Mexican avant-garde: Interviews with Jorge Vargas and Gabino Rodriguez

by Steve Capra*

Mexican theatre—its avant-garde—is vaguely associated in the anglophone mind with documentary theatre. In 2019, I had the pleasure of interviewing two of the leading directors in Mexico City. I learned that Mexican theatre is— not surprisingly—a good deal more complex than that. Indeed, the nature of its relationship with the actual world, with issues, is subtle and heterogenous. Its dramaturgy is fascinating. Below are my interviews with Jorge Vargas and Gabino Rodriguez, two of Mexico’s most intriguing avant-garde directors.

I want to thank Rodolfo Obregon for his invaluable services.

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28 February 2019, Mexico City

We fight with a monster. We fight from defeat. We are already defeated—but we resist.

Jorge Vargas, one of Mexico’s most prominent avant-garde directors, is founder and Artistic Director of Teatro Linea de Sombra, a multi-disciplinary arts organization that stresses social engagement and tours extensively. He created the company in 1993 after studying at the Etienne Decroux School in Paris. Mr. Vargas is also Artistic Co-director of Transversal: International Encounter of Contemporary Scene (Mexico).

One particularly remarkable production, Pequeños territorios en construcción (Small Territories under Construction), explored The City of Women in Cartagena, Colombia, where displaced women built their own homes. Mr. Vargas and his company traveled to Columbia to research the piece. In 2019, he staged a highly praised production, Banos Roma, that explored the life of the celebrated Mexican boxer, José Angel Mantequilla Napoles.

Since this interview, Mr. Vargas has continued his idiosyncratic, inspired work, sometimes online. He has presented such productions as Danzantes del Alba (Dancers of the Dawn), which springs from the circumstances of labor and uses dancing and costume to present them. Another production, Amarillo en la ruta migrante (Yellow in the Migrant Route), concerns the route that Central Americans take migrating to the U.S.A.

Mr. Vargas and his company have received many honors, including The Audience Award for Best Performance at the Exponto International Performing Arts Festival in Ljubljana and The Latin ACE Award for Best Foreign Production in New York. The Association of Theatre Writers and Critics twice honored Mr. Vargas with awards for Best Research Theatre Director.

Jorges Vargas. Photo: Courtesy of Jorge Vargas

You have said that you have had many influences. You combine so many approaches to theatre. We are so lucky today that we can do that! We can combine whatever sources we want in our theatre. Our grandparents could not do that.

Yeah, of course! Because also art expands its limits, and it becomes something very porous. It is more liquid; the frontiers of art. So, we profit from that.

Your first group was Teatro Línea de Sombra. Could you tell me about it?

Well, with our first project, Amarillo, we made some decisions that later became very important for us. For example, we always talked straight to the audience. We were interested in that form of communication. We were there to testify. We became witnesses,and we testified in front of the audience. We did not represent. We presented. And it was the same with the objects we used. We used objects without mediation—not mediated by any process of artifice. We found an object and we brought it on stage as it was.

In the laboratory, we tried to figure out how we could transform this object into an object with social meaning, political meaning. We talked about “an object that is intensively alive.” It is the same object that we see in reality, but when we work with it, it becomes intensified. We try to make a kind of theatre without any intermediaries between reality and the stage. The least possible. Because of course, there is always something. We need conventions. The interesting thing is always to put on stage a kind of a tissue—in the sense of biology. You cut a piece of a tissue, and you put it under a microscope. Not to say something absolute or to present truth about what we have found, but to ask about this reality.

Some people say that we are doing documentary theatre—but we say “No.” We are not interested in that idea of theatre, you know? We are interested in putting a piece of reality on stage and opening up its complexity. So, we ask a lot of questions. Sometimes, the questions that you ask are different from the questions I ask. We can only create a space to think about it.

I see.

We work with what we call casos, cases. For example, Banos Roma is a case about the boxer—a former boxer—who chose to live in Ciudad Juarez, which was one of the most violent cities in the world at the time. We do not know why he chose to live there. We went there because when we find something that we are interested in, we always try to create what we call question systems. We ask questions about something and find one question that forces us to go to another place, to the context—not stay in our comfortable theatre. That is the way we start the process in most cases.

