In Chile, street protests and COVID-related public health emergencies have ravaged live theatre over the past year. While the political protests starting in October 2019 simply “limited” live theatre programming, the pandemic forced actual cancellation of whole theater seasons. As a result, theater companies and individual artists were forced to consider technology—Zoom readings, filmed Master Classes and video recordings of earlier productions. Beyond aesthetics, for many theatre people these projects became another chance to continue working. In this situation, what role does theatre criticism play? In times of catastrophe, can any critical judgements be ethical?
Keywords: Chile, theatre, Zoom, pandemic, online
For more than a year now (since October 2019 to be precise), Chile has been witnessing massive street demonstrations which, as in Hong Kong and Ecuador, have seen hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets to defy the neo-liberal constitutional system installed after the military coup of 1973; a system perpetuated by the democratic governments that followed from1990 on. Police repression tried to silence the political demonstrations, turning the country into a quasi-war zone with military troops on the streets and curfews in place.
Chile’s theatre community supported these political demonstrations and most venues cancelled performances or scheduled performances at unusual times around them. Teatro El Puente even provided shelter for the protesters, and set up first aid units on the sidewalks. But with no government policy in place to support the arts during this first closure, theatres were left without income. Indeed, some went so far as organizing benefit performances for victims of police violence, while others offered free performances to show solidarity with the demonstrators.
In January 2020, the Santiago a Mil International Theatre Festival (FITAM)—the biggest, oldest and most important theatre festival in Chile—decided to reduce its month-long program by both cutting the number of visiting international productions and reducing the number of performances by Chilean theatres.
If this was not enough to negatively impact the economic life of Chilean theatre, in March came COVID. When the Ministry of Public Health started to recommend the closing of theatres as a response, many artists thought it was just another government strategy to stop the political protests. But the pandemic was real, and the remainder of 2020 saw theatres close down entirely, forcing most of the country’s artists into genuine financial difficulty.
The first case of COVID was confirmed in Chile on March 3. Teatro UC—the 75-year-old professional theatre at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile—had just started its new season. But it made the difficult decision to close the following weekend, even though the measure was not then compulsory. That decision encouraged other theatres to close as well; an action which proved necessary and important. By the end of March, schools, universities and theatres all across the country had closed down. With this total stoppage in professional theatre activity, the impact of the pandemic became clear; the wound to be inflicted on the arts community would be real.
At this point, two modes of “remote performance” began to appear. Recordings of earlier productions were taken from theatre archives and started to be broadcast widely regardless of their technical deficiencies. Zoom was also used, though productions remained mostly at the dramatic reading level. Tri-dimensionality became bi-dimensionality; stage space flattened because performers were isolated from both audiences and one another.
Soon it became clear that theatre critics too might have to play a new role, an ethical one. That is, critics had to figure out how to participate in and support the new mediatized theatre that had emerged from these catastrophes. But would they?
FITAM decided that with or without critics they would increase the number of festival performances available through their own website, teatroamil.tv/. They began with video recordings of previous productions and also showed Master Classes with prominent playwrights and directors, along with sessions on the various creative processes devised by important independent theatre companies.
Needless to say, such broadcasts were highly problematic, not just for critics but on many levels. In the case of videos, copyright issues ranged widely and were usually completely vague. In other cases, performances being broadcast had been recorded simply to help with technical cues and stage directions or for limited advertising use. That is, they were never intended to be shown to general audiences.
Some performers were upset about the broadcasts being offered for free at a time when their own salaries were being reduced. Most, however, did not make a fuss. Who would want to be seen as attacking the laudable initiative of free access to the arts at such a difficult time? And yet, with audiences now having free access to important large-scale productions of Chilean theatre, one had to wonder if anyone would pay for more experimental work being shown via Zoom?
Another website devoted to dramatic arts, Escenix, offered online streaming of a whole catalogue of Chilean theatre productions from the eighties to the present. Initially offered on a pay-what-you-want basis, it rapidly found a small but dedicated audience which no longer was forced to rely on the curatorial expertise of others. Could such initiatives like Escenix and Teatroamil.tv develop audiences that were used to seeing live theatre?
The emergence of new mediatized theatre offerings prompted rather sterile debates, both on social media and in the press, about whether videos were or were not theatre. The same discussion had actually started years before with the streaming of operas from New York and London—operas which exhibited an unaffordable luxuriousness compared to local productions. Now, many of those who had previously attacked the video importation of the operas were defending broad access to the arts. And this framed the second wave of responses.
In fact, web performances began in the 1990s when “theatre groups and performance artists presented ‘noninteractive’ webcast video of their work, many using pre-recorded tapes to transform performance art into video art …” (Dixon 510). Three decades later, the speed had increased but what was being seen was still basically bad television.
It soon became obvious that productions originally intended for live audiences did not come alive on the web; no format seemed able to reproduce the idea of co-presence. As for video recordings, they retained merely a remnant of liveness which only exacerbated the fact that they were created for something other than the “real” thing. In the long run, all the initiatives seemed to simply impoverish the essential quality of the live theater experience.
