Interview by Mauricio Arturo Fuentes for Interdram.
Translation by Cristóbal Pizarro Schkolnik.
Ago, 25, 2020.
"Origin is an ambiguous, complicated thing. And it's impossible that the conflict between the Chilean state and the Mapuche people –racism and scorn willing- stops me from reflecting on how I got here, and how Chilean history was built".
Gerardo Oettinger. Photo by Gonzalo Donoso.
I have never met Gerardo in person; maybe once we had a quick chat on Facebook. I had to interview him today. I read him first. We met at noon on a Monday, early August. We chatted for two hours, we fell in love, -yes, similarly to when I saw Ximena Carrera in Medusa- but this time it was online and mutual. I mean the kind of love Greeks unveiled to themselves and humanity; the kind that detaches itself from matter. The one that focuses on the subjective more than in what is evident. In ideas, in motivations, shadows, in the fissures of ego –when the ego is broken-. If we're Chilean, we are cracked, broken. We aren't jaguars, nor the happy copy of the Garden of Eden. Gerardo has a story to tell, and he told me a big part of it. Come take a look: he is a playwright.
1.- In many of your plays, you can find female characters with a very Chilean and popular way of expressing themselves, like in Pompeya or La Victoria. How do you build such a feminine world, and rescue that jargon, so specific of a part of society?
First, I wanted to thank you for these interviews and the opportunity to express ideas about our trade, about plays I've written and staged with so many colleagues, as well as your and Interdram's great vibe. To start, I have to mention that my plays don't come just from me (they contain the wisdom and experience of all of those who work on them). The method I use is intimately related to those creative teams.
Everything I've written around stories of women, like in Bello futuro, La Victoria, Unidad Popular, Castigo a Dios, or La agenda del Diablo, has been supported by those directed and produced, designed, performed and tech-ed in them. I've also had people share their testimonies, interviews, and materials with me. "The sculpture is already complete within the marble block before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material," said Michelangelo. I've done something similar. To chisel the marble, I always apply the principle Juan Radrigán taught me: "Write six-hundred pages, to get to thirty," "write with your eraser." To be, somehow, archeologists, to dig, look for trails, clean debris, pieces, bones, pebbles, columns, parts that fit together like a puzzle, and make up a story. Then, as a method, I simply try to place myself at the service of the story, of characters, like when you're acting.
Although there are differences between men and women, I believe we have many things in common. Writing about a feminine universe is like writing about any other universe; it requires studying, understanding, empathizing, and at the same time, criticizing everything, to deepen into the conflict. You have to connect with what is Universal about each subject, that is what theater does in its origin as a rite.
About the jargon, it's a similar process. I have heard it all of my life, in diverse situations, and from different people in different parts of the territory. If it's the jargon of a specific time, then I'll study it in depth. I'll look for references, testimonies, journalistic documents, audiovisual material, etc. Day to day, we are exposed to different accents and manners of speaking typical of the country we inhabit, which evolve like everything alive. Besides, you have the team's linguistic experience, which is totally placed at the play's service, feeding my writing.
2.- You told me you have difficulties incorporating poetic language in your plays. Nevertheless, in that popular jargon, sometimes from prison, and very Chilean, you could say there is poetry. Even just the use of some rhetorical figures that are born spontaneously from popular local culture. Do you really think there is no poetry in your texts?
"Do you really think there is no poetry in your texts?" is a very poetic question. Very existentialist. Very philosophical.
Yes, I believe there is poetry, in the sense that a search for beauty or an aesthetic sense of words, of everyday life, of the theatrical and the tragic, is manifested.
It can't be imposed in every phrase in every bit of dialogue, giving it a determined and uniform poetic shape. Sometimes, with too much poetry, the author appears excessively, and I like it when the writing hand is hidden. I don't know, because I also do like poetic plays, I love verse.
In everyday life, there is poetry in situations, in moments, in intentions, in dialogues and thoughts.
Sometimes, I read and write poetry as an exercise. The creative process has to escape from a pale reasoning that can dilute what we truly need to express and communicate. As a creator, one must learn that every idea uses the same mechanisms as dreams to be represented in the exterior world.
