Post image for Art Is People

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

(Photo: a performance of Dream/Sueños – Ausenci/Absence, by Secos Y Mojados Performance Collective at Galeria de la Raza, San Francisco, April 2014. Featuring:front- community member Eduardo Palomo and performance artist Violeta Luna, behind- community members Susan Parra and Norma García. Photo by: Robbie Sweeney)

“… and when we speak we are afraid / our words will not be heard / nor welcomed
but when we are silent / we are still afraid / So it is better to speak / remembering
we were never meant to survive.”   Audrey Lorde

Since the time when I first set foot on a theatre as an audience member, I was simultaneously aware of that permeable border between performer and spectator, and also, of my desire to cross it. I remember vividly when, as a young Argentinean wrestling with the brutality of life under dictatorship, I attended a “clandestine” performance of The Curve by Tancred Dorst in my home city of Córdoba, and finally found the resolve to sneak over to the other side of that tenuous, but significant divide. Albeit intuitively, it seemed to me that the value of theatre was not merely about what was happening on stage. As crucial as an aesthetic vision, a developed craft, or an engaging topic are to the practice, what matters most, I thought, hinges on the quality of the multiplicity of relationships present, particularly, on the one between those on stage and those on the seats. What really allows for the experience to have depth and richness depends on this bond, this kind of ephemeral complicity, a blurry space between art and people, often defined, to varying degrees, by the nature of the risks taken by both artists and audiences to venture together into a place where surprises and insights can happen, where discoveries can be made. The risks back then also involved being caught in the act of acting, attending a banned practice, and unlawfully assembling with others in large numbers.

I decided to try out for the company. I was twenty-two, and had been in a play only once before as a child. The military had closed all university training programs. Like an undocumented immigrant in a foreign land, I didn’t have much in terms of papers or recommendations. I could only offer a burning need as my safe conduct. I was granted an interview, and communicated my desire to become an actor with such passion and clarity that I have rarely experienced anything like it since. Towards the end of the meeting, Cheté, the company’s director, called Mario, the lead actor and company rep into the office. He asked me a couple more questions. They looked at each other for a beat, smiled, and without conferring in private, she said: “show up tomorrow at 8:00 pm with comfortable clothes, we are beginning to workshop our next piece so you are just in time.” “Don’t be late.” Mario said. “We lock the front metal door at ten minutes past eight and no one gets in after that.” There was more of a need for safety than respect for the craft behind that decision, I later found out.

Years passed before Cheté told me what she and Mario had really seen that day during the interview. It was not a convincing young man with promising talent and a deep desire to act, as I had long believed. She and Mario were astounded that both in semblance and personality, that evening they saw before them the spitting image of a young Kelo, a founding member of the company who was abducted by the military a few years back, and no one had ever seen since. It was as if Kelo had come back, she said, and for a moment, was there again in the office with us. They were actually not taking anybody into the company, but the circumstances had convinced them to make an exception. That felt to me like a double affirmation. Wanting to become an actor meant something to me that had little to do with self-expression. I did not want to call attention to myself by stepping on a stage, but rather, to ourselves, to that larger and collective dimension of being that, through curfew laws, murder, torture, or disappearance, the regime was working hard to tear up. Also, I thought that perhaps Cheté was right, that on that fateful evening I was indeed possessed not only by my own desire, but by the spirit of Kelo himself. The spirit of reconnection, of mending relationships, had marked the process for all involved, in unexpected ways.

Reflecting on the painful legacy of the so called “dirty war” in his country, Salomon Lerner-Febres, president of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission once told me “… violence has a thousand faces, and all of them relate to the breaking of the bonds that give us both humanity, and meaning.” Before I knew anything about Brecht’s breaking of the fourth wall, or Boal’s notion of “spectactors” (both authors banned by the Argentine regime as “subversive,”) crossing that borderland between front row seats and playing space meant venturing into a place from where I could contribute to restoring at least part of our sense of belonging to something larger, some aspect of my own denied citizenship, of my own humanity.

Looking back more than 30 years, I feel that working towards developing creative spaces to be in meaningful relationship, particularly inclusive of those most marginalized from civic engagement, has been the single most important building block and guiding thread of my work.

