Those who have followed the pre-Jackie work of Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain know that political resistance has always been driven by words. In his 2012 film No, a young ad executive uses advertising pitches to motivate people to vote “no” on an assumed-to-be meaningless referendum and oust longtime dictator Augusto Pinochet. His Neruda (2016) is a portrait of a poet whose work had such an Orpheus-like influence on the Chilean people that the government needed to hunt him down.
Chilean theater also has a powerful ability to influence the public in ways that Americans might find hard to fathom. It may be easier to understand after we see Teatro Sur’s Inútiles (Useless), coming to the Hop January 5 and 6—the US premiere of the show, which garnered acclaim in South American and Europe, and the US debut of Teatro Sur. More about Chile and the role theater plays in social change will be explored in free discussions before each performance, at 7 pm in the Top of the Hop.
Chilean Theater: Entwined with nationhood
The boisterous, innovative and decidedly topical tone of Teatro Sur’s work is representative of the current vitality of Chilean theater. Colonized in the mid-16th century by Spain—who vanquished the Inca in northern and central Chile but failed to subdue the Mapuche in south-central Chile—the country declared independence from Spain in 1818, around the same time the first theater opened its doors in Santiago. Theatrical expression was very much a part of that emerging nationhood, and Chilean theater has been entwined with Chilean politics and history ever since.
In the 19th century Chilean theater arts were modeled after those of Europe, especially Spain and France. Entering the 20th century, however, Chile began to develop its own unique dramaturgy and playwrights, and directors and actors were able to make a living in theater as professionals. In the first half of the 20th Century, the leading edge was the so-called “Teatro Obrero” or Workers’ Theater, a leftist, working-class movement. In the 1950s and thanks to the dynamism of university theater groups, experimental theater gained momentum. Such playwrights as Luis Alberto Heiremans, Egon Wolff and Fernando Debesa incorporated social critique, the recovery of history and folklore into their plays, side by side with personal questing and transcendence. In the 1960s, as with theater in the US and Europe, radical collective creation became the dominant mode—while Chile elected Marxist Salvador Allende as president.
The brutal military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet that ousted Allende in 1973 also cracked down on theater. Theaters closed down, the number of plays performed decreased and audiences shrank as well. Theater artists and scholars were imprisoned, tortured and even assassinated, or went into exile. Productions were hampered by censorship, curfews and space restrictions, along with the dismantling of distribution channels and publicly financed support systems, and even the closing of theatres and drama schools, according to a 2015 article in Theatre Research International.
Nevertheless, by the beginning of the 1980s, the dictatorship faced massive protests, and had to loosen its policies. As a result, a cultural resurgence began to materialize in marginalized, almost clandestine, spaces. By the fall of the dictatorship in 1990, theater had re-emerged, and a new generation of artists were combining new vocabulary and stage art, film and even multimedia. Today, in Santiago alone, about 200 plays are performed annually, by about 50 large and small theaters ranging in size from 60 to 1,200 seats. The theaters are independently run, Chile having no national or public theaters.