Halima Tahan Ferreyra[1]

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Throughout its history, Argentina, this vast country in the extreme south of the Americas, has been the scene of notable crises and recoveries. One such cycle, which began at the end of 2001, saw the nation’s collapse. In the midst of the crash and the resulting upheaval, social actors put into play the dramatic situation of a society and a culture which had become, in a sense, strangers to themselves. New stories were needed which were based on other representations of social reality—a new vision that countered the errant and anachronistic one[2] of the country as great and prosperous and which had become a myth that proved to be particularly unsustainable during the crisis.[3]

In that time of “vacancy,” of chaos and questions, we, as theater critics, intellectuals and editors, attempted to combine “the urgency of current-day action and the critical distance of reflection” in a special publication,[4] one that would bring together productions—not only theatrical—each of which processed the crisis in its own way. To develop this publication, it was necessary to gather a significant amount of evidence and show the activity undertaken in an urban space in which the world of the theater and the theater of the world had become intricately involved and intertwined.

This initiative was a gesture of affirmation, a way for us to respond to the voraciousness of a process which involved us, shattered our certainties and forced everything from its usual place. We asked ourselves how, under the circumstances, could we outline future scenarios and what type of intervention, beyond protest itself, such a hypothetical construction would require? We knew that our contribution was going to be partial and woefully insufficient, but we saw it as necessary nevertheless.

Dramatic Effects: Theatricalizing Violence

In those times, urban scenarios were continuously populated by different premises and characters that responded, in their own ways, to the grimness of the situation. Social protest in Argentina took on unprecedented forms of surprising creativity, such as the scene put on by a family at the door of a bank that had seized their life savings, preventing them from, among other things, going on vacation. They took a position in front of the bank with parasols, chaise lounges, and beach attire to denounce the plundering to which—like a large portion of Argentine society—they had been subjected. Another street scene was much more savage: a woman displayed her belly, from which tubes protruded after an operation. Her recovery was being waylaid due to the lack of supplies.

These are just two examples, among many from that period, which ranged broadly from humor to tragedy and which were designed to publicly air people’s complaints from quite unexpected places. Such actions infused social protest with individual styles, providing it an identity different from the traditional one. To varying degrees, these styles were valued for their very form as well as for the supreme energy contained in them for evoking a sense of expectation. Those using these styles increased the reach of their complaint through eye contact and the presence of the audience, with the idea of generating support as well as perhaps other scenes which would further the protest.

A cacerolato or casserole is a form of popular protest practiced in a number of Spanish-speaking countries, like Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela, among others.
A cacerolato or casserole is a form of popular protest practiced in a number of Spanish-speaking countries, like Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela, among others.

One element, in particular, which became prominent in actions of protest was the cacerola, the saucepan, which was taken out of the kitchen and used as a percussive instrument. Thousands of citizens interconnected over distances in this way, beating their pans with a variety of objects, thus creating a collective network of sound that expressed their indignation, rage, and feelings of impotence against their plight as well as an unprecedented rejection of the entire political class. “Out with them all,” was the controversial slogan addressing the catastrophe into which the country had been plunged.

In the suburbs of the city of La Plata, fifty kilometers south of Buenos Aires, a new practice arose out of the tradition of burning effigies on Christmas night and took on a new significance. The new effigies, some quite large, the collective efforts of neighborhoods, were now made to resemble known political leaders accused of corruption. The people had them all gathered at a street party and danced and sang around the effigy fire, venting their anger and clamoring for justice.

One aspect of these actions is of great importance: the ability of the people to channel violence, transforming it into a language of fighting back, of symbolically returning the blows they had received with theatrical blows of effect. This transformation of the violent act is produced in a potential space, still free of fixed significations, in which “the imaginary faces the requirements of the symbolic” (Finter 2003: 37). For some of the many foreign observers who came to witness firsthand the unparalleled phenomenon being lived out in the country, the Argentine experience was a pointed lesson on the need to preserve intermediary potential spaces, including those of art and the theater.

