Sunday, January 27, 2013

Museum of Memory and Human Rights

I went to the the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, which opened in 2010.  There's a very large plaque near the entrance with a quote from the speech that President Michele Bachelet gave at the opening ceremony:

"We cannot change our history.  We can only learn from it.  That is our responsibility and our destiny."

This museum is a valiant effort by the Chilean people to learn from what happened in Chile between 1973 and 1990.  I got the English audio guide and spent six hours going through exhibits, trying to understand the enormity of the tragedy that began on September 11, 1973, with a violent military coup -- and continuing on until the country finally returned to democracy in 1990.

In 1970, Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile.  He was the first Marxist to become a democratically elected head of state.

 I was one of the hundreds of thousands of people all over the world who rejoiced at the possibility of a democracy that would act in a dramatic way to lift its citizens out of poverty.  Allende intended to wrest control of the Chilean economy from the US-backed oligarchy that controlled it.   But in response to Allende's election, Nixon vowed, "We're going to make their economy scream."  After all, Chile has the biggest copper mines in the world.  How dare they think that they're entitled to control their own industry?!?

With Allende's victory, there was an incredible blossoming of culture, including theater.  In 1973,  I was in graduate school, planning to go to Chile to write a dissertation on the amazing grassroots theater movement going on there.

And then the Chilean army, led by General Pinochet, bombed La Moneda, the Presidential Palace equivalent to our White House, and the long dictatorship began.  We know now that the CIA was actively and secretly supporting the coup planners.  One CIA operative wrote that the decision of who was going to run Chile was too important to leave to the Chilean people.  So my own government was complicit in the crime of the destruction of Chile's democracy.  I felt a strong desire to know in more detail what had happened.

No photos were allowed in the museum, which was good.  There was so much information, so much emotion.  The distancing device of a camera would not have been helpful.  These photos are from postcards I bought, along with a few photos I took at a cafe that had posters.

The museum is enormous, powerful, overwhelming, devastating, moving, uplifting.  It begins with a map of Chile, with dots showing the hundreds of places where acts of repression, torture, and murder took place.  Then we see photos of 83 of the 190 memorials to the victims of the dictatorship, created by private individuals and groups, all over the country -- ranging from humble corners of rural cemeteries to massive sculptures.   I just started crying, as the completeness and destructiveness of the junta's actions began to sink in for me.

I'm having a hard time writing about this.  How to express the enormity of a transition from democracy to brutal dictatorship in one day? A nightmare that continued for 17 years?   How can I describe something I cannot comprehend myself?

I went upstairs to a section that recreates what happened on September 11, 1973, a day that dawned with La Moneda already surrounded by soldiers, with tanks in Constitution Square.  Then the planes started bombing.

 There was a documentary that focused on interviews with eyewitnesses who were with Allende on that day.  One aide urged Allende to call the citizens to come to the Square in protest, but the President could not bear the thought of the slaughter that would ensue.   Another urged him to escape.  But that, too, seemed wrong to Allende.

Incredibly, even though the Palace was being bombed, the phones still worked.   Allende phoned the one radio station that wasn't already occupied by the army and gave his last speech.  Crouched under a desk while the building shook from bombs, Allende spoke with courage, calmness and a vision of a bright future to the Chilean people. It's ubelievable that he could do that under the circumstances. You can read and hear a recording of his speech here.   It seemed from what eyewitnesses said that he shot himself very soon after.  One of the most eloquent symbols of the coup are Allende's eyeglasses, which were found in the wreckage of the bombed Presidential Palace.
This is an artistic rendering of the glasses.

Allende's shoes were also found, apparently blown off his body by the force of a blast.
This photo was in the cafe I mentioned.
According to the Truth Commission which investigated after the restoration of democracy, during September 1973 alone, there were 598 dead, 274 disappeared detainees and 19,083 political prisoners taken and tortured.