You address social issues. I do this in my work as well. Does our work have a social effect? Do we really have an effect?

If our work affects—?

Society.

Society? I am not sure. Discussing a problem is the only possibility of transformation. We create a space where people can ask questions about some things that are important to discuss. We did not know what happens. I doubt a lot of the power of transformational art in general. I think it happens—but on a very small scale. We fight with a monster. We fight defeat. We are already defeated—but we resist. And so, that is why we ask all the time what the meaning of resistance is today.

Wonderful, yes.

And because we work with reality, we have to ask about the ethical issues in working with reality, in working with people from that reality. For example, we knew about a group of women in Colombia, all of them displaced because of the violence. Together, they built a small city. All of them lived in the favela of Cartagena de Indias in Colombia. They managed to get a piece of land that they bought with money from an international organization, and they bought a machine to make concrete blocks. They built their own houses—89 houses—and they called the place The City of Women. We were very interested in that event because we are interested in signs of life in the context of death—signs of life in the context of violence—and how we can identify and work with signs of life. So, we went to Cartagena, and we worked in the small workshops in the City of Women, and we talked a lot with them. And, at the end, we asked them, “We are interested in creating a piece about you. What would you like us to tell as your story?” They told us “We are very worried about the future of our sons. Because even if we can build our houses and we work a lot, the violence will still be there, all around. What is going to happen to our children?”

So, we crafted the piece around this fear of the future. The name of the play was Pequeños territorios en construcción (Small Territories under Construction). It is about this fear of the future more than the story of these women. So, that is the way we work—with real facts, but also with a lot of subjectivity. We find that reality is not good and bad, but in the middle. The ethical problem today is not to choose between the good or the evil, but to choose the lesser evil.

Yes, I understand. Jorge, I have one more question. Can theatre ever become as important for our audience as it was for Shakespeare’s audience?

Yes, because I think we cannot really know the importance of Shakespeare in his moment. Marshall McLuhan said, a long time ago, that theatre has to be real, or it does not exist. And I think the same. Fiction is not enough. It does not have any sense if it is not in the same page with reality. I do not know what is going to happen in the future. It is difficult to speculate, because the danger of war is more immediate and more urgent than ever. We do not know if there will be a war in 50 years. In Shakespeare’s time, they had all the time in the world! No hurry! But today reality is urgent.

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28 February 2019, Mexico City

Things are not exactly what they are in the theater. Things are like they are but also another thing. If there is a sword on stage, it is a sword, but it is also a piece of cardboard.

Lázaro Gabino Rodriguez was born in México City in 1983. He holds a Master’s degree in theatre from the Amsterdamse Hogeschool voor de Kunsten. His work consists of explorations around the fiction and notions of true and false. Emerging from personal memories and their relation to fiction, Lazaro’s projects take their final form as theatre pieces, texts, films and radio productions.

In 2003, he founded with Luisa Pardo Lagartijas tiradas al sol, an artists’ collective dedicated to contemporary creation, with which he has developed artistic and pedagogical processes continuously. Those works have been presented across México and internationally at the Festwochen in Vienna, Schaubühne in Berlin, Paris Autumn Festival, The Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels, Santiago a mil in Chile, TransAmériques in Montreal and Theater Spektakell in Zurich, among many others.

Lázaro Gabino Rodriguez. Photo: Courtesy of Lázaro Gabino Rodriguez

Gabino, I wanted to talk with you about Tijuana. You worked in Tijuana, and then you adapted your experience into a play.

Sort of. Tijuana was part of a bigger project called Democracy in Mexico (1965–2015). In 1965, there was a man that wrote a book called Democracy in Mexico. And he made a kind of an x-ray about how democracy was in Mexico in 1965—about what achievements we had made in Mexico after the revolution of 1910 and what exactly was the situation. In that year, Mexico was in a very safe, positive moment economically—there was growth and so on—but there was just one political party. There was no democracy. There was no opposition; the Congress was one party. So, this guy wrote this book. And he offered a very optimistic panorama of how democracy will start working and the country will be even better because we will have economic growth and freedoms, like in any liberal democracy.

