Letter from Chile - During the pandemic Chilean theater has resorted to online formats and devised new platforms
A Season On The Screen
By Javier Ibacache
March 29, 2021. Companies and theaters in Chile have turned to the screen during the Covid-19 pandemic to show online a wide array of artistic works and experiments. The transition was not free of discussion about how to name the new pieces and whether or not they warranted 'theatrical status.' This concern does not seem to bother the audience as it has been exposed to an overwhelming digital flood of performances, talks, forums, debates and workshops.
In mid-March 2020, when the Corona virus outbreak was declared a pandemic, theaters in Chile – as in most other Latin American countries – were forced to close their doors. Premieres were suspended, projects were canceled, and performance comebacks were postponed, all with the expectation of a medium-term reopening.
Nearly a year later, the situation has not changed much. Apart from the brief period in which the lockdown was eased and a few theater venues resumed functions albeit with reduced capacity, in-person performances have been few compared with the number and variety of virtual play projects that performing arts creators have launched. At the same time, the artists have had to deal with the job insecurity that the health crisis has unveiled.
The theater community’s part in social mobilization
Before Covid-19, Chile’s theaters offered more than 8,000 showings yearly and totaled about 1.5 million attendees per season, according to a report by the country’s National Institute of Statistics January had the most performances because of the numerous summer scenic arts festivals taking place in this nation located in the Southern Hemisphere.
Theater activity had already suffered the impact of the social outbreak of October 2019 (a social crisis that is the result of economic inequality and that since that date has generated demonstrations, protests and interventions in public spaces), which forced the cancellation of many performances in the last quarter of that year. The theater community showed an active commitment to social mobilizations (which have initiated a political process to draft a new constitution). Back then many expected this would become new theater projects and productions in 2020. However, the quarantine changed all those plans. Social distancing and partial or total lockdown created an unimaginable scenario.
In the absence of a state-run theater system in Chile, cultural policies focused on the dramatic arts are mostly channeled through state funding to which companies and playhouses can apply regularly. Novel emergency funding lines were created in the past year, even though the critical situation led the artistic community to request the state for direct support and subsidies.
Taking risks in volatile surroundings
Against this backdrop, the dramatic arts ecosystem resorted to the screen to show online a variety of artistic works and experiments. This transition caused a debate about how to name the new pieces and whether or not to regard them as actual theater.
The audience did not seem to be too concerned about this as it was exposed early on to an overwhelming digital glut of performances, talks, forums and workshops. In the winter months (June to August), it was possible to watch every week up to 30 live plays by Chilean playwrights or companies. Although the billboard has been diverse, it is not clear that the audience has been fully devoted to plays online, given that the viewing metrics tended to drop in spring (from September onwards) when the lockdown was eased and a few live productions were shown.
‘Pandemic’ projects have taken risks in a territory where relevance is volatile, artistic achievements are more often than not subject to the programming whims of cable television and online service channels, and public interest tends to be fleeting in the face of the lack of prior allegiance to the content or a promise of interaction.
Most projects have been formatted to and broadcast by the Zoom video conferencing service, and their variations are, for the most part, the use of pre-recorded videos, live-performance streaming, sound design, art direction, and the use of diverse online platforms. Dramatic creators, theater companies and playhouses have been gaining experience in this craft and the season’s latest premieres exhibit a more matured style, while at the same time old formats are brought back, such as radio drama podcasts.
Online a new ecosystem has arisen
The turnaround has shaped a digital ecosystem in which new platforms, streaming services and open files coexist.
The Escenix.cl platform – run by actress Patricia Rivadeneira and video producer Esteban Larraín – debuted in March 2020 with a catalog of works by Chilean companies, some of which have been recorded in high-definition quality, together with content production such as Santiago Loza’s "Amor de cuarentena" (Quarantine Love), an audio theater work broadcast on WhatsApp, or "Relecturas chilenas de Shakespeare" (Shakespeare’s Chilean New Readings). This initiative offered 30 plays on a VOD (video-on-demand) system that aims to help the sustainability of playwrights’ ventures.
The website Teatroamil.tv has followed a similar path, a revamped website that previously served as the archive of Santiago a Mil International Festival – the largest theater festival in Chile. As a result of the pandemic, it became an online channel offering premieres, special programs, international listings, and new works produced from scripts written during the quarantine.
