In the digital world with its millions of cheap copies, theatrical performance has become—or has gone back to being—a pricey thing. When we are entertained by live human beings rather than by projected reproductions or digital streams, the budget is inevitably much higher. And so a ticket to the theatre tends to become a luxury good, a symbol of prestige: by purchasing a ticket, one buys the expensive labor of artists with unusual talents, and by attending a performance one surrounds oneself with other people with the same financial capacity; just by being there we show each other our good taste. Now this is a general tendency, not an absolute rule, but it is the unfortunate niche in which theatre usually takes refuge when it finds itself in competition with viral videos. Nonetheless, there are exceptions--not all theatre accepts its role as a consumer product in the free market.
One very large group of exceptions could be found at Festa, Festival de Teatro Alternativo en Bogotá, which ran from March 12 to 27. The plays in this festival are not high-priced consumer products, and not only because the tickets are cheap: these plays may in fact be the opposite of status symbols. To attend one of these plays (after waiting for a long time in the long queue that grows each night organically and politely, snaking through the patios of the old colonial houses that serve as waiting rooms for black-box theatres of La Candelaria) isn't an opportunity to show your ability to buy the work of others. It's an opportunity, instead, to share: the audience shares its attention and its willingness to learn and imagine; the theatre artists share their talents and their investigations into something that is important in the world.
I saw nine plays at Festa this March, and all were original, creative and well attended. Packed, in fact, (tetiado, as they say in Colombia, lleno hasta las tetas.) Two plays stand out as conversations between the artists and audience about something important. These plays, which I saw during one long weekend, took me on a journey from political violence to intimate conflict, from the need to remember to the possibility of resolution.
La Memoria de las ollas o caligrafías de la Orfandad
La Mosca Negra (Medellín)
In The Memory of the Pots or Calligraphies of Orphanhood, from the group La Mosca Negra (Black Fly) from Medellín, something important needs to be remembered, something needs to take form, something needs new metaphors so that the audience can face it and accept it. That something is an era of murder, cruelty, and devastating loss: La Violencia of 1948 to 1958 (more or less), the civil war between the two principal parties of the Colombian government, the Conservatives and the Liberals, the period during which the normal competition of democracy, the rivalries of elections and political patronage, metastasized into the horror of widespread violence. In this play .
The central figure is a masked woman dressed in a fat suit: the effect isn't comedic, but rather uncomfortable and a little bit grotesque. The bovine metaphor is inescapable: her body is heavy with unused nourishment, like a cow that needs to be milked. Despite her burden, she dances constantly, and at times speaks directly to the audience, telling us what has happened to families, farms, villages. We understand that she is a mother who has lost her children. She is accompanied by two musicians, also masked, one who plays the guitar and sings traditional songs, the other who makes experimental sounds from the pots and pans of a farm kitchen. The play is a series of poems: poems in words, poems in dance, poems in sound, poems that have found melodies and become songs. In the course of time the woman releases her burden; from her swollen breasts flow corn and rice, seeds that cover the stage. At the very end she discovers little chairs in the ground (a small mound of dirt on the mostly bare stage), and she arranges the chairs at the front of the stage. We understand that the chairs are all that remains of a family life, and that she is not one woman only: she is the land of Colombia, fertile but ravaged.
At the curtain call, the actress, now unmasked but still wearing her uncomfortable suit, seems embarrassed by the applause. She doesn't display the happiness of theatrical success but rather the sadness of a guide who has just led us through a tragic place. After the show, no one prevents the audience from wandering across the stage, the floor now covered with corn and rice. There's no problem; no worried ushers or security guards; the audience wanders quietly, pointing, looking, talking softly: as if the stage were in fact an archeological site, a holy place deserving of memory and respect.
El Otro Animal
VB Ingeniería Teatral (Bogotá)
As we enter the black box, the performance space of the Teatro la Candelaria, the audience passes two actors of The Other Animal already positioned on the large but empty stage: a man and woman, both dressed in white. Their clothes are elegant but loose and baggy, well suited to movement soon to come. While we take our seats, they remain in their fixed spots on opposite sites of the stage, linked by their clothes but separated by their behavior. He's drinking, and in fact seems rather drunk; she is kneading dough, with a kind of silent fury, We know we are going to be watching a couple in a relationship with more than its share of conflict.
As soon as the audience is seated (never an easy task during Festa, where agotada--sold out-- is an approximate and negotiable concept), the conflict immediately ensues. It is, more or less, the conflict we've been expecting: the intimate conflict between woman and man: she's angry with him, he's bored with her, he wants a relationship with a younger woman. The play has the structure of a musical composition, and this initial dialog, this first verbal exchange, is the opening theme. When she hears that the man wants to leave, the woman explodes in movement, throwing and spitting dough, a punk dance of rage that's far from pretty but very compelling. And so begin the transformations. She becomes his disapproving psychologist; he becomes her manipulative therapist; both speak directly to the audience, saying that this is theatre, they know this is theatre, and if this is theatre, then who am I? That other animal? They run, they dance, they change their clothes, but always in matching colors: together they change from white to red, from red to purple, from purple to blue. We understand that however much conflict there is in this relationship, this is a couple with a deep connection.
During their frenetic journey they use every theatrical technique available to low-budget theatre, including magic tricks. At first, the magic tricks work only as metaphors, experimental theatre jokes that use the forms of magic, not to amaze or astonish but to to reveal the souls of the characters: the man opens box after inner box enclosed in the previous box, only to find in the smallest, innermost box magical voices from his own life; the woman pulls long chains of black fabric from her mouth, chains of fabric that disgust her and are obviously metaphors of her hateful words. But in the final scene, dressed in glittering blue outfits, the couple finally performs a real magic trick: a trick that serves not just to reveal their inner lives, but to deliver the simple pleasure of surprise and astonishment to the audience. They put the long black chain of fabric, pulled from the woman's mouth, into a pot, set it aflame, and cover it. A moment later, when they open the pot, they find a living dove. This trick enchants the audience--after watching this couple battle like beasts for an hour, it's a joy to see them work together to do something for our pleasure, and for themselves as well. For one moment, all the conflicts in their relationship have been resolved. It's only a moment, of course, but in the theatre the final moment can be the same thing as eternity.