My first acting lesson upon joining the company (the “TGC” or “Teatro Goethe Cordoba”,) was to be taken to an inner patio accessible through the backstage, shown how to climb up on the roof and jump onto a back alley to make a run for my life if troops, paras, or the police were to storm the theatre. The second lesson, implicit on the first one, and relating to the fact that the “TGC” had two other actors desaparecidos by the government in addition to Kelo (Alicia and Mirmi, thrown into the back of death squad cars after a rehearsal of Señora Carrar’s Rifles) was this: theatre mattered. In fact, it mattered so much that the regime censored it, shut down theatres and theatre schools throughout the country, and violently persecuted those who practiced it. If detained for any reason, which happened, the last thing that you would ever answer when asked “occupation?” was “actor.” You might as well tell them that you have a bomb in your backpack.

I believe that this creative power that threatened some and inspired others, has lots more to do with theatre’s capacity to build that liminal space where art brings people into a meaningful connection, than with the artistic craft alone.

Why take the risk of doing theatre at such a dangerous time…? What Lerner-Febres formulated with such lucidity in reflecting on the role of performance in violent social contexts illuminated what had been the main reason for me to join a company and what makes performance artists so subversive to a totalitarian mentality. I needed to make sense of a life torn apart by violence and the resultant distrust of one another. Without engaging these unknown “others” –sisters and brothers who, like me, felt lobotomized from a communal consciousness, I could not fully understand my circumstances, and value my very own sense of humanity.

It has taken me years to articulate what I only then knew viscerally: that theatre/performance/art, was a most profound, immediate, and effective way to engage in the kind of relationship of mutuality that would restore “the bonds that give us both humanity and meaning.”

Theatre / Art is meaningful and impactful not necessarily when artists put their lives on the line to deal with socially or politically taboo subject matter. Rather, I believe and experience in my own practice, that this is so when we become truly mindful of our part in sustaining that paradoxical space, that borderland realm between personal artistic expression and social imagination. Engaging a collective poetics on a feedback loop with audiences gives birth to language, images, to a symbolic world where the burning questions of the real one can be examined in ways that rarely happen in creative isolation, in the model of “artist as provider.”

This relationship is always deeply political. And yet, what I was doing in Argentina, what I do with my collaborators creating work with undocumented immigrants in the hyper-gentrified Mission district of San Francisco, is just “theatre” not “political-theatre” or any other hyphenated variety. That it takes on a more overtly political dimension is not a result of a political agenda, but rather of what emerges from the relationships that we find more meaningful and engaging during these difficult times. Dorst’s The Curve and a brilliantly staged version of Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna that I saw in Cordoba under state terror, were also that, just theater, often referred to as “absurd” and “classic” works respectively. In that context however, aesthetically, socially, personally and politically, most transformative, representing the kind of artistic high that we keep on chasing for the rest of our lives.

How many times has “the theatre” been diagnosed with a terminal disease, agonized and died and how many times has it resurrected even within our lifetime? I believe that it “dies” when, like any of us does periodically, it loses its ability to make meaningful connections, to build meaningful relationships that matter to a larger community. When it ceases, like James Baldwin beautifully put it, to “uncover the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” When it, and by that I mean we, who do it and attend it, almost magically, collectively, and not in personal or sectorial isolation, become able to reformulate the questions that matter, it does its phoenix act and becomes a living theatre, once again. It is never in crisis because we have lost our ability to be “innovative.” Mexican director Luis de Tavira reminded us during a panel not long ago, that Lope de Vega himself once wrote: “Vienen a ser novedosas las cosas que se olvidaron” (“We take for novelties all things we have forgotten.”). Seen this way, the “new and riveting” is pretty much the rediscovered, made relevant to a significant group of people, through genuine and difficult dialogues.

It is important to ask “how are relationships changing between theatres and communities?” since change they will, as any organism does to stay alive. Its function will evolve too, and now, I will pose to this open circle, there is a real need for a wider field where risk taking and artistic nourishment more explicitly relating to “social issues” –taken on quite disproportionately by artists and organizations considered marginal in the performance world, can take place. It comes as no surprise that the mainstream of American theatre and professional training programs have felt too uncomfortable to bring them to the heart of their practice, but its time is certainly due. At one point, the development/recruitment department alone cared about community, and that was largely to fill seats (not a minor issue by all means.) Now the matter is far more existential in nature.

Has American exceptionalism (and its corresponding insularity) exempted us from our sense of reality? Our social contexts are marked by extreme polarization: a growing class of poor, income gaps not seen in decades, and an ultra-rich elite with an equally disproportionate concentration of power; entrenched, structural, gender and racial discrimination, resulting in de facto segregated educational and health systems; renewed obstacles to exercise the vote for those historically marginalized; the exploitation of immigrant labor and the criminalization of undocumented people, within a racist prison industrial complex with no parallels in size anywhere in the world; a systematic erosion of our civil rights since 9/11, and an enormous corporate-intelligence-industrial-complex with unlimited reach, which may be the most dangerous threat to our democracy yet, to name a few… When we ask ourselves how are these issues affecting me? How are they affecting my neighbor?, do we also follow up with how do we land these issues in the realm of the personally relevant and specific in our practice? There are thousands of creative disruptions to be made, amazing stories to tell, not only about suffering and injustice, but also, about survival, empowerment, and triumphs of the spirit against all odds.