While the arrests, torture and assassinations continued, there was always resistance -- and strong international support for that resistance.  Below is one of the anti-Pinochet murals that appeared all over the city.

In the prisons, people who were kept in darkness could sometimes see a bit of light through drains that were in the shape of seahorses.  (It seems that decorative drains are common in Chile.)  So the seahorse became a symbol of resistance behind prison walls.

Pinochet just kept repressing, and people kept resisting.  In May 1983, there were enormous protests against massive unemployment and economic suffering.  (Funny, since Pinochet's main justification for taking power was to prevent economic chaos.)  Despite censorship, the press raised its voice -- first in clandestine bulletins and then in regular magazines and newspapers.  Opposition parties organized.  Their leaders are persecuted and sometimes assassinated.  New leaders come forward.  The opposition demanded free elections, with parties running candidates for president.  The junta refused, but finally agreed to a referendum, giving Chileans the chance to vote up or down on the current dictatorship.

That's very strange, isn't it?  But the junta was always seeking to legitimize itself, not only in the eyes of the Chilean people but in the eyes of the world.  They had organized a similar referendum much earlier, and they had won it decisively.  There might have been massive electoral fraud involved in that first referendum, but no one was overseeing the election other than the junta.

This time, tens of thousands of people in the opposition were trained as poll observers to prevent any hankypanky.  Both sides ran enormous television advertising campaigns.  The NO campaign, instead of focusing on the crimes of the past, looked to the future with the slogan "Joy is Coming!"  The YES campaign touted "Chile:  A Country that Wins!"  There was an exhibit that was a collage of campaign television ads from both sides.  Some of the NO ads had substance, but a lot of it seemed like a war of Coke against Pepsi.  Nevertheless...

On October 5, 1988, with over 90% of Chileans going to the polls, the NO campaign received 55.99% of the vote!   On July 30, 1989,  Chileans  approved a referendum to create a new constitution.

On December 14, 1989, the first presidential and parliamentary elections after more than 16 years took place.  Patricio Aylwin, representing the Parties for Democracy, won.  And on March 11, 1990, he took office as the first democratically elected President of Chile after 17 years of dictatorship.

What a journey this country has been through.  It's all still very sensitive.  People don't like to talk about what happened.  Or perhaps people are sick of talking about what happened.  My guidebook told me to NOT bring it up in conversation.  People want to talk about what's going on NOW.  The biggest current struggle is giving everyone the possibility of a decent education.

I'm grateful to the Chilean people, for creating the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, so that all who care can study and try to understand the trauma this country endured.  I bought the mug below, so that when I drink my tea, I will be reminded of the suffering and courage and persistence of the Chilean people.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Another Incredible Theater Experience

Below is a description of the play I saw tonight.  And, if that doesn't interest you, there are some photos of Santiago below it.

Tonight was the last night of the Santiago A Mil Theater Festival.  Before today, I had seen two plays from France and one play from Poland that were boring pretentious avant-garde blah blah, and two Chilean productions that were great.  So I decided there was no point in seeing anything BUT Chilean theater.

There were seven plays in the section "Chile -- Memoria 1973 -2013" --- the first date being the year of the coup.  So seven political plays --- all sold out!  On the one hand, I was very disappointed.  On the other hand, I was absolutely thrilled that the Chileans crave political theater about their own experience.  In my desperate effort to see only Chilean theater, I bought a ticket to something Chilean I didn't know anything about, for the matinee today.  The woman at the box office asked me several times, "Only one?  Only one?"  I didn't understand  why she gave a damn if I went to the theater alone.  Then I was surprised at how cheap the ticket was -- only $3!  Then, as I was ready to go to the theater, I noticed that it was for children 7 and under.  Of COURSE, the box office woman assumed I would be bringing a tiny fledgeling theater addict!  Anyhow, I did something else incredible instead.  But that's the next blog.

