The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Javier Ibacache
Mr. Javier Ibacache
Program director of the Gabriela Mistral Center
Gabriela Mistral Center (Centro Gabriela Mistral)
Gabriela Mistral Center
Freddy Araya
Mr. Freddy Araya
Co-director of the Teatro del Puente
*1 Augusto Pinochet
On September 11, 1973, the commander in chief of the Chilean armed forces, Augusto Pinochet, led a coup d’etat with the assistance of the United States to overthrow the government of Salvador Allende, which had come to power in 1970 as the first socialist regime ever to be elected in free elections. Film remains of Allende’s final speech before he died in a holdout in the Moneda Palace that served as the presidential executive offices. Under a state of martial law following the coup d’etat, supporters of Allende’s “Popular Unity” coalition including the singer-songwriter Victor Jara, labor activists and student were rounded up at the Santiago Stadium and massacred. Universities were placed under the control of the military and the dictatorship pursued a hard-line policy that resorted to abductions torturing and execution of civilians perceived to be a threat to the regime. The neo-liberalist economic policies introduced by his regime resulted in a poverty rate of 40%, and unemployment rate of 22% and hyper inflation, but Pinochet didn’t step down from the presidency until 1990 after losing a plebiscite in 1988 and being opposed by the navy and air force. After that he remained commander in chief of the army and was granted the status of senator-for-life. In 2001 he was put on trial for human rights abuses but continued to exert a big influence on the country with his supporters until his death in December of 2006 at the age of 91. (Pinochet supports still exist today)
*2 Michelle Bachelet
Bachelet was inaugurated as Chile’s 34th president on March 11, 2006 as the country’s first female president. She was the daughter the air force general Alberto Bachelet who opposed the Pinochet coup and died after imprisonment and tortured by the regime for supporting Salvador Allende. A year later, Michelle Bachelet, who was a medical student at the University of Chile at the time, was also imprisoned tortured along with her mother. After her release, she fled for a while to the former East Germany but returned to Chile in 1979. She then returned to the University of Chile and became a member of Chile’s socialist party and became involved in anti-government activities. She served as president for four years until March of 2010 and continued to work for the recovery of stricken areas after the February 2010 Great Chile Earthquake.
Presenter Interview
Jun. 6, 2012
Chilean performing arts today and its growing momentum 
Chilean performing arts today and its growing momentum 
The performing arts scene in Chile today is sparked with vibrant new energy. The tradition of theater culture that took root in Chile in the 1920s was interrupted during the reign of the Pinochet military dictatorship from 1973 to 1990. Since then, smaller independent theaters have led a gradual recovery of that lost vitality and today there is a strong new wave of directors born in the 1970s leading the scene. Adding to this momentum has been the 2010 opening in Santiago of the Gabriela Mistral Culture Center (GAM), taking its name from the poet Gabriela Mistral, who in 1945 became the first woman from Latin America to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. This center has become a leading force in the Chilean arts scene as a presenter of theater, music, dance and film as well as a purveyor of programs aimed at nurturing a wider audience. To learn about the new generation of directors and their audiences that are said to be leading the Chilean performing arts scene today, we spoke with the GAM program director, Javier Ibacache and the co-director of the independent theater Teatro del Puente, Freddy Araya who accompanied Ibacache when he was invited to Japan in February by the Japan Foundation to attend the international performing arts meeting TPAM in Yokohama.
[Interviewer: Setsu Higa]

The current state of Chilean theater

Could we begin by asking you to tell us about the current state of the performing arts in Chile?

Ibacache (hereafter “HI”): One of the recent trends is that the main audience for performing arts in Chile is young people. This audience is very sensitive to the activities of theater companies that are performing contemporary works or experimental works and follows them closely. Because they share the same artistic code.
However, the theater world before the Pinochet regime (*1) was different. It had an audience with many older adults. This is because of the theater tradition that began after Chile was born as a republic in the 19th century. In the 19th century the theater arts in Chile were modeled after those of Europe, especially Spain and France. Entering the 20th century, however, Chile began to develop its own unique dramaturgy and playwrights, directors and actors were able to make a living in theater as professionals. That scene gained momentum in the 1920s and by the 1940s it had spread to universities as performing arts. By the 1960s Chile was seeing another growth of diversity and dynamism in its theater arts.
However, that movement and tradition was cut short by the dictatorship in the 1970s. Theaters closed down, there was a decrease in the number of plays performed and the audience shrunk as well. This is because Chilean theater welcomed plays with political themes from the ’60s. After the fall of the dictatorship, we began to see the emergence of theater defined by full artistic explorations by the directors as the 1990s began. Since 2000, a new generation of artists is adding to the tradition and history of Chilean theater by creating new stages combining new vocabulary and new stage art, film and even multimedia. In today’s Chilean theater you will find a harmonious mix of political themes and artistic aesthetics.