Lerner-Febres reflected on the way by which the best of Peruvian theater played a critical role in addressing the country’s needs to articulate a language to “speak the unspeakable,” restore the social fabric, and engage the imagination to affect transformative change. I have lived in the US for half of my life, and I cannot remember a time when the conversation about what has become of the social project called “America,” who are we, and also, who we want to be, has been more necessary. A time when much attention is placed on the great divisions that plague us, and not yet enough on the great potential for intersectional approaches to help us define and address the central issues that afflict us, in inclusive terms. I see familiar patterns between the Argentina of the 70’s and the US of today with an emphasis on what divides us, perhaps on the re-engineering of what divides us, coming from places high and low, from our very own Congress to the corporate-own news media. That can be a scary thought… but amazing strategies of resistance were born there out of deep suffering.

We, theater / performance artists, have an amazing, culture-shaping role to play in creating spaces to collectively make meaning from so many questions… Is torturing people in the name of freedom ever acceptable even if lawful? How about continuing to do it even after the detainee has been proven innocent of all charges, as in Gitmo? Can a man shoot and kill an unarmed teenager that he found suspicious and followed on his own, and that act be considered self-defense? Have we arrived at a place of racial equality for there not to be a need for affirmative action programs any more? Should we deport people who came to our country when they were little children and know no other national identity, culture, or language? How can spending money be equated with the valued exercise of freedom of speech…? These are some of the questions that Mr. Baldwin would want our art to engage with today, and indeed, many artists and companies have taken them on and with great merit. In my experience at least, we still have to make them much more central to the conversation, the dialogues among ourselves, and with the people in our communities, particularly beyond those immediately affected by a given scenario.

Most will not debate that in times of crisis the need for spaces of connectivity and reflection is crucial. Yet many of us are understandably overwhelmed, and suffer from the very same isolation that feeling part of a larger social whole through our very own art making would help remediate. Imagine the thousands upon thousands of Kelos and Chetés all over the world that we do not know about. The former was killed because he aligned his profession with community needs and Dreams, like the best ones anywhere do. The latter is still at it, now dealing with low budgets, mediocrity, lack of vision and a new host of social ills. We have plenty like her here too. While we will likely agree that the traditional institutional places created for social dialogues in our democratic society are in a crisis as deep as we have ever seen, not enough of us however, particularly those working on advocacy, policy making, even activism, seem to have fully realized what totalitarian regimes, or anyone benefiting from the status quo, know very well: that these spaces are often only possible through the mechanisms and dynamics inherent to creative work, particularly to embodied practices of the {art / people} kind. We have to do more ourselves to paint that picture more clearly.

Live performance is definitely much more aptly equipped to support necessary dialogues on inclusive and engaging terms, than disembodied social media or activist forums that only see what matters if it lands squarely on their agenda territory. While we all must address an ever complex and interconnected world from whatever time-space locality we find ourselves in, creative work has taught us that it is in the borderland spaces where the larger ecologies that we are all part of become more visible, and where alternative insights and strategies can be offered by unexpected partners. Via mechanisms grounded on solidarity, inclusive strategies, or the construction of relationships where histories and experiences can be mutually acknowledged, art can channel the potency of the collective imagination to give wings to understandings and possibilities before thought of as unthinkable.

As Audrey Lorde put it, “…the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”


Roberto Gutiérrez Varea’s research and creative work focuses on live performance as means of resistance and peacebuilding in the context of social conflict and state roberto headshotviolence. His stage work in the United States includes directing plays, founding two community-based companies, Soapstone Theatre Company, with male ex-offenders and women survivors of violent crime, and El Teatro Jornalero!, with Latin American immigrant workers, and co-founding the performance collective Secos & Mojados. He is a regular contributor to journals in performance and peace-building, and co-editor and co-author of the two-volume anthology “Acting Together: Performance and the Creative Transformation of Conflict” (New Village Press). Varea is a steering committee member of Theater Without Borders and the Artists in Distress Services of free Dimensional, and co-founder of the Performing Arts and Social Justice Program, at the University of San Francisco.

(headshot photo by Gabe Maxson)

  • lisa

    Thank you for this beautiful and inspiring essay, Roberto!