In general, I usually try to pay attention to the dramatic situation and see how I can extract some poetry from it. It's like Bertoni's work aesthetic paradigm. We don't know if it is poetry or not. He writes poetry the same way he talks. I write theater as characters demand. I try plays to take charge of everyday language in its most raw and direct form.
Then, playwriting is like bone architecture, containing conflict in its medulla, energetically holding the body, the flesh of the scene. Stage plays are not just meant to be seen as texts, as soliloquies or dialogues, or as poetic words, but as psychic communication structures, like networks that contain the secrets that pulse in the audience.
3.- Do you believe the theater media imposes limitations and bias on playwrights?
Prejudice always exists in a society like ours. There might be more bias towards playwriting and artists in general, from other sectors. Like, when you're asked, "what is it that you do?" and I go: "I write plays." "How interesting, but what's your job?" people ask. It's like that instinctively everybody knows it's impossible –or at least complicated- to make a living out of this, so you can call it a "job." But, it's a career that requires professionalism, time, and resources. Another common belief is that you have to lock up inside yourself to write, like some kind of prophet, and that everything is in your imagination. But people sometimes forget theater is a job you do in teams.
Moreover, it is believed that we are dictators of texts, we don't want a comma moved, and nothing cut. I understand that modifications are a part of the process, but I like knowing and understanding why plays change. To be a part of it.
Another limitation is the tendency to form cultural elites that hog representation possibilities and the media. The nepotism we are used to in Chile. A Shakespearean classic of power structures.
Other limitations are external to the theater and are worth discussing. Like cultural appropriation, which uses typical elements of an ethnic culture and devoids them of their meaning, trivializing its use. I understand this complaint. But this also depends on having respect, empathy, professionalism, and judgment when addressing delicate subjects. We are also limited by the lack of or little publication of dramatic texts. There are small editorial companies like Oxímoron, that published Pompeya, of which I am tremendously grateful. They are doing a considerable effort, a heroic job of rescuing new writing.
4.- Are there subjects a writer shouldn't work on because they are not part of his experience or personal identity?
I don't believe that there are subjects certain people can't develop, because it all depends on "how" they do it. It's all about respect, depth. To limit art is a strange contradiction. If I was only expected to write about what I am, my writing would run out in no time. There lies the genius of an artist. Art is nourished by art, by mixing cultures, ideas, concepts, and shapes. Good stories are universal because they can move us all, whoever we are, wherever we come from. But I do understand if it is better or more valid or revelating if an artist belongs to or lives in the context of what he writes. You have to be conscious, take risks, and look for what identifies us, what moves us, that sympathy something generates in us, or the sharp criticism that being distant from it can give you. There is no reason why theater should ultimately become a bio-drama.
I think it is pretty obvious when someone is taking advantage of or appropriating a genre or a culture. In Pompeya, the team was always very conscious of this, that's the reason it worked.
5.- In your last play, Random –part of a group of commissioned plays including "Science + Performing arts + Audiences"- you started from scientific subjects and theories you had to study to develop the text. What methodology did you use to make such specific information understood by the audience, or reader, who won't necessarily be knowledgeable in those subjects?
To do that, the play needs to have a clear dramatic structure. Something happens with characters as human beings, as relatives, as lovers, as citizens, more than just scientists. There has to be a deep conflict that supports the drama. The play can't be a thematic exposition of ideas, nor scientific ideas nor any other idea. The audience connects with a story that moves them. Then, I use the same method I have when I write from testimonies, news, classics, or loose ideas. I try to put characters in the most challenging situation they can be in, so they have to solve their lives on stage. Unavoidably that cleans off excess information. I recognize it's always a long, demanding, and complicated process for me. Editing is still difficult. Attachment, blindness, stubbornness, and love for some materials make it all more complicated.
6.- In your plays, one can appreciate a particular social commitment, giving voice to those that generally don't have one: community activist women, transvestites, transsexuals, etc. Where does this commitment or interest in working with these worlds come from?
