Milena Grass Kleiner*

A Very Short Introduction to Chilean Theatre

According to local mythology, the first Chilean theatre company was created by Bernardo O’Higgins, the Father of the Nation, who offered freedom to a bunch of Spanish soldiers in exchange for their acting services. Even though this story goes back to the early nineteenth century, it took almost another hundred years for theatre to become a successful entertainment in the country.

By the first decades of the twentieth century, there were several repertoire companies[1] (performing on a steady basis and touring at national and international level). This cultural landscape was enriched by the work of European artists that came to South America fleeing the Second World War. The influence of Catalonian actress and director Margarita Xirgu, as well as French actor and director Louis Jouvet, gave birth to a new local tradition of théâtre d’art, that fostered the creation of professional theatres in three existing universities: Universidad de Chile (founded 1842), Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (1888) and Universidad de Concepción (1919). Since their foundation, Teatro Experimental (1941),[2] and Teatro de Ensayo (1943)[3] in Santiago, and Teatro de la Universidad de Concepción (1945)[4] have acted collectively almost as an unofficial national theatre. They produced both classic (Molière, Shakespeare, Calderón de la Barca, Chekhov) and contemporary plays (Tennessee Williams, Bertolt Brecht, among others), and undertook the task of broadening theatre audiences.

In the following years, all three universities created theatre schools to provide the professional actors they needed to keep their cultural projects running for the next decades.[5] The Military Coup of 1973 and its aftermath almost annihilated the previously flourishing cultural life; many artists were either killed, tortured or threatened, while others went into exile. Since any gathering of more than ten people was forbidden, theatre faced a paradox.

On the one hand, even though formal censorship was not instituted, all artistic activities were under permanent scrutiny. On the other hand, theatre became the privileged place for the opponents of the civilian-military dictatorship to gather and to regain a sense of collectiveness. From the early days of Pinochet’s regime, theatre productions played an important role in denouncing the violations of human rights; a socio-political commitment that existed in Chile long before its strong development in the early 1960s, and which represents a distinctive feature of Chilean theatre until today.

Post-dictatorship governments brought along a modest policy for the development of the arts. The first major step in restoring cultural life was the creation of a national endowment, in 1992, which became the seed for the Ministry of Culture, the Arts and the Heritage, enacted in October 2017. For the last 25 years, all artists have had to apply for funding[6] on an annual basis. Moreover, the available money supports only individual productions, rather than longer term projects. Inevitably, this does not provide stability or security to the companies receiving funding. Consequently, the vitality of the artistic sector depends on the commitment of all agents involved. Artists and arts companies in Chile have done their best despite scarce resources, an erratic allocation of state funding (due to the lack of a clear, sustained policy), the designation of a new public funding jury every year and, finally, very scarce private sponsorship.

Happy End, B. Brecht (text) and K. Weill (music), Ávaro Viguera (director), Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral, March 18, 2016.
Photo by Álvaro Viguera

Despite these barriers to its development, Chilean theatre today is pretty active, and its quality has been acknowledged at local and international level. In 2015,[7] there were 9,317 shows (28 percent theatre for young audiences and 72 percent theatre for adults). The number of theatre tickets (both paid and complimentary) was 1,632,642 (for a total national population of 17,7 millions). Adults accounted for 57 percent of the theatre audience, indicating that theatre for children and young audiences tends to achieve bigger audiences. However, these figures have not increased in the last decade, and it has to be highlighted that most of theatre activities are concentrated in the capital city, Santiago, where 60 percent of the shows took place; although this should not come as a surprise considering the high degree of centralization of Chile (40 percent of the population lives in the Metropolitan Region of Santiago).

In terms of playwriting, 248 writers profited from authors rights in 2015. Production is well balanced between Chilean and international plays, especially European classics and contemporary American dramas. It has to be said that this activity is remarkable in a context where degrees in acting are provided only by higher education institutions; playwriting and even directing occupy a minor space within the usually four-year curricula.

Theatre artists are free to join any of the three existing guilds (Sidarte, Chileactores, and Asociación de Autores Nacionales de Teatro, Cine y Audiovisuales), which register 2,365 workers (725 men, and 1,501 women). According to 2015 statistics, the average monthly wage is US$1,500 with no significant gap associated with gender; even though unofficial reports claim that male actors earn higher incomes on TV than their female counterparts.[8]

In 1992, Chile celebrated the birth of its biggest performing arts showcase (now known as Festival Internacional Santiago a Mil.[9] Between January 3-22, 2017, the twenty-forth edition of the Festival offered 81 productions, including 37 international shows from 26 different countries. The 344 performances included a parade and 156 free shows which gathered more than 330,000 spectators nationwide.