What about the state of theaters?
JI: To give you an overall picture, I will cite some numbers. In the capital of Santiago there are about 200 plays performed annually. There are about 50 large and small theaters that are presenting plays constantly, with the largest ones having seating capacity of about 1,200 and the smallest ones about 60 seats. Most of the theaters are independently run. Chile has no national or public theaters. Even with the theaters of public institutions like culture centers, there are none whose activities are supported 100% by public funding from the state or local governments. The theaters of Chile’s universities may appear to serve the role of national theaters, but the theater world is actually led by the independent theaters, like the one Freddy [Araya] here runs. The audience is very sensitive to what kinds of plays the directors of the independent theaters present and what they want their audience to see. The central theater district in the capital of Santiago is the district called Bellavista.
Araya (hereafter “FA”): Bellavista is one of the most lively districts of Santiago and has traditionally been a bohemian area where the independent small theaters have been centered. The Teatro del Puente that we manage is on the bridge (puente) that connects Bellavista to the northern districts of the city. It is bridge of the Mapocho River that flows through Santiago and it was built in the 19th century. Ours is the only theater in the world that stands on top of a bridge.
JI: There is much debate about how to support the independent theaters like Teatro del Puente that provide the stages for young directors to present their works. Support from the national government can only be given for individual project for a period of up to two years, so there is no ongoing support. The only income for these theaters comes from ticket sales and what support they can get from the private sector, but corporations in Chile seldom give support for theater. The only exception is the foreign financed mining company Minera Escondida owned mostly by the British and Australian financed company BHP Billiton. Since 1994, it has been the main sponsor of the Santiago a Mil international theater festival held each January. Other than that, there is almost no support from private sector corporations. So, besides being very careful about the productions they choose, the theaters try various ways to increase income, such as running cafes in the theater facility or setting ticket discount days.
FA: Beginning from the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the country’s founding, it is now possible to get grants for longer periods of time as commemorative projects for large-scale national events. For example, my theater got a 4-year grant for improving its facilities and hiring technicians, which has been a big help. This is because, although there are a lot of works out there, the directors are often unable to mount the kind of stages they want due to the lack of independent theaters equipped to meet their specifications.

What types of productions are presented at the larger theaters?
JI: Recently, commercial theater productions have found a stable audience and are performed regularly, including mainly musicals and comedies, but this type of commercial theater is still a new genre in Chile. Under the present economic system it is still difficult for commercial theater to be profitable, and the largest demand is for productions that have an appeal as events, such as plays that come from Argentina or productions of overseas companies that are touring internationally and musicals.

What is the status of the creative side, the production of new works?
FA: In Chile there is a foundation for the development of arts that it is possible to get grants from. Once a year they accept grant applications in the genre of film, theater, dance and music.
JI: There is a flood of applications, so the competition is great. Of the 10,000 or so projects that apply, only from 1,000 to 1,200 can get grants. No one can make a living solely by doing theater. Most directors and playwrights make their living by teaching theater at universities or schools and actors support themselves by working in television or film. Still, Chilean thespians have great pride in their artistic activities. From the 1940s to the 1960s university theaters received support from the government and were able to maintain companies of their own, so the actors could make a stable living.
FA: Since then there has been one new generation of artists after another. Now there is a young generation of artists who are actively creating theater works dealing with capitalism, neoliberalism and the solitude, apathy and frustrations that comes from the influences of the media and the internet in contemporary Chilean society. The reason that political themes remain so abundant in our theater and art is because the wounds of the period of military dictatorship have not yet healed, but today’s younger generation live in a completely different reality. They hear stories from their parents generation about how Allende’s [liberal socialist] administration came to power and about the military coup d’état, but there is no way for them to relate to these events. Because the dictatorship was already in power when they came of age. So, the more important issue for them is the lack of Utopian vision or ideals in society after the return to democracy. In the theater of the younger generation, the issue of a society without ideals is a very important theme.