Tonight I saw "Cerca de Moscu," or "Close to Moscow."  This was a conflagration of characters from two different Chekhov plays having a wild drunken party that went on and on and ON -- ending with not one but two accidental shooting deaths.   Kind of "Who's afraid of the Seagull's Smile of a Summer night," if you know what I mean.

Sorry, no photos of the performance, since it was a regular indoor production.  Theater is just on an incredibly high level in Chile.  The acting, directing and set design mesmerized me for the whole time ---
Even though it was three hours long -- no intermission
Even though I couldn't understand most of the Spanish, and it was a very verbal play
Even though I could have left easily from my seat location -- several people did leave
Even though I knew the play might run later than the last subway (it did)
Even though I was very far away from my B&B
Even though I had no idea about bus routes
Even though I only had $2.75 in Chilean pesos and didn't know if I could convince a taxi driver to take dollars (I was able to, but he was a little leery, so I paid him $20, which was quite a bit)
Even though there were many more men than women characters, and the women were only concerned with love -- actually, this is the fatal flaw in the script, and would usually drive me out early but I just didn't want to THINK about it because they were all so brilliant at every single moment.

The production took place in the large center court and sweeping staircase of a rather crumbling but grand museum.  The audience sat on bleachers. Mostly young people -- 20's, 30's.   The characters were very playful, witty, graceful brilliant people just jabbering on about ... well, that I couldn't tell you.  It was very fast-moving, not realistic, not unrealistic.  Chekhov on acid maybe?  It began with Ivanov trying to kill himself by sticking his head in a bucket of water.  Platonov, a character from another Chekhov play, saves him.  For a long time, there didn't seem to be a plot.  Just dizzy complications.  There were about 12 characters, so lots of possibilities.  The staging was so physical.  All at once two characters would throw themselves on the ground, wrestling -- first playfully, and then more seriously.  It all happened so naturally.  Ivanov considers suicide again -- dancing around on the balcony railing -- 1 1/2 flights up!  That was literally terrifying.  If he lost his balance.... They would never let an actor do that in the U.S.

Platonov was one of those actors that you just love to watch.  Marlon Brando was one of those.  Platonov was so present at every moment.  And you felt that it was a Great Soul who was present.  So much subtlety in his face and gestures.  Could that guy listen!  So could the woman playing Anna, whose party it was.  I want to tell you that this is not the easiest thing for an actor to do -- to be as alive listening as when talking -- but without taking any focus from the actor who IS talking.  I have noticed on videos that it is not my strong point.

Anyhow, as long as it was light and frothy, I had no idea what was happening and was just enjoying getting lessons in acting, directing and set design.  At one point the stage becomes a garden or a forest, when six giant picture frames (as in 6 ft. wide and 4 ft. high) filled with naked tree branches are wheeled in.   Gee, I wish I had pictures.  I was reminded of a Shakespearean forest with all kinds of sneaking around and flirting and eavesdropping.  They were all wearing the animal masks you see in the photo of the program cover, above.

AFter that,  the romantic complications became serious.  It was lovely to see every single actor transition from witty repartee to real feeling.  These Chilean actors are deep!  All of them seem to be able to plunge down and open up and suddenly, someone who seemed foolish or pompous is in big trouble and breaking your heart.

Chekhov is famous for saying that if a gun appears onstage, it has to be shot.  In this play, TWO guns appear.  Both times, they are shot accidentally, in the struggle to keep the gun-wielding character from shooting.   And both times someone not involved in the struggle is killed.  The first time, it's a minor character who isn't even onstage.  He's offstage preparing the food, and staggers on to die.  You feel terrible.  It's a real death  But he IS a minor character.  The second time, it's Platonov.  What an advertisement for gun control.

Three hours is a JOURNEY in the theater.  We clapped and clapped and clapped -- moved and exhilarated by the story and the artistry of the production.  Then I went out and found my leery cab driver.


This is Pastel de Choclo, one of the Chilean national dishes.  It's stewed corn with a little sugar on top.  Underneath is ground beef, chicken, half a hardboiled egg, olives and some raisins.  And it's on to the NEXT Chilean national dish!

