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Gopal Ibarra

Interview by Mauricio Fuentes for Interdram.

Translation by Cristóbal Pizarro Schkolnik.

May, 20, 2020.

"We don't go for half-measures: I want to be questioned, I want my writing to be questioned. My hunger for theater comes from the desire to upset and expose my discomfort to the group of artists that surrounds me, and the slept neoliberal society in which they live". 

Gopal Ibarra.JPG

Gopal Ibarra. Photo by Paulina Cortés.

The Ibarra brothers represent the opposite of what "Cain and Abel" do. They share everything and complement each other. As a theater company, their work speaks for itself. They not only assist each other in the roles of director and playwright, but they have also actually been capable of reshaping the scene. They have done it by the inclusion of "citizen casts": expanded stagings with a robust and social sense of identity. Their productions draw a vast audience and present a large number of people on stage, turning them into a mirror of sorts. A variety of Chileans have the chance to look at each other, recognizing each other as a society and nation. 

"The Ibarra Brothers" is the company you formed with your brother, Visnu Ibarra, with whom you've worked ever since your early productions during drama school. After graduating, you've gone through several stages of creation and growth. Where do your mutual trust, complementation, and success come from? Which aspect of your relationship as brothers contribute to working as a company with a long trajectory?


Studying drama was one of the most beautiful things I've experienced, especially since it was something I was able to share with my brother and begin a company with him immediately after our studies began. I used to write poetry in high school, and when we started at ARCIS drama school, I shifted towards drama. My masters, (Juan) Radrigán and (Ramón) Griffero, were reading my work, correcting it, and directing it somehow. In my second year, I wrote and directed what became my first full-length play, The bloody heart of Jesus Christ (El sangrado corazón de Jesús). It won the New Directors' Festival at Universidad de Chile and received a special award for its writing. Thanks to that, I got a scholarship for the MFA in Stage Direction at Universidad de Chile. In ARCIS, my brother and I were classmates. In Universidad de Chile, Visnu Ibarra was performing in my directing exercises. The playwriting process was done together: he would perform the text, and I would write. Fraternity, brotherhood, discussions, and different points of view contribute to enhancing theatricality.


Your work as a playwright with "The Ibarra Brothers" company has gone through three very different but coherent stages. You describe them as three distinct styles: 1. Farcical, Latin American melodrama, 2. utter realism, with a classic unity of time, space and action, 3. writing for the stage with Epic-Brechtian elements: adding live music, citizen casts, and estrangement. How did this evolution come to be?


It is a pretty logical evolution. In the beginning, we had the impulse to copy and create pastiches filled with cinematographic elements. Besides, I wanted to become a filmmaker before choosing drama school - I'm currently working in this field. So, as a self-taught filmmaker, I started copying things from movies. That's how I explored Latin-American theater, quoting films that had impacted my life. And then, the "marginal trilogy" was born, where we worked on "slum"-related topics and explored them referencing gringo movies. Our plays from this period are American Miracle (Milagro Americano), Dreams, and our first play The bloody heart of Jesus Christ (El sangrado corazón de Jesús). In our second stage, we turned to realism. It was more political, like with our plays Colo-Colo 91 (Colo-Colo 91) and Luis Emilio II (Luis Emilio II). In this stage, I also wrote a couple of dramatic texts that other directors had commissioned, like Bloody shoes (Zapatos con Sangre), and God is a luxury (Dios es un Lujo). 

In the third stage, exploring an epic/musical theater style, took on the idea of doing a citizens' theater. In this phase, we started seeing exciting things about theater: those things you can go through when you work with large casts. Victor without Victor Jara was our first play about Chilean songwriters. When we do a citizens' play, it's not about making theater for the people because the people are now on stage. This led us to make The letter (La Carta) and Kicking stones (Pateando Piedras), which are part of the Chilean musical trilogy. We have always been fascinated by all things political, which is what we like to explore the most. If you don't go there, why make theater at all?


In your last stage, with the "musical trilogy," you work based on epic-Brechtian dialectics. The questioning of Chile's past and present reality appears on stage as a constant, inviting the audience to think of themselves as a society. This methodology manifests itself through the many questions, answers, and counter answers we place on the stage. We aim to question the neoliberal model, evidencing a fairly explicit political stance. Today, there are playwrights and artists from other areas that define themselves as "pamphleteers" and defend the concept. Does this element exist in the theater you are currently making? Do you think the pamphlet is a valid thing in art?


