Exercises of Memory in an Abandoned Shed: Part Two

There’s two hours left for the end of the final show of the Diploma Course in Dramatic Writing and Political Theater, in Lima. This is the second installment of the event.

Teatro y memoria A scene of the play, “El Lonche” (“Afternoon Tea”). | Photo: © Claudia Córdova Once again, a voice summons us. The public is disperse, messy, maybe due to this same fatigue. We are brought together to look toward the cinema entrance. Music plays, a woman sings and another woman speaks. There’s a woman, whom we later perceive her as carrying the weight of an “x”. There’s also a trans woman, a queer person, a trans man who begins his testimony. Well, why not? But there’s something weird about this. Her condition is a present of violence: she—the sister of a missing farmer, she—sister Antigone who goes on the quest for the corpse of her brother. It is violence overlapped, as she is also treated as something that should be disappeared. Finally, there’s the loneliness, the most absolute (or “perpetual”) loneliness, only in the presence of the singer. And I think: so many un-epic stories, so many secondary stories. So many pains that were only experienced in privacy, maybe because some did not have the right to make them public. A disturbing work, one that stuns us is “Momentáneamente perpetua” (“Momentarily Perpetual“).

Now we go back to the back of the shed, where we find “Reconstruyendo a Maquiavelo” (“Rebuilding Machiavelli”), the story of a woman who rebuilds her father’s story, and thus rebuilds the complexity of a historical context. It’s a successful production, which works based on documentary devices, symbolic elements, and rituals. The strength of the text lies again in the use of non-fiction and small biography, in focusing on seemingly insignificant situations, those that constitute the small epics of the common man: their moments of sovereignty, as Bataille would say. “Reconstruyendo a Maquiavelo” is a reflection on fragments of the life of a common man, on an experience that becomes historic through the performative-dramaturgic exercise.

We turn to the right to attend an interesting exercise, a mock Skype meeting, through which a young man discovers his father’s hiker past, and makes his mother pay for never telling him. It’s a good idea that would have been well-rounded if it had played with the performativity of all formats, including recording. If this had been live, I think it would have achieved the intensity it had intended. Then we move to a different place. Undoubtedly, the first two actions set the tone for us. I’m now engaged, much more involved than at the beginning. Despite how disparate the next proposals are, they seem to want to enter into dialogue with the last show.

“Paraíso (“Paradise”), set in a performative-ritual format, reminds us of “Despertares,” although in a somewhat more biodramatic tone. It’s a text that plots a reading of Peru’s recent past in correspondence with milestones of the author’s life. Then there’s “El lonche” (“Afternoon Tea”) a theatrical exercise that intended to bring stress between various positions about the militant commitment of a father, facing his children, who in different ways want to make him pay for his absence. It’s an interesting material, which can be imagined as a little piece of learning in a Brecht-like style. Instead of emphasizing the reality of the characters, it stops at the rhetoric, and gives the father’s discourse a force that makes it possible to compare the strength of the daughter’s position with the powerlessness of the mother.

What came after is something I propose to read as a single unit. Surely the set of these last five productions was for me the most complete moment of this exercise, not only due to the quality of the work, but also because there was a proposal of imagined immersion made by the directors of this show, Chaska Mori and Sergio Llusera. I experienced an experience of flow where the parts were not diluted; on the contrary, from their peculiarities, they were able to engage in dialogue like parts of an inorganic machine. These were artifacts that talked, that diverged, that tightened, that interrupted each other. An assembly that built a real topological playwriting.

The first moment: “Cayar o los silencios” (“Cayar or The Silences”) [this is a word play between “callar” (to be quiet) and Cayara, a Peruvian district where a massacre took place in 1988]. The daughter of a military man who has spent her entire life in the protected regime of the barracks discovers from the exercise of memory the participation of her father in a massacre of peasants. Here the debt becomes conflict, she does not intend for her father to pay for this; rather, she demands a reparation of historical justice. But in that almost Oedipal insistence; actually, genuinely Oedipal (and a play between the tragic and Freudian versions of the term), she discovers that history is built on a daily basis from individual stories. She discovers that history is not only the act of retelling facts; it is also the act of facing oblivion, facing the question about oblivion, why things are omitted, why sometimes we need to forget. This is a very well built text that invites us to delve little by little into the complexity of the issue. When we realize this, it’s too late; we become, somehow, complicit with the performer, whether it is for what we’ve done, or for what we have failed to do. For me, that was the peak of it all.