Would you tell us about some of the important young directors in Chilean theater today?
JI: The first one I would mention is Guillermo Calderón. He was born in 1971 and studied acting in university, after which he went to study at Actors Studio in New York. It is interesting to note that a majority of the directors and playwrights that have emerged from the so-called “post dictatorship generation” in the first decade of this century studied acting at university. Guillermo’s play Neva that he wrote and directed and premiered in 2006 at Teatro Mori went on to be performed in festivals in Los Angeles, Lisbon, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Finland and other places in Europe, North America and Latin America. The actress, playwright and director Manuela Infante (born 1980) also graduated from the Faculty of Theater at the University of Chile and then studied at the HB Studio in New York.
Other artist we must mention are Luis Barrales (born 1978) who deals with the theme of the identity of young people from the poorer classes and Alexis Moreno (born 1977), who has drawn attention for his new interpretations of works by playwrights such as Strindberg and Ionesco. Their stages are dramatic and possess a unique artistic sense and their representative works have been performed around Chile and abroad.
Also, the company La Troppa formed by graduates of Faculty of Theater at the University of Chile create cutting-edge stages that have toured to places like the 2002 Avignon Theater Festival. Members of that company have gone on to form a new company named Teatro Cinema that was invited to the 2010 Edinburgh Festival along with Guillermo Calderón’s Teatro en el Blanco.

The Gabriela Mistral Culture Center (GAM)

Would you tell us next about the Gabriela Mistral Culture Center where you serve as program director?

JI: To give you a better understanding of the role and the current conditions at GAM, I think it is best to give you a simple outline of its history first. The reason is that the building itself was built in 1972 by the Salvador Allende administration. The Allende administration was the first socialist government in history to be elected democratically in free elections. Chile was chosen to host the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and as a step in building the future of Chile, the facility was completed in a very short period of just 275 days. The building became a symbol of the idea that nothing is impossible if everyone worked together, and everyone from the laborers to the architects worked in cooperation to complete it. Artists contributed to the interior decoration of the building, especially the avant-garde artists who supported the Allende’s “Popular Unity” coalition government.
The plan was to turn the facility into a culture center after the UNCTAD conference. The conference was successfully completed in April of 1972, after which the facility functioned for a while as the Gabriela Mistral Metropolitan Culture Center. However when the coup d’etat occurred the building was taken over as the new military government’s headquarters. The military regime blocked all access to the Alameda [street] that ran through the center of Santiago and the facility and its surroundings became a very dark place. Later it became the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense, and after the end of the dictatorship it became a convention center. However, in 2006 a fire broke out and destroyed one-third of the building.
Then, during the Bachelet (*2) administration a committee was set up and the decision was made to rebuild the facility as a culture center that would be the leading center for theater and music in Chile. President Bachelet planned to rebuild it in three stages, with the first stage being completed in 2010 in time for the nation’s 200th anniversary celebrations. The ceremony to celebrate the completion of construction was planned for February 29, 2010, but the Great Chile Earthquake struck of February 27th. Finally, the newly elected President Piñera held the ceremony in September of that year. Access was re-established to Alameda street, the infrastructure improved and the center became more than simply a culture center, with the Gabriela Mistral name restored once again.

Have you been involved as program director since this reopening of the Center?
JI: Yes. Five months before the opening our administrative team was called together and discussions began from scratch about what kind of facility we wanted to make it. I wanted it to be a place for new encounters, an open and transparent space (the building itself is transparent) where we could build interactive relationships between the audience and the creators. Unlike other public facilities, anyone can use Wifi for free in the building and, despite its weight of important history, it is a very modern facility with theaters for music, dance and theater, it has profound beauty and it is equipped with rehearsal studios as well. It is on spacious grounds of 22,000m2, and although only the first stage of construction is complete it has rooms for displaying video works and painting, it has meeting rooms, a large library, a book store and shops, a cafeteria and restaurant(s) and three open spaces.

Regarding your programs, what do you place most importance on?
JI: First of all I wanted to use all of our available theater spaces for performances of everything from the theater of the 1970s to today’s contemporary theater and contemporary dance, and communicate to people that there is always something being performed at the Center. I especially focused efforts on presenting the contemporary theater that today’s new generation of directors create, contemporary dance and classical music performed by university students and popular music concerts. I wanted it to be a place such as had not existed before in Santiago where a variety of different arts could come together and intersect.
One thing to note is that the audience for dance is still small but the audience for theater is large and diverse. The audience for classical music is older with many elderly and more conservative people. In order to make our Center a place where these different demographic groups could come together and meet, we have been thinking up and implementing programs in which the audiences could interact with each other and with the works performed. We consider the audience to be everyone from nursery and elementary school students to young people, university students, people of the local community and the elderly.