Despite this, a number of Chilean theatres started their own initiatives. Among them, Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral, Teatro UC, Teatro Finis Terrae, Matucana 100 and several independent companies. From April to May 2020, they offered web productions in what can be called the dramatic reading mode; from June on, however, many groups began exploring with greater imagination and risk, pushing forward the potentialities of these digital technologies.
The first performances using Zoom were, for the most part, short plays with just a handful of performers sharing the screen’s multiple squares. Many were, in fact, comedic performances utilizing a self-mocking irony about Zoom itself and the difficulties experienced using it. But, mostly, they were seated performers simply reading scripts. Could anyone could charge a fee for such an event? Probably not.
But these early experiences did attract viewers, some of them as many as 600 at a time, more than the usual capacity for small theatre venues and at much lower production costs; for instance, Clase magistral (Master Class), written by Rafael Gumucio and produced by The Cow Company, a group that has actually worked in large stadiums.
Techniques developed further in the second phase. An example of note was Preguntas frecuentes (Frequent Questions), written by Nona Fernández and directed by Mariana Muñoz. The play depicts the anxiety of lockdown: a woman trying to control her life in a world of apps and robot calls. Seen in closeups and overhead shots, we meet a woman (played by Gabriela Aguilera) suffering from mental anguish and insomnia.
As time passed, the artists involved did begin to achieve a deeper comprehension of the specificity of digital media, and the dimensions of mediality began to expand. The whole theatrical experience became richer and more complex through the use of multiple screens, video projections and depth of field. Of interest here, when professionals from other cultural industries—film and television—found themselves under the same COVID-based constraints, they also started to compete with theatre for the same spaces and for the same dissemination of their own work.
Old Affects, New Challenges
What all this experimentation with media also brought was the possibility for people living at a distance from Santiago to become a part of a whole new audience for theatre. The value of decentralization through mediatized theatre, therefore, also needs to be included in any debate about the future of live theatre and critical coverage.
To end this brief essay, some comments on La Taguada, the only Zoom production done to date by Teatro UC. This 2020 production is an adaptation of a novel by Andrés Montero about a mythical duel between two payadores—a Spanish-American nineteenth-century vernacular tradition that resembles contemporary hip-hop duels. In this case, the artists are in different locations, though the audience is not made aware of that fact. On the contrary, what we see is the simulation of a single space, a small museum. This is a political wink aimed at giving agency to locales far away from the capital, a wink highlighted by the oral poetry which effectively informs the play. La Taguada becomes, then, an attempt to bring technology to the rescue of Chilean tradition and an opportunity to enhance what might be called the eventness of theater. Like hip-hop, the décimas verses—ten-line stanzas— become improvised sung poetry, populist and unique in nature, the real performance core of the play. Here, remote theater becomes truly unrepeatable.
A year has passed now from the beginning of the protests that resulted in October 2020’s positive national vote for a new constitution. Sadly, though, COVID remains and theatre venues remain closed. Clearly, the debate over mediatized theatre has also really only begun. Is it time yet to admit that the question of “theatre or not” no longer relies simply on aesthetic criteria? Does it matter if Zoom productions are theatre or not when half of the country is trying to survive the catastrophe? The answer is still uncertain; perhaps the sole answer to this suggests that Zoom productions are already depicting the country’s precarious new life.
Dixon, Steve. Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation. MIT press, 2015.
 To celebrate the National Day of Theater, the Council for the Arts actually paid for the nationwide streaming of several productions by Teatro UC. Revenues were allocated to the artists involved.
 As if to underscore this point, the feminist performance by Las Tesis, Un violador en tu camino (A Rapist in Your Way), received in 2020 a Special Theatre and Dance Prize from the Chilean Critics’ Circle, suggesting further that the question “performance or not” is both deeply political as well as aesthetic. Not surprisingly, some national critics refused to acknowledge the artistic nature of this work.
*Pablo Cisternas Alarcón has an MA in Media Arts. He is a researcher at the Núcleo Milenio Arte, Performatividad y Activismo and a Professor of Research Methodology at the Theater Department of the University of Chile. His publications include El género en escena: relaciones en la práctica de teatro en Chile (2017), Cadáver exquisito: tres experiencias de investigación performativa en Chile (2020). His blog can be found at http://pablocisternas.blog/.
**Milena Grass Kleiner is Professor of Theatre Studies and Research Methodology at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, and she is the Director of the Núcleo Milenio Arte, Performatividad y Activismo. Her current research focuses on art, performativity and activism, and referentiality to the real in recent Chilean Theater (Regímenes de referencialidad en el teatro chileno 1950-2018, Fondecyt Regular nº 1201195).She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
***Andrés Kalawski is a playwright and an Associate Professor at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. The Artistic Director of Teatro UC, his research includes playwriting, performativity and theater history. Currently, he leads a long-term research project funded by the Chilean government (“Lectura genética de dramaturgia chilena de la primera mitad del siglo XX”). He can be reached at email@example.com.
****Cristián Opazo is an Associate Professor of Drama at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He is the author of Pedagogías letales: ensayo sobre dramaturgias chilenas del nuevo milenio (2012) and Democracias incompletas: debates críticos en el Cono Sur (2019). He serves as Chair at the Southern Cone Studies Section of the Latin American Studies Association, LASA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.