One of the many wonderful murals in Bella Vista, a kind of funky Greenwich Village.  Taken at night. Next are several photos of the Castillo Hidalgo, in a park in the middle of the city, with views from the very top of the hill.

I might have seen this next image almost anywhere in the world.  But where I saw it was in Santiago.

That's all, folks!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Santiago Street Theater

Dear Friends:  Well, this is my first blog.  I was inspired to do this by my niece Rose, who blogged up a storm when she was studying in Cyprus for six months.  I enjoyed her blog so much!  And now I'm visiting Rose in Santiago, Chile, where she's studying Spanish.  The girl does get around.  I would show you a photo of the two of us, but I'm typing this AFTER I typed everything below, and I cannot seem to add any more photos.  Damn.

I just happened to arrive in Santiago at the tail end of a gigantic experimental/political theater festival!  I want to tell you about the street theater I saw today.  There's a lot of street theater in this festival.  But this is the only one that was just one performance.  This was presented by La Patriotico Interesante (The Interesting Patriot??) and was titled "La Victoria de Victor."  Victor Jara was a great and famous and very political folk singer who had the temerity to keep singing his songs after Pinochet became dictator.  Jara disappeared.  Of course, he was murdered, but there has never been any kind of closure in terms of bringing anyone to justice or even knowing what happened.  (I kind of made up that last sentence.  There are various graffiti aaround town demanding justice for Victor Jara, so I'm assuming no one knows what happened.)

Anyhow, The Victory of Victor took place on an out-of-the-way street.  I had to schlep to get there.  It was very moving to be part of this Chilean crowd reliving part of their history.  I think it must be very difficult to somehow digest and integrate what happened.  OF course, the U.S. facilitated all the evil it possibly could.  Shit, I'd like to live in a country that doesn't do so much evil!  Well, let me just tell you about the play and show some photos.

Well, this is not a Chilean actor.  This is me and Ruki, during the short time we tried to make it together, which coincided with when the dahlias were in bloom.  Ruki has become Uhura and is blissfully happy living with Calla and LauRose and their gang of pups.  ANYHOW, I just cannot seem to get the damn photo I want to upload, so I tried this and it worked.  One more time.

This is the actress playing Victor Jara.  He has just come to life from a huddled mass.  He's standing on top of a truck with a rock band playing.  Basically, it was a street theater and a rock concert combined.  She really does look like Victor Jara, who was very beautiful with black curly hair.  he always wore indigenous sarapes.

He's just on fire, the band is playing and he's inspiring/leading people with his gestures -- including using the guitar like a gun.

Here's a band member on the truck.  They were all in red, like Victor, and also wearing these Andean kinda rough capes that he used to wear.  The whole production was very rough.  Everything was torn and used and ROUGH.

Victor's Wife approaches in an amazing cart made of wooden sticks and hung with dishtowels.
Victor and his Wife (I guess it's his wife -- too young to be his mother) 
Me and Rose in Plaza Brazil, near where I was staying.  I tried to move this photo and couldn't.

 She loves him.  Let's face it, he's pretty great for a man.

 This is a little puppet that symbolized their child (I think). They were very happy but I couldn't get a photo of it.  I couldn't get photos of a lot of it.  The crowd was too big.
This actress preceded the puppet, but I'm having trouble moving the picture up.  The puppet was of her -- an angel child, I think.

 The wife didn't do too well.  They covered her with a blanket.  So this is the next woman.  Very soulful.  She pooped out too, but there was something special about her while she lived.   (I'm sorry, it's hard to keep everyone straight when you don't really know the history.)

As we moved down the street, we came to Victor's father, mired in mud in a bed, surrounded by televisions.  This was so powerful.   He kept on struggling in the mud and looking at the TVs, as if that was all the life he had left.  Just thinking about it shakes me up.

Victor came down the street tied to a bed that was flung around at at this moment lifted up.