Then the group is led towards the right side of the shed, taken by those acousmatic voices, and is placed around a small stage. On it, there is a woman. She’s well dressed, clearly from another social class. A lawyer? The daughter of a mother who’s a lawyer or psychologist? She’s the daughter of a therapist, a strong woman who works in prison with the “worst” enemies of the nation: the terrorists. This daughter also recalls. She also has a version of the facts. She, who has not lived the situation of terrorism firsthand, but she did so as a child, when the blackouts were happy moments to get together and play as a family. She also recalls. And her experience brings back questions for us. At times the condition of victim and victimizer becomes porous, subjectively and temporarily. The world is not divided between the perpetrators and the oppressors. The accomplices are also there, as a kind of middle voice, acting in secret or in omission.

Eventually, the civilians who kept their privileges while a social class, the peasantry, was exploited and killed, are also complicit. Those who set the bombs irresponsibly were also complicit, or those who supported these actions discursively, those who thoughtlessly supported the repression of the military were complicit too. This is a seemingly simple text, but which speaks from a truth; that is the key in this last part. To speak with one’s own truth, a particular truth. To speak without looking to settle debts or reconcile a post-traumatic effect. To speak with one’s own history: we’re still on the dissection table, we’re still in that anatomical theatre.

Now we look toward the back of the shed, not at the amputated perspective of the lobby of the old cinema. Privacy becomes space. A young man is building his story, but he does so to get to his father’s. The father acts on behalf of the father, again; the debt, once again the vital urgency of the autobiographical is there. Memory is spatialized this time, the life of his father told in milestones that are marking sites and these sites mark gestures. It’s a ritual of self-healing, where I’m certain that I’m attending a radically unique event. I’m certain that what’s happening there is, for the first and only time, the dramaturgical exercise turned performance in full: a biodrama in real time. Eventually, the father completes the action, at the end there’s the recognition of the son, of a hard life, simply of a life. It’s the rite of the most archaic of communities: the family, which is not the core of anything, but just the most basic organization of mammals; still, it’s never immune to political contexts.

The next proposal, “Elidia,” is also a story in a biodramatic style, but in this case the voice of the narrator becomes an omniscient testimony of a “good deed.” Contrasts were missing, the other’s voice, the girl’s voice was missing, we couldn’t find out whether the adoption was a paternalistic salvation or a call to overcome their condition of subordination.

The final staging is, without doubt, a great closure, an excellent choice made by the directors of the show. Its title may mark the spirit of this experience of immersion in memory: “Este cuento no ha terminado” (“This Story Has Not Ended”) is a work that exudes showmanship, a direct exercise with lots of clever irony. It brings up the contradictions of memory, once again the porosity between victim and victimizer, between those and the silent accomplices: the ordinary inhabitants of Lima, who remained in the normalcy of their lives while the guerrillas were in the countryside. It shows the contradictions of a story that is not being told, thanks to “god” or thanks to the theater.

Humor is appreciated when behind it there’s something that’s completely opposite to banality. Humor appears as a way to endure, to deal with the trauma. It’s a well-rounded exercise with a text that mixes different materials and dimensions: sometimes it’s the story of the actors themselves, sometimes they take the place of others momentarily. Sometimes they call us, they turn us into these passive accomplices, we reproduce this attitude of not wanting to know, not wanting to face the facts. The last work not only closes the show, but as a corollary, it tells us that the exercise of memory in Peru has recently begun and predicts not only its difficulty, but also its urgency.

What is playwriting? The workshop started from the convention that playwriting, in general, is synonymous with writing for the theater. But this sample strained this assumption. Playwriting is nothing but the role of narrating the scene. Playwriting is just the web of actions that may reside in a written text, in an actor’s body, or in the visuality of space. Playwriting is an invitation to a flow of intensities, a sequence that, albeit thought from the text as an a priori, is always thinking performatively, since it’s all about maintaining people’s attention, a state of vigilance, or a concern for what I mean to say. Playwriting is a flow of intensities performatively projected to keep us in a state of vigilance about the here and now of a performance.

From this point of view, there were many playwriting projects. I feel that, in general, those who insisted in biographical aspects as such and circumvented fiction contained a special power. That is to say, when the proposal was unfocused from the usual place, from the expected thematic treatments, when it worked on documentary devices or turned its own story into a document, it allowed for distance and comparison. There was less strength, in my opinion, when a literal fiction of the real was built. When they repeated victimization through a moving or simply emotional story. Surely there were also interesting proposals of the traditional sort, in which fiction managed to reflect the pain of a situation. In the end, this is not about styles, but rather about what I’m seeking to produce in the audience. It is about provoking reflections and not solutions. It is about understanding that memory becomes collective in the theater, and collective memory is an endless thread of Ariadne.

Perhaps what I have seen is something that sets the condition of the work of art itself on its limits, something that proposes art as an urgency, a possibility of thinking about the present unexpectedly. Lima goes dark, and what had begun as a sleepless stupor has become exultation. I feel privileged to have been able to share this experience of memories with other Latin Americans, for despite our being so close, we remain so far from each other. The cinema closes. Now this abandoned shed is packed.