Theatrical Odysseys at a Time of Crisis

Within the realm of the theater itself, the crisis profoundly changed the context of production in which works had gestated, a fact which had a strong impact on the process of reception. Such was the case with Finlandia ,a work by the Argentine playwright Ricardo Monti, which has historical and political dimensions which do not refer directly to any particular contemporary situation. The play, with its anti-mimetic stage design, had been in rehearsal for some time before the events of December 2001, but the new context infused it with unexpected connotations. The hall in which it was performed is located five blocks from the Plaza de Mayo, where the government house and the old town hall are situated. This plaza is a place symbolically charged, the epicenter of political demonstration in Argentina. In December of 2001 and January of 2002, protest demonstrations from the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires descended on the place, and the roar of the crowds and the din of clanging saucepans reached the hall.

Plaza de Mayo, the main square in the Monserrat barrio of central Buenos Aires.
Plaza de Mayo, the main square in the Monserrat barrio of central Buenos Aires.

Despite the fact that the hall’s shutters were kept down as a protective measure against possible disturbances, the volume of sound from the plaza, mixed with the sounds of the play itself, created an even more dynamic image of the public protest. The audience, practically trapped in the theater, could not help but associate the play’s scenes with those transpiring in the street, causing the Argentine story from far away in time that was being fictionally portrayed to take on immediate significance and, through audience reception, enter into dialogue with the disruption in the country.

The very habit of going to the theater also changed when attending this play. It was difficult to get to the hall on account of constant street disturbances, and although the theater was open, the shutters were down—an unusual practice. Yet during those times, all situations contained something of the extraordinary; it was as though one were living through a scene of altered states. The most interesting thing, however, is that night after night despite these conditions, audiences continued to come, which made it possible for the theater, and perhaps the public themselves, to struggle onward.

In the case of the show of the well-known group Periférico de Objetos, titled Suicidio apócrifo I, the crisis situation influenced the very production of the show. At first, it had addressed the topic of suicide from a perspective of “individual rather than social problems.” This ended up changing, however. Ana Alvarado, one of the directors of the show, recalled: “A point was reached at which, alongside the notion of suicide as an individual act, one could think of the various mechanisms through which a society allows itself be destroyed.” When the work was in the rehearsal stage, the events of December 19, 2001 took place, and the actors arrived late, delayed on account of demonstrations. “Such things were always happening; Buenos Aires was convulsed,” Alvarado said. These occurrences were, in one way or another, incorporated into the production process of the work, which is about four actors who have been “in some way touched by suicide.”

In the show’s program, the writers commented: “The individual drama is transected by the collective drama of Argentina, a country which, in the 1960s, boasted the largest, most developed and most cultured middle class in Latin America, but in which, today, half of the population is below the poverty line. Once a livestock and cereal-producing country, it has become one in which, in outlying areas, live animals are killed in order to stave off hunger. Collective Suicide: a self-destructive country with little help from others and in which this indifference leads to annihilation, as is the case in many suicides.”

This statement, made by Periférico de Objetos in the program of Suicidio apócrifo I, is quite telling. “…live animals are killed in order to ease hunger…,” is related to a violent occurrence that took place in March of 2002 in the greater metropolitan area of Rosario, one of Argentina’s principal cities. A cattle truck was stalled at the side of the road, and a group of people got off and began to slaughter the cows on the spot and chase those that ran away. The animals had their throats slit and were bled and butchered on the spot, and the meat was hastily distributed right there amidst a real pandemonium. This incident of hunger and excess brutally demonstrated the social disorder and violence that the country experienced during this historic time.

A scene from a mob of about six hundred residents of Las Flores, who slaughtered the cows carried by the overturned truck.
A scene from a mob of about six hundred residents of Las Flores, who slaughtered the cows carried by the overturned truck.

A scene in Suicidio has actors with the heads of animals as well as an animal theme, yet there is no direct allusion to reality, since the idea is not to “direct attention to a concrete referent or ideology, but rather to produce a dialogue between the spectacle and the spectator…. This metaphorical way of speaking is what allows us to deepen our exploration of reality,” explain those of Periférico.

Theatre space(s)

The crisis also affected the theatrical geography of the city. New spaces arose, which we might characterize, in a certain sense, as still free “potential” zones, without previous assignation. Federico León, a very young theater director at the time, pointed out in an interview published in Teatro al Sur (2003: 14) that many actors began working “in variety shows or putting together happenings in non-traditional venues.” Individual cases at first, these soon became theater “that was in one way more or less spontaneous, as when one says, ‘OK, let’s get together, and someone will play music and we’ll make theater.’” The theater served as a restorative meeting place, a topos of confronting the grinding vicissitudes brought about by the crisis. León was interested in considering the crisis from a theatrical standpoint and how to translate this to formal terms. He mistrusted works that rapidly translated reality, considering that these contained “an element of cheating.” He thought it was impossible to know immediately what was happening between us, that everything was very difficult to process and portray (León 2003: 13).