Victor is trying to make his father live.  I love the expression of the woman who is watching.  This relationship between Victor and his father was very real.  I think this is a great photo.
While Victor was trying to save his father, I noticed that the angel puppet was stuck in a bush -- obviously waiting to be used again in the play.

Victor's Father Has Died.  He is overcome with grief..
Here's Pinochet, the man who murdered Victor and many others. He was the dictator of Chile from 1973 to 1989.   When he came on, the crowd started whistling, which is apparently a sign of violent disapproval.  

Pinochet has captured Victor Jara.   Victor is shot. (which did happen) and then Pinochet was shot (which never happened).  I wish they had made Pinochet's death more grueling.  I wanted to see him suffer.  He, who made so many suffer.
In the end, Victor was magically resurrected.  He was so beautiful, and the air was filled with golden confetti.  And everyone chanted and sang his songs together.
So how was this  "THE VICTORY OF VICTOR"?  Look, they told the man's story and sang the man's songs.  Sometimes that's the only victory you get.  He is still a force in Chilean political and cultural life.  I'm not saying it's enough, but it's something.  Theater isn't enough.  But it is something.  I was really thrilled to witness this performance and the reactions of the crowd.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Version Mary

Irina is blessed by Mary

Our latest show, CRONES FOR THE HOLIDAYS, plays at at Stage Werx in San Francisco through December 30. We do sketch comedy and improv from a lesbian, feminist and generally subversive viewpoint. What better subject to subvert in a Christmas show than the actual birth of Jesus?  Perhaps the most interesting part of our show, and the part that was the hardest to create, is “The Version Mary.”
Carolyn Myers, my croney, and I both felt driven to reshape the myth of the Virgin Mary -- but in very different ways. Neither of us believe that a woman was impregnated by a god, and gave birth to a baby who founded a religion.  Everyone is aware of this myth.  But it’s almost never explored theatrically in a subversive way.  Some of our friends were shocked by the project.  Although they were non-believers, they felt uncomfortable with anyone messing with the Virgin Mary.  Oh, goody!
My interest was in a real human being whose actions to save herself  had given rise to the myth of the “immaculate conception.” I imagined a young girl who invented a fantastical story to explain her otherwise disastrous pregnancy.    How could Mary have convinced everyone around her that she had never had sex with anyone when she was PREGNANT?
Carolyn, on the other hand, is a devotee of the Goddess.  She considers the Virgin Mary a powerful manifestation of the Goddess that has been co-opted by Catholicism -- as she wrote, “the face of compassion pasted on a brutal regime.”  Carolyn wanted to reclaim Mary as the Goddess of Loving-Kindness.
And then there was Pussy Riot, the Russian punk band who occupied the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow ten months ago, singing a song asking the Virgin Mary’s help to get rid of Vladimir Putin, who is fast making himself dictator-for-life in Russia.  “Virgin Mary, become a feminist!  Virgin Mary, put Putin away!” was the chorus of their radical song.  Three of these amazing young women were sentenced to prison in Siberia for their flamboyant protest.  We two Crones wanted to honor their courage.
How to combine these three visions?   Carolyn volunteered to write the damn thing, and she struggled mightily.  First, it was a solo for Mary.  Then we added a young pregnant girl in the Soviet Union in 1962.  Mary became a Russian icon that comes to life.  One scene became two -- the second in Russia in 2012, to allow for Pussy Riot.   Carolyn brought in version after version -- or Virgin after Virgin, you might say.  She gave up in frustration.  So I wrote a Virgin,  which still wasn’t right.  Carolyn took the scene back.  I was having trouble playing the young girl, so we switched roles and now I’m the Virgin Mary -- and loving it.
In the end, a scene we worried would never work has become one of the strongest parts of the show.  And the Pussy Riot theme demanded a multi-media extravaganza that these two Luddite C rones could never have imagined.   To see the results of our mighty labors, come see CRONES FOR THE HOLIDAYS.