Even though, in recent years, the Fundación Teatro a Mil (which manages the Festival) has also been engaged in production, its main objective is to bring together the best Chilean shows of the previous season, along with “stars” of the world stage (the guest in 2017, for example, was German director Thomas Ostermeier with An Enemy of the People, and The Marriage of Maria Brown). The Festival offers Chilean audiences a full range of performing experiences, and has brought Chilean productions into the attention of the international circuit of programmers, which, in turn, has taken Chilean productions to some of the most prestigious European festivals.

Another initiative worth mentioning is the Festival de Teatro Joven (Young Theatre Festival), hosted by the Municipality of Las Condes, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Santiago. Annually, since 2011, any professional company whose directors and actors are under 35 years of age (one older actor is permitted in a show’s cast) has been able to apply to the Festival. The Festival gives an annual prize, which is an invitation, all expenses paid, to participate in the Festival of Cadiz (Spain); most of the time this also means touring in Europe. The winners of previous editions have gone on to achieve international reputations. Two such companies are La Re-Sentida (Tratando de hacer una obra que cambie al mundo/Trying to Make a Play to Change the World)[10]) and Bonobos (Donde viven los bárbaros/Where the Barbaros Live). The latter was written by promising playwright Pablo Manzi, who was invited to participate in a workshop at the Royal Court theatre in London in 2016.[11]

So far, the Festival has reflected the broad diversity of themes and aesthetics of recent Chilean theatre. I have selected three productions from the 2017 edition as examples of the Festivals trends, both recent and historical.

Rocha,[12] by Ana López Montaner, directed by Felipe Vera (Cía. Interdram),[13]  won the Best Production prize at the Festival de Teatro Joven in 2017. It is a monologue on the marginalized minorities of Chilean contemporary society, which has a particular focus upon rural traditions. Migration has become an issue in recent years in our country, a society which has long been both profoundly unequal in socio-economic terms and rather homogenous ethnically (mostly a mix of people descended from Spanish colonizers and those from indigenous communities).

Even though the indigenous roots of the Chilean people have been systematically concealed, the recrudescence of the Mapuche conflict in the Southern Region of the country (addressed uncomfortably in Los Millonarios,[14]  by Teatro La María)[15] and the growth of inward migration have led to it  becoming a distinctive theme in contemporary theatre; and one which will probably develop even further in the following years. It should be noted, however, that most of theatre artists involved in these productions do not belong to the minority groups portrayed.

A noteworthy exception is the work of Paula González (company KIMVN), especially in Ñi Pu Tremen (My Ancestors).[16]] Playwright and director Javier Casagna and playwright Carla Zúñiga are also politically engaged, particularly with gender issues. The pair, who have collaborated together, belongs to the younger generation that is taking over the Chilean stage.

Rocha, Ana María López (playwright), Felipe Vera (director), Teatro Camino, Daniel Antivilo y Gastón Salgado, August 19, 2016.
Photo by Dayan Feliú

Hija de Tigre,[17] by Pilar Ronderos, directed by Ítalo Gallardo (Cía. La Laura Palmer),[18] is a biographical drama on the daughter/father relationship. Three stories unfold by means of testimonies, with recreations where the actresses impersonate their relatives, and manipulate personal documents, small-scale objects, video projections and a handy cam. In addition to digging deeper into filial bonds, Hija is also a reflection on the intersections between public history and personal memories, a contemporary twist upon a long tradition of political theatre that goes back to the 1960s.

This tradition has also been explored, radically, in Mateluna,[19] the last production in Chile of the outstanding playwright and director Guillermo Calderón, which went on to have its international premiere at the Royal Court.

Hija de Tigre, Pilar Ronderos e Italo Gallardo (playwright), Italo Gallardo (director), Teatro La Memoria, Ebana Garín, Daniela Jofré y Carolina Diaz, September 8, 2016. Photo by Italo Gallardo

Ana Luz Ormazábal’s Ópera is about an Italian opera company that has come to Chile to perform Lautaro (an opera by the Spanish composer Eliodoro Ortiz de Zárate, which premiered in 1902). The opera depicts the tragedy of a Mapuche hero of the resistance against the Spanish in the sixteenth century. Opera performances by Italian companies in Chile at the beginning of the twentieth century were seen as a cultural colonization that paralleled the previous political colonization. Hilarious and highly complex in terms of the role of the arts in society, Ópera proposes a different relationship between the audience and the performers. A hybrid between theatre and performance, Ormazábal’s work is typical of an emerging, post-disciplinary group of productions which explore (both thematically and aesthetically) the boundaries of the arts.

