Interview by Mauricio Fuentes.
Translation by Bruce Gibbons.
May, 16, 2019
"Social climbing is one of my favourite topics because being a social climber means not accepting oneself and living under a reality that one doesn't belong to because one is ashamed of the truth.”
In a society that is becoming every day more hostile and competitive, where artists aren't necessarily out of the equation, and Neoliberalism has planted deep roots in even the more "progressive" communities – interviewing Carla Zúñiga was a breath of fresh air. When I proposed the idea of this interview, her answer could be described as a smile and a heart painted by Andy Warhol. Carla has a permanent and intelligent smile on her face. She invited me to her home, a cosy and warm apartment across from O'Higgins Park, which basically serves as her front yard. She was with her young child, Arturo. We drank tea and talked for a long while about what we have in common: we both studied at ARCIS University, and both recognized each other as part of that illustrated middle class. All pretension and competition were left aside. Carla Zúñiga is the playwright of the moment. She and Javier Casanga, with their company La Niña Horrible, have revolutionized the theatre scene with an exaggerated and grotesque aesthetic that possesses a very particular beauty. A mise-en-scene that presents bodies that cross their own borders to reveal different possibilities related to identity.
In the production of La trágica agonía de un pájaro azul, the dramatic text is complemented with the action onstage and an overall aesthetic in a very organic way, which turns the show into a piece of art in itself. It presents a language that Susan Sontag would define as Camp, in a Chilean way, holding the nuances of our national identity. What does the process that leads to this result look like? Is it defined beforehand, or do you just find it?
Every time we encounter a new process, we begin a little bit from scratch and then go finding the discourse, story and aesthetic of the play on the way. It's very important to us that no part of the artistic team is left out, which is why we all begin to work at the same time. This means that when Javier and I start working on the text, he also begins to work with the design team, and we all share ideas. For example, in the case of La trágica agonía de un pájaro azul, I wrote the text already knowing that the designers wanted to work with measurement: some things were going to be very big and others very small. I tried to work with that sense of a somewhat nightmarish dissonance in the story. I've always had trouble with the distance that sometimes exists between the director and the text, and every time that I work with La Niña Horrible, we try to eliminate that distance, though we always work according to our own roles.
You’ve worked with different directors. Javier Casanga is your main collaborator, whom you created La Niña Horrible with. How was it to work outside the format and aesthetic you have with Casanga and work with Jesús Urqueta, as well as Martín Erazo, who have different styles in their productions?
They were interesting processes. I had the chance to encounter productions and methods that were completely different from the ones La Niña Horrible has done. In both cases, the final result impressed me in a very positive way. It was also a challenge to enter dramaturgical languages different than those I'm used to, especially with Jesús Urqueta. He works with a more still, minimal staging, which is the opposite of what I'm used to. In the case of La Patogallina, I think we shared a vision when it comes to the exaggeration of the body and the political discourse, placed in a first perspective, but puppetry was something entirely new for me.
You mentioned seeing some productions of plays by Ramón Griffero when you were a teenager, which lead you to study theatre and become a playwright. Why did this canonical playwright and director of Chilean theatre inspire you so much, and where can we find his influence in your work?
What most influenced me was the theatricality and intensity of his writing and directing. ARCIS University shared the same style when I was studying there, and I feel that Ramón was an inspiration for all us who studied there. It gave that theatre school its unique method. This is the reason why many who see the work of La Niña Horrible say it has the ARCIS style, and you can see it because almost all the performers in our shows came from that school.
We live in a highly segregated country, where people are defined by their social class, material possessions or skin colour, beyond any other characteristic that could be more important. Social climbing appears as a social disease that makes people live in a constant state of suffering. Other, more civilized societies are aware of our national classism and despise how backwards we can be. You are placed within a professional middle class that does not hide its origins and you bring this element to your work, like an identity-based narrative. I believe that recognizing that origin is almost a subversive strength. Do you think that your work in the theatre could eventually make Chileans understand the social space they inhabit, question it and create change?
Social climbing is one of my favourite topics because being a social climber means not accepting oneself and living under a reality that one doesn't belong to because one is ashamed of the truth. I feel this is a very Chilean thing. It's something that defines us as a country: always trying to escape what makes us Latin American, where being indigenous has a negative connotation; hence people want to seem European or North American. The worst part is that it's tough to get out of these places. I for sure have reactions or desires in my day to day life related to social climbing, even though I don't want to have them. But the system is so strong that it also makes it difficult for us to take a critical look at ourselves. And this doesn't only happen with class. It happens with gender, with sexual orientation and thousands of other things. And that's how we live our lives, trying to pretend that we are someone else, so we can impress people that we don't fucking like. And that to me is a tragedy.
The plays you've created with Javier Casanga have been very successful, production after production. We could say that they create a great sense of empathy with an audience that follows you or follows your company since it began, up to your latest productions. What would you say are the elements in your writing and Casanga's work as a director that generate so much acceptance from the audience who attends the theatre to see the plays by La Niña Horrible?
I feel that people either like the radical aesthetic and discourse we proposed or they don't. We think it’s very interesting: that people love or hate what we create, but that they are never indifferent about what they've seen. I feel that the audience members that enjoy it like the grotesque and exaggerated corporality. There's something energetic that transfers from the stage to the audience, and I feel that people appreciate that. Another thing that makes this happen is that the stage design, makeup and costume are always very impressive. I also think that the fact that terrible topics and the play's discourse are treated through black comedy makes people leads to people having a good time seeing the show, accessing these ideas from another place, even making them laugh at their own prejudices or perversions.
Your plays are usually dramas about regular middle-class people. However, humour is always present, either enhancing the drama or creating a kind of rupture or new reading based on it. Why is it so important to add a dose of humour in your writing?
I don't think it's something I plan out. It's something that just comes out by itself. I've tried to write more "serious" plays or plays that don't have as much humour, and it doesn't work. This must be because I get bored very often. I feel that in tragic situations, there’s a lot of humor because vulnerability, humanity and pathos appear. It's way easier to access emotion and despair from this place. When I'm writing, contradiction is essential to me, because in contradiction lies everything I cannot manage or understand. Writing about these things helps me avoid making my plays about morals or answers because there is no answer. We're always situated in the nothing, and the only thing that exists are questions.
Your work explores gender diversity. On the one hand, there's a critique of a binary imposed by a heteronormative and patriarchal society. On the other, you tell me that most of your stories are focused on the "middle class, Catholic, heterosexual woman, whose primary goal is to have offspring”. How does your work tackle the debate between these two ideologies on an aesthetic level?
I feel that, in that woman, who represents our grandmothers and our mothers, is where all the gender violence resides in its fullness. Because they were born in an even more unfortunate time for women than today. Violence against women was completely normalized, and the possibilities of denouncing it were impossible. The abuse wasn't only physical: they were women who were only raised to be wives and mothers. (I do not criticize the women who still desire to take on those roles, what I say is that there was no option back in the day). These women live, just like The Woman Destroyed by Simon de Beauvoir, the painful transition of what it is like to understand that this family structure was a lie and must confront the failure that falls only upon her. What is most terrible about this, and the great victory of a heteropatriarchal system is that these women want their daughters to live heteronormative lives, rejecting lesbians, trans people, daughters who don't become mothers or get married, etc. And that's the second part of their tragedy: that their daughters, the young women of today, don't want to live how they want them to live, daring to be free and risking their lives for it. The unavoidable intergenerational clash in the mother-daughter relationship is something extremely sad and is one of my most important inspirations when I write.