Also, becoming more prominent in those days was a way of working which had already been present among theater people in Argentina: that of being ever ready to take on more than one thing at a time. León said that in Argentina, where the rules of the game were constantly changing, “you have to land on your feet and be constantly ready to invent and to work with leftovers, the bits and pieces of previous failures.” But, he added, it is also important “to believe once again that one can participate in history, can play a role in it and change it.”

Currently Las Multitudes

It is perhaps from that expression of León, of the need to “believe once again,” which he uttered nearly ten years ago, from which the work Las multitudes draws. The play debuted last July (2012) and is currently being produced in Berlin. It involves 120 participants: children, young people, adults, and elderly people, among whom only some are acting professionals. In it “a crowd of varying ages possessed of ardent sentiments,” a crowd which combine their stories of love, of encounters and disagreements, in a collectively woven blend of intimate situations.

“Las Multitudes,” directed by Federico León. © Sebastián Arpesella
“Las Multitudes,” directed by Federico León. © Sebastián Arpesella

Some reviews of the show have pointed out its reminiscences of the popular gatherings of that time of crisis and underlined the fact that that it speaks to us “of the reweaving of the fabric of society in the last decade,” (Halfon 2012) bringing to the stage an unconventional way of thinking about politics. Las multitudes fully shows the materialization of total cooperation, the result of a dialogistical thought that is only possible if one has the ability to listen carefully to others. The director has exercised this ability with his actors, as they have amongst themselves, working together in step for the needs of the group. The choral nature of the work brings it closer to the audience, involving them as well by providing the possibility of an encounter, the glimmer of reconciliation.

Scene from “Las Multitudes,” directed by Federico León. © Sebastián Arpesella
Scene from “Las Multitudes,” directed by Federico León. © Sebastián Arpesella

Aside from whatever popularity Las multitudes might enjoy, the play offers a chance to share a living experience, the result of cooperation and teamwork which comes through onstage, allowing audiences to perceive its collective nature immediately. Such an experience is valuable when considered in terms of confronting the cultural tensions and the political and social dramas which continue to shake this part of the world and Latin America in general, as they continue to seek alternatives in the midst of the crisis of civilization that is troubling humankind globally.

Crowd scene from “Las Multitudes,” directed by Federico León. © Sebastián Arpesella
Crowd scene from “Las Multitudes,” directed by Federico León. © Sebastián Arpesella

WORKS CITED

Halfon, Mercedes. “Todos estos años de gente.” In the “Radar” section of the newspaper Página 12, July 25, 2012.

Finter, Helga. “¿Espectáculo de lo real …?” Teatro al Sur, No. 25 (2003).

León, Federico. Interview in Teatro al Sur, No. 24 (2003): 14.

Teatro al Sur, “La escena argentina” (“The Argentine Scene”), No. 23: (2002).

Edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud


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[1] Halima Tahan Ferreyra(Ph.D.) is a member of the AICT and authoress of Teatro del Sur Proyect; member of a number of National and International Juries and writer in local and international media. At present, she is curator and coordinator in Rituales de Pasaje, a transdisciplinary programme in the Complejo Teatral of Buenos Aires
[2] The vision of the Argentina of cattle and cereals, the world’s granary, which was prominent among the world’s powerful nations at the beginning of the twentieth century, was a thing of the past, an illusion which grew even more absurd within the context of a crisis characterized by hunger and hardship.
[3] Today, that “peripheral crisis” is seen as the tragic prelude to what is currently being lived out in the neurological center of world capitalism: a desolate landscape in which the triumphant advance of neo-liberal capitalism during the 1980s and 90s, globally and in all areas, has failed. Given its scope and persistence, the trend can no longer be treated as a cyclical economic crisis; rather, it reveals a profound crisis of civilization.
[4] The reference is to the magazine Teatro al Sur, No. 23: “La escena argentina” (“The Argentine Scene”), Buenos Aires, 2002, which serves, in large part, as the source of this article.

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Theater and Crisis in Argentina : The Sound and the Fury (Argentina)