The Cow Company, a privately-owned production company that was previously managing projects based on internationally recognized scripts, devised Living Teatro [link], a production set for short pieces broadcast on Zoom. The brief satires inspired by the health emergency charmed an active community of followers that reached up to 900 viewers in some of the online showings until late spring.
Preparing for a hybrid mode of production
Most of the analyses and projections warn that in the future the formats will be hybrids of in-person and digital performances. Theaters and other venues of diverse sizes in Santiago, the capital, and other places in Chile are preparing for that moment: they are no longer regarding themselves as infrastructure anchored in a particular place or community. Some have tried their luck at streaming from their stages despite the pricey level of investment required to transmit quality content and generate income.
The festivals held in January 2021 have followed a similar path with a favorable response from digital audiences, as reported by “Santiago a Mil” – which presented a Rimini Protokoll special program, including the live premiere of "Uncanny Valley" in theaters for ten spectators only; Santiago Off, which programmed video recordings of local pieces such as the premiere of "Artificial", a dystopian production by Teatro del Terror (Horror Theater) group; and Quilicura Teatro Festival, famed for its preference for matters that interest the local community, and which in digital format achieved notoriety with works by Juan Radrigán from the 1980s that portrayed early on the inequalities of the economic system imposed by the Pinochet dictatorship.
The lockdown’s flipside has been the opening of borders on the web. Contents that were previously aimed at local audiences have reached a national or continental extent. Festival metrics confirm this: it is estimated that as a whole they reached a total of more than 350,000 hits in one month, and verification surveys state that up to 40% of the audiences were new, not devoted.
Scenes for posterity in a season shaped by insecurity
In the midst of the accelerated transition to new formats, the theater season presented several significant plays that are grouped around two axes.
One line is composed of dramatists who intertwine views of gender and contingency, such as Nona Fernández in "Preguntas frecuentes" (Frequently-asked questions), directed by Mariana Muñoz and that addresses the scenario unleashed by the social crisis of October 2019 in the midst of the pandemic and lockdown; Carla Zúñiga in "Un montón de brujas volando por el cielo" (A bunch of witches flying through the sky), directed by Manuel Morgado, focusing on social inequality as a determining factor in the construction of women's identity; and Isidora Stevenson in "Informe de una mujer que arde“"(Report of a woman in flames), directed by Paula Bravo, which dismantles the patriarchy’s historical mechanisms of cancellation; and Rodrigo Morales’ "Oleaje" (Swell), directed by Constanza Thümler and Angelo Olivier, a play that rebuilds the identity of the voice of a dictatorship’s victim.
The second axis is made up of mise-en-scènes that have sought to generate immersive experiences using available technologies: Marco Antonio de la Parra’s "La familia" (The family), directed by Luis Ureta, places the viewer inside a dramatic situation transmitted by Zoo” with a sophisticated camera system; "Reminiscencia" (Reminiscence), by Mauricio Vaca Valenzuela, uses Google Earth to explore brushstrokes of personal and collective memory in a city that has been put on pause by the social outbreak and the pandemic; "Random", by Gerardo Oettinger and directed by Francisco Krebs, expands its multiplatform narrative with versions on Zoom, podcasts, and video recordings to recreate the collapse of Antarctica; and La María group’s "Night Stories", which creates a fiction within fiction using thriller codes as Zeitgeist.
All of them are scenes for posterity in a season shaped by perplexity, adaptation and uncertainty that has transformed the work of Chilean theater creators and has put their commitment to the test. The results generate expectations regarding the scenic year 2021 that has just started and that, in essence, will be hybrid and changing.
Javier Ibacache is a performing arts critic and programmer. As a Cultural Manager, he specializes in spectator development projects. He has also worked as a theater and dance critic for the press, radio and television. Currently he is Head of the Programming and Spectators Office of Chile’s Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage. Javier Ibacache is a member of Chile’s Arts Critics Circle and director of “Conectando Audiencias" magazine’s Latin American edition.
This article is part of a cooperation between the International Research College "Interweaving Performance Cultures" at Freie Universität Berlin (editor: Clara Molau) and nachtkritik.de (editor: Elena Philipp).
So far, a Letter from Argentina has been published as part of the series.