Theater / Performance

The year I was born (El año en que nací) (FringeArts, 17Jan14)

What they say it is:

A group of 11 Chileans born under Pinochet’s regime reconstruct their family histories through letters, photographs, clothing, and live rock n’ roll music. This captivating work of documentary theater often blurs the lines between reality and memory as a young generation attempts to make sense of their complex past, present and future.

NEW Clay Says graphic Ernie

I picked this one after seeing a few FringeArts promotional emails that described it as a work of emotional power.  I liked the idea of a combo rock-n-roll political theater show, and given my relative unfamiliarity with Chilean politics, it seemed like a worthwhile bet.

I really like the new FringeArts theater—it’s spacious and welcoming without feeling pretentious or over-fancy.  The seats are comfortable and the vertical Imax-style layout is a nice change from the boxy (and sometimes divey) rooms where many of Philadelphia’s indie arts are performed.  That said, the FringeArts schedule does appear to be aiming a bit higher than what might pass for “indie”—but so far, they’re doing a decent job of balancing the presentations.  Ticket prices are, however, often higher than I’m willing to pay (we had to miss the Encore tour of Elephant Room as a result) but I’m also conscious of the many costs of running a big venue and paying artists fairly. It’s a complicated equation to balance, without a doubt.

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Tonight’s show was sold via Funsavers for a lowered price (after the service fees, two tickets came to $36, not bad) and was well worth the cost.  Nine Chileans, ages ranging from mid-20s to late 30s, star in this show about the years of Pinochet’s dictatorship and the resulting effects on the lives of regular, everyday citizens.  The history portion of the show is mostly told through a creative mix of personal monolog, slides, and sound and video clips, with the performers interjecting live action sequences of discussion, group dialog, and reenactments based on historical moments.  The pacing was very good—one scene would feature a personal account of a parent’s reaction to the government turmoil, and the next scene might be a reaction to the previous, seeking to demonstrate how different families had starkly different perspectives.  Musical interludes, mostly comprised of defiantly straightforward power-chord strumming, lent a simple, effective atmosphere to the scene transitions.  With the sounds of revolutionary angst echoing in the theater, the show invoked a cultural touchstone that we Americans automatically recognize—rock, the sound of the people, the sound of our own 1960s, the sound of civil unrest and would-be winds of change.

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Some performers came from families who opposed the dictatorship (even participating in protests or revolutionary activities) while other families supported Pinochet regime, including a few direct ties to the highest levels of government and law enforcement.  Some players were born early enough to have been small children with personal memories of the power struggle, while others could only tell their story through the hand-me-down accounts of their parents.  A few families (along with the players themselves) fled into exile (Mexico, America, or further abroad) and others ingratiated themselves to the new government.  Some families just played the middle, with one woman admitting that her own parents were essentially party-hopping and couch-surfing throughout the worst early years.

It was, even as an American with little understanding or foreknowledge of the political landscape, a notably moving experience.  There’s no way to underestimate the simple, raw power of real human drama when it’s told to you by the people who actually lived it.  Perhaps this aspect was most important to my fondness for the show; as someone who tends to prefer (or at least attend) works of art-for-arts-sake fictions and imaginings, I have less exposure to biographical drama and probably small mental ‘insulation’ against the power it can evoke.  These kids—performing as adults, but reliving their childhood lives—witnessed a societal upheaval I’ve only read about (and hopefully will never see) in my own nation.  They’re part of a foreign political matrix that is decades old and yet has left a complex residue on the lives of every citizen.  The sharply different backgrounds of the performers cause an audience wonder how the actors interact among each other, how the typical Chilean citizen can associate with folks who stood on the other side of a deep, and often violent, political fault-line.  (Answering this question in the post-show Q&A, the players, speaking through a translator, seemed to indicate that (paraphrased), ‘We’re not our parents, we’re the new Chile, and so those things that separated are parents are not necessarily the beliefs of the (more liberal) youth generatons.’)  It may not be the most sophisticated way to make an artistic point, but the straightforward mechanism of biography-from-the-mouths of those-who-were-there, coupled with creative multimedia moments (slides of old family photographs, newspaper clippings, and the odd radio recording) really brought the reality home.

