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Villa + Discurso - Chile's Legacy With Guillermo Calderon

There have been a lot of riots in Chile lately. As radical director
Guillermo Calderon prepare to return to Edinburgh International
Festival with Villa and Discurso, a double bill of plays steeped in 
his country's heritage of the fascist dictatorship led for seventeen
years by General Augusto Pinochet, it's a scene he knows well. Last
week, the streets of Santiago and other Chilean cities were awash with
protests by tens of thousands of students demonstrating about how the
country's education system is run.

With word of the demonstrations spread via social media, student
leaders encouraged their supporters to take up pits and pans to indulge
in something called 'cacerolazos', a noisy form of protest used
frequently during the Pinochet regime. As Calderon made clear when last
in Edinburgh with his production of his play, Diciembre, Pinochet's
brutal reign is the main influence on him as an artist. Talking the day
before travelling to Edinburgh with his new production, it is clear too
that   the events described here are crucial influences on his work.

“It's something that's been going on for the last two years,”  Calderon
says of the current wave of student protests. “The problem with
education comes up again and again. I wrote a play about the subject,
called Clase (Class), which refers both to a classroom in a school, and
to social class. I'm going to be putting it on again, because I've been
motivated by what's been going on. It's a very important issue here.”

The problem, according to Calderon, lies with reforms made during the
dictatorship's last gasp in 1989. With these reforms in place ever
since, their legacy is of a dramatically divided society.

“Now, it's horrible,” Calderon says. “People who can afford to go to
private schools get a good education and become part of the elite,
while those who go to state schools end up poor and unemployed. The
current protests aren't just rebelling against the education system,
but against the institutions left by the dictatorship, and against the
new system which has been incapable of changing them for the last
thirty years. Changes in education will only come through major
political changes, which won't happen, so this whole problem will be
inherited by the next generation, and we'll see the same protests
happen again and again. Nothing will change unless Chile has a new

If such a change is only likely to happen in the distant future, Villa
and Discurso both look to Chile's recent past for inspiration. Villa
refers to the Villa Grimaldi, Pinochet's notorious extermination
centre. Thirty years later, three women argue about what the legacy of
the site where the now demolished  building stood should be for modern
Chile. The play was developed and given a reading at the Royal Court
theatre, London, while Calderon undertook an international residency
there. Calderon's second piece, Discurso, is an imaginary farewell
speech by Michelle Bachelet, Chile's (democratically elected) president
from 2006 to 2010.

Both plays are explicit and unrelenting in their political intent. They
also mark a return to an angrier form of theatre after Calderon's play,
Neva, became successful enough to attract some of Pinochet's former
generals to attend performances in Santiago. Now, as his characters
state exactly where they stand in their condemnation of Pinochet,
Calderon's work is even more wilfully provocative than it was before.
In this way, his plays are also making up for lost time in terms of
what Calderon's generation could and couldn't say without fear of

“When I was growing up in my house,” Calderon remembers, “I was told
not to talk about what I heard at home or about anything I thought to
anyone ever. Now I am an adult, in my plays, all my characters say what
they think, and they say it in long monologues that aren't about
psychological truth, but are about political ideas. So my work is a
form of my therapy, but it's a political therapy and not a
psychological one. As well as it being political therapy, we also try
and use theatre to offend, and to get back at the people from the
dictatorship who are still around.”

With such ongoing intensity in his work, one wonders whether it is ever
likely that Calderon will move on from Pinochet's influence?

“I don't think so,” is his answer. “I read that in Spain they began
dealing intelligently with their own civil war, only thirty years after
the end of their dictatorship, so for us it is just beginning. For me,
it's really hard to escape this subject, so I think I will be creating
a lot more plays on this subject before I run out of energy, and when I
run out of energy, maybe it will be over for me. Maybe this is the only
source of real artistic drive I have. My experiences as a young person
were so defining, that maybe I can't escape. It's a very fertile drive,
but it's also a curse, because maybe I can't go to other places with my

Beyond Villa and Discursive, Calderon is planning a play about Syria,
and will direct a new production of Neva in New York. The baggage,
though, remains.

“You can have democracy, and truth,” he says, “but you can never erase
torture, exile, prison and killings. So you are never going to find
redemption or happiness. You can fantasise about reconciliation, and
that life may win over death, but it will never happen. That is only
sentimentalising things. I can live my normal life, but what happened
during the dictatorship, it will never go away. “

Villa + Discurso, The Hub, August 20th-21st, 7.30pm
The Herald, August 17th 2012


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