by Mitchell Conway · January 11, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #34: Mitchell Conway looks at El Año En Que Nací (The Year That I Was Born) an Under the Radar production A group of young Chileans reflect on their parents lives during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in El Año En Que Nací: a beautiful example of documentary theatre. The content of the production is literally in the blood of the performers. Lola Arias' direction is a testament to how applied or community-based theatre work can be polished and thrilling. With the show’s fantastic usage of animation onto documents accompanying narration, and great sense of rhythm and theatricality, I loved this production now performing at La MaMa, Etc., as a part of the Public Theatre’s Under the Radar Festival.
Created as a product of workshops conducted in Chile, the show moves through time chronologically to give an account of 1973 – 1990, years during which the performers were all born. Some had parents who were a part of the leftist movement (MAPU, MIR, FPMR), some exiled, some supporters of Pinochet, and some imprisoned or killed. The performance is in Spanish with English subtitles well placed directly above the stage action.
Toy soldiers surround a photograph of the seat of government, where the leftist leader Salvador Allende was overthrown on September 11, 1973. Each performer shared the location of his/her parents on the day of the military coupe. In the background a full map of Santiago was simultaneously animated with the locations. The movement of the map, accompanied by sound design by Ulises Conti, and the stories of panic amidst political upheaval, felt like a cinematic chase.
Much of the stage action was dangerous: burning pamphlets and matches, jumping into a pile on top of each other, speedily climbing ladders, throwing desks, and throwing shoes. Throughout, a theme seeming permanence pervaded. Performers drew cartoons onto important documents and a chalk map of the world on the ground showed where exiled families fled to; they got soaked in water or strapped into layers of clothing, but the mess was always cleaned up. A simple scene where the chalk floor map is mopped, accompanied by one of Alejandro Gomez’s excellent musical contributions, had the optimism of reconstruction.
The stellar team of actors includes: Leopoldo Courbis, Italo Gallardo, Soledad Gaspar, Alejandro Gomez, Fernanda Gonzalez, Viviana Hernandez, Ana Laura Racz, Jorge Rivero, Nicole Senerman, and Paula Bravo. Their narration was amplified by actual official documents, news articles, old photographs, and more, projected in the background from a live camera. Often, they were would draw onto the documents, emphasizing certain points, adding jokes, and excellently contributing to the theatrical dynamic of information shared.
Arias incorporated elements of chaos into scenes. The group threw shoes at someone who is on a ladder using a megaphone to list various articles of law from the dictatorship. One by one they lit and held a match to tell what happened to their parents during a major series of blackouts, but stopped speaking if it burned their fingers too much or went out.
They presented a socio-metric exercise (often called a spectrogram) where everyone chooses a position along a scale established by opposite ends of the room as a way to show opinions and demographics. They lined up in relation to skin tone, family income level, and their parent’s political beliefs (mother and father separately), and conducted discussions about why they were in a particular position. Interestingly, they were often moved from their initial position by the facilitator, or moved themselves, showing how one’s opinions can change with dialogue.
When the Pope came to visit Chile, they set up a table for a sort of meager feast. But when protests occurred, the national TV channel changed to cartoons. To show a scene of his father’s first time killing a man, a night-vision camera was focused on someone holding a microphone stand like a rifle. It was eerie to be in total darkness on stage, but to know by seeing through the projection there was someone still speaking and moving there. They showed a protest, idealized like a fun hippie party, but then someone held a sign that said ‘This is not America’ and it transitioned into a violent clash; they threw desks into a pile.
They flipped a ten piece coin from the dictatorship era still in use, on one side with an angel and the word ‘libertad’ [freedom], to determine whether the next political power would be from the right or the left. At the climax, all the players had their own electric guitars and played them simultaneously. It was a roar.
The focus was on these individuals and their parents’ experiences, and much historical information was communicated through this context, but the United States’ notable surreptitious involvement with the Pinochet regime was only hinted at briefly.
Someone born the same year as me was born into a brutal dictatorship known for the suppression of political expression and dissolution of public resources. One performer shared how her mother no longer speaks to her because of her involvement in this play. Another reflected on his father now in hospice care being an adamant supporter of the dictatorship. A handful talked about growing up with a dirt floor. This type of work needs and deserves support. The artful blending of a serious subject matter with playful mediums of expression, along with the honesty of performers sharing their own families’ stories, makes this an urgent, enjoyable, and moving piece of theatre.