Interview by Mauricio Fuentes
Translation by Bruce Gibbons
May, 23, 2020
“Playwriting, to me, is like the backside of an embroidery. When you look, it’s just tangled threads and knots, looking like it’s nothing but a draft. Suddenly something makes sense; something comes together. You turn the frame over and find a complete and beautiful landscape.”
Isidora is capable of reconstructing different voices in her writing. Like a magic trick, she gives a voice to popular characters from the capital, others from the interior of the country, or to some expert in new technology from a dystopian future, which is somehow becoming a reality. Her texts present different forms of orality that belong to our Chile, which is very fragmented. Every play she writes doesn’t seem to have a relation with the previous one, but if you look more in-depth, you can discover a narrative in common. I met with Isidora on Skype to begin our interview process: this my first virtual interview, and it constitutes a precedent. It’s what’s coming next. For how long, though? We don’t know; we can only conclude that it will be for a long time and that it may even evolve to ever more sophisticated mechanisms. Isidora and I spoke for an hour and a half: she was in her backyard in Santiago, and I was in my room in Buenos Aires. We examined her journey towards becoming a playwright, in her plays, in her experience at Universidad ARCIS, where we both graduated from, though in different years. I remember her from afar, greeting me with a smile, as if by chance.
Chile has been going through an unprecedented and genuinely momentous process, which began with the social uprising in October 2019. This process was partially interrupted by a virus that arrived from abroad. You continued to write theatre during this period. Do you feel any shift in your writing practices? Either in form or content, as a product of this historical event?
During this recent period, it’s clear that the global pandemic and the confinement we’ve been exposed to has changed the dynamics we’d been developing in our personal and professional lives. These had already been shifting since the social uprising that began on October 18th. From that day on, after Chile’s awakening, we’ve rethought ourselves as a society, as a collective, as a people, and we’ve rethought our work the same way. But the awakening comes from before, in 2018, with a feminism that emerged from the classrooms, exploding with force. We took the streets to protest and formed collectives and rethought ourselves. We looked at each other; we found each other and never let go again. Within that process, the Red de actrices chilenas (RACH: the Chilean actress network), which I belong to, has become a wonderful space for organization, sorority, and support.
The situation has permeated my writing in many ways, beyond topics rising from the pandemic or the uprising. A crisis has come, along with questions and the search for meaning in this day and age. New questions appeared from the study and further examination of feminisms, which have emerged from what I’ve been writing lately. On the other hand, plays function as a material record that tells of the spirit of the age, and I believe that, even though the writing doesn’t directly name what is happening in this context, there’s a landscape in the background, there’s environmental sound, and it’s something hard to ignore.
Your life story includes three essential periods: your life in the countryside and your big family; your life in the city, where you attended a school run by nuns; your adulthood, encountering the world of theatre and, especially, Universidad ARCIS. How do these periods and the tension between them affect and contribute to your work as a playwright?
The periods you point out have made me travel down a road that, as every life story, has been marked by moments of tension, of yearning, of wandering and of instants where you manage to focus and trace certain roads that lead to fruitful creative spaces. In the same way, I don’t think the periods you mention presented themselves in black and white. For example, I studied at a traditional school, run by nuns. Still, at the same time, it’s in that context and a little by contrast, that I begin an active political life by joining the Federación de Estudiantes Secundarios de Santiago (FESES; Federation of Secondary Students of Santiago) in the 90s. Throughout high school, I participated in many instances of social dialogue in very diverse spaces with private and public schools in Santiago. What stays with me the most from being a secondary student and my childhood in the country is a fascination with collectiveness — a fascination with community, with connecting from our differences, from diversity and being with another. Then, when I began studying theater, I felt it was my place. It’s somewhere you can’t learn or create without the rest. ARCIS was fascinating as a space of learning and development. Freedom, critical thinking, and constant reflection were very formative elements for me. There’s also the people I met as a student and now as a professor. Many of them were and are to me people I admire up to today.
Your company, La Nacional, began writing collectively. You then took the reigns of writing for the stage and became a playwright, with plays that have won awards, have had long runs and have even toured abroad. However, you’ve co-written your past two works: Bernarda with Luis Barrales and El Nudo with Bosco Cayo. Where do this opening and generosity emerge from when it comes to writing theatre? Do you feel the need to give the dramaturgical work a more dynamic form for its undertaking? What do you value most from this method?
Both projects have been invitations, meaning director Rodrigo Soto called me for Bernarda, and director Alicia de la Sotta and Teatro La Mala Clase for El Nudo. The invitation was to work as a coauthor, and I accepted immediately for many reasons. The first is that I really like collaborative work. Thinking, discussing, and creating through dialogue is something that interests me, and it’s very appealing. The second is that both the playwrights I wrote with are people I admire. I would have never missed out on the chance of learning from and with them. The third is related to the solitude attached to writing. It’s a delightful solitude, an epiphanic space, but there’s a point where you need to meet with another and question the writing.
In regards to the method in both cases, and due to the nature of the plays, it was different. However, there’s a common element related to letting go of the material. Something powerful happens then. There were many occasions when I’d leave a scene half-written, and when I got back to the computer, I saw that the other playwright had finished it. I was fascinated by how these “four hands” were amplifying everything, multiplying points of view. It’s an exercise that involves tons of generosity and trust. The truth is I’m interested in this kind of work. In fact, I’m working on something new, and that project’s director (Paula Bravo) and I are doing something quite similar.