It has only been a year or so since your Center began operations in its new form, but how are things proceeding at this point?
JI: Currently we have a staff of 60 employees, and in 2011 we had a total of 830 performances of theater, dance and music. Some 630,000 people visited GAM during the year and 90,000 attended performances, and we had some 1,120 large and small gatherings including lectures related to fostering tourism, and other workshops, seminars and meetings. We organized a theater festival, a dance fest and a festival of contemporary European plays, and in 2012 we have scheduled two contemporary dance festivals.
Also, besides putting together a diverse program, we are researching and analyzing the audience that comes to the GAM. In cooperation with the local community and schools we conducted a survey and found that we were getting few visitors and audience from the poorer communities and communities with a large percentage of the elderly. In response to this, we laid out a 4-year program designed to eliminate this imbalance by getting out information and creating opportunities that make it easier for these populations to participate.
In 2011, we had open public auditions for a production of Oedipus by a young director. The three main characters were performed by professional actors, but the performers for all the other roles and the chorus were selected from the general public through these auditions. There were no restrictions set on age, gender or experience and 600 people showed up for the auditions, from which 35 performers were cast. Also, some of our GAM staff attended local citizens meetings and got people from among the elderly and retired to serve as guides at GAM.
FA: GAM has a very meaningful role as a place to help give back to the people the culture and arts that were taken away from them. Because, at one point in the flow of Chile’s history, it was a facility that represented Utopia. It is not simply another culture center, but a place that to communicate important history and memories.
JI: Truly, we carry the memories of the people. This year we will get a virtual guide function in place and we will use it to have people of the community speak about their memories of this place and its history. We are also conducting a workshop that brings together 15 to 20 elderly citizens every Friday to write letters about their memories of this place. We have teachers bring their students here for extracurricular classes, we have a creative lab program that brings together young people and the elderly as participants, and we have forums and conferences and seminars planned. From Tuesday to Saturday we also have an “Audience School” program that people can attend for free.

About Audience Schools

Even before you became GAM’s program director we hear that you had a unique Audience School program. Could you tell us about it?

JI: The original Audience School concept was born in France. It began as a platform for theater theorists and critics to get together and discuss their analysis of specific works. In the 1980s papers were written about analyzing the various points involved in a play from the standpoint of theater semiotics, and this led to the start of Audience Schools in Spain, Mexico, Argentina and other places. However, most of these were conducted with the support of the countries’ ministries of education or culture or culture centers.
In Chile, Audience Schools began to be held on an independent basis in 2006. This was because there was debate going on at the time about how to nurture audiences. This was because people thought that, although support for creation of works had led to a large output of new theater works, there was insufficient public demand for theater and culture. Around the same time, France began a cultural “go-between” strategy to encourage connections between works of the arts and the audience. In Chile, our Audience Schools were begun with this idea of serving as a “go-between” to connection works of the arts and the audience.
In Chile, no one had been doing this and it wasn’t realistic to think that we could get cooperation from any government agencies, so we got together professionals in theater to begin our own Audience School program. At the time I was a theater critic in the media and Freddy was the director of a theater, and we got a university professor (Lagos) to join us and we started a program that was easy for audiences to participate in. The purpose was to help get rid of the deep-rooted feeling among audiences that the plays or the theater performances were difficult to understand.
We began by analyzing the reasons people didn’t watch theater and didn’t go to the theater. Their reasons included that they didn’t have the time or the money and that the theater was far away, and another thing they said was that they couldn’t understand plays because of the lack of information about them. It was that they didn’t understand what the actors were talking about and they didn’t understand the language of theater. In fact, from the latter half of the 1990s into the 2000s, a variety of directors in Chile had begun to use new theatrical vocabulary and create new “codes,” that left the audiences in the dark. So, Freddy and I decided we should try to work with the audiences to deepen their understanding of what the playwrights, directors and actors were thinking. We created a platform where audiences could meet playwrights and directors and have them directly answer their questions about how to understand a given play, what questions the play posed, what answers the play provided and why the playwright had written it.

How did the first school go?
JI: The first one was held at the Santiago a Mil festival in 2006. The first one drew about 90 people, but soon they were drawing 100 and then 120 people. Since each one was about a different specific play, there was some fluctuation, but the participants were very satisfied with them and they told us that the schools made them want to go and see plays they hadn’t seen before. We got support for this program from the sponsor Minera Escondida we mentioned earlier, so we were able to offer the schools for free at the theaters after the festival, and recently we are offering them in cities other than Santiago.