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As the group placed themselves into ordered lines meant to represent the range and variance of their skin coloration, wealth and poverty, and parents’ political leanings, I realized how much I admired these brave folks—people of my own temporal generation, but completely separated from me by conditions of geography and life.  It’s amazing and humbling to realize how wildly different life can be, thanks to the randomness of where (and when) you are born.  I’m glad to see that biographical, political art can make such an effective point without feeling preachy or didactic.  I’m left with a feeling of inspiration and admiration for those who make artwork that speaks truth to power.

Speaking of truth to power, it’s time for Tara to tell you her thoughts.

NEW Tara Says Graphic

There is nothing that gives a spoiled middle class American –(“I was so neglected as a child because I didn’t have a Gameboy!” or “My parents didn’t hug me enough…”) a better dose of perspective than a play featuring citizens of Chile speaking about the changing political environment of their country through the lens of their parents beliefs and actions.  Speaking with respect to my own life, I can’t claim that any of my school mates were exiled due to their political beliefs, or to have ever heard about any random torture or disappeared classmates.

Due to my own insulated life and general lack of knowledge regarding South American politics (or America’s involvement), I felt quite removed from the subject matter of this show.   I needed to be mindful that these were not actors- they are ordinary people  presenting their very human drama.  It was surreal for me to hear a woman recall the brutal killing of a classmate’s mom, or to see a daughter talk about a brutal beating of her own mother, causing a miscarriage and loss of her unborn brother.

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Obviously, it requires a lot of bravery to speak so openly about such intimate and emotionally charged topics.  It is even braver for these actors to recall these events from the not-so-distant past–events that could still carry real consequences in their modern lives (fates like imprisonment, torture, or exile all seem like realistic possibilities for outspoken dissidents, were the wrong people to regain power in Chile).  In one easy example, one member of the cast currently works as a police officer in Chile and is required to ask permission from his bosses–people who could have differing political views–in order have time off for this traveling political play.

The show led me to wonder if a Chilean’s view of their parents is similar to our own view of our American parents, or if parental political leanings and their gender roles are cross cultural concepts. The troupe repeatedly described their fathers across a political spectrum of left, center or right.  However, the group tended to place their mothers further to the ‘left’, tending toward what would be the socialist ideology of Chilean politics.  I wonder, if you conducted this same survey in America, would we see a majority of children viewing their mothers in a more socialist/liberal spectrum of ideals?

The players line up to demonstrate--and debate--the range of political beliefs held by their parents

The players line up to demonstrate the range of political beliefs held by their parents

The use of a video camera to project pictures onto a backdrop–images which were then manipulated by a performer (adding scribbled notes, or props like toy soldiers)–created another dimension to the show’s storytelling.  Video-projector images of family photos reenforced that these were their real families . . . images of the players’ actual parents.  The show also used recordings of the actual live radio broadcasts to explain the story of the 1973 government coup.  I enjoyed these A/V breaks during the performance, and the risk they entailed.    Organizing live media on the fly has any number of chances to go wrong (i.e. the camera malfunctioning,  audio not cueing properly, or the magic marker– used to scribble notes onto images–going missing) but luckily, none of this happened.  This multimedia aspect was a welcome and unexpected piece of the performance.

I must also note- i do not speak Spanish, so I must assume that the English translation (projected onto a screen above the players) accurately represented the spoken content (and that the spanish speaking audience was not in fact hearing a very different show that I was reading).  Honestly, I have no reason to believe it was not accurate, but I just needed to mention it, since it was an unusual facet of the play, to have this barrier of language between me and the players own words.

Overall, I really enjoyed the play–it was real people telling true stories of their lives.  I am embarrassed to say I may have lived out my life not ever considering Pinochet or the CIA involvement in Chile if i had not attended this show.  In fact, due to this show i also now know a bit more about the classification of political ideologies, and what constitutes “left” or “right”-wing views outside of American context.   Dear readers, I was a science major, so please forgive my ignorance– I continue to learn.

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