Guillermo Calderon: ‘I grew up in a place of conflict, pain and trauma’
Chilean playwright and director Guillermo Calderon is making his debut at London’s Royal Court with political drama B. He tells Giverny Masso about why he hopes to strengthen Chile’s ties with the UK through his country’s Santiago a Mil International Theatre Festival
The same night Guillermo Calderon’s play B opened at the Royal Court in London, a press conference was held 7,500 miles away in Chile.
It called for the release of former guerrilla activist Jorge Mateluna from prison and was the direct result of another of Calderon’s plays.
The Chilean playwright insists it is essential for political theatre to “actively engage” with the problems it discusses, rather than “hide within the four walls” of the building it is staged in.
While Calderon appears visibly excited to be premiering his new play in London, there is also a hint of disappointment that he is “missing out” on the political campaign he has fuelled on the other side of the world.
Calderon grew up in Santiago, Chile, during dictator Augusto Pinochet’s fascist regime.
His political plays, which explore revolution and war, have toured extensively across the US, Latin America and Europe, and he has been commissioned by some of the world’s leading playhouses such as New York’s Public Theater.
Calderon is also a theatre director and a multi-award winning screenwriter, with his films including the 2016 biographical drama Neruda.
He says that growing up under Pinochet’s violent dictatorship was entirely defining of his work in theatre. “It was so intense that theatre is a way of thinking about that experience for my whole generation,” he explains. “My family suffered a lot; I grew up in a place of conflict, pain and trauma.”
After being introduced to theatre at school, Calderon trained as an actor at university. He moved into directing after realising he “wasn’t enjoying acting so much”, and later, when he “couldn’t find the right play to direct”, he began to write.
“My first situation was just the experience of our frustration,” he says. “Eventually, over the years and decades, I was able to articulate some of that.”
Calderon moved from Chile to the US in 2014, where some members of his family already lived, because Chile had become a “long experience of disappointment and frustration”. Today, the playwright lives in New York.
“I wanted to not feel completely saddened by the state of things, because [Chile] had a very traumatic transition to democracy, it became a big frustration of unfulfilled promises,” Calderon explains.
Asked about his reception in the US, he says: “The US is very interested in the experience of theatre and how it’s made in different countries, and what people have to say. In the US there’s a lot of people coming from Latin American countries. There are many issues including assimilation, immigration and violence. People are interested in seeing the complexities.”
Alongside his work in the US, Calderon maintains a powerful presence in Chile. His unnamed Spanish “company of friends” puts on plays; these have included Escuela in 2013, about a group of left-wing activists who gather to overthrow a military dictatorship.
One of the contributors for Escuela was Mateluna, who shared anecdotes of his brief history as a member of the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front; brief because he was imprisoned, aged 18, for 12 years for violating an anti-terror law, before being released and pardoned in 2004.
As Escuela toured, Mateluna was arrested again and sentenced to another 16 years in prison after a questionable trial accusing him of bank robbery.
Calderon says: “He’s definitely innocent. So we created this play [Mateluna], explaining why we believe he is the victim of a conspiracy in which policemen, prosecutors and judges participated.”
The writer pulls up a WhatsApp message on his phone containing a photograph of a press conference with the family of Mateluna that is taking place in Chile. He says the play’s campaign has led to meetings with members of parliaments and engaged with universities: “It’s happening as we speak, and I’m missing out.”
He says: “It’s not only a play, but also we’re campaigning. The play is going beyond the theatre and reaching out for political action, which is very important to us, because usually the criticism political theatre gets is ‘that’s all beautiful, congratulations on your beautiful play, but what about real-life action beyond art’.”
He adds: “That question is almost always answered by saying, ‘Oh well, we don’t change the world, we just start a political conversation.’ That’s a standard way of answering the question, and it’s disappointing, it creates a problem.”
One of the biggest supporters of Calderon’s work has been the Santiago a Mil International Theatre Festival, which has commissioned many of his plays.
Q&A: Guillermo Calderon
What was your first job? Actor in El Senor Galindez, 1993.
What is your next job? Writing commissioned plays and screenplays.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Write.
Who or what is your biggest influence? [Chilean composer and artist]Violeta Parra.
If you hadn’t been a writer what would you have done? Been a teacher.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I don’t.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Santiago a Mil was founded by Chilean theatremakers after the fall of the dictatorship, with the aim of making culture more accessible throughout the country.
As well as committing to bringing the best theatre from around the world to Santiago, Fundacion Teatro a Mil, which now runs the festival, also aims to introduce the best Chilean theatre to the world by enabling companies to tour their work, creating a “cultural exchange” with other countries.
Calderon, who is a member of the festival’s board and an associate artist, says: “It’s an incredible festival, because most theatre festivals are initiated by cities, but this was generated by people who were doing theatre back in the 1980s, and eventually, after decades, they started getting funding from the city.”
He says that the festival creates an “incredible bridge” between Chile and the world, adding: “Which for us, being the last country in the world and being an island behind the Andes mountain range, it’s just an incredible treasure.”
Calderon says the festival is extremely keen to develop links with the UK theatre scene, but admits this has proved difficult.
“The UK is a difficult place, other countries in Europe are more open,” he says. “The UK has more of a set way of working – it does have international festivals but it hasn’t been easy for Chile to appear in this scene.”
Calderon does now have a play showing in London, which has been made possible by the Royal Court’s international programme. “Now for me, finally, a work that started here in 2011 is finally happening,” he says. “It’s a long process. The festival is aware that this entry point might produce more collaboration in future.”
B, which is translated by William Gregory and directed by Sam Pritchard, is inspired by events that started to happen by the mid-2000s in Santiago, during which left-wing activists set off bombs in less populated areas of the city, mainly at banks, in protest against poverty and the state.
Calderon discusses why the play resonates now: “We can sit and complain about a bomb in Chile in the middle of the night in a bank that blows a couple of windows without hurting anyone, and we can put it back to back with images of [recent] violence in Catalonia. There is violence done by individuals and there is violence done by the state, so violence is very much part of the way politics works.”
He adds: “It’s really interesting, because we started this process right after [the terrorist attack in] Manchester and during this process we had this other bomb on the underground, not far from here, so it’s current, it’s happening around us.”
Calderon says that the experience of presenting his work in the UK has been “rich and interesting”.
“The UK has this incredible tradition of creating such wonderful theatre, and for them it’s so interesting to see how other countries do it differently,” he says.
“So I think that when they see a play like this one, written and conceived in a different country, they feel it, and they make me feel it, they really appreciate the difference. I never see it as them inviting me to show my play, I see it always as a transaction, both parties are learning from each other.”
Profile: Guillermo Calderon
Born: Santiago, Chile, 1971
Training: Universidad de Chile, 1989-93
Awards: World Cinema Jury Prize for Drama, International Federation of Film Critics Prize for Best Film (Violeta Went to Heaven); Silver Bear at Berlin International Film Festival, Silver Plaque at Chicago International Film Festival, Mar del Plata Film Festival Best Screenplay, Fenix Film Award for Best Screenplay, Platino Awards for Iberoamerican Cinema Best Screenplay (The Club).
Agent: Casarotto Ramsay