Fifty years after the publication of this book, we began creating 32 pieces—one for each state—in order to see how democracy was doing after he wrote this book. Now, we have different political parties; the Congress is divided. We wanted to explore one aspect of democracy in each project, depending on the region, and to take an artistic approach. We did not want to make it, say, amateur sociology or amateur political science. Our concern was purely artistic. But the starting point was the reality—the moment that Mexico was living back then politically. And so, I made this project about Tijuana.

The project is about one person that goes to a village and changes his identity to be undercover. He spends six months working with the minimum wage in order to see what that means, if it is possible to live with that amount of money, or if the law itself obliges you to work outside the law, maybe in the “informal” economy . . . So, Tijuana is a theatre piece about a man who goes to a village and works for six months and then comes back and creates the piece. But it is not that I made the thing itself. The piece is presented as a documentary, but I did not go to Tijuana to work.

There is something about how art engages social problems—the artist goes to a place and lives like that for a while and then he creates an artwork that goes to another economy, the art economy. You know the Marxist term, surplus value. The surplus in art when art engages with real people is very high for the artist. Artists make a lot more money compared to what they take from some places. That makes sense, no?

Yes!

So, for me it was very important to make a fiction about it and to try to present the person who says, “I will live like you in order to understand.” It is living six months without money that makes you understand.

But did you live for six months in Tijuana?

No, no.

Isn’t that interesting! The Los Angeles Times said that you did.

Yeah, and I sent a complaint to them! We are in a theatre! If I produce Hamlet, would you ask me if I lived in Denmark? Did you kill your father? No! Of course I am playing with that, and I know the piece is about that, but I do not feel . . .  Real things that happen in a building that is called a theatre, that is loaded with so many meanings. Things are not exactly what they are in the theatre. Things are like they are but also another thing. If there is a sword on stage, it is a sword, but it is also a piece of cardboard. So, there are many layers in theatre, and I think in the worst of cases, the theatre of the real—the theatre that deals with reality—erased this quality of theatre. I think we need to reclaim this, to claim that characteristic of theatre being in two realities.

There has been some discussion about documentary theatre. If you present something in a way that you know people will believe, why do it like that? How do we deal with that in a post-truth world? The president of the United States can say whatever that is not related to reality. Theatre needs to work in that same sense—to make something that is perceived as real but is not.

I wrote the text about the characters of Odysseus and Ajax, and how Odysseus is like a trickster. He is always trying to find ways to cheat people. The Trojan horse is the epitome of that. “Let’s put a horse here. They will think that it’s a horse but in fact there’s no horse.” And Ajax is the opposite, he is the warrior who attacks frontally, without any kind of strategy. It is just his own power. Theatre is very related to Odysseus, to the trickster, to the cheater. These kinds of values, I think, are values for the theatre, and theatre needs also to claim that space as a place of tricksters. I am not interested in literal theatre.

In light of the fact that there are film and television in the world, can theatre ever be as important as it was for Shakespeare’s audience? For Ibsen’s audience?

If the question is if theatre could again be like the hegemonic form of communication for many people, I think not. But I think theatre is important for many people. Many people—spreading around the world—many people still go to the theatre. I am quite optimistic. We go to the theatre having a very deep relationship with the art form itself. I think that it is not going to be popular again, with everybody queuing outside the experimental venues. It is a medium that has its own history, and now it is like this—and I think it is fine. 


*Steve Capra has been a critic of New York and regional US theater for many years, writing for several national and regional arts magazines. He has always been a champion of the avant-garde. His book, Theater Voices, is a collection of interviews with leaders in the theater from the USA, the UK, and Russia. Mr. Capra has adapted literary material for the stage and radio. He was for ten years Chairman of The Gassner Memorial Playwrighting Award, an international script competition. He has also worked extensively as actor and director, often in the area of script development, most notably with Judith Malina and The Living Theatre.

Copyright © 2021 Jorge Vargas and Gabino Rodriguez
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