Ópera, Ana Luz Ormazábal y Antimétodo based on Lautaro  by Eliodoro Ortiz de Zárate (playwright), Ana Luz Ormazábal (director), NAVE, Nicole Sazo and Camila González, August 10, 2016

In this trend, we can also place director David Atencio (of company Tercer Abstracto),[20] whose work focuses on the relationship between theatre and the visual arts,[21] as well as Colectivo Zoológico,[22] an internationally collaborative project led by two directors; namely, Laurène Lemaitre (who is also a set designer) and Nicolás Espinoza. Finally, we should note the hilarious production Helen Brown (Best Production FTML),[23] by Trini Piriz (actor) and Daniel Marabolí (musician).

A few final words for Álvaro Viguera, a very productive director with a rich spectrum of distinctive productions based on pre-existing plays. His work involves experimental research with his company En Sí Menor.[[24]] Combining effective management of actors’ performances with clear aesthetic/directorial propositions, he has, in recent years, successfully delivered intimate, two-character shows (Sunset Limited), large-scale musical productions (Happy End) and, even, a very recent version of Uncle Vanya set in the Chilean countryside.[25]

This essay is a mere sample of the vast universe of theatre in Chile today. I hope it gives an insight into the richness and vitality of live drama in the country.

Croma, by David Atencio (director), Teatro Camilo Henríquez, Eduardo Vásquez, Jorge Valenzuela, Pablo Cisternas, Tania Novoa, Julio Lobos, Gabriel Orrego, Cecilia Yáñez, Mateus Fávero, June 3, 2017. Photo by Juan Ramírez Jardua
Tío Vania, by Rafael Gumucio based on Uncle Vania  by A. Chekov (playwright), Ávaro Viguera (director), CA660, Sergio Hernández, Antonia Zegers, Antonia Santa María, Manuel Peña, Marcelo Alonso, Gloria Munchmeyer, and Verónica García Huidobro, September 29, 2017. Photo by Natalia Núñez


[1] Among the most celebrated by spectators were the companies of Baguena-Buhrle, Alejandro Flores and Lucho Córdoba, all named after their troupe leader and leading actor.
[5] The Minister replaces the National Council for Culture and the Arts (Consejo Nacional de la Cultura y las Artes, CNCA, 2003, Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, especially Universidad de Chile—with its National Ballet, National Symphonic Orchestra, National Theatre, Museum of Modern Art and the corresponding artistic schools—but also Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile with its theatre school, music conservatoire and visual arts school, have played a central role in the development of Chilean arts. As a result, even today, actor’s training is mostly done inside the university system, and mainly in the capital city. In 2015, 35 degrees on theatre, dance and circus were offered (68,6% in 13 universities, 25,7% in professional institutes and 25,7% in technical centers) counting 2860 students (1947 women, and 913 men).
[6] In 2017, Fondo Nacional para las Artes y la Cultura was allocated USM$35,267, which meant no real increase in a decade. Performing arts amount for the 1% of all cultural businesses, and 0,7% of nation sales—which raised 218% between 2006 and 2010, when the cultural sector reached 1,58% of the PIB. In 2015, a sheer 0,4% of national budget was assigned to culture as a whole.
[7] There are neither newer statistics than the mentioned in every case nor the number of productions per year.
[8] For information on theatre infrastructure, go to Red de Salas de Teatro (
[9] This Festival is strongly funded by the State, and sponsored by international mining companies set in Chile, which allows reduced ticket prices:
[17] The expression “hija de tigre”—literally tiger’s daughter—is usually used in Chile when a father proudly brags about his daughter’s achievement as something inherited from him.
[21] Interesting enough, this exploration on the boundaries of disciplines constitutes the core of the outstanding, already well known company Teatro Cinema ( and director Manuela Infante (

*Milena Grass Kleiner is translator and theatre scholar, Professor at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Her Spanish translations of English, American and French plays, have been produced by leading Chilean directors and have also been published along with her various translations of books and papers on Chilean history and theater studies. In the last years, she has been working on traumatic memory, post-memory and theatre in post-conflict societies.

Copyright © 2017 Milena Grass Kleiner
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Chilean Theatre Season 2017