It's very strange for me to think of a theater that is detached from social commitment. I had the immense luck of having masters like Juan and Flavia Radrigán, of studying at the Club de Teatro and La Memoria, with Alfredo Castro and Rodrigo Pêrez. It had a huge impact on me. All the plays I like have their eyes set on power and its consequences. For that same reason, one of my favorite plays is Hechos cosumados (Finished from the start, by Juan Radrigan). I'm attracted to a theater that commits, that criticizes not just others itself too. I'm interested in the weight of history, where the Universal is present. Unveiling kings like Shakespeare did, inquiring into a bloody tyrant like Camus' Caligula, or praising the marginalized like Radrigan did. That is theater. A social commitment. Delivering content that encourages the profound reflection of what constitutes us.
I was also influenced by my colleagues at Teatro Síntoma and their testimonial and social work: directors like Camilo Carmona, Josefina Dagorret, Paula González, Rodrigo Soto, and actors as well. Chilean theater is generally critic and political.
In short, I'm captivated by stories that talk about the complexities in society: the lights and shadows of human beings. That is why I love reading Dostoyevski. And I was always drawn to Vincent Van Gogh's painting and his perspective of art. A painting committed in every stroke. If Radrigan had painted, I imagine his paintings would have been like Vincent's.
7.- In La Victoria, you talk about "community kitchens" during the dictatorship. Today, after an ongoing Social Uprising and an economic crisis caused by the pandemic, community kitchens have reappeared as a way people have to feed themselves in community. It's a distinctive, spontaneous way that Chileans living in poverty are solidary with each other. This expression is very far from other neoliberal or traditional forms of expressing solidarity: like the Chilean Telethon or paternalist gifts from elites. What's your take on the phenomenon of community kitchens?
Community kitchens are clearly a legacy of social mobilizations—a lesson of resistance and solidarity. It is an undeniable act of human greatness.
From the things we studied to do La Victoria -we analyzed testimonies, historical documents, and documental material - we were able to understand that community kitchens in the eighties weren't just a solidarity system to palliate hunger in times of crisis. They were also political, aiming to restore unity amongst community members. That is why these kitchens were persecuted, as the dictatorship considered them subversive acts.
Today, I believe they play the same role. A community kitchen is a symbol of hope and a tremendously human expression. We don't die on our own, we don't suffer on our own, we aren't hungry on our own, and that is enormously important.
I think another investigation should be carried out: in-depth, and collect information about those new community kitchens, to have a better understanding of what is happening—a contemporary historical record.
8.- You are from Valdivia, you live in Santiago, you descend from non-Spanish European colonists. Even though you are much more than those references, they are no less important when constructing yourself as an author. In what way do those different "Gerardos" influence and help when defining your writing?
I was born in Santiago, my paternal family is from Valdivia. I went through high school in the South, and then I came to study at the capital. Since I was young, I have been in constant movement, living in different cities and going through various educational institutions, some private, and some public. Those different "Gerardos," at different times and different places, have different views that help me when writing.
Clearly, I descent from German and English colonists, but in my family, there are French and Spanish last names as well. And if I had a genetic test taken, many more cultures would come up. I read in the news about pioneering research by Universidad de Tarapacá, analyzing the origin of the autochthonous people of Chile, and concluded 86% of Chileans have an American mother and a European father. Origin is an ambiguous, complicated thing. And it's impossible that the conflict between the Chilean state and the Mapuche people –racism and scorn willing- stops me from reflecting on how I got here, and how Chilean history was built. Colonization, wars, genocides, progress versus nature.
In that same study, I also read that Mapuche people might have come from the Amazon, coming down through the Atlantic coast and crossing the Chaco. Finally, we are like birds migrants by nature. I think it's great to question your origin, it's theatrical, it's Hamletian because that "to be or not be" is implicit. A great monologue should be made about this.
Indeed, I am more than references, like every person is more than a combination of references: a color, a culture, an origin, or a class. And it's all of those things at the same time. Finally, we all live in this little blue planet in the immensity of the cosmos. That is why it is so vital to ecology that we understand that. Understanding the past to think of the future. To be in the present, seek happiness and love, in between all this horror and absurdity. That's what living seems to be.