleepless stupor of a journey that had begun at 3am in Santiago, in a warm city in the middle of winter, in which the presence of the ocean strikes secretly.

It’s 4pm. The space is abuzz with anticipation. I don’t know much about what’s going to happen. I know it’s the final show of a playwriting workshop on theater and memory, which has been going on for more than nine months. I receive explanations, I get in context, I take a cup of coffee, chatting with the distinguished Lima-born playwright and director Alfonso Santistevan, one of the teachers at the course. I’m trying to imagine. I’m cheerfully surprised that this is all about dramatic exercises of memory in a course where 22 people participated, and not all of them are directly linked to the stage. It was an interdisciplinary group, interdisciplinary work. There are many proposals, 20 to be exact, which will manifest themselves in the span of four hours.

The event starts at about 4:30pm. We are invited to a place in the middle of the space filled with people and devoid of its history. We are facing a table: a woman, an actress, has spread on it a series of pictures; soon we’ll find out that they’re her parents and grandparents. We find out that she is partly the granddaughter of peasants, and partly, of urbanites. She emphasizes this contradiction, she carries the contradiction as a body double. However, everything is told from pictures, from her family album, which today is spread out along with other documents on that operation table where the anatomical theater of her memory is taking place; the theater of her memory reconstructed from the story of her grandparents, a memory not experienced, an experience in stories, like extensions or prostheses inhabiting her body in the present of her version. An anatomical theater, as it is obvious that the body is not just the physical evidence of our anatomy, but it’s also its subtle double, that is, the aura of our ancestors. That was “Hombres escalera” (“Ladder Men”).

Then, a voice invites us to move and leads us to the next location. I’m beginning to understand that this will be about building a drift through space, that the various proposals will be the stations of some sort of topological playwriting. Indeed, the shades and intensities, as well as the resources will vary from station to station, generating a very heterogeneous show, also diverse in its achievements. We continue with “Carnaval” (“Carnival”), a realistic-fantastical mise-en-scène, in which the presence of a radio broadcast places us in a time prior to this. Once again, the urban-rural relationship is explored, but this time the resource is fiction, a theater of fiction, or a fantastic realism, so to speak, just like as Ulfo’s, where the living and the dead coexist simultaneously. Then we cross all the way to the other side of the shed and we find a woman who seems to tell us about her writing process and the impossibility of finishing it. It is called “Carguyoc.” In this case, certain scenic solutions are interesting, as they speak of something different from the playwriting process. Memory and debt are a point of tension here, and this is an axis that will be repeated later.

Once this sequence is completed, we are invited to look through a window that faces an adjoining room in the same space. The window generates a real theater through which we spy on the scene. We watch “La jaula se abre” (“The Cage Opens”), about the pardon of Fujimori and his collusion with the press and the judiciary. It is a scene set in a parodic tone that manages to portray the character without telling us something new about him or about the situation. For the first time, there is a more direct reference to political memory.

The amount of attendees begins to become an obstacle when it comes to watching all the shows; this is the case with the next work, “Tullullantapas Tariruyman,” set in a room. Here I manage to glance at it and listen with difficulty, but I’m able to get in. It’s a small piece where there’s one performer, a Data, some sound equipment, and some objects. This is a documentary-style proposal in which the author leads us to question the relationship between memory and oblivion. From the emphasis placed on the autobiographical nature of the work, like the anatomical table at the beginning, once again the process and the work itself become apparent here, and for the first time, there is an axis that will be reiterated discursively in other productions: the situation of those forcefully disappeared during the time of the guerrillas at the hands of the military and terrorist groups. This is memory as debt, as the urgency of a granddaughter to reconstitute a story that occurred in her grandfather’s house. Although the production did not come together completely, the diversity of resources used generated a powerful dynamic in the performative story. The exercise managed to bring up once more the problem of the process of investigation as the subject: memory as an inquest.

This first part closes with five more samples that are dissimilar—in my opinion—in their achievements: “1977 - Festival de ligaduras” ("1977 - Festival of Ties”), a mixture of clown and theater with a moral in which a character parodies the famous doctor who used to dress up as a clown to amuse leukemic children in a hospital in the US. But this time, the patient is a woman victim of forced sterilization during the Fujimori regime. What seems to be a good idea in principle, ends up becoming an ambiguous proposal that could not shift the status of victim away from the victim, insisting that we must somehow feel sorry for her.

The same happens with “Despertares” (“Awakenings”), a work of great intensity with recognizable aesthetics, somewhat reminiscent of the works of Yuyachkani. This is a powerful story of peasant women forcefully disappeared set as an exposure piece. However, here the victim remains locked in her fatal condition, once again. Evidently, the density of what is narrated won’t leave us unscathed. In the case of “La hija de Marcial” (“Marcial’s Daughter”), the author achieves a more complex view. In spite of how conventional it is, in terms of form, this text is, from my point of view, the most polished proposal in terms of writing, to the point that the simple reading of a fragment was enough to perceive its potential. Finally, we watch two more “youthful” and futuristic (in the latter case) proposals: “Ciclo impar” (“Odd Cycle”) and “La raza” (“The Race”), productions that are on a quest for an authorial language.

The first part of this tour ended with these works. I can’t deny my fatigue, but the trip was not the reason for it anymore. Each proposal had amassed in me a new discovery about a painful history in Peru, of which one only used to know its most newsworthy side. Surely, in all these exercises, memory appeared as an urgency; in each of these authors, this urgency translated into commitment.

As my energy declined, the night fell in Lima. I had been locked up in this old cinema for nearly two hours, attending a show made of reality, which sent me back to my own pains. I thought about the differences, I thought that as the market becomes globalized, the forms of destruction and violence also follow common patterns. There are no isolated incidents, no great conspiracy either; what is common to all our recent history as Latin America has been the consolidation of a model of economic exploitation that needed to exert violence in order to insert and justify itself. The worst thing is that this legitimizing or immune violence, as Esposito would say, is still completely current, operating neither subtly nor dissuasively; on the contrary, it is increasingly obscene and brash...