Cross-national theatre: coupling American and Argentine icons

by Anisa George

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,Global Connections

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(This post is part of the Global Connections grant program and blog salon.)

Today is my last day in Buenos Aires. I came here a couple of weeks ago with the aid of a Global Connections Grant to embark on a new creation with an old collaborator, Natalia Chami (now co-director and founder of the company LindaLinda).

The day I arrived in Buenos Aires was inauspiciously the day Alfredo Alcón died. He was an actor so beloved by the country of Argentina, that there was a public wake staged for him in the National Palace, as well as a gathering at the National Theatre by several generations of theater artists who wept for his loss.

“Seguirá siéndolo por mucho tiempo, cada vez que se levanta un telón en Buenos Aires” – reads the paper the next morning at our local café, where a gigantic photograph of his face peeks out at me between the folds of a crimson curtain. I’m about one-month-old in the Spanish-speaking department, and it takes me (with the help of a waitress) about six minutes to decode this sentence. Eventually we settle on, “He will continue on for a long time, each time a curtain is raised in Buenos Aires.”

Argentine Icons in La Boca

(Photo: Argentine Icons in La Boca)
“Never heard of him,” I say – a fact that stands right in the way of some of the work I’ve come here to do, which is to create a new piece that can connect with an Argentine audience. Alfredo Alcón is the first in a long series of introductions to the national personalities of Argentina I have never heard of, including: Valeria Mazza, Los Wachiturros, Gabriela Sabatini, Carlos Gardel, and last but not least - Maradona. Our students performed the gestures of these personalities at a workshop Natalia Chami and I led on “icons, stereotypes, and performing national identity” at Escuela Internacional de Cabuia. I met these legends of Argentina one-by-one through their bodies and biases, scribbling their names down so I could Google them later. The play I have come here to develop with Natalia Chami could largely orbit around these kinds of characters. The cultural ambassadors that represent you in foreign lands. The names which are dropped like “Bush”, “Obama”, and “M.J.” as a sort of nod to your tribe when you are somewhere very, very far away from home.

The problem we arrive at, fairly quickly, is that the icons that are meaningful to us mean very little to the people we may be performing for. For example, Natalia whispers to me at the end of a Vivi Tellas show, “See that woman in the jacket? So famous!” and I smile knowing how one should feel at a moment like this, though I can’t really feel that way at all about this particular person. And at the same time they’re playing Christmas jingles by Ella Fitzgerald here in this cafe where I’m writing you from, and I don’t think anyone here is aware of how absurd that seems in the middle of April except me. You see the difficulty we’re up against?

Natalia and I began with a slightly different departure point, to make a piece about our parallel histories. Natalia’s conception of the USA is stuck in the year 1991 when she and her family were robbed and subsequently stranded in Disneyland. My notions of Argentina are stuck in the stories of my grandparents, aunts and uncles, who lived in Argentina between the years of 1968-1970. This was a time when Americans were stoned in the streets in retaliation for the violence perpetrated by the US-backed military junta. But the politics have shifted so dramatically since that time, and because of our specific vantage point as individuals, we started wanting to make a piece that was more universally about the way one culture is summarized erroneously by another.

In the beginning we just churned out iconic characters from our culture. Then we started playing with scenarios between them. Sort of colliding these larger-than-life characters at random, like you might see two unlikely mascots (say Mickey and Jafar) hanging around together at Disneyland. Now Maradona plays ping pong with Billy the Kid. Marilyn Monroe hitchhikes a ride on Gabriela Sabatini’s motorcycle. Obama shares a milkshake with Valeria Mazza.

The results have been hilarious and strange, a collision of gaudy caricatures that exasperate and delight us. We know the first chapter of our play, like the story of our cross-national friendship, will begin with mistranslations and misunderstandings… in the future we will have to find something larger than ourselves, something which forces us to come together and to communicate.

Anisa George is a performer, writer, and director. She was part of her parents’ theater company, Touchstone Theater, before she could speak. In 2005 she graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Middle Eastern Cultures, and was granted a Tow Fellowship to study ta’ziyeh in Iran. She has collaborated extensively with Amber, a film and photographic collective in the UK. In 2008 she was granted the Jack Kent Cook Fellowship to pursue an MFA in Lecoq Based Theater at the London International School of Performing Arts. Upon graduating in 2010 she founded Penn Dixie Productions, a company dedicated to the creation of non-script based film and theater. She is the writer and director of Kharaji, The Seer, Animal Animal Mammal Mine, and Three Musketeers for Three Women, as well as the director and producer of several documentaries and short films. Penn Dixie was recently nominated for Best Ensemble at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival by The Stage. This year she was a guest artist at Swarthmore College.

The Global Connections program was designed by TCG and is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Learn more here.