How has the cooperation of the directors been?
JI: They have been very cooperative. In these five years of the program we have had about 250 directors, playwrights and actors participate for us. Some of them have been from abroad as well. Participating gave them the opportunity to see what their works had communicated to the Chilean audiences, which they said was very interesting for them. Until this program, there were many cases where, for example, when Pina Bausch came to Chile, at best people were only able to speak to some of the dancers. With our schools however, we gave the general audience a chance to speak directly with the director.
FA: There are a growing number of people who have started going to the theater because of our Audience School program. There are so many people who want to know very basic information, not necessarily the theory behind a play. They want to know things like what is the job of the director and where the designs for the stage art come from. There are also times when there are discussions between the directors and actors of a number of different plays. This is a very valuable opportunity that reveals to each other what they are striving for in their artistic activities. This is another of the reasons that theater companies and directors actively cooperate in the program. Because, there are few opportunities like this for them to get feedback directly from the general audiences, rather than from critics or friends. Also, there will be people in the audience who will want to go and see the play after hearing the talk about it, and that makes the program an effective means to spread the work to a larger audience.

Have there been any new developments in these five years of the program?
JI: Besides the live schools at the theaters, to reach a larger audience we also have Audience School programs on radio for theater and on television for dance. And, with the cooperation of the radio station Radio Cooperativa we created the “Audio Book of Chile Plays” as a special project commemorating the 200th Anniversary of Chile Independence.
This is veritably something born of the Audience School program. We created it on the idea that it will be good if people can be exposed to plays from childhood. To be used together with the website Educar Chile for elementary and middle school teachers, it gives a selection of 24 plays dating from 1877 to 2008 that share the common theme of the identity of Chile as a nation in each era. These plays are turned into radio dramas with the help of actors and are broadcast weekly on Saturday nights on Radio Cooperativa and the plays are also introduced on a television mini-program. Then everything was brought together as an audio book. To make them well suited for use in the classroom, the audio book also comes with a booklet providing guides to each of the plays. Thanks to this project, we now get a lot of teachers coming to the theater to see plays. Since it also includes the things that the directors and playwrights have said in our Audience School sessions, it has drawn the attention of theater researchers as well.

Issues and visions for the future

Will you tell us about some of the issues you see for the future?

JI: Sixty percent of the operating budget for GAM comes in the form of support from the government and the rest comes from ticket sales and bank loans. So, in order to grow our audience we need to be involved in programs to nurture audience, but another important issue is how we conduct “cultural marketing.” Until now, Chile has not had a specific strategy in this area, so we are now studying this issue. As we analyze the audience we find that 60% of it is under the age of 30 and that they come from all districts inside and outside of Santiago. These young people get the latest information from the internet and come to GAM an average of eight times every three months. We have found that Twitter and Facebook are especially effective information sources, so we are now getting out information on these social networks.
Beginning this year, we plan to invite guests from around Latin America and other countries like the US and the UK every May for meetings to exchange opinions on audience-building and cultural marketing.
FA: GAM is an institution of great potential. That’s because, within its walls there is great pride and respect for theater and dance. Today, the dream of many young people is to stand on one of GAM’s stages. They are attracted to the high level of the facilities and technicians and the sublime atmosphere created on its stages. Our theater is just two blocks away from GAM and at first we thought that it might take our audience away and we would have to compete to hold our audience. But now, we are cooperating on projects together with GAM and creating a synergistic effect. Actors that perform at our Teatro del Puente will also perform in different plays at GAM and vice versa, and we are sharing in the flow of audience. I think GAM’s presence with bring new imputes to the theaters of the Bellavista district.

What measures are you taking to nurture audiences beyond the core of young people?
JI: I want to include at least three stages in our yearly programs that can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages. For the first time in 2011 we produced at GAM a musical that became a big hit. It was Amores de Cantina directed by Juan Radrigán, a playwright who has been active since the 1970s, and we are continuing performances of it this year. This is a comic tragedy full of live music that the whole family can enjoy. Also, to nurture audience for the future we have started a theater series for children under the age of five on an experimental basis. As for dance, where performances still draw only about 40% of the seating capacity, the Santiago School of Ballet and a contemporary dance school are moving to GAM this year and we hope that some of the classical ballet students will also acquire an interest in contemporary dance.

What about international exchange programs?
JI: Since Chile’s Ministry of Culture was only just formed in 2003, there is still no system for international exchange and no established culture policy. In particular, since there are no ongoing support programs for overseas performances by Chilean artists, our artists can only go abroad if they receive invitations from overseas. For our Santiago a Mil international festival, we invite a variety of guest artists from abroad and the resulting encounters with foreign theater people creates opportunities for Chilean theater people to be invited abroad. After participating in Japan’s TPAM this time, I want to deepen our relationship with Japan on an ongoing basis.

Thank you very much for giving us so much of your time for this interview today.