According to the protagonists of the social uprising, the Chileans who stood and protested permanently in Plaza de la Dignidad and its surroundings, Chilean society changed. In their own words, people began to look into each other's eyes, in the streets, without fear, without judging the other's place in society, without competition. All the social-climbing, competition, fear, and prejudice seemed to have evaporated. That's how I, and many others, see "the awakening," along with other factors. It's something that not even the elites, the government, or the media have seemed to focus on or noticed. You come from a privileged social context and are a playwright that, due to your talent and work, has gathered notoriety. The social visibility of an artists brings different consequences. Have you noticed a shift in your relationship with Chilean society and the audience that attends your plays, from your standpoint, as well as that of the "others"?
Something evidently changed. When we say, "Chile awakened," it also means "I woke too." Since October 18th we began to see each other differently, to interact in another way, to value collectivity and take the streets again, as our gathering place. Every relationship has changed, because we realized, as Nona Fernández titled a column: “It wasn't depression, it was capitalism." Personally, my relationship with the audience changed, just like everything I previously described changed. I don't feel like someone particularly visible. I'm not interested in exposure: I'm interested in theatre, in playwriting, in the community we must build to hold up our work. I also don't feel our work is something "special." All of us work under precarious conditions just like many others. I'm currently in a temporary and circumstantial situation of privilege within the precarious reality of working in theatre. It's something I value, for sure, but that doesn't mean I look the other way and not and empathize with the reality of others. The situation our colleagues all over Chile are living in has also been mine, because the precariousness of our work is brutal. The idea that we artists work because of our love for art itself has was set in stone, and this can't go on. What we do is not a hobby: it's a job.
I read Réplica after a month of complete lockdown in Buenos Aires, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Reading the play under these circumstances made a lot of sense to me: most of the communication I've had with the exterior has been through social media. Most Argentinians have obeyed President Fernández's command, except for small groups who have rebelled against the limitations imposed by the quarantine. In Argentina, the state still has more power and presence than in Chile. The South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han, poses that Asian societies living under totalitarian regimes and high police surveillance are most successful in controlling the pandemic, in comparison to Western, liberal societies, where citizens have reached personal freedoms they are not willing to give up. We are facing a new paradigm. Réplica was written in 2017 and premiered in 2018. How do you see this play today, immersed in this context?
If we start from the play's dramatic situation, the characters in Réplica have been trapped in a Datar Center without a clue regarding when they'll get out. It's something similar to what we've had to go through these past weeks.
I think that confinement and its associated costs are nothing but consequences of this ruthless capitalism, like precarious work, massive layoffs, the fact that the state subsidizes large companies, the fear of the other, but also telework and online classes, and rehearsals and meetings on Zoom. I think it's accelerating a state of the matter that's been developing quite rapidly during the past years, which French philosopher Eric Saqdin calls "world siliconization" or the digitalization of experience.
I also think about the use of our data for health-related reasons, about sheltering and taking care of each other. It has already begun very interesting debates in other parts of the world and will no doubt begin here as well. The question is: how much are we willing to provide our biometrical and geolocalization data to help us take care of each other?
The play was written three years ago and was thought out in another context, though looking towards what was coming. All of it is amplified today in this very uncertain context.
How did you construct the voice of Hilda Peña, the character in the play of the same name?
I began writing the play in a playwriting workshop at Bibliogram, taught by Ximena Carrera, Nona Fernández, and Marcelo Leonart, people I admire and that are are an inspiration to this day. It all began with an exercise drawn from an image. I based mine on the hands with chewed fingernails of a hairdresser in an indoor shopping center in downtown Santiago. Then came a series of questions regarding the image, and as I speculated and answered, Hilda Peña began to assemble in a very intuitive way. Undoubtedly, the character’s internal clock, her rhythm, comes from my childhood in the South, from that sound that was part of the landscape of my childhood. The same thing happens with the play’s ending when popular beliefs and faith appear. The greenery of the South and the green of a rotting body. The return to democracy. The sadness. There’s also the fact that death as an ancestral topic. All of it began to weave in a very intuitive way. Playwriting, for me, is like the backside of an embroidery. When you look, it’s just tangled threads and knots, looking like it’s nothing but a draft. Suddenly something makes sense; something comes together. You turn the frame over and find a complete and beautiful landscape.
Hilda Peña won the award for best play in the emerging category in the National Playwriting Festival (Muestra Nacional de Dramaturgia). A triad of women was formed at that festival: Paula Zúñiga in acting, Aliocha de la Sotta in direction; Isidora Stevenson in playwriting. We can’t leave Rocío Fernández out in stage design. What did the encounter of all these female creators mean to you? What did it mean to the development of the piece - in terms of its staging and then with its successful runs?
Hilda Peña is a significant, meaningful moment. I’m not only speaking about the praise, but I’m referring to what was reaffirmed in me regarding my writing: that courage you need to pin down the impulse of writing. I had always been interested in it, but I didn’t dare for a long time.
The truth is that the encounter with Paula, Rocio, Alicia, and Fernando Milagros, who made the music, was a magical, powerful one. It created a synergy, a meeting for creative languages unlike most I’ve experienced. In that intersection, the wonderful thing was that no language was more important than the other: they dialogued in a generous and permeated way, which strengthened all of them. I think the same thing happened among us. We’ve consolidated as a team: we’ve traveled and taken the play to places so different from each other. It has lead the play to accumulate much more meaning in this multiplicity of encounters and readings.