The pamphlet is part of our theater, we consider ourselves straight-up pamphleteers. Our theater is written from the unrest/offense, from the manifest, from what bothers privileged artists. I try to attack comfort with my writing. We become cannon fodder in front of the theater. We prepare ourselves and plan out our theater, and that's how radical points of view arise. We don't go for half-measures: I want to be questioned, I want my writing to be questioned. My hunger for theater comes from the desire to upset and expose my discomfort to the group of artists that surrounds me, and the slept neoliberal society in which they live. Now, listen, I am not saying I make "theater for artists." I create so that the entirety of citizens can feel inspired and questioned with every production, so we can all go out and fight and change this normality for a prettier one. Why not?


In the "musical trilogy," your writing comes together with songs of different canonical Chilean songwriters. How is it that you get into those voices, and how is your own authorship transformed in the process?


That's an excellent question. My writing always begins by entering a dialogue with someone. It never starts selfishly on its own. I am always looking to encounter someone else. It might be the actor or other artists. That is how I take literal cinematographic references and adapt them, or sometimes I copy things. And, YES, I am copying. And I'm not scared of the word copy either. The more I copy, the better I feel… It's like I'm writing an ode to my ancestors, to my fellow artists. And that is something I love about our art: communion and associativity. If I am not copying references, I am making a copy of what the actresses think – copying what they are saying - and sometimes I do it literally. On other occasions, I go through a poetic stimulus. I did the same with Víctor (Jara), Violeta (Parra), or Jorge (González). In "Victor sin Víctor Jara," I used Victor's songs as a base for the writing. In La Carta (The Letter), everything was meant to be sung: the writing is only composed of songs. In Pateando Piedras (Kicking Stones), I played with González's encounters with the press, the actors' words, and confusing it to enhance it. 


The primary "epic-Brechtian gesture" in the last shows you've made is the entrance of the "citizens cast." This group works as a chorus: they sing, dance, and, once in a while, some of them embody characters. How does the casting process work? How do they prepare? What is the central significance that you give them?


In this last epic musical phase, the selection of the citizen groups is a fundamental part of our work methodology. We have massive auditions for over 500 people, and we even run open workshops for groups of 30-40 people. We evaluate them in terms of motivation and sense of community. In just one session, you can see who has teamwork skills. We prepare them with weekly singing, dancing, and acting lessons. This year, we incorporated circus arts into our citizen project. We also ran workshops in prisons as a way of creating community and enhancing spaces. In that sense, the primordial significance for us as a company is to develop the socialist and communitarian capacity in human beings. At the same time, having a sense of human rights recognition has allowed us to host conversations with human rights experts. The talks are open to the participants in our workshops, for free, just like the lessons taught by experts and masters in different areas. 


In your latest period, "The Ibarra Brothers" is making a very popular kind of theater, made for massive audiences. This reminds us of Andrés Pérez and a particular type of street theater. You use popular references, either local or Latin American, at a time when others are taking on the cultural influence coming from the United States or some sort of globalization product. Where does this choice come from?


Our last period of musical plays is not based on Broadway shows, although I was able to see a few in London. I can say that what we do with these massive casts of over 100 people on stage has no reason to envy those shows. We believe it's terrific to identify ourselves as a Latino society, a Chilean society, with a sense of belonging, and understanding the Latin American condition through the works of emblematic local artists like Violeta Parra, Víctor Jara or Jorge González, all within a Latino aesthetic, through diverse Latino bodies. What Andrés Perez did with theater is something we have undoubtedly assimilated into our work. Even more so now, when it is increasingly important that politics and art are not practiced by those with privileges. And that is why, today, theater companies are uniting and dialoguing, which is an exception in Chilean history. It becomes necessary to change the ways resources are administrated in this country. We urgently need the public funds we've brutally competed over for decades to cease being the only way of granting resources to artists. We need to find new ways of administrating resources in culture, just as our beloved Andrés Pérez used to say.


Unlike other playwrights, you allow improvisation on stage to continue finishing up your texts. Actually, your plays are pretty much finished very late in the staging processes. Why do you choose this methodology, and how does it contribute to conceiving your plays?


As an actor, I understand the role one has in a rehearsal room, and I love saying what I think when I'm acting. Sometimes I dream of saying lines I improvise. I also like saying the words just as they are written, without changing a thing. But there is this weapon in acting, and it's called improvisation. And I feel that what happens in rehearsal is so beautiful, so unique. And I like bringing this unique thing and taking into the performance of the final result.

On the other hand, plays are never finished. It always becomes necessary to revisit the text just as you're going to premiere a show. The direction sees signs and paradigms changing in the play, that may need adjustments and new lines. And those are essential, because they come from rehearsals, and they stay there forever. They are like a pamphlet tossed into the auditorium. My dream is that one day it will rain pamphlets, after which we'll go out and spit lines at public squares, mostly, for dignity. 

Read an extract from Kicking stones.

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The Interdram Interviews 2020 are funded by Ministerio de las Artes, las Culturas y el Patrimonio.

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